Quiet and Gray

By Greg Lecker

It’s quiet, calm, and dim in the Arboretum this late afternoon. With luck, temperatures are bottoming out this weekend and will rise over the next few weeks.

I’m walking in a gray-scale world. The sky matches the snow in brightness and hue. There are few shadows to reveal depth and form.

Walking through the maple sugarbush, I find tracks of all sorts. A curving line, staggered dots, then a line again – this represents the wary path of a mole, vole, or mouse.

Vole Mole or Mouse Tracks

Vole Mole or Mouse Tracks

Squirrel tracks lead to and from tree trunks. The freshly fallen snow show toe pads. As the squirrel bounds, its larger hind feet overlap its smaller front feet. In this pattern, the squirrel resembles the rabbit. However, the squirrel’s front feet are aligned in contrast to a rabbit’s offset of its front feet. Most obviously, it makes sense that squirrel tracks, not rabbit tracks, could start or end at tree trunks.

Snow Snake Tracks

Snow Snake Tracks

Snow snake tracks are easy to identify for the sidewinder and serpentine patterns left in the snow next to a bench and leading towards the Bennett-Johnson prairie. Another characteristic of snow snake tracks ….just kidding – these patterns represent ridges formed by human footpaths augmented by sun warming on a south facing slope.

Ostrich Fern Fertile Fronds

Ostrich Fern Fertile Fronds

The fertile fronds of Ostrich fern remind me of the ornament atop headdresses of horse and knight on display in the Habsburgs special exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But rather than fluffy and white, the fern’s spore structures are stiff and brown as they stand erect amidst the snow.

Wingstem Sunflower Seedhead

Wingstem Sunflower Seedhead

Walking through the Grace Dayton Wildflower garden, I find welcome interest in the same Wingstem Sunflower seed heads I found so intriguing in September.

Glossy Black Chokeberry Autumn Magic

Glossy Black Chokeberry Autumn Magic

Light snow is falling as I turn to leave. In contrast to the light, white snowflakes, the fruits of Glossy Black Chokeberry are shriveled and dark. Still, the cascade of black fruit falls offer the reminder of green shoots sprouting and springing to life as new growth in less than two months. I reach my car; it waits alone in the parking lot for my departure.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Pairing Up

By Mary Beth Pottratz
An early spring garden greets me as I enter the Great Hall. Graceful, naked birch trees rise above clumps of cyclamen in valentine shades of white, pink and deep rose.

Birch and Cyclamen

Birch and Cyclamen

At the west end, a two-story tree composed of hundreds of showy tropical orchids is topped by a glass star sculpture. Although none of Minnesota’s 49 native orchids would survive transplanting to grace an indoor tree, many will bloom at the Arboretum this summer.

Orchid Tree

Orchid Tree

The 2nd New York Botanical Garden Triennial Exhibition is on display. Of dozens of watercolors and sketches, my favorites are a compass plant and prairie dock that have hybridized in nature, insect galls on winter rudbeckia stems, and a sketch of the ghostly white Indian Pipe.

But I eschew indoors for the deep blue sky spotted with sailing clouds. Twenty-five degrees feels balmy in bright afternoon sun this day before Valentine’s Day. The long, fast drumming of a hairy woodpecker beckons me.

Two Glorious Oaks

Two Glorious Oaks

The two glorious oaks in front of the rose garden reach towards each other, holding hands as they guard the gardens. A Swamp White Oak stretches gracefully for the sky. Its dried red leaves rustle in the breeze, whispering “Don’t let go… Don’t let go…” to each other.
I stop to count the birds at the Snyder Center bird feeder for Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count. I note black-capped chickadees; cardinals; white-throated, tree and house sparrows; dark-eyed juncos; blue jays and a couple hairy woodpeckers. Don’t forget the crows!

Suddenly, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches twitter and spiral in the air. Is this territorial display, or the beginnings of a great romance?

Squirrel Tracks

Squirrel Tracks

The light dusting of snow is perfect for animal tracking. A pair of squirrel tracks show an adult with a juvenile – or perhaps a gray squirrel next to a red squirrel? Wild turkey prints run in the light snow across the footpath. They, too, are running in pairs.

Tiny Pine Cones

Tiny Pine Cones

A leafless tamarack stands tall against the blue sky. Tamaracks are monoecious – they bear both male and female flowers on the same tree. These branches are studded with tiny pine cones– the female flower – resembling wooden sweetheart rosebuds. Some cones will stay on the tree for several years. The tiny round buds are male. They develop yellow flowers that will pollinate the female cones when the wind blows.

My new camera – a gift from a dear friend – keeps right on working although temperatures drop and sunlight fades. As I head home in gratitude, a pair of nuthatches flirt and chase each other headfirst down a tree trunk, making nasal “ank, ank” calls. They’re preparing for tomorrow.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

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Patterns, Familiar and Otherwise

By Boak Wiesner

Early in my walk, I come across some fresh tracks of turkeys. A bit further on, I hear the scratching of dried leaves: something is afoot. I look for any horizontal lines that might catch my eye and there he is, a nice tom turkey. Because all the lines are vertical in the woods in winter (the exception being downed trees, which at this time of year have white snow on top), one need only to seek out a horizontal line to find an animal nearby.

How can other patterns help me to experience Nature in new ways I wonder? At the far end of the boardwalk, I come across some Speckled Alder that has catkins already growing.

Speckled Alder male flowers: catkins

Speckled Alder male flowers: catkins

And it strikes me, for the first time in my life, they show a very familiar pattern, namely, the male flowers are at the terminal end of the branches while the female ones are only on axial branches. Like birch, their cousins. But, it strikes me, also like conifers, which they are completely unlike. Or are they?

The edge of the wetlands is, as usual, a riot of small mammal tracks. Here I see those of a Red Squirrel, easy to pick out in the thin snow cover. These have prominent impressions from the metacarpal-phalanx joints that is so characteristic of squirrel tracks.

Red Squirrel tracks

Red Squirrel tracks

I look up and realize that, even though there are many tree species right along here, some natural and some planted, each has its own pattern of bark. Why are some vertical, like the elms, while others are horizontal, like this Yellow Birch?

Yellow Birch

Yellow Birch

The elms around this area are dying which makes me reminisce about the avenue I grew up on in Minneapolis lined with an archway of mature elms.

Elm

Elm

The crack following the growth of dead tamarack showed me another pattern that may be the most widespread one in nature, the helix. DNA is only the most famous example. Starch and some domains of proteins also show this. Whole plants including trees grow in a helix, called circumnutation and I wonder if that is the reason behind the spiral I see before me.

DSC_0261

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Morning Brunch in the Meadow

By Boak Wiesner

A pretty orange and magenta sunrise gives way to a pearly stratus-filled sky over the meadow on the east side. Big Bluestem still provides some much needed color to the otherwise drab landscape. Such a quiet morning still me so I let my eyes do the work. I wonder what’s afoot this morning?

DSC_0036Some Oak Apple Galls are strikingly apparent. The wasp larvae that were once snug inside became the meat course for some Downy Woodpeckers probably.

DSC_0037It looks like some Chickadees chowed down on the Gall Fly larvae that were inside these galls on some goldenrod. See the cone-shaped holes?

DSC_0040Some Goldenrod seeds have yet to be dispersed by the wind. Their fuzzy appearance helps soften the cold grasp of winter.

DSC_0047A Red-tailed Hawk flew over and landed in a tree but a murder of crows mobbed it and away it flew. It could be hunting the voles in the meadow the tracks of many I came across.

DSC_0052Along with the hawk, an ermine has also been out hunting. It keeps its feet together when it bounds in a long-short-long-short pattern.

DSC_0063No wonder voles make tunnels under the snow to avoid hungry predators like these.

DSC_0062Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer.

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Soft and Quiet

By Greg Lecker

Even if one cannot walk around the grounds of the Arboretum or complete the entire Three Mile Drive on foot, I encourage visitors to at least stroll for a few minutes around the wonderful gardens behind the Snyder Building. Because of the exquisite landscape design and heavy planting of evergreens, this garden is almost as satisfying in the winter as it is during the growing season. An undulating blanket of snow has been tucked in around the many dwarf evergreens and the rocks that flank the water feature. A dusting of snow accentuates the joints between the stone pavers through which one imagines flowing water in a few months.

The sword-like foliage of Yucca poking up through miniature moguls of snow reminds me of a recent trip I completed. Returning from a week of landscape painting in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, what impresses me most is that while many desert plants appear “out to get one” with a varied array of spikes, bristles, and barbs; the bark, leaves, and dried seed heads of Minnesota plants and trees are soft to the touch and to the eyes. Here there are fuzzy magnolia buds and fluffy grass seed heads.

Just after I leave the display gardens, I happen to study the branches of a Japanese tree dogwood in appreciation of its interesting seed heads. I notice a paper wasp nest attached to its boughs. I understand that most of its inhabitants have died with the coming winter; and the new queens have sought a protected lodging place until spring.

Paper Wasp Nest on Pagoda Dogwood

Paper Wasp Nest on Pagoda Dogwood

Rust-colored Maidenhair Fern foliage stands out lace-like against the snowy blanket lying in the dark woodland.

Lace-like Foliage of Maidenhair Fern

Lace-like Foliage of Maidenhair Fern

Walking a bit farther through the Sugarbush woodland, I first notice the blue-white tubing of the maple syrup collecting operation. Then, I notice the relatively bright green lichen growing amidst the deeply furrowed bark of a Sugar Maple.

Lichen on Sugar Maple Trunk

Lichen on Sugar Maple Trunk

Compared with the subtle gray and yellow greens and rocky pink soil of the Sonoran Desert, here in the north, there is a clear distinction between ground plane and vertical surfaces here in the snow carpeted north. The woodland is the darkest value and the prairie a dark middle value; the ground is clearly a light value, sometimes even lighter than the sky. The subtle greens of the desert are matched by the nuances of the browns of the wintry north.

Prairie and Woodland Overlook

Prairie and Woodland Overlook

The grounds appear more quiet than usual. I see few human visitors and even fewer animals. Passing through the visitor center on my return trip to the parking lot, I notice a group of Gray Squirrels snacking under the bird feeders outside the Oswald Dining Room.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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The Prodigal Sun

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Sunbeams glint off mounds of tiny snowflakes. Today’s 26⁰, calm winds and bright sun are even causing sidewalks to melt their fluffy coatings. Light and shadow play on hills and valleys of snow-covered plantings.

Snow-covered plantings

Snow-covered plantings

Mom and I admire the sparkling layers of snow that frost spruce trees and clump over dried flowerheads and shrubs. We luxuriate in sun rays that shone only on cloud tops the past two months. Soon the chilly air forces us indoors.

Wild turkey

Wild turkey

Soup warms us as we watch nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals, chickadees and juncos feast on the seeds at feeders outside the Arboretum Restaurant. A male wild turkey strikes a pose and shows off his handsome feathers before clambering up a bank.

Glass Oak Leaves Sculpture

Glass Oak Leaves Sculpture

A glass sculpture of leaves dance in a whirlwind of glimmering rays. Behind them, oaks stubbornly hang on to the few leaves they have left.

Birch bark bow

Birch bark bow

Indoors, a 20-foot tree of poinsettias graces the Visitor Center’s Great Hall. Several other holiday trees are decorated in a variety of styles. The Minnesota Herb Society’s tree uses natural materials to create stunning decorations, from a simple birch bark bow to a gourd-bird with feathers of leaves, dried grass seedheads, and ostrich fern blade. It sports a pine cone head and dried yellow flower for an eye.

An accurately felted redheaded woodpecker hangs from a birch branch.Birds woven of birch bark strips with long, curling tails flit through the branches. Fantasy birdhouses are adorned with bark, leaves, seeds and cedar sprigs.

Sunlit scene

Sunlit scene

Back outside, sunlight plays on snow covered boulders. We stop to admire the sunlit scene from the shadows behind a bank of cedars. Sun rays stretch shadows into long stripes as we head home, another memory made.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

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The Sweet Stillness of the Woods

By Boak Wiesner

The explosive “pe-keek” of a Hairy Woodpecker greets me as I go into the woods around the little marsh that’s perched up high on the west side. A meandering circumperegrination of it has become one of my favorite “beats” at the Arb. Beethoven himself, even troubled by deafness, would walk for hours in woods, experiencing the trees, the flowers, the rocks – none of which needed hearing to be enjoyed. The grey fog and light snow enhance my experience immeasurably.

DSC_0175This bowl was formed when a tiny fleck of ice got trapped up at the top of a moraine; it’s very steep hillsides are the clue. A kettle lake it’s sometimes called. Where once open water stood, years and years of accumulating plant material has supplanted the water; lo!, a marsh has succeeded the pond.

DSC_0159On its eastern side, I come up into this grove of Ironwood. This is the only place at the Arboretum I have yet found where they are so abundant and it gets me to wondering about that “dark laboratory called the soil” and what “bottlenecks” have been cracked open right here so that there are so many in one place.

DSC_0161Another glaring clue to how this landscape was made, that is, as till deposited by glaciers, is a nice chunk of dark basalt. Since the bedrock ‘round here is light-colored Platteville limestone, this rock is a stranger. With a little examination of its crystal size and overall color, one could probably figure out just where it came from north of here. Since its shape is still pretty angular, one can tell it wasn’t transported by water, and, besides, how would it have ended up here on the hill?

DSC_0173More evidence of the ever-changing nature of the forest. Among the Ironwoods are a few little Junipers, a tree that shows up early in the succession from more open to more closed canopy of the forest.

DSC_0167Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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