An Exceptional Day!

By Mary Beth Pottratz

For the first time in 150 years, the temperature on February 17 reaches a sunny 63⁰. With no breeze, I wear only a light vest and no gloves. The air is warm despite the melting ice beneath my feet.

Orchids

Orchids

Beautiful orchids are on display, and I pause to admire these blasts of color in the Great Hall. There are more in the Conservatory, but my sun-starved body pulls me outdoors.

The cross-country ski trailhead is completely void of snow and ice. But there is still time for skiing and snowshoeing this year.

As I walk into the woodland, the temperature drops ten or more degrees. I hear a barred owl call, “Who, who, who cooks for you all?” from further in the forest. The snow is mostly melted and there are small signs of greenery such as ferns and mosses. Squirrels are digging up their buried caches, and I see several chickadees in tree branches. A few unseen birds call “tseet” furtively to each other.

Maple Syrup Collection

Maple Syrup Collection

Maple syrup bags are bulging, and buckets have sap dripping in fast. The warm daytime temperatures coupled with freezing nights really pressures the sap out quickly! I check for skunk cabbage but see only slushy ice with a watery layer on top.

Chickadees are also on Green Heron Trail, and a straight line of geese honk as they fly overhead. A few moments later, I hear the whistling of wings and look up to see mallards in the sky. A white-breasted nuthatch gives its nasal call, and a dark-eyed junco suns itself in a tree.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Dried coyote scat is in the middle of the boardwalk, bleached white in the sun and full of fur. As I lean down to look at it, a loud crash through the ice comes from right beneath the boardwalk, making me jump! Jill, grandmother of nine with #10 on the way, jumps with me. The crashes continue as we chat and walk the length of the boardwalk. Muskrats, I wonder.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Short bursts of drumming come from the woodland, and I follow the noise. Sure enough, a hairy woodpecker hops about a branch. He gives a fast “squeak” call and flies off. Tamaracks have no needles yet, but have woody spurs that look like they might sprout with needles soon if this warmth continues.

I am happy to find bird feeders at the Ordway Shelter, and relax at a picnic table to count. These feeders were moved from the visitor center buildings. I am glad that they weren’t removed. It is important to keep feeders going during winter when birds really count on them!

Nuthatch

Nuthatch

In just half an hour, I see chickadees, nuthatches, crows, one cardinal, one blue jay, two hairy woodpeckers and a dark-eyed junco. Funny, I didn’t know nuthatches eat suet! I write them down to report later to Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count. Check out all the birds people have already counted this weekend: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

 

 

 

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Former Residents

By Boak Wiesner

At last, after all these years, I finally finish the last of the trails that I had yet to walk on, namely, the snowshoe trail across the march east of Wood Duck Pond. The recent warmth has nearly melted on the snow and it was ice skates I was wishing I had to do this part of my jaunt.

dsc_0036Standing like silent sentinels, last year’s fruits, and yes!, they’re fruits, at least, botanically, of Cattails stand in shabby splendor at the dreg ends of winter. Cattails are a survivalist’s dream: their roots are edible, the base of the stalk is, too, tasting like cucumbers, the shafts of the flowers are nice and straight to make projectiles, the robust leaves can be woven into mats, the fluffy fruits can be used to absorb liquids and pack into insulation – wow! All that in one of the most common plants in our area! Oh, their biomass can be converted to biodiesel, too.

dsc_0043From the north side looking across, I see what looks like a beaver lodge, and sure enough, that’s exactly what it is. The Red Osier Dogwood branch on top is still looking fresh so I wonder how long ago this lodge was occupied? Probably those large rodents, biggest in North America, were removed before they chowed down too many trees around here.

dsc_0050I’m not too upset for them because I saw a fresh lodge just over the highway in Lake Minnewashta on my way in. I was a little sad, though, when I considered what those beavers had to eat right around here – nothing but hardwoods, maples, oaks, ashes, and ironwood, when they’d really rather be snacking on the tender bark of aspen and eating the roots of waterlilies, their favorite food. My teeth hurt just thinking about it.

dsc_0055Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Value of Color

By Greg Lecker

My selection of this title is even more intentional than usual.  Though I could have used “importance”, value means something quite different to an artist than it does to an English major.  Color and value are two ways to describe shapes one finds when exploring the Arboretum.  Black and white images allow one to partially judge shapes; color images offer further clues.

When is Snow Blue?

When is Snow Blue?

Walking towards the woodland garden, I notice long shadows cast by the forest.  Why does snow appear blue, especially in the shadows?  On a clear day, the sun casts shadows of trees and other upright objects.  Why do these shadows appear blue rather than gray or black?  The blue sky is the reason!  Though sunlight does bend around objects significantly; skylight does illuminate the shadows.  And, on a clear day, the sky is blue – hence the shadows appear blue.

When is Snow Red?

When is Snow Red?

Entering the Woodland I come up on a pattern that could be an art installation if it were not a sign of nature.  If not for color, the pattern could be a dusting of dirt or torn leaves.  The rich reddish-pink color is the giveaway that it is a sign that one animal was sacrificed so that another animal would live.  Though most of the prey animal’s remains were likely removed by Arboretum staff wishing to spare the viewer further details, a few clues remain.  The amount of blood suggests a victim larger than a rabbit.  I also find gray-brown tufts of hair rooted to a thicker hide that suggests a deer.

A Possible Clue

A Possible Clue

Another clue from the victim is the nearby presence of pellets that are indicative of deer.  Lastly, having seen tracks elsewhere and knowing that coyotes are present, I suspect that the predator was one or more coyotes.  Though coyotes are often solitary hunters, they do often hunt groups in the winter when food sources are a bit scarcer.  The blood splatter suggests a struggle.

When is Snow White?

When is Snow White?

Elsewhere in the Arboretum I have found canine tracks that suggest coyotes.  The low sun angle illuminates the vertical edges of the paw prints – illustrating the conditions when snow appears brightest.  Though we think of snow as white, snow lying in horizontal planes appears less white and more bluish-gray.  The sun – located low in the sky during the winter – grazes the snow rather than illuminating it from directly overhead.  South-facing hillsides, snow ridges left by plows, edges of ski and snowshoe tracks, and edges of foot prints receive a direct light rays and appear white, maybe with a cast of yellow, pink or orange.

Be Alert

Be Alert

Be alert on your winter explorations.  Careful observations yields clues of nature at work.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

 

 

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Peeper Meadow in Winter

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Sunlight filters lightly through wispy clouds and warms me. At 23⁰ with just a light breeze, I feel like sunbathing for a few minutes before I head into the Spring Peeper Meadow.

The Wetland

The Wetland

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

The wetland is dusted with snow, and tracks crisscross throughout. In spots, open ice is edged frosty white. A juvenile red-tailed hawk circles slowly over the wetland before diving behind the tree line. I almost step on coyote scat in the middle of the trail, full of fur.

Study in Color

Study in Color

Hillsides are a study in color: naked white aspen trunks against darker maple and oak, red osier dogwood’s cranberry-red branches; gray dogwood’s pale gray shrubs; fringed with tan big bluestem grasses, all from a white base of snow.

Despite the large but worn entrance sign prohibiting pets, I see tracks of several dogs mixed in with boots, ice grips, and cross-country ski poles in the fresh snow. The dog tracks sprint off trail, following fox and coyote scents – a risky endeavor for most dogs.I especially wish people understood the damage dogs do to restoration sites like this.

Muskrat Lodges

Muskrat Lodges

Several muskrat lodges rise high at the western edge of the wetland. The underwater entrances protect them from most predators, and inside is a cozy 30⁰. As winter wears on, muskrats can actually eat the cattails they constructed the lodge of! These mammals provide a great service by preventing overgrowth of cattails, keeping the wetland open.

Tiny Mouse Tracks

Tiny Mouse Tracks

Squirrel and rabbit tracks bound for cover into dense shrubbery. Lines of tiny mouse tracks curve through the sparkling snow. Its tail dragged, leaving tiny strips down the middle of its tracks. Some end in a single hole, where the mouse dove into the snow for cover.

Beneath that snow crust is a subnivean world: snow closest to the ground starts to melt and then condenses, forming ice along the top and creating a network of tiny tunnels for animals to traverse unseen by predators.

Wing Prints

Wing Prints

Birds leave tracks in the snow, along with wing prints. An occasional walker or two canter by. We all grin and nod at each other in the bright sun.

Today’s new moon means that our days are becoming longer, but the sun still sets far too quickly for me!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

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Thinking About Cold on a Warm Day

By Boak Wiesner

Even though I’ve been traipsing around the Arboretum pretty often over the last five years, am I nevertheless impressed with the landscape of the place; its rolling, steep, abrupt hills and valleys always present some new view to me. The rather quiet day, this, lets me reflect on how all of this terrain got formed. While I know the majority of what I am seeing was nothing more than a thin layer of crushed rock and such deposited under a glacier, I recently started wondering how much of the specific surface that I see is due to just that versus how much has it been altered by the erosion of rain, wind, and snow runoff.

dsc_0051There’s such a great contrast between the flatness of the marsh and the steepness of the hill that rings it. The marsh has filled in over time, first with silt transported by moving water, then by the decaying remains of cattails and such over time.

dsc_0061Coming across the tracks of a Wild Turkey, to me it’s such a good example of how we are able to interpret what has happened previously in a place based on what we presently observe and from those observations, draw some valid conclusions. That it, while I don’t actually see any turkeys ambling by, my past experience with them lets me understand that they did pass by here, and recently, as the tracks are not too obscured.

dsc_0066In the same way, while no living person saw the Ice Ages come and go, the evidence points so strongly to the conclusion that they were here. It’s a model, a picture of what happened that so well encompasses the landscape features, right around here, even, that we can “know” that it did. Once we have that picture in our minds, we can “see” the remnants of the ice that was here. Continued study and modeling further refines that interpretation. This rock here is dark mafic basalt. Our bedrock around here is light colored limestone. So. How did this big rock get here? Comparing its characteristics to rocks in other locations, it’s clear that it came from way up north. If we figure that a lone rock wasn’t just dumped here by a bunch of rowdy Canadians, then it’s pretty reasonable to conclude it was transported by ice, as a rock this size couldn’t be transported any other way. Evidence. Interpretations. Conclusions. Science. Yeah!

dsc_0064Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer.

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A Brief and Cold Exploration

By Greg Lecker

The clearing skies this morning fool me into under-dressing. And, most odd, the air temperature seems to have fallen somewhat even as the sun has risen.  Air temperature is not increased by the sunlight striking it. For the most part, sunlight passes straight through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the ground.  It is the warming of the ground by sunlight that in turn warms the air because the air is in contact with the ground.  This explains the lag between the sun’s rising and an increase in air temperature as the day begins.  The temperatures will have “soared” from zero degrees at the start of my walk to ten degrees at the end.

Sunny But Cold

Sunny But Cold

Even the animals appear to be sensing the crisp coolness this morning.  Several turkeys have huddled next to the feeders, actually sitting on the snow, belly to the snow.  Two others stand on one leg.  A cottontail rabbit hops amidst the brush near the entry to the woodland.

Throughout the Grace Dayton Wildflower Garden, the ground is a uniform white form now.  There is no sign of the woodland brook and the small pool deep within is frozen and snow covered.  I make a quick trip through the zig-zag path on my way to the prairie.

It’s brighter out in the open. The breaking sun filters through the comb of tree trunks and illuminates the top of an Austrian pine.

Sun Tousled Crown of Austrian Pine

Sun Tousled Crown of Austrian Pine

Beyond, the waning moon is setting through the outstretched fingers of bur oak boughs.  Below, there are frost crystals on prairie plant seed heads and the rose hips.

Rose Hips

Rose Hips

Today’s frost takes not the form of a dusting nor the grace of six-sided snowflakes but the coarseness of sea salt.  I recall a graph explaining the effect that temperature (and likely moisture too) plays in the shape of frozen water as it settles out of the air.

It’s too early for others on Three-Mile Drive which is only lightly covered with remains of snow and ice.  On my return through the woodland, I notice hoof prints from a White Tailed Deer that has navigated a path bordered by handrail.  The Arboretum is wise to exclude these inquisitive foragers from the display gardens nearest the visitor center.  Sunlight rakes across the undulating mess of snow covered plant matter.

White Tailed Deer Appreciates Path Too

White Tailed Deer Appreciates Path Too

Chilled to the bone I retreat to the welcoming buildings where I especially enjoy the warmth of the conservatory.The orchids there are as colorful as the current exhibit of the Arboretum Photographers Society, on display through April 2.  Make a point to see both on your next visit.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

 

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Seedheads and Snowflakes

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Waiting for today’s chill to subside, I watch the sunlight grow dim through wisps of clouds. At a balmy 14⁰, I head to the Arb. I stop in my tracks as I approach the entrance.

Nest of twigs and grasses

Nest of twigs and grasses

Leaf nest

Leaf nest

Small bird nests bedeck every other tree around the entrance, like a little village! I had not noticed them before. One is a cup made mostly of twigs, another of grasses and strippings from wildflower stems, another with leaves knitted around it. All are tightly woven around two or more branches in a crotch of the tree. These would be home to finches, sparrows, warblers and other small birds. Chickadees, bluebirds, woodpeckers and others nest in tree cavities; orioles weave a sack nest from milkweed stalk fibers left up over winter; and still others make mud nests in niches like swallows and swifts.

Silvery wash of snow

Silvery wash of snow

Dried seedheads, sprays of dusty white goldenrod, and graceful dried grasses are silhouetted against a silvery wash of snow. Crows caw and fly overhead, and an unseen bird calls “seet” from deep in the shrubs.

Greens and luminaries

Greens and luminarias

The terrace balustrade behind the Snyder building is lined with huge pots of winter greens and tall ice luminarias. The evenings must be beautiful with candlelight and artist Bruce Munro’s “Winter Light” exhibit. With the usual bird feeders gone to accommodate the light show, I wonder how the birds that have come to depend on this food source are faring.

Warming up in the lobby, a lovely display of nature art draws me into the Andersen Horticultural Library. Botanical sketches with watercolor, nature prints, a dwarf trout lily on ceramic tile, a stunning American yellow lotus, an abstract oil of thistles and more are on display.

Back outdoors, I look and listen for birds but only find a single turkey scratching hungrily on frozen ground. Witch hazel flowers are far past their prime, but many tiny yellow petals still cling tenaciously to their branches. I check the stately elm above Green Heron Pond and admire its shape against the sky.

Fluffy white seedheads

Fluffy white seedheads

Fluffy white seedheads tip orange stems, but I am unsure which flower they are. Snowflakes drift slowly down around them.

As the wind picks up and clouds block the last rays of sunshine, I head home. Hopefully January’s cold will soften and fresh snow will let me snowshoe next time!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

 

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