A Crazy Fortnight

By Boak Wiesner

Just two weeks have passed since the last warm day I was here and Minnesota has had two tornadoes and a blizzard. Things change fast around here! Even over the course of a single day, it goes from cold to hot.

The songs of Cardinals are the main phenomenon I experience today. Not only the males, but also the females sing, which is in contrast to most other songbirds. Their range has expanded north quite a bit as the climate warms as well as folks providing food for them at their feeders.

The female and male will work together to choose a nest site and then tend to the young. Though I’m seeing this pair out away from the buildings, Cardinals show little fear of humans and may build their nest right in your window box! Nicely, their scientific name may one of the easiest to remember: Cardinalis cardinalis.

With an overcast sky, it was hard to see even these brightly colored birds, so even though I hear a Pileated Woodpecker, I can’t seem to see it. I guess I’ll have to be content with its sign, an old and decaying elm that it has hammered on looking for insects.

The first plants that have become active is some Silvergreen Moss (Bryum argentum) growing along the path. It’s bright kelly green is a welcome bit of color on the otherwise drab, late winter forest floor. This clump of moss has sent up its sporophytes, what looks like fur on the carpet of the main plant. Mosses are different than other plants in that the cells in their main life phase have only half the number of chromosomes so they are called gametophytes. The sporophytes growing out of the main plant have two sets of chromosomes. In most plants, the male gametophyte is just the small pollen grains.

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Pips and Squeaks

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Minnesota’s native plants need protection, and today I get to do just that! I pot tiny sundew seedlings with metal spatulas and tweezers into individual pots in the Arb’s greenhouse. Sundews, or Drosera, are carnivorous plants that grow in bogs, mostly in the north of our state.

John and Jenny Thull

Also in the greenhouse today are John and Jenny Thull. John is a biologist and the Vineyard Manager at the Arb’s Horticultural Research Center. Jenny was working on her degree in Food and Wine Pairings when the two met. Her Cordon Bleu class took a tour at the Arb that John guided. They married and now raise their family and work together. A fine pairing, indeed!

Grapevine Cuttings

They are preparing grapevine cuttings for propagation. They show me earlier cuttings that already have fresh green buds. The cuttings will be ready to be planted in the ground in their second year.

Dwarf Trout Lily

Afterwards, I head outdoors and am rewarded with the very first purplish pips of dwarf trout lily sprouting barely a half-inch above ground. This endangered plant is one of the first to bloom in the spring. It doesn’t propagate by seed and almost always dies when transplanted. It requires specific soil, fungi, and growing conditions and is found in only three counties in southeast Minnesota.

Barred Owl

The little brook running between trees is entirely melted and makes muted gurgle noises in the silent forest. Others have told me the snow trillium are just starting to sprout as well, but I find none. The pair of resident barred owls hoot very quietly and softly through the trees. One is staring at me from just above the path!

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

The bird feeders at the Ordway Shelter are alive with action: dark-eyed juncos, nuthatches, cardinals, chickadees, turkeys, and a red-bellied woodpecker all vie for their turns at the table. I see my first pink-sided junco here! The turkeys squeak and mutter their complaints as I walk past.

Today’s snowless landscape reveals greening ferns and last year’s hepatica leaves. By the time this is posted on Monday, the Arb will be blanketed in fresh snow. Another good reason to return soon!

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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New Things and Old Things

By Boak Wiesner

For the first time, I’m cycling around the Three Mile Loop. I think I’m going faster than when I drive it! And to think! – it’s March 5!

The Arboretum, titularly, is all about trees, so of course trees are on my mind. I used to work at a summer camp near here whose name was taken from a native expression about trees: that they are self-sufficient. The canopy of the forests around here consist mainly of Sugar Maples and Basswoods, with Red Oaks mixed in, where there’s been fire, plus many smaller understory trees like Ironwood.

Trees get holes in them on their way to dusty death, as it were, and all along this journey, animals can use them for bed and board. I check some holes I’m familiar with around the Wildflower Garden to see if any of the inhabitants are around – no such luck!

The hole now is where a branch used to be. Trees oftentimes decay in their inner layers before their outer ones. The inside section of the trunk is where xylem, the tube system through which water and dissolved nutrients are drawn up the tree, is the heartwood, and when this is decayed, it makes a snug cavity in which animals can live, if they can gain access. The outer area, where the xylem is still functioning, is the sapwood.

Any chewed branch is gushing maple sap right now which natives learned to boil down and make into sugar. Even dead trees provide nourishment for organisms as fungi digest up the cellulose for their own needs.

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Cool Cats (and Dogs)

By Greg Lecker

Jousting with clear sky breaks, low clouds appear to be winning the battle.  It’s challenging to find snow anywhere; and the ice on Green Heron Pond is darkening – a sign of melting from below.   Even more unusual for this time of year, male Red-Winged Blackbirds are calling from the thicket of bulrushes encircling the pond.  Though I don’t see the birds, I find some nearby cattail seed heads to study.

Cattails

Cattails

Stalks are bare at the top – the result of the male flowers having withered away.  The female flowers of 2016 have yielded dense clusters of minute seeds attached to tiny flexible hairs (cattail fluff) that float away easily to land on open ground.  Their buoyancy of this fluff (on water as well as on air) led to their brief wartime use in life belts and aviation jackets.  Many years earlier, Native Americans used the fluff as lining; and pioneers used fluff as quilt stuffing and fire tinder.

Scanning downward as I enter the boardwalk, I find myriad needles of hoarfrost decorating the gaps between floor boards.

Boardwalk Hoarfrost

Boardwalk Hoarfrost

Hoarfrost is the deposit of ice crystals on exposed surfaces – most dramatically, but more rarely, tree branches. Water vapor condenses directly to ice at temperatures below freezing and occurs when moist air is brought to its frost point.  Lately, open water provides moisture needed for spotty hoarfrost and more widespread fog.  I hear water flowing freely under the boardwalk.

Water and Ice

Water and Ice

Only the thinnest film of ice covers the water that ebbs and flows around bull rush stalks and moss tipped pockets of waterlogged soil.

Certainly fuzzier than ice crystals are the pussy willow flowers that have opened from split buds.  Cattails, catkins, and pussy willow all derive their name from the resemblance of their soft curved forms with a cat’s and particularly, a kitten’s tail.  Besides pussy willow and deciduous tamarack (bare now), another tree that likes wet soil is the Speckled Alder.  Circling the pond to the south, I find the tree’s cones and a few scattered male flowers (catkins) lying on the path.

Speckled Alder Cones and Catkins

Speckled Alder Cones and Catkins

The proliferation of these flowers color the edges of wetlands a burgundy in the early spring, joining the brighter red-twigged dogwood.  Watch for these male flowers to turn yellow as the stamens appear to yield pollen to their female counterparts, which are found on the same plant.

Land Sheds Water

Land Sheds Water

The folded landform to the south sheds water to the pond.  Temporarily frozen, water will soon be flowing again!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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First Maple Syrup Update for 2017

By Rich DeVries:

Here is a quick Maple Syrup update. We started tapping our sugar maple trees on February 8 and the sap was running when we tapped that day. We were planning on installing a new tubing system in February but we had to switch gears and get all the tapping done before we installed the new tubing.

On Monday February 20 we cooked down the 700 gallons of sap that we harvested so far. That sap was collected from the trees at the sensory garden and the trees behind the sugar house.
We now have just over 100 trees on the gravity tubing at the sensory garden, about 100 trees on the vacuum system at the sugar house and we just added 100 trees behind wood duck pond.
The new tubing is a smaller diameter, 3/16 instead of 5/16. The idea is that the tubing fills up with sap faster than the larger tubing. Compared to 5/16 tubing the sap will extend further down the line in the 3/16 tubing with more elevation change and it will create more suction on all the trees when the sap comes down the hill by gravity.
It is possible to get over 20″ of vacuum without the help of a vacuum pump.
It will be fun to compare the different tubing systems and how much sap we get from each of them.
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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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