Life on the Winter Prairie

By Holly Einess

At first glance the prairie in winter appears lifeless and rather bleak. The colorful flowers of summer and fall are absent, replaced by the dull golds and grays of dormant plants and trees.

bennett-johnson prairie trailBennett-Johnson Prairie Trail

However, to the careful observer the winter prairie reveals a world full of life and drama, albeit on a smaller scale, and has many stories to tell.

Way back in June (a distant memory on this January day!), a gall fly laid an egg on a goldenrod stem. The egg hatched into a larva that ate its way into the stem, and in response the plant created a ball gall. The larva lived inside the gall all summer, continuing to eat and grow until autumn, when its body started producing glycerol (a kind of antifreeze) and it entered diapause, the insect version of hibernation. There it would have remained until spring, when it would have transformed into a pupa and finally emerged from the gall as an adult fly. Unfortunately for this particular larva, it was discovered by a downy woodpecker or a chickadee, which knew that pecking a hole in the gall would likely yield a tasty snack.

goldenrod ball gallGoldenrod ball gall

In autumn wooly bear caterpillars are a common sight, crossing paths and sidewalks en-route to winter resting sites. But crawling along the snow on a January day? Why yes, entirely possible when the temperature is above freezing! The wooly bear is the larval stage of the isabella tiger moth. Unlike most butterflies and moths, it overwinters as a caterpillar, spinning its cocoon come spring.(Fun fact: ALL caterpillars become either butterflies or moths.)

wooly bear caterpillarWooly bear caterpillar

Like the gall fly larva, the wooly bear produces glycerol to help prevent its hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) from freezing. Rather than spending the winter in diapause, however, it does so in a state of quiescence; it can come out if its hibernation-like state when conditions warm, then return to it when the temperature drops again. And all those legs helping it move along? Only the front six are true legs (a characteristic all insects share); the others are called prolegs, small fleshy structures attached to the caterpillar’s abdominal segments.

The prairie plants themselves have life cycles too, of course, growing both from seed and from rootstock in the spring and lying dormant in winter.Today I identify thistle, goldenrod, sunflower, golden alexander, indigo, and mullein. Though far more showy when in flower, they retain a muted beauty in winter.

indigo seed podsIndigo seed pods

Leaving the prairie, I take the Wood Duck Trail back to the visitor center and can’t resist a peek at the bird feeders. There are chickadees in abundance, and I wonder if any of them had gall fly larvae as an appetizer!

black-capped chickadeeBlack-capped chickadee

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Close Encounters of the Annual Kind

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Today’s 30⁰ brought relief from the bitter cold we had at the end of the year. I am nice and toasty-warm in my winter wear.Several couples, groups, and families are also hiking along Green Heron Trail this afternoon. We greet each other with a smile and “beautiful day!” as we pass.

DSC_0452 Julie and SteveJulie and Steve

Julie and Steve are testing out a new camera and looking for owls. But Steve’s binoculars are in his pocket, and mine dangle uselessly. We all notice the delicious stillness and quiet, but there is an odd lack of birds calling. I keep checking the sky for raptors, but see none.

DSC_0457 glintingGlinting

The late afternoon sun just starts peeking out from the day’s clouds, glinting off snow and backlighting cattail seedheads like yard torches. The earth is at perihelion this week, in which it is closest to the sun for the year.

Our moon is also at its closest point to the earth for the year right now, called lunar perigee and known as a Super Moon. Maybe you noticed the brilliant and large moon this week. But, wait! That’s not all: Since we will have a full moon on both January 1st and 31st this month, they also are Blue Moons!

DSC_0485 ironwoodIronwood

Clusters of ironwood trees hang on stubbornly to their wilting leaves. Their pale peach color illuminates the brown tree trunks. Finally, a bird call! I am actually grateful to hear the grating caws of crows.

DSC_0507 Track superhighwaySuperhighway of animal tracks

The frozen wetland is a superhighway of animal tracks: large pebble-texture on three toes of turkey, the long rear feet ahead of the circular front feet of squirrels, and deer dragging their hooves in the snow. Petite mouse and vole prints often have a thin stripe of trail drag down the center of the straddle, or width, of the print. I can almost see coyote and fox slink along the edges of cattails and brush, leaving cautious and purposeful prints in a curving line.

DSC_0520 witch hazel croppedWitch Hazel

I am thrilled to find tiny yellow blossoms of witch hazel still in bloom. In any other season, this wrinkled flower would be dwarfed by larger petals and brilliant colors. Today, they glow in sunlight and dot the bare branches like Christmas lights. I lean close and let the teeny petals fill my camera frame.

As I head through the forest, a single furtive “tseet” and another staccato “tew” from the treetops make me smile. At least they are still here!

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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Enduring the Extremes

By Sydney Chandler

Winter has taken on traits of groundcovers, creeping vines, and invasive species to learn to choke out warmth and leave a frozen trail behind. The cold seeks out exposed skin and seeps through layers of warm clothing. Arboretum residents– both flora and fauna– have hunkered down to survive the cold. Flora seem frozen in time: colors approach gray scale, ice forms on branches, and fresh snow clings to trunks and leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATrees surviving the cold

However, tracks near the Rose Garden are evidence that some individuals have ventured from their cozy shelters. Deer tracks lead to the base of a Plum Tree. The snow-cover beneath is disturbed and reveals that the deer likely foraged through the groundcovers for a snack. The tracks lead back toward the Sensory Garden where another patch of groundcovers has been combed through.

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Deer in search of a snack

Other evidence of animal activity demonstrates the clever ways some individuals strategize. A small highway of tracks surrounds a downed log. Tiny footprints trace from holes in the ground to small slots in the log where a cozy den likely houses members of the rodent family.

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Track highway to a cozy log

Explorers at the Arboretum have opportunities to experience a dramatic range of conditions. For visitors, these extremes mean frozen eyelashes vs. sweaty brows, icy toes vs. grass-stained feet, and chapped cheeks vs. sun-burned faces. Observing our own responses to the extremes in conjunction with those of the Arboretum inhabitants is both humbling and sparks curiosity.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Nature’s Decorations

By Greg Lecker

Two grey squirrels frolic – chasing one another through the Japanese garden as I move into the woods near home demonstration garden.  In the dim morning light, American cranberrybush berries brighten a thicket of twigs seen against snow and dark evergreens.

American Cranberrybush BerriesAmerican Cranberrybush Berries

I’m happy we’ve crossed over the solstice and that daylight is lengthening – even as temperatures plummet into the depths of meteorological winter.  Among its seemingly cozy, fuzzy buds, star magnolia stubbornly holds onto its leaves.  The early onset of cold weather is likely responsible here and elsewhere.

As the slight breeze shifts to and fro, I hear the faint sounds of gobbling turkeys, buzzing chickadees, a dog, and chatter of red squirrels.  Looking up, I spot a leaf nest.

Squirrels' Leaf NestSquirrels’ Leaf Nest

Besides nesting in cavities made by woodpeckers, squirrels nest in constructions of twigs, leaves, moss loosely woven within tree forks.  I find it hard to believe that such a home can withstand winter’s chill.

Wild (or prickly) cucumber vine has been fruitful this year, darning its stems and tendrils in and out of the thicket of red twig dogwood growing next to Green Heron Pond.

Wild Cucumber FruitsWild Cucumber Fruits

Though blooms are inconspicuous, the fruits of its kiwi-shaped pods – ”Cactus balls” or “porcupine eggs”, along with its tendrils, are eye-catching at this time of year!The vine is found near streams, rivers, and wetlands.

Glancing down as I walk along the boardwalk, I find a most interesting sight.

Frozen and FlowingFrozen and Flowing

Amidst the snow and ice surrounding the bulrushes is a flowing stream within which there is ballet-like dancing of organic matter.  On a cold 17-degree day like today – likely even when a skim of ice locks away our viewing – there is sufficient water movement to allow some liquid water to flow and to sustain life.

Walking further around green heron pond I see the contrast of darker ice in the middle of the pond compared to the snow-covered fringes. This is yet another indication of the strength of water movement through Green Heron Pond.    The sky is a cotton candy blur of pink and blue.

Snow and Thin Ice BeyondSnow and Thin Ice Beyond

Turning onto Three Mile Drive to return to the visitor shelter, I see turkeys encircling each other in a kind of dance.  Practicing for spring mating or just trying to stay warm?  I’m heading inside myself.  There are plenty of sights indoors on days like today!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Splashes of Color on the Wood Duck Trail

By Holly Einess

A quick look at the Arboretum’s visitor brochure shows a number of trails I have yet to explore. The Wood Duck Trail, easily accessed just outside Oswald Visitor Center, invites me in. Criss-crossed vintage snowshoes hang on the sign at the trail’s entrance; footprints in the thin layer of snow let me know that my boots will be adequate for today.

I set off down a hill and soon come to a wetland winterscape, dry brown grasses rustling in the light breeze and cattails bursting with fluff. The overt abundance of life and color in spring, summer, and fall is largely absent now; I’m going to need to pay close attention to find signs of life and color in this nearly monochromatic landscape.

Wood Duck TrailWood Duck Trail

My resolve is soon rewarded as I spot several stands of red osier dogwood. A common wetland shrub native to MN, its branches turn from reddish-green in summer to red in fall, their color intensifying throughout winter.

Red osier dogwoodRed osier dogwood branches with gray lenticels (pores)

As I leave the open wetland and enter the forest, mosses catch my eye as they hug the bases of tree trunks, their green especially bright in contrast to the dark bark and white snow. On a tree stump turkey tails cling—not the bird variety, rather the fungal. It’s the job of this bracket (or shelf) fungus to break down cellulose in rotting wood. It also happens to have medicinal properties shown to both prevent and fight cancer.

Turkey tail fungusTurkey tail fungus

Dogwood branches and mosses aren’t the only things providing color in the landscape. On the bark of many trees are splotches of green, gray, and yellow-gold lichens. I’m puzzled by what appear to be splashes of white paint on other tree trunks. A little research solves the mystery–whitewash lichen. A lichen is a combination of fungi and algae living together in a symbiotic (mutually enhancing) relationship. The algae, having chlorophyll, produce the food, while the fungi provide structure. The vast majority of lichens do no harm to trees, and are indicators of air quality; the cleaner the air, the more lichens thrive.

Whitewash lichenWhitewash lichen

Arriving back at the visitor center I decide to check out the bird feeders. There’s a flurry of activity, with chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, and a red-bellied woodpecker partaking of the easily accessed food. Hungry myself, I head home, already anticipating which trail I’ll take next time I visit.

Red-bellied woodpeckerRed-bellied woodpecker

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Signs of Winter

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Heavy winter clouds lighten gradually, first a stripe of blue in the distance, then a cotton-ball studded sky, giving way to pale blue and sunshine. With temperatures hovering around 30, an outdoor stroll is a welcome gift!

DSC_0400 cotton ball skyCotton Ball Sky

The gardens, forest and prairie are a display of contrast, pattern and the muted colors of the season. The lines of trunks and stems, poufs of cottony seeds and repeated patterns of curling leaves and seed globes against the snow delight me. New England asters are rich brown stands of dried seedheads with the leaves still hanging from the stem.

DSC_0363 rosebuds croppedPink Buds

Even roses have leaves that have dried green, leaving pink buds that were just starting to open when our wintry weather hit. Purple coneflowers stems are shaggy with dried leaves, pointing upright and tipped with bristly seed globes.

As I descend into the woods, traffic noise fades away. I become aware of my footsteps in the stillness, and hear quick “seet” calls from birds hiding in branches. Blue plastic tubing winds through the maples in preparation for sap collection later this winter.

DSC_0393 American elmAmerican Elm

Nuthatches trumpet their nasal calls from the woods, and a distant blue jay sounds an alarm. A magnificent American elm shows off its gracefully arching form now that it is devoid of leaves. Deer, turkey, squirrel and many other interesting tracks crisscross over the snow.

Warming up with hot cocoa in the cafe, I am happy to see the winter bird feeders back on the terrace. A dark-eyed junco picks at seeds on the ground. Black-capped chickadees take turns flitting to the feeder one at a time. I see the unmistakable red-headed woodpecker as he stops to snack. Shortly after, the pale cream head of a red-bellied woodpecker peeks his long beak around the edge of the feeder.

DSC_0350Poinsettia Tree

In the Visitor Hall, a tree made of poinsettia plants towers to the ceiling, topped by a glass sun sculpture. A trio of fresh evergreen trees are decorated with hand-made, natural ornaments such as tree cookies with berries and seeds, pine cones and twigs tied into stars. Lights and garlands decorate the hall.

The fascinating Arboretum Instructor Show is on display to Jan. 4 in the Reedy Gallery, with oils, watercolors, mosaic, sketch, fabric and more. My favorite is a series of six “Ecoprints” by Jean Manrique.

DSC_0407 trunk stripesTree-trunk Shadows

Late afternoon sun stripes the ground with tree-trunk shadows as I reluctantly head home. But there will be many more signs of winter before the season passes.

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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Adding Laughter to the Soundscape

By Sydney Chandler

At first, the landscape of fallen leaves is silent. Within a moment, patches of the forest floor begin to come alive. A patch of leaves rustles and twitches mysteriously. A sudden burst of movement, and a gray squirrel pops from the leaf litter! Comically, it looks around as if searching for playmates at an indoor ball pit before bounding off through the leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA silent forest: maple, oak, cottonwood, and hickory trees.

To experience this excitement, stillness is key. With stillness, the forest quickly comes alive with the sights and sounds of frantic pre-winter foraging. Rustling sounds are misleading in their volume, and walkers may be surprised to realize that a squirrel, and not a herd of elephants, is the source of auditory disturbances.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGray squirrel foraging in leaf litter.

Along the Three Mile Drive, squirrel activity is most prevalent near the Green Heron Pond. Squirrels scurry up, down, and around sugar maples, eastern cottonwoods, oaks, and bitternut hickories. Continuing along the road toward the conifers and hedges means leaving the bustle of foraging behind. The territorial red squirrels are glad to be rid of unwelcome visitors who pass through. Their alarming vocalizations finally cease, and their focus returns to chasing off gray squirrels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunshine on the forest floor.

Stillness and observation allow visitors to enjoy comedic squirrel behavior. Imaginative explorers will laugh while crafting stories to describe the entertaining squirrel activity in the forest. Experiencing the forest by adding laughter to the soundscape is a great way to spend a sunny day at the Arboretum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerched in a tree, taking a break from diving through leaf litter.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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