It is paradox time. It is sunny but chilly in the 50s. Winds gusted to 44 mph, ripping leaves from trees and shredding others. Yet the calm moments leave me toasty warm in the sunshine.
I stroll to the Johanna Frerichs Garden for Wildlife. A bridge from the Prairie Garden crosses a narrow, steep ravine, with a brook cutting through a forest of tall trees. Sunlight filters easily through trunks and branches, now that most leaves carpet the floor in a vibrant patchwork. Bright orange, pipestone reds and pinks, green and burnished golds, with lowlights of taupe, charcoal and brown blanket the ground.
Underneath those leaves I imagine the millipedes, ants, sow bugs, grubs, worms and spiders that keep warm as they chew on leaves, bark, fungi and roots. These tiny denizens speed up decomposition before they become vole vittles or mouse mousse. In turn, the rodents may become dinner for a fox, mink, owl or hawk.
The northern pin oaks and birches are still mostly green, just starting to turn along the edges of the crown; yet bur oaks are completely bare. Maple and ash show off the leafless symmetry of their branches. Other leaves hold tenaciously to their summer green along the leaf veins, while the rest of the leaf sports sunny gold. Ironwood leaves become pale – almost transparent – and hold stubbornly to their branches, twisting and flapping in the breeze.
There are fruit trees here, too. Crabapples are still fresh on the tree. Plums and cherries must have made a fitting dessert after meals of grass and pine cone seeds, acorns and walnuts.
Nearby I see a brush pile – perfect cover for any of these meat-eaters to hunt from, while trying not to be hunted themselves. A simple pile of dead raspberry canes, fallen branches and unruly vines provides precious quarters, especially when insulated by snow.
Gusts of wind push the prairie flowers and grasses in waves like a white-capped sea. The first dark-eyed juncos I have seen this season hop and flit giddily on the ground as they feast on the bounty. Yet, bluebirds still wing by, calling their sweet tune. Goldfinches and swallows swoop over the earthy palette that dresses the low garden. They check the raspberry canes for leftovers, and then sail over to red-berried elder, nannyberry, grapevines and sumacs.
A couple strolls by, taking turns with binoculars. We compare notes, and they tell me this is the best birding trail around. Paradoxically, it seems, once most birds have left!
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer