Gusty winds whip the 40-degree air into a chill-spiked blast on my face. The blush of morning against a stone-grey sky in the west fades away as the crimson-orange sun edges slowly over the horizon. Only partly up, the half-orb becomes as bright as hot August glare, but shares no warmth.
I descend the Wood Duck Trail for respite. A high ridge to the east blocks the raucous wind, and I find myself in a tall oak and maple woods. I can see completely through its leafless landscape to the ridge. Squirrel and bird nests are visible in branches high above. The hillsides around me are streaked with early morning sun streams.
Here the forest seems still and silent. I savor the crunch of leaves beneath my shoes. An occasional squirrel cavorts noisily from tree to ground and back. Single leaves float languidly, tranquilly, to the forest floor.
Looking up into a canopy of golden-yellow maple leaves, I watch the rising sunlight brighten the color to a brilliant glow, while breezes toss shadows in and out of the melee. I open my eyes wide to drink in the sun-soaked radiance. After all, this will have to last me for a full year.
A single goose honks overhead. Four wild turkeys peck and scavenge briskly along the top of the ridge. A squirrel chatters its warning signal from atop a trunk, tail curled in apprehension. A downy woodpecker rat-tat-tatting the tree beside me suddenly stops and flits away in arches.
I jump as the tom turkey suddenly rushes noisily through leaves, beating its wings as it runs with a slow, whooshing whamp-whamp-whamp. It jumps off the ridge, flapping wildly. He dips scarily, recovers, and then is airborne!
He heads across Wood Duck Pond, glides low, with wings strangely eagle-like. After the tom disappears behind banks of cattails and goldenrods, the remaining three follow, one by one.
Unconcerned, a raft of eight hooded mergansers socialize on the water below, apparently far more accustomed to seeing turkeys fly than I am. They paddle contentedly and dive for food in the center of the pond. The forest around them offers some of their favorite nesting sites: holes in tree trunks.
The wind picks up as I reach the western side of the pond. Goldenrods clothed in thick shearling seedheads sway in the wind. The trees withdraw from the trail, giving way to prairie forbs. Wild cucumber pods hang from vines like Japanese lanterns, waving good-bye at trail’s end. Till next time …
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.