By Ulrike Axen
An interesting solstice, indeed. Following the driest autumn on record, we are
facing an unusually warm, sunny weekend for this solstice season. This warm weather reprieve is giving the local wildlife a break from the harshest conditions, although if the cold weather comes finally without the snow, then many critters will actually suffer more. Small mammals and even some birds rely on that blanket of snow to insulate them from the cold air overhead, and to protect them from predators. Even on lakes, snow acts to keep them from freezing too deeply. It is hard for us to imagine that snow acts as insulation, but that is actually one of its many winter functions.
Since the ground is so dry, it will likely freeze deeper this year too, and slow down our spring. Cause and effect is in play: When one season does not act as it should, the following ones have a hard time adjusting or correcting. Plants and animals eventually do adjust to seasons that differ from previous ones, but it is difficult for them to do so when the changes are drastic and sudden, as they seem to be this year.
One of the great joys of this season is the chance to get out and see, or at least hear, owls. A couple of winters ago, I was walking on one of those frozen snowy evenings and heard, very distinctly, the “hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo” of a great horned owl. I was able to follow the sound and find the very bird himself, shouting out about his territory. Even in Minnesota, these birds nest in January or February, so they are very vocal on winter nights. The Arboretum is home to at least one nesting pair, and Arboretum naturalist Matt Schuth tells a great story about a turkey leg he once found in their nest.
This year we seem to have an unusual number of owls around. On one early morning walk recently, I witnessed some crows bothering an enormous great horned owl high up in a tree. The owl finally tired of the harassment (I presume) and took off in flight across the nearby pond. (The calling of crows is also a good aural clue for finding owls!)
A few days later, another owl was in flight in front of me, and it looked like a snowy owl! I decided that was very unlikely, but the sighting was intriguing enough that I did some investigation anyway. Apparently, we are currently experiencing an irruption of snow owls (meaning a sudden appearance of a great many of them). They are being spotted everywhere. Under normal circumstances, it is rare to see a snowy owl this far south, and no one is sure why these irruptions occur every so often, except that possibly their normal prey is hard to find in the northern tundra they usually inhabit.
This solstice season, you won’t need your snow boots for an evening walk, and you may be lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful white birds, or one of our wonderful great horned owls. Enjoy!
Ulrike Axen is a Minnesota Naturalist volunteer.