Nature Notes

Stories in the Snow

By Mary Beth Pottratz

A hawk is soaring over Wood Duck pond. I blink away my winter tears and he’s gone. His sudden disappearance reminds me: It’s hunt or be hunted, eat or be eaten at this time of year. I find no birds flying about, and I am not surprised.

Oak leaves rustle in the wind. As I near a prairie, a soft brushing sound comes from the grasses that bend in the breezes. And when the wind stops, there is a quiet hush.

There is a shallow inch of snow on the ground, perfect for seeing what the animals have been up to. Coyote tracks lope boldly, confidently near footpaths through the woods, mixing in with joggers and Nordic walkers. Similar but smaller, fox prints slink along the edges of forest, wetland, and field.

The canine paths are criss-crossed by squirrel and mouse tracks. These show hurried escapes into the protection of low evergreens or tell of quick leaps to safety up the bark of a tree. Inside the formal gardens, I find the largest, but best, snow print of them all – a four-foot long snow angel!

I am enchanted by the muted colors and stark contrast of snow and plants. Each branch and curving stem is highlighted with a sparkly crust of white. Purple coneflowers look rakish in their snow-berets. Little bluestem grasses glow with a peach blush in the dimming light.

As I approach bird feeders behind the Snyder Building, I hear cardinals whisper, “keep, keep” as they flit in the protection of dense shrubs. Tiny three-toed junco prints are sprinkled in confusion around the thicket, and I realize they are hiding discreetly in branches.

A couple on the path ahead posture in classical bird-watcher poses. Quietly swaying, peering between branches, first on tiptoe then low to the ground, I follow suit to find the prize. They point out a juvenile red-tailed hawk perched on the outside of the terrace balustrade. The hawk flies slowly, just feet above the ground, and disappears behind the cedars.

Mike and Margaret explain how they came face to face with the raptor as it perched on a spruce branch just three feet in front of them. They point to a squirrel carcass it had snacked on. I head to the spot, and see hawk prints and two-foot arcs where its primary feathers brushed the snow. From the forest, I hear a squirrel crying eerily in the treetops. I shiver, but it’s not from the cold.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer



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