Close Encounter

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Only 30° F and the light breeze carries no sting so typical of Minnesota this time of year. The fog of early this week has lifted, but thick clouds still block the sunshine.

The warmth and sun have melted snow off all but the shadiest of open spaces. Traces of puddles, melted by day and refrozen by night, highlight pathways through the prairie and woods.

But the beautifully muted colors of the prairie call me to the moment. Oak trees scattered on the savanna display their wonderfully craggy branches and gnarled shapes in shades of gray. In the background, a stately row of pine trees and spruce help block the wind.

The prairie is like a crazy quilt. Soft swaths of mustard yellow prairie dropseed are accented with the pale peach of big and little bluestem. Chocolate ironweeds and multi-spiked vervains poke high above the melee. Stems in shades of sienna, blonde, and brick stripe the prairie.

Look closely in the foreground and you will see clumps of gray aster seedheads. Feathery tan goldenrods sport a gall mid-stem. Round sunflower and coneflower heads are colored dots against the vertical stems. Matte charcoal indigo pods and dried silver sages peek in between.

The prairie is quiet – not with the hush of snow, but in the absence of wind and people and summer birds. Chickadees and juncos tweet to each other, and a woodpecker drums from the forest.  Suddenly, I hear the bright tinkle of a songbird! As I turn to look, it flies off, trailing a few more notes behind it. I wonder if winter, what little we have had of it, will end early.

As I head back, I see a tree with a single leaf that leans oddly backward along its stem in the crotch of a twig. A fuzzy little cocoon is perched beneath the leaf, attached with silky webbing, perfectly protected from the elements.

A graceful stand of river birch stands out from the forest. Its trunk is curled with bark in shades of pink, clay, brown, white and gray. Fascinated by the drape of its branches, I relax underneath the tree and photograph the little catkins speckling its twigs.

I sense a vacuum coming from behind me, and lower my gaze just in time.

A hawk drifts silently by, almost brushing my arm with its outstretched wing. It glides slowly just three feet above ground and tilts into the thicket beyond.

Camera in hand, I stare dumb-founded after it, giggling at the way I froze. I am far too delighted at coming so close to the raptor to regret missing the shot.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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