By Mary Beth Pottratz
At 9° Fahrenheit and with wind-chill at 2 above, only a few other hardy souls brave the walking paths and drives at the Arboretum today. A dim sun surges and ebbs behind changing cloud cover. First it throws pale shadows, then its light recedes slowly.
The walks behind the Arboretum’s buildings are protected from the breeze. Snowflakes drift slowly from the roof and overhead branches. Birds flutter casually between trees.
Two red-bellied woodpeckers flit between branches in a basswood tree. The twigs are already swollen with hard red buds, a promise of spring to come.
A trio of mourning doves roost in the same basswood. It is striking to see three of them, calling quietly to each other before flying off together. I have never noticed mourning doves other than in pairs!
Squirrel prints cross side paths where last week’s January thaw melted the snow to slush. The slush is now frozen to a slick ice layer, lightly sweetened by a fine dusting of snow.
Black-capped chickadees take turns at a bird feeder, calling a variety of songs: the familiar “chickadeedeedee,” the slower two-note “feeebeee,” and an occasional “ska-week-y bir.”
One pair calls to each other with a song I haven’t heard before: two notes, starting with the typical “fee.” The second is a single bell note, sounding like ice on glass. One chickadee calls with the second note higher than the first. The second replies with the same first note, but its second note lower.
A bright red cardinal chases the chickadees away, and is joined by his tawny mate at the feeder. Silently, they crack sunflower seeds. A solitary hairy woodpecker flies in for a turn. A blue jay whistles in the distance, moving me on.
The ground under a stand of Norway spruce is blanketed with a layer of two-inch spruce tips, each cut neatly off. I have seen this before and often wondered what caused it. Weather stress or disease would cause the needles to discolor, but these are a lush, healthy green.
The University of Michigan reports that red squirrels often gnaw off the tips in an effort to open the buds and eat the soft centers. I check, and sure enough, the now blunted branches are tipped with empty buds.
Although not native to Minnesota, most of us love this graceful tree with its balsam-like fragrance. We can then be grateful for hawks and coyotes, who will keep red squirrel numbers at bay.
A white breasted nuthatch furtively circles branches in search of dinner, but seems to find none. He quickly moves on. I find myself missing his mocking laugh call of warmer days – or am I just missing warmth?
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.