Winter Interest

By Mary Beth Pottratz

January landscapes may seem bleak compared to spring fresh, summer lush, or fall glory, especially on a 15° day with sun barely peeking through dingy clouds.

The ground is pale gray with refrozen slush. Tree trunks and branches stand out in dull browns and grays. Even the wintry sky seems washed pale.

But you have to look twice.

Ironwood leaves
Ironwood leaves

Ironwood leaves hang on tenaciously, glowing peachy-gold in muted sunlight. Trees display interesting shapes no longer disguised by their leafy coats. I hear the squawk of a blue jay as I study the forest.

The soft green needles of a majestic white pine punctuate its pyramid form against the dull background. Pine cones scattered beneath have rough twigs where scales were gnawed off the top. The separated scales are cluttered on the pine-needle bed, empty now of their seeds. Deer and rabbit scat tell of a few who dine at this restaurant!


A giant basswood trunk reveals that it has been deadheaded mid-trunk! It has a lengthy split, interesting burls and knobs and crannies that surely house many creatures. Yet thick branches and graceful shoots span out from the twisting torso, forming the traditional inverted pear shape of younger lindens. I wonder how long it has lived… and how long it will continue.

Acorn - Northern pin oak
Acorn – Northern pin oak

The stalwart oaks still provide cover for birds and mammals, with leaves still rustling in the breeze. Acorns caps under a northern pin oak prove its nuts are mostly eaten, but I find one intact and admire its precise shape and cute wooden tip.

Suddenly, a pair of great-horned owls hoots urgently at the same time from the forest below. Not their usual, deep and long echoing call, with pauses while the other answers; but intense and rapid, alarm calls ending in gurgled notes. Passerby Steve hears them, too, and we agree they were disturbed – by what, we wonder –a coyote?

Usually the crows mob owls noisily in large groups, but I only hear a few crows cawing during my entire walk today. Nuthatches laugh. A squirrel chatters in consternation at some unseen dilemma. Black-capped chickadees whistle “feebee” to announce longer days and the coming spring.

Highbush cranberry
Highbush cranberry

Swelling red buds on five-foot tall highbush cranberry shrubs confirm the chickadee’s prediction. But I don’t need spring to find plenty of interesting sights and sounds today!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Brian O'Brien says:

    That basswood is really interesting from a sculptural point of view, as are the signs of life. I need to get up there fairly soon.

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