By Mary Beth Pottratz
A red-tailed hawk soars above on my way in to the Arboretum. Filtered sunlight plays on red pine needles, its late-winter angle still oblique.
Hiding deep within the pines, I hear the high-pitched “tseet-tseet” calls of unseen birds. Looking closer, the rich cinnamon of a brown thrasher comes into view – first summer bird of the season!
Sunlight sparkles on snow criss-crossed by animal tracks. I identify squirrel, rabbit, coyote, fox and deer, and note other large prints that are too worn. But I see no tracks of tiny mammals such as mice and voles. With no leaf cover, their dark fur is highly visible against white snow to the birds above. So they travel beneath the snow cover, at the point where snow meets ground.
This subnivean level maintains a balmy 31 degrees because the snowpack itself provides insulation. As snow next to the ground melts, condensation forms on the snowpack above. The condensation freezes, creating masses of tunnels and walkways. We can see these ourselves by “slicing” into a snow pack with a shovel.
But the small animals are still not safe. Coyotes, fox, and some birds can hear them beneath the snow layer! Birds will swoop down quickly. Coyote and fox will pounce suddenly, jamming their snouts under the snow crust to surprise their prey.
The first waxwing of the year is poised atop an ash tree. Its head crest waffles in the breeze as it surveys the gardens below.
A petite fox squirrel, its back striped carmelian, calls from the base of a tree. Unlike gray and red squirrels, fox squirrels enjoy homes under brush piles, inside fallen logs, and at bases of trees.
Leaves are stubbornly hanging onto ironwood and oak trees. One of the last clump of leaves on a white oak are about to fall off. Nubs of new buds rise near the leaf node. The leaves seem to heave one last sigh before preparing to drift off.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.