Preparing for Winter

By MaryBeth Pottratz

A trio of bald eagles greet me inside the Arboretum. I track one to a far tree, where it roosts and surveys the wetlands below. The other two zip fast through the air, flying low over the Arboretum parking lot and playing tag.

Bald eagles and gray wolves are among 29 species removed just three months ago from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern list. Sadly, 180 species were added, many for lack of habitat.

witch hazel flower
witch hazel flower

American witchhazel, now leafless and in full bloom, stands 15 to 20 feet tall in the Wildflower Garden. The tiny yellow flowers dot the topmost branches. Entering from the Sensory Garden, head downhill on the paved path and cross one of the trails over the creek. The shrubs line one side of the paved path on the far side of the creek.

Filtered sunlight plays through heavy clouds, casting occasional pale shadows. The temperature is 42⁰, and strong breezes make me zip up and don my gloves. Squirrels chatter from treetops, and chipmunks skitter through leaves, stashing their larders.

Tamaracks and Oaks
Tamaracks and Oaks

Tamaracks and oaks are the only deciduous trees still wearing their leaves. Oaks sport burnt magenta or pale beige-gray foliage. Most of the tamarack needles have fallen, lining the drives nearby with bright gold. The needles that remain are in the topmost branches. They are a deep bitter orange color.

Suddenly, the prehistoric laugh of a pileated woodpecker echoes loudly through the woods, making me jump. With most leaves gone, the woods are a birder’s paradise. Dark-eyed juncos have migrated down from up north to enjoy our less harsh winters. Black-capped chickadees, goldfinches now in olive drab, hairy woodpeckers, sparrows and nuthatches flit between leafless shrubbery and treetops. They make quick, low, furtive contact calls to each other.

Wild turkeys on balustrade
Wild turkeys on balustrade

A rafter of wild turkeys peck at bird seed under the feeders on the patio. As I approach, some scurry down the steps to the lawn and gardens below. Three turkeys perch on the balustrade over the stairs like sentinels. After the last gobbler trots safely down the staircase, the three guards flap noisily one at a time from the balustrade, joining their pals below.

Dozens of cedar waxwings whistle their “tseet-tseet” call at such a high pitch I almost do not hear them. But I can’t miss their flocking behavior. They take off at the same moment, dipping and darting in unison and landing in perfect synchronization atop another tree. They are migrating through on their journey south.

Coneflower seed head
Coneflower seed head

The woodland and prairie floors are seething with interesting shapes and seeds, ruffling with every breeze. Coneflowers sport seedheads that dot the woodland floor atop dried stalks. Some are partially eaten, others are full spiny globes. Asters, goldenrod, starry campion, rose hips, highbush cranberries, sumac berries and many more provide texture and color. Before I depart, I breathe deeply air that is scented with rain, damp earth, wet leaves, catmint and bee balm. I know it will soon be covered with snow.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the program is available at


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