December Thaw

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Snow sparkles under a filtered sun and a balmy 42⁰ makes for a delicious day. Birds are calling and chattering from shrubs and treetops. Squirrels dart between trees. Just a few short weeks ago they crashed loudly through leaves, but their travel across snow is now silent.

Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir

I follow animal tracks to a lovely Douglas fir and stop to admire its unusual cones. Tracks and litter make it obvious that several animals have been splitting open these cones to eat the seeds.

The Arboretum is alive with people, too. Walkers follow plowed pavement. Others on snowshoes and cross-country skis follow groomed trails that wander into more remote areas.

Red Oak

Red Oak

The two oaks that guard the entrance to the Rose Garden are both hanging tenaciously onto the few leaves left to them. The red oak is winning the race and will undoubtedly keep some of its leaves till spring.

A lone waxwing suns near the top of a tree. I listen for the almost inaudible, high-pitched “tseet” call but hear none. A quick look around reveals no flock nearby; this adventurer has separated from its usual habit of group travel. Witch hazel is still in full bloom, as it was mid-November.

Animal tracks crisscross the trail through the Woodland Garden. The snow beneath large trees is often completely tamped down with multitudes of footprints beneath them. Squirrel, mouse, deer… One appears to be fox, and another I can’t identify.

Swiss dot seedheads

Swiss dot seedheads

Like sheer Swiss dot fabric, round seedheads are shadowed against the white snow and checkered by slender branches. Sun glints off the white ground. Tiny footprints wander across the snow, in and out of almost invisible entryways into the subnivean world beneath. I see a vole in dark chocolate fur dash across the snow, stick his cone-shaped snoot into the snow, and dive into just such a home.

Winter wonder wetland

Winter wonder wetland

Heading out of the woods, I find myself at the edge of a winter wonder wetland. Tall seedheads and grasses undulate in the breeze. The afternoon sun highlights plants and grasses a reddish tan. In the shade, snow is tinted blue with approaching dusk. Birds dip quickly in and out of sunflower stalks, shaking them to eat the seeds.

Although light is fading, snow is melting off branches. Sun showers fall like rain beneath a sunlit cedar grove. Chickadees repeat their winter songs back and forth to each other. Cardinals call, and a blue jay squawks a loud warning, “Tomorrow our temperature will drop 45 degrees!”

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

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