By MaryBeth Pottratz
Friday is a welcome respite from yesterday’s bitter cold, and even deeper biting cold yet to come. I smell the freshness of new snow in the air and hurry to the Arb, where I grab a quick bowl of chili at the restaurant and choose a window seat overlooking bird feeders on the patio.
Cardinals in bright red sand muted browns flit back and forth between the seeds and tree branches. A tawny female perches on an evergreen bough, its back, wings and eyebrow slightly tinted red.
A small flock of starlings mass on the largest feeder, using their wings like elbows to push the competition away. Despite their aggressiveness, they fly together to a nearby perch, allowing other birds a turn.
I spot a female red-bellied woodpecker. A steely blue nuthatch climbs head first down the feeder. Black-capped chickadees arrive one at a time. A blue jay swoops in, startling the other diners away.
Dark-eyed juncos shyly wait their turn. Their long legs hold them well above the snow as they peck at fallen seeds below the feeders. A downy woodpecker twists to plunge its beak into a tube feeder, supporting its body with its tail.
Goldfinches with olive drab backs and yellow eyebrows fly in. Their black and cream wings are just beginning the transition to its summer gold.
I head through the woods and hear a pair of great horned owls sing “hoot, hoot, hoot hoot hoot” to each other. The prairie in winter is tufted with big bluestem rising above deep snowdrifts. Vervain points heavenward, punctuated with dots of sunflower seedheads. Atop the rise, bare trees are filigreed against a gray winter sky. Silhouettes reveal thick-branched craggy oaks and gracefully rounded maples.
The most delightful winter denizens are almost microscopic. Snow fleas -a mere 1/16” long – are not fleas at all! More accurately called springtails, these arthropods live at the base of trees where snow has melted to expose the leaf litter and mosses underneath. Springtails are important to forest health. They decompose leaves and mast and provide food to wildlife.
Springtails sport two leg-like appendages on their abdomen that are held against the body by a clasp. When the clasps open, the “legs” suddenly spring out, causing the snow flea to jump. The best way to find them is to stare at a tree base to see if any little soot-like spots jump; then zero in to watch them more closely.
Snow fleas are impossible for my camerato capture, but here is a link to an interesting video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjLKzogOj8Q.
The sky darkens. A hush comes over the woods as snow begins to fall. I hold out my gloves and catch large clumps. Peering closely, I see many flat flakes with six slender points – stellar, or dendrite, crystals. Others form a flat hexagon with a line extending from each point – hexagonal plates. They melt before I can identify more.
It’s coming down heavy now. Time to head home.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.