By Mary Beth Pottratz
The wild turkeys that survived Thanksgiving are pecking in ground freshly released from a blanket of snow. Today’s balmy 32⁰ returned them to their regular fall diet, at least for a while. They peck into the moist ground, gulp, and step on, head down all the while.
New England aster seedheads hang tenaciously to their seeds despite the recent frigid weather. I am surprised that they still hold their seeds in little pompoms!
“Toodleoot” calls a blue jay loudly from a tree just above, making me jump. The bright sun blocks my view. Chickadees warn each other of my presence, repeating staccato “bee beebeebeebee” calls during my entire ramble.
The air is warm enough to breathe deeply. I take in the scents of rich earth and decaying leaves, realizing now how much I have missed them in the past several bitter cold weeks.
A leafless willow sports what appears to be a 1” long pine cone at the very tip of a twig. It is a Willow Pine Cone gall, caused by a small midge fly that laid a single egg on the tip of the willow branch. The egg hatches and a gall shaped like a tight “pine cone” forms around it. The larva contains up to 50% glycerol, which prevents it from freezing over the winter. In spring, the larva will pupate and an adult fly will push its way through the cone layers in search of a mate.
The little larva seems to be a landlord as well. According to Stokes’ Guide to Nature in Winter, these little galls are home to hundreds of other insects, larva and eggs. The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden hosts a site with more photos: http://www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org/pages/photosubpages/willowpinegall.html.
A trio of graceful, leafless birches raise their branches skywards, forming a delicate, lacey filigree against the hazy blue sky. Catkins dangle from the twigs and wave in the breeze.
A Red-bellied woodpecker calls once in tremolo voice, hushing the high-pitched “tsseeet” calls of cedar waxwings nearby. A few minutes later, it is drumming high above on a dead branch.
Tiny tracks in the snow across a pond tell the story of a little rodent – mouse, shrew or perhaps a vole – running around a red-osier dogwood. Larger prints – could it be a weasel? – lope across the middle of the pond to the same shrub.
The temperature drops with the afternoon sun. Spoiled by this recent respite from the icy fingers of the past weeks, I head home.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer Program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.