Seeing the Unseen

By Mary Beth Pottratz

In the Great Hall, a tree composed entirely of red poinsettias with a white poinsettia skirt towers over several other lighted trees. My favorite is adorned with homemade decorations: mice with pine cone bodies and acorn cap ears; birds of milkweed pods with poppy pod heads; red-orange maple leaves edged with gold; tree cookies painted with butterflies and owls.

Mouse Ornament
Mouse Ornament

Gingerbread houses are on display. There are an Artistry of Nature Art Show, a Minnesota Masters Exhibit featuring four Minnesota painters, and more! But I eschew the festivities indoors to see what’s happening about the grounds.

Coneflower Seedheads
Coneflower Seedheads

Purple coneflower seedheads shine creamy white, now that many of the seeds have been eaten by birds or blown away. Wild cucumber vines are now visible, swinging in a light breeze like strings of Christmas lights.

The temperature is just below 40⁰ under thick clouds.Light fog dampens the air. Although green lawns are clear of snow, the air is crisp and fresh with none of the earthiness of defrosted ground.


A curving stalk of white turtlehead sports seedpods that have split open. Squirrels are everywhere, moving with a sense of urgency to store more food. They chatter as I pass, warning those ahead of my presence.

There are large ponds of water around the boardwalk at Green Heron Pond. Even springtime did not see this much standing water. And I hear water trickling and running all around the pond.

Northern Green Orchid
Northern Green Orchid

Serviceberry shrubs have fresh red-yellow buds already a 1/2 inch long. Witchhazel is still in bloom. With its leaves gone, American hazelnut shrubs show off dangling catkins and deep red buds on new twigs. A spike of reddish-brown buds proves to be seedpods of Northern green orchid. Orchid seeds are said to be like miniscule short hairs, so I approach slowly and hold my breath as I photograph them.

Flapping wings alert me to a Northern flicker that just landed in a nearby thicket. Its little flash of red from the back of its tan and grey head, black bib, barred back and polka dot underside are unmistakable even before it spreads its wings to show yellow underwings and a white patch on its rump. I smile as I remember a friend describing it to me years ago: “… and the flicker, well, that’s just crazy!”

Like the flicker, most birds are silent and hiding in thickets. A few crows, some distant jays and chickadees call sporadically. I hear some very high-pitched “tseet” calls as I stroll, but my binoculars don’t pinpoint the callers.

Mosses and Ice
Mosses and Ice

Mosses and ice surround the base of a tamarack tree with a small nest near the top. Although nests have been evident since the trees lost their leaves, I am able to view them better against today’s thickly clouded sky. There are small concoctions of mud and leaves in the crotches of branches, tiny bowls woven of grass, and giant leafy squirrel nests high in the canopy.

A recent snag has fresh, rough splinters and shavings on its trunk about 15 feet above ground, forming a three-foot tall gouge. The ground beneath is littered with strips of fresh sapwood. I wonder what could cause this.If you know, please comment!

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


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