Early Signs of Spring

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The sun shines so dimly that it casts no shadow.Tree tops are frosted white from fog at the entrance to the Arboretum.

Frosted tree tops

Frosted tree tops

Several Downy woodpeckers flit up tree branches and peck for their breakfast. Chickadees make their contact chirps and call “Chicka-dee-dee-dee.” One gives ist springtime “Fee-bee” call, the first I have heard this season!Branches and pine needles are lightly flocked.

Flocked pine needles

Flocked pine needles

A dozen Dark-eyed juncos peck at the ground. I spy a lone waxwing’s yellow-tipped tail before it darts behind spruce trees. White-breasted nuthatches are very verbal today, making their nasal “Aunk” calls.

Downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

A Downy woodpecker picks at the bark of a Kentucky coffeetree, gleaning insects or larvae for breakfast. An American tree sparrow’s bi-colored bill is coated with ice crystals, and something dark hangs from its beak. What do you suppose it found?

I warm up in the Andersen Horticulture Library, and find an intriguing display, “A Gathering of Flowers: Botanicals in the Age of Climate Change.” Artist Ursula Hargens pairs her ceramic tiles of flowers that are endangered or threatened in Minnesota with amazing historical illustrations.

For example, the 1764 Flora Danica is open to a page displaying a sketch of a plant whose form echoes Hargens’ tile of Empetrumnigrum, Black crowberry, which in Minnesota grows only in a small area in Cook County.

I delight in finding a tile depicting Leedy’s roseroot (Rhodiolaintegrifolia ssp. Leedyi). This cliff-loving wildflower is found in only seven locations in Minnesota and New York. Just weeks before, we were cleaning and preparing its seeds for propagation at the Arb’s Plant Conservation Department.

Wild turkey tracks

Wild turkey tracks

Back outside, large flakes of snow drift slowly down.By now the sun has burned through the morning fog. Oval squirrel tracks and triangular Wild turkey tracks are evident in the sparkling snowcrust. Crystals sparkle in mid-air, and the white carpet glints in sunbeams.A Great-horned owl hoots in the far distance.

In combat!

In combat!

Wild turkeys are roosting on the backs of benches. They seem to be all males, sporting that bluish-black “broom” that brushes the ground. Two often flap their wings, spread their tails wide parallel to the ground, and lunge towards each other. Then, following them around a corner, I find a very threatening display! In combat, one tom places his beak over the other’s snood and pushes. The pair wrestle until one is pinned on the ground. The loser leaves in shame, tail down, feathers flat against his body. The victor struts, feathers puffed, head level with body, tail up and fanned.

Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow this week. The chickadee calls and turkey fights also seem to predict an early spring. We’ll just have to enjoy the snow while we can!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

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