By Mary Beth Pottratz
Sunlight filters lightly through wispy clouds and warms me. At 23⁰ with just a light breeze, I feel like sunbathing for a few minutes before I head into the Spring Peeper Meadow.
The wetland is dusted with snow, and tracks crisscross throughout. In spots, open ice is edged frosty white. A juvenile red-tailed hawk circles slowly over the wetland before diving behind the tree line. I almost step on coyote scat in the middle of the trail, full of fur.
Hillsides are a study in color: naked white aspen trunks against darker maple and oak, red osier dogwood’s cranberry-red branches; gray dogwood’s pale gray shrubs; fringed with tan big bluestem grasses, all from a white base of snow.
Despite the large but worn entrance sign prohibiting pets, I see tracks of several dogs mixed in with boots, ice grips, and cross-country ski poles in the fresh snow. The dog tracks sprint off trail, following fox and coyote scents – a risky endeavor for most dogs.I especially wish people understood the damage dogs do to restoration sites like this.
Several muskrat lodges rise high at the western edge of the wetland. The underwater entrances protect them from most predators, and inside is a cozy 30⁰. As winter wears on, muskrats can actually eat the cattails they constructed the lodge of! These mammals provide a great service by preventing overgrowth of cattails, keeping the wetland open.
Squirrel and rabbit tracks bound for cover into dense shrubbery. Lines of tiny mouse tracks curve through the sparkling snow. Its tail dragged, leaving tiny strips down the middle of its tracks. Some end in a single hole, where the mouse dove into the snow for cover.
Beneath that snow crust is a subnivean world: snow closest to the ground starts to melt and then condenses, forming ice along the top and creating a network of tiny tunnels for animals to traverse unseen by predators.
Birds leave tracks in the snow, along with wing prints. An occasional walker or two canter by. We all grin and nod at each other in the bright sun.
Today’s new moon means that our days are becoming longer, but the sun still sets far too quickly for me!
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.