By Greg Lecker
Jousting with clear sky breaks, low clouds appear to be winning the battle. It’s challenging to find snow anywhere; and the ice on Green Heron Pond is darkening – a sign of melting from below. Even more unusual for this time of year, male Red-Winged Blackbirds are calling from the thicket of bulrushes encircling the pond. Though I don’t see the birds, I find some nearby cattail seed heads to study.
Stalks are bare at the top – the result of the male flowers having withered away. The female flowers of 2016 have yielded dense clusters of minute seeds attached to tiny flexible hairs (cattail fluff) that float away easily to land on open ground. Their buoyancy of this fluff (on water as well as on air) led to their brief wartime use in life belts and aviation jackets. Many years earlier, Native Americans used the fluff as lining; and pioneers used fluff as quilt stuffing and fire tinder.
Scanning downward as I enter the boardwalk, I find myriad needles of hoarfrost decorating the gaps between floor boards.
Hoarfrost is the deposit of ice crystals on exposed surfaces – most dramatically, but more rarely, tree branches. Water vapor condenses directly to ice at temperatures below freezing and occurs when moist air is brought to its frost point. Lately, open water provides moisture needed for spotty hoarfrost and more widespread fog. I hear water flowing freely under the boardwalk.
Only the thinnest film of ice covers the water that ebbs and flows around bull rush stalks and moss tipped pockets of waterlogged soil.
Certainly fuzzier than ice crystals are the pussy willow flowers that have opened from split buds. Cattails, catkins, and pussy willow all derive their name from the resemblance of their soft curved forms with a cat’s and particularly, a kitten’s tail. Besides pussy willow and deciduous tamarack (bare now), another tree that likes wet soil is the Speckled Alder. Circling the pond to the south, I find the tree’s cones and a few scattered male flowers (catkins) lying on the path.
The proliferation of these flowers color the edges of wetlands a burgundy in the early spring, joining the brighter red-twigged dogwood. Watch for these male flowers to turn yellow as the stamens appear to yield pollen to their female counterparts, which are found on the same plant.
The folded landform to the south sheds water to the pond. Temporarily frozen, water will soon be flowing again!
Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.