By Holly Einess
The Grace B. Dayton Wildflower Garden is a lovely spring/summer destination. What might it have to offer on a cold, windy, cloudy mid-November day?
Squirrels, that’s what.
Easily a dozen gray squirrels are rummaging through the fallen leaves, pausing to gnaw on their finds, and giving chase up and down trees. I hear the persistent raspy chatter of a red squirrel and look up to see one attempting to gain access to a gray squirrel’s tree cavity.
Gray squirrel and red squirrel vying for space
While leaf nests (dreys) are gray squirrels’ preferred home in summer, in winter both they and red squirrels seek out tree cavities, and may spend days at a time there during particularly cold spells. I’m therefore surprised when I spot a gray squirrel heading up a different tree with a mouthful of leaves, which it adds to an existing drey. Perhaps it’s the planning-ahead type and is sprucing up its summer home now!
I take a footpath out of the garden and up a hill, where an albino squirrel catches my eye. The albino is a morph of the gray, with red eyes and a shorter lifespan (due to its poor eyesight and easy-for-predators-to-spot coloration).
I see a sign indicating I’m on the Meadowlark Trail and follow it as it continues upward beside a ravine, at the bottom of which a shallow stream flows. Though the wind is strong I hear only the soft whooshing of leafless branches swaying and the occasional squeak of bare branches rubbing together.
Thinking of the squirrels and their search for snug winter homes I start to notice cavities in many tree trunks, as well as telltale dark stains that indicate repeated comings and goings, whether of squirrels or some other critters I don’t know.
Current or former nest cavity
Returning to the garden my attention is caught by several dark-eyed juncos hopping about looking for food. A small flock of black-capped chickadees flits among the dried plants, feeding on seeds.
I spot a white-breasted nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker (a task made easy by the absence of leaves), underscoring my discovery that the wildflower garden has plenty to offer even in the off season.
Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.