By Holly Einess
I decide to take advantage of the car-free Three-Mile Drive for today’s walk. It’s a chilly 29 degrees, but the bright sun takes the edge off the cold. Apparently the birds aren’t in a spring-like mood, as their calls are notably absent.
One thing I love about winter is the chance to see things in tree crowns that are obscured once leaves emerge. Looking up, I see bumpy spherical growths high in the branches of several trees. Phomopsis gall is a fungal disease most commonly seen on hickory and maple trees. The galls may slow the tree’s growth but don’t usually kill it.
I leave Three-Mile Drive to check out the Wildlife Garden trail, currently designated for snowshoes.
Wildlife Garden trail
Looking over the bridge railing I see below me a thawing stream, abundant animal tracks showing clearly in the fresh snow.
Animals leave a trail of their own
There are several jack pines in the Frerichs Garden for Wildlife, displaying two distinct types of cones. The serotinous cones are tightly closed and covered with a resin that must be exposed to extreme heat before the cones can open and release their seeds. The non-serotinous cones are similar to those of other conifers, releasing their seeds immediately at maturity. (For any fellow word nerds out there: “Serotiny” is an ecological adaptation in which seeds release in response to an environmental trigger.) Jack pines are considered a “pioneer species,” being the first conifers to grow after a forest fire.
Jack Pine cones
Continuing on past a series of small oaks, many dried brown leaves still clinging to their branches, I catch a repeated rasping sound. Red squirrel gnawing on a pine cone? Despite tromping through surprisingly deep snow to the white spruce from which the sound is coming I’m unable to verify my hunch, and I settle for the satisfaction of being in a place quiet enough that such a sound stands out!
Heading back to Three-Mile Drive I pass by the Bennett-Johnson Prairie Garden, where I stop to admire the sweet delicacy of Giant St. Johnswort seed pods.
Giant St. Johnswort seed pods
As I approach the Oswald Visitor Center I finally hear birds calling. A quick check of the feeders there shows, as usual, a flurry of avian activity. A cardinal glows in the light of the late-afternoon sun, seeming to soak up its warmth. Despite my love of Minnesota winters, I confess that I too am looking forward to the milder days ahead!
Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer