Nature Notes

A Taste of Spring in Early Winter

By Holly Einess

On this bright and mild morning, I decide to continue my earlier exploration of the Dog Trails. As I drive past Andrus Learning Center, on my way there, I see a “Trail to Hilltop Parking” sign. Why drive when I could hike? I park my car and set off.

The trail winds through forest, Wood Duck Pond visible to my left. Hoarfrost glistens in the upper branches of trees; the bright red twigs of red osier dogwood glow warmly in the sun. Chickadees, robins, and blue jays call; a woodpecker drums.

Trail to Hilltop ParkingTrail to Hilltop Parking

A red squirrel eyes me from its perch in an oak tree. I love these cheeky creatures, smaller and spunkier than the more commonly seen gray squirrel. (Once when I was preparing dinner at a campsite a red squirrel nabbed an entire garlic bulb and raced up the nearest tree, eventually dropping it after much laughing and pleading from me.)

Red squirrelRed squirrel

Red squirrels are most often associated with coniferous forests, as they feed heavily on pine cone seeds. I’m therefore not surprised to discover, a few paces on, a beautiful stand of red pines. The Minnesota state tree (also called Norway pine), they are easy to identify by their tall straight trunks and flaky reddish bark.

Red (or Norway) pinesRed (or Norway) pines

Walking on, I turn my attention downward and see that the snow also has a flaky texture today, especially noticeable surrounding a tiny conifer. Animal tracks abound, and I am reminded that I am simply a visitor to this place where many creatures have made their home.

Flaky snowFlaky snow

I catch a scent I usually associate with early spring. I check the weather app on my phone and sure enough, the temperature is 33 degrees. The melting-snow smell! A sound like light rain reinforces the illusion that winter is waning; hoarfrost is melting and dropping in patters onto the forest floor. A goldenrod seed floats gently by, borne along on its little parachute of fuzz.

A white-breasted nuthatch makes its way down a tree. A blue jay flutters from branch to branch, never holding still for long. A pileated woodpecker makes its high piping call in the distance. A robin alights nearby, allowing me to easily make out its white eye ring and the white patches under its tail and on its lower belly.

American robinAmerican robin

Several school buses are parked outside the Learning Center when I return to my car, and I see through a side door a stream of children. How lucky they are to be spending their school day at the Arboretum! And how lucky I feel to have spent the morning surrounded by nature.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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