Nature Notes

Winter’s Last Gasp

By Holly Einess

I arrive early at the Arboretum on this decidedly un-April-like morning. Snow covers the ground and the temperature hovers at freezing. Despite the recent step back to winter-like conditions, spring birdsong greets me as soon as I step out of my car. Chickadees are calling “fee-bee” and a dark-eyed junco sings a musical trill from his perch in a nearby tree.

dark-eyed juncoDark-eyed junco

I set off on Wood Duck Trail; with each step I break through a crusty layer before sinking into the softer snow beneath. In addition to one other set of human footprints there are raccoon, squirrel, turkey, and deer tracks. Blue plastic buckets hang beneath spiles on a number of maple trees. Maple sap usually begins running in March, once temperatures rise above freezing by day and drop below freezing at night

maple sapMaple sap

Several male red-winged blackbirds sit atop cattails, calling back and forth to each other, declaring their territories. They arrived several weeks ago, and have just recently been joined by females. The ice is off Wood Duck Pond, and sure enough, I spot several pairs of wood ducks swimming along the far shore.

I cross Three Mile Drive and take the path into the Wildflower Garden, happy to be on plowed pavement where the footing is much easier. For now, the only green things in the garden are a few pine trees, but the many small signs poking up out of the snow promise that soon there will be many flowers blooming here.

I approach Green Heron Pond and see that it, too, is ice-free, sunlight glinting off its rippled surface. Three different woodpeckers—a downy, a red-bellied, and a northern flicker—alight in nearby trees in close succession.

Snow-covered boardwalkSnow-covered boardwalk

Thin parallel tracks in the snow around the pond tell me that a x-country skier decided to make the best of the recent winter storm. A pair of wood ducks swimming near the boardwalk takes flight and joins others already on the pond.

female wood duckFemale wood duck

Pussy willows shine silver against the blue sky. These soft tufts—so named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws–are actually flowers getting ready to fully bloom. Several tamarack twigs bearing last year’s rose-like cones are scattered on the snow. The tamarack is Minnesota’s only deciduous conifer, shedding its needles each autumn and producing new ones each spring.

tamarack conesTamarack cones

The sun has warmed and softened the snow, making my walk back to Oswald Visitor Center a bit easier. I anticipate that my next visit to the Arboretum will be a lot less white and a lot more green!

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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