By Holly Einess
Just before turning into the Arboretum entrance, a large bird flies across the road directly in front of my car. Startled, I only catch a glimpse, but a glance is all I need. Its large size, undulating flight, and bright red crown tell me it’s a pileated woodpecker, and I hope to see it again once I start today’s hike.
Though the gardens outside Oswald Visitor Center are no longer bright with colorful blossoms, there’s still plenty to see. Most of the plants have been left standing, and their seeds will provide food for hungry birds throughout the winter.
I set off around Green Heron Pond and connect with Ridge Trail. I’m the first person on the trail since yesterday’s snowfall, but I’m far from the first creature; I see many sets of tracks, including rabbit, deer, turkey, and squirrel. A single snowflake flutters gently down, followed by several more, and before long it’s snowing in earnest.
A tree sparrow lands on a nearby branch. This bird is sometimes confused with the chipping sparrow, which also has a rusty crown, but this species has a brown (rather than black) eye stripe and a dark smudge in the middle of its chest. Chipping sparrows migrate south each fall, whereas the tree sparrow can be found in the southern half of Minnesota all winter long, giving it its nickname, “winter chippy.” (It will leave us come spring to nest in northern Canada.)
Though the day is cold, there is almost no wind. A stillness surrounds me. The snowfall thickens and begins accumulating on every available surface.
After passing my favorite birch grove, I turn onto Spring Peeper Trail, pausing periodically to take in the snowy view. A chickadee flies by and a pileated woodpecker calls in the distance. Perhaps the one I saw earlier?
When I arrive at the boardwalk, I hear the tinkling sound of running water. Despite the recent cold temperatures, pockets of open water are still visible. Once off the boardwalk, I see a few wild turkeys scratching away at the snow to expose the leaf litter beneath.
Back at the Visitor Center, I head to the cafe to observe the activity at the bird feeders. Blue jays, chickadees, a nuthatch, a downy woodpecker, dark-eyed juncos, and house sparrows are all availing themselves of the easy food.
A couple having lunch in the cafe tells me I just missed some cardinals. I’m enjoying the scene so much that I linger longer than I should, and finally race off for another engagement, promising myself that I’ll visit the Arboretum again soon.
Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer