By Holly Einess
It’s a still, mild day at the Arboretum, and there’s almost no movement in the woods on Wood Duck Trail, so I turn my attention to the stationary life around me. Moss, fungi, and lichens all have homes on tree trunks, adding a bit of color to the otherwise white-and-gray landscape.
And how do these three types of organisms differ? Glad you asked! Mosses are among the oldest plants in the world and are extremely hardy. They, like all plants, produce their own food by photosynthesis. Fungi do not photosynthesize; they get their nutrition from dead organic matter and are important decomposers. Lichens are a plant/fungus combination; the plant portion is algae which produces food for itself and the fungus, while the fungus absorbs and shares water and minerals with the algae. This symbiotic relationship enables lichens to live in even the most inhospitable environments.
Moving on, I veer away from Wood Duck Pond and follow signs toward the wildflower garden, stopping to observe a half dozen gray squirrels as they scamper about. Some busily dig into the snow, flinging aside the underlying leaves in search of food buried last fall. Another explores the hollowed interior of a dead tree.
I pass through the wildflower garden, charming even in winter with its rustic wooden fence and benches, and pause near the Ordway picnic shelter to look for the woodpecker I hear drumming in an oak tree. It’s a male downy (only the males have red caps) searching for insect larvae and pupae that have tunneled into the wood.
As I start around Green Heron Pond, squirrels once again capture my attention. One is peeking from its hole as another tries (unsuccessfully) to entice it out.
A bit farther on a red squirrel is nibbling on a snack, while another appears to be licking tree bark—perhaps lapping up moisture?
The boardwalk, as always, offers much to see, including the bright red stems of red osier dogwood bedecked with dried wild cucumber vine, fluffy cattails backlit by the sun, and hillocks of snow surrounding and emerging from the ice.
Back at the visitor center there is the usual flurry of activity around the bird feeders; in just a matter of minutes I observe wild turkeys, dark-eyed juncos, house and tree sparrows, a cardinal, a blue jay, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and of course, red and gray squirrels. Come check out the scene yourself if your spirits are in need of a lift—it’s hard to stay glum watching so much enthusiastic life!
Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.