Nature Notes

Noting Nature in a January Thaw

By Mary Beth Pottratz

People Walking

The main paths are plowed and people are out, even with walkers and strollers. On a side trail, our boots crunch through frozen layers of snow. Children in brightly colored snowsuits romp and laugh in snowdrifts and make angels in the fluffy top layer. Some walk with no hats or gloves. It’s a balmy 33⁰ with almost no wind – another January thaw day. And our days have lengthened by 45 minutes since last month!

Male Downy Woodpecker

A male downy woodpecker picks at a tree trunk, sending tiny pieces of bark below.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Along a twig, a black-capped chickadee hangs upside down to reach a bud nearby. Several chickadees call back and forth in their buzzy “dee-dee-dee” call. A few sing a brief “fee-bee” – used by males for territory signals and mating – a sure sign of spring coming.

A long history of Nature Notes in Minnesota has tracked these and many others for years. Naturalist and educator Jim Gilbert tracked phenology – the changes in nature – during his walks at the Arboretum and compiled them into Nature Notes books. He continues his observations on Freshwater’s annual Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendar and Almanac, and recently retired from his position as Executive Director of the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and from his WCCO 830 AM Nature Notes program. 

The University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Phenology Network joined with the National Phenology Network to encourage naturalists to record observations of specific species in NPN’s Nature’s Notebook. And citizen scientists can post their own photos and sound recordings on, where experts can confirm the species. The data from these important logs are especially valuable now in studying climate change.

Pawprint Super Highway

Brush piles here and there provide cover for several different animals, whose pawprints form a superhighway weaving in and out of the sticks and twigs. A small flock of goldfinches land in nearby tree branches. Now that most of the leaves are gone, their sunshine-yellow summer coats have morphed to the safer camouflage of muted mustard.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

The bright red cap of a red-bellied woodpecker catches my eye as he dodges between twigs and branches. White breasted nuthatches trot down tree trunks and then fly up to flirt and chase each other.

Gray Squirrel

A gray squirrel sits in the crotch of a tree branch, gnawing at the bark. Dark-eyed juncos, blue jays, cardinals and, of course, crows are abundant in today’s warm weather.

January thaws are yet one more valuable set of Nature Notes data to record, while our scientists analyze this data to help respond to climate change. But for me, it’s a way to understand nature more deeply and marvel at the perfect way it all fits together.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at

1 comment on “Noting Nature in a January Thaw

  1. Thank you for that wonderful glimpse of the January thaw – stunning photos too – blessings Lois

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