Nature Notes

From Winter to Spring and Back Again

By Holly Einess

I last visited the Arboretum’s Lake Tamarack property in July and am eager to now experience it in winter. The upper parking lot (just north of Hwy 5 a mile west of the Arb entrance) is plowed, but the road down to the lake is not, so I set off on foot. Tracks in the snow indicate that this is a popular dog-walking destination, though today I have the place to myself.

I stop to examine a dead cottonwood tree that has a number of impressive bracket (or shelf) fungi growing from it. These sturdy organisms not only aid in decomposition of dead wood, in this case they are literally functioning as shelves. Some critter (most likely a squirrel) had a meal of black walnut meats and left the husks behind.  

Bracket fungus with black walnut husks

As I turn away from the tree, I realize I’ve picked up some passengers. Burdock seedheads, better known simply as “burs,” have tiny hooks (supposedly the inspiration for Velcro) that cling to my mittens and pants. Burs are equally happy to hitch a ride on the fur of passing animals, as many a dog owner knows too well. This highly effective means of seed dispersal has allowed this European invasive to become very well established here. (For my fellow word nerds: “epizoochory” is the term for seed dispersal by attaching to the outside of animals, and “anthropochory” is the term for dispersal by humans specifically.)

Burs hanging on tight

I continue past the lake, where there is evidence of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, then through the woods and out again into open prairie. Other than the rustling of dry leaves on ironwood and oak trees, and one crow caw, the scene is very quiet. Feeling chilled, I head back to the Arboretum to check out the spring flower show. What lovely sights and smells greet me as I walk through the doors of Oswald Visitor Center!

Scenes from Spring Flower Show

Sufficiently warmed, I go back outside in search of some animal or bird life. In the Japanese Garden, two pileated woodpeckers fly by, then land on a distant tree and begin loudly drumming. I go after them, but each time I’m close enough to attempt a photo they fly off again. My pursuit has brought me to Three-Mile Drive. I cross it, follow a snowshoe trail through the woods, and down into the Wildflower Garden. A large bird flies directly overhead and lands in a nearby tree. It’s a red-tailed hawk, and it’s a beauty.

Red-tailed hawk

The hawk lingers for a good long time, looking in every direction for potential prey, and I’m lucky enough to get a photo of it blinking. Like all birds, hawks have a sort of third eyelid called a nictitating membrane. This translucent membrane passes laterally across the cornea and serves to protect the eye and keep it clean and moist.

Nictitating membrane (“third eyelid”)

I’m delighted to be in the company of this wild creature, and only head back to my car after it finally drops off its perch and floats away out of sight.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer

1 comment on “From Winter to Spring and Back Again

  1. I love your writing and always look forward to entries from you. Thank you.

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