Nature Notes

Spring – In a Different World

Editor’s Note: We know that staying connected to nature is important, especially as we cope with a global pandemic. Since the Arboretum is temporarily closed to visitors (including walkers), our Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteers are finding other ways to share their observations of the natural world. We wish to open our gates to public soon, but until then, we hope you are all finding ways to enjoy nature. 

COVID-19 Update: Find updates and information here.  

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Tiny sprigs of green

The very beginning of spring is usually a celebration for me. I head outdoors to enjoy milder temperatures, longer daylight hours, and hopefully some sunshine. Each tiny sprig of green popping through fallen leaves and dried stalks is a cause to rejoice at their return.

But the joy is muted. Many people worldwide have passed away from the sudden coronavirus, and our community is taking huge precautions to mitigate its spread. Like my employer, the Arboretum, too, is closed to protect employees and the public alike. So, I head to areas close to home for my springtime nature fix.

Red-winged blackbirds

And I’m glad I did – the birds are returning, now, too! Red-winged blackbirds – just the males for now –spread their wings to display red and yellow shoulder bars while calling raucous “konk-la-REE!” to claim their turf. I once saw someone sit, unaware, near a nest. She wore a black beret with yellow and red patterns. The red-wings dive-bombed her until she moved away!

Along Minnehaha Creek, I stop in my tracks at the sudden sound of thrashing in the wetland. My friend thought she heard turkeys gobbling. No – it was a pair of sandhill cranes barely visible through the cattails. One flapped its wings high, then both called their tremolo bugle calls. You can hear their unique song at the Cornell Lab or Ornithology’s All About Birds website: And find a great bird identification app from Audubon Society, as well as many other nature pursuits to help ease our days in the sidebar below.

Hepatica leaves

Hepatica leaves have popped above leaf litter. Their flowers bloom before the leaves appear, so these must be last year’s leaves, which usually last through the winter.  Soon tiny flowers in pastel shades of pink, violet and white will appear, just several inches tall.

Stream ice is melting and lakes are dotted with open water, beckoning winter’s dabbling ducks and fish-deprived birds. Ring-billed gulls float in groups while mallards paddle past. Canada geese are ashore, some napping with their heads tucked under a wing.

A juvenile bald eagle lands on the ice and peers into a hole. A crow that had been fishing at that hole earlier stood bravely less than a foot away, waiting for its turn. The crow probably didn’t notice the adult bald eagle about 50 yards down the lake as it squawked at the young eagle.

Wooly bear

A short woolly bear, the larva of an Isabella tiger moth, sits right on the gravel path! Others on the path are careful to walk around it, but we all still maintain the requisite six feet of social distance between us. People speak in low voices, smile and nod as I walk past. But everyone seems subdued as we all face the realities and unknown future that coronavirus has brought.

I hear the woodcock is doing its annual and amazing flight displays down at the Black Dog Unit of Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. At least nature is still the same.

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

Additional resources:

Merlin Bird ID App (free) by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photos include various ages and genders; sound recordings of songs, calls and more, maps indicating breeding, migration, and more:

AllTrails App: download or use online maps of local trails or in areas you visit! 

Audubon Bird Guide, with detailed info, photos, calls:

Dragonfly and Damselfly ID for Apple:

Fantastic database of MN native wildflowers that has grown to includes trees, shrubs, vines and more! Great app in the field to identify plants. Try the amazing Advanced Search to i.d. a flower by color, bloom season, leaf type, etc. Created by a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer as her capstone project! to identify and submit your sightings of birds, and keep a “life list”

North American Frog Monitoring Program:

U.S. Geological Survey’s Science Explorer: a multi-faceted website with topics from biology to water!

Frogs and Toads of Minnesota: Info and calls at MN’s Department of Natural Resources:

Capture photos and/or sound recordings of animals, and upload them to for help with identifying what you found! Citizen science at A website with 100 citizen science programs that YOU can participate in! Count penguins, participate in the U of MN’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve’s Eyes on the Wild, search for gravitational waves, offal wildlife watching in MN, nestcams and more!

Wild Bee ID by the Center for Food Safety offers both a website and an app:

Animals of Minnesota info from our wonderful Department of Natural Resources:


“Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide” by local author Heather Holm (2017)

 “Native Orchids of Minnesota” by State Botanist Welby R. Smith with illustrations by Vera Ming Wong (2012)

“Pollinators of Native Plants” by local author Heather Holm (2014)

“Reptiles & Amphibians of Minnesota Field Guide” by local naturalist Stan Tekiela (2003) is now out of print, but available as reference material at Hennepin County Libraries. Includes a fantastic CD of frog and toad calls.

%d bloggers like this: