Nature Notes

Wildlife in the City

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 Holly Einess

When I’m at the Arboretum preparing for my monthly contribution to Nature Notes, with binoculars, camera, and notebook at the ready, I pay close attention to everything around me. I get curious about things I might normally overlook, and peer closely at small things unfolding in nature. Now that the Arb is temporarily closed, I’m turning that same level of attention to my own back yard.

I wake before dawn and head to Lake Harriet, just a half mile or so from my house. I arrive as the sun is rising and hear two loons calling to one another. The parkway is closed to motorized traffic, and only a few other people are out. It’s so quiet I can almost imagine I’m up north and not in the city.

Lake Harriet sunrise

The whole Minneapolis chain of lakes (along with Theodore Wirth Park, Roberts Bird Sanctuary, and Lakewood Cemetery) has been designated an Important Bird Area. The goal of the IBA program is “to ensure the survival of wild bird populations through the identification and protection of their most important habitats.” (You can read more about this cool program here

Indeed, there are many birds on the lake this morning. In addition to the loons are Canada geese, mallards, and ring-billed gulls, all making varying degrees of racket. There are also quite a few migratory waterfowl, which will only be with us for a few weeks before they head north or west to breed. These include common mergansers, redheads, canvasbacks, buffleheads, and red-breasted mergansers.

Red-breasted mergansers

The coots are back for the summer from their wintering areas. A whole flock of them is swimming back and forth near the shore, and a couple climb up on a log, affording me a view of their prehistoric-looking feet. Unlike ducks, which have webbed feet, these birds have lobed toes, and they are excellent swimmers and divers.

American coots

Grackles are calling and displaying in the trees around the lake, along with a few red-winged blackbirds. Nights recently have fallen below freezing, creating some interesting ice formations.

Ice art

I head back home to see what’s going on in my own yard and see that my maple tree is bursting with small red flowers. Red maples bloom well before the leaves appear, and generally a given tree will produce either male flowers or female (though sometimes a tree will produce both). My tree is male, which means I won’t have to deal with gazillions of samaras (aka “helicopters”), which are the fruit and are produced by female flowers only.

Red maple flower 

On the south side of my house Siberian squill is coming up. It’s non-native and is considered invasive, but I love the deep periwinkle color of its blooms and appreciate its eagerness to bloom in early spring.

A few days ago there was a veritable convention of robins in my and my neighbors’ yards, along with house sparrows and starlings. At my feeder I’ve had nuthatches, house finches, and in just the last few days, dark-eyed juncos. A sharp-shinned hawk has been calling from the top of a tall pine tree a few blocks away. It’s amazing to me how many wild creatures have adapted to life in close proximity to humans. How much life can you find in your neighborhood?

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.


1 comment on “Wildlife in the City

  1. Thanks for lovely/lively introduction to Spring Holly. Such beautiful and peaceful pics. Thanks for sharing. I have been watching the birds as well, though do not know all of them.

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