Nature Notes

Graupel and Golden Crowns

I enter a corridor of golden dappled light. The wind in the trees masks the faraway traffic and I feel miles from civilization.

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By Holly Einess

There are more people at the Arboretum this morning than I expected given the chilly, blustery conditions. It was snowing (!) when I left home—big, sticky clumps—and I sincerely hope it’s done for the day.

No such luck. Just as I start down Ridge Trail, little white pellets start falling from the sky, slowly at first, then faster and thicker, ricocheting off my coat and camera. I know this isn’t hail, and it’s too white to be sleet, and too bouncy to be snow. So what the heck is it? A quick Google search tells me it’s graupel, formed when supercooled water droplets freeze on falling snowflakes. The graupel-fall doesn’t last long, and soon the sun comes out and melts it all away.


There’s still plenty of color on the trees. Oaks and maples display reds, oranges, and burgundies; birches flash yellow and gold. Sumac leaves are looking rather bedraggled, but still glow brilliant red when backlit by the sun. The only things I find still blooming are a few asters, black-eyed susans, and red clover.

Black-eyed susan

Chickadees, as usual, are calling to one another, busily flying from tree to tree and searching for food. I hear the thin “tsee” notes of the golden-crowned kinglet, and it’s not long before I spot one. Dang, this little bird is fast! It doesn’t stay still for long, and I’m lucky to get a shot of it. Despite their small size (only slightly larger than a hummingbird), golden-crowned kinglets are very hardy, able to survive temperatures as low as -40 Fahrenheit.

Golden-crowned kinglet

A raptor soars overhead and directly into the sun. It disappears behind the treetops before I’m able to identify it. A red-bellied woodpecker drums nearby. Blue jays and crows call out raucously. I enter a corridor of golden dappled light. The wind in the trees masks the faraway traffic and I feel miles from civilization.

Ridge Trail

Movement near the forest floor catches my eye. It’s a hermit thrush! I love this perky bird, with its plump belly and speckled breast. It hops about a brush pile, pausing to slowly raise and lower its tail, then forages through the leaf litter. Its speckled breast is characteristic of many thrushes, including the American robin and eastern bluebird (where breast spots appear only in the juveniles).

Hermit thrush

I finish my hike along the boardwalk, where the yellow needles of tamarack trees are beginning to fall. (The tamarack is the only conifer in Minnesota to shed its leaves/needles each fall). A three-generation family poses for a self-timer photo on the overlook. I spend a few minutes looking out at Green Heron Pond, taking in the autumn beauty, appreciating it all the more knowing how fleeting it is.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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