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By Greg Lecker
The current cold snap has quieted the natural world. I’m seeing and hearing fewer birds right now. The squirrels and rabbits are still somewhat active. Even if one doesn’t see these furry critters “in person”, evidence of their passing IS visible.
When I see two sets of tracks like these, I think I know which is which; but I usually consult a field guide to make sure. I found a memory aid that should help cement the difference for me in the future. The tracks that are “square” – with the feet arranged at four corners – are made by a squirrel. Think “SQU” – SQUare AND SQUirrel. Here, it helps that one can see the pattern of the distinct toes – but that’s not always the case. Deeper snow would blur the toe marks.
The other set of tracks – not only display softer foot pads – are arranged in a “Y” shape. Think bunnY. The letter “Y” for the final letter in the word “bunnY”. In another area – one with deep snow, the letter “Y” is visible.
What causes the difference in tracks? While both squirrels and rabbits move in a “hopping” pattern, the landing of their back feet differentiates them. The back feet of squirrels land next to each other. In contrast, the back feet of rabbits land one foot in front of the other – making the “Y” pattern. The next time you see these animals moving, study the motion of their feet!
I value the time we have each winter to appreciate the leafless tracery of our trees. Looking down however, I’m taking time to continue studying the ground. Without the distracting cacophony of Minnesota greens (those many shades of foliage!), the winter landscape is “an open book”. Landforms are easier to decipher when one can see the topography. Though the underlying geology of our deciduous and prairie biomes may not be visible; the exposed buff colored rock outcroppings of river bluffs and especially the ancient dark granite of Lake Superior’s North Shore stands in stark contrast to the white snow and ice. Here in the “big woods” and prairies, nature’s palette of white, gray, tan, violet and brown-black “paints” over and around a softer land “quilt”.
The ravine is a favorite place for me. It triggers my memory of Pennsylvania Appalachia, so wrinkled with creeks. While in the leafy time of year, the ravine is shrouded in full boughs of foliage that blur, now we discern the triangular shapes of hills sloping to and fro. Can you see what I mean in the photo above? Southeastern Minnesota presents many an example of a valley or coulee (from the French couler for “to flow”).
Ravines such as this place within the Arboretum – even small examples – shed falling water and melting snow to its little babbling brook. On the other side of Three Mile Drive, look at the savanna.
Our oak savanna is a softly rolling land. Differing from the flat prairie, this savanna is crowned by its oaks. It’s a drier place than the micro-climate of the adjacent maple sugarbush that sleeps, waiting for its sap to rise.
Downhill from the ravine, Iris Pond is undergoing a transformation. Iris wet meadow is a more appropriate name. While it was open water some time ago, it is slowly filling with vegetation.
At the bottom of our landscape “bowl” lies Green Heron Pond. Its frozen water and surrounding marsh define a level contour plane. Snow drifts here and there have opened narrow threads of white and gray amidst the tan vegetation. Soon enough puddles will appear – maybe even as soon as next weekend! Even as I write this, a cardinal is singing. The coldest part of winter 2020-2021 will likely pass during this next week. Stay warm!
Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.