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By Holly Einess
It’s a beautifully mild blue-sky day and I’m eager to see what changes the recent rains and warm temps have wrought since my last super-cold visit to the Arboretum.
A goldfinch in bedraggled transitional plumage twitters and warbles high in a tree. A chipmunk scampers across my path and leaps onto a pile of brush. Another gnaws on an acorn with a scritching sound, eventually breaking through the shell to the nutritious interior.
Unlike their squirrel cousins, who are active all year long, chipmunks are seldom seen during the winter months. In October they go into partial hibernation in underground burrows, body temperature dropping and heart rate slowing. Unlike true hibernators, they don’t put on much fat before going to sleep, so they wake every few weeks to eat, then return to hibernation (though on especially mild winter days they may make a brief appearance above ground). Many of us have seen chipmunks scurrying about in the fall, cheeks bulging with nuts and seeds. These are the chippies’ winter food supply, which they store in underground cavities connected to their living chambers. They emerge in late February and March to begin mating, and their reappearance is a sure sign that spring is just around the corner.
I follow a trail up and out of the Wildflower Garden, then dip down into a ravine through which a small stream is flowing, still bordered in places by snow and ice. Clumps of green sedges dot the brown-leaved forest floor, their evergreen leaves having survived the winter and giving a foretaste of more green to come.
Gray squirrels chase each other up and down tree trunks, nails scratching loudly. A woodpecker pecks in the distance, crows caw, and chickadees call and sing. A hawk lands on a tree branch, looks around, then takes off again, maneuvering with ease through the trees. It’s either a cooper’s or its slightly smaller cousin, the sharp-shinned. Both have a long striped tail and eyes that turn from yellow to red as they age.
The north end of the boardwalk at Green Heron Pond is dry and snow-free, not surprising given the full sun exposure here. Small birds dart in and out of the brush, moving too quickly for me to ID them. I’m delighted to find that the pussy willows are out; their furry catkins are a favorite sign of spring for many.
The south end of the boardwalk is shaded and still partially snow-covered. While most of the water surrounding the boardwalk is no longer frozen, a thin layer of ice has formed feather-like patterns. Duckweed shines bright beneath another area of ice, air bubbles frozen in place. Beside the path back to the picnic shelter is a long shallow puddle, where still more interesting ice formations can be seen, though surely not for long.
On this quiet windless day, it feels as though nature is holding its breath, waiting just a bit longer before bursting forth with new life.
Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.