Nature Notes

Straddling the Seasons

A cardinal pair makes a brief appearance, and while the bright red male is flashier, I admire the more subtle beauty of the female.

By Holly Einess

As I pull into the lower Arboretum parking lot a red-tailed hawk swoops over the Iris Garden pond and lands in a tree. It looks around a moment before taking off again.

Other than the cawing of a crow and a bounding squirrel, all is quiet and still in the Wildflower Garden. Patches of brown leaves exposed on south-facing slopes give a mottled appearance to the forest floor. Leaves and dirt strewn over the snow are evidence of squirrels looking for nuts they buried in the fall.

Digging for buried treasure

Hard-packed snowshoe trails lead me up to the prairie, where one of my favorite trees—the bur oak—has plenty of room to spread its branches. Bur oaks belong to the white oak group, whose leaves have rounded lobes (vs red oaks’ pointy lobes) and acorns that mature in one season (vs red oaks’ two seasons). Bur oaks’ acorn caps are furry-looking, resembling winter hats, whereas red oaks’ are smoother. (To remember the difference between the two, think “brrr… I need a hat!”) The crooked limbs of bur oaks give them a quintessential Halloween-tree appearance, especially without leaves and silhouetted by scudding clouds and a full moon!

Bur oak vs red oak acorn caps

A number of tree trunks appear to be covered with splotches of white paint. These splotches are in fact whitewash lichens, which neither harm nor benefit the tree. Like all lichens, they are a composite organism consisting of algae and fungi living together symbiotically, with the algae providing food for the fungi and the fungi providing shelter for the algae. Several other kinds of lichens, in various colors and textures, are growing on a fallen branch. By some estimates, lichens cover six to eight percent of the earth’s land surface.


The feeders outside the Arboretum Cafe are, as usual, attracting a variety of birds. Two species in particular—common redpolls and pine siskins—are well represented today, and create a flurry of activity as they flutter back and forth between trees and feeders. These birds won’t be with us too much longer, as they’ll soon be heading north to breed.

Common redpoll and pine siskin

A cardinal pair makes a brief appearance, and while the bright red male is flashier, I admire the more subtle beauty of the female.

Northern cardinal

In addition to the pine siskins and redpolls, chickadees and dark-eyed juncos vie for space at the feeder; even though there’s plenty of food to go around, several squabbles break out.

Face-off at the feeder

A winter storm is in the forecast – perhaps our last for the season? I’m hopeful that my next visit to the Arb will feel and look more like spring. As much as I love winter, I’m looking forward to the warmth and new life soon to come.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

4 comments on “Straddling the Seasons

  1. Thank you Holly. Very informative and fun.

    • Holly Einess

      Thanks, Larry! You’re such a faithful reader of the Nature Notes blogs–much appreciated!!

  2. Christina

    Just discovered this section. Fabulous pictures and great facts. I am looking forward to reading more nature notes.

    • Holly Einess

      Thank you, Christina! The Nature Notes blogs come out weekly; I always learn something new reading others’ and writing my own!

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