Nature Notes

Staying Active

A red squirrel darts across the snow and up a tree, then settles on a branch to eat. Its long fingers and grippy toes enable it to hold its food and balance just about anywhere.

By Holly Einess

It’s a quiet, not-too-cold afternoon, and as I approach the Dayton Wildflower Garden, I hear a gray squirrel calling — a hoarse, wheezy, repeated “quaa” sound. The call is returned by two other, more-distant squirrels. The one near me stops calling periodically to gnaw on a knob of the branch it’s sitting on. Squirrels have a varied diet, including nuts, seeds and inner tree bark, as well as insects, bird eggs and mice.

Eastern gray squirrel

I hear a fluttering in red-osier dogwood shrubs and spot a female northern cardinal. A male lands overhead, bright red against the gray sky. Cardinals are serial monogamists, pairing up for a year or more. Usually when you see one, you’ll see its mate not far away. 

Northern cardinal

Tattered and stringy bark on a cluster of trees is evidence of bucks in the area. Male deer rub their antlers against trees to scrape off the velvet that formed earlier in the year. This furry skin contains a network of blood vessels that nourishes the growing antlers, but by fall it dries out and is no longer needed. Males also rub their foreheads (which contain scent glands) against trees to mark their territory and attract females. Deer mating season in Minnesota is November to early December.

Buck rubs

I notice two women peering into the woods along Green Heron Trail and ask what they see. They point out a doe who is ambling along, nosing into the snow and munching on twigs and branches. I slowly approach her, hoping to get a clear view through the trees, and expect her to raise her tail and dart off at any moment. But she doesn’t seem overly concerned by my presence, and I’m able to get quite close. I suspect she’s grown accustomed to the presence of humans here, and I appreciate the opportunity to spend time near this lovely creature.

White-tailed deer

The pond below the Snyder Building is snow-covered, a blank canvas except for one long, wide trail starting beneath the bridge and continuing to the far side. Paw prints are clearly visible, followed by a long smooth depression, then more paw prints and another depression, repeated all the way across the pond. An otter was here! Pushing off with its feet, then sliding along on its belly, pushing again, and sliding. This is the first time I’ve seen evidence of otters here at the Arboretum, and am wondering whether this one lives here, or is just passing through.

Northern river otters are active all winter long. If they don’t have access to flowing water, they may break into beaver dams for access to water. They are carnivores, feeding on aquatic organisms such as fish, crayfish, frogs and turtles, and also on terrestrial mammals such as mice, chipmunks and small rabbits.

Otter tracks

A red squirrel darts across the snow and up a tree, then settles on a branch to eat. Its long fingers and grippy toes enable it to hold its food and balance just about anywhere.

Red squirrel

While this time of year lacks the vibrant colors of our other three seasons, there’s still plenty to see and enjoy while out on a walk. And much to admire in the hardiness of the creatures who stay active all through our Minnesota winters.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

2 comments on “Staying Active

  1. Your story really encourages people to “stay active” and get out to the Arb.

    • Holly Einess

      Thanks, Larry! And thanks again for weighing in on the tracks 🙂

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