Note: Nina Manzi is a long-time volunteer at Afton State Park who has long recorded and shared seasonal observations at the visitor’s center. Due to COVID closures, St. Croix 360 is publishing her updates when possible. Thank you, Nina!
February 27th is the Full Snow Moon. Get up before sunrise and find a clear view to the eastern horizon to see Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn aligned on the first few days of March.
Believe it or not, even with cold temperatures and snow cover, the first migrating birds are passing through Minnesota. These are horned larks! Horned larks are the only true larks in the new world, and take their name from tufted feathers on top of their heads that look a little like horns. Look for them along roads and the edges of trails, foraging for gravel. I’ve seen them along Neal Ave and 70th St. near Afton State Park.
You may also see robins in late February and early March. These are probably not robins that went south for the winter, but instead are most likely robins that overwintered right here in Minnesota. Overwintering robins are quiet and furtive, often moving silently through the woods in flocks. When migrating robins return they will be loud and raucous, and the overwintering birds will become noisy then, too.
Some of the sounds of spring are the calls of black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and the drumming of woodpeckers. Male chickadees sing “Fee-Bee” to establish territories. Females may respond with “Dee-dee-dee” to let the males know they’re around. The males and females look very much alike, with the male having a slightly larger black “bib” on his breast.
Both male and female cardinals whistle “What cheer cheer cheer”. The males and females look very different. The female is a yellowish-gray with hints of red, while the male is bright red with some gray on his wings.
The downy woodpecker is the smallest of the woodpeckers found at Afton. The males have a bright red cap; the females do not.
Fresh snowfall provides a good opportunity to look for tracks. You are more likely to see the tracks of fishers and mice than you are to see the animals themselves.
The fisher is a member of the weasel family, with the males about four feet in length, including the tail. They are omnivores, meaning they “eat it all”: mushrooms, fruits, and small animals. Despite its name the fisher seldom eats fish. The first two trail camera photos of a fisher were taken on the Willow River near Hudson, Wisconsin, so it’s very likely that there are fishers at Afton State Park.
Mice are one of the more common mammals in Minnesota, including at Afton. They are mostly active at night, out gathering seeds to eat and to store away underground. In the photo of mouse tracks you can see the drag mark made by the mouse’s long tail.
Mid-February into March is maple syrup season in our part of Minnesota! When daytime temperatures are above freezing, and nighttime temperatures below freezing, pressure builds up inside maple trees and causes sap to flow. This is the time to tap trees! A small metal tube called a “spile” is inserted into the tree. In the daytime sap will drip through the spile and fall into a collecting bucket. Overnight when the temperature drops the tree pulls up moisture from the soil and replenishes its supply of sap.
To make maple syrup, you first need to identify maple trees! This is easy when they have leaves in the summer, but not so easy in the winter. On mature trees the bark is in flaky sheets, but in younger trees the bark is furrowed, as in the photo with the spile. The best way to do it is to study trees in the summertime to get a good idea of what the bark looks like. But even the best maple syrupers end up drilling a dry hole into a non-maple now and then!
Visit the Minnesota DNR website for more information on making maple syrup.
Here are some weather observations for this time period from past years.
|Friday, February 19||2017: record high of 59°|
|Saturday, February 20||2011: record snowfall of 11.8”|
|Sunday, February 21||2017: record high of 62°, but day started with temperatures below freezing|
|Monday, February 22||2017: record high of 59°|
|Tuesday, February 23||2015: 10° below zero to start the day, rising into teens|
|Wednesday, February 24||2007: record snowfall of 4.8”|
|Thursday, February 25||2017: partly sunny, in 30s|
|Friday, February 26||2017: high in 40s|
|Saturday, February 27||2016: record high of 58°|
|Sunday, February 28||2016: blustery, with rain and snow through morning|
|Monday, March 1||2007: record snowfall of 9”|
|Tuesday, March 2||2016: high in the teens|
|Wednesday, March 3||2019: record low of minus 13°|
|Thursday, March 4||2000: tied record high of 61°|
All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:
- Michael Furtman, MN Conservation Volunteer: Black-capped Chickadee
- Dean Lokken: Horned lark, Northern Cardinal Female, Northern Cardinal Male
- Alan C. Nelson, Dembinsky Photo Associates, MN Conservation Volunteer: Harvest mouse
- Linda Radimecky: Fisher tracks, mouse tracks
- Stan Tekiela, MN Conservation Volunteer: Downy Woodpeckers
- John Watson: first two fisher trail cam photos
- DNR Trail Cams, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer: third fisher trail cam photo