Afton State Park Phenology Feb. 19 to March 4, 2021

First bird migration is beginning, maple sap will soon start to run, and other signs of the season.




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American tree sparrow, Afton State Park, Jan. 2021 (rebecca_af/iNaturalist)

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.

Weather observations 

Here are some weather observations for this time period from past years.

Friday, February 192017: record high of 59°
Saturday, February 202011: record snowfall of 11.8”
Sunday, February 212017: record high of 62°, but day started with temperatures below freezing
Monday, February 222017: record high of 59°
Tuesday, February 232015: 10° below zero to start the day, rising into teens
Wednesday, February 242007: record snowfall of 4.8”
Thursday, February 252017: partly sunny, in 30s
Friday, February 262017: high in 40s
Saturday, February 272016: record high of 58°
Sunday, February 282016: blustery, with rain and snow through morning
Monday, March 12007: record snowfall of 9”
Tuesday, March 22016: high in the teens
Wednesday, March 32019: record low of minus 13°
Thursday, March 42000: tied record high of 61°

Photo credits

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  


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Afton State Park Phenology Feb. 19 to March 4, 2021