Afton State Park Phenology: March 12, 2021

Waterfowl follow the open water and other early signs of spring.




4 minute read

Afton State Park sign. (Tony Webster/Flickr)

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!


If you’re up before sunrise, look for Jupiter and Saturn above the eastern horizon.


Many species of birds follow open water north in the springtime, including mergansers, herons, bald eagles, and our state bird, the common loon. Look for all of these at Afton as the ice goes out on the St. Croix. Some may stay for the summer, while most will travel farther north.

Before the trees leaf out is a good time to listen and look for woodpeckers. There are at least four species at Afton. From smallest to largest: downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red bellied woodpeckers, and pileated woodpeckers. There may also be red-headed woodpeckers, but these have become less common across their historic range, which includes the oak savannas at Afton. If you see one, let us know!


Many species of mammals call Afton home. You might visit the park many times without seeing some of them, like badgers and fishers. Among the mammals you are most likely to see when visiting the park are rabbits, red squirrels, and white-tailed deer.


The Monarch butterflies who flew south from Minnesota to the oyamel pine forests of Mexico last fall have begun the return journey. These individuals won’t make it all the way themselves. They will pause along the way to mate and lay eggs, and it will be their grandchildren or great-grandchildren who fly into Afton in May and June.

While we’re awaiting their arrival, keep a lookout for mourning cloaks and eastern commas, two species of butterflies that overwinter as adults.


The eastern red cedar, also called eastern juniper, red juniper, and eastern red cedar, is fairly common at Afton, especially along the edges of prairies at the north end of the park. It is one of the first trees to colonize a prairie following a fire. The bark is reddish-brown and fibrous, and the wood of the tree smells good and is used to make storage chests.

The cones look like little blue berries, but they’re really cones. Many kinds of birds eat the cones and then disperse the seeds in their droppings. The needles are scaly and have sharp points, and can cause minor skin irritation. No other tree at Afton has scaly needles, so it is easy to identify.

Weather observations

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

Friday, March 122016: record high of 70°; 2017 snow and in the low 20s
Saturday, March 132006: record snowfall of 9.9”; 2012: record high of 67°
Sunday, March 142012: record high of 73°; 2020 sunny and 30s
Monday, March 152015: record high of 70°; 2013: freezing rain and light snow
Tuesday, March 162012: record high of 79°; 2018: 40s
Wednesday, March 172012: record high of 80°; 2018: sunny and 20s
Thursday, March 182012: record high of 79°; 2013: 3 to 4 inches of snow through day, with gusty winds

Photo credits

All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:
Michael Furtman: Red-headed woodpecker
Keith Henjum: Hairy woodpecker, Hooded mergansers, Rabbit
Jamie Olson Kinne: Eastern comma
Gary Sater: Common loon, Great blue heron
Stan Tekiela, MN ConservationVolunteer: Downy Woodpecker


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Afton State Park Phenology: March 12, 2021