Afton State Park phenology, Jan. 21 to Feb. 3

The subtle sights and sounds of a silent season.




5 minute read

Pileated woodpecker, Afton State Park (Wyatt Isakson/iNaturalist)


On Saturday the 29th get up early to look for Venus to the left of the Moon and Mars in the eastern sky. The red star Antares is in the eastern sky before sunrise, also. Its name comes from Ancient Greek; the Greek equivalent to the Roman war god Mars was named “Ares”, so the name “Antares” means rival to Mars. That’s because Antares is reddish in color and easy to mistake for Mars. On February 2nd look for the groundhog in the morning, and in the evening take a look in the southwestern sky for the planet Jupiter to the upper right of the Moon. Groundhog’s Day, which coincides with the Christian holiday of Candlemas, is a “cross-quarter” day – it approximates the halfway point from the Winter Solstice to the Spring Equinox.


Each day brings us closer to spring, and while it’s hard to SEE any signs of the new season to come, take a walk outdoors and you just might HEAR some. Several species of woodpeckers live at Afton year round. At this time of year they drum on trees and fenceposts to announce their territories to other woodpeckers.

Chickadees and cardinals are singing their spring songs. The chickadee sings a two-toned song that sounds like “Phoe-Be.” Some people think this sounds like the chickadee is saying “Spring Soon.” And cardinals sing a whistling song that sounds like “what cheer cheer cheer.”

And if you’re out walking in the evening or very early morning, you might hear Great Horned Owls! At this time of year they “duet hoot” to establish territories and pair bonds, and will soon be nesting. They nest earlier in the year than any other birds in Minnesota.


Whitetail deer bucks grow new antlers every year. Deer and other members of the deer family, like moose and elk, are the only mammals that can regenerate a complex organ. Antlers contain blood vessels and nerve cells in the “velvet” that covers them as they grow; the nerves allow the deer to feel trees and bushes with their growing antlers. The antlers begin to grow in the spring from bony masses called “pedicels”. When the antlers reach full size the velvet dies and deer often rub it off against trees. In the winter bucks drop their antlers, and the fallen antlers are called “sheds”. Just when deer will drop their antlers depends on lots of things, including weather. Since this winter started out relatively mild, you may see deer still carrying one or two antlers, but sooner or later they will drop and then you may see “sheds” along deer trails in the woods. Chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and even porcupines all eat shed antlers, which are an important source of calcium, phosphorous, and other minerals.


Winter is a good time to get to know the conifers! The Red Pine is Minnesota’s State Tree, and there are plenty of red pines at Afton State Park. The needles grow in “bundles” of two, and are four to six inches long. The cone is relatively small, two to three inches long and egg-shaped, and may remain on the tree for several years. Trees don’t produce cones every year, but typically have a good crop every three to seven years. The bark grows in flat scales that may peel off the trunk like puzzle pieces and lie at the base of the tree. The tree itself has a single main trunk, with clusters of needles at the ends of its branches. The tallest red pine in the state is 120 feet tall! (It’s NOT at Afton, but in the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area.)

Weather observations:

Here are some weather observations from past years.

Friday, January 212017: rain in the morning, foggy through day. 40s
Saturday, January 222019: light dusting of snow, low in the teens; 2021; one degree above in the morning, rising into the 20s with sunshine
Sunday, January 232015: sunny with high in low 40s; 2021: 2 ½ inches of snow from mid-afternoon into the next morning.
Monday, January 242019: light snow and blustery wind, with falling temperature from the teens to the single digits.
Tuesday, January 252019: below zero in the morning Wednesday, January 26 2004: record snowfall of 7.4”
Thursday, January 272017: high near 30°
Friday, January 282019: four inches of snow overnight, temperature in single digits
Saturday, January 292019: clear skies, temperature falling from single digits below zero in the morning to 14 below by 6:00 pm; 2021: cloudy and clammy through day, in the 20s.
Sunday, January 302014: record snowfall of 6.4”; 2019: 20° below zero to start the day, rising to near zero.
Monday, January 312019: clear and 20° below zero in the morning
Tuesday, February 12004: record snowfall of 6.7”; 2019: end of a 78-hour stretch of below zero temperatures.
Wednesday, February 22016: record snowfall of 8.82”
Thursday, February 32019: above freezing overnight

Photo/Image credits:

All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Stephen B. Antus Jr., MN Conservation Volunteer: Deer with one antler Michael Furtman, MN Conservation Volunteer: Black-Capped Chickadee Keith Henjum: Hairy Woodpecker
  • Dean Lokken: Male and Female Northern Cardinals
  • Bill Marchel, MN Conservation Volunteer: Buck deer, deer shed
  • Gary Sater: Juvenile great-horned owl
  • Richard Hamilton Smith, MN Conservation Volunteer: Red pine
  • Tammy Wolfe, MN Conservation Volunteer: Great-horned owl and nestling.