On Sunday the 13th get up early to see a trio of planets in the pre-dawn eastern sky: Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Wednesday the 16th is the Full Snow Moon.
Bald eagles that spend their summers farther north fly south as far as necessary to find open water. Some years they find that open water on the St. Croix near Afton, and you may see them fishing off the ice.
You might also see wild turkeys at Afton. And while it’s a myth that Benjamin Franklin argued for the turkey, and not the eagle, to be our national bird, he did express admiration for the turkey, writing that, relative to the eagle, “[The turkey is] a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage.” Look for turkey tracks in fresh snow. The tracks in the photo show the imprint of a small hind toe, and three large front toes.
And fresh snow lets us hunt for tracks of many of the mammals at Afton, too. Eastern cottontail rabbits have hind feet that are about three inches long, and sometimes when they are hopping from place to place the front feet land together in a single track.
Most of the small tracks in the snow are from mice or voles, and sometimes there are tail marks between the feet.
Deer leave heart-shaped hoof prints, and often will follow the same trails through the woods and fields. Those trails are called . . . deer trails!
Fishers are large members of the weasel family. Look for their tracks near the water. They have big pads and five toes. The tracks can look like the tracks of house cats, but house cats have only four toes.
Raccoons and Opossums are not true hibernators, but are active on mild days. Check out the photo of an opossum under the bird feeder at the Visitor Center, taken in January 2008. Their tracks are difficult to tell apart in the snow. If there’s a tail drag-mark, or a toe print on the hind foot that slants inward, it’s an opossum.
Spruces are another species of conifer you may see at Afton. The Norway Spruce is a non-native, but they are at Afton anyway, and their cones are an important source of seeds for red squirrels and other animals.
All spruces have single needles that attach directly to the twig on short woody pegs. The needles are stiff and bristly. If you touch a spruce, it will feel like pin-pricks. The needles of the Norway Spruce are one-half to one inch long, and have a pleasant smell when crushed.
All spruces also have flaky bark in scales. The bark of Norway Spruce is reddish-gray in color.
Spruces have cones that are papery and less substantial than pine cones. On the ground around spruce trees you may see twigs and the central cores of cones. Red squirrels were here! They chew through spruce twigs so that the cones drop to the ground, then they demolish the cones to get to the papery seeds. Norway Spruce cones are two to seven inches long, and if you see one in a tree it will be hanging down from its branch.
Insects and arthropods
Bees and fleas? In winter? On mild days in winter bees may leave their hives or overwintering shelters (solitary bees don’t live in hives) and take what are called “cleansing flights”. Bees are notorious for keeping their hives and nests clean, and warm sunny days in winter give them a chance to fly outside and. . . poop!
And on those same mild days you might see what look like flecks of black pepper hopping around on the melting snow. It’s not pepper, but an animal called the “snow flea”. Snow fleas aren’t really fleas, and they aren’t even insects. They’re arthropods, a group that includes spiders and crustaceans. Snow fleas are a type of springtail, and live in the leaf litter of the forest. I don’t have a photo of them, but maybe this winter I’ll get one!
Here are some weather observations from past years
|Friday, February 4||2005: record high of 51°; 2021: about 4 inches of snow|
|Saturday, February 5||2005: record high of 51°; 2015: below zero|
|Sunday, February 6||2019: 4 inches of fluffy snow|
|Monday, February 7||2019: record snowfall of 5.9 inches that started as freezing rain|
|Tuesday, February 8||2021: 10° below zero to start the day|
|Wednesday, February 9||2010: snow continuing from previous day, about 6 inches total|
|Thursday, February 10||2019: record snowfall of 5.9 inches; 2021: temperature in the single digits|
|Friday, February 11||2019: 20s in the morning|
|Saturday, February 12||2019: record snowfall of 5.5 inches; 2021: high near zero|
|Sunday, February 13||2017: sunny with a high near 50°|
|Monday, February 14||2019: 20s in the morning, with a dusting of snow in the afternoon|
|Tuesday, February 15||2019: sunny and in the teens for a high|
|Wednesday, February 16||2017: mild day in the 40s|
|Thursday, February 17||2017: record high of 63°|
All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:
- Keith Henjum: Raccoon
- Bill Johnson, MN Conservation Volunteer: Plasterer Bee, Sweat Bee
- Bill Marchel, MN Conservation Volunteer: single Deer track, Deer
- Alan C. Nelson, Dembinsky Photo Associates, MN Conservation Volunteer: Harvest Mouse Linda Radimecky: Fisher tracks, Mouse tracks
- Gary Sater: second Bald Eagle
- John Watson trail camera: Fisher