Afton State Park phenology, Feb. 4 – 27

Snow helps visitors see animal tracks and more.




5 minute read

Afton State Park in Minnesota in winter. (Tony Webster/Flickr)


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! 

Weather observations 

Here are some weather observations from past years 

Friday, February 42005: record high of 51°; 2021: about 4 inches of snow
Saturday, February 52005: record high of 51°; 2015: below zero
Sunday, February 62019: 4 inches of fluffy snow
Monday, February 72019: record snowfall of 5.9 inches that started as freezing rain
Tuesday, February 82021: 10° below zero to start the day
Wednesday, February 92010: snow continuing from previous day, about 6 inches total
Thursday, February 102019: record snowfall of 5.9 inches; 2021: temperature in the single digits
Friday, February 112019: 20s in the morning
Saturday, February 122019: record snowfall of 5.5 inches; 2021: high near zero
Sunday, February 132017: sunny with a high near 50°
Monday, February 142019: 20s in the morning, with a dusting of snow in the afternoon
Tuesday, February 152019: sunny and in the teens for a high
Wednesday, February 162017: mild day in the 40s
Thursday, February 172017: record high of 63°

Photo/Image credits:

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 


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Afton State Park phenology, Feb. 4 – 27