Afton State Park phenology, March 24 to 31

Spring has officially arrived, and signs of the season keep coming.




3 minute read


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

From the park naturalist: It is the season for the annual woodcock flight watch – Saturday April 8 and Friday April 14 at 7:00 p.m. we will be looking for their mating flight that Aldo Leopold called “SkyDance” in A Sand County Almanac. We will meet in the visitor center before heading out to the dancing grounds.


The planet Venus is below the crescent Moon on Friday the 24th, and if you have binoculars use them to look for the planet Uranus to the left of the Moon. Uranus is green, and there are no green stars, so when you see something green in your field of view you’ll know you’re looking at Uranus. And on Tuesday the 28th look for Mars just below the Moon.


As days get longer and warmer, more and more species of birds make their way north to Afton for the summer. Watch for turkey vultures gliding high overhead. People sometimes mistake them for eagles or hawks. Turkey vultures have their wings bent when they glide, and wobble a lot from side to side. Eagles hold their wings straight out and don’t wobble. On the prairie look for meadowlarks, song sparrows, and bobolinks. The spring song of the meadowlark sounds like “spring of the year”. The song sparrow’s call sounds like “Maids maids maids put on your tea kettle-ettle-ettle-ettle-ettle”. And the Bobolink is named for its call, which sounds like “Bobolink bobolink spink spank spink.”

Many species of birds move north as the ice goes out on rivers and lakes. Loons are more likely to summer on lakes, but as they move north you may see them on the St. Croix River. Look for killdeer along the edges of Trout Brook near where it meets the St. Croix River. And watch overhead for pelicans! The American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North America, with a wingspan of up to nine feet. When you see flocks of pelicans overhead they are easy to identify – very large white birds with black on the ends of their wings. Watch them for a while and sometimes the flock will turn sideways and all the birds seem to disappear! The black on the wingtips comes from the pigment melanin, which makes the feathers stronger, and when you’re one of the biggest birds around you need strong feathers!

Amphibians and Reptiles

Snakes have spent the winter curled up together in their hibernaculae, and turtles have burrowed into the mud at the bottom of ponds and along riverbanks. As the weather warms up look for snakes and turtles basking in the sun. Two kinds of snakes you might see at Afton are fox snakes and garter snakes. Painted turtles are the most common turtle at Afton.


Hepatica leaves are poking up from under the leaf litter. Hepaticas are usually the first of the spring ephemeral wildflowers to bloom. They are called “hepaticas” because their three-lobed leaves are shaped like a liver – “hepar” means “liver” in Greek. Bloodroots also bloom very early. Bloodroot takes its name from its reddish-orange stems that extend underground. These two “spring ephemerals” and others live in the hardwood forests and bloom before the trees have leafed out, when sunlight reaches the forest floor. Look for them in the woods at Afton.


When maples trees have bloomed, it marks an end to maple syrup season. Once the buds open the chemical composition of the sap changes and it’s no longer sweet for syrup- making. Maple flowers are very small, about the size of a penny, and blow down in the wind and rain. Look for them on the ground. Maple trees drop their leaves in fall, but you may find some around the flowers on the ground.

Weather observations

Here are some weather observations from the Afton State Park area from past years.

Friday, March 242021: rain continues from the previous day, 1 1⁄2 inches in all
Saturday, March 252015: Damp from snowmelt, temperature in the 30s
Sunday, March 262007: record high of 81°
Monday, March 272021: Drizzle all day, 1⁄2” in total
Tuesday, March 282020: Thunder and lightning in the evening
Wednesday, March 292021: 70° and very windy
Thursday, March 302022: rain, ice and snow overnight

Photo/Image credits

All photos/images copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Dean Lokken: Kildeer, Painted Turtles, Turkey Vulture
  • Bill Marchel, MN Conservation Volunteer: Western Meadowlark
  • Gary Sater: Common Loon, Song Sparrow
  • Allen Blake Sheldon, MN ConservationVolunteer: Bobolink