Afton State Park Phenology, December 22, 2023 – January 4, 2024

Birds come and go with the season, snow shows tracks, and a spruce spotlight.

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Bald Eagle and wolf moon at Colvill Park in Red Wing, Minnesota. (Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

Astronomy

The Moon is near Jupiter on the 22nd, and is full on Tuesday the 26th. This full moon is called the COLD Moon, because it comes in the depths of winter. Look for Jupiter through these two weeks high in the southeastern sky after nightfall. Before sunrise on the 4th, look in the northern sky for the Quadrantid Meteor Shower.

Birds

Some birds, like Eastern Bluebirds, Meadowlarks, Indigo Buntings, and Turkey Vultures, are present at Afton in the summer but leave in the winter to go farther south.

Other birds, like Dark-eyed Juncos, Tree Sparrows, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, spend the summers farther north and spend the winters at Afton, while others like Cedar Waxwings, are transient at Afton, meaning that they pass through in marauding bands at all times of year searching for berries and seeds.

And still other birds, like Bluejays, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatches, are at Afton all year round.

Mammals

Winter snow cover provides a good opportunity to learn to identify tracks. Two common animals at Afton who leave tracks that are relatively easy to identify are rabbits and deer. Rabbits’ large hind feet leave large prints that are usually side by side. Their smaller front paws may either step right next to each other, so that they sometimes blur together into one track in the snow. Other times one front paw stepped slightly in front of the other. The tracks from the hind feet are about three and a half inches long, and those from the front feet are about one inch long. Deer tracks are sort of heart-shaped, and two-and-a-half to three inches long.

Trees

The Norway Spruce is not native to the New World, but they are easy to find in the woods at Afton. The bark is reddish-gray in color. Like all spruces they have single needles attached directly to
twigs; those of the Norway Spruce are generally less than a half-inch long. The cones are papery and
break apart easily, and hang down from branches. The cones range from two to seven inches long.
Red Squirrels and other animals often pick the scales off the cones to get at the seeds.

Weather observations

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

Friday, December 221983: record low of 20 below zero
Saturday, December 232020: record snowfall of 8.7 inches
Sunday, December 242009: record snowfall of 5.2 inches
Monday, December 252018: bare ground, no snow cover
Tuesday, December 262011: record high of 52°
Wednesday, December 271971: record snowfall of 6 inches
Thursday, December 282013: record high of 47°
Friday, December 291999: record high of 53°
Saturday, December 302019: record snowfall of 4.9 inches; 2004: record high of 51°
Sunday, December 312010: freezing rain and light snow
Monday, January 12017: high of 32°
Tuesday, January 21999: record snowfall of 6.1”
Wednesday, January 32013: high in 20s
Thursday, January 42023: record snowfall of 8.4 inches; 2019: record high
of 47°; 2014: temperature falls through day from 20s
to single digits

Photo/Image credits

All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Travis Bonovsky, MN Conservation Volunteer: Bluejay
  • Michael Furtman, MN Conservation Volunteer: Dark-eyed Junco
  • Dean Lokken: Meadowlark, Turkey Vulture, White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Bill Marchel, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer: Deer, Deer Track
  • Gary Sater: Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, Northern Cardinal
  • Stan Tekiela, MN Conservation Volunteer: Downy Woodpecker

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Afton State Park Phenology, December 22, 2023 – January 4, 2024