Afton State Park phenology, February 16 to 29

First spring migrants, squirrel sign, hibernating butterflies, and syrup season.




6 minute read


From Tuesday the 20th through Saturday the 24th get up early and look in the southeastern sky for a close conjunction between the planets Venus and Mars. Venus is the brighter of the two. “Conjunction” is the term used when two celestial objects, such as the Moon, planets, or stars, appear to be close together. Saturday, February 24th is the Full Snow Moon. It gets its name because February is typically a snowy month. Maybe even this winter it will snow for the Snow Moon!

2024 is a Leap Year, and this year there will be 29 days in February. Why are there leap years? Our calendar year is 365 days long, but the earth takes about 365.25 days to orbit the sun. To make up for that 0.25 day each year, every four years we add an extra day to the calendar, and that day falls on February 29th. If we didn’t add the extra day, then over enough years the calendar year would no longer match up well with earth’s progress around the sun. For example, the spring equinox would be later and later, eventually happening in April instead of March!


Believe it or not, even with cold temperatures and snow cover, the first migrating birds are passing through Minnesota. These are Horned Larks! Horned Larks are the only true larks in the new world, and take their name from tufted feathers on top of their heads that look a little like horns. Look for them along roads and the edges of trails, foraging for gravel. I’ve seen them in past years along Neal Ave and 70th St. near Afton State Park.

You may also see American Robins in late February and early March. These are probably not the robins that went south for the winter, but instead are most likely robins that overwintered right here in Minnesota. Overwintering robins are quiet and furtive, often moving silently through the woods in flocks. When migrating robins return they will be loud and raucous, and the overwintering birds will become noisy then, too.

It’s not spring yet, but spring is on the way! Some of the sounds of spring are the calls of Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, the drumming of Woodpeckers, and the gobbling of Turkeys. Male Chickadees sing “Fee-Bee” to establish territories. Females may respond with “Dee-dee-dee” to let the males know they’re around. The males and females look very much alike, with the male having a slightly larger black “bib” on his breast.

The spring song of the White-breasted Nuthatch sounds like “whi-whi-whi-whi-whi-whi”.

Both male and female Northern Cardinals whistle “What cheer cheer cheer”. The males and females look very different. The female is a yellowish-gray with hints of red, while the male is bright red with some gray on his wings.

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of the woodpeckers found at Afton, about 6 ½ inches long. The Hairy Woodpecker looks a lot like the Downy, but is about three inches longer. In both species the males have bright red caps, but the females do not.

At this time of year male Wild Turkeys gobble, and fan their tail feathers to establish their territory and attract females.


Have you seen two or more squirrels running through the woods, one after the other?
Squirrels chase each other throughout the year to defend a territory, and young squirrels chase around in play that serves as practice for more serious adult chasing. In late winter what you see may be a mating chase, in which several males follow a female either slowly or quickly in hopes of mating. You might also see a lot of tracks in the snow marking where a chase occurred. Gray squirrels give birth 40 to 44 days after mating, in a big nest made out of leaves. Red squirrels may also build nests of leaves, bark, and twigs, or they may nest inside hollow trees. Newborn squirrels are blind and have no fur. They remain in their leafy nest, cared for by their mother, for seven to ten weeks after birth. Look for them to be out and about while learning from Mom how to be a squirrel in late March and April.


Did you know that some species of butterflies spend the winter as adults, tucked away in the leaf litter of the forest floor or burrowed under tree bark? Mourning Cloak and Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterflies are two of the species that overwinter at Afton. They may come out for short flights on mild winter days, and are likely to be among the first kinds of butterflies that you see in the spring.


In most years mid-February into March is maple syrup season in our part of Minnesota! When daytime temperatures are above freezing, and nighttime temperatures below freezing, pressure builds up inside maple trees and causes sap to flow. This is the time to tap trees! A small metal tube called a “spile” is inserted into the tree. In the daytime sap will drip through the spile and fall into a collecting bucket. Overnight when the temperature drops the tree pulls up moisture from the soil and replenishes its supply of sap. If the temperature rises too quickly and remains above freezing day and night, the trees will be OK but there won’t be much of a sap run.

To make maple syrup, you first need to identify maple trees. This is easy when they have leaves in the summer, but not so easy in the winter. One clue is to look at the buds on the branches overhead, which will be swollen and almost ready to open during syruping time. Another is the bark. On mature trees the bark is in flaky sheets, but in younger trees the bark is furrowed. Try to study maple trees in the summertime to get a good idea of what the bark looks like. But even the best maple syrupers end up drilling a dry hole into a non-maple now and then!

Visit the Minnesota DNR website for more information on making maple syrup:

Weather observations

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

Friday, February 162017: mild day in the 40s
Saturday, February 172022: sunny and cold, temperature rising from single digits into the teens; 2017: record high of 63°
Sunday, February 182019: cold and calm and near 10° in the morning; 2017: record high of 58°, tying 1981; 2015: minus 10°to start the day; 2014: record snowfall of 4.9 inches
Monday, February 192022: clear and cold in the morning, in the single digits; 2017: record high of 59°
Tuesday, February 202017: 50s with rain and mist through day; 2011: record snowfall of 11.8”
Wednesday, February 212017: record high of 62°, but day started with temperatures below freezing
Thursday, February 222022: snow through the day, about six inches; 2017: record high of 59°; 2015: minus 8° to start the day, the 22nd day with temperatures below zero in the winter of 2014-2015
Friday, February 232023: record snowfall of 6.5 inches; 2015: 10° below zero to start the day, rising into teens
Saturday, February 242016: high of 38°; 2007: record snowfall of 4.8”
Sunday, February 252017: partly sunny, in 30s; 2012: flurries in the morning with temperatures in the teens
Monday, February 262015: high near 10°; 2017: high in 40s; sunny but windy, in the 30s.
Tuesday, February 272021: sunny early in the day, temperature in the 40s; 2016: record high of 58°
Wednesday, February 282022: sunny and in the 40s; 2021: rain in the morning changing over to snow, and melted by afternoon; 2016: blustery, with rain and snow through morning
Thursday, February 292012: record snowfall of 2.2 inches; 2000: record high of 61°

The old saying for March weather is “In like a lion, out like a lamb; in like a lamb, out like a lion”. Will March of 2024 come in like a lamb or a lion? March of 2021 came in with a quarter inch of snow, with temperatures in the 40s by the month’s end

Photo/Image credits

All photos and images copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Michael Furtman, MN Conservation Volunteer: Black-capped Chickadee
  • Keith Henjum: Hairy Woodpecker
  • Dean Lokken: American Robin, Horned lark, Northern Cardinal Female, Northern Cardinal Male;
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Bill Marchel, MN Conservation Volunteer: Gray Squirrel
  • Gary Sater: Full Moon
  • Stan Tekiela, MN Conservation Volunteer: Downy Woodpecker




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Afton State Park phenology, February 16 to 29