Afton State Park Phenology, February 2 to 15

The season for snow fleas and animal tracks.

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Afton State Park’s annual candlelight walk is this Saturday evening Feb 3, 2024, 5-8 p.m.  We will light approximately one mile of trail (round trip will be 2 miles)– mostly along a paved trail but also some gravel and grass trails.  There will be 2 food trucks on site with items for purchase.  Leashed dogs are welcome.  Hot beverages and s’more ingredients will be provided as supplies last.  Permits are required on vehicles entering the Minnesota State Park and can be purchased in the park office that night. ($7 daily, $35 annual).

Astronomy

Saturday, February 3rd is Afton’s candlelight hike event. Come out to the park for a candlelit hike! In the early morning on Wednesday the 7th look in the southeast for the planets Venus and Mars near the Moon. From Sunday the 11th until Tuesday the 13th, look for the crescent Moon in the evening. It is going to look like a smile! And on Wednesday the 14th, you can spot the planet Jupiter just to the left of the Moon.

Meteorology

Is that hoar frost, or rime ice? These phenomena look alike, but are formed differently. With our recent run of overcast days following snowfalls we have seen a lot of rime ice forming on trees. Rime ice happens when water droplets in fog freeze directly onto trees, grasses, shrubs, and other surfaces. Rime ice often looks like frozen droplets of water. Hoar frost forms on cold and clear nights, when moisture in the air goes directly from being a vapor or gas to being a solid, skipping the liquid state entirely! (This is called “sublimation”). Hoar frost looks more feathery than rime ice, and often blows away in even a light breeze.

Birds

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 or in the mud. The tracks in the photo show the imprint of one small hind toe, and three large front toes.

Mammals

Winter snow cover, or, in the case of this year, early spring mud, gives us a chance to practice identifying the tracks of many of the mammals at Afton. 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. At this time of year rabbits come out of their hiding places after sunset to eat bark and twigs.

Most of the small tracks in the snow are from mice or voles, and sometimes there are tail marks between the feet.

Both gray and red squirrels leave tracks in which you can see both the pad of the feet and the toes, sometimes with the claw marks showing.

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.

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. The tracks of raccoons and opossums are sometimes difficult for me to tell apart. If there’s a tail drag mark, or a toe print on the hind foot that slants inward, it’s an opossum.

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. They become active when the temperature goes above about 27°. I still don’t have a photo of them, but maybe this winter I’ll get one!

Weather observations

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

Friday, February 22016: record snowfall of 8.82”
Saturday, February 32023: very cold all day, near zero; 2019: above freezing overnight
Sunday, February 42021: about 4 inches of snow; 2005: record high of 51°
Monday, February 52022: blustery winds, temperature rising from single digits into 20s; 2015: below zero; 2005: record high of 51°;
Tuesday, February 62023: sunny in the morning, then mixed precipitation making sidewalks icy; 2019: 4 inches of fluffy snow
Wednesday, February 72019: record snowfall of 5.9 inches that started as freezing rain
Thursday, February 82023: sunny in the 40s, with lots of snow melting; 2022 high in the low 40s, first time in the 40s in 2022; 2021: 10° below zero to start the day; 2002: record high of 50°, tied with 1991;
Friday, February 92010: snow continuing from previous day, about 6 inches total
Saturday, February 102022: temperature in the 20s, with lots of birdsong; 2021: temperature in the single digits; 2019: record snowfall of 5.9 inches
Sunday, February 112022: freezing rain and snow in the morning, with temperatures falling into the teens in the afternoon; 2019: 20s in the morning
Monday, February 122021: high near zero; 2019: record snowfall of 5.5 inches
Tuesday, February 132022: light snow in the evening, high temperature in the teens; 2017: sunny with a high near 50°
Wednesday, February 142023: rain through the day, high in the 30s; 2019: 20s in the morning, with a dusting of snow in the afternoon
Thursday, February 15 2019: sunny and in the teens for a high

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, Gray Squirrel
  • Alan C. Nelson, Dembinsky Photo Associates, MN Conservation Volunteer: Harvest Mouse
  • Linda Radimecky: Fisher tracks, Mouse tracks
  • Gary Sater: Full Moon, second Bald Eagle
  • John Watson trail camera: Fisher

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Afton State Park Phenology, February 2 to 15