Afton State Park phenology, March 1 to 7

Winter birds head back north as raccoons start to reawaken.




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View of the St. Croix River from Afton State Park (Brett Whaley/Flickr)


Get up early in the morning on Thursday, March 7, and look in the southeast for the bright planet Venus. Very near it you’ll see a very thin crescent Moon, and in between the two is the planet Mercury! And believe it or not, but we have gained almost two and a half hours of daylight since the winter solstice in December.


Flocks of Cedar Waxwings have been moving through the forests all winter, searching for berries and conifer seeds. You can recognize them by their black masks and the yellow band at the end of their tails.

Cardinals and Chickadees continue to sing their spring songs, but they are not the only birds with spring songs! Listen for the whi-whi-whi song of the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the “pump handle” song of the Bluejay . . .which gets is name because it sounds like a creaky pump handle.

Red-breasted Nuthatches make a low almost quacking sound, almost like a quiet duck with a stuffy nose. They sometimes come as far south as Afton in the winter, generally in what are called “low-mast” years, which are years when the trees of the northern forest where the Nuthatches spend their summers do not produce a lot of seeds. Dark-eyed Juncos spend the summers in those same northern forests, but they come south every year in the winter. For Juncos “south” includes Afton! Soon flocks of Juncos will begin flying farther north.

Horned Larks may still be moving through our area on their way north. Look for them along roadsides. Overhead look for the first Sandhill Cranes flying north. You may hear them before you see them; they make a distinctive rattling call. And if early spring rains warm the ground enough to drive worms to the surface, migrating Robins are sure to arrive at about the same time. The first male Red-winged Blackbirds return about now, too.


As the sun climbs higher in the sky and the days begin to warm up, mid-sized mammals become more active. On mild days in early March you may encounter Skunks, Raccoons, and Opossums. None of these animals are true hibernators. Since all three of these animals are mostly nocturnal, or active at night, you’re most likely to see them around dawn or dusk.

During the cold days of winter Raccoons and Skunks retreat into a burrow or den. Raccoons often den alone, although a mother Raccoon may share a den with that year’s kits. Skunks are more likely to share burrows and thus also get to share body warmth. During the cold days of winter Skunks and Raccoons go into a state called “torpor” in which their body temperature drops and their metabolism slows, allowing them to use less of the energy they stored as fat in the summer and fall. But on mild days Skunks and Raccoons wake up for a few hours in their dens or burrows, or venture out to look for food. Skunks and Raccoons pay a price for staying warm in their dens and burrows, however, often losing half of their body weight before spring arrives. Skunks leave their burrows to mate in late February and early March, often when there is still snow on the ground.

Opossums may spend most of the day in a den lined with leaves, but they must continue to eat throughout the winter, and you may see them foraging under bird feeders. The opossum in the photo below was under the bird feeder at the Visitor Center at Afton in February 2008.


Fungi are not animals, and are not plants, either. In the classification of life on earth, the Fungi have their very own kingdom! Late winter is a good time of year to look for shelf fungi in the woods. Look for them growing on dead and down trees, which the fungi break down and digest. The shelf fungi come in many colors and are easy to spot before trees leaf out and the understory plants sprout.

Weather observations

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

Friday, March 12007: record snowfall of 9”
Saturday, March 22022: a dusting of snow in the morning that melts by afternoon; 2021: breezy and in the 40s; 2016: high in the teens
Sunday, March 32021: sunny and in the 40s; 2019: tied record low of minus 13°
Monday, March 42021: sunny and in the 40s; 2000: tied record high of 61°
Tuesday, March 52022: ice storm overnight changing to rain by afternoon with thunder, record rainfall of 0.8 inches; 2013: 4” of snow overnight; 2000: record high of 72°, open water on St. Croix River
Wednesday, March 62022: 3” of snow overnight; 2017: 50s with drizzle; 2000: record high of 69°
Thursday, March 72021: breezy with clouds and temperature in the 50s; 2015: high in 30s; 2000: tied record high of 73°;

Photo/Image credits

All photos copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Travis Bonovsky, MN Conservation Volunteer: Bluejay
  • Michael Furtman, MN Conservation Volunteer: Dark-eyed junco
  • Keith Henjum: Raccoon
  • Dean Lokken: American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Bill Marchel, MN Conservation Volunteer: Red-winged Blackbird, Striped skunk
  • Gary Sater: Cardinal, Cedar Waxwing, Sandhill Cranes




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Afton State Park phenology, March 1 to 7