Afton State Park phenology, April 12 to 18

Signs of spring everywhere you look.

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5 minute read

White-throated sparrow, Washington County, MN (Christa Rittberg/iNaturalist)

Upcoming programs:

Saturday, April 13
10-11 a.m.
Afton State Park
Signs of Spring walk

What things do you look for to tell you that spring is here Whether it is blooming flowers, budding leaves, bird song, the first rain, or something else, there are many signs in nature that tell us spring has sprung!

1-2 p.m. 
Brown’s Creek State Trail – Stillwater Trailhead
Signs of Spring walk
What things do you look for to tell you that spring is here Whether it is blooming flowers, budding leaves, bird song, the first rain, or something else, there are many signs in nature that tell us spring has sprung!

Thursday, April 18
7-8 p.m.
Afton State Park
Woodcock Watch

Timberdoodle is the nickname given to a ground nesting, long beaked little bird called the American Woodcock.  The late evening mating flight and dance of this little bird is pretty amazing.  651-231-6968.   Linda.Radimecky@state.mn.us.

Thursday, April 25
7-8 p.m.
Afton State Park
Woodcock Watch

Timberdoodle is the nickname given to a ground nesting, long beaked little bird called the American Woodcock.  The late evening mating flight and dance of this little bird is pretty amazing.  651-231-6968.   Linda.Radimecky@state.mn.us.

Birds

White-throated Sparrows are passing through our area heading north. Some people say their whistling call sounds like “O Sweet Canada Canada”, others think it sounds like “Old Sam Peabody Peabody”. Song Sparrows have returned and some will stay here the whole summer. American Robins are starting to build nests. This time of year, before the trees leaf out, is a good time to look for last year’s nests.

And don’t forget to look UP for birds. Flocks of Pelicans overhead are easy to identify – they are very large white birds with black on the ends of their wings. The black color comes from the pigment melanin, which makes the wingtips stronger than the rest of the feather. This is important because the wingtips experience more wear during flight. Whooping cranes have black wingtips, too!

Turkey Vultures are another large bird you might see overhead. About this time of year Turkey Vultures have returned to our part of Minnesota. Their wing feathers are darker toward the leading edge of the wing and lighter at the back. They hold their wings in a “V” shape as they glide and they wobble a lot (in contrast to Eagles and Hawks, which hold their wings straight out and glide smoothly). Sandhill Cranes pass by high overhead; you may hear their rattling call before you see them. They hold their necks out ahead of them as they fly, with their legs trailing behind them. This distinguishes them from Herons, which fly with their
necks curled back toward their bodies. And Canada Geese and many kinds of Ducks fly overhead along the river. The first goslings may be hatching about now.

Amphibians and Reptiles

By mid-April there are FOUR species of frogs calling in the evening hours: Spring Peepers, with their high-pitched peeping, Chorus Frogs, with their trilling call that sounds like running your finger along a comb, Wood Frogs, which make a low chuckling call, and now Northern Leopard Frogs, too, which make a the low snoring call that ends in a croak or cluck.

Insects

The Monarchs are coming! The butterflies that overwintered in Mexico have left the Oyamel Pine forests of Mexico and begun their journey north. These individuals won’t be the ones to return to Minnesota – the butterflies that spent the winter in Mexico mated and laid eggs in Texas or Oklahoma. Those eggs typically hatch in early April and the caterpillars are now busy eating milkweed plants. After the Texas and Oklahoma caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies they will fly farther north before stopping to mate and lay eggs, and those eggs will lead to the generation of butterflies that will return to Minnesota in May or June. Here in Minnesota the seed pods of last year’s milkweed plants have opened, and the seeds are blowing in the wind, dispersing over the landscape. Some of them will land in hospitable places and grow into milkweed plants, just in time for the great-grandchildren of the Monarchs who left last fall to arrive and lay eggs.

While we’re waiting for the Monarchs to return, keep a lookout for Spring Azures. Spring Azures are one of many kinds of butterflies that overwinter as pupae. Last fall the larvae finished eating and then hardened into chrysalises. The chrysalises rest until spring sunshine and longer days signal that it’s time to complete metamorphosis and emerge as butterflies. As the name suggests, Spring Azures are a vibrant blue on the top side of their wings. But they are rather pale on the underside of their wings, and when they land they almost always hold their wings closed. Sometimes people are reluctant to believe that the pale colored butterflies they see perched are the blue butterflies they just saw on the wing, but they are!

Plants

Spring ephemerals season continues! Hepatica, Bloodroot, Dutchman’s Breeches, Yellow Trout Lily, Large-flowered Bellwort, Wild Ginger, and Wild Violets are still in bloom, and joining them about mid-month are Spring Beauties and Jacks-in-the-Pulpit.

Jacks-in-the-Pulpit have a reddish-green or green club-like flower that is shaded by a sort of hood. The flower is called a “spadix”, while the hood is called a “spathe”. There are both male and female plants and both have flowers. The only difference is that the males have small holes at the base of the spathe, while the females do not. The hole makes it easy for pollinators that ventured in to visit the flower to escape and perhaps go on to visit a female flower. Since there is no hole at the bottom of the spathe in the female plants, the pollinators have to move around more to get out and are more likely to brush up against the flower and drop some of the pollen they collected at a male flower.

These early spring flowers are called “ephemerals” for a reason – they won’t be around long! Once the trees leaf out and block the sunshine from reaching the forest floor these beautiful little flowers die back for another year. So take the opportunity to hike through the woods and enjoy the ephemerals soon!

Trees

Aspen trees are blooming about now. The fuzzy catkins blow down onto the ground in the wind and rain. Aspen trees drop their leaves in fall, but you may find some around them on the ground.

Weather observations

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

Friday, April 122023: record high of 88°; 2022: thunder and lightning in evening; 2020: record snowfall of 6.6 inches; 2001: St. Croix flooded, and stairway at lower picnic area almost entirely underwater!
Saturday, April 132023: record high of 87°; 2021: rain and flurries through day; 2006: record high of 84°
Sunday, April 142022: gusty wind and blowing snow through day; 2003: record high of 89°
Monday, April 152018: record snowfall of 3.5”; 2014: record low of 18°; 2002: record high of 91°
Tuesday, April 162019: temperature in 60s; 2017: 3/8” rain
Wednesday, April 172023: Sunny, 50s; 2019: rain with thunder and lightning; 2016: high in 70s
Thursday, April 182021: flurried and rain in the morning, in the 20s; 2020: sunny and mild, in the 50s; 2013: record snowfall of 6.4”

Photo/Image credits

All photos/images copyright Nina Manzi, except:

  • Dean Lokken: American Robin, Canada Geese, Northern Leopard Frog, Turkey Vulture
  • Gary Sater: Song Sparrow, Sandhill Cranes
  • Allen Blake Sheldon, MN Conservation Volunteer: Boreal Chorus Frog, Spring Peeper

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Afton State Park phenology, April 12 to 18