As we humans hunkered down in a state of semi-hibernation during the recent cold snap, our wildlife was foraging, staying warm, and preparing for another busy season of raising young. Even though we see extreme temperatures at this time of year, it is a terrific time to get out and explore the natural world.Â The many tracks and trails left in the snow can give you an idea of the diverse wildlife using our parks, trails and yards. A recent hike at Carpenter Nature Center turned up otter tracks near the river! As an added benefit, studies show that even a little time spent active outdoors can improve your mental and physical health.
One of my favorite wildlife watching activities at this time of the year is â€œRaptor Spottingâ€. The lack of leaves on the trees makes observing birds of prey much easier. It is quite common to spot a pair of Red-tailed Hawks or Bald Eagles sitting in trees in their territories. Noting their location will give you an idea of where to watch for them in warmer weather. During the winter there are also often Rough-legged Hawks in the fields south of town and occasionally even a Snowy Owl or two. This year there has been a Snowy Owl hanging out in fields near Northfield, Minnesota. A trek to the Sax Zim Bog area near Cloquet is also a great place to watch for winter rarities such as Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls. Itâ€™s odd to think that for these species, Minnesota is their â€œFlorida winter vacationâ€ and that they will head further north as the weather warms up.
Once you have spotted a pair of raptors using a territory you may be able to locate their nest, which will make for fun wildlife watching once the birds start raising a family. Typically hawks and eagles have one or more nests on their territory which they build themselves. The pair returns season after season, adding a little bit to the nest each year. A few Bald Eagle nests reached record dimensions: 10 feet in diameter, 20 feet in height and each weighed over 2 tons! A trick to determining if you are looking at a raptor nest or a squirrel drey is to look at the shape and composition of the nest. Typically raptors and crows have nests with flat tops made mostly of sticks. If you see a large nest that has a ball shape with lots of leaves, it is most likely a squirrelâ€™s home.
Every once in a while a nest watcher gets a fun surprise. A few years ago there was a large stick nest with a flat top at the south west corner of General Sieben and County Road 46 in Hastings. While it was most likely built by a Red-tailed Hawk, the bird raising chicks in it that year was a Great Horned Owl! Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests, and simply take over someone elseâ€™s hard work when its not in use. December through February is a great time of year to listen for owls in your neighborhood. The pair of owls that â€œownsâ€ the territory will often hoot to let other â€œinvadersâ€ know that this site is taken. You might even be able to tell if you have both a male and female owl in your area. Amazingly scientists have determined that the larger female Great Horned Owls have a higher pitched hoot than the males. (Thanks to Chris Mueller and Kristy Clarke for the portrait of the Nature Center’s Great Horned Owl.)
In Hastings we have quite a few Bald Eagle pairs and you may spot a few nests from the walking paths near Lock and Dam #2.Â One of my favorite nests to watch is along County Road 46. Sadly after at least 2 years of successfully raising young, the pairâ€™s nest was blown down in one of our late season storms. I was happy to see that the pair started rebuilding their nest in the early winter and they can often be spotted sitting near the nest these days.
Looking ahead there are lots of great things to do outdoors this winter, from Moonlight Snowshoe Hikes to Marchâ€™s Maple Syrup Making programs. Or just a hike, ski, or walk outdoors on the trails at one of our many local parks. If you are as interested in raptors as I am you will be sure to enjoy Carpenter Nature Centerâ€™s â€œOwls and other Masters of the Skyâ€ programs in March. Until next time-I hope to see you on the trailsâ€¦.