This month, we are checking back in with five park-dwelling animals that we featured back in our October Listicle – Five Fantastic Animals and their Fall Activities. We are thrilled to continue this series in partnership with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Core Naturalists program, showcasing urban wildlife throughout the changing seasons.
We’re reconnecting with Scarlet Fitzsimmons (Wickert), a Core Naturalist at the Carl W. Kroening Nature Center in North Mississippi Regional Park. Nearly six months later, we are excited to share Scarlet’s guide to what these animals are up to now and what to expect for their upcoming spring activities, alongside images from her husband, Andrew Fitzsimmons, and 14-year-old amateur wildlife photographer, Alex Carey.
#1. Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
Squirrels usually survive Minnesota’s harsh winters off nuts they stored in various caches, or hiding spots in trees and underground, during the fall. However, as March progresses, most of those nuts have likely been eaten already or have started to sprout underground. Fortunately, most squirrels are well-adapted to capitalize on human food scraps and the bird feed from feeders that many put out in anticipation of the upcoming bird migration. It is these offerings, their caches, and their versatile diet that allow squirrels to have their first of two sets of kits (squirrel babies) of the year between January and March.
#2. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Deer are also anticipating spring’s warmer temperatures. As we mentioned in our autumn feature, winter is tough for deer because they have less vegetation to eat and hide in. Many deer lose upwards of 30% of their body fat from November-March. Not only is this due to lack of food, but deer are also constantly on the move to hide from predators that can more easily follow their tracks in the snow.
Additionally, many female deer are now pregnant and trying to stay healthy before birthing their fawns in May. Once they do, you might start to see young fawns sometimes left on their own, as female deer hide their babies and leave them throughout the day (checking in every so often) so they don’t attract any unwanted attention from predators. While it may seem strange to leave a baby so young, it’s important you do not disturb a hiding fawn or scare it to somewhere its mother cannot find it. Mothers often find safety in hiding fawns near our homes, as coyotes and other predators typically avoid these more trafficked areas.
#3. Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
Over the past few weeks, you may have heard the birds start to sing more frequently, which is a welcome sign of spring’s arrival. While bird calls are heard year-round and typically made as warning signs, bird songs are usually for the purpose of impressing a mate.
After flocking together all winter, chickadees begin to break into mating pairs in late winter and begin to court each other using their unique song. In Minnesota, most chickadees sing a 2-3 note song that sounds like “fee-bee” or “hey-sweetie,” depending on who you ask. In fact, scientists have identified at least 16 distinct chickadee calls. Unlike squirrels and many other birds, chickadees only have one mating period per year, making these bird songs extremely important. Chickadees typically begin building their nests and lay eggs in April and May, with nestlings hatching after only two weeks of insulation.
#4. Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
March is one of the best times to view Bald Eagles in Minnesota because it’s a time of transition for them. Eagles begin their courtship flights in late February and will typically lay 1-3 eggs within the late winter and spring months, with hatchlings arriving about 35 days later. Bald Eagles are known for favoring their nesting spots and will commonly return year after year to the same locations. Their nests can weigh up to two tons at their largest! Check out the Eagle Cam of a nest in the Twin Cities metro area run by the DNR here. As of this post, these eagles currently have two eggs in their nest.
#5. Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
Below ground, as we post this, there are hundreds of garter snakes denning together just waiting to emerge. They brumate (a reptilian version of hibernation) in the winter to survive Minnesota’s frigid temperatures. As cold-blooded animals, they rely on external heat for their body function and usually appear as temperatures consistently stay around 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they emerge, garter snakes are eager to mate. You may even run into what’s called a “ball of garters” which refers to a handful of male garter snakes that crowd one female in competition to mate. Typically, they give birth to their young in mid to late summer.
About Naturalist Scarlet Fitzsimmons (Wickert) and Nature Photographer Alex Carey
Scarlet Fitzsimmons (Wickert) is a Naturalist at the Kroening Interpretive Center. Her favorite part of her job is tracking the phenology, or seasonal changes, of North Mississippi Regional Park through sightings of resident and migrating birds. Together with her husband, Andrew Fitzsimmons, Scarlet has made it her goal to visit all 66 of Minnesota’s State Parks. Some of Andrew’s wildlife photography is also included in this article, making the pair a great team.
Alex Carey (age 14) loves documenting all the cool nature he observes in Minnesota and around the world. He has been especially helpful at sharing his photography with the staff of Kroening Nature Center, which helps Naturalists document animal sightings and seasonal changes at the park and surrounding neighborhoods. Check out his blog.
Learn More About Kroening Nature Center:
The Kroening Nature Center is a nature center located within North Mississippi Regional Park. It is free to visit and open year-round. It has a new interactive exhibit that connects visitors to the urban wildlife you might find in your neighborhood and the animals that use the Mississippi River as a corridor through Minneapolis. It hosts groups of all types – including school groups, toddlers, and family groups! It also rents out binoculars, bug nets, and other nature exploration tools. Outside of the center, North Mississippi Regional Park has a new nature playground, opened in 2021 thanks in part to support from People for Parks, now part of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, a restored prairie, and interpretive signs around the park!