An Out-of-Tune Ecosystem
By Matthew Ripley
It has been a lovely few weeks at Springbrook Nature Center. The sun is out and visitors are teaming through the new building, exploring our exhibits and heading out for adventures on our trails and boardwalks. he nature center feels thoroughly alive after a sleepy December and January. But as naturalists and phenologists (people who study how nature changes through the seasons) this unusual warm spell that has lingered in South-central Minnesota is concerning.
The regular rhythm of the seasons in our wetland and bottomland forest ecosystems is so crucial to their health. Yet, due to this warm weather, our nature center is a bit like an orchestra without a conductor. The instruments are all playing, but have no order, no rhythm, and no cohesion. Players are coming in early or playing out of tune. Each instrument may believe they are right, and are playing without problem, but the whole piece falls apart.
We have seen our winter birds leaving far earlier than normal. Earlier in the winter, I wrote about our overwintering birds like the Common Junco and the Pins Siskin. We usually see these friendly faces throughout the winter until March warmth allows them to return to their northern homes. This year, we have seen this move happen already as Juncos are nearly absent from our feeders. This causes concerns for food supplies further north. These birds are following the food supplies and spending too long in one place can cause a total collapse, much like the bread and milk aisles in the supermarket the night before a blizzard.
At the same time, the birds that arrive in the spring are already here, like a dinner guest that comes an hour early. We have started to see a variety of waterfowl, mostly Mallards, around the nature center. These ducks are dabblers and are merely searching for open water, which they are finding due to the warmth. This is not common in February in Minnesota and as soon as a cold spells hits and those open spots in the water start to close, they will be locked out of their main food source.
Turtles and frogs spend their winters ruminating (the reptile and amphibian answer to hibernation) in the mud in and around our wetland. As the wetland ground thaws, it rouses these cold-blooded beasts. This can cause major damage to populations that emerge too early as they have no protection against colder weather and cannot return to rumination.
What we have here is an out-of-tune ecosystem. The weather this winter, while enjoyable to us, has caused some major issues to the timing of the natural world that will reverberate throughout the spring and summer. That can manifest itself in large death tolls to our amphibian populations, low nest yields for our birds, and a food shortage for omnivores come the fall. Nature is out of tune and rhythm, and the effects are everywhere.
Matthew Ripley is an interpretive naturalist at Springbrook Nature Center, 100 85th Ave. NW in Fridley. Director Mike Maher welcomes comments at [email protected] or 763-572-3589. Go to springbrooknaturecenter.org for more information.