DAYTON, Minn. – A family of bald eagles soared high above Eastman Nature Center in Elm Creek Park Reserve on a February afternoon, a month ahead of normal nesting season, where the majestic creatures were likely attracted to the open water of the nearby Mississippi.
The sight is just one example of the deep impact across Minnesota when a season moves in ahead of its time.
“I've been tapping maple trees for 11 years now, and I've never done it in a short sleeve shirt,” said Brandon Baker, a Three Rivers Park District Interpretative Naturalist.
And rarely in February, as March is usually the regular season to tap maple trees for syrup at Eastman Nature Center.
Baker’s boots sink into a muddy trail without a speck of snow in sight. Green buds burst from an elderberry bush, and the nearby Rush Creek flows fast through the nearby forest, where all the snow melt is starting to awaken critters like salamanders and toads.
“It has such a huge impact. They eat a lot of insects we don’t really want around, and they are the food for other creatures like Great Blue Heron,” said Baker.
Native bees, whose activity is closely tied to Minnesota’s temperature, are already showing signs of waking up too.
“So we have all these creatures underneath the snow keeping them nice and warm, but when we have the snow melt off, it's like somebody comes up to you in the middle the night and pulls your blankets off, you start to get really cold, so do the animals,” said Baker.
Baker said chipmunks and gophers are also vulnerable right now.
“It can wake them up through warmer temperatures, which burns through their fat they need to hibernate through the rest of winter, or what can happen is, like this weekend, it’s going to get below freezing again, that makes frost go deeper into the ground than it would if there was snow,” said Baker.
A freeze, Baker says, many rodents and amphibians may not survive.
“They turn into “toadsicles” or “gophersicles.” It’s not really great,” he said.
Already, Minnesota bats are showing the highs and lows this February have become a life or death situation. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (WRC) of Minnesota is taking calls from people finding bats, confused by the warmth and vulnerable.
On a Facebook post, the center said, “The bad thing is they've burned through most of their fat stores by now so they may not survive going back into hibernation. Plus, they have amazing metabolism (what we wouldn't give for a bat's metabolism, right?) and every day they're awake without food is hard on them. If you find a bat in your house, please bring it to us as soon as possible.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also reports an uptick in calls from the public seeing bats fly around out of hibernation, and said without a strong population of insects to sustain them, bats could starve to death.
Baker warns Minnesotans could also see more raccoons approaching their bird feeders and garbage as they wake in the warm period and search for food.
“It causes a lot of problems for our creatures,” he said.