Astronomers can tell us the exact moment each year when Earth will reach the point in its elliptical revolution about the sun so that the North Pole is inclined 23.5 degrees away from the sun.

We then have the winter solstice and longest night and shortest day. Think about those people who live above the Arctic Circle — 66.5 degrees north of the equator — in places such northern Alaska and northern Canada or northern Norway and Sweden. There, as of today, the sun is not seen above the horizon.

Because Earth's orbit is elliptical and in the process of moving toward spring, it slows down a bit. From Dec. 17 to 25, and not counting seconds, we at the latitude of the Twin Cities have 8 hours and 46 minutes of daylight each day. We will have gained four minutes of daylight by Dec. 31. All of us can take comfort in that, and knowing by the end of January we will have gained a full hour of daylight. During this time of limited daylight, stand in the sunshine and watch your own shadow and take confidence in knowing that the sunlight casts the longest shadows of the year.

Some other seasonal observations:

  • A half-hour before sunrise, dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows and northern cardinals arrive at our Waconia area wildlife feeding station. All three species prefer eating cracked corn, millet or other seeds on big tray feeders or on the ground.
  • Both red and gray squirrels are active all winter. Red squirrels prefer evergreen forests, which explains why they are far less abundant in southern Minnesota than in the north. At our feeding station we see one or two red squirrels several times every day and at least three times as many gray squirrels.
  • The red fruit on sumacs, high-bush cranberry and winterberry shrubs, and on many varieties of crabapple trees, is very colorful on the winter landscape. All this fruit provides food for birds and other wildlife.
  • Even on cold winter days, porcupines are active in northern Minnesota. Look for them high up in trees. They feed on the inner bark and twigs of aspens, basswood and pines. Ruffed grouse dive down into powdery snow to keep warm at night. Moose have begun dropping their antlers.

Jim Gilbert has taught and worked as a naturalist for more than 50 years.