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Phenology Coordinator Interview: Project updates, a pop quiz, and TweetTok

Phenology Workshop March 19 2022
Photo by Stephan Carlson
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Photo from Prairie Creek Community School workshop, held 3/19/2022 and lovingly annotated by Sarah Mitchell

Well, guess who’s back at the summarize-your-own-interview job? It’s me, your friendly kind-of-local phenologist, part-time radio heckler, and professional pun-maker. It’s a lot to fit on a business card, but someone’s gotta do it.

For some reason (desperation, I assume) John and Heidi invited me back on air for another interview! Here’s how it went.

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Heidi: Time to talk to Sarah Mitchell. She’s our phenology coordinator, she’s out of the St. Paul area, and look at that! John Latimer joined us on the Zoom call.

Sarah: He done did it! Good job John, and hi, Heidi.

Heidi: So, did you enjoy that? That may become your theme song, I’m not sure. [referencing this song, which besmirches the good name of snakes across the world. Boo, Heidi, boo.]

Sarah: I mean, with all the shuddering they do [about the snakes], maybe not. I could alter some lyrics. I l liked the tune, though- it was a ‘bop’, as they say.

Heidi: Well, thanks for being with us today. For people who don’t know, we’ve expanded this phenology program. That’s why we had eleven school reports today, and I think that’s just the beginning. Could you talk a little bit about the project, what’s going on, what you’ve accomplished so far, and what’s happening in the future?

Sarah: It’s going really well! We’ve had three workshops so far, and a lot of those new phenology reports are from teachers that attended those workshops. So that’s been great! We’ve met with teachers, naturalists, and 4H leaders from across the state. That’s been wonderful, and now I’m working on building a website. That’s been a fun new challenge. I’m also getting more active on social media. If you guys haven’t checked out KAXE’s Instagram, you should! I’m on there at least twice a week. Heidi and John, I have a challenge for you. My phenology fact last week was about northern saw-whet owls.

The average weight of a northern saw-whet owl is the same as:

a.) Three slices of bread 

b.) Four light bulbs 

c.) Five golf balls. 

Heidi: I’m going to let you take it, staff phenologist!

John: I’m trying to decide if the answer is all three. But the golf balls are going to easily outweigh the other two. Three slices of bread and four light bulbs... Hmm.

Heidi: I’m going to go with the bread, actually.

John: You think the three slices of bread. Hmm. I’m confident it’s not as heavy as five golf balls, so I’ll go with light bulbs.

Sarah: It is three slices of bread!

John: All right! I've eaten that bread. It’s thick, and heavy, and weighs the same as four light bulbs. I know the one you’re talking about.

Sarah, laughing: Oh, I’m glad you know the exact bread I’m talking about! Anways, just a little quiz to heckle you on-air instead of just online.

John: Yeah, they’re not a very big bird, but they are lovely! And they’re in the area. I’ve heard them singing and I’m waiting to hear them again.

Heidi: So, Sarah, do you have any good news to report to us? Are you seeing lots of spring and sun in the Twin Cities area?

Sarah: Well, the chorus frogs just started singing down here, and that brings me joy. We always sleep with our window cracked just a little so we can hear them sing. Even though we live in the city, we have a pond nearby so we get to hear them. I also saw a butterfly yesterday, and the aspens are well on their way to flowering. I’m not looking forward to this storm front coming in!

John: Were there any field markings on the butterfly?

Sarah: yeah, black with little orange wing stripes on the very end.

John: Sounds like a Compton’s tortoiseshell.

Sarah, having absolutely no idea what he’s talking about: It sure does.

John: They’re usually the first ones out. That’s why I picked that one. They’re sort of dark grey or brown with orange and some little white dots at the ends of their wings. In a normal year, they would definitely be coming out around here now, but they’re not. I talked to Dallas Hudson yesterday. He had seen an infant moth-

Sarah: An infant moth?!?

John: Yeah, infant moth. If you see it, you’ll think it’s a small orange and black butterfly, but it’s not! It’s a moth. I have never seen one stop flying. I’ve never seen one where I could walk up to it and get a look at it. They’re fluttery and flappy and just keep on moving and moving and moving. So you really never get a good look at them, but they’re orange and black and small, about an inch big!

Sarah: Do you know how they got their name?

John: I do not.

Sarah: Not to derail this entirely, but I’m curious!

John: I probably read it once and didn’t put the information in there where I can retrieve it. I’m sure Dallas Hudson does, he’s probably hollering at his radio right now*. But the chorus frog! That had to be fun. Up here, the wood frogs and chorus frogs normally start within a day of one another. They’re very consistent. But, no wood frogs down there? Nothing that sounds kind of like a duck quacking?

Sarah: Nothing in our particular pond. Last year, we only heard chorus frogs, American toads, and then the tree frogs later in the summer.

Chorus frog calls

Heidi: Yeah, I’d like to hear that, I’m ready for that, I’ll say!

Sarah: Yep! They sound like someone’s pulling their fingernail along the teeth of a comb. That’s how I remember the chorus frogs.

John: We’ve got a female cardinal on our feeder!

Heidi: Oh, wow!

John: Sorry, I don’t mean to distract, but that’s pretty rare.

Heidi: Earlier today, we were talking about grackles because there was a grackle out there with that beautiful iridescent blue head. John taught me that grackles are good parents. I didn’t know that!

Sarah: Well, that’s adorable. I didn’t know that either.

John: Yeah, their reputation is not well founded. People seem to dislike them for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that’s likeable about them is that they’re excellent parents. Not just for their own offspring, but to all the young ones of the flock. They will turn and feed whatever little baby is nearby begging, it doesn’t have to be theirs.

Sarah: What a lovely community!

John: Exactly. So, give the grackles a break, they’re not all bad!

Sarah: Well, I’m glad we’ll have something wholesome for today instead of your usual bloodthirstiness.

Heidi: So, Sarah, you’re the one that is getting us all this information from the students and talking with teachers; what stood out to you this week in some of these reports? I know there’s a lot so that’s tough to say.

Sarah: Yeah, it is a lot, and especially this week. I mean, getting new teachers in the program always stands out for me. Obviously, I loved hearing about the blue-spotted salamander. I love all amphibians and reptiles so it was great that they pulled it inside and got it healthy before releasing it. That brought me joy.

Heidi: It brought you puns as well.

Sarah: It brought me puns as well! It’s out sala-meandering around! Anyone, anyone?

Heidi: Crickets?

Sarah: It’s hard on the radio. I know somewhere my dad is laughing. Maybe. And my brother’s probably coming to punch me.

Heidi: We just got a text from someone. Kayla says: “Please tell Sarah Mitchell the IG is on point! Keep ‘em coming.”

Sarah: WOO! Yay!! I’m so glad. You never know. You send it off to the universe and hope it sticks.

Heidi: OH! Instagram. I didn’t know. I felt so old in that moment. How about you John Latimer?

John: I was thinking inspector general, but what do I know?

Heidi: Instagram! Yeah, she’s enjoying it.

Sarah: There was a moment in one of our workshops where either John or Stephan combined twitter and TikTok into TweetTok.

Heidi: Was that you, John Latimer?

John: No, it wasn’t me.

Sarah: I watched an entire room of teachers kind of stiffen as they tried not to laugh. It was great.

John: I know nothing of either of those.

Heidi: So, you wouldn’t even combine them.

John: They’d be two words I wouldn’t even know. I might as well be speaking of, I don’t know, [unintelligble, or maybe a reference too old for me to understand] or something. It’s lost on me.

Heidi: Sarah, let’s say that I’m a teacher or I work with 4H and I didn’t get time to come to the workshops. Can I contact you? Can you help me out with some of that curriculum?

Sarah: Please and thank you. I would love that! Yeah, you can email me- you can find my email either on our website or it’s just smitchell@kaxe.org. I would love that. We’re going to have five additional training courses over the next two years, if not more. I can either let you know when those workshops will be coming or provide you the materials or work with you directly to get you into the program. We’d love anyone and everyone.

Heidi: And I know there’s a meeting coming up this week. We have partners in the University of Minnesota in this project, it’s all funded by the LCCMR (the legislative-citizen commission on Minnesota resources). One of the cool things coming is that they’re working on is a map. What do you know about that? It’s going to be phenology on a map?

Sarah: Yeah! So, there will be different areas across the state. You’ll be able to click on a little icon, and, for instance with Monarch butterflies, see their phenology. You’ll see when to start looking for caterpillars, that sort of thing. We’re also working on getting some of our student reports on there, so you’ll be able to listen to reports throughout the state. I think that’d be really cool.

Heidi: Wow.

John: Very nice.

Sarah: So, it’ll have plants, animals, and students. You know, the three food groups!

Heidi: There we go! Well, check our Instagram. You can also sign up for the phenology podcast, or listen to or read this week’s report at kaxe.org, or catch up on last week’s cool stuff happening here at independent community radio KAXE/KBXE. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah: It’s a good place! Yeah, thank you.

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And that’s interview number two for me!

Someday, I’ll have a great signing-off tagline like some of our classrooms, but for now.... Keep an eye out, or I'm going to pout? Take a gander, you salamander?

...I’ll keep working on it. K bye.

*Regarding the mysteriously-named infant moth: I looked it up, and they’re called infant moths because they emerge very early in the spring. Doesn’t make sense to me but That’s What The Internet Says So It Must Be True.

As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 20 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).