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Meet our new Phenology Coordinator!

Sarah Mitchell bio photo
Sarah Mitchell (right) and a perturbed porcupine

Well, as someone who hates listening to my own voice on a recording, writing this summary is an unfortunate task. This is Sarah Mitchell, friendly local Phenology Coordinator, summarizing my own interview! Someone please come save me.

Heidi starts us off by explaining what brought me to Northern Community Radio. Their phenology program, already outstanding, is growing and they received a grant from the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to expand it further! Part of the program is to help teachers across the state to incorporate phenology into their curriculum. I was hired on to help with this effort, connecting teachers to naturalists and assisting with teacher training workshops. So, without further ado...

Heidi: You had your first teacher workshop last Saturday at Pike Lake Elementary. How did things go?

Sarah: It was so much fun! It was really great.

John: I’m glad you enjoyed it! I always have a good time when I’m with a group of like-minded individuals, people who share a passion like Sarah and the teachers that were there. It lifts your spirits to know that there are people out there who want to go out and bring their passion and the passion of the outdoors to students.

Sarah: Yeah, they have some very impressive educators both that came to the workshop and at Pike Lake. That [Pike Lake Elementary] program is amazing!

John: Wouldn’t you like to go to school there?

Sarah: Rewind time a bit? I wouldn’t mind.

John: “What are we doing today? Oh, we’re going to be outside today and outside again on Thursday.” They go out twice a week to do their phenology and it’s just amazing. Plus, they have this big school forest behind the school. They’ve made arrangements with some local land owners so the students can cross their land and it’s really working out well. They really do have a nice program.

Sarah: And some impressive young scientists! Those science experiments they’re doing with wild birds are great.

Heidi: What kind of experiments?

Sarah: You can hear about them in our Phenology Talkbacks program from earlier this morning. One kid set up four different feeders, and each one had a different type of food. They were studying which one the birds preferred.

Heidi: That’s right, John and his Ritz crackers!

John: Yeah, I’m going for the Ritz and the peanut butter, that’d be mine! Stay away from this feeder, birds.

Heidi: Well, Sarah, we’re glad to have you on board. This is kind of a unique opportunity combining the skills that you have. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to joining up with us?

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a wildlife biologist by background. I got my master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology at Iowa State, where I worked mostly with reptiles. What I really loved doing was the outreach. A lot of my research occurred at a campground, and my favorite part of that job was showing the kids that were running around all the animals. After that I lived in Colorado for a while, where I was a community and conservation coordinator: again, working at putting together events that brought the community together. When I moved back to Minnesota, I was impressed by the phenology work that Northern Community Radio was already doing. When this job posting popped up, it was the perfect fit! I couldn’t be happier.

John: Well, I am very happy because Sarah brings with her a youthful enthusiasm and energy that is hard to match. Not only that, but she is technologically accomplished. Heidi knows, and many of you who know me personally know, that if it’s got a gas engine I'll probably be find. But if it’s just a thin computer and all run by magic, I’m kind of lost. I’d just as soon not be anywhere near it. So it’s wonderful having you on board and seeing your organizational skills, and watching you making my computer compute.

Sarah: Gotta keep it in line!

John: You’re welcome to reprimand it whenever it needs it. I’m curious, what sort of work did you do with reptiles? It won’t be long now and we’ll be hearing the amphibians calling. The story about the garter snake must have horrified you. [One of the student reports we got in this week told us about some kids finding a garter snake in the basement. They released it outside, which was very well-intentioned but definitely resulted in a dead snake! They’re cold-blooded and being outdoors in early March is, unfortunately, a death sentence.]

Sarah: That did hurt me. I’m glad they caught the snake and were trying to release it outside instead of just killing it outright, which plenty of people would have done. But unfortunately it’s the same outcome, even with good intentions. Yeah, I studied painted turtles and their nesting behavior.

John: Well you’ll see plenty here!

Sarah: They’re fascinating!

John: You’re too young to remember BLAST. Bureaucracy Lamenting All those Smashed Turtles. That was a long time ago. It was an organization that we constructed here to persuade people not to run over turtles.

Sarah, not knowing where this was going: Thank you!

John: Our whole theory was that if we put a few out there that were not turtles at all, but high explosives, that people would avoid running over them. Hence the name BLAST.

Sarah: That’ll do it. That’s a strong disincentive!

John: It would have been! Unfortunately, I guess there are laws against that sort of thing. I haven’t investigated it too far, but a lot of people pooh-poohed the idea as something I probably shouldn’t attempt.

Sarah: Yeah, probably not.

John: Always better to have adult supervision. Well, welcome to Northern Minnesota. We really are looking forward to more from you! I know that you have been helping with our school talkbacks, and taken another step with them and writing out a short paragraph with each one. So that if you folks out there want to go back and take a look at them, they will be on the internet and on the webpage within a day or two. You can read a bit about them before you go listen to them. But believe me, I know that it’s easy to go to a website and pass over the audio, but you don’t want to skip Carson!

Sarah: No, you do not!

John: Those kids... they all have their own wonderful voices. So go there, read the synopsis that Sarah’s put together, and then give them a listen. You won’t be disappointed! It’s quite endearing.

Sarah: You wouldn’t believe the things it does for my heart to hear this elementary school kid say “According to our data...”.

John: Yeah, that reaches back!

Heidi: You know, Sarah, I don’t think it’s even been three full weeks. That’s how new you are here. What’s standing out in the student reports? What have you been surprised by?

Sarah: You know, I guess I’m no longer surprised at being so surprised by kids. They’re so observant, skilled, and when they have an interest in something, they’ll get the equivalent of a master’s degree in it in a couple of months. Some of the kids in Grand Rapids are so skilled at identifying tracks, for instance. I went out this last year with the Minnesota Wildlife Tracking Project and those folks can look at the most indistinguishable mark on the ground and tell you all sorts of things about it. These kids can do the same thing! I’m so impressed. Also, they’re so cute.

John: Yeah! It’s all about their teacher. If their teachers are interested, the teachers will help them and bring them understanding. That’s what it’s all about. I think the amazing thing is that the kids are so receptive. They just want to learn about what’s in their yard. They like that the education has to do with right where they’re at. I can’t remember how old the child was, but I was talking with a kid that spouted off the details on the largest eagle’s nest that was ever discovered. It’s the kind of thing kids do. You’re right, they get a masters or a PhD in a subject when they’re curious about it. If you introduce them to a subject, oftentimes it’s just like, ‘get out of my way’!

Sarah: Right? If you had asked my brother when he was eight years old about Australia, you would have heard a good book’s worth [of fun facts].

Heidi: We do have more phenology training coming up, including this Saturday in Northfield at Prairie Creek Community School. These workshops are for people who work with kids to get involved in the phenology program. What kind of role do you see Minnesota Master Naturalists playing in this program?

Sarah: I want this program to be as easy on teachers as we can possibly make it. If we can pair teachers with a master naturalist so that the teacher doesn’t necessarily need to know how to identify every plant the kids ask about, that makes life easier for the teacher. It makes it more enriching for the students. I’m a Minnesota master naturalist, so I’m connected to that program and would love to get as many naturalists in schools as we can. I think everyone wins!

John: Yeah, I think when people go outside, often their biggest fear is that they don’t know anything. That they don't know any of the names, even if they’ve seen it many times before. Sometimes it helps just to have someone to hold your hand and say, “Look here and here! This is this, and if you don’t remember, that’s fine. We’re going to put at tag on it, but in six months you won’t need it. You’ll know that [plant]. And wherever you see it, you’re going to know it.” I think one of the things that phenology has always done for me is that it introduces me to my surroundings. I think that many of the people who are listening are interested in nature and just need to take it in small increments. I always tell people that if you’re interested in phenology, start with your yard. Figure out the trees in your yard and the plants. Maybe you planted some of them! Maybe you have daffodils, or irises, or a highbush cranberry, or lilacs. Whatever it is, watch it! If you have lilacs, you’ll notice the buds are going to swell and get green as a garden pea in the next couple weeks, and stay like that for a long time. You’ll think, “why aren’t they moving?”. They aren’t moving because it isn’t warm enough yet. When it does warm up, those leaves are going to open and you’ll have leaves. First you’ll have leaves, then you’ll have flower buds, then flowering, then the end of flowering. All of a sudden, you’ve got a phenology database! You can do it at home, and you can’t believe how satisfying it is. I think once you practice it in your yard, it’s not long before you’re moving outside your yard. You start noticing things.

Sarah: You can notice so many things just driving down the road, too!

John: Well, yes! And speaking of your chosen subject, painted turtles, they’ll be coming out to lay their eggs in the first part of June. You’ll see that it lasts for most of the month of June. So if you’re driving to or from work and see a turtle crossing the road, that’s phenology! It [turtles laying eggs] doesn’t happen 11 months out of the year, just in June.

Sarah: Especially on those warm, rainy days. You’ll see a lot of them moving.

Heidi: The thing I like about phenology is that you don’t have to be an expert because I am not an expert. I need information from you [John]. As we report the news outside our window here on the banks of the Mississippi, we see crows and ravens. What’s the difference?

John: Crows are smaller than ravens. I mean, if you’re looking at them, they look big, but they are smaller than a raven.

Heidi: And something different about their tails?

John: Yes, if you get a chance to see one flying over you, hold up your hand and look at your fingers. If your hand is normal, your middle finger and your ring finger are a bit longer than your index finger and your little finger. That’s kind of the way ravens’ tails are shaped: the middle feathers are longer than the outer tail feathers. Crows’ tail feathers are all pretty much the same length; they make a nice, smooth arc. If you look at a raven’s tail, it’s kind of a half-diamond shape with the middle sticking out from the outer feathers. Also, the ravens have a monster beak compared to a crow. Eventually it gets to a point where you can just look at them and know, that’s a raven, that’s a crow. The ravens have been just hilarious. There was one of them flying very, very high over my property and making these absurd little calls which I assume were some kind of communication with its mate, who was probably sitting on a nest somewhere down below. He was way up there, I mean, he’s a speck. When I first saw him, I couldn’t tell if he was a raven or an eagle, he was so far away! But I could hear him, so I knew it was a raven because of the call. The other thing you should see when you look out this window is a bright red color: that’s the red osier dogwood. This time of year, the shrubs really put out some color! The dogwoods and all the willows are going to have a really intense color right now. So, watch for that! It’s a definite sign of spring.

Heidi: Well, Sarah, welcome! Thanks so much for being here this morning. Don’t forget you can sign up for our next trainings coming up this Saturday, March 19th in Northfield at Prairie Creek Community School. The program is for teachers, homeschooling parents, or anyone else that is working with kids. You can text the word “phenology” to 218-326-1234. That’s going to lead you to a signup sheet. We also have a training coming up near Detroit Lakes at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, March 25th. If you need more information, call us at 806-625-5799.

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That does it for the interview! If you made it this far, you're clearly my kind of person. Feel free to reach out regarding all things phenology (or if you have any good John Latimer quotes to share). My email is smitchell@kaxe.org, and I'd love to hear from you!