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Phenology Talkbacks, April 12 2022

Blue-spotted salamander
Photo by iNaturalist user gonodactylus
/
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/71927749
Blue-spotted salamander

What a week! We are lucky enough to have eleven student reports from across the state, including our very first report from Apple Blossom Village in Bemidji.

Our beloved phenologist John Latimer is struggling to cope with the bad spring weather we’ve been having. It’s a good thing we have so many phenology reports to bring him joy before he fulfills too many stereotypes about old men yelling at the clouds!

Baudette

Britta is our reporter from Lake of the Woods school in Baudette! This week, “Old Man Winter had a fight with spring, and won”. Bummer! Hopefully there will be some warmer days ahead. Despite the cold, the class spotted the first mallards and sandhill cranes of the season, and heard ruffed grouse drumming in the woods!

John had a great laugh about old man winter fighting with spring, and breaks the sad news that winter is likely to win yet again this week. But he reassures us that eventually, spring will win and old man winter will retire for the year. John heard his first grouse drumming last night, though others in the area had heard it last week. In an average year, the grouse drumming season would be at its peak in mid-April- not this year!

Grand Rapids: Gabe

Gabe brings us this week’s phenology report from West Rapids Elementary. They had a nasty day for their phenology walk, with snow, sleet and rain. They’ve been noticing deer eating green shoots beneath the snow and dead grass, as well as eagles busy scavenging. They think the eagles are providing calories to nesting females. Despite the new precipitation, the snow and ice continue to melt. They report the top of the ice is getting very soft and messy. Pussy willow buds are open, and the first wood ducks of the spring were observed!

John confirms that it was a nasty, unpleasant day for a phenology walk. Luckily, he immediately gets distracted by a grackle harassing a chipmunk outside his window, and that cheers him up!

Duluth: Sage

Sage brings us this week’s report from the North Shore Community School near Duluth. They began the week with large, heavy snowflakes piling up on the driveways, but it melted quickly due to the warmth of the ground. By the next day, students had dry driveways! Unfortunately, they got snowed in again due to a bad spring storm featuring snow, ice, and rain that left several inches of heavy, sludgy snow. Spring persists despite these setbacks; a teacher saw an earthworm on her patio, the maple sap continues to run, and deer are out next to the highways to fill up on the exposed grass. The students were treated to a demonstration of syrup-making over a wood fire evaporator- sounds like fun! One student spotted an otter on the Knife River, which is still ice-covered. There’s plenty going on in the bird world- the class reports seeing the first robin of the year, geese flying north, bald eagles, a crow gathering nesting material, and redpolls on bird feeders (though many are not filling their feeders, due to the outbreak of avian flu). Wow! Have a great week, and be observant!

John gets a chuckle out of the snow/melt/snow/melt cycle these students (and the rest of northern MN) have gone through, and is resigned to the fact we’ll have to live through it yet again this week. But at least John has also seen some earthworms, which the robins have been snacking on, so spring persists in arriving! It’s good to hear that the sap run has been steady in the Duluth area, and John mentions that he’s had similar feedback from the Finland area of Minnesota. He remarks that the crows are a little late in building their nest, but possibly they had to wait for better weather.

Long Lake Conservation Center: Avery and Nora

Avery, from St. Joe’s in Grand Rapids, and Nora, from St. Henry’s in Purham, bring us one of our Long Lake Conservation Center reports from this week. Their spring trip felt more like a winter trip, due to cold temperatures and snow. Despite this, they did observe that ruffed grouse are starting to roost (plus, they heard the grouse drumming and found some of their scat!). The beaver dam now has some open water nearby, and they got to see a hooded merganser (the first waterfowl seen on the lake since the fall). There were even some signs that the beavers were beginning to be active again! Their group saw many different types of spiders, including a tiny yellow one. They were surprised by the amount of variety in lichens, mosses, and liverworts. A staff member spotted a mink with a mouse or vole crossing the street (I’m jealous! I love weasels!). The class got to tap maple trees and taste the sap, as well as use a hydrometer to test the sap. One tree had 3% sugar, while another had 5%. That means it would take 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup! Warm weather is coming, and they remind us to Live Connected!

John congratulates the students on a nice report, and notes that the hooded merganser is an underrated bird in terms of the vibrancy and color of its plumage. Wood ducks are better known for those qualities, but John says they’re equal in beauty (and I’d agree!). John agrees the spiders are out and hunting, and wishes them luck- may they feast on all those mosquitoes, flies, and gnats! He's impressed with their 5% sugar ratio in one of their trees- that'll make a good quantity of syrup.

Pequot Lakes

Vivan and Ashlynn brought us this week’s report from Eagle View Elementary! For their phenology walk, they had a few inches of fresh snow. It was covered in a thick crust, so they did a little experiment and discovered that it was hard enough to hold the weight of a third grader, as long as that third grader was laying down to distribute the weight. (Their teacher says it was pretty cute- the kids were scooting along on their bellies to see how far they could go. That’s a science experiment I would’ve loved to watch! According to The Internet, an average third grader weighs roughly 32lbs, which is about the same as five bricks or one tenth of a panda bear.) The puddles and mud were frozen, and they saw Canada geese, mallards, and two trumpeter swans on the ice on Rice Lake. They report that there’s a little more open water on the lake than last week, but not much. In addition to the waterfowl, they saw a lot of other birds, including a bald eagle, the first robin of the season, chickadees, and redpolls. The fresh snow made it easy to see tracks, so they were able to find deer and rabbit tracks! They also followed a subnivian (under the snow) tunnel made by a vole. The tunnel had spots where the vole could poke its nose out, as well as branches in multiple directions. There’s one optimistic tulip leaf poking through the snow. The fourth-grade class went on a field trip to a teacher’s house, where they learned about making maple syrup. The sap is running slowly, but it was a good day! “From Pequot Lakes!”

John loved the “crust can support the weight of a third grader lying down” experiment- so did I! Apparently, John was a skinny little kid, and grew into some huge feet, so he says he probably has the same surface area now standing up that he did then lying down. He agrees that it’s a great time to keep an eye out for vole tunnels, as the melting snow makes them more apparent. John adds that it’s a great time to see the humped-up tunnels of star nosed moles, which can be distinguished from vole tunnels by habitat. Moles will be in wet areas such as ditch bottoms and along the edges of swamps.

Heidi points out that “humped-up tunnels of star nosed moles” sounds pretty poetic when said aloud, and I agree! I dug into the depths of my high school English knowledge, found nothing, and turned to the internet. It turns out that the repeating “u” sound at the beginning of the phrase mirrors the repeated “o” sound at the end, and the stressed syllables are perfectly mirrored (three stressed syllables followed by an unstressed in the first half of the phrase, then the same pattern in reverse for the second half. Symmetry!). Thus, the powers of rhythm and assonance combine to create a surprisingly beautiful phrase that somehow includes the word “hump”.

Back to phenology.

Bemidji

This is our inaugural report from Apple Blossom Village in Bemidji! Marley brings us our first report from Alexzandra’s 3rd grade class. The class counted 25 geese and 67 deer! They also got to see some chickadees up close, and even chatted with them a bit (it was fun, reports Marley!). Students also reported seeing a barred owl and a bald eagle! After examining a tree that looked chewed up, a student hypothesized that it may have been caused by a beaver. They’ve noticed some buds on the trees, despite the snow on the ground. Hopefully it will melt soon! (What great observations! I’m so excited to have Apple Blossom on board, and can’t wait for the next report.)

John was at Apple Blossom Village on Monday, and says it was the perfect location for him! He would have been a very happy student there. John got to speak to the student who saw the chewed-up tree, and they worked together to deduce that a porcupine was likely responsible! Beavers tend to chew straight through to the inner wood of a tree, so you’ll see a lot of piled chips on the ground. Porcupines, on the other hand, just eat the bark and don’t get into the wood of the tree. In this case, the signs point to a porcupine!

Hill City

Hunter brings us this week’s report from Mrs. Magner’s 2nd grade class at Hill City Elementary. “Spring is supposed to be here, but it sure doesn't feel like it!” Mrs. Magner is anxiously awaiting the day when all those stinky boots and snow pants can be sent home. They saw their first robin on April 2nd, and heard them singing during recess. They also saw their first Canada geese on March 30! Students are also seeing raccoons and chipmunks, but report that they are moving back into the woods. They think they are moving into the forest because the snow isn’t as deep anymore, so it’s easier for the critters to get around (good thinking- that’s a well-reasoned argument!). The students have some branches in the classroom, and the birch branch catkins puff with yellow pollen when flicked with a finger. Work hard and be kind!

John starts off by congratulating the students on a great report- he's impressed! He knows the teacher, Mrs. Magner, and suspects that at least one of the experimental branches they have in their classroom belongs to the ironwood tree. It will bloom with bright yellow flowers, so we’ll see if he’s right! He encourages all of us to try the same at home- break off a twig or a branch, stick it in some water, and watch the process of the buds opening. Keep it healthy by trimming the end of the branch every week or so. I can definitely recommend this process- I am staring at some aspen branches sitting in a mug right now! They’ve gone from little fuzzy buds into long fuzzy flowers, and it has been pretty fun to watch them grow.

Duluth: Jersey and Louise

Jersey and Louise bring us this week’s report from Pike Lake Elementary! They report that winter is refusing to relinquish its grasp, with snow and cold temperatures persisting into April. However, there are some signs of spring- the first robin, the first chipmunk, and melting snow in the school forest (they can even see rocks and logs now!). One student saw “a fox with an orange coat, razor teeth, and sharp, powerful feet. It had a large hare in its mouth and was running fast. (Someone get this kid into a writing class! Great imagery!) They continue to harvest sap from their school trees, and have gotten about two gallons of syrup so far (one of the students pointed out that the sap flows at different rates in different trees, even when they’re right next to each other!). A student left some carrots on a car, and spotted two deer eating them later on. They also report that a green icicle was found- they think it may have been green because it formed from tree sap. A bald eagle was spotted high in a birch tree, looking for its next meal. A household dog had been investigating a deer carcass, and when the student went to check on it, she discovered that something had dragged the carcass a hundred yards into the woods. What could it have been? Finally, they’ve noticed interesting pools of slushy water at the bases of the trees. Be aware, things are happening out there!

Congrats on the great report, Jersey and Louise! Too bad spring just isn’t getting a chance and winter is sticking around. John agrees that seeing a fox with prey is a pretty thrilling moment. In terms of the mystery of the moving deer carcass, John believes it was a wolf- they're in the area, and have the necessary strength to move a big carcass like that. A coyote would likely be unable to drag something that big.

Long Lake Conservation Center: Rosie and Caylee

Rosie and Caylee from Delano Middle School report to us from Long Lake Conservation Center. They had “a little bit of spring, a little bit of winter, and lots and lots of mud!”. Nature is starting to wake up- the students saw a group of about 30 garter snakes sunning themselves in a pile of leaves (there may or may not have been some mating going on there, they report). There was a coyote walking across the lake, and they heard a sandhill crane (the first of the year!). The edge of Long Lake is opening, so the students explored the mud and muck and learned about all the little critters that live there. Lots of insects! In my favorite part of the report, they saw a blue spotted salamander! It was out pretty early, so they moved it off the path and into some leaves. Hopefully it’ll survive until spring! On their trek to the bog, the students ate the leaves of the Labrador plant and the needles from a black spruce tree, and were adventurous enough to drink the water from the sphagnum moss (earthy, but refreshing!). They saw that the pitcher plants were full of water, and one already had a small bug inside of it! They finish their report with this: “Rain, sun, snow, sleet, or mud, nature is awesome. Live connected!” Thanks, Rosie and Caylee!

John loves the story about the salamander (as do I)! Dave McMillan, the director there, wrote to us to give us an update: “Update on the Blue Spotted Salamander. We checked back on it a few hours later and it wasn't looking good. Instead of letting it die, we took it inside, gave it water and let it warm up. After a few days, it regained its strength and was released. It scurried away to do salamander things. Don't you just love a happy ending.” Thanks, Dave! Glad it’s out there sala-meandering around!

Heidi plays a sandhill crane call to give an example, and John mentions that they are louder than they look! They’re often pretty far away, even when they sound close by.

Baxter

Becket and Lily brought us our report from Baxter, MN! The weather has been fickle there, unable to decide whether it wants to snow or melt. There’s been more sunlight, with temperatures in the mid-thirties to low fifties. The class has taken tree cuttings, two from a quaking aspen and one from a male red maple. The students can tell it’s a male because it drops pollen. The quaking aspen branches have bud burst, and the outdoor specimens are just starting to break bud. They’ve spotted one mole, a couple of skunks, a black bear, and a bunch of deer (both dead and alive). For insects, they’ve seen spiders and box elder bugs, but not much else yet! They’ve also seen bald eagles, two turkeys, a duck of some sort, a pileated woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, and some juncos. Have a great week, and be observant!

John’s thrilled to have a report from this crew- good to have some folks from the Brainerd area!

Northfield

Molly and Ruby report from Prairie Creek Community School, way down south in Northfield! They start us off with the bird report. The class saw lots of turkeys coming to the fields, blue jays and cardinals singing in a tree, many small birds flocking, and a large flock of juncos they thought were getting ready to migrate. Vultures are back, and have been seen soaring above Northfield, and there are buffleheads in Meadow’s pond. They saw a sparrow with nesting materials in its beak, and lots of mallards waddling across the road. In insect news, they’ve seen a fly and a moth (though they doubt those early-emergers made it through all the snow this week). With the snow melting, they’re seeing a lot of animal parts appearing in the melt left behind (“Gross!” says one. “Nope, just science!” says the other. I love these kids). The mammal bulletin includes the sighting of a few chipmunks, squirrels chasing each other around as part of a courtship display, and a pet rabbit that is shedding like crazy. Finally, they saw a worm! One more step on the phenology journey!

John had a good chuckle, and thanked the students for a great report! He’s eagerly awaiting all those signs of spring mentioned in the report- blue jays, big flocks of turkeys, vultures, buffleheads, etc- to make their way north.

What a great week. Thank you so much to all the students who contributed. I am absolutely thrilled to have all these reports coming in, and I know John and Heidi are too!

That does it for this week! Remember you can add your voice to this list. Get in touch with me (smitchell@kaxe.org) or John (jlatimer@kaxe.org), or text ‘phenology’ to 218-326-1234.

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?).