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Phenology Report, May 10 2022

Red maple forming seeds
Photo by iNaturalist user lynnharper
Red maple forming seeds

Author's note: I'm trying out a new thing by bolding species names- I figure many people have favorites they'd like to skim to. Let me know if you like it or if it's confusing/visually overwhelming!

Thank Momma Nature, spring is finally here! Today, I've finally been released from my winter exile indoors. I'm writing from my balcony on a 70-degree day, surrounded by the sounds of robins, chickadees, and the occasional angry honk of a Canada goose (and the following honk of an annoyed driver waiting for the geese to get off the road). The chorus frogs are calling almost all day now, and I've spotted a furtive muskrat creeping along the shore of a nearby pond. The cottonwood tree across the street is finally leafing out, and the ash trees in front of our apartment have tiny flowers.

John's pretty darn happy as well! He begins the report with a few updates from the week. He's heard frogs singing, and the maple trees broke flower buds! (I'm assuming he's talking about the red and sugar maples here- he didn't specify). The silver maples have completed flowering, so the female flowers are turning green, and the male flowers are dropping off the trees.

The quaking aspens follow the same pattern: if your local aspen trees have long green flowers, they are female. If they are dropping long furry flowers in big bunches, they are male trees (you'll often see the road littered with these discarded male flowers)! With aspens, you'll notice that clumps of trees appear to coordinate their efforts, leafing out and flowering simultaneously. This is because entire groves can be made up of clones! Imagine this: an aspen seed lands in a new area. As the tree grows, its roots spread through the surrounding soil. The roots send up new shoots, which become new trees, which spread their roots further, and the cycle continues; all these trees are genetically identical (clones), sharing the same DNA contained in the original seed! For this reason, all the trees in the clonal group will produce flowers and leaf out simultaneously (and they will all be of the same sex).

Our Quaking Aspen Enthusiast, John Latimer, looked back on his data to determine the correlation (if any) between the date the male flowers drop off and the leaf out date. He found that the gap between the two events is significantly reduced in years with late springs (like this year). In typical years, there's a 10-15 day gap between the male flowers dropping off the trees and the leaves emerging. The gap shrunk a day or two in years with a late spring, such as in 2002, 2013, and 2018! Sure enough, when John examined a branch this week, the leaf buds were breaking open; he expects the aspens throughout northern Minnesota will be leafing out within the next few days. This pattern of reduced times between phenological events holds between species, as well. For instance, the quaking aspens typically leaf out almost three weeks before the big-tooth aspens (April 29th and May 20th, respectively). In years like this one, when the quaking aspens don't leaf out until well into May, the gap shrinks to only 7-10 days! He reassures us that even though spring was delayed, it's going to rush through now that it's here!

John may love his quaking aspens, but he would never neglect his other trees. He reports that the red maples flowered on May 7th (one day short of the latest record, May 8th, 2013). This was 44 days later than the earliest record (March 24th, 2012) and 18 days later than the average (April 19th). Interestingly, the sex of maple trees is easy to distinguish at this time of year. The male trees have an orange cast due to the yellow pollen balls; the female trees look orange due to their reddish stigmas! Take a look at your nearby maples and see if you can tell the difference. Interestingly, some trees can have both male and female branches! Keep an eye out: the flowers are developing and dropping pollen fast. John reports that on Friday, the buds had barely opened; by Monday, they were fully mature and dumping out pollen!

Another tree to pay attention to is the tamarack (our only deciduous conifer!). In a typical year, the tamaracks will turn green around April 21st; this year, they took their sweet time, waiting until May 5th! The earliest ever was March 28th (2012), and the latest was May 12th (2008).

The frogs are following the delayed trend. John heard his first chorus frog on May 7th, setting a new record! (average: April 15th, earliest: March 21st in 2012, previous late record: May 3rd in 2018). He heard his first wood frog on May 3rd (average: April 15th, earliest: March 30th in 2000, latest: May 6th in 2013).

John's also keeping a watchful eye on the insects. He saw his first mourning cloak butterfly on May 3rd. Mourning cloak butterflies are big dark brown butterflies that somewhat resemble monarchs. His observation on the 3rd was almost a whole month late and the second latest on record (average: April 9th, earliest: March 17th in 2012, latest: May 5th in 1992). Other butterflies out and about this time of year include the Compton tortoiseshell butterfly (also large, but orange in color) and a couple of comma butterflies (gray comma and Eastern comma). Comma butterflies are smaller but have bright orange and black coloration on their wings. These butterflies can emerge early because most of them overwinter as adults! Easily confused with the butterflies is the infant moth. It is a small black moth with orange and black hind wings, and easy to mistake for a butterfly! John finishes off the insect report with his first sighting of a bumblebee and reports of dragonflies. While he has yet to observe one, he's heard reports from Dallas Hudson that green darners have returned to the Akeley area.

In bird phenology news, John reports that the ice finally went out on Crooked Lake on May 5th (Crooked Lake is the lake by his house). The loons seemed to predict the change, arriving on May 4th. Last week, he spotted an eastern bluebird, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks, and female red-winged blackbirds (which were not delayed by the spring at all: they arrived right on time!).

Spring flowers are getting going: John saw the blue flag iris come up about ten days late. The beaked hazels finished pollinating, but the flowers look good. Juneberries are breaking bud (later than usual), and the leatherwoods put out their lovely yellow flowers on May 8th (a new record- 15 days late!). If you're in an area with sugar maples, basswoods, paper birch, or yellow birches, look into the understory for those yellow-flowered leatherwood shrubs. They're worth the search!

That does it for this week! Now that spring is here, it's going to go fast- get outside and catch it while you can!

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 is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined KAXE in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, produces the Phenology Talkbacks show, coordinates the Phenology in the Classroom program, and writes nature-related stories for KAXE's website. Essentailly, Charlie is John Latimer's faithful sidekick and makes sure all of KAXE's nature/phenology programs find a second life online and in podcast form.

With a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, Charlie enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, or the star-nosed mole. (Fun fact: Moles store fat in their tails, so they don't outgrow their tunnels every time conditions are good.)