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Phenology Report, May 24 2022

Scarlet tanager
Scarlet tanager

Alrighty, phenology friends. You know the phrase, "fish out of water?" I present to you: John Latimer at a casino.

John's preferred habitat consists of quiet lakes, clear night skies, and perhaps (if he's feeling spicy) a night of curling with his friends. Like a Steller's sea-eagle in Maine, a marten in a liquor store, or a hippo on a city street, you have to wonder what happened to bring John to a world of flashing lights and loud noise. With Stephan Carlson from the University of Minnesota, we gave a workshop at the Gathering Partners Conference. The conference was held at Treasure Island Resort & Casino! Never fear: John made it through the gauntlet, we had a productive and enjoyable session with some lovely Minnesota Master Naturalists, and he's now back at home with his beloved aspens.

John starts us off with an update on the delayed spring. Now that spring is here, it's catching up fast! While we were three weeks behind the typical schedule at the beginning of the month, we are now about 7-10 days behind. John estimates that we'll be back to our regular schedule by June! For now, though, the lilacs are already late in blooming, and some migratory birds have returned before their usual food supply is ready to support them!

While that's rough news for the birds, it's good news for us: we get to see them at our birdfeeders! Species like the Cape May warblers, indigo buntings, and scarlet tanagers are unlikely to visit feeders as they prefer to eat insects. Insects are full of protein, needed to produce eggs: they're also a calorie-rich food, which helps to keep the parent and the eggs warm efficiently. Once the eggs hatch, the babies need even more protein to help grow and create all those bones, feathers, and musculature they need to fly: it takes a lot of insects to make a scarlet tanager! And we are grateful for their hard work. However, many of their prey insect species haven't emerged yet this year, so they're visiting birdfeeders to find those extra calories. You'll get to see all the primary colors simultaneously if you're lucky: a scarlet tanager, an indigo bunting, and a goldfinch! If you do manage to spot that trifecta, get a picture and send it over: we'd love to see it (John refers to it as a 'high score').

John's got birds on the brain today (the old bird-brain): he moves on to talk about the American bittern(also known as the slough pump or stake driver). A bird that is rarely seen, it lives near swamps where it can occasionally be heard! John does a truly impressive recreation of its song:

John's 'bittern old man' impression

He does a pretty good job compared to a recorded bittern (below)!

American Bittern

If you hear that call, chances are that you have a male American bittern nearby, likely with a mate and a nest! John's son came running up to him with a long-legged, ungainly bird, saying, "Dad! Look what I found in the driveway!" John identified it as a young American bittern whose parents were probably bringing it out to the fields. (Sidenote: I'll have to ask John how to train my nieces and nephews to retrieve wildlife for me!)

Along with the strange cry of the bittern, the swamps, lakes, and rivers are alive with the spring calls of frogs. The chorus frogs and spring peepers continue to call, and the American toad is also starting to join the chorus! The toads have some LUNGS on 'em, I'll tell you that much! John describes it as a trill, but I hear it more as a scream. It lasts for over ten seconds: listen below!

American toad
Audio by iNaturalist user hlmenninger (

The tree frogs sound similar, but their calls are much shorter:

Grey Treefrog
Audio by iNaturalist user eskinn:

Northern leopard frogs also join the chorus with their drawn-out croak:

Northern leopard frog
Audio by iNaturalist user carissab:

And soon, the green frog and mink frogs will chi(r)p in as well. I remember the green frog by thinking of a green banjo:

Green frog
Audio by iNaturalist user catnatural:

The mink frog sounds a bit like two wooden sticks being clacked together:

Mink frog
Audio by iNaturalist user ap90:

If the frogs and bittern weren't enough, the male ruffed grouse are still drumming, though it's an effort of diminishing returns in the late season (John expects most females are already sitting on eggs). (As a side note, I would like to suggest we change the plural form of 'grouse' to 'grice!') Listen to one here:

Ruffed grouse drumming
Audio by iNaturalist user agmcmll:

And enjoy the video of the same grouse drumming!

As John was driving back from his busy weekend, he stopped (as he would) on "that big rocky promontory on the shore of Mille Lacs." He was joined by a pair of whimbrels, a rare shorebird (at least in Minnesota). They're big brown birds, slightly smaller than seagulls, with long pointed wings. They have a long, curved beak, a striped head, and a brown-and-beige dappled back. During their migration from their winter territory in South America to their summer territory in southern Canada, some birds travel over 2,500 miles!

While you might not manage to see something as rare as a whimbrel on your average commute, there are still plenty of other things to look for! The juneberries (aka serviceberries) and plums are in bloom in the Grand Rapids area. To distinguish the two, remember that plums tend to grow in thickets, while juneberries are typically found individually or in groups of 4-5 plants. If you can get a closer look at the flowers, the juneberries will have long, thin petals (the shape of your finger); the plums will have much flatter, broader pedals (like an apple blossom).

Be sure to make a note of where those juneberries are! The berries are delicious, but you'll have your work cut out for you gathering them before the birds get to them. Only a few berries ripen at a time, so it's easy for the birds to quickly strip a bush of all the ripe ones. John recommends covering the bush with netting to protect your precious crop!

Another plant in full flower is the fly honeysuckle. They're a relatively short shrub (4-5 feet high) and have very large leaves this time of year. They'll be covered in twin yellow flowers. The fly honeysuckle gets its name from the appearance of its berries. The berries fuse together at the base and spread out in the shape of a flies' wings- they make great food for birds, but not for humans!

Speaking of good food (this time for humans), John has tips on foraging for ferns. He begins with a quick fern anatomy lesson: on a fern frond, the branches off the front are called pinnae (singular pinna). The little leaflets coming off the pinnae are called pins. When John was taking one of his many phenology walks, he found that the interrupted ferns had unfurled to the first pinna. For foraging, you'll want to look for the fiddleheads of the ostrich fern. They are distinguished by a celery-shaped stem (U-shaped in cross-section) with dark green and a little bit of red skin (the interrupted fern will have whitish-green skin). If the plants have already grown too tall (7-10 inches), John says you can cut off a few fronds and wait for the plant to send up new shoots. You can repeat this process 2-3 times before leaving the clump alone to recuperate! John says they have an asparagus-like taste, but I think they're better! Perhaps, to set off your fiddlehead meal, you might find some morel mushrooms: it's the right time of year!

John's wife, Denise, found another fun plant: the northern sweet coltsfoot. It has a relatively thick stem with a small leaf that comes off the side. On top, there is a collection of flower heads that look like a white dandelion that hasn't fully opened. Now, trying to identify this plant threw John for a loop: the leaf that is on the stem is not, in fact, a true leaf; it is a modified structure called a bract. The leaves on the coltsfoot don't emerge until after flowering is completed! When it does emerge, the leaf looks like a big ol' maple leaf.

John's updates on other flowering plants include:

Whew! That does it for this week- and what a week it was! Things are definitely happening fast. As our student reporters would say, "have a great week and be observant!"

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 the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie 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, she 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?).