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Phenology Talkbacks, May 31 2022

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Photo by iNaturalist user uusijani
Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Here we go with another wonderful week of phenology! The school year is winding down, taking many of our school reports with it. Never fear, however: we had four spectacular reports this week, plus a fun mystery from a local listener!

With schools letting out for the summer, we'd love to hear from more listeners! Please send an audio clip or email with your nature-related observations, anecdotes, or questions to smitchell@kaxe.org. We'd love to hear from you!

Apple Blossom Village in Bemidji, May 31

Eon brings us this week's report from Apple Blossom Village in Bemidji! They've been keeping an eye out for wildlife, spotting goldfinches, foxes, and a family of rabbits. The whole class saw a bird fight! One student found a green caterpillar on another student's head that came off a willow tree. Eon saw a daddy-longlegs on a stump and brushed it off to a better location. There was a lot of wind, and they could hear the waves on the lake. "Goodbye, and have a nice day!"

John says thanks to Eon, and enthuses about the gentle way Eon dealt with the daddy-longlegs. There's a myth that daddy-longlegs are the "most venomous spider on earth": John is here to battle disinformation! Firstly, daddy-longlegs aren't even true spiders; they belong to the order Opiliones, which is separate from the order Araneae (the spiders). Also, they don't have venom, and they don't even have fangs! John concludes, "If you come across a daddy-longlegs, do as Eon did and just push it to the side. It won't bother you!"

John also remarks on the green caterpillar found on Eon's head. Because it fell from a willow tree, John hypothesizes that it may have been the caterpillar of a mourning cloak butterfly (their caterpillars eat willow leaves). Mourning cloaks (named for their black wings) have laid their eggs; the caterpillars may have already emerged. John says, "I was a mourning cloak this past week, but they're certainly in decline. We will see them one more time this summer before they overwinter as adults and get ready to start it all over again."

North Shore Community School near Duluth, May 31

Zinnia brings us this week's report from North Shore Community School near Duluth. The weather has been erratic, jumping from 40 degrees to 75 degrees. The students are wondering why! This week, the students observed that the marsh marigolds are in full bloom, as are the dianthus pinks. The buds on the lilacs are getting larger, but they haven't opened yet. Students and their parents are planning their summer gardens (some already have their seeds!).

  • May 22nd: Nanking cherry bush started to bloom. A black bear wandered around a teacher's yard trying to steal birdseed; the students reminded us to keep our trash cans closed! 
  • May 23rd: A student saw a dead deer on the side of the road- it had disappeared the next day (who took it?). Students also noticed black flies, sand flies, and gats.  
  • May 24th: Students spotted a squirrel in a tree hole, a flock of seagulls flying (though nowhere near water- what were they doing?), a large beetle, and four bluejays in a tree.  
  • May 25th: A student was swarmed by almost a hundred gnats while on a walk. She hypothesizes that she stepped on a nest or the gnats had just hatched.  

Sadly, this is their final report for the 2021-2022 school year! They sign off with, "Thank you for listening. Have a great summer, and be observant."

John says, "Thank you. That was just lovely, and you guys have just been the very best. Zinnia, you capped a year of really spectacular phenology reports from the North Shore Community School." (I couldn't agree more! Thank you so much!). John adds that his lilacs are also about to bloom (he's already seen a few flowering in nearby Grand Rapids). He reiterates the students' observations of gnats and blackflies, and adds his own report of ticks and "hordes of mosquitoes"! It's a beautiful time to be outdoors, but it's also a pest-filled one; wear your long sleeves and cover your ankles! (Normally, I ignore old men spouting that kind of advice, but in this case, it's warranted.)

Shakopee West Middle School, May 31

Paul and Anders bring us the report from Shakopee West Middle School's "Life Lab Garden." They released their fingerling trout in the Vermillion River last week! The students report that the trout "instinctively turned into the current and joined the aquatic ecosystem. Good luck, little ones!" In addition to releasing the trout, they saw many macroinvertebrates (including damselflies and stonefly larvae). Since damselflies and stoneflies are intolerant of pollution, their presence indicates that the river is healthy! On their hike, the students saw chew marks from beavers, many different flowering trees, Tatarian honeysuckles, purple violets, and Jack-in-the-pulpits. The wild raspberries were leafing out, and the flower buds were just beginning to develop.

Back at school, the students watched over their Life Lab Garden. The white spruce and white pine sprouted seed cones, though they are not yet ripened. The common milkweed is growing rapidly (several inches per week, especially the ones in full sun!). "Speaking of milkweed, even though we had a confirmed observation on May 16th of our first adult migrating monarch, it's been so cold and rainy we haven't seen any since. We are on the lookout!" On the mammal front, a white-tail doe visited their teacher Ms. Orstad's house; it's only the fourth time in 10 years that she's seen one! (She lives on a peninsula, so deer can only show up if they swim or brave the county road.) The doe grazed in the woods and laid down in the brush. The students hypothesized that she might be trying to find a good food resource or raise fawns there this summer (both great guesses- I hope we hear more!). "Science skills are life skills!"

John says thanks to the reporters and elaborates on the wayward deer. Ms. Orstad wrote to us to tell us a bit more about the situation; the class had a long conversation about what the deer was doing. John "thought that was wonderful because phenology isn't just recording; it's also trying to understand!" Deer are going through a lot of change during this time of year; they grow their summer coats (red, instead of winter grey) and birth fawns. With so much happening, John is pleased that the students developed and sorted through hypotheses for the deer's behavior! He's also thrilled to hear about their release of the trout and the stream's clean bill of health. So exciting- we all hope the little trout can fill up on plenty of mosquito larvae!

Regarding the plants the students observed, John points out that the Tatarian honeysuckle is an invasive species: try to eradicate it when you see it! It's not blooming yet in Grand Rapids, but John's keeping an eye out. John says the common milkweed is "growing to beat the band" (how's that for an idiom?). The associated monarch butterfly was seen two days ago by John Weber, who lives in the Nevis area. John Latimer expects to see one any day now! He adds that the Canada tiger swallowtail butterfly typically emerges from the chrysalis within a day or two of the monarch's arrival (sometimes before the monarch and sometimes after). Both beautiful butterflies should be in the Grand Rapids area soon!

Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield, May 31

Allia brings us this week's Prairie Creek Community School report from Northfield, saying, "Suddenly it feels like summer here. Everything is green, thanks to all the rain we've gotten down here." The students reported seeing tiger swallowtails, monarchs (you called it, John!), tiny inchworms, butterfly eggs, and many pollinator species. In the spruce trees, the students observed holes in the bark that dripped sap: signs that the northern flickers or yellow-bellied sapsuckers were active! The birds were busy with young; robins flew back and forth from their nests, and Canada geese goslings matured but retained their fluffy feathers. In the skies, the students have seen many hawks, vultures, orioles, finches, swallows, and bluebirds. They've been snacking on sorrel, lamb's quarters, elm samaras, and nettles during recess- yum! The gooseberries, honeysuckles, violets, and currants have edible flowers that make for a perfect dessert. The trees have leafed out, giving the students some shade, and the maples are dropping their whirligig seeds (I still love playing with those!). The fly honeysuckle berries are beginning to ripen, the plums have set fruit, and the crabapple trees have lost their flowers- spring is progressing rapidly into summer! They conclude with, "This has been Prairie Creek with our penultimate step on the phenology journey."

John is thrilled with their use of the word "penultimate" and thanks them for the great report! He's happy to hear that summer is sweeping into Northfield and that the tiger swallowtails and monarchs have returned. He thinks that yellow-bellied sapsuckers are responsible for the holes in the spruce trees; flickers don't exhibit that behavior very often. John reiterates a few of the foraged snacks, and that the maple seeds are falling. He expects the maples in the Grand Rapids area to release their seeds in the next week or so. Finally, he says, "thanks so much for your work down there with our group. We really appreciate all the fine phenology we've gotten from Prairie Creek this year, and we look forward to next year when they'll be back with us!"

Steven from Cohasset

Steven from Cohasset emailed us, saying:

"We very much enjoy KAXE and have been members for several years. The musical variety, Green Cheese and local program character are particularly appreciated. Have always loved Mr. Latimer's phenology reports. His "evangelism" of his practice to school kids is great. We also enjoy his reports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR. Had a wonderful experience on a nature walk with Mr. Latimer a few years ago. Tried my first Hog Peanut after that walk. I do have a question for Mr. Latimer. We are at or cabin south of Rice Lake in Cohasset. In the morning and evening we hear a rising, two note screech coming from a single location in the mixed hardwoods around us. Any idea what that is? Thanks for great radio!"

John isn't quite sure what the screech might be (and hopes Steven can send in a recording so that we can figure it out)! His best guesses are that an owl or fox might be responsible. The repeated calls in the morning and evening lead John to think it may be an eastern screech owl. (I'll throw in a guess... How about a young owl making a begging call or learning to hoot? I've heard them make weird noises as they figure out their vocal cords!) In any case, Steven, if you can manage to get a recording, please send it to us! We'd love to solve the mystery if we can, or pass it along to someone more qualified! Thanks for writing; we appreciate it.

That does it for this week! I hope you all can enjoy the warmer weather, avoid damage from the big storms, and bask in as much birdsong as possible.

Remember that you can add your voice to this list! We would love to hear from you. 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 22 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director where she manages producers, hosts local interviews and programs, oversees and manages web stories and establishes focus areas of programming like phenology, clean energy, Indigenous voices, Strong Women, local foods, clean energy, economic development and more. 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. During the pandemic, Heidi hosted 14 months of a weekly statewide conversation on COVID-19 for the AMPERS network.
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?).