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Phenology Report, September 20 2022

Bright red-orange berries in the foreground, with narrow green leaves with reddish stems branching off the main stem
Mountain ash berries

This week, as John was walking down his driveway, he spotted something orange 40 feet back in the woods. Turns out, it was the orange-red fruits of a mountain ash he'd never noticed in his 43 years on the property! He took a closer look, assuming it was a small tree; as he followed the stem back, he discovered a trunk about 8 inches in diameter: a fairly mature and large specimen! He was surprised and a little chagrined. As someone who prides himself on being a full-time phenologist and practiced nature observer, he can't believe he didn't see it before! It's a great demonstration that there is always something new to discover, no matter how much time you spend in a place.

John saw his first fully-colored red maple this week, though many others have begun to turn. In a typical year, maple color peaks on September 20th (according to John's 39-year records). This year, he expects it occur in 5-7 days (in Grand Rapids; those who live further north may already be seeing peak color in their maple trees). In past years, maples’ peak color occurred on September 24th (2012), the 18th (2014), October 7th (2015), September 25th (2016), September 23rd (2017), September 22nd (2018), and September 18th (2020).

John is fine if peak color waits a bit: it's been a long, drawn-out summer, and he anticipates we'll have many red colors this fall. When trees have a good growing year, with lots of sunlight and water, they ramp up the production of sugars and the chemicals that produce red, yellow, and orange colors in the leaves. Since this year's been a great year to be a tree, it'll also be a great year for all of us to enjoy the fall colors! [Read more here!]

Peak fall color phenology graph
A subset of John's phenology records concerning peak fall color in maple trees

Unlike maples, paper birches will appear to retain their green color for a while after the leaves start to turn. John and his neighbor, Marvin, have noticed that each day, a few leaves on the tree will turn yellow and fall off. The tree will still look green. Then, a few more leaves will turn yellow and fall off. The tree will still look green! So, it can take a long period of time for birches to actually appear yellow. However, they will drop some beautiful yellow leaves to the ground for us to enjoy.

The black ashes turn color based on their elevation; those in ditches or swamps turn color early, and might be bright yellow right now. Those up on a hill are still green as an apple!

The birches’ seed capsules are ripening and beginning to drop their seeds. While this is far more observable in winter, when they drop onto a crisp blanket of white snow, you can look around the bases of birches for their little x-shaped seeds.

The cones on white cedar trees have turned from a light green to brownish color. As they ripen, they will open up and begin to drop their seeds. The tamarack tree that John monitors has produced thousands of cones: a huge year! They have ripened, and when John shook a branch, seeds rained from the tree and were flying everywhere! Crabapples are ripening as well: he suspects the robins, cedar waxwings, and ruffed grouse will be there within a week to start feasting on them.

Tamarack cones
Young tamarack cones

John received a catalpa tree from his son in Minneapolis. Catalpas grow prolifically in the Twin Cities area, and John’s tree seems to be doing well! It grew four feet this year. The catalpa is distinguished by large, basswood-like leaves that come off the stem in whorls of three. So, three leaves will emerge from the stem at the same point; going up the stem, you’ll see another set of three leaves that are offset from the lower ones by 90 degrees. This offset prevents the leaves from shading each other, ensuring that each leaf can gather as much sunlight as possible. So efficient! Currently, the leaves on John’s beloved catalpa tree are beginning to show the first signs of flecking (spots of color) as it prepares for the winter. John assures us that it’ll be well protected through the cold months.

Hazel, the predominant understory brush in Northern Minnesota, is beginning to turn colors. As you drive down the roads, peek in the forest; the underbrush will be turning yellow and red! Beaked hazels turn yellow, while American hazels turn red. Chokecherries and horse-chestnuts are also turning.

The berries on Northern holly are quite red now. As you walk through the forest, look for the red berries at head height! Though they’re beautiful, they are not good for eating. They’re filled with saponins, a bitter compound that John describes as completely unpalatable.

John’s seen many birds this week, including lots of Northern flickers (his neighbor, Marvin, saw a flock of 50!). He also saw what may be his last hummingbird of the season on Wednesday. He leaves his feeders out until the first week of October, and changes his ratio of water to sugar to three to one (from the four to one ratio he uses in the summer). Then, he fills his feeders just a little bit, and if it goes unused, he dumps it out and pours a little more in. The hummingbirds need fresh nectar! An unusual bird sighting was a flock of turkeys. As they expand their range northward, John has seen them more frequently. He’s also seen more kestrels in the fields, including one that was carrying a small, hapless little mammal in its talons. Good for the kestrel, bad for the mouse (or vole)! The loon and trumpeter swans that were on John’s lake all summer have gone south. He’s heard a barred owl calling this week, including in the middle of the day.

The insect report is a big one! He’s seen monarch butterflies, a black meadowhawk, clouded sulfur butterflies (they’re medium-sized, bright yellow butterflies often found in fields), and too many deer flies for his comfort. John is not a fan of deer flies, and they’re lingering far longer than is typical!

He segues into a funny story that happened to his neighbor Marvin. Marvin’s friend was visiting with his dog, who prefers to spend time outside, so they left the door to the deck open. The next morning, Marvin was startled by a big, dark object in his bathroom; at first, he thought it was the biggest spider he’d ever seen, but it turned out to be a treefrog! Apparently, it had taken the opportunity presented by the open door to hop on in and make a new home.

Some of the flowers or small colorful plants you might see in the Grand Rapids area include:

With that, John signs off for the week!
See something noteworthy? 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.

For more phenology content, subscribe to our Season Watch newsletter!

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?).