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Phenology Report, September 27th 2022

Autumn Meadowhawk
Autumn Meadowhawk

This week's phenology report starts with insects! John checked in with fellow phenologist Dallas, who reports seeing a couple of Monarch butterflies on Monday. John points out that it's nearing the end of their season, though he has a few observations of Monarch butterflies as late as October! (He suspects those individuals are "not likely to add their genes to the genetic mix next year." It gets a little treacherous if you leave northern MN in October and try to get to mid-southern Mexico without freezing!) So, keep your eyes out, and remember, if you're not in the habit of writing your sightings down, you'll never remember which Monarch is your last of the season!

In addition to butterflies, John's had his eye on dragonflies. While he was visiting with students in Cohasset, a meadowhawk dragonfly even landed on one of the students! It was a perfect opportunity for John to demonstrate how to hold and examine a dragonfly without injuring it. The dragonfly turned out to be a small female Autumn Meadowhawk with a golden-brown coloration. Males of this species are red and can be found easily this time of year (if you're paying attention!). John's latest record of them is in the first week of November; they can survive the first few frosts and remain active in the area through October.

John has observed several bumblebees in the past week and (with the help of the Cohasset students) discovered many bee mimics! Many flies have yellow and black stripes to mimic a bee or wasp; this deters predators, as nobody wants to get stung. Keep a close eye on any flowers you pass over the next few days, and see if you can distinguish the actual bees from the flies and wasps in disguise! Wanna-bee wasps (get it?) give themselves away with a very narrow 'waist' between the thorax and abdomen, while flower flies can be detected by their signature big eyes and single pair of wings. While bees, wasps, and flies are all important pollinators, bees are the only creatures that actually collect and eat pollen; their larvae require the extra protein to grow their exoskeletons. As adults, bees feed primarily on nectar.

Wanna-Bee/Bee comparison

Moving on from insects, let's meander over to salamanders! If you're lucky enough to have a window well or a yard with an old log you can roll over, it's a great time to investigate. Blue-spotted Salamanders and Tiger Salamanders are the most common species, but we also have Red-backed Salamanders, Common Mudpuppies and Eastern Newts. There are even scattered sightings of Four-toed Salamanders and Spotted Salamanders in Minnesota: What a lovely cornucopia of amphibians! As you're out there looking for them, be sure to put any logs or rocks you disturb back into place. The interface between the log and the earth has a lot of important, engaging, and delicate biology: unless you roll the log back, the whole process must restart from scratch in a new place. Plus, all the critters that live under the log will appreciate having their home back!

While you've got your eyes on the ground looking for salamanders, remember to listen for birds. John has seen very few robins this past week, but that's not unusual this time of year. They are flocked up and moving around in large feeding groups, so it's a "feast or famine" situation; either you'll be surrounded by an army of them or not see them at all! John has a lot of robin food in his yard, including crabapples and mountain ash berries, so he's expecting them to drop by soon for a visit. White-throated Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, and Bohemian Waxwings share the robin's taste for those fruits, so he's hoping to see them too! Over the past week, he's observed many Yellow-rumped Warblers, Turkey Vultures, and a huge flock of starlings (about 150 birds). It's the first big flock of starlings he's seen this fall. John's heard reports of Black-eyed Juncos in the area but hasn't seen one yet. This is the typical time for them to return, so keep your eyes out! They have a dark grey back, white bellies, and two white tail feathers on each side of the tail. As they fly by, you can often see that distinctive little flash of white from their tail.

Dark-eyed Junco

A flock of tundra swans flew over John the other day: he says they were peeping, whistling, and barking back and forth in a manner very different from the distinctive calls of Canada Geese and Trumpeter Swans. He describes the Tundra Swan call as a "shrill little bark" that doesn't carry very far but is pretty unusual. Use the process of elimination; if it's goose- or swan-shaped and doesn't sound like a Canadian Goose or Trumpeter Swan, it's likely a Tundra Swan. Finally, Heidi Holtan mentioned that she saw a Belted Kingfisher on Monday! They're fascinating birds, with a fun 'bedhead' look due to their crests, a loud "HEYHEYHEYHEY" call, and fascinating nesting habits. These birds dig a tunnel 5-8 feet into sandy riverbanks, making sure to tunnel slightly upwards so that rain doesn't pool in the nest cavity. John casually mentions that you "Can put your arm in the nest hole, but you'll never get in far enough to actually put your hand in the nest." [Speaking from personal experience, John?]

Goodbye, animals, it's time to talk about plants! The trees furthest along in the transition to winter are the Black Ashes. John reports that any Black Ash growing in a low area has already turned yellow, and some are already bare. Ashes growing in higher areas tend to hang on to their leaves for a bit longer; one such ash near John's house just began to turn color last week. Basswoods are also turning color, and John saw his first Trembling Aspen changing color on Monday. Butternut trees are about 30% yellow, and leaves are falling. Bur oaks are 50% yellow and losing leaves. John monitors a Horse Chestnut along the River Road that turns vibrantly red every fall; it's about 50% colored now.

Paper Birches have an interesting way of transitioning from summer to winter: some will turn entirely yellow, some will be flecked with yellow and green, and some will have just a few yellow leaves and many green ones. Often, what happens is that the leaves fall very quickly after they turn yellow, so the tree will continue to look green even after many of its leaves have turned color and fallen. Suddenly, at the end of the season, the only leaves left turn yellow, and you'll have a completely yellow birch for a brief window of time!

Sugar Maples are highly variable at the moment. John's recorded some that were entirely green, some that were 10% turned, and some that were 50-75% colored. John's red maples also run the gamut; he has an entirely red one, another that's 50% red, and the rest just have splashes of color. The Sugar Maples have also begun to drop their seeds; unlike Red and Silver Maples, which drop their seeds in the spring, Sugar Maples hold onto their seeds all summer and drop them in fall. Keep an eye out: it's a good 'beginner' phenology observation for those of us who can't identify 9 species of asters (yet)!

A guide to maple tree species by looking at their leaves. Three images are shown and labeled with distinguishing characteristics. A red, lobed leaf is shown with the label "Red maple: Serrations." Next to it is a green leaf with red veins running through it, labeled "Silver Maple: Leaf back silvery." Beneath is a green lobed leaf with the label, "Sugar Maple: no serrations."
Photo illustration
Sarah Mitchell
Maple leaf comparison

Pine trees are also beginning to turn brown. Each year, needles that are 3-5 years old turn color and fall: this is perfectly normal! Each tree seems to turn a different color, ranging from yellow to orange to brown. The younger needles remain green. This same process occurs in spruces and balsams; if you follow a branch toward the tree's trunk, you'll find some brown needles getting ready to fall. John noticed the first falling needles last week, and a strong wind on Thursday tore off many needles.

Looking around his yard Monday evening, John estimated that the Grand Rapids area is about a quarter of the way toward peak color for the season. Over the years he's been recording his observations, the average date for peak color has been around September 20th; we are already a week past that mark, but John points out that we also had a very late spring. He hypothesizes that the trees may just keep their leaves for a specific number of days (let's say 150): so if they leafed out a week late, they'd be a week late dropping their leaves. If they leafed out two weeks early, they would drop their leaves two weeks early. It could be a reasonable explanation: John is keeping an eye on his data to figure it out!

Next up are the "littler plants":

  • Black Chokeberries still have many berries. 
  • John's Nannyberries are still green, but the wild nannyberries are ripe. This makes him wonder where his plant came from: he got it from the Soil and Water Conservation District about 10 years ago, and it's been a healthy, thriving plant. This is the first year he's gotten fruit from it, and he's curious about it ripening at a different time than the wild ones. 
  • Some Pagoda Dogwoods have begun to turn (one in his yard is quite colorful), but others are still "green as a green bean." [That's pretty green!] 
  • Poison Ivy is quite orange. 
  • Bracken Ferns are showing up in big swaths of brown along roadsides. 
  • Milkweed plants are losing leaves, though the pods are still green: at a distance, the pods can be mistaken for green leaves! 
  • Last week, John had over five species of asters blooming in his yard. This week, he's down to two: the Flat-topped Aster and the more common Large-leaved Aster. Since there hasn't been a frost to kill off the other species of asters, John surmises that it must just be their time to stop blooming. 
  • White Campion is still blooming. 
  • Mouse-eared Hawkweed is still blooming. 
  • Cinquefoil is still blooming. 
  • Tansy is still blooming (and will be until after the snow falls). 
  • Crabapples are ripening. 
  • Raspberry plants are beginning to change color. 
  • Solomon seals are changing color. 
  • Ferns are changing color. 

He concludes, "We are definitely headed into fall. I hope that you are getting a chance to get out there and enjoy some of it, because it's pretty spectacular and only going to get even more so!"
See something noteworthy? We would love to hear from you! Get in touch with me ( or John (, or text 'phenology' to 218-326-1234.

For more phenology, 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 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?).