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Phenology Report, November 1st 2022

This week's phenology show begins with news that shocks no one: John's struggles with technology continue! TWO computers decided to bail on him, so this week's phenology report comes from the best microchip of all: John's brain. As John says, "All of this is dredged up from memory, which is a very suspect dredging." Luckily for us, John's probably forgotten more than I've ever learned to begin with, so we're in good hands!

He starts with a preview of the coming month: November is when the lakes freeze over (in Grand Rapids, at least!). According to John's records, most average-sized lakes will have ice cover over the next 25-30 days. In addition, November sometimes marks the beginning of snow cover (with a notable exception in 1991, when 37 inches of snow fell on Halloween!). Now that the Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows have mostly arrived, November heralds the time for the more late-season fall migrants to appear. Two notable examples include the Rough-legged Hawk and the Great Grey Owls. The abundance of these species tends to vary yearly, with irruptions (sudden changes in population density) occurring in tandem with food availability. As these winter birds appear, the last of our summer birds will vanish: November 21st is the average last sighting for the American Robin (though the species is only partially migratory, with rare individuals remaining in the area throughout the winter). Great Blue Herons, which are still lingering in Grand Rapids, will disappear soon, and Bald Eagles will stay only in areas without ice cover.

Thankfully, November is also the month that deer ticks disappear! They have plagued John over the last two weeks, and he's often returned from hikes with more than four crawling around. Luckily, he's sensitive to them and can often detect them before they get too deeply implanted (no one likes to do exploratory surgery to get them out!). John recommends being especially vigilant during warm days when they are more active.

John's birdfeeders have been busy: Pileated, Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have all been feeding. These are the four species that will spend the winter in the area. Red-headed Woodpeckers are partially migratory, with a few individuals remaining in the area. However, the species has become so rare it's unlikely you'll see them except in a few select regions. The last Northern Flicker departed a few weeks ago. (Northern Flickers are a species of ground-feeding woodpecker: the deep snow makes foraging hard for them, so they head south for the winter.) Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are also migratory.

Fruit-loving birds, such as the American Robin, Ruffed Grouse, and White-Throated Sparrows, have an abundance of options this year! John's apple trees and Northern Holly shrubs still have plenty of fruit: in scarcer years, they would already be picked clean by now. (Northern Holly shrubs are dark grey, 8-10 feet tall, and currently covered in small red berries.) Like many of us, birds have favorite snacks! Most birds prefer apples, emptying those trees before turning to the less-preferred Northern Holly shrubs. They have yet to make this transition: John counted 46 berries on one branch of a Northern Holly shrub, and the number has stayed the same in the last two weeks. John remarks, "It's like having a freezer full of food. You're going to eat the favorite stuff first, and the stuff that tastes the best is going to get eaten first. At the end of the day, you're going to clean up whatever is at the bottom of the freezer."

Moths are also flapping around in the area. This time of year, there are two types of moths. The first category consists of big, fat, furry moths with rapid, continuous wing beats: these species need to shiver to warm up to 100 degrees before flying. The other category consists of smaller-bodied, less-hairy moths that don't bother warming up but flap in a more haphazard, flap-glide-flap-glide manner.

Other insects include the Red Meadowhawk dragonflies. John spotted a pair conjugating on an overturned boat, getting ready to lay eggs during these last few warm fall days. If you're around a body of water, keep an eye out for them: they're small, only 1-1.5 inches long, with a 1.75-inch wingspan. Males are bright red, and females are bright gold: they're gorgeous! John has seen them as late as November 4th or 5th.

John spotted a very late-lingering Monarch butterfly on Monday near his lake. It was on the edge of the trail battling the south wind, then peeled off and went into the forest. John felt so sad for it: it's unlikely to survive lingering this long at these northern latitudes. There is little food available to them and a constant threat of freezing during a cold snap. John has kept meticulous records of monarch sightings since 1987 and sent me this graph for your perusal!

Last sightings of Monarch Butterflies. Dates use the Julian Calendar
Provided by John Latimer
Last sightings of Monarch Butterflies. Dates use the Julian Calendar

John has been admiring the seedheads on many of his favorite fall flowers during his walks through the forest. The boneset, asters, and goldenrods have beautiful puffy, fuzzy seedheads: it's a perfect time to admire them and gather seeds! If you have favorite fall wildflowers, harvest some seeds and move them to areas in your yard or property where you'd like to see them grow. John has had great success with these seeding efforts!

In the forest, only a few trees and shrubs still have leaves: buckthorn, Lombardy poplar, lilacs, and white poplar. These are not native to the area but have been introduced accidentally or as ornamental plants. Buckthorn is one of the most obvious, with vibrantly-green leaves arranged in a nearly-mirrored pattern on the stem (sub-opposite). Lombardy Poplars are ornamental cigar-shaped aspens, while ornamental White Poplars have a more conventional shape but with extremely pale green leaves that turn white in the fall. Lilacs are also green, so it's relatively easy to pick them out this time of year! Red oaks, native to the area, are one of the few native trees that still have leaves on the branches. Their leaves, however, are red and dry.

John ends the report by suggesting a fun science experiment: the spores released by clubmosses act as a sort of flash powder, creating a miniature explosion when ignited! Early photographers harvested these spores to use as a flash powder for illuminating scenes! John and his son made a video by going out around dusk and holding a lighter near one of the sporophytes (spore-bearing structures). With a quick breath of air, the spores fly into the flame and FLASH! There's a baseball-sized explosion of light, followed by darkness and the sound of John and his son giggling. [Author's note: Please don't burn your forest down. Be safe. Make good choices. Etc.]

That does it for this week! Get out there and have some fun!

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!

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

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?).