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Phenology Report, November 8 2022

Fall Grasses

If you're like me, you've been staring out the window, thinking wistfully of beautiful spring days, where every step outside brought a new flower to enjoy, a new leaf unfurling, or a bird testing out its song. Those times are a ways behind (or in front) of us now: John assiduously searched for flowers last week and only found four: oxeye daisy, common tansy, yarrow, and dandelion. Common tansies start flowering in June and don't quit until they're covered in snow: they're determined! Dandelions follow a similar flowering pattern, though their height varies depending on the flower's development stage. Right now, the flowers are about an inch off the ground: when they are ready to disperse seeds, the stalk will grow another 3-4 inches to get the seeds into the wind, where they can spread far and wide. It's a successful tactic: they're an incredibly dominant species! In addition to the flowers he found, John suspects that red clovers and white and yellow sweet clovers are still blooming in some areas.

Other notable seasonal changes include that Tamaracks are down to their "last ratty little orange needles." If you take a close look at a Tamarack right now, you'll notice that the only needles remaining are single needles that emerge from a single eruption point (much like needles on a spruce or balsam tree). This is the new growth. As the branch continues growing, each year's new growth will put out a single needle: the older growth will have a cluster of needles emerging from a fascicle (bump-like structure). A single fascicle can sprout 20-30 needles on older parts of the branch! These needles drop off first, while the single needles at the tips of the branches hold on longest.

The last of the trees are finally dropping their leaves. Eastern Cottonwoods, River Birches, Black Willows, Crack Willows, and White Poplars are now bare. Weeping Willows have a few leaves left, but they're falling fast.

Similarly, the shrubs are mostly bare. Nannyberries and chokecherries lost their leaves over the last week. (Both species have berries that are great for birds but less so for humans). Lilacs are losing their leaves, and John points out that they drop off the plant while still quite green: they have just a hint of yellow in the week before they fall from the shrub! He suspects the lilacs will be completely bare by next week.

The only plants with leaves remaining are the Red Oaks and Ironwoods. The Red Oaks have about a quarter of their leaves left. The Ironwoods lose many leaves but retain some through winter until the new leaves emerge next spring.

This time of year, one of the main phenological events John looks for is the progression of the fruit-eating birds (such as American Robins and White-throated Sparrows) through their winter food sources. Typically, the crabapples are the first to be depleted, but there are still plenty on his trees this year. The Northern Holly (a dark grey shrub covered in small, bright red berries this time of year) is another favorite: John goes so far as to count the berries on a particular branch on a specific tree and monitor their consumption over the season. This year, there were 46 berries on the branch in late September. Until last week, the birds had ignored them, but they got eaten at some point last week. However, a nearby holly shrub was still covered in berries: there's still plenty of food out there for the birds!

The Great Horned Owls are starting to call back and forth: they're pairing up (if they haven't already) in anticipation of laying eggs in early February. ("Not long from now," John says. "Too long!" says I!)

There have been many deer in John's area, and they've been busy leaving behind tracks, scrapes, and rubs.

It's a great time of year to look at grasses! In mid-summer, they can look nearly identical because they're some shade of green: now, in their winter colors, they show more individuality. If you're out walking or driving, look for fields with a small hill or varied terrain: you'll see bands of different grasses at various heights. It's a great time to observe how changes in moisture or soil can affect species composition! Take some time to appreciate them before a blanket of snow covers the mosaic. (Even if you don't care about species composition, it's just plain pretty!)

While John was out admiring the landscape, he found a "great many midges." Midges belong to the family Chironomidae and resemble mosquitoes (but they aren't!). Usually, they will be in a column or tight group: these are all males! John says, "If a female happens to come by and flies into that group, she will get attacked by the first available male and they will fall to the ground and breed. And then the midges will be doing what they need to do for their next generation." So, don't mistake them for mosquitoes: mosquitoes are pretty much gone! The midges persist later in the year and emerge again early in the spring (though the individuals in spring are likely the offspring of the midges you see in fall).

"Let that be your motto," John concludes. "'Start early, run late' or 'run late, start early,' however you want to do it, just keep it nice and consistent. Have a good day today: get out, enjoy nature, and let us know what you're seeing. We'd love to hear from you."

Post-report bonus clip.mp3

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, 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 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?).