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Phenology Report, November 15 2022

Ruffed Grouse at John's House
John Latimer
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https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10159386228357979&set=gm.5797608260277618&idorvanity=352304181474747
Some of the grouse that were enjoying John's crabapple trees (circles and text added)

The last vestiges of summer are gone through most of the state: trees are bare, amphibians and reptiles are absent, and snow has finally covered the ground. Since the plants are dormant this time of year, John's attention turns to the birds: summer residents are departing, and winter residents are arriving!

The new arrivals include:

  • Evening Grosbeaks have been reported in Baudette. Evening Grosbeaks have vibrant yellow, black, and white plumage. 
  • Northern Shrikes have returned to the northern edge of the state. They are robin-sized or bigger, with predominantly grey bodies and a dark band through the eye. While they can be confused with Grey Jays (also known as the Canada Jay or Whiskey Jack), Grey Jays lack the black band on the head. [LOOK AT ME I FIGURED OUT HOW TO EMBED VIDEOS. Send my trophies to the studio, c/o Heidi Holtan]

  • Snow Buntings have arrived in large flocks. Look for them along the edges of roads and in fields! While flying, they show a lot of white coloration. While stationary, black markings are visible on their wings and tail. 

  • Tundra Swans have arrived from the arctic. They are making their way to Chesapeake Bay, where they spend the winter eating clams (and repelling seagulls, who try to rob them of their meal). Tundra Swans are most easily distinguished from Trumpeter Swans by their call, which is smoother and higher-pitched than the Trumpeter Swan's.  

While these birds migrate through, some Trumpeter Swans will stay throughout the winter. As long as there is open water and available food, they'll stay in the area despite the cold! John reminds us that Trumpeter Swans were extirpated in Minnesota until a successful reintroduction effort began in 1983, which reintroduced 24 swans. Now, we have over 30,000: more than half the total trumpeter swan population of the lower 48 states! It's been an incredibly successful conservation effort, and it's always a joy to see these beautiful animals out in the wild.
In addition to swans, John saw 18 Hooded Mergansers and 5 Ring-necked Ducks on Crooked Lake. A Bald Eagle roosted nearby. It was not in its nest, which eagles only use for breeding, but in the same tree.

The fresh snow under John's birdfeeder is riddled with trails of voles, mice, and maybe even squirrels. While visiting Long Lake Conservation Center last weekend, he even saw a chipmunk: likely the last of the season. Many small rodents, like voles, create subnivian tunnels (tunnels under the snow), protecting them from cold and many predators! Unfortunately for the voles, this tactic doesn't work on Great Grey Owls. They can hear a rodent moving under two feet of snow from over a hundred feet and can punch through even hard-packed snow crust. Those voles better start tiptoeing!

The blanket of snow reveals more than just animal tracks: birch and alder seeds, which have been falling since September, are far more distinguishable when contrasted with the white snow. When the seeds fall on dark earth or leaf litter, they're virtually unnoticeable: now, however, they're quite apparent!

With the snow comes ice, which has covered two-thirds of Crooked Lake. John expects the rest to be covered over soon. On average, the lake freezes up around November 14th. In 2019, it froze over quite early: November 3rd! John was happy to have an early opportunity to go skating that year. This year, though, the snow has already coated the ice, so it's not smooth enough for skating. John's on the lookout for a lake that freezes later.

Finally, John gets to the story he's been teasing since the beginning of the morning show! A few days ago, his wife pointed out 5 Ruffed Grouse in their crabapple trees. Crabapples are a favorite food of American Robins, White-throated Sparrows, and Ruffed Grouse. Another grouse joined the party, then another: before long, there were 17 grouse at John's house! One was a male, which had its ruff erected, tail fanned, and was showing off for the hens. John has never in his life seen 17 adult grouse assembled in the same place! Sometimes, a family of 10-12 chicks will be foraging around with their mother, but an all-adult group of 17 was a wonderful and surprising sight!

There are some fantastic things out there: I hope you all find some great surprises this 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, 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 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?).