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Phenology Report, December 6th 2022

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John starts off this week with a quick summary of the local birds! Some are rare, some are common, and all are welcome sights in the cold winter landscape. Local woodpeckers include Red-bellied, Pileated, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers (all of whom visit John’s feeders). They’re joined at the feeders by a few American Goldfinches, flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees, Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches. Two winter residents, the Pine Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeak, also stop by on occasion. (Our Season Watch Facebook page is a great place to check in on what’s going on around the state!)

In areas with open water, John’s found mergansers, mallards, and an incredible number of trumpeter swans. Scott Hall saw a flock of 60 Trumpeter swans near Cohasset! [I saw a few American Coots and a Common Goldeneye on a lake in the Twin Cities last week.] Bald Eagles have been soaring over lakes and rivers, looking for open water or easy meals to scavenge. John chatted with some ice boaters about the eagles, reflecting on their amazing population boom! When John was growing up, he was excited to see one every 2-5 years. Now, he sees one practically every day! [Thanks, DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, Raptor Center, and partners!]

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John also heard about a surprise visitor last week! A Varied Thrush was documented in Northern Cass County. The Varied Thrush is typically a western bird but occasionally visits Northern Minnesota. (If you go to Northern Montana, John says, they’re almost as common as American Robins are around here!) It is a robin-sized bird with a grey/brown back, an orangey breast (not quite as red as a robin’s), and a black ‘bib’. John’s records indicate that some Varied Thrushes have lingered in the area through April, but he hasn’t heard of one that stayed in through the summer!

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Other folks on the Season Watch Facebook page have reported chipmunk sightings. John hasn’t seen one for about a month; they seemed to head to hibernation in early November. Chipmunks aren’t true hibernators like bears or woodchucks: they’ll sleep for a few weeks, wake up to eat some of their cached food (or even pop aboveground for a look around), then head back to sleep for a while. They don’t store quite enough fat to make it through the whole winter, so if they didn’t wake up occasionally to feed, they’d starve! So, John says, it’s not terribly surprising that folks have seen them running around, especially given the warm spell last week.

On November 30th, John saw a sun pillar: a big, orange blaze of light going straight up from the setting sun. It’s caused by ice crystals that have been aligned by wind: the light from the sun catches on all of them and refracts the light to your eye! It’s the same process that causes sundogs; these six-sided ice crystals refract the sun’s light at particular angles, causing a circle to appear around the sun. The halo begins at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, and in ideal conditions the arc will complete itself, creating a complete circle. For this to occur, the sun has to be at a low angle, the right type of ice must be present, and the ice particles must be aligned by the wind. It’s rare but gorgeous!

On Monday, John had the opportunity to go for a hike with some friends (they’re both doctors). They found some local fruits, including the fuzzy seeds of the Smooth Sumac, Bittersweet berries, and a few Highbush Cranberries. The Smooth Sumac seeds still had a little bit of their sour flavor left. The Bittersweet berry (which is a “lovely, lovely thing to find in the winter time,” says John) is surrounded by four orange, petal-like bracts. The berry itself is bright red, creating a beautiful combination with the orange brats! Next, they found a Highbush Cranberry. After tasting a crushed berry, they decided it was a bit too sour to make for enjoyable eating. Even the birds have left those alone (for now- during leaner times later in the winter, the birds will likely be back to eat the rest of the cranberries). The birds prefer cranberries to sumac: John only sees them eating sumac fruits in February during the darkest, leanest time of winter.

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While on the walk, John and his friends spotted a bird nest low along the edge of the trail. John (in typical John fashion) took a look and identified it as a Chestnut-sided Warbler nest! His friends looked at him, amazed, and asked him how he could possibly identify it. His reasoning was that Chestnut-sided Warblers prefer nest sites that are low to the ground along forest edges. They prefer brush, such as Large-leafed Dogwoods. This nest was in exactly such a location, so John put all the clues together and concluded that the nest was probably built by a Chestnut-sided Warbler! It could be something else, but it’s a good guess to start with. As he explained to his friends, it’s the same process that they use as doctors: gather information about symptoms, make an educated guess about the cause, and proceed from there. That process of gathering information and making conclusions is something all of us do!

In any case, John had a wonderful walk with good friends on a beautiful day: what could be better? I hope all of you get the chance to do the same: Please let us know what you find out there!

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!

Fundingfor 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.
KAXE/KBXE Senior Correspondent
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?).
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.