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Phenology Report, December 13 2022

Cedar waxwing mountain ash.png

Hello, phenology enthusiasts! Ye Olde Covid is running through my household at the moment, so instead of your usual article, here is a lightly edited transcript. I hope to be back in full force next week!

John Latimer:
It's time for the Phenology show. Phenology is the rhythmic biological nature of events as they relate to climate. And, if we might drift a little bit from climate to weather, you probably have heard already (or seen on TV) that there is a winter storm coming our way. It's going to come in warm and wet and then snow. And when it happens like that, when you get that first wet rain- which is going to fall at right around freezing- it can cause some interesting things to happen. And one of the interesting things that can happen is that the birches, because of their architecture, it's not unusual, it's just the way they grow. They often can have branches that sort of start arching up from the tree, but as they reach out, they begin to aim downward. And as the rain falls and catches on those downward-facing branches and freezes, it can cause the trees to bend. And Robert Burns*, who was a poet in the east and in an area where freezing rain was much more common than it is here in northern Minnesota, wrote a poem called Birches. [*Editor's note: From what I can tell, Birches was penned by Robert Frost.] And here is a little bit of it, voiced by Heidi Holtan:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

John Latimer:
Thank you, Heidi. And that pretty well sums up what can happen to the birches. So, I'm not sure that that will happen. But because of their nature, because of the way they grow their architecture, it is a possibility. And if you should get birches bending down by the weight of the ice that may fall on them, take a picture and post it on our Season Watch page. I'd like to see it. I have seen it myself in my own yard, and I'd like to see again to see that it can still happen. And to know that Robert [Frost] writing all those many years ago was seeing something that we can see ourselves.

Among my other notes from the past week, I had the Bald Eagles sort of visiting the nest again. I talked about this a couple of weeks ago. The Bald Eagles (at least, the ones by my house, the ones that have a nest in my yard) come by in November and December and do a little housekeeping, bring in a few branches, get things set up for the winter, I guess, and just check on the place. And then, I'd like to know where they go. I don't know that they go south. Some eagles do not. There are always some eagles that are spending the winter up here. What with the road-killed deer, there’s plenty of food in that kind of niche. They have the food they need to survive, and they can tolerate 40 below zero. As long as they have a belly full of food, they're going to be fine. So, I don't know that my eagles disappear for the winter, but there is a period of time, generally from mid-December into mid-February (usually around the 23rd of February), that the Bald Eagles show back up at the nest and begin to get serious about it. And then, they'll do a little bit more upkeep and after that, they will start their whole courtship and egg-laying.

So, watch the eagles. Maybe you've got a nest near you that you can keep an eye on and see what they're up to. That's always an interesting sport. Phenology gets a little lean this time of year, it's mostly all the animals that we see and the birds that we see. The plants are pretty much dormant and there's not a lot to note about them. I will tell you that my Red Oak is still, oh, it has maybe 25% of the leaves that were on the tree during the summer, but right now they're clinging. And probably sometime in January, they'll begin to break loose, and I'll see them laying on top of the snow as we get to having a few longer days.

Besides the Bald Eagles, I saw two small flocks of Pine Siskins this past week. The Downy Woodpecker in my yard (the one that is sort of the possessor of the territory around my feeder) has begun to drum. I heard him drumming yesterday. This is not unusually early, but it is early. All of the woodpeckers that stay here through the winter (the Downy, the Hairy, the Pileated, the Red-bellied, the Black-backed, and the Three-toed Woodpeckers) all drum to establish their territories. And they will begin drumming. This one, this little Downy began yesterday and they will probably continue intermittently into February, when they'll really get serious about it. And you'll hear all of them drumming, all proclaiming territory. And the interesting thing is, of the four that I named (minus the Black-backed and the Three-toed, which are woodpeckers of the deep black spruce swamps) the others (the Downy, the Hairy, the Red-bellied, and the Pileated) can all live in the same territory. They just won't tolerate another of their species in that territory. They all exploit different niches within the environment, so that they're all eating different foods. And it's tough if you're a bug trying to live in that environment, because if the Downy doesn't get you, the Hairy will. And if the Hairy doesn't get you, the Pileated will. So just all of those can live amongst one another and not deplete food resources that they are dependent upon.

I had a couple of sightings of animals: Meadow Voles of course, out making tunnels under my bird feeder. The Northern Flying Squirrel coming to the feeder at night. <laugh> Flying squirrels are adorable. You look at them, they're cuddly soft. They have these large eyes and this flat tail, and (of course) they can fly, or at least soar. And so, you think, “Oh, they are just the best!” But man, they are the ones that are living in your attic. So, if you're sleeping at night and you hear something scampering in your attic, it's flying squirrels. The red squirrels not so much. The gray squirrels not at all. But the flying squirrels really like an attic as a place to hang out. And I have done my very best to exclude them from my house. But they find a way in and when they do, I hear 'em dancing.

Their life is exactly the opposite of mine. When it's dark out, they wake up and get active. When it's light out, they go to sleep. And that's not how I run. I'm trying to sleep when they're trying to run around in my attic and I'm not happy about that. So, the <laugh>, the Northern Flying Squirrel, despite its gorgeous pellage and its big, soft eyes… Yeah, it's still a menace and not one that I'm fond of having around.

Among the birds, I had Cedar Waxwings. I had a flock of Cedar Waxwings come into my apple tree this past week, and they spent just a day or so there. And they picked off the remaining fruits out on the very, very ends of the branches where the Ruffed Grouse didn't dare to go. And sometimes, it involves sort of a short flight and hovering out there while they picked off of an apple or two. Interesting bird, the Cedar Waxwing: The waxy secretion that you see on the ends of their tail and on the secondary feathers of the wing, not the primaries, not the flight feathers, but just the secondaries have these waxy secretions. It's more like plastic: It's not waxy at all. It's hard. And these secretions are carotenoids that they ingest with the fruit. So, what makes the fruit red or orange or yellow is compounds the Cedar Waxwing can't process. So, it excretes it on the rachis, which is the central stalk of a feather. If you're looking at a feather, the shaft of the feather all the way out to the end is called the rachis. And on these feathers, the tail feather and the secondary feathers on the wing, those little accumulations of undigestible carotenoids end up forming these little plastic knobs that you can see on the Cedar Waxwing. So check 'em out. They are definitely beautiful. They're just a lovely bird, soft grays and browns. And then that crest and <laugh>, and then the beautiful little waxy plasticky secretions that form on their wings as well.

Final note: Whitetail deer. My neighbor Marvin and I had a little conversation yesterday and he's been seeing 10 deer out on the fields. Eight of them are does, two of them are bucks. And according to Marvin, as of Sunday night when he saw them last, the two bucks still had their antlers. So, we are coming into the time of year when they will begin to shed, but January is probably more a predominant time for antlers to fall. So, if you're a shed hunter, you might wanna at least get your gear together and get ready because that season is almost upon us. That's the Phenology Show for this week. Thanks for tuning in. Watch your birches in this upcoming storm and take a picture of one and send it to us on our KAXE/KBXE Season watch page.

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 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.
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?).