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Phenology Report, December 20 2022

A group of five young white-tailed deer stand in deep snow. Nearby trees are covered in three inches of snow.

This Covid is still kickin'! I hope to be back to regular articles next week. Until then, a (lightly edited) transcript! -SM

John Latimer:
It's time for the Phenology show. Phenology is the rhythmic biological nature of events as they relate to climate. And this past week, I suspect that the foremost event <laugh> that is on everybody's mind was the snowfall. It started on Wednesday and went right on through Sunday. I didn't see the sun until yesterday or the day before… Sunday, I guess it was, but it was quite the snowstorm. It started off with rain, and then wet heavy snow. On the first day, I had six inches of snow plus the rain. On the second day, I got nine more inches at my house, totaling 15 inches in that rain and snow combination. At that point, I brought my rain gauge in and checked it, and I had 2.17 inches of moisture out of that 15 inches of snow, and then it continued and I got another three inches, then two, then one, and one. This morning I had another three. The total depth of snow in my yard, which was about two inches when the whole thing started, is now over 20. (That's out in the open. It's not nearly that deep in the woods.)

I took a hike on my snowshoes on Sunday, and first of all, it was exhausting! It was a lot of work. Secondly, most of the things that I encountered were just really loaded down as a result of the snowfall. The hazel brush was all bent down to the ground covered with snow, and in a lot of cases, it was either step on it or break it loose and push it out of the way. But that's just the understory. If you begin to look up into the forest above… You may recall last Tuesday, Heidi read Robert [Frost]’s poem, Birches. [It’s] about having the birches bend over and how it looked like boys had been swinging on them, but in truth, it was the storm that brought them down. And we talked about the architecture of the birches and how they tend to bow over like that. And I am sure now many of you, perhaps all of you, have encountered at least one birch that is bowed to the ground. I had many, many birches that were bowed to the ground and some that continue to be bowed that will probably [still] be bent over come spring and suffering from the effects of the snow and ice. What really compounded the issue was the fact that it started off as rain, then added all that wet heavy snow (which totaled, as I said, 15 inches), followed by the cold weather and no wind to speak of. It takes a good breeze to shake that snow off the trees and to get it to loosen up and fall, and it just hasn't done that. And so, there are a lot of trees that are weighted down with snow right now.

Eight birches are bent into arch shapes by the weight of snow.

The top of one of the Norway Pines in my yard broke off and fell. My neighbor, Marvin, has a number of White Pines around his house, and he described it as sounding like gunshots as the branches were breaking off of the tree and falling. And some of these branches are in excess of four inches thick. And it's just the nature of the White Pines. The birches bow, but the White Pines… If you look at a White Pine, its branches reach out and sort of curl up at the ends, just inviting snow to weight on them. And, eventually, that snow is going to just snap those branches off. And as difficult as that is to accept, if you recall a few years back, we had a really strong windstorm come through and it whacked over a lot of Red Pines (or Norway Pines) because the Norway Pines don't lose branches the way the White Pines do. The Norway Pines tend to hold their branches and tend to somehow manage to slough off the snow. Maybe they don't load up as heavily as the White Pines, but the fact that the White Pines had all these openings created by these broken-off branches allowed the wind to pass through them. And a lot of White Pines stood where a lot of Norway Pines fell. If you are a traveler on Highway 2, and you go just east of Cass Lake, there's a place called Norway Beach State Park. There was a huge stand of pines in there, big old pines, and almost all of them broke off except for the White Pines. The Norway Pines (or the Red Pines) that were in there were trashed. The White Pines remained because they had these open branches caused by this sort of snowfall. And so, even though they sacrifice a limb here and there, it has dividends. Not always, but in some cases, it does pay dividends. So, the White Pines were able to stand up to that [heavy wind].

Now, as you look around on your way to town this morning or in your yard, notice the Spruce and the Balsam Fir. Both of those trees are trees of the Northland, and they are uniquely designed to take these kinds of loads. And I can look out the window here at KAXE and stare at a White Spruce that, in normal times, would be maybe 20 feet across from bough tip to bough tip. Today, it's probably 10 or 12 feet across from bough tip to bough tip because the branches are weighted by that snow. [It acts] sort of like an umbrella. As you go up a spruce or a balsam, each of the whorls of branches supports the swirls above. And when you start loading it up with snow like that, they sort of fold down and let the branches below them catch some of the weight. And ultimately, you end up with this, think of it as a sort of a ‘closed umbrella’ sort of shape. And that sharing of the load by all of those branches on these spruce and balsams allows those trees to actually survive pretty well in this kind of a situation. I did lose some White Spruce (probably four or five on my 40 acres) where the tops just were loaded and started bending to one side. The weight was just too much, and they snapped off. But in most cases, the balsams and the spruce are architecturally designed to take this kind of load and shrug it off or at least sort of collapse on themselves and form these narrow spikes of trees rather than the broad open branched tree that would be there normally. That helps them sort of survive this kind of snowfall and this kind of weather event, which can be devastating to a lot of different trees.

A stand of fir trees in deep winter. The upper boughs, weighed down by heavy snow, rest on lower whorls of boughs for support.

So, check it out, look at your trees, and appreciate what they're doing. And if you have some birches that are arched over, if you can get out and give them a shake and free them of some of that snow, they will begin to spring back. If you wait until springtime for them to drop that load of snow, they're going to remain bent over like that, and you'll have these lovely arches to walk under.

It wasn't all snow and cold. We had our Audubon Christmas bird count on Sunday. I was out with Henry and Aaron Brown, and we had quite a morning! We found six trumpeter swans on the Prairie River by the dam, and we encountered a flock of… <laugh> First we thought they were redpolls, then we thought they were Pine Siskins, and ultimately, we agreed that they were a mixture of both. It was a large flock of redpolls and Pine Siskins, and they were feeding on birch seeds.

If you are out and about, even though it snowed last night, I would guess that by noon today [Tuesday], the snow will be covered with the bracts or the little sheaths that cover the seeds on the birches. If you look at a birch tree right now, you'll see these downward-pointing brown structures. They look like a catkin. They're sort of an inch and a half to two inches long, maybe a quarter of an inch wide, and dark brown. And those are the female flowers and they are ripe. Since late August, they've been dropping seeds, but they continue to drop seeds through the winter. And that's what these finches were looking for by flying into these birches, attacking these catkins, eating the seeds, and knocking away the little coverings (the bracts that protect the seeds) in this column of seeds. Those bracts look a little bit like a duck track or a Fleur du Lis. They lay on top of the snow. The seed looks like… well, imagine the planet Saturn, if the ring went all the way to [surface of] the planet. So, you've got this flat disc with a swollen center (which is actually the seed). You won't see as many of those, because the redpolls and the Pine Siskins are eating them. What you will see are the bracts and occasionally a seed or two because they can't catch 'em all. And, when you start banging into those little seed pods on the birches, you're going to disturb some seeds that you aren't going to eat that are just going to fall away. And you can do that as well. You can go up to a birch in your yard, and now that they're bowed over like that, the tops are going to be right there in front of you. Find one of those dark brown seed pods and crush it in your hands, and you'll just see how it all comes apart, and you'll see both the seeds and the bracts.

Hundreds of tiny, four-lobed birch seeds lay on the surface of the snow. The seeds are tan with a bulge in the center.

We not only saw Pine Siskins and redpolls. [We also saw] the Trumpeter Swans, and we saw a big flock of American Goldfinches. I have a couple, maybe two hanging out at my feeder, but we found a flock of probably 30 or 40 of them. They were around somebody's feeder. We saw, of course, the White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

[We] did not see a Northern Strike, and did not see a Gray Jay. [We did see] lots of Blue Jays and lots of ravens despite the weather on Sunday, which was fairly nice. I mean, it was around zero when we got out there, but fresh snow on the ground and a beautiful sunrise. It was a lovely day with lots of birds to be seen. [There are] still a few grouse around. I'm seeing their tracks. And of course, the grouse couldn't be happier with all this loose snow on the ground. They have great sleeping conditions. They can dive into this snow and cover themselves and stay nice and warm. The other bird that I know of that does the same thing is the Snow Bunting. And perhaps you are in an area where there are flocks of Snow Buntings around. When they were plentiful around my area, I would often see them tucked into the snow. When I was driving out, especially on Tuesday mornings when I left the house around 5:15-5:30, those little guys would come popping up out of the snowbanks and fly off in the darkness. I would think, “Oh, I'm sorry to wake you. I can only imagine how nice and warm it was where you were hiding out.”

We'll get a complete readout [of the Christmas Bird Count] from Sean Conrad, who supervises the Christmas Bird Count here in Grand Rapids. But the big find this year was a Long-tailed Duck, which was on the Mississippi River near Cohasset. And this is a rather unusual duck, not often seen. I think this is only the third time that a Long-tailed Duck has been recorded on the Christmas Bird Count in the Cohasset/Grand Rapids area. So, if you get a chance, get out to Cohasset and check along the river. You're going to need binoculars (a spotting scope is even better). But if you get out there with binoculars, you may spot this guy. It’s pretty obvious: it's not like the mergansers or goldeneyes that it's likely to be hanging out with. It's quite ostentatious colored. You will see lots of light gray and white on it, whereas the other birds are going to be more uniformly dark. So, if you get a chance, go over to the Cohasset area, and see if you can't spot that Long-tailed Duck: a pretty unusual bird in this area. That's the Phenology show for this week. Thanks for tuning in. As always, if you have events or observations you'd like to share, we'd sure like to hear from you. So, get in touch with us!

A duck swims in cold water. It has highly contrasting white and dark brown markings, a long black tail, and a band of pink on the dark bill.

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 or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

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?).