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Phenology Talkbacks, December 27 2022

A Northern Shrike is perched on a strand of barbed wire. The songbird is mostly grey, with a black tail, wings, and eye mask. The beak is hooked.

It’s the last phenology talkback of the year! It’s a good one, with reports on Northern Shrikes, freeze-resistant frogs, and the winter solstice.

Aaron Brown, December 27th 2022

Aaron Brown reported from Balsam Township in Itasca County. This is his first phenology report! [Thank you, Aaron!] He was lucky enough to have a Northern Shrike move into an adjacent forest and he observed it throughout the last week. While he didn’t recognize it at first, he quickly determined it wasn’t a Grey Jay. The domed head, grey back, black tail, black band across the eye, and distinctive hooked beak gave Aaron the clues he needed to identify it as a Northern Shrike. “A little research tells you that that beak is used for very nefarious deeds,” Aaron reported. “It’s a meat eater, a songbird that eats other songbirds, mice, and other little critters.” The shrike’s presence has a marked influence on the behavior of the other birds, which become very cautious. Aaron found that the chickadees are the bravest, continuing to venture out to grab a seed or two, but that they keep a watchful eye on the shrike the whole time. A Blue Jay (the forest bully) made a valiant attempt to scare the shrike off the bird feeder, but the Northern Shrike stared it down and the Blue Jay flew off instead. It’s the first time a Northern Shrike stayed in Aaron’s area, so he enjoyed watching it: since it’s still around, it must be finding enough food!

John thanks Aaron for the report! [I certainly hope we hear more- what a fascinating story!] John hasn’t had a shrike at his place this winter, but he always enjoys their visits. The songbirds aren’t as enthusiastic, however, as they don’t want to get eaten! John reminds us that key differences between a Canada Jay (also known as a Grey Jay) and a Northern Shrike are the black eye band, dark wings, and black tail: Canada Jays are entirely gray!

Cohasset Elementary School Phenology Report, December 27th 2022

Bennet and Jaden reported from Zac Erickson’s class at Cohasset Elementary School. Due to the bitter cold, the class stayed inside for their phenology day. Mr. Latimer taught them all about winter tracks and the winter solstice! December 21st was the winter solstice this year, and Mr. Latimer drew a “pretty good” picture of the sun and moon. They also discussed hibernation: Mr. Latimer went skiing and found a black bear den. The snow had all melted from the entrance because the bear’s den was warm! Then, the class talked about tree frogs. In winter, tree frogs freeze solid: they are essentially dead throughout the cold season. They avoid hypothermia by filling their cells with a glucose mixture that acts as an antifreeze. This prevents cell damage and allows the frogs to thaw unharmed in spring. “We are so excited to learn about Mr. Latimer when we return from winter break!”

John thanks Bennet and Jaden for the report, and is excited to be talking with their fifth-grade class about adaptations! He talked with the class about hibernation: which animals hibernate, which don’t, and why. He’s excited to join the class again soon!

A closeup shot of a green frog with a brown stripe extending from the nostril through the eye and down to the front leg. The frog is sitting in a pile of snow. It looks alert and has a bright golden eye with black stripes running through it.
North Shore Community School Phenology Report, December 27th 2022

Lyla reported from Darcie Rolfe and Leigh Jackson’s class at North Shore Community School near Duluth. At a ski lift on Sunday the 11th, one student noticed that fog increased as they went up the ski lift. Mrs. Jackson found a winter crane fly the same day! Temperatures at the beginning of the week hovered in the mid-thirties, turning the snow to slush. Ms. Rolfe noticed a short, hard rain: it was 35 degrees. On Tuesday, the 13th, Lev noticed strong winds, likely the beginning of the snowstorm that hit on the 14th. Henry saw a winter crane fly.

On the 14th, Tiffany noticed her windows were covered in frost in the morning. The 14th and 15th created some of the greatest snowfall records in Minnesota history. Duluth International Airport reported two periods that qualified as blizzards (wind gusts above 35 mph and visibility below a quarter mile)! Due to the snowstorm, North Shore Community School and all the local schools were closed for three whole days! On Thursday, December 15th, Mason noticed that the branches on his neighbor’s tree were weighted down by all the snow. Ms. Rolfe’s apple trees lost a few limbs to the snowstorm. The snow was followed immediately by a cold snap: it was -17 degrees on Wednesday the 21st and was expected to stay cold for several more days!

Wednesday, December 21st was the winter solstice. As Lyla explains, “…the solstice actually lasts only a moment. Specifically, it’s at the exact moment when a hemisphere is tilted the furthest away from the sun. It is not always on the same day each year, but always marks the shortest length of daylight in a day.” In the school forest, the students noticed whitetail deer tracks: this is normal for this time of year, when the deer spend 1-3 months in the same small area. They also saw fox tracks, which they followed through almost the entire school forest. They think the tracks led to its den! Snowshoe hare and squirrel tracks were also found. “This concludes the Phenology Report. Have a great week and be observant!”

John says, “Nice job, Lyla!” That’s quite a long period of time to cover in one report, spanning from the warm spell before the snowstorm to the cold snap that followed after. Lots of interesting things going on in Duluth!

Heavy snow and a strong wind obscure the view of a forest. It is captioned, "Blizzard Conditions".
Long Lake Conservation Center Phenology Report, December 27th 2022

Addy, Ellie, and Tate report from Oneka Elementary’s trip to Long Lake Conservation Center. [You can watch the video here.]

“During our trip to Long Lake Conservation Center from December 19th through the 21st we experienced lots and lots of snow and the first sub-zero temperatures of the season. The snow was measured in 15 different locations in the woods and 15 places in open spaces. The average depth of snow in the open was 16 and a half inches, and 14.96 inches in the woods. Temperatures overnight fell to 12 degrees below zero. The snow and cold didn’t stop us from venturing into the woods to explore nature. One of the highlights was finding a spot where the deer cleared the snow to lay down. Our group saw a porcupine on campus eating the bark of a tree, Pileated Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Chickadees, Blue Jays and a rare sighting of a Cardinal. The Long Lake staff told us that they don’t often see Cardinals on campus. We also saw a Bald Eagle flying overhead, and the tracks of deer and rabbits. During survival shelters class, we discovered that heavy snow caused the Ironwood trees to bend into an arch. One of our chaperones shook the trees and dumped several inches of snow on our heads. It was pretty funny…and also a little mean. It’s the winter Solstice, days are getting long, and despite the cold, we want to remind everyone to unplug, get outside and Live connected.”

As there was an error with the audio file during broadcast, this was read by John as part of the Phenology Report! He adds that the evenings will be longer by about 35 seconds every day, now that we've passed the winter solstice. Mornings will remain about the same. [I was thrilled to hear about all replicated measurements of snow depth. Taking many measurements helps to get a complete picture of what’s occurring: snow in forests will be less deep than snow in a field, and wind affects the snow depth as well! I also love dumping snow down my unsuspecting brothers’ backs, so I’m glad to see that Minnesota tradition going strong.]

A yardstick is stuck in the snow. It reads 17 inches. The image is titled "snow measurements".
SNAP Bemidji, December 27th 2022

Angie Nistler, the leader of the Science Nature Adventure Program at Bemidji Middle School, sent this photos to us! She says, "Here are some pictures from the Bemidji Middle School SNAP Winter Solstice activity this week. The students studied and celebrated the winter solstice using luminaries as the light and their bodies as the "rays of sunshine". They were also able to play winter games and "hide" in the heavy snow cover." You can see more photos from Angie on our Instagram!


Thanks to all the reporters this week: We’ll see you next year!

Remember that you can add your voice to this list! Get in touch with me (smitchell@kaxe.org), John Latimer (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.
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?).