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Phenology Talkbacks, January 3 2023

A beige and grey possum with black ears and a pink nose and pink ear tips. It has a triangular face and black whiskers, and is walking in snow. The image is captioned "Virginia Opossum".

This week’s Phenology Talkbacks section starts with a quick chat about woodpeckers! Heidi has been keeping a keen eye on her birdfeeders and has seen lots of Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. John, on his bird survey on January 1st, saw no Red-bellied Woodpeckers but did find Pileated, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers. Though most Northern Flickers have migrated south for the winter, there have been a few sightings on our Season Watch Facebook page. John has heard Downy Woodpeckers drumming, so that’s a good sign that we’ve left early winter and are solidly in mid-winter!

We have four reports this week- enjoy!

Dave McMillan from Long Lake Conservation Center, January 3rd 2023

"Opossums (or possums, as they are commonly called) have lived in southern Minnesota for about a century. With the climate warming, they have been expanding their territory northward and are likely to become more common in the coming years. This week there was a sighting close to Long Lake Conservation Center, near Palisade. Here's what you need to know about these interesting animals and how they might fit into our ecosystem. Opossums eat just about anything, including fruit, eggs and young birds, worms, snakes, insects, and even garbage and carrion. This one was eating seeds under a bird feeder. Their predators include dogs, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, and owls. Because they also like to eat roadkill, many possums are killed by vehicles as they scavenge for food on roadways. They are more active in the evening. When threatened, opossums may click their teeth, growl, screech, or lie still and secrete a foul-smelling scent. This is commonly known as “playing dead” or “playing possum.” The Palisade possum is up in garage rafters living in a den of insulation and making a big old mess on the car below. The resident (and the UPS delivery driver) would like the possum to find another home. Especially when it was discovered that possum mating season begins in January and litters are six to 20 young!”

Dave’s report reminded John of some pranksters that got him a few years ago. They found a road killed possum, brought it north to Grand Rapids, and left it outside of the KAXE station. John ‘discovered’ it shortly after, and was surprised to see that the possums’ range had extended that far north! However, when he found another dead possum at the end of his driveway on the same day, he began to suspect that he was being pranked. Sure enough, he was! Warmer winters will expand the opossum’s range northward. Currently, the DNR’s northernmost record of a possum is at the intersection of Highway 2 and 200, 9 miles west of Floodwood. [Interestingly, there is an outlier observation on iNaturalist of a possum near Ely. It makes you wonder if there are more pranksters at work!]

Sarah Mitchell, January 3rd 2023

Inspired by Dave, I sent in my own little note about opossums. They’re one of my favorites, with their angry little triangle faces and their scraggly tails! They’re the USA’s only native marsupial (though there are more species of opossums in North and South America- Mexico alone has 8 species!) Their resiliency is incredible: one study found that they have an incredible ability to survive despite severe injuries. Skeletal evidence showed that over half of the individuals studied had sustained broken bones, survived, and recovered (the researchers deduced that dog attacks were the primary cause). The rate of injury was far higher than that observed in similar species! In addition, they are immune to most snake venoms and resistant to rabies. Just to make them more fun, they have the most teeth of any Minnesota mammal! While they often open their mouths to look scary, they rarely actually bite. Once upon a time, I pursued a possum across a college campus, through a drainpipe, and into some bushes. (I will make no comment on my sobriety at the time). It didn’t bother trying to bite me until about 5 minutes in, and that was with some encouragement! My rainboots sustained a small puncture, but that was the only injury to me or the possum. Eventually, we parted ways amicably (on my end, at least).

Who doesn’t love collecting statistics in their free time? Over the holidays, I kept count of bird visits to my Mom and Dad’s bird feeder. We did two observation periods of 5 minutes, and logged 113 visits! (That’s 11.3 birds per minute, or roughly a visit every 6th heartbeat!) 48% of visits were from Black-capped Chickadees, but we also saw White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers. When we did a similar observation in March, we saw 0 Red-breasted Nuthatches: over Christmas, they visited the feeder 29 times!

John also loves collecting statistics, but he normally counts species, not the number of visits. While he also appreciates opossums, he’d rather that they stay in their original range, not extend northward! (I’m in agreement there!)

Birdfeeder Stats 12_25_22(1).png
Kathleen, January 3rd 2023

Happy New Year. As we drove from Brainerd to Marrifield to ring in the new year, we noticed the beauty of the ice crystals on the trees and wooded areas. This precipitated a discussion about rime versus hoar frost. Both are beautiful, but their source of beginning different. We decided what we saw was hoar frost. I think John has spoken many times about this glorious nature's art. I'm not sure if Bemidji and Grand Rapids were gifted with the frosty gift, but here in Brainerd, we have a gorgeous view of the outside world. Warmly hoping for a peaceful 2023!”

John thanks Kathleen for the note! He adds that hoar frost is the result of sublimation, or water going directly from a gaseous phase to a solid, frozen phase (skipping the liquid phase entirely). Rime is the result of tiny liquid water particles freezing: the suspension of these minuscule liquid particles creates fog or mist. When the fog or mist freezes on surfaces, it’s called rime! Rime is often deposited by wind, so it often accumulates on one side of a tree or structure. The lee side, which is protected from the wind, tends to remain bare.

Two images are shown. On the left, the needles and cone of a spruce tree are half-covered in thick, spiky frost. The other half is bare. This image is captioned "Rime". On the right, the needles of another spruce tree are shown covered in a thinner spiky layer of frost, which is more evenly distributed. This image is labeled "Hoar Frost".
Ken, January 3rd 2023

John heard from Ken in Cohasset, who has seen a Black-billed Magpie, 10 Evening Grosbeaks, and 12 Pine Grosbeaks!

John loves to hear it- what a great start to the new year! Some lovely, colorful birds to brighten up your yard. Pine and Evening Grosbeaks are native winter residents of northern Minnesota. Hopefully, we’ll all get a chance to see them this winter!

Two images are shown. On the left, there is a big-beaked songbird with vibrant yellow, white, and black markings. It is sitting on a bare branch and labeled "Evening Grosbeak". On the right is a big-beaked songbird with black and grey wings and a vibrant red head and chest. It is sitting on a spruce tree and is labeled "Pine Grosbeak".

Please 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 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?).