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Phenology Report, January 3 2023

ON a sandy riverbank, 5-10 red pines have blown down. A few trees remain standing. The caption reads, "Downed Pines".

It’s time for the first Phenology Report of 2023! It’s mid-winter, which makes phenological observations difficult. Plants, which conveniently don’t move, are dormant right now: many animals and insects are either absent or hibernating. John points out, however, that we’re a mere 6-ish weeks from the first flowers of the season! “Yes, I know you’re scratching your head right now, trying to think of a flower that blooms in mid-February.” John says. “The truth is, it’s the ubiquitous aspen! The Trembling Aspens break flower buds in mid-February, so we’ll talk about it when it happens and alert you so you can start watching for it.”

In the meantime, John’s peregrinations on his snowshoes have led him to a number of downed White Pine branches. You may have seen this as well, after the heavy snows in the last month. If you don’t get out much in winter, you may stumble across downed White Pine branches in summer. Some of them are 4-6 inches in diameter- big branches! Red Pines (or Norway Pines, depending on your naming preference), don’t tend to lose branches the way White Pines do. Heavy snow will either shed off of the Red Pines or pull the entire tree down. John lost one Red Pine this year, a mature tree measuring 8 inches thick at chest height!

Losing branches to snow damage may seem unhealthy for the tree, but it does make it more resistant to wind damage. A few years ago, a straight-line wind event ran through Northern Minnesota from Bemidji to Grand Rapids. It blew down a lot of pines, most of which were Red Pines. White Pines were more resilient since they had more gaps in their canopies where they had lost branches to heavy snow over the years. Red Pines, with their more full canopies, were less able to resist the force of the wind: many of them blew over or snapped off. You can see this in person at Norway Beach State Park. Those pine stands are comprised of young Red Pines and mature white pines. The mature Red Pines had blown over in the heavy winds. So, as you notice downed branches, think about how seemingly ‘bad’ environmental stressors can end up benefiting these trees in the long run!

As John drove to the Twin Cities last weekend, he noticed that the tree trunks on the west side of the road were all covered in snow. On the east side, they were bare: a clear sign that the snow fell mostly from the northeast! The oak trees are down to only 25% of their leaves, which are copper- or bronze-colored. Ironwoods also still have most of their leaves. While the oaks will drop their leaves at the end of this month or in early February, the Ironwoods will hold their leaves until the new leaves emerge and push the old ones out!

A winter forest scene, with lots of dark tree trunks and a thick blanket of snow. The tree trunks only have snow on the right-hand side: the left-hand side of the trunks are bare and dark-colored.
Barb Staub
/
Personal Communications

While in the cities, John saw lots of American Robins. They were chowing down on black cherries, so John decided to emulate them! The black cherry he tried was quite sweet, though it was mostly skin and seed. John compared the taste to the berry of the Canada Mayflower. While in the cities, John also saw Northern Cardinals and Chipping Sparrows.

Back at home, John did his New Year’s Day survey of the birds at his feeders. He saw Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches, and Blue Jay. He also saw and heard an American Crow and Common Ravens. The ravens and a Bald Eagle were dining along the side of Highway 65, so he got a close-up look!

John has noticed over the years that ravens are very good at digging down to roadkill. They can remember where the source of food is and, even if it’s been covered with 3 feet of snow by a passing snowplow, they’ll dig down to access it. John has seen spots where ravens excavated a 3x4 foot hole over the top of a road-killed deer. It was about 25 feet off the road, and the snow was all bloodstained around it. Another time, he witnessed a pair of ravens that had dug a three-foot hole in the snow: One raven would stand guard while the other went down to feed, and then they’d swap places. They’re smart birds, as all members of the Corvid family are! Our local corvids include crows, ravens, jays, and magpies, all of which are extremely intelligent and cache food. This makes them well-equipped to survive and thrive through the winter!

About ten ravens take off from a roadkilled deer. There is a lot of snow on the ground, a rib cage is visible, and a forest is in the background.

We hope you are surviving and thriving as well!

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 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?).