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Phenology Report, January 10th 2023

An image of an owl with large 'ear' tufts labeled "Great Horned Owl Courtship". The owl has bright yellow eyes, a black outline around the tan facial disk, and mixed brown, black and tan coloring.

John’s spotting the first subtle signs of spring! This week’s phenology report includes Great Horned Owls, Trembling Aspen buds, and mystery animal tracks- enjoy!

January 3rd was a big day for ol’ John Latimer: he counted two firsts of the year! He heard Great Horned Owls beginning their courtship and mating process. Great Horned Owls lay eggs in late January, and their owlets will hatch in late February. The owlets come out covered in down and aren’t left alone in the nest until late March when they are able to generate their own warmth.

If you want to hear what John’s hearing, listen for their mating calls. Great Horned Owls have a deep, guttural hoot with a distinctive stutter characteristic of the species. The calls will come from two different locations, with one hoot pitched deeper than the other. (John’s not sure whether the male or the female has a deeper hoot.) They’re audible outside, or even inside if your house is quiet enough! I’ve linked examples below, as well as a comparison with a Barred Owl hoot!

Here are John’s records on the first hooting of Great Horned Owls: [I’d advocate that The First Hooting becomes a state-sponsored holiday. What a great name!]

  • January 3rd, 2023
  • January 17th, 2022
  • January 1st, 2021
  • January 30th, 2020
  • January 27th, 2015

While 2023's isn't the earliest recorded hooting, it’s definitely on the early end.
Also on January 3rd, John recorded the first furry bud on his beloved Quaking Aspens! John, being the careful and enthusiastic spectator of nature that he is, has selected a few individual aspens as study trees in order to ensure his measurements are consistent between years. [Be warned: There is something about John’s enthusiasm for aspen phenology that makes me even more aggressively fond of the ol' guy. He’s going to talk a lot about aspens in the next 5 months, so buckle up for a lot of sidebars from Yours Truly.] One of John’s Top Five Most-Mentioned Aspens [who doesn’t have those?] is a male aspen tree right by his mailbox. This tree, which I call Mailbox Aspen, has convenient branches that are low enough for him to pull down and examine the buds closely. This week, he saw the first furry buds on that tree. It’s an early observation, compared to his other trees. For instance, here are his past records for another aspen, called Yard Aspen, producing its first buds:

  • January 29th, 2022
  • February 25th, 2021
  • February 24th, 2020
  • February 18th, 2019
  • January 26th, 2018
    A closeup of a light brown branch tip that has about 7 small buds covered in fine white hairs. It looks very fuzzy. It is captioned, "Aspen buds".
    Contributed
    /
    Canva
    Aspen buds emerge from twigs.

As you might notice, January 3rd is a very early date compared to the dates from Yard Aspen; John suspects that the convenience of Mailbox Aspen’s location and low-hanging branches make him more likely to notice the buds when they form. He also thinks it might just be an odd tree: he knew a Pussywillow on his mail route that had similar behavior, putting out buds as early as November or December. Despite their odd budding behavior, both the Mailbox Aspen and this odd Pussywillow develop flowers at the usual time for their species. John concludes that while it’s good to see the aspen buds, it doesn’t signify that we’ll have an early spring. Mailbox Aspen is just a weird tree!

On his drive to and from the Twin Cities over the New Year holiday, John saw many Bald Eagles and Common Ravens feeding on roadkill. The ravens, as he mentioned last week, are skilled at tunneling down through the snowpack to access their dinner! Back in Grand Rapids, he saw his first flock of crows in a while. He counted them twice and concluded the flock had 19 individuals, all grouped up and on the hunt for food.

On Sunday, 1/8, John put on his snowshoes and went for a hike. He found tracks galore, including vole tracks, deer or white-footed mouse tracks, otter tracks, and a mystery track! The otter tracks led from a cattail marsh, over some hummocks, then onto and across the lake. The otter would bound and slide as it went, leaving foot marks together where it bounded followed by long slides. At one point, John found a spot where the otter’s trail disappeared for about 5 feet: there were foot marks at the beginning and end, but nothing in between. There was a 1.5 inch groove where the tail dragged on the ground, but no other marks: quite a leap!

The mystery track [which you can see here] is a fun one! The track is about 100 feet in length, with a tail mark on the left side every 6-8 inches. The tail rarely marked the right side of the track. Curiously, at the end of the trail, there is nothing- no hole that the animal disappeared down, no wing marks from a predator snatching it, no tracks leading away. John suspects that it was a Star-nosed Mole, which are somewhat aquatic (the tracks were found next to the lake). Take a peek and see if you can figure it out!

Another fun find was a set of grouse tracks. After following them a little ways, John found a snow tunnel where the Ruffed Grouse had spent the night. Upon excavating the tunnel, John found a significant pile of scat: on the other side of the tunnel, there was a 4-5 foot trail of grouse footprints, three wing impressions, then blank, untouched snow.

Four tracks are clear in a light layer of snow. The tracks are from a bird with three toes pointed forward and one pointed backward. The toes seem to have been covered in a lining of extra skin, spreading the weight of the bird across more of the snow's surface. It is captioned "Ruffed Grouse Tracks."

While on his snowshoeing excursion, John spotted many White Spruce seeds lying on the snow’s surface. These were intact seeds released by cones still in the trees: more commonly, John finds bracts (the modified scale-like leaves that form the pinecone and protect the seeds). The bracts are left behind by hungry squirrels that pull them apart to eat the seeds. This time, though, John found intact seeds: hopefully, they’ll be beautiful mature spruces someday!

To round off a great adventure, John found the footprints of a Northern White-footed Mouse. Alongside its tracks were the footprints of a weasel: both sets of tracks disappeared into the same hole. “There are definitely lots of things to check out in the snow,” John concludes. “So, get outside (as the kids advised) and see what you can find. Maybe you’ll come across a mystery set of tracks like I did. I walked away scratching my head, which is always fun. Because if everything were explainable, nothing would be a mystery: how boring would that be?”

That does it for this week! 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.
KAXE/KBXE Senior Correspondent
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.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined KAXE in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, produces the Phenology Talkbacks show, coordinates the Phenology in the Classroom program, and writes nature-related stories for KAXE's website. Essentailly, Charlie is John Latimer's faithful sidekick and makes sure all of KAXE's nature/phenology programs find a second life online and in podcast form.


With a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, Charlie enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, or the star-nosed mole. (Fun fact: Moles store fat in their tails, so they don't outgrow their tunnels every time conditions are good.)