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Phenology Report, January 17 2023

Two images are shown side-by-side. The left image, captioned "Male American Goldfinch/ Summer" shows a vibrant bird with a vivid yellow back and belly. The forehead is black, and the wings and tail are black with dramatic white wing bars. The right image, captioned "Male American Goldfinch/ Winter" shows a brownish/tan bird with a yellow-tinged head and black wings. The wings have white wing bards. The belly of the bird is very light, almost white. Snow is falling. Both images show the bird perched on a small deciduous branch with a blurry, unfocused background.

It's time for the phenology report! As John reminds us: “Phenology is the rhythmic biological nature of events as they relate to climate. Climate is what your [seasonal] wardrobe is and weather is what you’re wearing today. Today, you aren’t going to need any real heavy clothing. You might be able to get by without your long underwear, though why would you take a chance? I mean, you put it on in October. Taking it off in mid-January? That’s just rushing the season, kids. So just leave it on: you won’t need it today, but you’ll be just a little extra warm. Get out and enjoy this warm weather!” Sage advice as always!

John checked his records (as John is wont to do), and he logged 3 days in the past week that temperatures exceeded 32 degrees. The highest temperature was 36 degrees, which is quite warm for this time in January! Just a week from Thursday is, on average, the coldest day of the year: January 26th. This means that if you plotted all the daily low temperatures from the last 120ish years or so (which is as long as we [i.e., non-indigenous people] have been keeping track in the Grand Rapids area), January 26th is the average coldest date of the calendar year. That calculation remains true for the most part throughout the state. In a typical year, late January is the coldest part of the calendar: not this year, that’s for sure! [As a sidenote, I (Sarah) always laugh when I write ‘typical year’- the ‘typical year’ never happens, and is just a very useful conglomeration of a bunch of years that were all weird in their own way. Math, man. So useful, so strange!]

Next, John moves to an interesting observation from Long Lake Conservation Center’s phenology report: a flying insect! They saw one last week on the 11th. John points out that when the weather warms, as it did last week, insects can get out and move around a bit. They protect themselves by keeping some alcohol and sugar in their cells, which acts as antifreeze!

Over the last week, John was able to watch Pileated Woodpeckers on his property. He learned last week that Pileated Woodpeckers depend on aspen trees older than 50 years of age. (So, if you are lucky enough to have your own forest, take note! If you log your land, be sure to mark 20 or so mature aspens to keep around. They’ll make a great home for Pileated Woodpeckers and a variety of other critters!) John’s woodpeckers are busily attacking an old dead birch. John describes it as “Really, really rotten. I think the bark is the only thing holding it up. It’s about 20-25 feet tall and it’s riddled with holes.” Even with the new snow, there’s been evidence that the woodpeckers have been busy: there are fresh chips of the tree lying on top of the snowpack! They can work through a tree pretty quickly when they have a mind to.

A large woodpecker is perched on a dead tree trunk. The trunk of the tree has many large holes pecked into it. The woodpecker has a black back with white markings on the head and neck, as well as a bright red cap on the head. The image is labeled "Pileated Woodpecker".

In addition to John’s trees, the birds have been snacking at his bird feeders. The highlight of the week’s visitors was a flock of 20-30 American Goldfinches! They aren’t reliable visitors to John’s feeders, but when they stop by, they hit it hard. Goldfinches go through two molts a year. Right now, the male and female goldfinches look pretty similar: they’re a mottled yellowish-gray with black wings and a black tail. In late February and early March, however, they’ll change into their more familiar summer colors: the males become bright yellow with a black cap to go with their black wings and tail. As the year progresses to fall, they’ll drop those feathers and molt into their winter plumage. All those feathers require a lot of energy to grow: they have to have a good diet to be able to succeed! For that reason, most birds don’t molt twice in a single year.

John’s resident Bald Eagles have been doing some more renovations on their nest. They tore out some branches and added others: John sees them do this occasionally throughout the year. John points out that Bald Eagles are becoming more and more common: the prevalence of road-killed deer gives them plenty of opportunities to eat [as Zach from Cass Lake demonstrated this week!]. They’ll remain in the area as long as there’s open water where they can fish (though this might end up just being a snack, if their main food is venison). Bald Eagles’ reliable presence in the area for the last 20-25 years is a wonder, given that they were incredibly rare just 50 or 60 years ago. So, if you spot an eagle’s nest, keep an eye out! The owner may not be far away.

Bald Eagle carrying stick
Bald Eagle carrying stick

John concludes with a note from “a ~170-pound doofus” that the warm weather has opened the Mississippi River near Cohasset, and that Common Goldeneyes have returned to hang out on the open water. John suspects that they hadn’t gone far, but had just found open spots up and down the river to spend the winter! “So, thank you to Scott Hall for that note.” John concludes. [Scott Hall was John’s co-host Tuesday morning: a thankless job, apparently!] “That’s our phenology show for this week! Stay tuned: we’ll be back next week.”

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 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?).