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Phenology Report, January 24 2023

About 15 brown, withered oak leaves cling to snow-covered branches. The edges of the leaves are lined in frost. A blue winter sky is in the background. The image is captioned "Marcescent Leaves".

John starts the phenology report with a note on dead leaves! Red Oaks retain dead leaves through winter. These leaves are marcescent, which John defines as “Withered, but persisting.” He continues, “I love that word. I often use it to describe myself, though anyone who’s seen me knows that I’m not withering. But I am persistent!” John’s Red Oaks have about 15-20% of their leaves remaining. They’ve been dropping occasionally, but they’ll hang on through most of the winter! Ironwood trees are similar, keeping marcescent leaves until the new spring leaves push them out.

Needless to say, our intrepid Tree Spectator didn’t stop there. John’s also watching the aspens, and keeps detailed records about three of them. Two of these Quaking Aspen trees are male, and one is female. The male tree by his mailbox is a bit odd, since it buds out early: John spotted furry buds on January 3rd this year! The other male tree is completely dormant, and Ol’ Tree-Watcher Latimer is planning to train his trusty spotting scope on its branches to see when it decides to open its buds. The fuzzy buds themselves won’t fully mature until April, when they’ll elongate and start distributing pollen.

[Editor's note: Sometimes, I wonder what the trees think of John. If I had a neighbor who watched me through a spotting scope and kept detailed records on my reproductive habits, we’d have a problem! As far as I know, the aspens have yet to file a restraining order. There wood be no need to plant evidence: he's always barking about it on the radio with his buds!]

When he’s not spying on trees, John’s listening to the birds. His local Great Horned Owls are hooting in the evening as part of their courtship. The other night around 6, John was out and heard a quiet “kek kek kek” sound, followed by a deep “Wooo woohooo.” [Sidenote: I’ll clip out John’s surprisingly accurate owl impressions for your listening pleasure.] Great Horned Owl pairs will call to each other in the evenings throughout the courtship season as they prepare to nest. “I know that seems early,” says John, “But the Great Horned Owls have a lot of things to impart to their young and they’re going to need every day that they can get to educate these guys so they can become successful.”

John's_A_Great_Horned_Owl_Now.mp3

John’s suet feeder has been active, with visits from Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Pileated Woodpeckers. While he hasn’t seen any Common Goldeneyes (Scott Hall saw them last week), he has seen Goldfinches: a big flock has been stopping by his bird feeder.

John “Ever Vigilant” Latimer’s gotten reports of big ol’ flocks of American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds south of the Twin Cities. He can corroborate, as he’s observed large flocks of Robins in Minneapolis feasting on dried Black Cherry fruits. (He suggests trying them out, describing them as “…mostly skin and seed, but there’s some sugar in there and they’re quite tasty.”) Ruth, who reported the robin and blackbird sightings, was wondering if they were migrators returning north for spring. John gives us a simple litmus test to determine if a flock of birds is composed of winter residents or early migrators:

  • Are they in large numbers?
  • Are they making territorial calls, or showing other signs of territoriality?

[Editor's note: If you live near a stadium, this is also how you can determine if The Big Game is today.]

In the robins’ and blackbirds’ cases, they are present in large numbers but not showing any signs of territoriality. Birds will make calls at any time of year, but most have special territorial calls that they only make (or primarily make) during nesting season. During milder winters, many ‘summer residents’ find that there’s ample food here after all, and hang out all year.

Both Snowshoe Hares and Cottontail Rabbits have appeared in John’s yard. They make it extra convenient to distinguish them this time of year: Snowshoe Hares turn white in the winter, while Cottontail Rabbits are no fashionistas and keep their greyish/brownish coats all year long.

Two images are shown side by side. The first shows a white hare with large, black-tipped ears and tan paws standing in the snow. It is captioned "Snowshoe Hare". The second image is of a smaller tan and brown rabbit with relatively smaller ears. This rabbit is also standing on snow. It is captioned "Cottontail Rabbit".

Due to our mild January (and perhaps a touch of cabin fever), John decided to combine his phenology records with historical temperature records to determine if January weather has an effect on the timing of spring. [I know I’ve been hoping that this warm January means I’ll be seeing spring flowers earlier!] He chose the top ten warmest (and coldest) Januarys (Januaries?) on record, choosing only the years that he had corresponding phenology data. The warmest years included 2006 (the warmest on record), 2001 (3rd warmest), 1990 (4th), 2021 (5th), 2022 (6th, but I think John misspoke here), 2012 (8th), and 1998 (11th). Years that John didn’t have phenology data were excluded (e.g. the 2nd warmest January on record). The coldest years included 1994 (4th coldest), 1996 (7th), and 2022 (19th). For each year, John pulled data from his spring phenology records: flowering dates for Speckled Alder and Red Maples, dates of first call for Wood Frogs, emergence dates for Mourning Cloak Butterflies, and dates of Tamaracks turning green.

What John found may surprise you! [I can’t resist a clickbait title here and there.] January temperatures had no effect on the timing of spring; there was virtually no pattern. For instance, the warmest January was in 2006. The earliest spring was in 2012 (which had the 8th warmest January). 2013, which had an astonishingly average January, had the latest spring on record.

John concludes, “Just, I guess, to crush your hopes, it doesn’t really matter how warm January is. What happens between now and April: That’s going to be the big difference as to whether or not we have an early spring. So, this very mild January was lovely and enjoyable for all of us, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to have an early spring. There’s no guarantee that a warm January will translate into a warm early spring. So, button up your overcoat, we’re coming into some cooler weather.”

You hear that, everyone? Button up your overcoat, throw on your galoshes, and pull on those long johns: January isn’t done with us yet!

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.
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?).