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Phenology Report, January 31st 2023

Two crows chase an owl across a pale sky. The crow closest to the owl has its feet out to grab the back wing. The crow furthest back has its mouth open as if it's cawing. I'm not sure of the species of owl, but if I had to guess, it's a Great Horned Owl.

Like the rest of us, John’s been looking for signs of spring. They’re tough to find right now, but if anyone can do it, it’s John! He’s had some luck, including hearing the Great Horned Owls calling. They’ve called on and off since the beginning of January, but in the last week it’s become a daily occurrence, particularly at 6 AM and right after sunset. Their hooting is part of their courtship and preparation for nesting: nesting begins in the Grand Rapids area in February. The owlets take about three months to fledge: there’s a lot of work that goes into learning how to be a successful owl!

At the end of last week, Grand Rapids got a few inches of new snow as a result of the cold weather that moved in. When John says it’s cold, he means it! His thermometer read -27 degrees on January 30th (and a close runner-up, -25 degrees on the 29th!). It was the first temperature below -20 for 2023 (December 2022 hit -23 degrees). If you’re interested in cold hardiness (what Minnesotan isn’t?), be sure to listen in on February 14th! Rob Venette is joining the KAXE/KBXE Morning Show at 8:40 to discuss how cold hardiness affects invasive species (both plants and animals).

Though it’s cold now, we’re coming up to Groundhog’s Day. It marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher in the sky. While it isn’t having much effect on the temperatures yet, it is starting to affect the snow. Keep an eye on the south side of trees, especially ones with dark trunks: you’ll notice the snow begin to melt away from them. Similarly, south-facing snowbanks (especially where dirt or grime has accumulated) will begin to melt, creating lines of icicles called “dragon’s teeth.” These phenomena are due to albedo, or a surface’s ability to absorb (or, conversely, reflect) sunlight. Dark trees or a patch of dirt on a snowbank will absorb more energy from the sun than a white surface, leading to faster melting.

At John’s feeders, he’s seen American Goldfinches, Pileated Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Blue Jays. John got an email from Dave in Bemidji, asking about Blue Jays. While some Blue Jays are migratory, others will stick around through the winter- especially if they have a good stockpile of food. A Blue Jay with a full larder will rely on that for energy throughout the winter (or, if you have a reliable bird feeder, they’ll happily rely on your generosity!). John has 7-10 Blue Jays that frequent his feeder through the winter.

John also has a flock of crows that hang out near the end of his driveway. His neighbor, Marvin, tosses a little corn out for them, so they have a good life out there! There’s also a patch of gravel where they can find “grist for their gizzards” [my favorite phrase of the week]. If you live in the Twin Cities, there’s a giant roost of crows along the Mississippi a bit north of downtown. In the evenings, you’ll see hundreds of crows flying in to roost for the night. The city lights help them see owls (one of their major predators), and roosting in big groups lowers the chances that any individual crow gets snatched by an owl.

If you’re a crow in the Grand Rapids area, however, you may need to find other ways to evade the owls! John’s local flock uses a copse of tightly-packed White Spruce to shelter from wind, weather, and owls. John was walking along and saw a clump of dark feathers on the snow: looking up the tree, he saw a crow’s lower mandible stuck in a branch, as well as another chunk of feathers. Apparently, the copse was not as owl-proof as the crows had hoped! This is why crows have such a confrontational relationship with owls: if they spot one in the daytime, they will gleefully harass it and do their best to move it out of their area. They know it’ll exact its revenge come nighttime!

John ends with a sneak peek at February phenology. In the next month, we can expect to see Bald Eagles working on their nests. Skunks will emerge from their winter dormancy (John’s already had a few reports of them). With their short legs, they avoid deep snow and are drawn to roads and sidewalks: a dangerous place to be! Snow Buntings will be moving through as they head back to the arctic. If you’re on the western half of the state, keep an eye for Horned Larks moving through. While some crows and robins stay in the area throughout the year, the migratory individuals will be moving through. All the woodpeckers will begin drumming in February, as they stake out territories for breeding season. Pussy willows will begin to come out, and the Red Osier Dogwoods will be the first willows to brighten up [they’re already quite vibrant in the Twin Cities!]. By the end of the month, all of the (non-pussy willow) willows will be absolutely vibrant! John concludes, “February has a lot of things to watch for. Keep your eyes open, and when you see ‘em, let us know! We love to hear from you.”

That does it for this week! See something noteworthy? We would love to hear from you! Get in touch with me ( or John (, 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 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.
KAXE/KBXE Senior Correspondent
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie 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, she 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?).