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Phenology Talkbacks, February 7 2023

Two snow huts connected by a tunnel are shown. They are lit from within: outside it is night. There are coniferous trees in the background.
Photo and caption provided by Angie Nistler, leader of the Science Nature Adventure Program at Bemidji Middle School.
"Cozy quinzee in -34 degree windchill!"

Happy Phenology February! We’re starting off wonderfully, with 6 audio reports and some magnificent quinzee photos. Let’s get to it!

Lake of the Woods School student phenology report: February 7th 2023

Jackson reports from Andrew Pierson’s class at Lake of the Woods School in Baudette. The students have noticed that fox activity has picked up with the advent of mating season! One student spotted a fox feeding on a road-killed deer. A Grey Jay was also seen searching for a snack. On an absolutely frigid day (temps of -22 degrees), the only sign of life outside school was a pair of ravens that flew overhead!

John thanks Jackson for the report and agrees that ravens are a cold-defying species! On freezing mornings on his mail route, when the temperature didn’t rise above 0 degrees all day, ravens would often be the only thing moving. They didn’t seem to mind! John also notes that canids like foxes and coyotes are moving around quite a bit: he’s spotted their tracks in the thin layer of new snow.

A fluffy red fox stands in snow. Behind it are coniferous trees. Its back is red, with black tail and feet. The chest is white. It is captioned "Red Fox".
Cohasset Elementary School student phenology report: February 7th 2023

Matthew and Haven report from Zac Erickson’s class at Cohasset Elementary. It was cold during their phenology day, so they elected to stay inside: they made observations on their plant cuttings! (A few weeks ago, they took samples of local trees and shrubs. They brought them inside, set them in buckets of water, and will be observing their development over the late winter and early spring months.) This week, they learned the word petiole, meaning the leaf’s stem! It connects the leaf to the branch. They also discussed the winter solstice (shortest day of the year), spring solstice (equal lengths of day and night), and Groundhog’s Day (halfway between the solstice and the equinox). John finished off the lesson with a few notes on what they’ll be observing this month: Matthew and Haven remind us that Bald Eagles will be bringing sticks to their nests! When the female is ready to lay eggs, they’ll put a final layer of soft grass in the nest.

John thanks Matthew and Haven for the report and points out that they had a pussywillow branch bloom in their observation buckets last week! It was a full-flowered female: John was able to show the students the difference between male and female flowers. As John points out, the male flowers will coat your fingers in pollen if you poke them, while the female ones will not.

An orange maple leaf is shown on a white background. The stem of the leaf is labeled "Petiole".
Pike Lake Elementary School student phenology report: February 7th 2023

Maria and Eilee report from Rob Marohn’s class at Pike Lake Elementary. As always, these students have had their eyes out in school and at home! They’ve seen many deer, with different students seeing them in sub-zero temperatures, on ski trails, or brazenly walking right past humans without any sign of fear. The class has tracked rabbits into downed trees, admired sunsets (they make Gavin happy!), investigated claw marks on garbage bags, observed scavenger preferences on roadkill, and admired a very cold-hardy crow. All this during an exceptionally cold week: the snow was squeaky, it was so cold! (Why does it do that?) Maria and Eilee conclude, “Be aware: Things are happening out there!”

John thanks Maria and Eiliee for the report (and thanks their teacher, Mr. Marohn!). John wonders if the rabbit track the student tracked to a downed log may have been a porcupine den: they also create dens during winter and the piles of scat outside can be quite notable! To tell the difference, look at the size: porcupine scat is about an inch long, while rabbit scat is about half that length. [Porcupine scat is also essentially sawdust, and will break apart easily if given a solid poke by a stick. Not that I’ve done that, of course…] The creature responsible for damaging the garbage bag is hard to determine: John points out that foxes, coyotes, mustelids (weasels like otters, mink, and fishers) all dig with their feet and would happily investigate a trash bag!

A person holds porcupine scat in their hand. It is brown and tan, with tiny wood fibers visible. In the background is a dark, cave-like den with snow and more scat on the ground. The image is captioned "Porcupine scat".
North Shore Community School student phenology report: February 7th 2023

Daxton reports from Leigh Jackson and Darcie Rolfe’s class at North Shore Community School in Duluth. Only 3% of Lake Superior is covered in ice this year, compared to the historical average of 20%: however, the cold weather will likely help freeze things up a bit! The open water does have one benefit, however! “The sea smoke on Lake Superior, especially in the early morning hours, looks like billowing white clouds that reach the sky. This means that the water temperature is warmer than the air temperature,” Daxton points out. At school, one class has been measuring the height of a snowdrift over the last four weeks. Their first measurement came at 4 feet 4 inches, followed by 5 feet, followed by 6 feet 7 inches: this week, the snow finally stopped and it remained at 6 feet 7 inches! The lack of snow didn’t stop the rest of the winter weather, though: it was frigid, with temperatures hitting -18 degrees F on January 31st, a cold windchill advisory that canceled recess on February 2nd, and windchills measuring between -15 to -25 degrees on February 3rd that caused a late start and indoor recess. Brr! Unfortunately, the Rodent Portents don’t offer much hope: Groundhog Day was February 2nd, and this year the groundhog did see its shadow. According to popular tradition, that means 6 more weeks of winter! Due to all the cold weather, the school forest was unusually quiet: however, the students did notice a lot of crows by the compost bin. Daxton concludes, “Have a great week and be observant!”

John congratulates Daxton on the great report, and the whole Duluth area on being great phenologists! He particularly enjoyed the note on Lake Superior ice coverage: the students’ observations very much line up with scientists’ observations. Lake Superior and Lake Ontario are the Great Lakes that typically freeze: however, this is becoming less and less common. John also points out that the school’s six-foot-seven snow drift could easily be a point guard! That’s a tall snowbank. It’s had to have been a rough week for the students, with recesses indoors: luckily, John predicts some nice weather headed their way. [This begs the question: Who do you think is more trustworthy: John Latimer or Punxsutawney Phil?]

Large plumes of fog rise up from Lake Superior during sunrise. Duluth's harbor bridge is prominent in the photo, providing a dark contrast to the orange-pink color of the sea smoke. The image is captioned "Sea Smoke on Lake Superior".
Long Lake Conservation Center student phenology report: February 7th 2023

Laney, Reagan, and Riley report on the Homeschool Group’s visit to Long Lake Conservation Center.

“The weather was cold, chilly, arctic and frosty. The birds that we saw were Blue Jays, Snow Buntings, Pine Grosbeaks, Nuthatches, Chickadees, Grouse and Red-bellied, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. One Gray Squirrel was spotted under the bird feeders and many squirrel nests were seen in the trees. Some people think that Gray Squirrels hibernate because they are not seen very often in colder months. They are not hibernating, but they do sleep a lot in their warm winter nests, called dreys. The nests look like a big mess of leaves and twigs high in trees. Gray Squirrels can be seen in the winter but they stay hidden and cozy in their drey when the weather is cold. The Long Lake porcupine was in its tree to welcome us on Monday. Following its tracks led us to a culvert that goes under a path, the tracks kept going out the other side of the culvert into the woods. 2 deer were seen on the lake. We looked at the waxing gibbous moon at night and enjoyed a bright pink sunrise on Wednesday morning. It was a great time in nature and we want to remind everyone to…Unplug, wear layers, Get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!!”

John thanks Laney, Reagan, and Riley for the report! He reiterates a few of the bird sightings and agrees, what would a trip to Long Lake be without a sighting of Minnesota’s Best Porcupine? He [and I] loved the giggle the students got at the phrase “waxing gibbous moon”- I get a similar chuckle out of names like “cubical butt rot” (a kind of tree fungus) or “Yellow-bellied Sapsucker” (a native woodpecker species). It’s also wonderful that the students could identify squirrel drays! John suggests looking for them yourself: they are often found in oak trees (though I’ve seen them in ashes, maples, and others). As John points out, the bedding for the dray is harvested from the tree in summer or early fall. In warmer seasons, I work from my balcony whenever possible: I got to watch my local squirrels cutting twigs and small branches from ash trees and dragging them to forks in the trunk. Over a few days, these piles of leaves, twigs, and branches grew to considerable size. Now, the only leaves left on the tree are the brown, dead ones that remain in the squirrel drays. They’re nice and cozy for the squirrel, and easy to spot for us: win-win!

A brown porcupine is shown holding onto a small twig. Snow is in the background. Some of the bark on the twig has been eaten off. The porcupine has small eyes, furry paws, and white-tipped quills.
Photo provided by Dave McMillan, LLCC Manager
Long Lake Conservation Center's resident porcupine!
Prairie Creek Community School student phenology report: February 7th 2023

Ben and Molly report from Michelle Martin’s class at Prairie Creek Community School, ‘way down south’ in Northfield! “We’re baaaack,” they say! “We were away at Wolf Ridge [Environmental Learning Center] last week. That’s where we saw some lichen. There was a ton of lichen up there, but we have some down here too. We were wondering if there are phenology signs for lichen like there are for birds.” [This means they got to meet one of my outdoor idols, Joe Walewski! He’s a lichenologist, author, outdoor educator, and the only man over age 40 that I’ve heard verbally thank the chickadees for stopping by. After years of getting weird looks for thanking plants and animals for gracing me with their presence, it was so validating to see A Professional And Well-Respected Naturalist do it too! Science and soul can coexist, people!] While back in Northfield, the class heard the ”Phoebe” call of the Black-Capped Chickadee, saw Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and a flock of American Robins. Their teacher, Michelle Martin, even heard the Blue Jay’s first ‘pump-handle’ song of spring! Indoors, they are finding a lot of Box Elder bugs and Asian Beetles. “It’s a lot warmer today and the sun feels warmer too, but we’re guessing more cold is still to come,” Ben and Molly report. “This has been Prairie Creek Community School: One more step along the phenology journey!”

John needs to think about their question about lichen phenology. While deciduous and coniferous trees have obvious changes throughout the seasons, he can’t think of any in terms of lichens. John has a similar instinct to my own: it’s time to ask Joe Walewski! [I’ve sent an email: I’ll update when I hear back.] John has yet to hear the pump-handle song of the Blue Jays, but it’ll reach him in the next few weeks! (I heard it yesterday in the Twin Cities, just a bit north of Northfield!) If you’re familiar with the old metal pumps (I often find them at state parks and state forests), the Blue Jays make a very similar-sounding call in late winter and early spring.)

A blue jay holds a shelled peanut in its beak. The background is blurred, and only the chest and head of the bird are shown. The chest is white, and the back is blue. The head has blue, black, and white markings. The image is captioned "Blue Jay".

Remember that you can add your voice to this list! Get in touch with me (smitchell@kaxe.org), John Latimer (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 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 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.)