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Phenology Report, February 28th 2023

In the foreground is a close-up shot of the end of some aspen branches. The stems are smooth and light brown, and have four small, fuzz-covered buds on the tips. The fuzz is white and looks almost furry. At the base of the buds are reddish scales. The background is blurred and indistinct. The image is captioned "Aspen Buds".
Contributed
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Canva
Aspen buds emerge from twigs.

This morning, John begins with the gradual advance of spring. One of the signs of spring’s arrival, unfortunately, is the emergence of deer ticks! Each year, John gets reports from listeners who find their first deer tick of the season. (You can always email John these sorts of sightings and reports at jlatimer@kaxe.org, or to me at smitchell@kaxe.org!) These are John’s records for the first deer tick sighting of the year:

  • March 31st 2008
  • March 25th 2009
  • March 18th 2010
  • March 18th 2012
  • March 15th 2016
  • March 7th 2017
  • March 9th 2021

So, it’s likely we’ll see ticks at some point soon: if you do, send us a note! (In a few years, he’s found ticks as early as late November, December, or January: however, these were likely just incidental emergences due to unseasonably warm weather.)
As always during tick season, it’s important to check yourself (and your animals) carefully. Last year, John was screened for a variety of tick-borne illnesses, and found that he had (at some point) contracted anaplasmosis. He doesn’t know when, since he never felt ill. John recommends that if you’re bitten, fold a piece of tape over the tick and hang on to it for a little while. If you don’t get any signs of illness, it’s safe to throw it out: but if you do, it’ll make your doctor’s life way easier to have the tick responsible on hand!

A minute tick is shown sandwiched between layers of packaging tape and held in a person's hand. The eight legs and brown body of the tick are clearly visible, as are the minute ridges of skin that cover the person's palm. the image is captioned "Deer tick sandwiched in tape".

Last week, John’s resident eagle pair returned to his yard! They returned on February 24th, and their average return date is February 23rd. Around March 9th, they normally begin incubating their eggs. The young are audible or visible from the nest in Mid-May, and fledge (take their first flights) around July 4th.

For eagles, about 35 days separate egg laying from hatching. Frequently, the eggs are laid a few days apart: chicks that hatch first have an advantage, since they are larger and more developed than their siblings. If the parents are unable to bring enough food to sate the appetite of all the siblings, only the biggest, strongest chick will be fed: this is invariably the oldest. The other chick or chicks will die (and occasionally be eaten by their sibling). Rough life!

John got a note from Steve from Prairie River: he also saw his local eagles return on Saturday. So, if you have a Bald Eagle nest near you, keep an eye out! They’ll likely be paying you a visit soon, if they haven’t turned up already. Then, it’ll be a short week or two until they start to incubate.

Two Bald Eagles sit in a massive nest. The nest is comprised of large sticks and branches and is roughly 10 times as big as the eagles themselves. The eagles are silhouetted against a blue sky. The image is titled "Nesting Eagles".

John had a wonderful moment watching the eagles last week: “I watched through my spotting scope as these two returned, and I’m assuming it was the female that came in and sort of cleaned out the nest a bit. [She] sort of moved some stuff around, and then the male arrived, they mated on the nest, and he quickly flew off. I don’t know if he was going to get food or what. The next night (Saturday), after sundown [when there] wasn’t enough light to illuminate the white head and tail feathers of these two birds, they came up off of the nest and they made three or four lazy circles as they rode a small thermal up into this darkening sky. [The sky was] indigo with a band of orange right down at the horizon, and with these two dark shapes just soaring into that sky so peacefully, it was really a moment to remember. I’ll hold onto that one for a while: a sense of wonderment for sure!”

John has also seen a Red-winged Blackbird at his feeder. Typically, they migrate back to the Grand Rapids area around March 28th: the latest return date in John’s records is April 22nd (2018), followed by April 9th (2013). The earliest was on March 14th in 2021.

John’s concluded that the blackbird visiting his feeder is not a migrator: it’s a “grizzled male” that has spent the winter feeding on whatever he can find until his comrades return in the spring. This isn’t an isolated incident: John’s records show ‘resident’ blackbirds like this one in 1990 (January 19th), 2010 (January 14th), 2015 (February 18th), and 2021 (January 20th). This sighting on February 15th just adds to those ‘oddball’ records!

Speaking of John’s records, he took a look and found that on February 28th in 2016, maple sap was running. This year, the maple syrup season hasn’t quite started yet. Once temperatures are reliably above freezing in the day and below freezing at night, the fun will begin! Soon, maple sap will be boiling away across the state, bringing that glorious signature scent to anyone lucky enough to stroll by.

A metal maple syrup spile sticks out of the trunk of a maple tree. A metal bucket hangs from the spile's hook, and a drop of sap is forming on the spout. The image is titled "Maple syrup season".

Right now, pussywillow buds are beginning to emerge. John’s records show that some emerge in February, but the most prominent pussywillow season is through March. Look for their bright white, fuzzy buds: they look like they’re covered in fur! Our phenology students spotted some recently.

Like the pussywillows, aspen trees have fuzzy buds that look like they’re covered in fur (this makes sense, as aspens and willows are in the same family!). The Quaking or Trembling Aspens bud out before the Bigtooth Aspens: John has now found two individuals that have budded out. The first individual, a group of trembling aspen clones that grow near his mailbox, has reliably ‘wacky’ phenology. It buds out in late December or early January, 2-3 months before the others in the area! John found the second aspen, which is much removed from the clonal group, while out on a hike. It too had plump, furry buds on the tips of its branches.

When the buds break, the branches will start to look ‘plump’. To spot the buds themselves, use a pair of binoculars (or find an aspen with low-hanging branches). Look for big, grey, fuzzy shapes: they start out almost circular, then elongate as the season progresses and the flowers develop.

Another tree whose branches you’ll want to keep an eye on are the birches! At this time of year, they have a distinctive red-burgundy color throughout their canopies. This red is found on new growth, and makes this season handy for distinguishing birches from aspens. While both have white bark, birches will have a red tone to their branches, while aspens tend to be yellow or green.

Closer to the ground, the Red Osier Dogwoods are a vibrant fire-engine red. There are large patches of dogwoods between Lake Aitkin and Aitkin, and at the end of Ball Club Lake along Highway 2. On the road to Duluth, there are stunning stands of willows that are beginning to light up in shades of green, orange, yellow, and red. As sunlight hits the stems, the pigmentation increases and the colors become more vibrant.

At his feeder, John has seen a big flock of Pine Grosbeaks, as well as four species of woodpecker (Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, and Pileated). You can hear the woodpeckers drumming nearly constantly across the area: if you stand still for a minute or two, you’ll likely hear one! You’re also likely to hear the spring song of the Black-Capped Chickadee, which is a 2-3 note call that sounds like “Phoebe” or “Cheeseburger”.

John wraps up the show with a few listener reports! He heard from Tony in Dixon Lake that Trumpeter Swans and a male Goldeneye are occupying the open water along the Third River. As the weather warms, ducks and swans (and loons, eventually!) will seek out open water wherever they can find it.

A strikingly colored duck swims in brownish-blue water. The duck's head is iridescent green and quite large, with a small black bill and prominent white cheek patches. The breast and sides of the duck are white, with black stripes on the wings, a black tail, and a black back. Its eyes are bright golden with minute black pupils. The image is titled "Male Common Goldeneye."

Another exciting report (from Jeff in Baudette) is that the Sharp-tailed Grouse are beginning their mating season! Jeff sent John a picture of 13 grouse, likely all male, strutting about on the snow. They’ll begin their dancing and mating season very soon.

Finally, Nora from Winona (and our friend from Happy Dancing Turtle) wrote in to say:

“Two weekends ago (Feb. 18/19) we had gorgeous weather down here and the swans & geese were flying over in huge flocks. I live very close to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, so we get a lot of overhead traffic from the birds heading there. Even with the less than spring-like weather last week, my dog keeps me in the know that there have been lots of large & loud birdies going overhead. 😂 We have a lot of open water down here and they're finding it! We went to the refuge to see if we could spot them. We could hear them and saw some, but mostly it sounded like they were in the backwaters that we couldn't get a good view of. Instead, I watched a mink try to sneak up on a muskrat! I did get a video clip of the mink running across the ice, which was exciting. Any other time I've seen one, they disappear before I can get my camera!”

That does it for this week! 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.
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.)