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Phenology Report, March 29 2022

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Garter snake in duckweed
Photo by iNaturalist user loarie
Garter snake in duckweed

One more week into the spring season! John starts us off with one of my favorite subjects- snakes! Garter snakes are coming out of their winter hibernacula and forming ‘mating balls’, where multiple males coil and slither around a female, forming a big ol’ writhing mass of snake spaghetti. For your viewing pleasure, here’s my favorite documentary bit on it, which includes some surprising trickery involving temperature and pheromones. We heard a report of one of these mating balls from Long Lake Conservation Center this morning in our Phenology Talkbacks section- you can listen to it here!

The Mississippi River is ice free in Grand Rapids, so John mentions it’s a good time to see if your boat developed a leak over the winter. I’m not sure the station’s lawyers cleared that recommendation. Lakes and ponds still have plenty of ice cover, however, so geese and swans have been doing frequent flyovers looking for open water. John’s records show that the lake near his house, Crooked Lake, normally opens on the 8th of April (but as early as March 24th or as late as May 4th), so it’ll likely still be a bit before we see open water there. In the meantime, there’s plenty of open water on the rivers, so that’s where to go to see buffleheads, hooded mergansers, mallards, goldeneyes, trumpeter swans, geese, and more!

Reports of robins are coming in from plenty of folks, so they’re more or less on track for the year (average date of return is March 24th, same as the red-winged blackbirds and kestrels with the killdeer following shortly thereafter). John’s received a report of blue herons in Minneapolis (I can confirm I saw one in Stillwater last Tuesday), and John notes an average day of arrival to Grand Rapids on April 1. Keep an eye out for them, and if you live near a rookery get in touch! We’d love to get updates on the herons!

Eagle update! As John suspected earlier this year, the eagles at his place have moved back into their old nest in the aspen tree! John took a look through his spotting scope and observed the mama eagle brooding her eggs. He’ll keep us updated! He is, after all, a very talonted observer of nature.

In terms of mammals, John mentioned he saw his first chipmunk last week and that the red squirrels are pretty active at his place. Plus, a bobcat report- more on that later!

Without his mail route to carry him a hundred miles a day through the area, John’s ability to monitor phenology is more restricted. The willows normally come out around the 22nd of March, but John hasn’t spotted them yet. Apparently, the phenology of the willows is closely associated with the catkins of the speckled alder yielding pollen. Currently, the catkins are about an inch to an inch and a half long, a deep purple or burgundy colored, and firm to the touch (they normally soften around the 27th of March, but not this year!). Around the 15th of April, the catkins normally begin to yield pollen (if you snap them with your finger, you’ll see yellow pollen being released). That hasn’t happened this year yet, but never fear! The elder (that’s John) will keep an eye on the alder for us, and we’ll hear about it in the upcoming weeks.

Down in Texas, John is getting reports that ruby-throated hummingbirds and orioles have returned and are active at feeders. John estimates that it’ll be about a month and a week for them to reach us in northern Minnesota!

John has noticed that in areas where the soil is “kind of sweet” (I have questions, John), where you might find maples and leatherwood, there is a smaller tree that grows in the understory. That tree is called ‘ironwood’, and ironwood holds its leaves all through winter. Keep an eye out on your drives for trees about 20-30 feet tall with pinkish orange dead leaves. The leaves will be smaller and more curled up than oaks, and not as dark red as the oak leaves. As the ironwoods prepare their new leaves for spring, those dead leaves will fall away, but they’re a great identifying feature for now!

Our good friends, the aspens, are next on the list! John’s big tooth aspens have swelling buds, but no fuzzy flowers out yet. The quaking aspens, on the other hand, have flowers that are starting to distend, and it won’t be very long until pollen is released! John estimates it’ll begin in the next week or so. They’re pretty noticeable right now, so keep an eye on those quaking aspens as you drive by! Around the middle of April, the male flowers will fall off the aspens and the female flowers will begin to distend as they mature and develop seeds.

John spotted a bobcat on his trail cam! It’s the second or third one captured on his camera. The bobcat is probably enjoying the strong crust on top of the snow- John and his dog certainly are! It makes moving through the forest a lot easier. John also saw six deer supported by the crust. As long as it stays below freezing, the crust will stick around- enjoy it while you can! John estimates the snow cover in the woods to be between 90-100%, with only a few patches of bare ground where the sun has melted away the open areas. In the fields, snow cover is down to around 50%.

Finally, a precipitation report. At the end of the snowstorm that began last Tuesday, John measured 95 hundredths of an inch of moisture, and five inches of snow. John points out that that’s a pretty heavy snow, as you know if you tried to shovel it!

That does it for this week- keep an eye out there and let us know what you see!

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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.
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.
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?).
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