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Phenology Report, April 12 2022

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Common grackle showing off its iridescent plumage
Photo by iNaturalist user courtneycelley
Common grackle showing off its iridescent plumage

We begin this week with a showy little birdie, the grackle! During the broadcast, a flock of grackles entertained John and Heidi by visiting the station birdfeeder. They performed a variety of springtime display behaviors. One display behavior exhibited by grackles consists of the grackle leaning its head far back and looking over its beak at the sky, kind of like a human looking down their nose at someone; this shows dominance or aggression The other behavior grackles perform this time of year involves their tails. They hold the outer tail feathers up, and push the center feathers down, so it forms a V shape. If you want to see this behavior, keep an eye out in your neighborhood! Or, see if you can spot them in this video.

John points out that grackles have a bad reputation, because of their inclination to travel in large flocks and make a bunch of noise. He posits, however, that this reputation may be unfair. Grackles are incredible parents, and great community members. For instance, if a flock of grackles is foraging and an adult comes across a bit of food, it will turn to find the nearest chick or young grackle, and feed the food to the youngster. This is true even if the chick has no relation to the generous adult! You’ve gotta give the iridescent lil’ flockers credit for that, at least; they may be aggressive to other species, but they’re pretty darn good to their own.

John is on the lookout for waterfowl this time of year. He’s finally spotted some mallards and wood ducks (which normally arrive earlier), and recommends checking vernal (seasonal) ponds in woods and fields to spot them! (Barring access to vernal ponds, check creeks, inlets and outlets of lakes, or any other open water). If you’re looking for these temporary seasonal pools while driving, he recommends looking for V-shaped ripples or waves that catch the light. Follow the V back to the origin, and you may spot a critter (a wood duck, teal, mallard... the ponds can be full of surprises!). The reason these birds like these vernal ponds is that they provide good cover, good food, and don’t impede their ability to fly away. Unlike other diving birds like loons or cormorants, ducks don’t need a long runway to get airborne- they can just spring up out of the water and fly away.

The aspens John monitors have really delayed development this year. In an average year, the aspen flowers would be fully distended. The male flowers would have elongated to a length of three to three and a half inches, and would be releasing pollen at this point. Thanks to the stupid cold weather we’ve been having, his aspens are less than an inch this year (he estimates about 5/8ths of an inch). So, we’re still waiting. He’s seeing the same pattern in the speckled alder, which grows near water. These trees are the only deciduous (has leaves, not needles) tree that has little seed-bearing structures that look like pine cones. The cones are about the size of the last section of your little finger. Right now, the male catkins (catkin: a slim, cylindrical flower cluster with reduced or absent petals) on these plants are beginning to stretch to a length of about two inches. In a normal year, they’d be releasing pollen around the 2nd of April, but John has not noted any pollen release yet (already 9 days later than the average!). Compared to his earlier records, this isn’t the latest date yet (that distinction goes to 2013, when the pollen was released on April 26th), but definitely confirms that we’re having a cold spring; last year they were yielding pollen on the 21st of March! The red elderberry should be breaking bud in the next few days; the latest on his records was May 10th in 1993, and the earliest was March 22nd in 2012. So there’s a big range for the timing of that biological event, but it should happen here soon. The elderberries at John’s house had broken bud about two weeks ago, but all those flowers and leaves are now burned. The other buds are still tight and not making much progress at all.

The pattern isn’t just found in plants! The northern flicker, a ground feeding woodpecker identifiable by a large white patch on its rump, is (on average) back in town around the 13th of April. In 2021, they arrived on April 5th. The latest arrival John has on record is April 25th, once again in the cold, cold spring of 2013.

This report was broadcast on April 12th; here’s what John recorded in other years on that date!

  • 2021: Male flowers were falling off of the silver maples, having completed their task of releasing pollen.  Weeping willow leaf buds were breaking, and the trees were turning a chartreuse color.  
  • 2017: Wood frogs were heard singing in Wabana Lake. The lake had about 90% open water.  
  • 2015: Aspen catkins were distended, the silver maple flowers were at their last peak, and wood frogs were heard singing. 
  • 2012: Quaking aspens were breaking leaf bud. 
  • 2011: Wood frogs and spring peepers were calling. 
  • 2010: Leatherwood leaves were emerging. 

The development of the leatherwood in spring is pretty interesting. First, the yellow flower emerges; after 7-10 days, the leaves begin to emerge behind the flower. The green leaves offset the yellow flower, which is pretty striking. That hasn’t even begun to happen yet this year. When the buds are ready to break, they are normally about the size of a fingernail; currently, they’re about the size of a match head. So we’ve got a little while to wait.

In the meantime, the ruffed grouse have begun to drum, and turkeys are flocking in the local fields. Scott Hall reported the first loon on the Mississippi on April 10th, so they’re flying over and will soon be congregating on open water. As the lakes open up, they’ll make themselves at home!

Woodchucks are out and about after the long winter, but unfortunately the ticks are too. The wood ticks and deer ticks are out, and there’s a new tick in town called the lone star tick. These new arrivals carry a host of diseases, and are spreading into northern Minnesota. John strongly recommends treating your gear, especially your pants and gaiters, with permethrin. Nobody wants tick-borne illnesses!

John leaves us with notes on his phenology walk last Tuesday with students. The students reported that it was a rough day to be outside; John’s notes state that “the day is chilly, barely above freezing with a strong east wind and little to recommend it as regards spring. This marks the beginning of three days of cold, rainy, snowy weather, that leaves 9/10ths of an inch of precipitation in the rain gauge.”

We’ll just have to live through it, he says! It's a late spring, probably not going to be our latest ever but will fall into the top 10. He reminds us to look for those little signs of spring that bring us all a little bit of hope! In the meantime, check out the student phenology reports from this week- they're a treat!

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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.)
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