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Phenology Report, April 19 2022

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An American Woodcock walks across the road. It is a oval-shaped bird with a long, straight beak and eyes placed far back in its head. It has short orange legs and large feet.
Photo by iNaturalist user reuvenm
An American Woodcock walks across the road.

Producer's Note: This interview occurred during KAXE/KBXE's annual fundraiser. If you are reading/hearing this story about phenology, you appreciate how we cover the joy and wonder found in Minnesota's natural resources. We invite you to show your support for our independent news coverage by making a sustaining donation to help us continue this work. Donate now and become a part of a sustainable public radio community in the northland. Click the donate button at or text "DONATE" to 218-326-1234.

Despite the cold, rain, and snow, there's finally some good news. John's been on the prowl looking for signs of spring, and doggone it, he found some!

The speckled alder is a small tree (or large shrub) recognizable by its distinctive seed cones, which resemble small pine cones roughly the size of your smallest fingernail. The trees themselves tend to droop to one side and grow in moist environments, such as the edge of a river, swamp, or ditch, which can aid identification. Last Thursday, John was out in the snow and rain and tested one of the speckled alder's catkins (male flowers), and sure enough, it released pollen! He found that to be true for about 25% of the catkins, so it is still early in the season. In winter, the catkins are 1-1.25 inches long and distend to almost 3 inches in length by the time they've released all their pollen. In an average year, the pollen starts to release around April 3rd. This year, it happened on April 14th, 11 days behind schedule (and the sixth latest in John's records)! If you enjoy a closer look at these plants, examine the area just above the catkin: you'll see 3-5 little red flowers. These are the female flowers, which receive the pollen and develop seeds!

John calculated that if we are running 11 days behind schedule on the alders, this might be the perfect time to start looking for female flowers on the hazels. He didn't find a single female flower on the hazels last week, but he expects to see them soon! The average emergence date for the female hazel flowers is April 8th; with an 11-day delay, it's reasonable they'd be out on the 19th. Keep an eye out for them, and report back to John with what you find! You'll have to get pretty close to the hazel, as the flowers are small (less than 1/8th of an inch long). You'll be looking for a bright red flower. Here's hoping we can spot some in the next week!

Maple trees also sport red flowers in early spring. The sugar maple and the silver maple both have red, ball-shaped buds, but you can use the shape of the branches to distinguish the silver maple. Silver maples have branches with an upward sweep at the end of the branches (when they have all their leaves, I think they look a bit like caterpillars!). Silver maples prefer habitat near water, though they are often planted in upland residential areas. If you find a silver maple with some low-hanging branches, take a close look at the buds. They are barely open right now, but if you look inside, you'll see a lumpy little cluster that is a deep red. Those will become the flowers once they develop a bit more! The silver maple follows the delayed trend we're seeing throughout the organisms John monitors (last year, the flowers emerged on March 22nd!), but it'll get there eventually! Fun side note: the silver maple is one species that is not adjusting its reproduction to climate change. Many of the organisms John has monitored over the last 40 years have moved their reproduction, flowering, or arrival dates earlier by about a week on average to compensate for the warming climate. On the other hand, the silver maple has not followed this trend and is flowering at roughly the same time now as it did 40 years ago.

John was with a group of students last week on their phenology walk when they spotted an American woodcock! The bird was hiding behind a couple of trees in a small clearing and was kind enough to stay still for the whole class to observe. This time of year, woodcocks are waiting for drier ground before heading to the edges of fields and clearings for their courtship displays. They have excellent camouflage, so relish any chance you get to see one!

In other bird news, John's heard the ruffed grouse drumming for the first time this season. They stopped with the cold weather, so he is waiting for them to resume soon! John's enjoying purple finches, goldfinches, and vast flocks of juncos at his birdfeeder. The goldfinches are in the midst of donning their vibrant yellow plumage for the summer. During his conversation with Laura Erickson a year ago, John learned that goldfinches are one of the few songbirds that molt twice a year! They replace their feathers in the fall and the spring and are currently right in the middle of their springtime change, showing yellow patches but not yet in their full summer regalia.

Mourning doves, fox sparrows, and American tree sparrows have returned to the area. The fox sparrow is a relatively large bird, much bigger than the juncos or redpolls; they only occur in the area during migration, as they move northward in the spring and return in the fall. Now's your chance to see them, so keep an eye out!

And that wraps it up for this week! May the next week bring us more sun, birds, flowers, and wildlife. Until then, take care and keep an eye out!

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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 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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