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Season Watch Podcast: May 2023 phenology + listener Q&A

A stream runs through Northern Minnesota on a sunny summer day. The words "SEASON WATCH PODCAST/ streaming now" are superimposed on the image.
A stream runs through Northern Minnesota in summer.

The May edition of the Season Watch Podcast is here! Much like the Season Watch Newsletter, it features plants, animals, and phenomena to look for in six categories: while commuting, while walking, in watery habitats, in open areas, in the forest, and in town. New this month is a listener Q&A section!

The May edition of the Season Watch Podcast is here! Much like the Season Watch Newsletter, it features plants, animals, and phenomena to look for in six categories: while commuting, while walking, in watery habitats, in open areas, in the forest, and in town.

New this month is a listener Q&A section! The feedback from the pilot episode generated many questions too interesting to leave out of this month’s podcast, including why Canadian wild ginger flowers lie on the ground, how star-nosed moles’ starry noses work, and how Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass provided answers to a few of my life’s more difficult questions.

The Season Watch podcast is the newest addition to KAXE's popular phenology programming. Thanks to John Latimer's dulcet tones and outdoor wisdom, the KAXE community has been asking for more, and we're happy to provide!

You can find the special seasonal production as part of the Phenology podcast feed. Phenology can also be found on Apple Podcasts, NPR One, and Google Podcasts.


 A white, five--petaled plum flower emerges from a twig.
A white, five--petaled plum flower emerges from a twig.

As you explore our beautiful state, keep an eye out for perching American Kestrels on roadside powerlines. These beautiful, diminutive predators spend a lot of time perched looking for prey and can be frequently spotted by an attentive driver or passenger.

It’s also well worth your while to look at the nearby forests. In Grand Rapids, the quaking aspens typically leaf out around April 29, adding color to the canopy. In the midstory, the juneberry (also known as serviceberry, shadbush or saskatoonberry) produces a profusion of white flowers, making it appear to be covered in popcorn. John’s records show an average flowering date of May 8. (Plums also have white blooms, but the petals are much shorter and wider than those of the juneberry.)

At the end of May, the aspens and cottonwoods release their seeds, coating roadsides with layers of white fluff. Their seeds are miniscule and use the help of the wind to disperse to new areas. However, most new trees are produced not by seed, but by the roots of an existing tree sending up new shoots. These shoots grow into a whole new tree that is a clone of the original. The largest clonal group of aspens is Pando, a male aspen individual that covers 108 acres in Utah and is the largest known organism (by mass) in the world.


 A morel mushroom emerges from the forest floor. it has a tan, pitted cap attached to a creamy stem and is surrounded by dead leaves and newly-emerged green grass.
A morel mushroom emerges from the forest floor.

While wandering this month, I hope you’ll come across my favorite spring ephemeral: the hepatica. There are two species of hepatica, distinguished by the shape of their leaves. Each leaf has three lobes: on sharp-lobed hepatica, the lobes come to a rounded point. On round-lobed hepatica, the lobes are quite wide and lack a noticeable point. Like many other spring ephemerals, the stems of this plant are extremely fuzzy, which keeps an insulating area of air between any frost, snow or ice and the fleshy stem of the plant.

The spring azure butterfly is the first butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis in the spring. They overwinter as pupa in the chrysalis and emerge as adults in May. These fast-moving butterflies are easy to miss: keep your mind in the moment to increase your chances of spotting one!

Morel mushrooms will emerge in late May. If, like me, you have a hard time spotting them, try sitting quietly in one spot for five minutes or so. I’ve found that this helps my eyes relax and move through the forest floor more carefully. Often, after a few minutes, I’ll spot a morel just a few feet away that I had completely missed!

Columbines are another springtime snack. Red columbines have five trumpet-shaped segments joined in the middle. At the end of each segment is a little enlarged globule that holds the nectar. The nectar is an important source of food for bees, birds and butterflies, but can also be enjoyed by humans! The whole flower is edible, but the little nectar-bearing lobes in back are sweetest. On average, red columbines bloom around May 26 in Grand Rapids.

On the water

Two Wilson's Snipe stand on a fallen log near water. They are stocky shorebirds with long, straight beaks, stout bodies, and deeply bent legs. Their eyes are set further back in the skull than other birds'. The image is captioned "Wilson's Snipe."
Two Wilson's Snipe stand on a fallen log near water.

Now that the lakes and rivers are ice-free and beginning to warm, the Wilson’s Snipe can be heard winnowing. They create this sound by flying high in the air and diving down, causing wind to whistle through their feathers and produce a distinctive sound. This sound is part of their courtship process. Because Wilson’s snipe tend to be solitary and secretive creatures, they are more often heard than seen: keep an ear out to find them.

Dragonflies are zooming around waterways after a long hiatus. The first dragonflies to appear are common green darners, which John Latimer first sees around May 3 in an average year. These are migratory dragonflies with a three-generation migratory pattern. One generation makes its way northward to our region, lays eggs and dies. During the course of the summer, these larvae rapidly mature and metamorphose into adults, which undertake the long migration back south. Over the winter, another generation is produced. These mature, breed and die, and their offspring begin the cycle again when they fly north in spring.

The way scientists have studied these dragonflies is fascinating! They had to create tiny dragonfly backpack transmitters to track their movements, and the statistics and insights these studies have produced are varied and fascinating.

As the dragonflies zoom overhead, the marsh marigolds begin to bloom along waterways beneath them. On average, John sees the first flowers around May 4. The bright gold flowers are beautifully offset by lush green leaves: they’re a treat to see, and a welcome sight after a long winter!

The first waterfowl young hatch in May, including Canada Geese and Wood Ducks. Wood Ducklings have a particularly dramatic start to life. Although flightless at birth, they must make the jump from their nest — frequently as high as 60 feet above the ground — down to the forest floor to make their way to water. Luckily, they are light, fluffy and their bones are not fully fused yet! There’s a great segment on Planet Earth about this.

Once they reach water, the ducklings will dabble around the newly blooming calla lilies. Not true lilies, these flowers more closely resemble the structure of a Jack-in-the-pulpit. Like the Jack-in-the-pulpits, they have a spathe and spadix: on the calla lily, the spathe is a large, white petal that partially wraps around the spadix (a pale golden or creamy pillar that holds the reproductive parts of the plant).

In the open

 A Killdeer ponders its reflection in a puddle. It is a small shorebird with strongly-contrasting white, black, and brown markings. It stands on a gravel surface and looks into a brown puddle. The image is captioned "Killdeer".
A Killdeer ponders its reflection in a puddle.

If you’re in a forest or field and notice a Killdeer acting a bit oddly, you may have stumbled upon its nest! They will fake a broken wing to lure predators away from their eggs or chicks. Killdeer have a distinctive call and distinctive tan, white and black markings.

Another nesting bird you may encounter are Barn Swallows. They are fiercely territorial and will dive-bomb any perceived threat. Given they prefer to nest in manmade structures, that perceived threat might be you! They will become used to your presence after a while, but if you visit the area only occasionally, mentally prepare yourself for an aerial attack.

Toads are one of our most adorable and frequently found amphibians. They will begin their long, trilling call in late May. If you happen to find one and feel compelled to apprehend it for further examination, please make sure your hands are clean! Like all amphibians, toads have porous skin and can be harmed by substances like bug spray or sunscreen on your skin. Similarly, wash your hands after holding a toad — when alarmed, they secrete a toxin. It doesn’t cause warts, but it’s still not good for you!

A more vibrant sight in springtime are our butterflies. Tiger swallowtails and monarch butterflies both return in May (average dates are May 24 and May 31, respectively). Tiger swallowtails often display puddling behavior, gathering in large numbers around standing water where they can drink and absorb necessary minerals and nutrients.

In the forest

Canada fly honeysuckle with leaves and flowers. The image shows a twig with green leaves and a pair of small yellow flowers. the leaves are oval-shaped, about two inches long, and look soft. The flowers share a stem, which splits in two at the base of the flowers. The flowers are trumpet-shaped and are a pale yellow color. the image is captioned "Canada fly honeysuckle".
iNaturalist user sophiamunoz
Canada fly honeysuckle with leaves and flowers.

As you wind your way into the forest, keep an eye out for Canada fly honeysuckles. They are one of the first plants to leaf out in early May (the average leaf-out date in Grand Rapids is May 2), and they flower not long after. Look for twinned yellow flowers which share a single stem that divides in two near the base of the flowers.

Wild ginger also flowers in May, but its flowers are very different. Since it is beetle-pollinated, its flowers dangle below the leaves and sit on the forest floor. Like many spring ephemerals, it has fuzzy stems when it first emerges. (My podcast notes indicate that the species is a “real cutie pie.”)

Like the ginger flowers, white-tailed deer fawns also occupy hidden spots on the forest floor. They are born odorless, and at the beginning of life, the mother will leave them alone on the forest floor to avoid drawing predators to their location. If you happen across one, please leave it alone! Mom knows where it is and will be back to feed it periodically.

As the leaves emerge, so do anxieties about poison ivy. A popular saying is “leaves of three, let it be.” While useful, this adage has an unfortunate side effect. Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Trillium, two of our spectacular spring ephemerals, also have three leaves, and are sometimes unceremoniously destroyed by misplaced fear of poison ivy. A good rule of thumb is to look at the stems on the three leaves. Poison ivy leaves will have a discernable stem, while Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Trillium leaves emerge as a whorl (the leaves meet in the middle).

Prowling among the trilliums is the secretive Ovenbird. This drab-colored bird is more often heard than seen: listen for its distinctive and repeated “teacher teacher teacher” call. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says, “It’s so loud that it may come as a surprise to find this inconspicuous warbler strutting like a tiny chicken across the dim forest floor.” What great imagery!

In town

 A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird yells from its perch. The tiny bird has a white/cream belly, green flanks, a forked tail, and iridescent ruby throat. Its beak is long and comically open as it calls. The eyes are wide-set and the head is green. The image is titled "Ruby-throated hummingbird".
A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird yells from its perch.

Back in town, the daffodils and tulips emerge in May. Interestingly, as humans have selected flowers for our own purposes (generally, creating larger, more brightly colored, and larger numbers of blooms), they have become less recognizable to pollinators. If you’re hoping to attract or support pollinators, try to find a less-modified strain or invest in native plants.

A delicious May treat is rhubarb! Harvest the stalks when they are 7-15 inches long. The color doesn’t matter in terms of flavor, though the effect of a vivid pink bowl of rhubarb sauce is magnificent. If possible, twist the stalks off at the base so that the plant will send up a new shoot. Cut stalks will not be replaced.

In a typical year, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return to Grand Rapids’ flowers and feeders around May 11. They follow the migration of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, which create sap wells on trees. These sap wells also feed hummingbirds when nectar supplies are at their lowest, and many early-migrating individuals rely heavily on this food source.

Lilacs, in addition to smelling great and looking beautiful, are a favorite plant of phenologists. The National Phenology Network has developed a line of cloned lilacs which have been planted throughout the country: by comparing the phenological responses of these cloned lilacs to the responses of genetically diverse lilacs, they are learning which responses are genetically determined and which ones are more environmentally dependent.

The common lilac blooms, on average, around May 20. While lilacs are not native, they do not tend to supplant or suppress native species. The exception to this rule is the Japanese tree lilac, which has white blooms. If you find one nearby, it may require more investigation!

Listener questions and comments

Kids admire a star-nosed mole. The mole is wrapped in a blanket, with the head and front feet poking out.
Chelsea Wavrin Morgan via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch FB Page
Kids admire a star-nosed mole.

Thanks to your wonderful messages after the pilot podcast episode, I was given some fascinating side research projects. I had so much fun finding answers, and the results were so interesting that I decided to add a listener Q&A section to the podcast! I’m eagerly awaiting a new crop of questions for this month, so please reach out if anything piques your interest. Here are the questions from April:


“I wonder how nature relates to Indigenous rights, land defense and decolonization. An acknowledgment of the people whose lands we are occupying is nice way to start a podcast and personal family history and relationships with local Indigenous land stewards.”

Barb, also known as my mom:

  • “You mentioned ants spreading seeds for some of the spring ephemerals. Would you be able to expand on that?  
  • Which little buggies pollinate these early bloomers?   
  • Which moths overwinter as moths, and where do they hang out in the winter?  
  • Do they make antifreeze?  
  • Do other critters make antifreeze?  
  • Which spring plants generate heat?  
  • Do any Minnesota plants like mosses have fluorescence? Do some mammals? Or birds? Or bugs? Why, oh, why? 
  • What do star nosed moles DO with their starry noses? What do they look for in the water?” 

Please get in touch! Tell us what you’re interested in learning, what you find entertaining, how long you want the podcasts to be, or anything else that will help us build something of value to you and the community.

As always, you can get in touch with me at, with John at, or with Heidi at

Thanks for listening — I'm incredibly grateful for your support!

For more phenology, subscribe to our Season Watch Newsletter or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

Audio recordings have been generously provided by Laura Erickson, and supplemented as needed by copyright-free recordings available through iNaturalist.

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).

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?).