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Phenology Report: A rough landing for a Ruffed Grouse

A downward shot of a disturbance in the snow. At the bottom of the image is a large divot in the snow with marks at the side, showing where a grouse flew headfirst into the snow and bounced off the hard plastic walkway underneath. Moving up from the divot to the top of the image is a trough formed by the grouse as it got up and flew away: near the end of the trough there are large wing markings in the snow. A human boot is shown in the right lower corner of the image, and the words "Rough Landing" are superimposed on the left side.
Kyle Pearson
Evidence of a Ruffed Grouse's attempt to fly into a snowbank, which turned out to be a hard plastic walkway. Ouch!
Do you have observations to share? Get in touch with me (, John Latimer (, or text "phenology" to 218-326-1234.

Ice likely to linger

It’s been a snowy, snowy spring! John’s overwhelmed with snow, saying that if he gets any more, he’ll have to start storing it in his living room — there's nowhere else to pile it. All that snow means the ice won’t melt off the lakes until later in the year: snow is a great reflector of light and heat and acts as an insulator for the ice. In 2012, ice out on Crooked Lake was on March 24: it 'lakely' will be much later this year!

March 14 over the years

Next, John recaps historical events on March 14. In 2017 and 2021, Ruffed Grouse were heard drumming for the first time. This isn’t the earliest on record, but it’s close. So, keep an ear out: hopefully you’ll hear them soon.

The following poem is shown: "Sedges have edges/ Rushes are round!/ Grasses have nodes/ They grow from the ground." In the background is a large green sedge.
Mnemonic for differentiating rushes, sedges, and grasses.

Ruffed Grouse use the snow to insulate them against cold winter nights. They dive into deep piles of snow to rest, then fly out again in the morning to go about their business. This can occasionally lead them astray.

John’s buddy Kyle Pearson found a spot where a grouse attempted this tactic, only to find that the nice fluffy pile of snow was actually a hard plastic walkway covered by an inviting 7 inches of fresh snow. It flew in and bounced off the hard plastic: a rough landing for a Ruff(ed) Grouse!

On March 14, 2021, John also observed Carex arctata, an evergreen woodland sedge. The leaves of the trailing arbutus were visible on the ground, and the eagle was on the nest. John’s grateful that she is not on the nest this year: that big snow would have been difficult for her.

A big snow in the midst of nesting season caused the eagles’ nest to fail last year. Hopefully, the snow and the eagles’ reproductive cycle will cooperate. (Below, enjoy a timelapse of the DNR EagleCam eagle getting covered in a snowstorm. Brr!)

In 2019, March 14 heralded a large rainstorm that shrunk the snow on John’s yard by 8 inches! At the beginning of the rain, a stump in John’s yard was entirely covered by snow. By the end, 8 inches of the stump were exposed: a dramatic change! The same day, the first chipmunks emerged from their underground resting areas and the first juncos returned.

A bedraggled American Woodcock stands on ice in a creek. Snow is falling, and there are a few inches of snow on the banks of the creek and covering a nearby skunk cabbage. The bird has a long, thick beak, widely set eyes, and large feet.
A bedraggled American Woodcock stands on ice in a creek.

March 14, 2016, looked quite different: there was no snow on the ground, silver maple flowers were beginning to swell, and alder catkins had begun to distend. Similarly, in 2015, less than 10% of the forest floor was covered in snow: this year, there’s around 20 inches of snow in the woods!

The earliest spring in John’s records was in 2021. On March 14 of that year, John heard reports of robins and an American Woodcock. He saw a grey comma butterfly and the first Kildeer of the season.

Some of his other observations from March 14 include:

  • Active spiders in the mailbox (2010) 
  • Saw-whet owls calling and midges flying (2009) 
  • Juneberry buds splitting open, with white hairs visible but no green (2004) 
  • First moths of the season and the first rainfall (1994) 

Spring Equinox

Monday, March 20, marks the spring equinox. At 4:24 p.m. Central Standard Time, the sun will be directly over the equator: after that, the earth’s tilt will move until the sun is directly above the Tropic of Cancer.

Fuzzy buds, migrating birds, and vibrant roadsides

John’s quaking aspen trees are producing more furry buds. These buds are a characteristic of the willow family: they tend to bud out quite early in the season, and the fuzzy layer acts to protect the bud from freezing. The popular pussywillows are an example of this, and many other shrub willows are often mistaken for pussywillows because of their similar bud structure.

A fluffed-up round songbird sits on a rock. Its proportions look like someone stuck a small head, tail, and beak onto a baseball and called it a bird. Overall, the bird is white, with some brown patches on the wing and tail. The background is blurry and blue. The words "Snow Bunting" are superimposed at the bottom of the image.
A Snow Bunting sits on a rock.

While driving down Blue Heron Road, John saw a Snow Bunting. These birds move through the area in the fall, then reappear in the spring as they head back north to their breeding grounds. John also saw Trumpeter Swans flying over Crooked Lake to determine if the ice was out: they’ll perform these flyovers frequently until ice out.

If you live near a lake or river, keep an eye on the sky — many species of waterfowl are making these exploratory flights, hoping to find 10 feet of open water somewhere where they can feed.

John’s drive to Bemidji last week for the phenology workshop was “one of the more delightful drives” that he’s taken in a while. He enjoyed seeing the vibrant red osier dogwoods along Highway 2 near Ball Club Lake (“It was like someone parked firetrucks back in the woods!”), the beautifully pigmented willows, and the burgundy crowns of the birches. Luckily for the me and the workshop participants, he made it in one piece — we know that nature's glory can distract the old dude!

Catkin-pinching, spruce hideouts, and a blackbird goes astray

John’s been out pinching catkins, as he does this time of year. The speckled alder catkins are turning purple but are still “hard as bricks,” but he’s hoping that by next week they’ll begin to soften and distend.

Two images are shown side-by-side. On the left the words "Norway spruce" are superimposed over an image of a green coniferous tree with large, symmetrical, and long pine cones. On the right the words "White spruce" are superimposed over an image of a scrappy-looking coniferous tree with smaller, lighter-colored, and less neat-looking cones.
A comparison of cones from the Norway spruce and the white spruce.

Marvin, John’s neighbor, smelled a skunk while in Grand Rapids last week. During the snowstorm, he also saw two crows land gingerly in the branches of a Norway spruce, then gingerly work their way into the tree’s interior. They found a nice, dry and warm spot to wait out the storm. John, on the other hand, found the additional 10 inches of snow quite disheartening. He's running out of areas to move it.

Norway spruces, which are introduced, have 3- to 4-inch long, light brown cones, which help distinguish it from the white spruce, which is our native species. In addition, the Norway spruce’s branches droop down: this can also help with differentiating.

A Red-winged Blackbird, which was making regular trips to John’s feeders up until last week, has since disappeared. John’s not sure if the snowstorm killed him, if he gave up and flew south, or if he just found a new food source. John’s hoping to catch sight of him again soon: he’ll keep us updated!

That does it for this week. 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).

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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.
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.)