Phenology Talkbacks: Can a skunk spray every day?
Students and listeners from across the state send in their nature reports. Depending on the season, reports may cover wildflowers, wildlife, weather and other wonders.
Remember you can add your voice to this list! Get in touch with me (email@example.com), John Latimer (firstname.lastname@example.org) or text "phenology" to 218-326-1234.
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This week brings us nine wonderful reports!
We learn if skunks have a never-ending supply of stinky spray, how long the Red-winged Blackbird migration takes to move from Shakopee to Grand Rapids, and what swans are doing while their heads are submerged. (Plus, John grouses about the amount of snow on the ground. Grouses are handling it better than John is.)
Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield
Malcolm and Arlo from Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield reported nature’s been busy outside.
“Let’s talk about the birds first! On the 22nd, I saw a Red-winged Blackbird on the way to school. It’s the first one that we have seen. Usually, they arrive about a week earlier than they did this year. That’s so cool! I heard the O’rickey cardinal song and we’ve seen cardinals, chickadees, juncos, nuthatches and a Pileated Woodpecker.
“Don’t forget pheasants — we’ve been seeing a lot of them where the snow has melted along the road and we’ve seen a lot of turkeys along the road, too. The Mourning Doves have been calling in the morning. Isaiah saw two Bald Eagles eating roadkill and we saw two hawks being mobbed by Blue Jays. Finally, Michelle thinks she may have seen a Snowy Owl on two different days. It was big and white, flew like an owl and was out during the day.
“There have been a ton of deer around — Arick saw 15! Arick also saw a lot of albino squirrels near his house and two might have been babies. I’ve been seeing a lot of bunnies under the bird feeder, and we’ve all been seeing a lot of squirrels. There was a fox in the field down the road and there are tunnels in the warm soil by the school building.
“We’ve been collecting a TON of sap and there are tiny green plants by one of the school doors. We thought we had a tree with bud break, but Mr. Latimer told us that it is almost at bud break. Whew! That’s all for now. This has been Prairie Creek Community School, one more step along the phenology journey.”
John’s grateful for the encouraging news. The arrival of the Red-winged Blackbirds and the Dark-eyed Juncos are a good sign spring is arriving (to Southern Minnesota, at least). Neither have arrived in Grand Rapids yet.
He adds Dark-eyed Juncos have distinctive white outer tail feathers, which are prominent when they fly. In the spring, they migrate north and pass through Southern Minnesota, so they are a good indicator warm weather is on its way!
Shakopee West Middle School
“Hey guys! This is Samantha, Eden, and Paityn from Mrs. Orstad’s Seventh Grade Life Science class reporting for the first time from Shakopee West Middle School Life Lab Garden for the week of March 20th and it was the Spring Solstice! By the end of the week here in Shakopee we will have 12.5 hours of daylight. Due to the intensity of the sun (despite our highs in the 40s and lows in the teens and 20s) we have seen A LOT of new phenology this week!
“Mrs. Murray, our social studies teacher, reports that her maple tree saps are producing half a gallon of maple sap in two hours. Speaking of maples, the silver maples are budding, but no bud burst yet.
“We have heard and seen new observations this week:
- Sandhill Crane pairs have been seen pecking in fields and resting near open water as of March 26.
- The robins are everywhere as of the weekend (March 18-19) and are a natural alarm clock through our windows.
- The chickadees are newly singing their ‘fee-bee’ songs.
- On Sunday, March 26, we had male Red-winged Blackbirds everywhere since we have so much marshland.
- Mrs. Orstad saw a wooly bear caterpillar on Sunday, March 26.
- Over the last few weeks, we forced the pussy willows to bloom indoors, but this week they are blooming outdoors naturally!
- Daffodil bulbs are growing up through the snow. We can’t wait to see the early native flowering plants.
- There was a lot of roadkill on the side of the road because of animals being active.
- Eagles were born on Sunday, March 26.
- On March 24, Cal saw a rabbit.
- Sunday, March 19, Braden saw a herd of deer and a flock of turkeys.
“This has been our phenology report. Work hard, keep exploring!”
John concurs: “Work hard and keep exploring!” What a great tagline.
John remarks, unlike the Shakopee students, he hasn’t heard the chickadees’ "fee-bee" song much yet. Over the winter, one resident Red-winged Blackbird visited his feeder. It disappeared a few weeks ago, however, and wouldn’t count as a migrator. John estimates since the Red-winged Blackbird migration recently reached Shakopee, it will reach Grand Rapids in two weeks or so (in mid-April). He predicts migratory robins will arrive at the same time.
John explains there is so much roadkill in spring because of the deep snow. The newly emerged animals tend not to be as well-adapted to moving through snow as animals active all winter, so they prefer moving on plowed roadways. This puts them in danger of getting hit, unfortunately.
The newly hatched eagle the students referenced is from the DNR EagleCam. The eagle family lives in the Twin Cities area, so they nest much earlier than Bald Eagles in Grand Rapids. John doesn’t expect any northern eagles to have young yet. His resident eagles have not laid eggs and are showing confusing behavior—more in his phenology report!
Baxter Elementary School
Aubrey and Isabella report from Nate Macejkovic’s class at Baxter Elementary School. The class observed skunks, Dark-eyed Juncos, porcupines and rabbits. The squirrels were very active and the days were longer. “Have a great week and be observant!”
John welcomes the students to the show, and remarks we look forward to hearing from Nate’s class every spring. It’s a comforting cycle, just like the arrival of the Dark-eyed Juncos, porcupines and rabbits! As John mentioned to the Northfield students, he hasn’t seen the juncos in Grand Rapids yet. However, he suspects they’re in the area and he’s just missed them so far.
Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade
“No sap is flowing yet, with last year’s date of March 25 for first sap flow just around the corner. Average snow depth in the woods is 27 inches. This is 12 inches deeper than it was at the end of December here at LLCC. Open field average snow depth is 24 inches. Inside a tree circle melt area, the average snow depth is 8 inches.
“On our way to the bog, we saw an ash tree with three species of lichen growing on it, and a quaking aspen with four species of lichen growing on it. We also saw and heard the marcescent red oak leaves rattling in the VERY brisk easterly wind. We noticed deer, rabbit, raccoon and woodpecker tracks in the snow.
“And last, but not least, the birds we saw were Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, grouse and turkeys. In fact, we flushed a Ruffed Grouse on our walk. We had a great time in nature, and we want to remind everyone to … unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”
John’s struck by the fact the snow depth is 27 inches — 12 inches deeper than at the end of December! “And the open fields, 24 inches ... Blah blah blah, the snow,” John laments. “If you live in Northern Minnesota, you probably are experiencing plenty of snow.”
(The ol’ guy had a rough morning — he was greatly disheartened to hear more snow is on its way.) I was thrilled to see the word “marcescent” in there— great vocabulary word! It refers to leaves or fronds that have withered but remain attached at the stem.
North Shore Community School in Duluth
“Hello from North Shore Community School on the north shore of Lake Superior. This is the phenology report for the week of March 18, 2023. My name is Dominik, and I’m your phenologist for this week!
“WEATHER/TEMP/SKY: Monday, March 20, was the Spring Equinox and the first day of spring. On the equinox, we experience 12 hours of night, and 12 hours of day. On that day we had a high temperature of 28 degrees and a low temperature of 25 degrees. On Thursday, March 23, we woke up to another 4-6 inches of heavy wet snow. It was the perfect snow for building a snowman or a great fort!
“MAMMALS: Due to the high snowbanks in Mrs. Rolfe's yard, the deer are now able to eat the buds on the top of her dwarf apple trees by standing on their back legs despite the fencing circling each tree.
“On Friday morning, there was a very strong smell of skunk outside the school as we all arrived! Did you know that skunks don't want to spray because the spray itself takes a lot of energy to produce? It can take up to 10 days to restore — so they try to avoid spraying when possible, unless they feel threatened. However, skunks are easily frightened, so it’s important to react calmly to them so that you don’t further intimidate or scare them. If you spot one close by exhibiting signs of spraying, try to quietly back away before they spray.
“BIRDS: Throughout the week Laila has seen many birds migrating back here from the south, I bet they got surprised when they saw we still had snow! On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 21, Ms. Rademacher’s class saw a Bald Eagle flying high above the school. The Bald Eagle was flying north, so it was probably migrating and making its way back to its summer nesting grounds.
“Birds, especially raptors, will take advantage of warm sunny days to migrate. The heat from the sun warms the earth, especially dark spots like exposed rocks and parking lots. The heat rises and creates thermals, or upward currents of air that the raptors can use to easily move long distances. The eagles and hawks can travel miles without even flapping! Be watching and listening for other migrating birds, such as the trumpeting, rattling ‘garooo-a-a-a' calls of early returning sandhill cranes.
“OTHER: Dominik has seen a lot of exposed grass in his neighborhood lately. Mrs. Markon’s Kindergarten classroom measured their snow drift at 5 feet, 11 inches. The drift is up 4 inches from last week. The most ice coverage on Lake Superior happens in March. Ken on the night of March 23 noticed the northern lights dancing in the sky. Did you know that the northern lights are caused by charged particles (electrons and protons) colliding with gases in Earth's upper atmosphere?!
“This concludes the phenology report. Have a great week and be observant.”
John is surprised to learn it takes skunks 10 days to refill their spray supply. “If I’d known that, I would have let my brother go in and get sprayed the day of, and then I could have gone back the next day and harassed the skunk with no trouble!” John said. “But as it stood, we generally were partners in those kinds of exploits, more than once. Slow learners.” (I looked into it, and a skunk can spray up to six times before it exhausts its supply, so don’t go in too confidently.)
Sidenote: I sometimes wish I was born in the era when wildlife populations were abundant and prosperous, so I could go full teenage John Latimer and attempt to capture critters to my heart’s content. It turns out there are laws against that sort of thing nowadays, and for good reason!
On the other hand, I also like being an out and proud queer person with a legally recognized wife and access to gender-affirming medical care. I suppose it’s a non-issue until the invention of a time machine, but if that ever happens, I’ll have some tough choices to make!
Waubun School Forest
“Boozhoo Gidinawemaaganinaanag — hello all my relatives. We have seen more deer by our building. Trumpeter Swans are coming back north, but we have not seen any ducks fly over. Squirrel activity has increased a lot compared to this time last year. Mating season is starting right now for a lot of animals. Lots of animal tracks are being seen. We have seen lots of deer beds under coniferous trees by the swamps.
“Snow is melting slowly. South-facing hills and road ditches have significantly less snow. Last year at this time we had no snow, but this year we have 60 centimeters of snow. The snow still has a crust although it is tiny. In the past few days, the snow has been crunchy, powdery and sticky. We have gotten some good snow lately. Some of the ice is melting. Bodies of water are still frozen.
“The plants that we have planted are growing. Grass that is visible is brown in color. Last year we were tapping trees at this time, but this year we have not started tapping yet. We think we have seen less birds this year than last year. Trees have started to bud. Ironwood trees still have their leaves. We have also noticed some speckled alders. It has been 133 days below 40 degrees in a row. With all the wind on some fields you can see the dirt. Thank you for listening to the Waubun school forest phenology report. Living the nature life!”
John and I are thrilled with the Waubun students’ use of the metric system: all of their measurements are given in centimeters!
“It’s just the natural way of doing it,” says John. “Go metric! You won’t regret it.” (As last year’s Shakopee students would say, “Science skills are life skills!”)
Cohasset Elementary School
Wyatt and Ella reported from Zac Erickson’s class at Cohasset Elementary. During their phenology walk with John, they learned red osier dogwoods and round-leaved dogwoods are cousins and ducks “dabble” by turning upside down and eating water bugs and other food on the bottom. Swans don’t eat fish, focusing on cattail roots instead. They investigated a willow pinecone gall and admired the vibrant colors of the willows.
John had a wonderful walk with the Cohasset students, though they weren’t able to catch up to the swans on the river. The class enjoyed being serenaded by the Northern Cardinals, however!
Lake of the Woods School in Baudette
“This is Verena with the phenology report from Baudette for March 17-24. On Monday, Abigail, Molly, Breckon and Hendrix found coyote and snowshoe hare tracks on the playground field during recess. On Wednesday, we finally tapped the maple tree outside of our classroom. We tapped our tree four days later this year than last and 13 days later than 2021. So far, we’ve collected 70 ml of sap on Thursday.
“Finally, two magpies have been observed in our tapped maple tree each of the past two mornings. Could they be looking for a nesting tree or assuming the snow disturbance around the tree could indicate food?”
John’s lucky enough to have visited their classroom before to admire the maple tree outside their door. We’re looking forward to hearing how the sup run progresses in our northernmost school.
Judd Brink, Guide and Naturalist at Sax-Zim Bog
“Here are the birds reported from this past week's tours: Great Gray Owl, Evening Grosbeak, Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse continue to display on the lek, Northern Shrike, Trumpeter Swan, Canada Goose, American Kestrel, Horned Lark, Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Snow Bunting, Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped and Boreal Chickadee, Blue Jay, Canada Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Bald Eagle, Common Raven, Rough-legged Hawk, American Crow, Wild Turkey also now displaying, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Bohemian Waxwing. Happy Birding!”
Judd also sent a photo (taken by Dave Cary) of the Golden Eagle featured in last week’s report:
John encourages you to follow Judd’s example and take a good look every time you see an eagle with a dark brown head and tail: most of the time, it’s an immature Bald Eagle, but every once in a while, a Golden Eagle makes an appearance. You wouldn't want to miss it!
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).