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Phenology Report: Butterflies emerge, but ice remains

A brown-orange butterfly with black dots on its wings sits sunning its wings on dead grass. The image is captioned "Compton tortoiseshell".
Contributed
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Canva
A Compton tortoiseshell butterfly with black dots on its wings sits sunning its wings on dead grass.

It’s a good week for ol’ John Latimer: the weather warmed and spring is finally on its way to Grand Rapids.

Up until last week, phenology signs indicated 2023 would be among the five latest springs on record. After a few days of gloriously warm weather, things are looking quite different!

The latest spring on record is 2013, followed by 1996 and 2022. John now predicts 2023 will fall within the top 10.

Do you have observations to share? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch with me (smitchell@kaxe.org), John Latimer (jlatimer@kaxe.org), or text "phenology" to 218-326-1234.

Migratory birds return

A Northern Flicker sits on a bare branch. It has an orangey-tan breast with dappled black spots, a black 'bib', and vibrant red patch on the back of its head. It has a woodpecker-shaped body and a stiff, blocky tail.
Contributed
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iNaturalist user davidfbird
A Northern Flicker sits on a bare branch.

This newfound optimism arose from a promising week outdoors: he saw the return of migratory robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Flickers and Purple Finches.

Most were late: the robins and Red-winged Blackbirds were 10 days later than their typical return and the Purple Finches were 21 days late. But the Northern Flickers bucked the trend and arrived two days early.

Despite the warm temperatures, John’s woods are still covered in 18 inches or more of snow. It’s melting fast, but there’s a lot of it!

Waterfowl find no open water on Crooked Lake

Over the last week, John kept an eye on the sky and an ear to the wind, trying to detect when the geese, swans, loons and ducks found open water on Crooked Lake. Saturday, April 8, he saw a flock of 28 geese flying over, so he knew migration had reached Grand Rapids. Sunday, he observed two geese flying toward the lake and the nearby creek.

Typically, they find a little inlet of open water, land, and settle in (honking the entire time, of course). This is a handy signal for John to go check the creek and lake.

In this case, it was a false alarm: the creek was not yet open, and the geese were nowhere to be found. The swans, however, have made a habit of stopping by and hanging out on the middle of the ice. This is a common but bewildering behavior.

John gets frequent questions about why swans do this, since there doesn’t seem to be much out there for them to do on the bare ice. John’s hypothesis is the long, bare expanse of ice gives swans advance warning of any approaching predators.

Ice melts on a lake. The image is a closeup showing chunks of ice about three inches thick floating in the water.
Contributed
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Canva
Ice melts on a lake.

Ice-out predictions

KAXE Senior Correspondent Scott Hall reported loons returned to the Mississippi River. They habitually stage on the river, then make regular exploratory flights over the lakes to determine if the ice is out. As soon as the lakes open, the loons settle in and start their summer breeding season.

John’s lake opens up around April 8 in a typical year. John’s following John Downing’s method for predicting ice-out. (Briefly, the method involves adding up the number of degrees above freezing over the late winter and early spring season. A lake is likely to be open once about 220 is reached. Downing has built a widget for this purpose, if you’re interested in trying it out!)

A week ago, John was still at zero. Four days later, he reached 16, then tripled his count over the last three days! He’s now at 48, one-fifth of the way to the ice-out total.

Breaking Bud: The Sequel

Craig Bowen from St. Paul reported bud break on his silver maple tree. John’s silver maples aren’t there yet: he checked hundreds of buds and found just one that may have been split open. His aspens, however, are full of flowers which are in the process of elongating. The speckled alders, which normally produce pollen around April 2, are still hard, tight and non-productive.

Early-season butterflies sighted

A comparison of four early-season butterflies and one moth. Four images are shown. The first is captioned "Compton tortoiseshell", and it shows an orange butterfly with black-edged wings. The next is captioned "Mourning cloak", and it shows a dark-brown butterfly with wings edged with blue spots and a pale yellow. The third image is captioned "Eastern comma", showing an orange butterfly with distinct black spots on the forewing and a mostly black hindwing. The last image is captioned "infant moth" and it shows a dark grey moth with a little bit of orange showing on the hindwing.
Sarah Mitchell
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KAXE
A comparison of four early-season butterflies and one moth.

Monday was a perfect day for butterflies! With temperatures in Grand Rapids reaching 65 degrees, overwintering butterflies emerged for their first flights of the season. John looks for emerging butterflies on the first day it’s comfortable for a human to be outside in a T-shirt. These butterflies spent the winter as adults and emerged in spring to mate and lay eggs.

Species include the Compton tortoiseshell, the mourning cloak and the Eastern comma butterfly. The infant moth, which also emerges at this time of year, is often mistaken for a small butterfly because of its orange underwing. The size is a great clue: it’s only an inch long.

John has already seen the Compton tortoiseshell and expects to see the mourning cloak any day now. He hopes you’ll keep an eye out as well, and let us know what you find! (Need a good guidebook? John recommends Butterflies of the North Woods.)

The good news

All told, John predicts we’re headed for a spring that’s on the late side of average, but not egregiously so. He estimates 2023 will end up being among the top 10 latest springs on average, but not make the top five. As our phenology students would say, “Get outside and be observant!”


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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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.<br/><br/><br/>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.)