Phenology Report: Ice out imminent and bud-breaking news
Searching for signs of spring is always part of John Latimer’s routine, but this year, in all its chilly and late glory, it’s a dogged pursuit.
On the Tuesday, May 2, Phenology Report on the KAXE Morning Show, John notes phenologists come to different conclusions depending on their location and what events they measure. The spring of 2023 is creeping up John’s list of latest springs in his records, reaching No. 4 or 5 as May makes an entrance. But over in Akeley, John’s friend Dallas, who’s been keeping phenology records since 1997, declared this year the latest by his calculations.
“He has 25 things that fall kind of in the order down the list and looking at the first 10 of those 25 … this is the latest spring he has ever recorded,” John says. “Later than 2022 and later than 1996. … Dallas has said that this is probably his coldest spring on record.”
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Ice out, baby!
Alongside the Trumpeter Swans swimming and feeding in the increasing open water on Crooked Lake, Common Loons showed up late last week. John says the loons — which need a relatively large expanse of open water to take off for flight — would have had to do some interesting maneuvering to become airborne.
“If the loons had wanted to take off, they’d have had to run in sort of an arc, because there wasn’t enough water in a straight line for them to just go and take off,” John says. “ … But they didn’t choose to get up, because Saturday they were still there. And Monday — yesterday — when I went out there early, the lake was about 50% open now.”
The loons arrived earlier than usual, John says. Their average return date over the years tends to correspond with the ice-out date.
While John joined the Morning Show virtually from the Twin Cities so he couldn’t be sure, he suspects the lake opened up Tuesday, May 2. This compares to the average ice-out date of April 15. The latest was May 28, 2018, while other May ice-outs happened May 4 (1996), May 10 (2013) and May 6 (2022). In a typical year, the loons don’t return to the lake until the ice-out has already occurred. “This year, (the swans and loons) rushed that season by about two or three days and got in there before the ice even began to go out,” John says.
John’s been anticipating ice out on Crooked Lake for a while and with extra vigor since he learned a new way to predict the ice-out date from John Downing on a recent Morning Show.
The land mirrors the water this week: the snow in John’s woods is still there but has melted down to 10-15% cover.
They are beauty, they are grace
While driving, John’s been noticing American Kestrels perched on powerlines. The robin-sized birds of prey are underrated, in John’s opinion.
“Too often, we don't really give them a close look, but they are one of the more stunning birds that we have in Northern Minnesota,” John says. “They are dimorphic — the males have blue-gray wings and a red back and a red tail. The females have a red back, red tail and red wings. Both have a mustache of black and white on their faces really strong facial markings.
“These are really special little falcons, and they spend a lot of time catching things like dragonflies and others flying insects. But they also will capture mice and voles.
“ … I know a lot of times we're all headed somewhere at high speeds, but if you get a chance, slow down and really examine the kestrels. They're really quite beautiful birds.”
John spotted another charismatic avian predator this week: the Northern Harrier. He saw a male harrier “harrying along” (flying low over the land in pursuit of prey) near a swamp by his house.
Suddenly, the harrier pulled up, hovered and dove into the sedges! It disappeared for a while, so John suspects the hawk’s lunch trip was successful.
“Good for him, bad for the voles,” John concludes.
Flora roll call
If you’re “out swamping around,” as John puts it, or otherwise wandering through the woods, here’s a list of plants to keep an eye on:
- Leatherleaf. Buds of the little white bell-shaped flowers are there, but not yet blooming, John says.
- Blue flag iris. The iris are about 2 inches high at John’s house — right on time within a day or two, compared to John’s records.
- Nannyberry. The buds have split open on John’s shrub. “You should go look at the buds on those things. The buds on nannyberries are like these long candle flames,” John says. “They sort of have a little arc to them.”
- Trailing arbutus. Buds of the pinkish-white flowers are formed. John’s average date for bud formation is April 16, and this year, it happened April 29. The latest date was May 17, 2013.
- Fly honeysuckle. the honeysuckle broke leaf bud this week, and John expects their green foliage will stand out more and more in the weeks to come. Double yellow flowers are to follow. The average date for the leaves to break bud is April 21, and this year, John marked down April 29 — the fourth latest in his records after 2013 (May 13), 2011 (May 2); and 2022 (May 1).
- Red maples. Check the buds now, which John says are beginning to split. Once they’re flowering, stand back and look at the tree as a whole. Does it look orange? It’s a male. Is it red instead? Female. This is due to sprays of yellow in the male flowers, John says. April 14 is the average flowering date, but this year was April 29 — third latest. In 2022, it happened May 6, while in 1993, it occurred April 5.
- Blueberries. The reddish leaf buds are splitting open, showing a little bit of white around the edges.
- Pussy willows. This is the perfect time of year to find out if you have a male plant, female plant or both, John says. “The male is quite yellow right now and the female is quite green,” John says.
- Birch, box elder and ash. Breaking buds abound, according to John!
- Beaked hazelnut. After seeming to go into hiding after the brief warm spell in mid-April, the hazelnut flowers — on likely both the American and beaked varieties — are at their peak now. “Yesterday I was out for a walk early in the morning. Backlit by the sun, I looked at this one hazel brush, and it was just lit up with these little red dots and female flowers.”
Speckled alders are largely done flowering, John says, and will begin the process of developing the cone-like structures we’re familiar with in the winter forest.
On aspens, male catkins that look like gray, wooly caterpillars are dropping from the branches. On female trees, the catkins will remain attached and turn green as the seeds develop. This is a handy way to determine which of your aspens are male or female.
Backyard birds — if you're lucky
John finally heard the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse’s mating ritual last week for the first time this spring. The average first date of drumming is April 4, with the latest being April 28, 2013, and April 27, 1996. Noted on April 25 this year, the sound of spring came one day later than last year.
In other avian observations, John found the first fully molted American Goldfinches with their vibrant yellow plumage. In recent weeks, the males have looked a little bedraggled as they dropped their drab winter feathers in favor of the eye-catching gold.A flock of Wild Turkeys seems to be making itself at home in John’s backyard. John counted nine last Thursday, including three males doing their best to impress.
“The males got into a little scuffle,” John says. “They’re naturally kind of interested in the females and trying to do their best to make sure they get out and get the first opportunity to mate with the females.”
John’s hearing the winnowing sound of the Wilson’s Snipe’s wings and did his best to imitate it. Unfortunately, the Zoom conversation didn’t pick up the sound well, but it was enjoyable nevertheless.
The Wilson’s snipe spreads out its tail feathers while diving, and air traveling over those feathers creates the sound. They will perform this aerial display around dawn and dusk: look and listen for them flying up and performing shallow dives to create their distinctive winnowing sound.
The average first date John hears the snipe is April 26 and this year matched the average.
“The snipe are back and they're making their ruckus up in the sky and I hope you get a chance to hear that,” John says.
John is still seeing a few migrating bird species that don’t usually stick around for the summer, including some Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks and Dark-eyed Juncos.
American Tree Sparrows and Fox Sparrows appear to have finished moving through the area to their northern breeding grounds: John hasn’t seen either species in a few days.
An Eastern Phoebe — that showed up two weeks later than usual — appears to be scoping out a nesting place in John’s garage. Phoebes are early nesters that love to nest on buildings.John saw a large flock of Tree Swallows over Lily Lake in Grand Rapids, and John’s friend Simon reported huge numbers along the Mississippi River.
“They are definitely back and they are hanging out over the water because that's where the insects are. There haven't been much development of insects above that,” John says. Once the ground warms up and terrestrial insects emerge, many Tree Swallows will head inland to begin nesting.
Mike, who lives north of Nashwauk, told John he saw a White-crowned Sparrow in his yard, and the snowshoe hare hanging around has turned brown.
“So there are some signs of spring out there,” John says. “It's late. But it's here. Enjoy.”
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).