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Phenology Report: Teeny tiny nests and mosquito hunters

 A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird sits in her tiny nest. The nest is shown from below, so only her small head and long beak peek over the rim. The nest is small and covered in tiny green plates of lichen. The background is blurry. The image is captioned "Hummingbird nest".
A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird sits in her tiny nest.

John starts with a quick course correction: although in early May, it looked like 2023 would rank among the top five to ten late springs, the warm weather over the last few weeks has many phenomena back to their typical schedule.

“Almost all of my observations over the last week have been within a day or so of average,” he states. “Two weeks ago, I would have looked at the lilacs and said, ‘They’re way, way, way behind.’ But in two weeks, we have had a lot of warm weather and a lot of things have caught up to where they ought to be.”

This is a common trend for cold springs: by June 1, nature tends to recalibrate and get back to its typical schedule. Due to this, June phenophases (phenological phenomena) tend to be quite regular, rarely deviating from their yearly schedule.

Please note as schools let out for the summer, we become more and more hungry for reports for our Phenology Talkbacks segment. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with your observations, nature tales and insights! Get in touch with me (, John Latimer (, or text "phenology" to 218-326-1234.

Hummingbirds home in on nesting sites

On May 11, John saw his first returning Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This is precisely the average date for their return to the Grand Rapids area. At first, John only saw a few males (which were engaged in stiff competition for ownership of John’s hummingbird feeders).

 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.

stiff competition for ownership of John’s hummingbird feeders).

On Wednesday, May 17, John saw the first female hummingbird. By Saturday, John saw multiple females flitting around his feeders.

Now that they’re back, they’ll be scoping out potential nest sites. They prefer branches that are thick enough to hold the nest, but that doesn’t take much.

John explains, “You can cover the top of a hummingbird nest with a quarter. It will fit like a manhole cover on the top of a hummingbird nest.” They’re tiny!

Given their tiny size, hummingbird nests can be hard to find. To make things even more difficult, they build the nest out of spiderwebs and attach lichens to the exterior, making them extremely well camouflaged. (The spiderwebs make the nest stretchy, allowing the nest to expand with the increasing size of the chicks.) If you’re lucky enough to find one, give yourself a big pat on the back: you’re either an exceptionally sharp-eyed observer or exceedingly fortunate.

While you’re out looking for hummingbirds, keep your ears out: male grouse continue to drum in the depths of the forest. The emerging foliage will mute the sound, so pay attention.

Dragonfly diversity

In addition to hummingbirds, other delightful, fast flyers include our native dragonflies. John points out a few distinctive species: the American emerald, the dot-tailed whiteface and the Hudsonian whiteface.

The American emerald is a fairly large dragonfly with an almost entirely black body. The only color on this dragonfly is its emerald green eyes and a splash of green on the front of the thorax below the front wing. Because of its dark coloration, it’s often missed by the casual observer: keep your eyes out!

 A Hudsonian whiteface dragonfly sits on an orange rock. It has a dark body with vibrant red on the thorax, dark brown eyes, and a white face. The image is titled "Hudsonian whiteface dragonfly".
A Hudsonian whiteface dragonfly sits on an orange rock.

John has also seen Hudsonian whitefaces in large numbers. These dragonflies are best identified by their tiny size: they are only 1.25 inches long. As its name suggests, the Hudsonian whiteface has a distinctive bright white face. This can get confusing, as the dot-tailed whiteface shares this characteristic. However, the dot-tailed whiteface has a long string of yellow dots, which fade with maturity: a fully grown dot-tailed whiteface retains a dot only on its seventh segment. Male Hudsonian dragonflies, in contrast, have striking red coloration on their bodies.

Thankfully, these dragonflies are snapping up mosquitoes by the thousands.

In a dramatic departure from his usual diatribes about biting insects, John expresses some tolerance for mosquitoes in this week’s report.

“It’s not that I’m impervious to mosquitoes,” John explains. “I just ignore them and they don’t leave any marks on me. If they bite me, I don’t get a bump. It is just a bite and they take the blood and they go.

“I guess I do notice them when they go in my ear or try to bite me on the eyelids. Otherwise, I’m sort of like, ‘Oh well, it’s just a mosquito.’”

Will we be quoting him on this later? You bet we will.

John’s vicissitudes about voracious biting insects aside, what you need to know is this: there are a lot of mosquitoes out there. John recommends killing your fill before going back inside: it’s a civic duty in Minnesota. We may not be able to catch up to the dragonflies’ kill count, but we can sure try!

Plant progression

 A nodding trillium in flower. Its flower is white and three-petaled with both male and female parts. The flower dangles down from a whorl of three leaves. The image is titled "Nodding Trillium".
A nodding trillium in flower.

Done flowering:

  • Shrubs: Juneberries. 

Ending flowering:

  • Trees: Male birches. 
  • Shrubs: Fly honeysuckle. 

Peak flowering:

  • Trees: Female birches. 
  • Shrubs: Pin cherries, elderberry. 
  • Forbs: Trillium (particularly between Grand Rapids and the Twin Cities), bellworts (large-flowered and sessile-leaved). 

Beginning to flower:

  • Trees: Female oaks, crabapples, pine trees (Norway, white, and jack pines), spruces (white spruce and black spruce), balsam fir. 
  • Shrubs: Lilacs. 
  • Forbs: Star flowers (in some areas: John’s have not bloomed yet). 

Not flowering yet:

  • Trees: Male oaks. 
  • Shrubs: Choke cherries, black chokeberry. 
  • Forbs: Blue bead lily, sarsaparilla, star flowers, moccasin flowers (yellow and pink). 

    Shrub descriptions

     Canada fly honeysuckle fruits. The image shows a number of opposite-branching twigs holding twinned red berries. The berries are joined at one end, showing a slight resemblance to the wings of a fly. The background is dark and blurry. The image is titled "Canada fly honeysuckle".
    iNaturalist user allan7
    Canada fly honeysuckle fruits.

    Choke cherries have a close relative, the black choke berry. These aren’t very common, but you may stumble upon one so it helps to know how to spot it. They have “dark chestnutty-red" leaves, finely toothed leaf margins (edges), and flowers that appear in tight clusters.

    Elderberry shrubs have cone-shaped clusters of creamy white flowers. John describes the color as the cream the forms on top of unpasteurized milk: a yellowish-white.

    The Canada fly honeysuckle has twinned yellow flowers. The flowers always occur in pairs, and the plant is opposite-branched (leaves emerge directly next to one another on the twig, instead of in a staggered pattern). Once the flowers die off and the fruits mature, the Canada fly honeysuckle shows how it got its name. The fruits are joined together at one end and look like the wings of a fly. While the fruits are currently green, they turn bright red at maturity and are great food for birds.

    John saw the first blooms on the lilacs on May 22, which is just about average.

    Tree tales

    As always, John has at least one eye on his local aspens. The trembling aspens broke leaf bud on May 9, 11 days later than average. In contrast, the big tooth aspens broke leaf bud on May 19, two days before average. Forty years of close observation reveal this is a common trend: late springs shrink the gap between leaf-out in these two species from about three weeks to just seven to nine days.

     A balsam poplar sapling sprouting from open ground. The image is taken from above, looking down on the top of the plant. The sapling appears to be about two feet tall, with red stems and reddish-green leaves. The image is titled "Balsam poplar".
    iNaturalist user jasonswanson
    A balsam poplar sapling sprouting from open ground.

    “It’s amazing how fast the popples (poplars, also known as aspens) develop their leaves,” John remarks.

    Another poplar is the balsam poplar, also known as the balm of Gilead. As its names suggest, its leaves are quite aromatic. If you smell one on the wind, go looking for a poplar with a reddish-green leaf. Pinch a leaf and smell it: if it smells a bit like Tiger Balm or Vick’s Vapor Rub, you’ve found the balsam poplar! The leaves are also longer and narrower than trembling or big tooth aspens. It can be used as a respiratory relief in much the same way as those products.

    Other deciduous trees John mentions in his report include birches and oaks. Female birches have flowers resembling a thin green spike sticking out vertically from the branch. Unless you’re lucky and your female birch has low-hanging branches, you may need a pair of binoculars to find them.

    Similarly, look for the male flowers in the red and white oaks: the male flowers dangle down from the branches. The ones in John’s yard are not yet releasing pollen. The female flowers have opened and are readying themselves to receive pollen. Red oaks prepare acorns over the course of two years. If you look closely, you may find some of this fall’s acorns getting started.

    The pine trees, spruces and firs are showing green tips, the new growth for the year. In addition, the tiny male cones at the end of the branches are fully formed and beginning to open.

    What a week! I hope you have plenty of time to get out and enjoy this busy, blissful time of year. Keep us informed of what you find!

    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).

    Stay Connected
    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?).