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Phenology Talkbacks: Leaf races and mourning cloak butterflies

Leaves float down a stream in fall.
Flickr user Mike Bitzenhofer
Leaves float down a stream in fall.

What a week! In the eight reports this week, we hear about the first frost, kids racing leaves down the stream, and even a few late-roaming mourning cloak butterflies flitting about.

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.

Lake of the Woods School in Baudette

Lake of the Woods School phenology report - Oct. 10, 2023

Molly reported from Andrew Pierson’s class at Lake of the Woods School in Baudette:

“This is Molly with the phenology report from Baudette for Oct. 1-6.

On Monday, Lynk mentioned that he’s seeing less and less wildlife while outside. He’s thinking that many birds have already started migrating and maybe some insects are hibernating.

A mourning cloak butterfly sits on a dogbane plant. It has dark brown wings edged in yellow, with blue dots going around the edges.
Allison Barta via the KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook page
A mourning cloak butterfly sits on a dogbane plant.

Evanna has reported that over half of the leaves have dropped from the maple trees in her yard.

On Wednesday, Collin saw a butterfly. It was mostly black. He thinks it was a mourning cloak butterfly.

The rain on Wednesday and Thursday has saturated our ground. Many earthworms have been found escaping their soggy homes in search of dry land.

Finally, on Thursday night, an American Woodcock was seen fluttering around during dusk.”

KAXE/KBXE staff phenologist John Latimer is euphoric about these students’ ability to notice and identify a mourning cloak butterfly. “What’s outstanding abou tthat is these are third graders and they already beginning to realize that, you know, the butterflies that are out this time of year have names. And to see and identify the mourning cloak is a wonderful achievement for a third grader. I think that is just fantastic.”

The mourning cloak overwinters as an adult, so it’s among the first adult butterflies to be seen in early spring. (The others have to finish metamorphosing into their adult forms before we see them flitting around.) With any luck, the butterfly spotted by Collin will find a nice dry spot to ride out the winter- maybe Collin will even see the same butterfly again in the spring!

John’s co-host, Heidi Holtan, rightly points out that the line “Many earthworms have been found escaping their soggy homes in search of dry land” is quite poetic. Well done, Baudetters! (Baudettans? Baudettites? Y’all folks from up north!)

(John and Heidi further discuss the Baudette class in the morning show endcap - for those interested, I've posted it at the bottom of this article.)

Cohasset Elementary School

Adley and Elijah reported from Nate Lindner’s class at Cohasset Elementary School:

"This is Adley and Elijah reading for Mr. Lindner’s fifth grade science classroom at Cohasset Elementary School. We have made a lot of observations over the past week.

Cohasset Elementary School phenology report - Oct. 10, 2023

Frost covers a leaf in Aitkin County. The leaf is still green, and the edges are rimmed in a thin layer of white frost. The rest of the image is not in focus.
Lorie Shaull
Frost covers a leaf in Aitkin County.

“Monday morning was the first hard frost our class has seen. Our parents had to scrape their windshields. The temperatures are getting colder, with the highs only hitting the 50s the next week.

“Our class also noticed a lot more leaves have fallen off the trees. Most of the trees with colored leaves only have 50% of the leaves left. I noted that the cottonwood and the willows are still green.

“Our class has seen swans and geese on the rivers and flying high in the sky. We also spotted a seagull on the Mississippi. We are wondering how long they will stick around.

“Esther saw a fox running in her yard and Brason saw eagles flying above Cohasset in recess. We will keep an eye out for more wildlife sightings this week.

“Have a great week and, like Mr. Latimer always says, ‘Onward and awkward!’”

John has been interested to see that the cottonwood across the street from the Cohasset school is still green, as are the nearby willows.

Somewhat surprisingly, John has not concentrated much on the arrival and departure of seagulls over the last 40 years. How they slipped his mind is a mystery, but perhaps that’s why they’re yelling all the time. It’s never too late to add another event to the ol' phenology list, though!

John recommends we write down every time we see one for the next few weeks. Once three weeks have gone by without a sighting, we’ll be able to record the Official Last Sighting for 2023: the first in hopefully a long chain of records.

Hill City School

Hill City School phenology report - Oct. 10, 2023

Faith and Logan reported from Matt Alleva’s class at Hill City School:

"Hello, this is Faith and Logan with the phenology report from Hill City School Phenology Trail, located in Hill City School Forest, during this week of Oct. 2-6, 2023.

“On the phenology traii:

  • The ash tree near the science room has a 100% color change and 40% leaf loss. 
  • The highbush cranberry tree’s at 100% color change, 80% leaf loss, and no berries remaining. 
  • The white bur oak has 70% color change and 40% leaf loss. There are very few acorns around the tree. 

“In the Hill City School Forest and the Hill City Area, we have observed:

  • There are still minnows in Morrison Brook. The water level has gone down from last week with a medium-strong current. 
  • There are still Asian lady beetles, but there does not seem to be less than last week. 
  • Faith observed a robin. 
  • Cassie saw a female kestrel. 
  • There has been a slight increase in deer activity. 
  • Seventh graders are noticing turkeys in this area. 

“It’s a bird, it’s a bee, it’s phenology!”

Both the students and their teacher do great work! John noted that the highbush cranberries are certainly gone, and he noticed the birds are eating the northern holly berries in his area. As the birds get hungrier and the winter progresses, more and more of those berries will disappear as the flocks empty out the tastiest trees and move to their backup diets.

North Shore Community School near Duluth

Adella reported from Darcie Rolfe and Leigh Jackson’s class at North Shore Community School near Duluth:

“Hello from North Shore Community School on the North Shore of Lake Superior. This is the phenology report for the week of Sept. 30, 2023. My name is Adella, and I am your phenologist for this week!

“October is known as the Leaf Falling Moon. On Monday, Oct. 2, the temperature reached a high of 81 degrees! On Oct. 4, it started raining at recess, which caused the sixth graders to have to go inside. But about 20 minutes later, it was shiny blue skies! On Oct. 5, it started to hail when Mrs. Rolfe’s class was in PE.”

“The leaves in our school forest are continuing to fall this week. The forest floor is an abundance of color- reds, yellows, and oranges. The birch and aspen trees are still hanging on to their leaves and they are still mostly green. About 80% of all the maple trees have turned various colors and now about 70% of the leaves have fallen to the forest floor at school.

“On Saturday, Sept. 30, Teddy heard a Great Horned Owl calling at 6:15 a.m. at his house. Also on Wednesday, Oct. 4, Sally and Chelsea saw a flock of approximately 50-65 geese. They believe that they were migrating south for the winter. Juncos have been spotted in groups! Be careful when driving as they need vehicles to slow down so they do not get hit on the road.

North Shore Community School phenology report - Oct. 10, 2023

An American toad sits on a curb. It is rotund and grumpy-looking.
USFWS Midwest Region
An American toad sits on a curb. It is rotund and grumpy-looking.

“Jori saw a skunk eating his garbage on Wednesday, Oct. 4. Ms. Jackson has noticed lots of holes in her yard from skunks busy trying to find grubs to eat.

“Mrs. Rolfe relocated a toad in the school forest to a less human visited area on Thursday, Oct. 5 during Environmental Education class. Toads will soon be burrowing underground below the frost line for the winter.

“Due to the hot temperatures at the beginning of the week, the Asian beetles are abundant and covering windows, doorways, and siding in swarms. Ms. Urban saw two mosquitoes on Tuesday, Oct. 3, and was sad because she hoped they had all gone away for the year. On Thursday, Oct. 5, Mrs. Rolfe’s sixth graders used nets to dig through the muck and leaves at the bottom of the stream and found minnows and dragonfly larvae.

“On Sunday, Oct. 1, Parker saw a stream near the Lester River that was three times wider and deeper than two weeks previously due to all the recent rain and flooding.

“This concludes the phenology report. Have a great week, and be observant!”

John concurs that the Dark-eyed Juncos are back right on schedule. He adds that the skunks are trying to bulk up for the long winter ahead: they’ll happily feast on grubs, garbage, or anything else they can get their omnivorous little mouths into.

Toads are also busy preparing for winter. They are trying to find a good place to dig down below the frostline where they can stay safe from the cold.

It’s always a good idea to help a toad out when you see one! It was kind of Mrs. Rolfe to relocate it to a spot where it wouldn’t be inadvertently stepped on. One idea for a good spot to leave a toad is in the area where the snowplows pile up heaps of snow. The snow helps keep the ground insulated and the toads toadsty-warm through the winter.

Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade

Long Lake Conservation Center phenology report pt. 1 - Oct. 10, 2023

Claudia and Grant reported from St. Odilia School in Shoreview's visit to Long Lake Conservation Center:

“During our trip to Long Lake Conservation Center, Oct. 2-4, our group noticed a variety of interesting mushrooms including a Jack-o’-Lantern that glowed in the dark, and a puffball about the size of a watermelon. Puffballs are actually edible before they become brown.

“There are acorns everywhere, mostly on the ground. The deer, bear, squirrels and chipmunks have plenty to eat. The beavers have been very active, and a beaver-chewed tree fell while we were canoeing. The wind helped.

“On the lake, we spotted a Trumpeter Swan, and a Solitary Sandpiper. We also spotted Blue Jays, chickadees, nuthatches and a Pileated Woodpecker.

“Our group enjoyed exploring the bog, and lots of us liked getting a drink by squeezing the water from the sphagnum moss.

“It was a great week exploring nature and we want to remind everyone to unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”

Moss, John points out, doesn’t have a vascular system (series of tubes to move water and nutrients up and down the plant). Instead, the water moves by capillary action – this works the same way that an entire dry rag will become wet when just one corner is soaked in a bowl of water. Using this process, the moss will soak up water from the water table and bring it to the light, where it can be used for photosynthesis.

Amelia reported from Braham Elementary’s trip to Long Lake Conservation Center:

Long Lake Conservation Center phenology report pt. 2- Oct. 10, 2023

“During our trip to Long Lake Conservation Center on Oct. 5-6, autumn weather arrived. Temperatures dipped into the 40s at night and the wind was howling, dropping lots of leaves.

Our group saw a flock of flickers, a party of Blue Jays, and a robin. We wonder if that will be the last robin we will see until spring. Our group also found a baby snapping turtle on the shore, four large and VERY slow frogs in the woods, tadpoles and minnows in the lake, a garter snake, and four or five beavers.

The beavers continue to be very busy, chewing down trees on both sides of Long Lake, and dragging branches near their lodge. Long Lake’s staff told us that the beavers abandoned that lodge last year and constructed a new one further down the lake. We wonder why they returned to the old lodge this year.

We were lucky to have clear skies and night and saw lots of stars, including the big dipper. Autumn is a beautiful time to explore nature and we want to remind everyone to unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”

John is excited to hear about the beaver activity. Beavers will only harvest trees within a short distance from water: if they wander too far, their short legs and slow pace on land leave them at risk for predation by wolves.

With sharp carnivorous teeth in mind, the beavers will harvest the trees close to water and move to a new location before going back into the forest. Perhaps, in the case of the Long Lake beavers, they found a large new stand of trees in the new area for food, but ended up preferring the old lodge location for shelter. It’ll be interesting to see where they move over the next few years.

Roots and Wings Forest School

Hazel, Rose, Kip, and Leo reported from Leona Cichy’s class at Roots and Wings Forest School in New York Mills:

“This is Hazel, Rose, Kip, and Leo reporting from Roots and Wings Forest School in New York Mills, Minnesota.”

“We saw a toad in Leona’s backyard.”

Roots and Wings Forest School phenology report - Oct. 10, 2023

 Roots and Wings Forest School students race leaves in Oak Creek during a field trip. (From back to front: Timmy, George, Finlee, and Kip.)  The students have waded into the stream and are surrounded by autumn leaves that have fallen.
Roots and Wings Forest School Facebook page
Roots and Wings Forest School students race leaves in Oak Creek during a field trip. (From back to front: Timmy, George, Finlee, and Kip.)

“I saw mushrooms on a stick. They were yellow and see-through. And then I was playing in the woods and I saw a few black mushrooms. And then on the way to school, I saw two Bald Eagles.”

“We think about 55% of the leaves have changed. We also saw some [leaves] floating down the school field trip river.”

“This week we went on a field trip and we saw an author and his name is Kevin Lovegreen and he writes children’s books about Lucky Luke’s adventures.”

“And then, after we went from the author talk, we went to a taxidermy shop. It’s called Dewey’s Taxidermy, and Dewey was carving a snow goose – taking the skin off. And then the snow goose was getting washed up. And then, when they get washed up, they put them in... I think the guy said gas. And then they dry off in sawdust. And then they stuff it with foam, and then you can buy it. And there’s a bunch of different furs that we got to touch and see, and we took group photos.”

“I was rolling in the fox fur!” <giggles>

“There’s moose hooves who are about maybe an inch long – the size of Leona’s hand.”

“We went hiking at Blackwood Grove in Wadena. We took a hike and went down to the river and we did a dam. We made a dam out of rocks and we played in the water. Then we went on a hike and the grass was really wet. And then it sarted raining. Then we did a leaf race in another river – Oak Creek – and we threw rocks at the leaves when they were going down the stream.”

“And we did racing together.”

“And the leaves died because we flushed ‘em down the river.”

“Thanks for listening! Stay wild!”

Chuckling, John said, “Stay wild indeed! Holy mackrel, that must have been quite the experience: the taxidermy shop, rolling in fox fur... you know, you could do worse!” He has also admired the soft, red fur of a fox and would love to roll in it as well.

John also loved hearing about the leaf races in the river - it's a great Minnesota pastime for kids (and adults who are cool enough)!

Fort River School in Amherst, Massachusetts

Fort River School phenology report - Oct. 10, 2023

 A twelve-spotted skimmer rests on a dead reed. The dragonfly has a blue tail and many dark brown and white spots interspersed on the wings. The background is blurry.
Flickr user USFWS Midwest Region
A twelve-spotted skimmer rests on a dead reed.

Amelia, Hank, Casey, Jonah, Alex, Natalia, Aya, Jaihao (Jawhow) and Bobby report from Ana Paul’s class at Fort River School in Amherst, Massachusetts:

“Hi and Hello from Fort River Elementary school. The leaves are turning colors here in Amherst, especially the maples. We have a lot of reporters this week. Let’s start with (drum roll…) Hank.

“This week is a lot hotter than it was last week. On Oct. 4, the temperature reached 85 degrees at 3:55 p.m. and at 3:22 a.m. it was 54 degrees. Our day length was 11 hours 36 minutes and 28 seconds.

“The chrysanthemums are blooming and we see them in people’s gardens and for sale. The sunflowers in our garden are blooming but in other gardens the flowers have wilted.

“We saw a differential grasshopper sitting on a sunflower leaf and a 12-spotted skimmer dragonfly. Bumblebees were flying around some marigold flowers.

“Rocco saw a bluebird and a large woodpecker in his yard.

“We found some leaves from a maple tree that have a similar shape to a silver maple, but the color is a maroon red. We think it might be a hybrid between a red maple and a silver maple called Autumn Blaze. Two-tenths of it have turned red. John, do you have any other ideas on what it could be?

“We are also wondering about the red maples. Two percent of the red maple in the yard has turned red, but the red maple in the tree area is almost all red. The really red one in the area with more trees is in a swampy area. Could it be that it is getting less nutrients because it is surrounded by more trees and in the swampy area?

“We have been seeing a lot of orange- red and yellow- brown on our way to school.

“The black maple was about 100% yellow and brown. On our black walnut tree, the leaves are more yellow, the walnuts are bigger and more brown. We found some walnuts on the ground.

“And that’s a wrap from the western Mass phenology class!”

John is always thrilled to hear from our friends in Amherst! They saw a number of animals and flowers that John hasn’t seen in quite a while, from the 12-spotted skimmer dragonfly to bumblebees and goldenrods. There may have been a few bumblebees still out on warm days last week, but they would have perished in the hard frost. (The bumblebee queens are safely bedded down for the winter, though little is yet known about their preferred overwintering habitats.)

Regarding the mysterious maple trees, John agrees with the students that they could be Autumn Blaze trees (hybrids between silver maple and red maple). John isn’t confident on why the two maples are such different colors, though he’s often noticed that trees on forest edges or in the open color more quickly than those in the shade. He’s less certain if the swampy habitat plays a role – swamps can be nutrient deprived, but swamps with water movement may be nutrient-rich. Generally, trees with a good supply of nutrients are able to produce brighter colors.

He marvels at the contrast in the seasons between Amherst and Grand Rapids: the maple trees out his window are bare, while 98% of the leaves on the maples in Amherst were still green last week! To put it in perspective, the maples were in peak color three weeks ago in Grand Rapids, and the Massachusetts trees are barely starting to turn.

John loved his thank you cards from the Baudette student phenologists!
Maria Hileman
John loved his thank you cards from the Baudette student phenologists!


Tuesday Morning Show endcap - Oct. 10, 2023

At the end of the Tuesday Morning Show, John and Heidi were elated about how observant the student phenologists are. “...You know, some kids are excited about colored leaves. Other kids like spiders, You never know what’s going to light a fire in each one, but boy, they do get the fire lit and man, they burn brightly!” John exclaimed. “...Within the sound of my voice, there are 10,000 adults who wouldn’t know a [mourning cloak] butterfly if it landed on their nose. And that’s a shame, because they are amazing butterflies.” I certainly count myself among the adults who get caught up in screens and forget to look around them- meanwhile, these third-grade students are out there absolutely rocking it.

John and Heidi also talked about some great thank-you cards John received after a trip to Baudette (including one clearly written by a left-handed student, which John appreciated as a leftie himself). It was a wonderful opportunity to think about the 40 years of students that have learned from John – we're looking forward to celebrating him and the phenology program in the next month!

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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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?).