Phenology Report: Late-fall greenery and thin ice
KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer provides his weekly assessment of nature in Northern Minnesota. This is the week of Nov. 9, 2023.
Skunks and sparrows
Staff phenologist John Latimer starts the show with two notes he received over the last week:
Greg: “Good morning! I had a large skunk thrashing and clunking about my house last night, probably trying to get at the suet feeder. It came up on my little deck and knocked at the sliding door like a dog would, with me inside, lights on and a foot away.”
Yikes! That’s a stinky visitor. John responded, “My feeling is if you’re going to be a foot away from a skunk, you want to have a glass door or a glass wall between you and the skunk. That’s always a better deal.”
The next note came from Betsy, who included a photo of a robin’s nest filled with three roosting sparrows. The robins have long since vacated the nest, which is situated under the eaves of the house. John hadn’t observed this behavior before, so it came as quite the surprise! He mentions that arboreal mice will sometimes use old bird nests, but John has never spotted birds using them as roost sites outside of the reproductive season.
John hypothesizes the nest happened to be in a perfect microclimate for the sparrows: under the eaves, where it was sheltered, and a good size for the three little birds to huddle together.
“That’s kind of what phenology is all about,” John concluded. “It happens at your house, it happens at my house, it’s different everywhere. The trick is to get out and be a part of it and notice it and talk about it!”
Green things and red things
On John’s phenology walks this week, two colors captured his attention: Green and red.
The crested wood fern remains green throughout the winter. Intriguingly, John has never found a reproductively active frond in the winter. (Quick fern-related vocabulary recap: Fronds are the leafy green bits. On the back of some fronds are sori, which are green or brown spore-producing structures.) So, next time you come across a fern, check the backside of the frond and see if you can see any reproductive structures! It’s a sight for sori-s.
Polypodium, a rock fern, also stays green throughout the winter. Rock ferns are primarily found on rocky outcrops and grow happily throughout the Iron Range.
Club mosses, which include the princess pine, ground cedars and running club mosses, are other reliably green things you can find all winter long. Princess pines look like tiny pine trees. Ground cedars live up to their names as well, resembling tiny cedars.
Sidenote: A true cedar tree sapling is hard to find in Minnesota these days. They are a favorite food of white-tailed deer, and as the deer population has grown and expanded north, they have all but exterminated sapling cedar trees.
John says, “I could number them on one hand, places where I have found cedar regen, new cedars growing up from old cedars. And most of those areas are areas where deer are not in the area, because if they come across a young cedar like that, they’ll just chew it right off.”
Sedges also stay green throughout the cold season. Two sedges John recognizes are the peduncle sedge (also known as the long-stalked sedge Carex pedunculata) and the drooping woodland sedge (Carex arctata). Both are found in forests.
Other green plants include hepatica and trailing arbutus.
In the red category are many berry-bearing plants, including blackberries, blueberries and bunchberries. The blackberry leaves are a deep red, while the blueberry leaves have a brighter tone. The bunchberries vary more widely in coloration, but the ones in the sun tend toward a vibrant red.
“You may have more to add to either the green list or the red list, but whatever it is, get out there and enjoy it right now. It won’t be long and the snow will have covered it up.”
While listening to Green Cheese Trivia last Saturday, John was intrigued by Tom Cobb’s report of black leaves on the ground. He kept an eye out for them and discovered that they came from bigtooth aspen trees. These leaves are relatively large with lumpy edges: John compares them to the bumps on the gears of the bicycle. Many of these leaves were charcoal-colored, much like the color of a chalkboard.
So, as your boots crunch through thick layers of leaves this autumn, keep an eye out for spots where the brown and red dried leaves turn dark. There might be a stand of bigtooth aspen nearby.
The tamarack trees near John’s house are nearly bare, with only a few faded yellow needles left. In other years, the trees turn gold before losing their needles. This year, however, the branches lost three-quarters of their leaves in the first heavy snow. Sharp-eyed observers may have noticed a slight yellow tint to the snow around tamarack trees, due to the presence of the yellow needles.
Weeping willows, Lombardy poplars and cottonwoods all still have a few leaves on their branches. This is because they aren’t native to the Grand Rapids area and have brought with them seasonal responses better suited to a more southern area.
Similarly, the imported lilac and buckthorn shrubs are still leafy. Buckthorn is a particular problem, as it shades out native plants including beloved spring ephemeral flowers like hepatica, lady slippers and bloodroot.
A good way to check if a plant is buckthorn is to look at its leaves: if the leaves come off the stem nearly, but not quite opposite each other, this is a good indicator that it’s a buckthorn. Also look for thorns on the branches and a distinctive dark bark with white splotches on larger plants.
The bird report includes a large flock of bufflehead ducks on Crooked Lake, as well as reports of Mallards, Pintails, Green-winged Teals and Tundra Swans. Tundra Swans can be distinguished from the more common Trumpeter Swans by their call: their honk resembles that of a goose more than the trumpeting of the Trumpeter Swans. If you’re lucky, you may hear a flock of these swans passing overhead and softly honking at one another.
Snow Buntings are another welcome sight in the area. John has seen flocks of them numbering 50-70 individuals along roadsides and fields. While Snow Buntings in winter appear brownish-tan at rest, they show remarkable patches of white when they fly. John notes they tend to be itinerant visitors and rarely stay long in one area.
The only exception to this was one memorable winter in 2001, when a flock of Snow Buntings would return to his neighbor’s farm each night to burrow into the snow on top of a large manure pile. While a big pile of manure might seem an unpleasant bed to us, the Snow Buntings found the warmth given off by the decomposition process was quite inviting.
Up in the aspens, Ruffed Grouse are dancing among the branches as they eat the buds. This won’t go on long, as the aspens will eventually start producing a bitter-tasting compound that encourages the grouse to move on to a different food source. Generally, John only spots the Ruffed Grouse in aspen trees in late fall or early winter.
Another familiar November sighting for John was his local Bald Eagles working on their nest. John has records of their November renovations going back to 1992. While they make a more concerted effort in spring, the eagles have brought a few new sticks to the nest in November in many years. If you’re lucky enough to have one nearby, keep an eye out — do your neighboring eagles do the same?
On thin ice
John, for reasons known only to himself, decided to take a 20-foot jaunt onto the ice of Crooked Lake. The lake was about 40% frozen, and although the ice held him for 20 feet, he decided not to go farther (thankfully).
John says, "If I go through here, I’ll only be wet to my waist. So, I moved my phone to a higher pocket, stood on the ice with my dog and looked out and thought about how nice it’s going to be to go out ice skating. But, in the meantime, I retreated to shore dry.”
After the show, Craig wrote in to say, “Can you keep John off the ice until after his party? It’ll be more fun if he’s alive.” (I agree, Craig!)
John responded that there’s little need to fear, since there likely won’t be any ice to tempt him before Nov. 18. “I think my own sense of caution and mortality will keep me off the ice, at least until after the 18th, but we will see. One can’t promise.”
After a year and a half of listening to Latimer Tales, I’ll admit to feeling a bit skeptical of John’s “sense of caution and mortality.” Let’s all cross our fingers together, shall we?
While driving at night, John has noticed a number of small moths flitting about in the beams of his headlights. He was interested and reached out to Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus. Clinton is a naturalist at the Sax-Zim Bog, and very knowledgeable about moths. He quickly surmised that the moths were either Bruce spanworms or the delightfully named linden loopers.
Without capturing one, Clinton couldn’t identify them for sure, but they are both small tan-white moths with about a 1-inch wingspan. Keep an eye out for them as you drive!
Addendum: John antes up again
For reasons of her own, KAXE Morning Show host Heidi Holtan decided to read a portion of the Season Watch Newsletter on air to John. I had written:
“This week, John Latimer ate an ant.
“Well, that's not the full story — let me try again. This week, John Latimer ate an innocent ant that had been minding its own business. He ate it in front of a class of elementary school students.
“Nope, still not capturing it — I'll try one more time. This week, John Latimer ate an ant in front of a class of elementary school students, then helpfully educated them regarding the relative abundance and flavor quality of different types of ants.
“Perhaps one of you can clarify for me — is this real? Am I in a fever dream starring an odd, ant-devouring septuagenarian man over whom societal norms hold no power? Is a foretaste of my future, and if so, to whom shall I address the gift basket?”
In his defense, John stated; “I ... You know ... You need to explore the world. And sometimes, you need to explore an ant now and then. And most ants are sour because they’re acidic.”
“Sure,” Heidi responded skeptically.
The pair then went on to discuss which insects they’ve consumed. Heidi tried a chocolate-covered cricket while in Japan; John unintentionally sampled a June bug while traveling at 65 mph on a motorcycle.
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).