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A voice of Phenology past: 'I hope John knows how grateful we all are'

Birder Ben Stubbs heads out for a mid-winter adventure. He is bundled up in a coat and beanie, and is holding trekking poles. He's standing on the shores of an iced-over lake.
Ben Stubbs
Birder Ben Stubbs heads out for a mid-winter adventure.

Ben Stubbs has worked with endangered species, studied birds, and is now researching minerology and geology.

In the '00s, Ben Stubbs was a student phenologist whose young voice graced the airwaves — much to the delight of Staff Phenologist John Latimer.

A decade or two later, Ben has returned to update John on his life today! Does Ben still love nature? Is he still observing phenology? What was going on with that weird swirling cloud on the radar?

John seizes the opportunity to ask Ben all his burning questions, and learns he has worked with endangered species, studied birds, and is now researching minerology and geology.

An enduring love for nature

The first question John asked Ben was, “You haven’t lost your love for nature, have you?”

(In an alternate timeline, Ben might have answered “Yes, I have.” The rest of the interview might have been a bit awkward.)

Ben’s enthusiasm for the outdoors, in fact, flourished, and he even decided to work in natural resources.

Since writing and recording phenology reports with his friend Kevin in fifth grade, Ben has worked with birds, studied endangered species, and is now researching minerology and geological sciences at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Coleraine.

A yearbook photo shows the Forestview Middle School Bird Club in 2009.
Ben Stubbs
A yearbook photo shows the Forestview Middle School Bird Club in 2009.

In his free time, Ben enjoys going outside and watching birds. He remembers his lessons in phenology and watched carefully for the departure of hummingbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in early fall.

“People like Ken (Perry, Ben’s former teacher) and John were role models for me and countless other nature lovers, and I’m proud to say that 20 years later I’m still getting outside and exploring 24/7,” Ben wrote in an email. “I know that others from our school’s bird club are now avid outdoorsmen and researchers, and I hope John knows how grateful we all are for how he teaches and shares his knowledge and continues inspiring others to pay attention to the world around them.”

Speaking of our gratitude to John, this year marks an important milestone: John’s 40th year on air! We’ll be celebrating 40 Years of Phenology at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at Klockow Brewing Co.

Please join us: attendance is free and all are welcome. If you’d like to express your appreciation for John and his work – and I encourage you to do so - please send your note/remarks to me, Charlie Mitchell, at

I can’t wait to celebrate the old fella with all of you!

A flock of Purple Martens emerging from their roosting site is shown on radar.
National Weather Service
A flock of Purple Martens emerging from their roosting site is shown on radar.

A mystery on the radar

Aside from checking up on former student phenologists, John had another reason to give Ben a call. John and Bob “Tornado Bob” Conzemius found a mysterious phenomenon on the radar near White Bear Lake in early September. An expanding doughnut pattern of airborne somethings rose up from a lake, seemed to spiral up to about 10,000 feet, then went off east — John and Bob were baffled!

Their search for answers led them to Ben Stubbs. At age 15, Ben witnessed this phenomenon in person. Ben’s former teacher Ken Perry and Ken’s wife — wildlife biologist and KAXE contributor Pam Perry — took Ben and his friend Kevin on a birding expedition. At the end of a fruitful day, the group settled in on a pontoon to watch the Purple Martins roosting at dusk.

Ben recalls the Purple Martins appeared abundant during the day, but not overwhelmingly so. At dusk, however, they congregated in gigantic flocks near cattail beds.

“It’s like a switch is turned on and suddenly, the message just gets out and they all start spiraling down into this cattail bed,” Ben said. “ … It was so strange because, the number of birds – the moment they hit the cattails, they just disappeared.

“It was like there’s a little portal or another dimension or something. It was just so weird to think that thousands of birds are in this little patch of cattails.”

Purple Martins dance through the sky as they prepare to roost in cattail beds on Lake Osakis in 2010. The image shows a lake at dusk with thousands of birds flying over a tiny patch of cattails.
Ben Stubbs
Purple Martins dance through the sky as they prepare to roost in cattail beds on Lake Osakis in 2010.

From this, John hypothesizes the strange phenomenon on the radar was from the Purple Martins emerging from their roosting site to continue their migration. He asked Ben, “Is that what’s happening?”

“That’s so cool that you can see the motion on the radar, too,” Ben replied. “And yeah, that’s really what it looked like: a reverse tornado of birds. ... It really was just like a spiral. So that’s cool that you saw that as well.”

(For an explanation of how the martin's roosting behavior is portrayed on radar, check out this cool article from the National Weather Service.)

Ben’s friend Kevin Gohman described watching the Purple Martin roost as a “life-changing event.” High praise!

(Kevin and Ben’s early accomplishments, as seen by Pam Perry, are documented in the records of the Minnesota Ornithological Society’s Young Birder Award. Ben and Kevin were the recipients of the award in 2010, at ages 15 and 16 respectively.)

That memorable evening with Ken, Pam and the Purple Martins was not the only time Ben watched this amazing display: he also got to see Purple Martins roosting near a parking lot in Texas, of all places, while performing a survey.

There’s some evidence Purple Martins reuse roost sites year after year. Ben hypothesizes the parking lot may have once been a wetland, and the martins have made do with the landscaping trees in place of cattail beds.

At last: The burning question

As the interview wound to a close, John asked the question that was really on his mind: “Have you been doing any phenology?”

Ben Stubbs enjoys an idyllic sunset. He is sitting on a dock in a plastic chair, with a colorful sunset over a lake behind him.
Ben Stubbs
Ben Stubbs enjoys an idyllic sunset.

“I mean, once you start you can’t stop,” Ben responded. “With things like iNaturalist and those citizen science things, it’s a lot of fun. So, I’ve been very active on iNaturalist.”

As for his early experiences with phenology? “For me, I mean it’s just something I take for granted,” he said. “But yeah, it’s helped me so much. Not only to just learn about your surroundings and get more interested in everything around you, but I think it makes you care more for the things around you. And yeah, I think that’s so important.”

John — who I imagine was near-luminous with joy — responded, “It obviously lit a fire in you and your friend Kevin, and we’re grateful for that and grateful to have been a part of that. Thank you for joining us: it’s been wonderful to hear your voice.”

“It’s a such a treat, yeah,” Ben replied. “Full circle.”

My heart! What a legacy, what an icon, what an absolute dork. Let’s all get together and remind the humble old fella how much he means to our community – 6 p.m. Nov. 18 at Klockow Brewing Co.!

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?).