Phenology Talkbacks: A national treasure in our backyard
Buckle up, my friends. Each Tuesday morning Phenology show brings its own joys, but this was one that I’ll never forget.
As we celebrate John Latimer’s 40th year of talking phenology on the radio, our community has rallied together in an incredible display of gratitude and support for John’s work — including these 12 wonderful student reports.
Your support is vital to the continued success of the Phenology program. Please consider becoming a sustaining member today to keep this life-changing program on air and in schools for another 40 years!
Lake of the Woods School in Baudette
"This is Wyatt with the phenology report from Baudette for Nov. 3-10.
“On Sunday, Aurora saw a Turkey Vulture snacking on a chunk of meat in the road ditch.
“On Thursday, a coyote was spotted running across the road by school.
“Many student deer hunting stories have proven that the white-tailed deer rut is in full swing. Deer hunting season has allowed many students the opportunity to spend countless hours outdoors with family.”
John responds, “That right there is what makes it all worthwhile.” He’s thrilled to hear the students can spend time with their families outdoors and interested to hear about the Turkey Vulture and Northern Harrier sightings. John hasn’t spotted either in quite a while.
John also clarified the difference between a deer scrape and a deer rub: Deer scrapes are on the ground and caused by the buck urinating and depositing scent via glands on their back legs. Deer rubs are found on trees or other vertical structures, caused by bucks rubbing velvet off their antlers. On larger vertical structures, you may find evidence of the bucks “strength training” their necks for the rut by pushing against sturdy structures.
Apple Blossom in Bemidji
“Hi, I’m Zola from Apple Blossom. I’m here with the phenology report. Today is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
“We’ve been feeling the wind and seeing a bit of snow. Iris saw pheasants outside her house. Meely and Poppy have seen lots of turkeys. Lake Irving has a tiny bit of ice but is mostly still moving water.
“I witnessed a fox carrying a squirrel, and a kit following behind.
“The tamarack needles are falling off the trees.
“When we started doing phenology, it gave us a new outlook on seeing our world and the changes that take place. Thanks, John, for inspiring us. You’ve done a great job. Happy 40 years!
“Goodbye until next week!”
John is thrilled that Zola spotted a fox with a kit — and dinner!
Science Nature Adventure Program in Bemidji
“This is Britten and I will be your phenologist for this week.
“This week while we were hiking through the school forest on the deer paths, we noticed tracks in several places and droppings. At this time of the year, many deer roam into the middle school forest so we have a camera set up to capture some of them. As we were heading through a thicker area, we spotted a couple of buck scrapes.
“Other observations were the foliage being completely off the trees, more pine needles dropping and cooler temperatures.
“It was also much darker at the end of our session with daylight saving time. We also saw the last of the tamarack needles still barely holding on.
“Other observations the students had this past week include: our first snow, daylight saving time, water beginning to freeze, birds flying south and a lot of deer.
“Until next time, ‘Snap to it! Get into the wild and be observant.’”
It’s great to hear from our friends at SNAP!
John says, “They have a great hiking trail there for the SNAP program, and Angie does a really nice job with the kids — getting them out and keeping them focused on what’s important outside.”
Cohasset Elementary School
“Hello, my name is Mr. Lindner and this is our fifth-grade classroom. We’ve made a lot of observations over the past week, but we’re not going to share them with you today.
“Instead, we would like to congratulate Mr. Latimer on his 40 years on the radio and a lifetime of studying and educating in the field of phenology.
“Here are some of the reasons why we love having Mr. Latimer come into our classrooms:
- Jay: I like going outside with Mr. Latimer.
- David: I like learning phenology.
- James: I like going outside with Mr. Latimer.
- Austin: I like going outside.
- Noah: I like watching birds.
- Elijah: I like seeing wildlife run free.
- Carter: I like being outdoors.
- Josette: I like to learn about nature.
- Esther: I like to learn about trees.
- Ashley: I like learning about all the animals.
- Brecken: Mr. Lindner is nice.
- Riley: I like learning about phenology.
- Bryson: I like learning about trees.
- Dustin: I like turtles.
- Kelly: I like going outside.
- Aspen: I like learning about how animals hibernate.
- Brielle: I like Mr. Latimer coming in and teaching us about nature.
- Maggie: I like Mr. Latimer’s catchphrase.
- Cadence: I like to see the dead animals.
- Jayden: I like everything.
- Ruby: I like trees.
- Alex: I like going on the nature walks.
- Hayley: I like going on nature walks.
- Jason: I like looking at birds.
- Serenity: I love hanging out with all my friends.
“Congratulations on 40 years on the radio, Mr. Latimer, and as you always say: ‘Onward and awkward!’”
John, Heidi Holtan and I are all big fans of this list — what a range of favorites, from “seeing wildlife run free” to “seeing the dead animals”! John points out they don’t pass up a chance to look at anything in nature, and it’s more fun that way. He also agrees that Mr. Lindner is nice.
“I first met John when I was in fifth grade, when he came to our class every week to talk about phenology. He also helped me with a passion project I did in seventh grade about phenology, and I’ve participated in the Audobon Society Christmas Bird Count with him since 2017.
“He’s been a great mentor for me: he’s taught me a lot of pieces of knowledge that have really helped me in my education and career in forestry. So, thank you, John, for all that you’ve done.”
John responds, “Thank you, Henry. Nice to hear from you. I can’t tell you what our friendship has meant to me, it’s really pleasing for me to see you develop as a young man and find a niche in the study of nature.”
St. Joseph’s in Grand Rapids
“Thank you, Mr. Latimer, for teaching us to love being outside and making observations of the world around us.
“Hi, this is Silas, Enoch, and Nik from St. Joseph’s school. During the past week, we have seen several animal sightings such as when Silas saw hundreds of ducks flying from Little Rice Lake. James saw buck scrapes and rubs near Remer, but sadly, no deer.
“Last Monday, our class traveled to Mille Lacs Indian Museum. We spotted eagles at the side of the road eating some sort of animal carcass. Also, on our way back we saw a mirage — it looked like the land was floating. We think this was caused by the water being warmer than the air. The light reflected off the water making a type of optical illusion.
“As we were walking in our backwoods, Mr. John taught us that we may have an upside-down riverbed back there! This is called an esker. More evidence that points to it being an esker is that there are several gigantic rocks that were left behind from glaciers.
“Eskers were formed by glaciers. As the mile-thick ice melted, it brought sediment down inside the melted area which packed up overtime. As the glacier melted, the esker remained as land mass that is higher than the surrounding area.
“We noticed there are still some green plants such as the equisetum and Pennsylvania sedge. There is also an invasive buckthorn that is living its last days of being green — because next week, we will be introducing it to a hacksaw and a tin can!
“One last tip for today — If you’re lost in the woods and need warmth, look for a burnt stump. If you can hack away until you reach the plastic-like inner resin, you will be able to light it no matter how wet the woods are around you.
“Be happy, be kind, be outside!”
John is thrilled to be working with St. Joseph’s School this year.
“That’s a great group of students there,” he enthuses. “They have a lot of fun. I don’t know if we were actually standing on an esker, but it doesn’t hurt to introduce them to a little bit of geology while they’re out there. It makes them aware of the ground that they’re walking upon — you have to think in terms of time, and time is fluid. For me, it goes in one direction. Forty years I’ve been here doing this and having a pretty good time at it, too.”
Hill City School
“Hello, this is the phenology report from the Hill City School phenology trail located in Hill City School Forest during the week of Nov. 6-10, 2023.
“All the trees on the phenology trail have lost their leaves.
“Mr. Latimer taught us that high bush cranberries are one of the last berries to be eaten by birds because they are not a bird favorite. The seventh graders tried them and they are very, very tart.
“In the Hill City School Forest and in the Hill City area we observed:
“In the Hill City School Forest and in the Hill City area we observed:
- Morrison Brook water level was higher than previous weeks and the water flow rate is faster.
- Chickadees are active in the area.
- Canadian Geese were observed on a pond near Hill City.
- Deer and grouse are active in the woods.
“Thanks to Mr. Latimer for helping us learn about and be inspired by nature.
“It’s a bird, it’s a bee, it’s phenology!”
John is delighted with how the students captured the energy of a chickadee in their report. “It was said in a way that just brought life to the chickadee. ... Amazing.”
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 Nov. 4, 2023. My name is Zander, and I am your phenologist for this week!
“On Tuesday, Nov. 7, by lunch time we went from zero snow to a blanket of white snow on the ground at our school. Then, we left school at the end of the day, it had all melted!
"Mrs. Rolfe has a sugar maple in her yard that has not let go of its leaves yet. They have all turned and are rather dry but are still attached to the tree. There are two reasons that a tree does not drop its leaves. If it gets bitterly cold before the leaves naturally drop, the cold can kill the leaves immediately.
“In that instance, a tree didn’t have a chance to develop abscission cells, so the dead leaves stay in place. The leaves will fall eventually, either from the weight of snow or from wind. If, however, the weather stayed warmer longer than normal, the tree never receives the signal to create the abscission cells, so again, the leaves stay on the tree. They will remain on the tree until they eventually die, even if the weather gets colder after that.
“Penny has seen many squirrels across the parking lot by her house. She believes that they are preparing for the winter by adding to their caches. According to Discovery Place Science: There is evidence that gray squirrels organize caches, putting different types of nuts into separate caches in a process called spatial chunking. Squirrels use their memory and excellent sense of smell to find these categorized caches!
“There have been many recent sightings of large flocks of juncos at our school. They are small songbirds, which are commonly found in North America and are currently migrating. Sally is surprised that a pair of geese have not yet migrated from her field and pond area of her backyard.
"Mrs. Rolfe saw a large mosquito in her house on Monday, Nov. 6. The Asian beetles that we had all stopped seeing in our homes last week were once again active this week.
"On Sunday, Nov. 5, at 2 a.m. local time, our clocks went back an hour, part of the twice-annual time change that affects most, but not all, Americans. We also had 17 minutes less daylight this week compared to last week.
“Lastly, we would like to acknowledge John Latimer for his 40 years of sharing his love and knowledge of phenology on the radio and with students. Our sixth-grade classes have learned how to be more observant of their natural world and appreciate the wonder around them that is ever changing due to the teachings of Mr. Latimer. Congratulations, Mr. Latimer!
“This concludes the phenology report. Have a great week and be observant!”
John was ecstatic about this report — the students taught him two new things! Neither of us had heard about spatial chunking before, and neither of us knew about leaf abscission until well into adulthood. It is a testament to these kids’ curiosity and their teacher’s skill and dedication.
Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade
Lydia and Kenzie reported from Underwood Elementary School’s visit to Long Lake Conservation Center:
“During our trip to Long Lake Conservation Center on Nov. 6-8, the high temperature was 49 degrees Fahrenheit and the low was 34.
“During our deer hunting season visit, we did see some deer. We saw a few does around campus and found a very large track in the mud that we are thinking is a big buck. There is no hunting on Long Lake property, but we wore our blaze orange anyway just to be safe!
“We all got more than one chance to watch the beavers at work, eating and swimming branches over to their lodge. They are working on some trees on one side of Long Lake and the lodge is on the other side of the lake, so they have to swim right by the campus.
“Three otters were seen swimming in Long Lake.
“We are still seeing chipmunks, juncos, squirrels and Canada Geese. We also noticed many Blue Jays and woodpeckers.
“We found some cool jelly mushrooms. The leaves are not colorful anymore, but we did notice how colorful the sphagnum moss is in the bog.
“We had a great time and we want to remind everyone to wear blaze, unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED! Thanks for 40 years, Mr. Latimer.”
Fiona, Austin, and Rilynn reported from Rum River Elementary School’s trip to Long Lake Conservation Center:
“During our trip to Long Lake Conservation Center on Nov. 8-10, the high temperature was 48 degrees Fahrenheit, the low was 32, and we had on-and-off snow flurries.
“In 2022, the Rum River students were cross-country skiing here at LLCC on Nov. 16.
“Beth hit a grouse on her way to LLCC one morning, and once we removed it from her headlight, we took a look at it. The tail feathers showed it was a female, and when we looked at its feet, we saw the winter snowshoe fringes that help grouse walk in deep snow. The fringes are called pectinations.
“We noticed many small white moths during our outdoor adventures.
“Two porcupines were seen: Dill Prickles was on campus, and one was out in the woods. Both were on the ground.
“The beavers are still very busy and so are the squirrels, chipmunks, Blue Jays and juncos. Canada Geese and Common Mergansers were on the lake.
“We had a great time, and we want to remind everyone to thank John Latimer for 40 years of phenology and also to unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”
Heidi replies, “Thanks for 40 years, John — how about that?”
Eagle View Elementary School in Pequot Lakes
“This is the Nov. 13 phenology report from Eagle View Elementary School in Pequot Lakes. We have been enjoying the nice fall days. There have been a few frosty mornings and Rice Lake was covered with a thin coat of ice two mornings so far.
“The two swans are still here, and we are watching to see when they leave to find open water.
“Our bird feeders have been very busy. We have spotted a robin, Downy Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpeckers and so many chickadees. A Bald Eagle has been spotted almost every day, and there is a Red-tailed Hawk which likes to perch on top of our yurt for a good view.
“Classes have been having fun exploring in the woods. Most of the leaves are off of the trees, and we’re still finding a lot of mushrooms.
“We have seen a gray and red squirrel in the woods. They are busy storing food, getting ready for winter.
“This week should be warmer than normal, so get outside and enjoy it.
“This is McKinley, Addison and Delilah reporting from Pequot Lakes. We are glad to be back!”
It’s great to have our friends from Eagle View Elementary back! John and I happily reminisced during the show about our wonderful visit to the school last spring — they have a beautiful place and a wonderful teacher with Mrs. Trottier. (Also, they have a yurt: How cool is that?)
Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington
“Hi, this is Vinny, Sumiko, Nathan and Layla reporting from Oak Grove Elementary School in Bloomington.
“For our weather this week, it’s been around 39 degrees. It’s been cold, windy and cloudy. The snow has melted and there’s been a quarter-inch of precipitation.
“For our animal noticings, we saw deer tracks, some scat that we couldn’t tell if it was deer or squirrel, some feathers, and very few birds.
“For plants, we saw that some deer really like our tamarack trees. (It had scraped all the branches off.) Our red oak is changing colors and leaves, but not very dramatically.
- Are animals collecting things for their holes?
- Is there a difference between oaks and other trees? (Why do they hold onto their leaves?)
- Why is buckthorn still green and producing berries?
“That’s all for today. Stay tuned for the next nature episode!”
John replies, “Thank you, kids, and welcome to the radio. Wow. I hope that you can continue this — what a great report and some great questions.”
Animals are quite busy storing food away for winter, but their tactics vary. Chipmunks like to hide food in their dens, while squirrels stash food away from their resting places.
“That’s why you see grey squirrels and red squirrels running around in the wintertime, but you don’t see the chipmunks,” John explains.
After discussing with some foresters, John learned oak trees come from farther south and migrated into this area after the last glaciation. They’ve brought with them seasonal behaviors that correspond to a warmer climate, including holding onto their leaves further into winter.
Buckthorn holds its leaves for the same reason: it’s adapted to a different climate. While our native trees recover the minerals and sugars from their leaves before the onset of the cold, the buckthorn continues to photosynthesize up until the freezing weather kills its leaves. It gains extra energy this way but sacrifices the minerals in the leaves.
Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield
“Hi, this is Michelle from Prairie Creek Community School way down south in Northfield, Minnesota. John, we just wanted to thank you for all your work to make phenology a part of so many schools in Minnesota and beyond. It’s been a wonderful program to be a part of, and I know it’s changed not only how I teach, but how I see the world and how my students see the world.
“All of us sat down and wrote out some of the things that we had learned, or some of the things that we had seen while we were working on phenology. We’ve crafted them into a poem for you: I hope you enjoy it.
I never noticed how
fox kits play,
a bald eagle perches,
peak color hits,
a murmuration of birds
covers the sky in a
flapping of wings.
I am mesmerized,
excited to watch.
Sometimes the littlest things
Noticing the clouds,
the wildflower in my backyard,
the changing leaves,
the hidden mushroom,
the birds singing their usual song.
My backyard holds generations.
All the little things gather into
one big thing:
When I was small, I didn’t notice.
Now I ask questions.
I pay attention.
I welcome the spring’s first heron.
I say goodbye to the fall’s last dragonfly.
I have a whole new way
to see the world.
“This has been Prairie Creek Community School. One more step along the phenology journey!”
John is understandably speechless and a bit teary, but he manages to say, “That’s amazing. That was ... that was very touching.” He’d written down the line, “All the little things gather into one big thing: a season.”
Off-air, my wife Hayley put it perfectly: “That poem sums up everything you hope your work will do.”
Additional notes from teachers and former students
“Hi John! Congrats on 40 years! Thought I’d send a little phenology report from Shevlin Township for old time's sake.
“I've spent a lot of time out in the deer stand last week. Not much for deer, but I did see a few grouse eating aspen buds in the woods and watched a Northern Harrier hunt over our hay field for about an hour and a half. It turns out I had competition in the woods this year. There weren’t any deer tracks in the deer plot, but there were a bunch of wolf tracks.
“Thanks for everything!"
“Just wanted to say congratulations to John on 40 years of phenology. Holy cow!!! I still remember how fun (and admittedly sometimes scary) it was meeting up and calling in each week with my fellow radio partner Kevin Gohman and going through sightings and observations that had been compiled by Ken Perry and the Forestview Middle School Bird Club.
“When John came to our school one day to lead a nature walk, I remember being awestruck at just how many different plants and fungi could be found right out our front door.
"People like Ken 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. 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.
“It is a rare and special thing to have a truly gifted and dedicated naturalist, educator and radio star right in our very backyard. Thank you, John and the phenology team, for everything you’ve done over all these years and three cheers for the fantastic work you do!”
“My name is Nate Lindner, and I am a fifth-grade teacher in Grand Rapids. I met John at the first Youth Water Summit in 2012 put on by the Itasca Water Legacy Partnership of Grand Rapids. (Shout out to David Lick and all the volunteers for making this amazing experience for our students possible; our teachers and students are beyond appreciative.)
"During John’s presentation, all my students were highly engaged and gobbled up all the information due to his endless knowledge and animated presentation. I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy, he is like a walking, talking encyclopedia!’
“We got to talking, and right away I could see his passion for phenology and education. I can’t recall the specifics of the conversation, but I do remember how excited myself and other teachers were when he agreed to come into the classroom the next school year to lead nature walks and teach phenology in our classrooms.
"Since that first year in 2013, John has been coming into my classroom and many others once a week teaching our students about phenology. He takes us on nature walks and teaches in the classroom. It is safe to say that John has worked with more than a thousand students in the past 10 years just in Grand Rapids, and hundreds more when including other schools.
“John has inspired countless students and has left his mark. When I talk to former students, Mr. Latimer is always the first thing they remember from fifth grade. Thank you for inspiring so many with your passion for education and the sciences!
"John, congratulations on your 40 years on the radio, what an amazing accomplishment! Also, thank you for all the time and energy you have put into my classroom and others over the years!"
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).