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Phenology Talkbacks: Mice and ice

Cracks in thick ice show through the snow on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor in January, 2022.
Lorie Shaull
Cracks in thick ice show through the snow on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor in January, 2022.

This week, we have five reports and confront the question: What does windchill actually tell us? Is it a bogus number?

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.

Science Nature Adventure Program in Bemidji

“Hi, I’m Kieran and I’ll be reporting for SNAP this week.

“During our last meeting, while we were out doing some bushcraft skills in the woods, we noticed that the leaves were all gone. It was a very mild day for this time of year, and it is also very dry.

“The creek where we were working had no water. We wondered what type of animals would still be out because of the warm temperatures we have been experiencing.

Science Nature Adventure Program phenology report - Nov. 28, 2023

“It was fun to find some cool mushrooms growing on some of the downed branches and trees.

“Other things that students reported from this past week was that some water is starting to freeze even with the warm weather.

“More deer are out grazing in the fields and their winter coats are getting thicker.

“The leaves are decomposing, the geese are leaving and mostly flying south, and Pileated Woodpeckers have found the suet feeders.

“There was some light snow one day, but two students still reported seeing a turtle!

“Some of the hunters in the group saw a lot of tracks.

“Lastly, the sounds of trumpeter swans were heard after dark.


John concurs with their findings: the leaves are down, the geese are flying south, and it’s been a dry year in Grand Rapids too. There was some moisture in the fall, but most of it ran down to fill the underground aquifers, leaving the surface still quite dry.

John’s interest was caught by the mushrooms the students found: he often sees squirrels drying mushrooms in the genus Russula in the trees, then stashing them underground. Russula mushrooms are toxic, but not lifethreatening. “It won’t kill you, it just will make you really sorry that you ever decided to eat it,” John said. “So, leave it for the squirrels. They’ll enjoy it. For some reason, it doesn’t make them feel as bad as it would make you or me feel.”

He was surprised to hear about the turtle sighting, saying, “That is a tardy turtle. Normally, the turtles would be heading for swamps and areas where they can bury themselves in the mud.

“Painted turtles are among the most remarkable hibernators in nature. They are basically out of touch with oxygen for 6-7 months, and they have adaptations in their systems to allow them to function. Their metabolism slows to almost stopping, as does their heart rate. Their respiration, of course, is zero.

“Basically, they steal magnesium and calcium from their bones to buffer the acidity that forms in their blood through the process of metabolism. So, they are borrowing chemistry from the bones in their body to keep their blood in a range of balance, so it doesn’t become to acidic from that whole process.

“But, that turtle is certainly pushing the envelope – waiting until the very end.”

West Rapids Elementary School in Grand Rapids

West Rapids Elementary School phenology report - Nov. 28, 2023

“Hello, my name is Tristan and this is the phenology report for Mr. Cody’s fourth-grade class at West Elementary School.

“It was wiiiiindy. Mr. Latimer taught us about the differences between wild animal tracks and dog tracks.

“We also learned about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker woodpecker and the willow pinecone gall.

“He also taught us about the dinky Downy [Woodpecker] and the huge Hairy [Woodpecker], and how easy it is to remember.

“Get outside!”

John learned the “Dinky downy, huge hairy” mnemonic from Harry Hutchins, former KAXE morning show host and John’s good friend. Downy Woodpeckers are much smaller than Hairy Woodpeckers, so it’s an easy way to remember which is which! The beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is also much longer than the Downy’s.

Oak Grove Elementary School in Bloomington

“This is Gordon, Marley, Annika, and Hannah reporting from Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“This week’s weather has been windy, cold, and cloudy with a high of 41 degrees today. We’ve had no precipitation this week, but the ground was wet.

Oak Grove Elementary phenology report - Nov. 28, 2023

A Red-Winged Blackbird holds on to a twig despite the gusty weather.
Mark Gunn via Flickr
A Red-Winged Blackbird holds on to a twig despite the gusty weather.

“With our animal observations, we noticed no birds, but bird scat. We saw deer tracks. There were holes that could have been squirrels burying snacks.

“With our plant observations, we noticed the tamarack was yellow, the buckthorn is starting to turn yellow, and the oak turned completely brown. The mushrooms from last week were either eaten or trampled.

“We are wondering what happened to the mushrooms, and will it snow soon? We also wonder where the birds went.

“That’s all for today. Stay tuned for the next OGE Phenology Club nature episode! Keep soaring!”

John thanks Dave Murphy for helping us connect with the Oak Grove Elementary School staff, and keeping the momentum going over the last year! David is a volunteer at KAXE/KBXE, and a member of our board. It takes a community to keep this program going, and this is a great example.

John is seeing many of the same things as the students: the buckthorn turning yellow, tamarack turning yellow, and days with fewer birds than others.

Generally, birds are most abundant where there’s food and shelter. On windy days, small birds can be harder to find. John points out, “Thank about riding a bicycle. If it’s really windy, you don’t really want to go out and ride, especially if you have to ride into [the wind] because it slows you down. It’s hard work. So that might have explained some of the absence of birds as well.

Tim in Cloquet - Nov. 28, 2023

Tim in Cloquet

 A jumping mouse sits on the ground near a boulder. It has long hind legs and whiskers.
Leona Cichy
A jumping mouse sits on the ground near a boulder.

“...What I would like to share is this, at my cabin, north of Keewatin and my home in Cloquet is a marked drop in the mouse population. Correspondingly a marked absence of owls. The mice I noticed because I run trap line at both my cabin and home. For the last three weeks I have caught none. Very odd. We also like to spend our evening outside around the campfire until the milky way is visible. This year has been very quiet for owls we heard none.

I would like to know if I am an outlier or if others are seeing the same thing.”

John isn’t too surprised by the dearth of trappable mice and audible owls. “I caught a mouse last night/night before last,” John said. “I run a trap line at my house as well.” (I’m 80% sure he’s referring to the standard domestic rodent control devices here, but with John Latimer, who knows?)

John continued, “This time of yaer, those mice have already found a place to spend the winter. If it was your house, you may have already caught them. But trust me, there are plenty of mice out there.

“I looked through my records and November and December both contained notes of owls calling. I haven’t heard any yet this year, but the Great Horned Owls have a chorus that begins usually toward the end of the month of December, and the Barred Owls can join in or be calling at that same time.

“I’m not hearing them, but I’m not alarmed. I think that there are probably... The owls are probably there and they’re probably dining and doing just fine. But I would keep my ears open. You just don’t know when the opportunity will arise or when you will hear them, but typically, toward the end of December is the time that I typically begin to hear the calls of the owls.”

John and I are interested to hear from you – have you noticed a lack of mice or owls? Let us know: send an email to

Nate in Bemidji

“I recently had a lengthy conversation with friends about ice formation on lakes. We couldn’t answer one question, and are hoping that you have the answer. My hope is that the wind drives the cold down through the ice so we can start ice fishing. Does the wind increase the formation of ice on lakes once the lake is frozen over? We know it can delay formation if it has not fully frozen over, but we don’t know if there is a wind chill effect.”

John turned to his friend Lauren Bosmans, an expert in thermodynamics. John said, “When I got this question, I immediately thought of you. I hope you can shed some light on this, because I can make an argument in my head that goes both ways.”

Lauren responded, “Happy to that we are making some ice and you have been able to skate and ice boat.

“...To give you the best example re: your ice formation question, let’s say you have an unfrozen lake. Let’s say the outside temperature is less than the surface temperature of the lake water. With those conditions, the lake will lose heat and its temperature will approach the outside ambient temperature. How fast the surface temperature will approach the outside temperature is influenced by the wind velocity: wind chill. The higher the wind speed, the lower the wind chill temperature and the faster the lake will freeze (the faster the lake will give up heat - and if the outside temperature is below freezing, the faster it will freeze.)

Nate in Bemidji - Nov. 28, 2023

“The ultimate ice thickness is more a funciton of outside temperature. How fast it gets to that thickness can be influenced by wind chill. It’s always good to remember: wind chill gives you a sense of how rapidly you will approach the outside temperature. If you’re parked outside and it is 30 below, the coldest your antifreeze will get is 30 below. It will get to this point faster the lower the wind chill is. I hope I didn’t make that too confusing.”

John replied, “Not at all, thank you so much. I have been disdainful of wind chill because I thought it was a way of exaggerating how cold it actually is. Your explanation provides understanding for the value of wind chill. I still feel the actual temperature is how I measure cold. I can’t bring myself to express temperature at a number lower than that shown on my thermometer.”

Lauren said, “I agree with you entirely.”

From this conversation, John concluded that “wind chill will affect ice formation, and will incraese the thickness of the ice. But, as far as temperatures go, it’s a bogus number. That’s our talkback segment for this week. If you want to get in and argue the points, we’re happy to hear from you!”

Please direct tirades and complaints to

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?).