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Phenology Report: Star-nosed moles' surprising weight gain strategies

A star-nosed mole traipses across pavement in Blackduck. It is a small, furry critter with huge paws and 22 tiny tentacles coming from its nose.
iNaturalist user willbrooks
A star-nosed mole traipses across pavement in Blackduck.

A chilly morning

On Nov. 28, the John’s thermometer dropped below 0 degrees for the first time this fall. This is roughly typical – the first below-0-degree day is typically in the first part of December, but it varies more than other seasonal indices. Other years that have had first temperatures below 0-degree in November include 1994 (Nov. 26), 2011 (Nov. 16), 2014 (Nov. 27, when it reached –10 degrees), and 2019 (Nov. 12).

A glut of goldfinches

John has heard reports of large flocks of American Goldfinches in the Grand Rapids area. While they typically migrate south, there are some years where they stay throughout the winter.

Their presence seems to be patchy, however: John hasn’t seen any at his feeders outside of Grand Rapids, but got photos of a flock of over 30 goldfinches on the west side of the city. His friend Dallas in Akeley has found both goldfinches and Pine Siskins at his feeders. (John hasn’t spotted a Pine Siskin yet this year, but he hopes to see one soon.) “Tornado Bob” Conzemius spotted some Bohemian Waxwings last week.

John’s feeders are instead populated by the year-round residents: Black-capped Chickadees, Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, and the usual complement of woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers). They’re keeping John busy refilling the feeders, but he’s looking forward to seeing the siskins, Pine Grosbeaks, and Common Redpolls when and if they show up!

Robins will hang around in the area through December, though a few hardy individuals will stay throughout the year. They will feast on fruit trees and berries until the supplies are depleted or it gets too cold.

The last loon sighting in John’s records was a late-lingering individual on Nov. 30, 2000. (You’ve gotta have a sharp eye, and keep detailed records, to capture information like that!)

A Townsend's Solitaire perches at the top of a spruce tree in January, 2023 in Grand Marais.
iNaturalist user accipitergentilis
A Townsend's Solitaire perches at the top of a spruce tree in January, 2023 in Grand Marais.

A surprising visitor

When he looked back at his notes from 2003, he found an interesting record from his friend Pam Perry and her husband, Ken. They saw a Townsend’s Solitaire in Brainerd.

The Townsend’s Solitaire is a rare type of thrush in this area – other sightings reported to John include one from 2008 from Sean Conrad near Coleraine. (The Season Watch Facebook group also has two sightings: one in 2016 and one in 2017.)

Another surprise was a Carolina Wren that showed up to John’s mother’s house!

A less-surprising, but exciting, seasonal visitor is the Northern Shrike, which moves into the area in the fall. Despite being songbirds themselves (the rare predatory kind!), their main prey are other songbirds.

Brrrr, say the bears

This is the last time of year when you might spot a bear before hibernation. John’s good friend Harry Hutchins saw bear tracks on the Golden Anniversary Ski Trail on Dec. 10, 2003: a late sighting!

However, bears do sometimes get disturbed or roused from their dens and move about in the winter. Keep an eye out, and let us know if you spot one!

A much smaller hibernator, the chipmunk, has been bedded down for nearly a month now in Grand Rapids. That didn’t stop one early (or late) riser from visiting John’s bird feeder on Dec. 30 one year!

“That one no doubt came up and looked around and maybe gathered a few seeds from under somebody’s bird feeder, then disappeared in a hurry,” John said. “Because boy, if I could sleep through winter, I... Well, I don’t know. I like to skate, so I would probably stay up for at least November and December. But if I could sleep through January and February, I might do it.

“You’ll know if that happens: You’ll hear loud snoring on Tuesday mornings.”

Owl updates

A white, tan, and brown owl sits on a branch of a coniferous tree. Its feet are entirely covered by feathers- it seems to have puffed up against the cold.
Judd Brink
Barred Owl.

Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls will begin their winter chorus in December. Great Horned Owls begin the reproductive process quite early. Mated pairs will gather together to perform their courtship rituals, mate, and ultimately begin laying eggs around the end of January and early February. Keep an ear out – it's a delight to hear them hooting!

While Barred Owls don’t get started as early as the Great Horned Owls, they will begin calling quite early in the winter.

Precipitation possibilities

Though the rain has mostly turned to snow, John has recorded a few instances of December rain over the years (including 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2021).

John said, “That may or may not happen coming up in the December we are facing, but at some point, I wouldn’t be surprised. I hope that if it does fall that it’s light and short. It gets a little crazy when you put a little water on the roads: it makes things exciting out there!”

Plant progression

The weeping willow John monitors each year has finally lost the last of its leaves, marking the very end of the leafy tree season. The ironwoods will hold their leaves until spring, when the new growth pushes the old leaves off at last.

Marvelous, meaty moles

If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you might just see a surprising sight: a star-nosed mole swimming through the water. They are active year-round and, to my great astonishment, semi-aquatic! They are almost always found in ditches or other wet areas, where they dig around and leave behind humped-up tunnels of dirt.

John has observed that cats and dogs will occasionally catch star-nosed moles, but will rarely eat them. He’s not sure if they have a bad taste or odor, but he’s seen evidence that predators dispatch and discard them, instead of eating them. If you do happen across one, you’ll recognize them by the 22 little appendages on their nose.

You can also judge their health by the size of their tails! Because getting fatter isn’t an option for a tunnel-dweller – it'd be a shame to have to widen the walls of your entire tunnel system, after all – the tail is a convenient space to store extra reserves of energy. What a talent!

Ice! Ice! Baby!

To John’s delight, nearby Crooked Lake froze up on Thanksgiving day. “It was open on Wednesday. It was frozen on Thursday. I was on the ice on Saturday,” John said, before adding “Well... I was out there Friday. And it was about 3.5-4 inches on the oldest ice. But the new ice was about 1.75 inches, and I walked out on it. It cracked, and I just turned around and walked right back.

“I wasn’t going out there. I didn’t need to get wet to the waist just to prove a point.”

Good thinking, John! His patience paid off: He was ice skating by Saturday and ice boating by Sunday. “It’s very nice to be out on that clean, clear ice and be able to skate where you want, or take the ice boat and sail where you want. It’s pretty unique, and if it stays dry and the snow stays off, it could be a real good year for skating and ice boating.

An ice skater glides over frozen-over Lake Superior near Duluth in 2022.
Lorie Shaull
An ice skater glides over frozen-over Lake Superior near Duluth in 2022.

“Always check your lake. You want 4 inches of ice: 4 inches is safe. Anything less than 4 inches, you want to have a friend. You always want to have picks regardless of how many people or how thick the ice is. You want to have picks to help get you back out.

“It’s not a bad idea to wear a life jacket. I’ve got one of those ones that inflates with a cartridge, so if I fall through... if the jacket gets wet, it immediately inflates. Might save my life one day, you never know!”

John needs your eyes!

John concludes, “As always, if you have comments, questions, or observations you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. I really appreciate the contacts that I get from people out there. You know, you’re my eyes and ears. I can only be in one spot at a time, and you guys can only be in one spot at a time, and maybe something will happen where you are that I would have missed if it were not for your careful observation. So, send them along when you get them: I love to hear from you.”

You can reach John at, and me at

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?).