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Phenology Talkbacks: 'Best skating ever, and lucky to be alive'

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.

Students and listeners from across the state send in their nature reports. Depending on the season, reports may cover wildflowers, wildlife, weather and other wonders.

This week, we hear from five classrooms and three listeners! We're getting a thick layer of ice and enjoying the return of our winter birds.

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.

Lake of the Woods School in Baudette

Lake of the Woods School phenology report - Dec. 5, 2023

“This is Sawyer with the phenology report from Baudette for Nov. 23-30.

“It was reported this week that some adults have checked ice thickness on the Rainy River for fishing. There is 4.4 inches of ice so far.

“A student reported hearing wolves near their home on Tuesday.

“Finally, on Wednesday, Aurora observed a white owl sitting on a tree branch south of Baudette. Could it have been a snowy owl?”

St. Joe’s School in Grand Rapids

St. Joseph's School phenology report - Dec. 5, 2023

The students are bundled against the cold and are pointing to the tunnels.
Deanne Trottier
A group of student phenologists kneels down to examine frozen tunnels in the snow. The tunnels are created by voles eager to reach the nearby bird feeder. Tunnels built in snow are called subnivean tunnels.

“Hello — This is Gabby, Mason and Declan reporting from St. Joseph’s School in Grand Rapids. This is our report for the week ending on Dec. 1.

“This week, we checked out the ice around our school. Our back holding pond is thick enough to walk on. The lakes around the Grand Rapids area, like Rice Lake and Prairie Lake, are completely frozen over. Pokegama is not quite frozen over. Near the bridge the ice is gathering. The winds are pushing the ice to the northwest side of the lake. This is making the ice choppy. However, the area around Kings Bay is just about frozen over and the ice is smooth and ready for winter skating!

“Mr. John taught us some safety tips for walking on ice. Bring with you … a friend to go with you, otherwise wear a lifejacket. Bring a rope and ice picks. If you do fall through, turn around and go back the way you came!

“We noticed some interesting things about plants in our school yard. The willow tree has flowering buds, which is weird because it is too early for that. They are one-third in bloom. They will be able to stay that way until next spring. We also spotted many pinecone galls.

“While out and about in the school yard, Mr. John spotted a vole. When they run down the trail, they go to the bathroom to leave a path for other voles. Unfortunately for the vole, a hawk can spot this trail because the urine glows. Hawks can see ultraviolet light. It was cool to see the vole tunnel under the snow.

“We also discovered fox and deer tracks. We know it was a fox because the tracks were in a straight line and there was an X for the paw mark. Curran spotted an eagle on top of Old Central School on his way to school today.

Be kind, be happy, be outside!”

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. 25, 2023. My name is Addie, and I am your phenologist for this week!

“On Sunday, Nov. 26, and on Monday, Nov. 27, we experienced a light dusting of snow that stayed on the ground. It is the first snow that has not melted. It definitely is starting to feel like winter. The last full moon was on Nov. 27. The November full moon shone brightly and is dubbed the Beaver Moon because it corresponds to the time of year when beavers start sheltering in their lodges.

“The full moon is visible for longer this time of year as the sun sets earlier and earlier every day leading up to the ‘shortest day’ of the year on Dec. 22. The Ojibwe called it the Freezing Moon because it starts to get colder.

North Shore Community School phenology report - Dec. 5, 2023

A tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet forages in freshly-fallen snow at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve near Bethel.
Lorie Shaull
A tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet forages in freshly-fallen snow at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve near Bethel.

“On Monday, Nov. 27, we had a low temperature of 11 degrees. The temperature is supposed to do an upward swing with Friday being 40 degrees Fahrenheit; that is a 29 degrees difference! We are also having higher winds this week; Thursday was 13 mph!

“On Thursday, Nov. 30, Ms. Urban heard a small flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the trees in the school forest. Kinglets are usually one of the last songbirds migrating in the fall, and one of the first in the spring. On Friday, Dec. 1, Ms. Urban heard a flock of Pine Siskins fly over her head in the school forest.

“Sally has noticed her dog has stopped shedding. She thinks it is because it is getting colder and closer to winter, so her dog is keeping her winter coat.

“According to the National Weather Service, Duluth has only gotten 1.3 inches of snowfall this year. Last year at this time, we had 12.9 inches of snow on the ground! The lack of snow may be due to El Niño. El Niño is a natural climate phenomenon marked by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator, which occurs on average every two to seven years.

“A strong El Niño points to a mild winter with less snow and we're looking to be some 20 to 30 inches below normal for the year. November started our winter with warmer-than-average temps and little snowfall.

“This concludes the phenology report. Have a great week and be observant!”

Long Lake Conservation Center

Long Lake Conservation Center phenology report - Dec. 5, 2023

“Hello, this is Ren, the new naturalist at Long Lake Conservation Center, with our report for Nov. 26- Dec. 1.

“The high temperature was 44 degrees Fahrenheit, the low was one below zero: The season’s first sub-zero temp of the year.

“Ice-in was declared on Long Lake on Nov. 19, and by Nov. 26, ice thickness was just under 6 inches at 15 feet from shore. Ice is forming quickly. Coincidentally, ice-in was declared exactly one month from the peak of fall colors.

“Nov. 19 also marked the last sighting of chipmunks.

It’s tracks-in-the-snow season and we have spotted fox, coyote, eagle and deer tracks on the lake. During a walk around the lake, we flushed eight Ruffed Grouse, and spotted a gaggle of 14 turkeys.

“We are approaching the days with the least amount of sunlight. That means longer nights for stargazing. This week, Saturn appears low in the south sky at nightfall and is easily spotted with just binoculars. With any telescope, you can get a good look at Saturn’s rings.

“Dec. 1 is the beginning of meteorological winter, marking the start of the coldest 90-day stretch of the year.

“Bundle up, but don’t let a little cold stop you. It’s a great time to explore and we want to remind everyone to unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”

Oak Grove Elementary School in Bloomington

Oak Grove Elementary phenology report - Dec. 5, 2023

Oak Grove Elementary phenology club members report for Dec. 5, 2023.
Brian Cline
Oak Grove Elementary phenology club members report for Dec. 5, 2023.

“Hi, this is Ava, Norah L., Nora and Layla reporting from Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“This week’s weather has been cold, frosty, and windy, with a high of 30 degrees today. We’ve had some snow, but it melted.

“With our animal observations, we noticed there is a lot of geese poop because they’re migrating. We also saw a huge coyote.

“With our plant observations, we noticed there were less leaves and almost everything was coated with frost. The tamarack is losing its needles because of deer.

“We are wondering: was the coyote alone? Why are we having new animals?

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

Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield

Prairie Creek Community School phenology report - Dec. 5, 2023

A Blue Jay picks food off of a platform feeder. The picture is taken from the side and shows the Blue Jay with a seed in its beak and its tail slightly fanned. It has a blue back, black markings on its face and tail, and a white belly, head, and chest.
USFWS Midwest Region
A Blue Jay picks food off of a platform feeder.

“Hi, this is Ann and Sebastian and we are from Prairie Creek Community School way down south in Northfield, Minnesota.

“The temperature has been strange. It’s not really feeling like winter yet. We had a little bit of snow, but it’s pretty much gone now.

“There have been a ton of turkeys. We are still seeing flocks of geese, too. There have been nuthatches, chickadees, Blue Jays and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker. We are seeing a lot of Downy Woodpeckers. We have seen two pairs of eagles along the river.

“Kaya saw a raccoon at dusk, and Silas saw baby squirrels chasing each other. We have been seeing a lot of foxes, too. Sophia is still seeing chipmunks in the cities and Andrew is pretty sure he saw a muskrat.

“We are all glad we are seeing fewer box elder bugs, except we’re pretty sure they’ve gone under our rug.

“This has been Prairie Creek Community School. One more step along the phenology journey!”

Erv in Fridley

“The woods were silent in 2023.

“The hunt for deer this year was a disappointment. The collapsed deer population due to consecutive hard snow years hurt. Furthermore, current natural resource management driven by forest management practices has broken up large deer wintering habitats where both wolves and deer could coexist. Deer in the smaller wintering areas are now easily driven out into the barren clearcuts that lack adequate protection.

Erv from Fridley - Dec. 5, 2023

“The woods were silent. I've hunted the same woods in northeast Itasca County for over 60 years. Our stand hunting methods are different from many others because the eight of us are all in the field by dawn and don't return until dark carrying our lunch (sandwich) with us. This year, we put in 318 hours in stands watching for deer and sighted several wolves, a bull moose, a pine marten, eight does and two bucks.

“For the last 40 years, I have kept a diary of our daily sightings and harvests. But, what was most troubling was the absence of small birds. Normally the lack of deer sightings is offset by the other wildlife — many small birds, fishers, otters, weasels, wolves, squirrels, pine martens and even a wolverine.

“Something is frighteningly wrong, though. There was a virtual absence of native wintering birds such as blackcap chickadees, rose-breasted nuthatches, gray and blue jays, woodpeckers, brown creepers and white breasted nuthatches. Yes, the woods were dead.

“What is creating our silent woods? I think the focus on deer and wolves is distracting us from some real problems.”

Angie Talaska

“Listened to your show today. The skating you love so much reminded me of an experience I had in 1959. My mom had a surprise 16th birthday party for me, and invited some of my best friends (among them, your sister Sally).

Angie Talaska - Dec. 5, 2023

A large of ice sits on thick, clear, smooth lake ice at sunset.
Andrea 'Kleinshmidt' Heldt via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A large of ice sits on thick, clear, smooth lake ice at sunset.

“For your information, (on) Dec. 6 – I turn 80. So glad I was a Saint Nicholas Day baby, not a Pearl Harbor Day baby.

“Anyway, the winter had started and was already very cold, but we had no snow. I lived on the MIshawaka Road, not far from the boy’s camp, and after summer, we all put on our skates.

“The lake was perfect: clear as glass and with no snow. We could skate everywhere. Seeing the bottom of the lake under us when we were close to shore, we skated all the way past the camp and on to the Highway 169 bridge.

“It was dark. The ice was dark under the bridge. Our intention was to skate under the bridge. My dog, Laddie, was running ahead of us. Of course, the water under the bridge was not frozen with the rush of water passing through, but it was the same color as the dark ice. Laddie, being the first to arrive, fell into the icy water.

“Here’s the weird thing: we went right up to the edge and pulled him out. We carried him over to the Harbor Restaurant and called my dad, and he came to pick us all up.

“I will never forget that night: best skating ever and lucky to be alive.

“Anyway, a warning for all who skate at night: Be careful!

“As an older person, I can see that the climate is certainly changing. Winters are much warmer than they used to be.

“Thanks for your show. We’ve enjoyed so much and we have enjoyed KAXE as a whole and are happy to be supporters of this wonderful Up North Community station. Stay safe!”

Julie from Cook - Dec. 5, 2023

Julie from Cook

“Hi John,

“You mentioned Rough-legged Hawks. I’ve been seeing them in the area for a while now. Matter of fact, I’ve seen quite a few.

“Some of these might be the same birds, as I’ve seen them in the same spot more than once over the course of a few days. Maybe the lack of snow was allowing them to hang around a bit longer.

“Fun to see for sure. I’ve gotten good looks at them perched, as well as in flight and hovering.”

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?).