Phenology Report: A joyful John Latimer revels in perfect ice conditions
Good ice leads to an ecstatic Latimer
It’s an El Niño year, which means it’s remarkably warm – warm enough for staff phenologist John Latimer to leave his gloves and jacket in the car. (John’s far too seasoned of a Minnesotan to leave them behind entirely, of course!)
The warm weather has contributed to some wonderful ice boating and skating conditions on Minnesota’s many lakes! John is delighted with all the thick, spotless, clear ice. He said he’s been “skating to my heart’s content, and believe me, that’s a large volume. I’ve skated several miles, I’m sure, in the last several days. I get out every chance I get.
“My skates are in the back of my car right now, and if I go by a lake today and have an extra hour, I might just put them on and go skating. That’s kind of how you have to do it when it’s nice like this.”
John was dismayed to see a light snowfall during the week and is crossing his fingers that any snow that arrives over the next month is light, fluffy, and disappears quickly. “January first would be a good day for snow to fall,” he clarified. “By then, I would have had all the skating I could stand. But this time of year, I’m a little reluctant to see the snowfall, and I’m hoping this will not last.”
Ice boating and skating
In addition to ice skating, John’s enjoyed the chance to go iceboating. He and some friends had some good runs on two DN ice boats (a small, light type of ice boat that is quite maneuverable).
They had a good time, though John would have been happier with stronger winds. The winds topped out at around 15 mph; John estimates his top speed in the iceboat was around 25 mph.
John was thrilled to see so many people out enjoying the lakes this weekend, whether iceboating or skating or just exploring. However, he warns everyone to be safe!
Reminder: you need at least 4 inches of ice to be safe to walk. Any less than that, and you stand a risk of falling through. John recommends looking for bubbles to determine the thickness of the ice: some might be frozen in, but the ones under the ice will move around and give you a good estimate of the ice thickness.
Another thing to look for is for cracks running through the ice. These cracks can form when continued freezing places stress on the ice near the shore, causing areas where sheets of ice rub against one another and slide over each other. These zones can be treacherous; John avoids them whenever he can.
It is always a good idea to stay over shallow water, bring a friend and wear a life vest (some are made to self-inflate if exposed to water). It also helps to bring some tools to help you get back to dry land if you fall through the ice.
Staying over shallow water makes it much easier to get back on top of the ice again – plus, with only wet feet, your chances of hypothermia are much less. (Frostbite, though, is a real risk – bring dry shoes and socks just in case!)
John also recommends taking spikes, a rope and ice picks. (I’d add a whistle to this list!) He concludes, “Get out, enjoy the ice, but do it in a sensible way. Be cautious and be safe and be here for next week’s phenology show.”
Who built that big nest?
On the north side of Highway 2, there is a huge nest perched at the top of a lone coniferous tree. This brought to John’s mind some tips for distinguishing Osprey nests from Bald Eagle nests!
Generally speaking, if the nest is balanced at the top of a pole or tree, it’s likely to be an Osprey nest. Ospreys are incredibly skilled architects, able to balance large sticks on a very small target, then interweave them to form a substantial, heavy platform on which to raise their young. Quite an impressive talon-t!
Eagles prefer a bit more structural support while building their nests. They often choose a spot midway up a white pine tree, using a few branches as structural support and resting the back of the nest against the trunk. Other eagles, such as the ones in John’s backyard, choose to build their nest in the crotch of a tree.
Tldr; Ospreys build their nests on top of poles and at the tippy-top of trees. Eagles build their nests midway up a tree, but rarely at the top.
John is still seeing Snow Buntings flitting around on Blue Heron Drive near his home. He’s also spotted a number of bird nests, revealed by the fallen leaves and highlighted by a dusting of snow! He highlights distinctive features of a few different bird nests, including nest characteristics of the Red-eyed Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler, American Robin, and Blue Jay.
Red-eyed Vireos’ nests are quite distinctive, placed 6-10 feet off the ground and laced to the crotch of a tree where two branches diverge. They often incorporate birch bark in the construction.
Lower down, you’ll see nests built by the Chestnut-sided Warbler. These birds are quite reclusive, more often heard than seen. They build nests 2-3 feet off the ground, and almost always in edge habitat, such as the edge of a forest, field, or trail.
American Robin’s nests are always caked with mud – a handy identification feature!
Blue Jay nest interiors are about the same size as a Robin’s nest, but the exterior is larger. The nest is made entirely of sticks which decrease in size closer to the nests’ interior, which is lined in fine roots and rootlets. “With a little bit of practice, you can get pretty used to picking out the Blue Jay nests from all the rest of them,” John claimed.
John spotted a pair of very confused geese near the power plant in Cohasset. The power plant used to run a few generators over the winter, which pulled cold water from the river and returned heated water back to the flow. This heated water kept the river open for long stretches, and waterfowl such as geese and Trumpeter Swans could often be found there.
The power plant decommissioned these generators, so the river has frozen over. As John watched, a pair of geese came in for a landing and were surprised to find ice, not water, waiting for them!
John’s been seeing many of the year-round resident birds, including ravens, Blue Jays, and Black-capped Chickadees.
Two migratory birds moving through the area are the Hermit Thrush and the White-throated Sparrow, both of which John recorded last week.
There have been reports of Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks in Minnesota, though John hasn’t seen them yet. He’s also looking forward to seeing Pine Siskins, Great Grey Owls, Evening Grosbeaks, and Pine Grosbeaks.
Notes from Dec. 5 in previous years
John found a report from Dec. 5 in a previous year, which stated that a listener saw a loon. John assumes that the loon was making use of a large lake that hadn’t frozen over yet – hopefully it wasn’t ice-bound! Loons need a long ‘runway’ to get aloft.
Dec. 5, 2022, marked the last sighting of a chipmunk and sightings of both Pine and Evening Grosbeaks.
In 2002, the ice cover on lakes was flooded. “It was a warm year, apparently, and the water formed and kind of flooded the ice,” John explained.
The freeze-up has sent the last of the beavers into their lodges. John has seen a muskrat or two, however.
As you drive past the local bogs, you may spot a tinge of red. In addition to the red osier dogwoods, which have vibrant red bark, the leaves of the leatherleaf and Labrador tea plants are turning red and folding toward the stem of the plant.
Sumac and highbush cranberry fruits are still lingering on the plants. Both are quite sour, without much fat content: this makes them less desirable for birds, which let them be until their preferred foods run out.
While in the forest, you might spot the bright orange berry of the bittersweet plant. This isn’t a hugely common plant, but is distinctive because of its vining habit and vibrant berries!
In this week’s Phenology Talkbacks, the students from St. Joseph’s school in Grand Rapids noticed some willows that had already broken bud. John’s observed this behavior before – it’s rare but not unheard of. Although the buds open early, they don’t develop until spring. Then, they will join as rest of the willows break bud, mature, and produce developed flowers.
John concludes, “Even though they pop these flowers out really early - sometimes, now, November and December – it has really no effect on the flowering dates for the plants. They will flower when the rest of them flower in April, and we’ll be here to record that.”
I don’t know about you, but I find John’s constancy quite reassuring! Say what you will about him (and I frequently do,) he’s a reliable old dude.
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).