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Phenology Talkbacks: A marauding muskrat

A muskrat sits in the sunlight along the edge of Lake Bemidji.
Steve Patterson via KAXE - KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A muskrat sits in the sunlight along the edge of Lake Bemidji.

This week, we have 10 student reports and a listener query!

Enjoy the delightful observations, including an abundance of owls, a misplaced muskrat, and ground that “feels smushy under your boots.” (This episode also features Staff Phenologist John Latimer exhibiting his trademark mix of wholesomeness lightly seasoned with moments of alarming ruthlessness, usually directed at bloodsucking insects.)

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. 12, 2023

“This is Aurora with the phenology report from Baudette for Dec. 1-8.

“On Tuesday, teacher Mr. Borgen had to shoo away a muskrat from our school doors. The muskrat charged, students screamed, but Mr. Borgen succeeded. We suspect the muskrat was frozen out of his pond and was looking for a new home or classroom.

“Aurora reported seeing a great horned owl near her home on Thursday. It was hunting over a field.”

In his response, John confirms muskrats are surprisingly aggressive! (I can also corroborate this — thus far, a muskrat is the only wildlife to ever send me to urgent care.)

Apple Blossom in Bemidji

Apple Blossom School phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

A comparison of a Golden Eagle and an immature Bald Eagle.. The upper image shows a Golden Eagle in flight, with dark brown wings, a bronzey-golden nape, and a yellow hooked beak. it is captioned "Golden Eagle". The lower image is of an immature Bald Eagle with mottled brown-and-white wings and body, light brown head, and greyish beak. It is captioned "Immature Bald Eagle."
Charlie Mitchell: Original images sourced from Canva.
A comparison of a Golden Eagle and an immature Bald Eagle.

“Hi, my name is Amelia and I am doing the Apple Blossom phenology report.

“Claire’s pigeons have been missing, but we don’t think they fly south.

“A tiny bit of snow fell at my house.

“Some kids have started ice skating on lakes. The ice is very clear.

“Poppy saw a Golden Eagle on her way to school.

“Squirrels and chipmunks are still scampering about.

“Thanks for listening! See you next week with more phenology.”

John suspects Claire’s pigeons are just “on a flyabout” and will hopefully return soon. He also adds that while Golden Eagle sightings aren’t unheard of, juvenile Bald Eagles are far more common and are easily mistaken for Golden Eagles.

West Rapids Elementary in Grand Rapids

West Rapids Elementary School phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

Three images are shown. On the right is a closeup of a spruce twig, captioned "Spruce". The needles are attached singly, so that only one needle emerges from each node in the branch. On the left are two images stacked. The top image is captioned "Red Pine", and shows a person's hand holding a twig from a Red Pine. The needles are much longer than the spruce's, and a bundle of two needles emerges from each node in the branch. The bottom image is captioned "White Pine", and it shows a person holding a twig from a White Pine. It has a bushy appearance, the needles are slightly thinner than that of the Red Pine's, and five needles are bundled together and emerge from each node.
Charlie Mitchell using photos from iNaturalist and Canva
Spruce and fir needles are not bundled: each needle emerges by itself from the twig. Pine needles emerge in bunches of two or more. Red Pines (or Norway Pines) have two needles per bunch, while White Pines have five per bunch.

“Hello, my name is Julia and this is Paisley. This is our phenology report from Mr. Cody’s fourth grade classroom at West Elementary School.

“Today, it was pretty cold to start off our walk. We saw honeysuckle and purple clematis. Then, we saw black knot on a chokecherry.

“Snags were spotted by Mr. Cody.

“A beaver chewed a birch, which Mr. Latimer said they don’t normally do.

“Mr. Latimer gave Mr. Cody a talk-through about the difference between red and white pine.

“All for now!”

John adds that Mr. Cody is colorblind, so John was pointing out the differences in the stature and shape of red pines and white pines.

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 Dec. 2, 2023. My name is Iris Mae, and I am your phenologist for this week!

“December is known as the Dark Month and the Little Spirit Moon named by the Ojibwe. It also starts the beginning of meteorological winter.

North Shore Community School phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

Two species of flying squirrel live in Minnesota: the Northern flying squirrel (upper) and the Southern flying squirrel (lower). This image is a composite and not to scale. Two squirrels are shown. The upper squirrel is gliding with its arms outstretched. Its tail is flattened and its front and back feet are connected by large flaps of skin, allowing it to glide through the air. The lower squirrel is holding on to a tree with its feet. It has large dark eyes and is very cute.
Sarah Mitchell (Original photography by iNaturalist user Cataloging Nature and Dopeyden from Getty Images.)
Two species of flying squirrel live in Minnesota: the Northern flying squirrel (upper) and the Southern flying squirrel (lower). This image is a composite and not to scale.

“On Saturday, Dec. 2, we had only nine hours and one minute of daylight. Also on this day, Penny went to Julebyen, a Christmas village in Knife River. She noticed that this year was much warmer than last year. She thinks this might be due to El Niño.

“Students are not needing snow pants and other winter gear outside at recess. There is no snow in sight. However, Tuesday morning, we woke up to a light dusting of snow that covered lawns and our school playground.

“As of Wednesday, Dec. 6, Duluth has recorded a total of 3.7 inches of snowfall for the season. It wouldn’t look like it though, as there has been no shovel-able snow yet. This is way below the average of about 20 inches by this time of year. Friday morning, it actually seemed like a spring morning, rather than Dec. 8, as it was 41 degrees outside!

“On Friday evening, Dec. 1, just before dusk, Mr. Jim, our school custodian, spotted a lynx or bobcat while he was driving on Ryan Road near school. He only caught a glimpse, so he couldn’t quite identify it. He also has a frequent visitor to his bird feeder, which is a healthy, pudgy flying squirrel busy trying to store up for winter.

“Over the weekend of Dec. 2, Janie and her sister went ice skating on Island Lake. There was at least 4 inches of ice on this lake. Remember, at least 3 inches of ice over stationary water is needed for safe walking, skating and ice fishing.” (Editor’s Note: No amount of ice is ever considered safe! Always be aware of ice conditions and thicknesses.)

“On Tuesday, Dec. 5, Mrs. Rolfe’s class went down to the school creek to check on the amount of ice that had formed. We found that students could now walk on the creek due to the thickness of ice. There was one spot where it had started to melt the top layer of ice, but it was still solid underneath. If the warmer than average temperatures continue, the ice will not stay frozen for long.

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

Like the students, John is watching the warmer weather. (I assume he’s also observing the ice quite closely. The man loves to iceboat and skate!)

Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade

“Hi, my name is Margaret Purcell-Alberg, I’m a master naturalist. I’m up here at the Long Lake Conservation Center for a weeklong class: North Woods and Great Lakes.”

“Hi, I’m Sam Farrington, first year master naturalist — just completed the program here at Long Lake and we’re going to be presenting our phenology notes for the week to you.

Long Lake Conservation Center phenology report - Dec. 12, 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.

“We’ll start off Monday, Dec. 4. That was our first day of class here at Long Lake Center. Some of the animals we saw were:

  • A chipmunk crossing the trail by Chef Gordon, 
  • A mouse in a hole in a tree, 
  • A flock of 36 Bohemian Waxwings, (and) 
  • One lone Downy Woodpecker. 

“On Tuesday, Dec. 5, we saw:

  • A flock of Pine Siskins out in the aspen, 
  • One Red-bellied Woodpecker, 
  • One Bald Eagle, 
  • One Hairy Woodpecker, 
  • Chickadees were singing their spring song — you might know it as ‘cheeseburger,’ 
  • One Pileated Woodpecker, 
  • 1 Blue Jay, (and) 
  • Another group saw three Pileated Woodpeckers drumming. 

“On our field trip to the geological center near Moose Lake, there was a small spider sitting on the snow. However, it doesn’t look like we were able to identify that.

“On Thursday, we saw:

  • A Red-bellied Woodpecker, 
  • Raven, 
  • A Black-capped Chickadee, 
  • A Downy Woodpecker, 
  • A lot of little gray squirrels chasing each other around outside the dining hall, 
  • Warm weather triggered a bug hatch and resulted in small, wispy white bugs — possibly winter crane flies, 
  • Some Common Redpolls eating birch catkins, (and) 
  • We found a small tiny wood frog, which was in the dining room and we took out and put in some leaf litter. 

“The tracks we saw this week were ermine, coyote, deer, mice and/or voles, our own human tracks, and then a grouse in the bog.

“That’s this week’s phenology report from Long Lake Conservation Center. Unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”

John’s surprised the Bemidji and Long Lake chipmunks are so busy — those around his house are in deep slumber! He was happy to hear the chickadees were singing their spring song. He hasn’t heard it yet. Personally, I’m just glad the birds are confident spring will arrive before too long. It’s been a mild winter thus far, but I’m still ready for spring!

Eagle View Elementary School in Pequot Lakes

Eagle View Elementary phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

An Eagle View Elementary School student investigates small tracks running along a log.
Eagle View Elementary Nature Center Facebook page
An Eagle View Elementary School student investigates small tracks running along a log.

“This is the phenology report for the week of Dec. 4-8, 2023, from Eagle View Elementary School.

“The weather made a big change during the week, going from a high of 50 degrees on Thursday to highs in the 20s, wind, sleet and snow.

“The snow made it easy to spot animal tracks. Our second and third graders spent the week exploring in the woods identifying tracks. They saw rabbit, fox, deer and squirrel tracks. The squirrel tracks were running on top of a log.

“They also found some vole tracks in the snow and tunnels where it had ducked under the snow and leaves on the ground. They had fun following the tracks and trying to figure out where the animals were finding shelter.

“Students were studying which animals migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter in Northern Minnesota.

“Our bird feeders have been very busy. Most of the visitors are chickadees, nuthatches, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers and Blue Jays.

“We also spotted a flying group of swans, which we learned is called a bevy.

“A gray squirrel also visits the bird feeders often.

“We are excited about the snow and winter weather! This is Sawyer and Ellie reporting from Pequot Lakes.”

I’m so happy the students were out investigating tracks! I’ve also been enjoying the little trails of critters, though I’m quite bad at identifying the species responsible. With the help of a few guidebooks and iNaturalist, I hope to improve throughout the winter.

Roots and Wings Forest School in New York Mills

Roots and Wings Forest School phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

“This is Finley, Kip, Timmy, Rose, and Hazel reporting from Roots and Wings Forest School in New York Mills.

“The ground is getting softer because of the warm weather, and it feels really smushy on your boots.

“The snow report for this week is no snow.

“There’s ice that’s about maybe 2 inches thick, maybe 1, but it’s thick enough you can walk on it* and the ground is plenty mushy.

“I think there’s lots of ice in the woods because it’s cooler there with all the shade.

“We saw plants through the ice in some parts in the forest. It looked like it was growing, but it can’t. It’s too cold.

“We found a new fort in the woods and I saw a chickadee, and I was almost close to touching it.

“I saw a tree that had a deer rub on it from a buck.

“Thanks for listening! Stay wild!”

*John, of course, balks at the suggestion that 1-2 inches of ice is thick enough to walk on. The DNR recommends at least 4 inches of ice to walk across still water. Thicker ice is needed for moving water.

The student’s supposition that the plants were not growing is correct — it is indeed too cold for the plants, and they’ll be dormant until spring. (I’ll admit I had to look up “supposition.” It’s defined as an uncertain belief.)

Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington

Oak Grove Elementary phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

Students in the Oak Grove Elementary phenology club enjoy another day observing nature.
Brian Cline
Students in the Oak Grove Elementary phenology club enjoy another day observing nature.

“Hi, this is Ellie, Nathan, Camry, and Sumiko reporting from Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“This week’s weather has been cold, windy, and snowy with a high of 31 degrees today. We’ve had 1 inch of snow this week.

“With our animal observations, we noticed a lot of tracks, most likely squirrels, bunnies and maybe a coyote. The birds finally found our bird feeder!

“With our plant observations, we noticed a big tree fell in our woods.

“We are wondering what caused our tree to fall down. Was it the snow?

“That’s all for today, stay tuned for the next OGE Phenology Club nature episode! Eagles out!”

John is intrigued by the downed tree — he hazards a guess that winds caused it to fall, but he’s not quite sure. If he were to investigate, he would try to determine if the tree was snapped off or if it was uprooted. He’d also examine the moisture of the soil.

Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield

Prairie Creek Community School phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

A raccoon prowls about in St. Paul on July 31, 2023.
iNaturalist user aw3st1n
A raccoon prowls about in St. Paul on July 31, 2023.

“Hi, this is Finley and this is Jackson. We’re from Prairie Creek Community School way down south in Northfield, Minnesota.

“We have a lot of mammal-ish action this week. Sienna saw a raccoon digging in the trash — typical.

“Ruby saw two foxes chasing. Sophie saw a fox and I saw one crossing the road.

“Was it trying to get to the other side?

“Sebastian saw a red squirrel, and Ann may have seen a chipmunk, but they’re not sure.

“Lila saw a hawk in a tree alongside the road — also typical.

“Eric saw two large owl-like birds, one brown and one white, sitting on a branch together. That is not typical. We’re wondering what they could be.

“Robbie reported murmurations of starlings and some geese who also changed direction, except for one, who kept going a bit until it realized it was all alone.

“After school, we saw woodpeckers, a nuthatch and chickadees.

“We have just a dusting of snow, but that will melt this week. We want winter to start!

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

John can relate to the goose that got distracted and flew on without its flock! Geese are plentiful in southern Minnesota, where there’s plenty of food in the fields and open water on the rivers.

Fort River School in Amherst, Massachusetts

Jiahao: “Outside it looks a little sad from all of the gray and brown colors. The grass and the evergreens are the only things that still look green.”

Fort River School phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

A closeup image shows the buds growing on a red maple twig.
Joe Walewski via iNaturalist
A closeup image shows the buds growing on a red maple twig.

Lyrrin: “On Dec. 6, when we went out to recess, it was snowing but none of it stuck to the ground. The average high temperature for this past week is 43.7 degrees Fahrenheit. It is higher than the December average temperature from 1990-2020, which was 39.5 degrees.”

Alex: “The red maple has 14 dead leaves left on its branches. We noticed it has red tree bud tips on its branches and knots in the wood. We found yellow lichen on the apple tree. Most of the tree’s branches are drooping. The apple tree has around 20% of leaves still hanging. There are barely any leaves on the walnut tree. The silky dogwood leaves are completely gone.”

Natalia: “No leaves or walnuts on the walnut trees, including the one that had about 340 a few weeks ago. All of the leaves on the trees are gone except on the oak trees, the evergreens and the apple tree. The producers are getting brown and have lost all of their leaves.”

Eden: “Our class flipped over decomposing logs and found different decomposers like white mold, fungi, worms, woodlice, meal worms and millipedes. We saw bug larvae and spiders, too!”

Jiahao: “Under one of the logs, we even saw a small gray rodent poking out of a hole.”

Ame: “We also saw some turkey tail mushrooms on the wood that goes around our garden beds.”

Casey: “This week we also saw a black squirrel, a Red-tailed Hawk and a few dead wooly bear caterpillars.”

Hank: “And that’s a wrap from the western Mass phenology class!”

John, as always, is fascinated by the seasonal differences between our Minnesota classrooms and our friends in Amherst, Massachusetts. In particular, he remarks on the last of the maple leaves and walnuts falling and notes the “dead” wooly bear caterpillar may not be dead at all! He’d be interested to see what the caterpillar would do if brought into a warm building for a little while.


Roger phenology report - Dec. 12, 2023

Roger Jepson called with a question for John Latimer. He wonders if John has any good remedies for getting rid of the Asian beetles in our homes.

Overall, John recommended “general vigilance.” To my horror, John's more specific technique involves vacuuming up the insects, dropping them into his wood stove, and watching their fiery demise.

“It’s kind of like popcorn,” he said.

On that note... see you next week?

That does it for this week! For more phenology, subscribe to our Season Watch Newsletter or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

Fundingfor 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?).