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Phenology Report: A frigid frog and a smidge of midges

A frozen green frog lays in the snow in Lake County, Minnesota on Dec. 3, 2023. It looks quite dead.
iNaturalist user jonnytoste
A frozen green frog lays in the snow in Lake County, Minnesota on Dec. 3, 2023.


Somewhat surprisingly for a week in December, staff phenologist John Latimer starts the phenology show with a note about frogs. The Long Lake Conservation Center report from this week noted a wood frog that had taken up residence in their dining hall – they decided it would be better off outside and nestled it deep into some leaf litter.

John wouldn’t mind spending winter in a dining hall, claiming it’s warm, (mostly) quiet, and hey - free food!

He also found a frog during the last week. The one he spotted on the ice on Pokegama Lake. It was hard to identify due to its frozen state, but eventually he determined it was a wood frog.

“Wood frogs this time of year don’t look like they’re alive,” John clarified. “They’re absolutely – I mean, if you had sophisticated electronic equipment to monitor the life of a wood frog, and you found one this time of year, you would find no signs of life. They don’t have any brain activity. They have no respiration, no heart rate, nothing. Just dead.

“And yet, they will shiver themselves awake. Next spring, in April, they’ll be among the first frogs you’ll hear singing in the woods, probably around the 4th or 5th of April, if it’s a usual normal year.”

Like the folks at Long Lake, John brought the wood frog to the forest and laid him down in the leaf litter about 5-6 inches beneath the surface. “I kind of shoved everything back over the top and patted it down a little bit and wished him well. And I hope that he does make it through the winter just fine.”

Pileated Woodpeckers

A Pileated Woodpecker perches on a red pine trunk near Thornton Lake on Nov. 26, 2023.
Cody Steward via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A Pileated Woodpecker perches on a red pine trunk near Thornton Lake on Nov. 26, 2023.

A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers have been entertaining John with their antics. They reliably stop by his suet feeders early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with occasional stops during the day.

If you want to encourage Pileated Woodpeckers to take up residence near your home, John recommends retaining old-growth aspen trees – they prefer aspens greater than 12 inches in diameter.

The Pileated Woodpeckers must compete with loggers for these trees; John says “If you’re planning a logging project for your area, do like I did. I just went out and took some marking tape and I took about 8-10 of these old aspens. I just put marking tape on them and I told the loggers, ‘Don’t cut those, those were for the Pileated Woodpeckers.’

“And over the years, some of those trees have blown down. Some of them have just kind of hung in there and gone about their normal life senescence – I guess they’re on their way down. But as they grow older and rot away, the woodpeckers find them perfectly suitable for their homes.”

Lake ice

A person wearing hockey skates holds a handle attached to a sail
Caige Jambor
Mitch Blessing ice kites while others iceboat on Grass Lake in Bemidji in early December 2023.

“If you haven’t been out checking out the ice and ice skating, then you have frittered away a wonderful couple weeks here in Northern Minnesota,” John stated. “The ice is, for the most part, pretty safe. Smaller lakes, especially – there's probably 8-10 inches of ice on my lake. There is certainly more than 4 inches of ice on Pokegama Lake in certain areas.

“And as with any lake, you want to know the lake. You want to know where the flowage is in the lake. You want to know where the water moves, what part of the lake is likely to be open and not frozen, or not frozen thoroughly.”

He reminds us that each lake does need to be explored and tested for safety, and someone needs to be the first one out there! If that person is you, be prepared – have ice picks with you, a life jacket, and a friend just in case.

If you do happen to fall in, remember that the ice is strongest behind you. You’ve already walked on that ice, and know it can support your weight!

John is speaking from experience. “When it happened to me, that wasn’t the first thought I had in my mind. That was not the first thing I thought of, and it took a while for me to come to my senses and do what was right and get back out.”

Don’t let fear keep you from getting out, though! Despite his cautions and warnings, John is enthusiastic about getting out there. “I’m warning you and encouraging you at the same time: I want you out on the ice. I want you to go check it out because it is so magical.

“...There’s nothing like looking at 2 miles of open ice and thinking, ‘I can skate over there if I want to.’ And boy, it is just a remarkable thing – so, get out there and enjoy that ice.”

Winter birds

A Varied Thrush sits in pine branches in Clearwater County on Dec. 10, 2023. It has a golden chest and neck with a black bib, dark head, and dark back. It has a bold orange stripe above the eye.
Isabelle Harmon via the KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A Varied Thrush sits in pine branches in Clearwater County on Dec. 10, 2023.

John’s friend Mark, who lives west of Grand Rapids on the Mississippi, has spotted Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls. Others have seen Evening Grosbeaks, and although he hasn’t yet heard reports of them, John suspects Pine Grosbeaks are in the area.

A surprise visitor to the area was a Varied Thrush, a beautiful robin-sized bird that mostly resides west of Minnesota. Every year in winter, one or two seem to pop over into the state to overwinter – they are a rare sight but an unforgettable one.

In a ditch, John spotted ravens, crows, Bald Eagles, and even a Turkey vulture feasting on a dead deer. He was quite surprised to see the vulture: they normally leave Minnesota in the winter. Despite his expectations, there one was in a ditch north of McGregor!

Colorful willows

On his way to and from the Twin Cities, John appreciated the colors of the roadside willows. Tree willows tend to have yellow twigs and crowns, while shrub willows lean to the orange-red side of the spectrum.

The red osier dogwoods also lend vibrant color to the winter landscape.

A mountain lion in Minneapolis

A mountain lion was struck and killed by an SUV near Minneapolis last week. It had been detected on a game camera in Minneapolis just a few days before! While talking with Bill Berg, a retired DNR wildlife specialist, John learned that mountain lions can cover as many as 175 miles in a single day.

It’s since been announced that this mountain lion had been tagged two years ago as a cub in Nebraska – quite the journey!

John has never seen one in the wild, but is certainly hoping to someday. “It is only a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “...I think seeing one in the wild would be thrilling and intimidating, because the presence of a mountain lion sort of moves you down the food chain from the top link to somewhere in the middle. And that’s a different sort of feeling.”

Insect inspection

Chironomid midges have begun to emerge. These little insects look a bit like mosquitos, but they don’t have any biting mouth parts. (They’re also known as blood worms, since they use a hemoglobin-like, iron-rich chemical to transport oxygen. This gives their blood (called lymph) a red appearance.)

Chironomid midges are an incredibly diverse group, with over 10,000 species worldwide. One Minnesota species specializes in bog-dwelling pitcher plants. The mother midge lays her eggs in the pitcher plant, and the larvae live in the lower depths of the pitcher plant water column. Mosquito larvae live in the upper section of the water column – any mosquito larva that ventures down too far is in danger of getting eaten by one of the midges.

Any insect that makes the mistake of falling into a pitcher plant will get eaten by one or both of these larvae. The resulting excrement falls to the base of the pitcher plant, with remaining nutrients and energy conveniently pre-digested and ready for absorption by the host plant. What a system!

Three tiny midge larvae in the species Metriocnemus knabi rest at the bottom of a purple pitcher plant in Maryland. Their bodies have purplish posteriors fading to orange-yellow heads.
iNaturalist user treegrow
Three tiny midge larvae in the species Metriocnemus knabi rest at the bottom of a purple pitcher plant in Maryland.

If you’re not peering into the nether regions of a pitcher plant, you may still spot these midges as adults. They emerge in late fall and early spring, when male midges ascend in huge, swirling columns. This display attracts females, which fly into the column. The first male that spots her will grab on and both will tumble to the ground to mate. Then, she travels off to find a likely pitcher plant to lay her eggs.

“It was thought for a long time that these little midges didn’t eat as adults, but some perverse scientist ran an experiment where he denied these midges food and starved them,” John explained. The males, it turns out, spent a lot of energy flying about and looking for females. The females conserved their energy by sitting around and waiting for an opportune moment to fly out and mate, then lay her eggs.

“The females evidently come with a bit more energy stored from the larval stage to the adult stage,” John clarified. “And so they are able to live a bit longer. But for the most part, they’re out there drinking nectar, finding sweets and sugars that they can use to power their flight and power their lives. And you may see them in these huge, huge columns.”

John has seen columns of these midges ranging as high as 20 feet! You might spot them in the next week or two, or it may be as late as March, but keep your eyes out – they are a cool example of an often-overlooked natural spectacle.

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?).