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Phenology Report: December reflections

A frozen bubble hanging off a twig reflects the shadow of the photographer on Jan. 13, 2018.
Lorie Shaull
A frozen bubble hanging off a twig reflects the shadow of the photographer on Jan. 13, 2018.

A period of rest

December tends to be a slow season for staff phenologist John Latimer: plants are dormant, migratory species have either arrived or departed, and most hibernators are slumbering away in their dens.

While they sleep, some of us might be noticing the warm temperatures with little snow and feeling some climate-related dread. This week, John looks back at his records for other unusual years – context is helpful!

Unusual years

Despite the slow pace, keen-eyed observers may spot some unusual events during some years. For instance, these odd things were noted in Minnesota during the winter of 2015/2016:

  • Leaves emerging: 
    • Balsam poplar, also known as balm of Gilead, broke leaf bud at Wolf Ridge 
    • Red raspberries and Juneberries broke leaf bud in Akeley 
    • Juneberry leaves emerged (then died from frost) on Nov. 10 
    • Blueberry buds were swollen but did not open north of Grand Rapids 
    • Azaleas leafed out near LaPorte 
    • Lilacs broke leaf bud in Talmoon 
A poppy blooms in Nymore on Nov. 16, 2015.
Mary Mitchell via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A poppy blooms in Nymore on Nov. 16, 2015.

  • Flowers emerging: 
    • Bog laurel flowered 
    • Witch-hazel bloomed in Gilbert 
    • Quaking aspen buds emerged and goldenrods were in bloom in Akeley 
    • Pussywillows revealed their furry buds north of Grand Rapids 
    • Potentilla shrub flowered near Owen Lake north of Grand Rapids 
    • Daylilies bloomed and a strawberry plant flowered in Grand Rapids 
    • Poppies bloomed in Nymore on Nov. 16 
    • Marsh marigolds, asters, yarrow still in bloom in Nisswa. Dandelions, red clover, and hemp nettle bloomed there on Nov. 10. 
  • Fruit developing: 
  • Critters acting unseasonably: 
    • A frog started singing north of Grand Rapids 
    • Spring peepers and tree frogs heard singing in Bemidji on Nov. 10 
    • Grasshoppers and a daddy-long-legs seen in Nymore on Nov. 15 
    • Red-bellied snake in Grand Rapids 

Little snow for the holidays

Where it was deep enough to measure, John found only an inch of snow in his yard, and even that was an incomplete covering. Generally, John prefers the lack of snow on lakes (it means more skiing and ice boating!), and he took the time to look back at the warmer years in his records.

  • Dec. 25, 1994: Less than 3 inches of snow, family played frisbee in the yard. 
  • Dec. 31, 1999: 1 inch of snow 
  • Dec. 15, 2006: Bare ground  
  • Dec. 24, 2009: Less than 2 inches, but snowing 
  • Jan. 1, 2012: 0.75 inch 
  • Feb. 14, 2012: Less than 3 inches total 
  • Dec. 3, 2012: Above 40 degrees and no snow 
  • Dec. 14, 2014: 43 degrees (66 degrees warmer than the previous year!) 
  • Dec. 16, 2015: First accumulating snow of the year 
  • Dec. 10, 2017: John was skating as the snow began to fall 
  • Dec. 25, 2018: 2 inches of snow 
  • Dec. 13, 2020: Little snow on the ground 
A Varied Thrush stands on the snow near Lakeville on Jan. 2, 2023.
iNaturalist user annabatt
A Varied Thrush stands on the snow near Lakeville on Jan. 2, 2023.

Christmas Bird Count

John went out with his friends for the annual Christmas Bird Count in their area. They found 18 Mallards on Prairie River and 8 Trumpeter Swans near a dam. They also recorded sightings of Blue Jays, Pine Siskins, chickadees, nuthatches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Other birders found a robin, cardinals, Red Crossbills, and Bohemian Waxwings. Overall, John reported a “pretty normal Christmas bird count. Not a lot of birds, and not a lot of species of birds. Nothing really shocking, nothing out of the ordinary.”

However, we did get a report of a Varied Thrush on the Season Watch Facebook group – Varied Thrushes are typically found further west than Minnesota, but they do occasionally make their way over here in the winter. The Varied Thrush is a quite striking bird, with a yellowish breast and big black bib on the chest. They’re about the slightly smaller than a robin.

Plant confusion

Close up of flower and leaf buds on a red maple tree
iNaturalist user dleaon1
Flower buds start to open and reveal flower parts on a red maple.

The warm weather has tempted the lilac bushes at John’s son’s house to break leaf buds. This isn’t entirely unusual: warm years do occasionally fool plants into leafing out at inappropriate times. These leaves are inevitably killed by frost.

Luckily, the plants are smart enough not to commit all their resources at once. They put out only a few leaves to see what happens, but hold some energy in reserve just in case. This is a great adaptation for these unseasonably warm years, and it also comes in handy in spring: there is often a hard frost in late spring which would badly hurt any plant that overcommitted its resources.

With that in mind, John isn’t too concerned about his son’s lilac bushes. They will lose a few leaves and a bit of energy, but it’ll come back in spring with plenty of energy still available. He concludes that the plants “aren’t easily fooled. They’ve been through this a time or two.”

Red maple trees have an interesting tactic to prevent losing leaves to frost. Instead of relying on ambient temperature to determine when to put out their flowers and leaves, they rely on how much cold they’ve experienced in the winter.

John and his student phenologists perform an experiment to test this. They harvest a few red maple branches around Jan. 15. The branches are brought indoors, put in a bucket of water, and left near a bright window – the students check on their progress every day, and determine how long it takes for the branches to flower. (To keep the branches healthy, John cuts off the bottom 0.25 inch of the branch each week.)

Another few branches are harvested two weeks later on Jan. 31. They are cut from the same tree and given the same treatment. They repeat the process again on Feb. 15.

“You will see that the longer the plant is exposed to cold, the shorter the time it takes for it to break bud,” John explained. “So the maple needs a significant cold period before it’s ready to commit to breaking bud... As it gets later into the spring, it will take fewer days for it to go from being cut off the tree to flowering.

“And that just shows you the nature of red maples. They’ve been through this many, many, many, many generations, and they know that if they give it all, they’ll get burned. And if they hold back a little bit - if they wait - they’ll be fine. That’s kind of the way it works with these things.”

Smart move, maples!

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.

Signs of life

John is always looking for signs of life in the winter, and he’s found a few green things still hanging on in the winter woods. These hardy plants include hepatica, goldthread, polypodium ferns, crested wood ferns, trailing arbutus, and several species of sedges.

Another sign of life in winter are the little footprints critters leave behind: our phenology students spotted many of them running along logs. Who’s running around your house these days? Let us know!

Winter solstice

This Thursday, 12/21, is the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. Even after the solstice, the sun is going to rise later in the morning. However, this is offset by a few extra minutes of daylight in the evenings. We won’t see notable gains in day length until around Jan. 1, when day length will start to increase by 30 seconds to a minute each day. By mid-February, this rate will have increased to a gain of 2-3 minutes of daylight per day.

“You’ll really start to notice the day length changing then, and the sun angle is going to get higher,” John explained. “...It’ll be so warm, you’ll be throwing your winter coat into the back seat of the car and not wearing it during the day.”

Enjoy the dark winter evenings while they’re here – they're perfect for star gazing and hunting for the Aurora Borealis! (I’ve yet to see it this year, but I haven’t given up yet.)

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?).