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Phenology Report: John Latimer raves about ravens

A raven flies in a national wildlife refuge.
Tom Koerner
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A raven flies in a national wildlife refuge.

A toasty winter

Staff phenologist John Latimer has two temperature sensors at his house, and both finally dipped below zero degrees last week. “Today’s high of 28 marks the end of the coldest week of winter so far, and it wasn’t that cold,” John stated. The high for Jan. 13-20 was 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and the low was –18 degrees with an average of –5 degrees. -18 was the coldest temperature so far of the 2023-2024 winter.

The mild weather that began this week looks to last through the end of the month.

In Grand Rapids, there are about 4-5 inches of snow on the ground. There have been light snows on and off, but the snow is settling. By the end of a warm week, John suspects the snow will have shrunk even further.

John’s been able to walk wherever he’d like without snowshoes, which is a silver lining!

Ravens (alt title: John wants to croak)

John enjoyed listening to the ravens chuckling, croaking, and calling to each other. When out for a walk, he makes a point not to put in headphones or ear buds so he can listen to the world around him. This week, as in many weeks, this habit paid off!

A side-by-side comparison shows the differences between the tail shapes of ravens and crows. Ravens' tails are wedge-shaped, while crows' tails are squared or rounded.
Charlie Mitchell - original images via iNaturalist and Canva
A side-by-side comparison shows the differences between the tail shapes of ravens and crows. Ravens' tails are wedge-shaped, while crows' tails are squared or rounded.

The nearby ravens have been very active and vocal, making a wide variety of sounds as they communicate with each other. “So, if you’re outside, take your earbuds out and give the ravens a close listen. You won’t be disappointed,” John said.

John explained, “If I could master any language of a wild animal, I would want to learn the language of the ravens... Why would I choose the raven?

“It seems to me, when I hear other birds calling or hear coyotes when they howl, they sound like it’s a pretty good party... It’s as if everybody else is sort of like, ‘Oh yeah, what are you going to have for lunch?’ or, ‘I heard they’re offering a good meal over there on the highway where there’s a dead roadkill.’ Their conversation seemed cut and dried, mostly about survival.

“But the ravens, they seem to just chat. When I listen to the ravens talking to one another – I have this territorial pair that stay over by my house, and if I’m outside, it’s like they’re chatting with one another. And sometimes I imagine that they’re looking down at me and going, ‘Oh, what’s that old duffer doing now? Working on his car again? What a fool.’

“It’s just if I could speak a language I would want to speak theirs,” John continued, “Because I think the conversations would be way more interesting than, say, talking to my dog or talking to some of the other animals whose concerns seem to be so, ‘Sleep, eat, mate,’ and that seems to be what they talk about.”

A Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch sits on a platform feeder at Bowen Lodge on Jan. 16, 2024.  It is a songbird with a cinnamon-colored breast and back, a rosy tinge to the wings, and a grey and white head.
Lorie Shaull via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch sits on a platform feeder at Bowen Lodge on Jan. 16, 2024.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

The female Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch that’s graced Bowen’s Lodge on the North Shore of Lake Winnibigoshish continues to visit the bird feeders. If you’re interested in seeing this rare visitor to Minnesota, don’t delay! The folks that run Bowen’s Lodge have invited folks to come in to see the finch, who’s been dubbed “Rosie” by her human admirers. Reportedly, Rosie is most likely to visit the feeders in the morning, then disappears in the afternoon.

House Grouse, Goldfinches, and Redpolls

With the colder weather last week, Ruffed Grouse were sticking closer to home (John called them “house grouse!”). Without much snow to shelter in, they head for balsam fir trees with low-hanging branches that protect them from wind and predators. On a sunny morning, they like to hang out on the southern side, where the sunlight creates a little extra warmth.

The goldfinches remain active despite the cold. To John’s delight, a flock of nearly 20 goldfinches finally visited John’s bird feeders! (Other Grand Rapids residents (Rapidites? Rapidians?) have been reporting them all winter long, but John hadn’t seen them until this week.)

Goldfinches have some funny habits at the feeder. Unlike chickadees, which will grab a seed and fly off with it, goldfinches will plop themselves down at the feeder and chow down. Occasionally, a Blue Jay or feisty nuthatch might dislodge them for a moment, but otherwise they like to make themselves comfortable.

A flock of Common Redpolls also found their way to John’s feeder last week. They were only there for a short time, then disappeared. John suspects they flew off to a stand of birch trees, as birch seeds are one of their favorite foods. The warm winter has provided them with plenty of feeding opportunities, so they are remaining further north than in other years.

Five people stand in an open area near some bright-yellow shrubs. They are all bundled against the cold and leave tracks in the snow.
Sarah Mitchell
John Latimer shows off the vibrant yellow colors of a willow during a Phenology in the Classroom workshop at Dodge Nature Center in 2023.

Willows and aspens

The roadside willows are beginning to brighten. “If you see a plant that is orange or yellow, and if it’s a tree, it’s almost undoubtedly a willow,” John explained. Minnesota's willow trees include the crack willow, peach-leaved willow, black willow, and weeping willow.

Willow shrubs gain colors from the burgundy to coral-orange spectrum, with reds and bright greens in patches. As the sun gains strength, these colors will become more intense until the shrubs begin to bloom in April.

Among the aspen trees John monitors is one oddball: an early bloomer near his driveway. It put out its buds in December! This tree breaks bud early each year but then stops developing. It doesn’t release pollen until the standard time in spring.

Aspen buds are fuzzy like pussywillow buds. This fuzzy covering helps protect the flower from frost. Both male and female flowers look the same until they reach maturity: then, female flowers have tiny reddish parts, and male ones release yellow pollen when touched.

Territorial markings

Local canids such as wolves, coyotes, and foxes are beginning to mark their territories in preparation for mating. They leave piles of feces on trails and along forest edges, which act as a marking system to let other animals know its breeding condition. Breeding season typically takes place in February.

Raccoons and skunks are likely taking advantage of the warm weather and moseying about looking for mates: let us know if you see them!

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?).