Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Phenology Report: Lots of rime, little reason in January 2024

Rime frost coated the trees in Chippewa National Forest in a thick layer of white on Jan. 28, 2024.
Kelly Barrett via the KAXE - KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
Rime frost coated the trees in Chippewa National Forest in a thick layer of white on Jan. 28, 2024.

With an uncharacteristically reluctant tone, John starts the report with the climate. Given his demeanor, I expected him to bemoan the unseasonably warm temperatures seen across the state this week, but instead he started describing the beautiful frost formations that decorated Northern Minnesota on Sunday morning. Why these beautiful structures bummed him out is an open question, but I have a few shrewd guesses. (Most of them involve John shaking his fist at the sky and grumbling about climate change - a sport that I also excel at.)

The ephemeral Minnesota cactus

Sharp spikes of rime frost form on the stems of saplings in Northern Minnesota on Jan. 28, 2024.
Angela A Ledding via the KAXE - KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
Sharp spikes of rime frost form on the stems of saplings in Northern Minnesota on Jan. 28, 2024.

Instead, he surprises me by transitioning into the beautiful rime frost formations that coated trees, shrubs, and other surfaces throughout Northern Minnesota on Sunday, Jan. 28. (As Angela on the KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group pointed out, it “looks like we developed a species of Winter Cactus!”)

Rime is a type of frost that is formed by is formed by tiny water droplets in the air (such as those borne in a fog or mist) freezing onto surfaces. Rime is characterized by its spiky appearance and a tendency to coat surfaces unevenly.

Hoar frost, in contrast,water in a gaseous state in the atmosphere: water vapor that freezes directly onto surfaces without becoming airborne liquid first. It looks fluffy instead of spiky. Unlike rime, it generally coats all sides of a surface.

Precipitation Situation

Despite all the frost on the trees, there’s very little white stuff on the ground. John would be “surprised if it’s even 4 inches,” and his co-host Heidi Holtan thinks there’s even less. There are bare patches where dirt is showing through.

John totaled up all the moisture in his rain gauge since Jan. 8, finding just an eighth of an inch of water fell on the region from Jan. 8-27. He estimates that about one or two inches of snow fell during that period. It is typical for not much snow to fall in January, according to John’s records.

On Jan. 29, a bit of rain fell in Grand Rapids. He didn’t measure it, and estimates it accumulated to less than .01 inch. A January rain isn’t unheard of: he has 19 records of rain falling over the 40 years he’s been keeping records.

Colors in a January forest

Back in the forest, gold-tan leaves are still clinging to the branches of oaks and ironwood trees. Ironwood trees tend to thrive in the midstory, and their leaves are smaller and thinner than oak trees.

While the dogwoods and willows are still bare, their stems are brightening by the week.

Their colors are echoed by the mountain maple: this plant has grey bark at the stem and on older branches, while new growth is clad in smooth red bark.

Aspen trees lack colorful bark or leaves, but are nevertheless deserving of a closer look. John is keeping a careful eye on the buds, as they are likely to break soon and display the fuzzy beginnings of their spring flowers. If you spot a branch dangling close to the ground, take the opportunity to check them out! John would love to hear from you.

WIldlife success stories

Each year, John keeps a close eye on the eagle nests by his house for activity. They surprised him this year with an early appearance: they showed up on Jan. 27! According to his records, other early sightings included Jan. 27, 1988; Jan. 26, 2005; Jan. 13, 2010; Jan. 26, 2016; Jan. 22, 2018; and Jan. 15, 2023.

Trumpeter swans line the edges of Nature Lake. There are over 30 swans shown in a rough line amongst rice beds on the shallow lake edge.
Lisa Tripp Peterson via KAXE - KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
Trumpeter swans line the edges of Nature Lake.

John saw his local eagles arrive to the nest a few times during the day, and at sunset, one eagle came flying down to land on the nest. Due to the encroaching dusk, he couldn’t tell if the eagle spent the night.

John remembers a DNR census performed in 1988, which counted the number of Bald Eagles present on the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and Red Wing. That year, they found 105 individuals. “Nowadays, they don’t even bother counting anymore because there are so many,” John enthused. “The Bald Eagles have rebounded so magnificently over the last 40 years."

John’s friend Dallas has a record of a pair of eagles on Shingobee Lake that began constructing their nest on Jan. 11, 2006.

Dallas also watched two Trumpeter Swans that landed on the ice at Lake Shingobee. They began doing a courtship dance, with their wings quivering and head bobbing. Another pair of swans descended on the lake, and the first pair didn’t react well, running off the interlopers before they got too comfortable.

Trumpeter Swans were also once a rare sight in Minnesota, having been nearly extirpated from the state in the early 1900s. Carrol Henderson, the first nongame wildlife program supervisor at the DNR, brought the first eggs back from Alaska in 1983 to reintroduce them to the state.

As of this year, the Trumpeter Swan population is estimated at 65,000: they are a common and treasured sight on our lakes and rivers!

An American Tree Sparrow hops through the snow near Finland, Minnesota. It has a dark dot on its chest, two brown stripes on its crown, and streaked brown plumage on its back.
iNaturalist user jwalewski
An American Tree Sparrow hops through the snow near Finland, Minnesota.

Critter census

Other observations from the week included:

  • A skunk sighting – well, smelling - in the Twin Cities by John’s friend Ian 
  • Another skunk smelling by Nate Macejkovic, our phenology teacher in Baxter 
  • A lack of owl hoots in Theodore Wirth Park, which normally hosts a number of peeping, screeching, and/or hooting owls in winter. 
  • A similar lack of owl activity in Erie, Pennsylvania 
  • Tree sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in Akeley. 

John expects that these phenomena (the lack of owls in southern areas and the early appearance of skunks) can be explained by the warm weather.

Male skunks typically emerge in early or mid-February and begin to roam around looking for mates. The warm weather may have allowed them to emerge earlier, and certainly will help them move around. Their short legs are much happier with little snow!

The owls are also much happier with little snow, as their prey can’t hide beneath a cozy, covering blanket all season. So, with abundant prey, they are likely lingering in their northern abodes and not bothering to fly too far south.

Crows also found this year quite hospitable, and never left Grand Rapids: typically, they return to the area in January. They have a species-wide dislike for hawks and owls, and have been seen giving a Red-tailed Hawk “the business” in Akeley.

John wraps the report up with some of the smaller birds: he’s noticed woodpeckers drumming. These including one little Downy Woodpecker that found a hollow tree that acted as a very effective drum. “It was a pretty good sounding board for the little downy,” John said. “He was doing his best to make himself sound really big.”

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).

Corrected: February 1, 2024 at 9:24 PM CST
The first version of this article had the atmospheric causes of rime and hoar frost switched.
Stay Connected
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?).