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Phenology Talkbacks: Burgundy birches and all-white aspens

An otter bounds along a snow trail near Aurora on Jan. 6, 2023.
Charlie Mitchell with original photography by iNaturalist users williamwanders and loriannkayaker
A side-by-side comparison of a birch tree to a grove of aspen trees shows the difference in color between the branches on each species.

This week, phenology student observations included otters, porcupines, and a frozen bat. Enjoy the six reports, from Prairie Creek Community School “way down south” in Northfield all the way to Lake of the Woods School in Baudette (a straight-line distance of 296 miles)!

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.

Prairie Creek Community School near Northfield

“Hi, we are Sophie and Ravi from Prairie Creek Community School way down south in Northfield, Minnesota.

Prairie Creek Community School phenology report: Feb. 20, 2024

A red elderberry opens its buds in a classroom near Northfield on Feb. 19, 2024. It has a narrow brown stem with two large green buds emerging side-by-side from the tip of the twig. The bud has small leaves developing on the outside and a sumac-like cluster of flowers developing on the interior.
Michelle Martin
A red elderberry opens its buds in a classroom near Northfield on Feb. 19, 2024.

“Well, there’s one thing that really jumped out at us this week! (Don’t worry folks, we don’t mean literally.) That’s right – we started to hear a lot of cardinals! We heard the first “Oh-Ricky” song on Jan. 29, which was the earliest we’ve ever heard it! But now, we’re hearing a lot, especially in the morning, and we’ve been seeing a lot of cardinals too. We’re wondering if they get brighter when the spring comes*.

“The temperature has dropped again and people have been starting to tap trees. The buds are also swelling on a lot of the trees.

“We heard two different owls. Ann heard a Barred Owl, and Adrew heard a Great Horned Owl. Amelia saw a hawk, and so did Kyle. Both were probably Red-tailed Hawks. Sienna saw an eagle in the spot where it usually is, and the eagle that often soars over the school in the afternoon was spotted too.

“Silas saw a flock of about 20 turkeys, and Andrew saw a group of about 20 ducks heading from one pond to another.

“The dogwoods are really red and the willows are very yellow.

“Finally, we’re still seeing juncos, and hearing that “Fee-bee” song.

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

*I checked, and according to Birds of the World, adult Northern Cardinals molt during July-October. There could be other reasons why they seem to brighten up in spring, though.

Their teacher, Michelle Martin, also wrote: “...One exciting thing to add is that when we were collecting samples for our bud study, we found red elder that had already had bud break (Wed 2/14). I've included a picture of what it looks like in our classroom on Day 5 of the experiment. “See you for the phenology conference!”

Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington

Oak Grove Elementary phenology report: Feb. 20, 2024

A close-up of a falling-apart bird's nest built with twigs and plastic and filled with acorn husks..
David Murphy
An old bird's nest, partially constructed with plastic and filled with acorn husks, hangs from a shrub in Bloomington on Feb. 13, 2024.

“Hi, this is Callan, Edgar, and Lindsey reporting from Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“This week’s weather has been cloudy and windy with a high of 36 degrees. We’ve had no precipitation this week.

“With our animal observations, we noticed a lot more birds than the past few weeks.

“With our plant observations, we noticed that some are dying, but grasses are growing back.

“We are wondering why the birds are making a nest but not using it.

“That’s all for today, stay tuned for the next OGE Phenology Club Nature Episode!”

Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade

“This is Mia, from St. Mary Help of Christians in St. Augusta, and Azalea from St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton in St. Cloud, with the Long Lake Conservation Center phenology report for the week of Feb. 12-14.

“The low temperature during our visit was 21 degrees Fahrenheit and the high temperature was 33 degrees.

Long Lake Conservation Center phenology report: Feb. 20, 2024

“On our way to Long Lake, we noticed that the bus ran over a dead skunk on the road near Mille Lacs. We ALL noticed it for MILES and MILES...

“Otters were seen on Long Lake near the open water area around the beaver lodge. Otters have not been seen on the lake since November 2023. We explored the lake and saw fisher tracks and cracks in the ice.

“The porcupines were active on and around campus; we got to see Chewbarka and Dill Prickles digging around in the leaves on the ground and climbing trees. We learned that porcupines CANNOT shoot their quills!

“Woodpeckers were drumming and the chickadees were singing so much they were interrupting each other. When the squirrels ate out of the bird feeders attached to the windows, we got a good look at how white the hair on the back of their ears was.

“We had some great outdoor adventures, and we want to remind everyone to... Unplug, get outside, and LIVE CONNECTED!”

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 Feb. 10, 2024. My name is Ruby, and I am your phenologist for this week!

“Feb. 14 brought a much-needed fresh dusting of snow to the North Shore, but as day went on, we had a high of 38 degrees melting all our new snow. The school nature trail walking path is covered in ice and is very slippery to walk on due to all the thawing and freezing. Ms. Urban has noticed that Schmidt Creek has a lot of open spots on it. The above-freezing temperatures we have had lately have caused the ice to melt, and snow that has melted in the area is flowing into the creek as liquid water.

North Shore Community School phenology report: Feb. 20, 2024

A Northern Shrike perches in small shrubs along a field in Roseville on Jan. 13, 2024.
iNaturalist user chriskm
A Northern Shrike perches in small shrubs along a field in Roseville on Jan. 13, 2024.

“This week we saw lower temperatures than we have in the past few weeks, and the temperatures have been closer to average for this time of year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted that El Niño conditions will stop in the next few months, and normal climate patterns will return. There’s even a chance that La Niña conditions will start, beginning this summer.

El Niño and La Niña patterns are caused by surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño means the ocean temperatures are higher than usual, and La Niña is when they are colder than usual. It might be hard to believe that the Pacific Ocean can affect our weather so heavily, but the changes in the ocean temperature cause the jet stream, the winds in the upper atmosphere of the Earth, to change as well. This causes weather patterns to travel differently, which is why the ocean can have such a strong effect on our weather even in Minnesota.

“On Saturday, Feb. 10, Ms. Urban went to the Sax-Zim Bog and saw a Northern Shrike. Northern Shrikes build their nests in northern Canada and Alaska, and migrate south to Minnesota for the winter. In the winter, shrikes eat small mammals and songbirds and will often impale their prey on a thorn or in a tree to store it for later. On Monday, Feb. 12, Sam and Lane Dover saw a Pileated Woodpecker from the back parking lot at school. Pileated Woodpeckers, along with all woodpeckers, eat seeds and insects. This winter, woodpeckers are probably having an easier time finding food with the lack of snow cover and the warm weather creating more favorable conditions for insects.

“The second graders are changing up how they run the 17th annual Ikidarod this year. With the lack of snow, the students are preparing for a "different" kind of race this year. Instead of using a sled, they are pretending they are pulling a 4 wheeler - much like the real mushers are using now to keep their teams in shape.

“So many local races have been canceled, and at North Shore Community School, we did not want that to happen. So, the teachers modified several aspects of the race in order for us to have the Ikidarod this year!

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

Cohasset Elementary

North Shore Community School phenology report: Feb. 20, 2024

A diagram shows the similarities and differences between a bat's wing bones and a human's arm bones. In the bat, the humerus is shorter proportionally and the radius and phalanges are much longer. There is webbing between all the bat's phalanges.
National Park Service
A diagram shows the similarities and differences between a bat's wing bones and a human's arm bones.

“Hello, this is Austin and James: We are in Mr. Lindner’s fifth-grade science classroom at Cohasset Elementary School. We have made lots of observations over the past week.

“This has been a very unique winter. We’ve had unseasonable winter temperatures and very little snow. We estimated that many of our yards are 80% grass and 20% snow patches. We are also gaining 3 minutes and 11 seconds per day of sunlight. We’ve gained 2 hours of daylight since the winter solstice.

“We have also noticed the Mississippi River is wide open in many spots, and places with moving water have a little ice.

“Our twig experiment is going well. Our silver maple has flowers and the dogwood is leafing out. Others have not made much progress since last week.

“A couple of things we learned on our nature walk were that opposite branches on trees will always be a maple or an ash. Birch trees will have dark branches, while aspens will have the same color branches as the trunk.

“Our class found a frozen bat. We talked about how they have the same arm bone structure as humans and many other animals. We also got to see its ears and nose, which is really cool. We also got to see its wings and tail, which is used to scoop up insects.

“We are looking forward to another week of observations. Thank you for listening: Like Mr. Latimer always says, ‘Onward and awkward!’”

Lake of the Woods School in Baudette

Lake of the Woods School phenology report: Feb. 20, 2024

“This is Collin with the phenology report from Baudette for Feb. 9-16.

“It’s been a quiet week at Lake of the Woods School.

“The snow is still holding on.

“The maple tree sap isn’t running yet.

“The chickadees are still enjoying Elijah’s bird feeder.

“Layla caught a glimpse of a porcupine wandering through her woods on Tuesday.

“Finally, Aurora reported seeing a murder of crows on her way home from school on Wednesday.”

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?).