Stories tagged phenology


Looking for a shadow: Popular legend says the groundhog will come out of its hole to look for its shadow on Feb. 2. But what are the origins of Groundhog Day?
Looking for a shadow: Popular legend says the groundhog will come out of its hole to look for its shadow on Feb. 2. But what are the origins of Groundhog Day?
It’s coming. Are you ready for the big day? Do you have big party plans? Snacks and beverages ready? A big plasma TV hung on the wall of your den? Yes….tomorrow is Groundhog Day!

Many of you have probably seen the movie starring Bill Murray about the holiday or are at least familiar with the story behind the holiday – the groundhog’s quest to see its own shadow in order to tell us when spring will arrive.

But do you know how this custom started?

It dates back to ancient Celtic cultures. Feb. 2 was the “cross-quarter” point in the solar calendar, the halfway mark between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Astronomically speaking, it’s the halfway mark of winter.

As Christianity became the dominant influence of Western Culture, Feb. 2 was designated to be the day that the young boy Jesus was presented at the temple, sort of like today’s rite of confirmation.

Further along the timeline, Feb. 2 was featured in a Scottish proverb about how to predict the length of winter.

Exactly where groundhogs came into the picture, I’m not sure. Biologically, they sleep in a deep hibernation from November to March.

So if you’re a groundhog in Minnesota or any other wintry northern clime, you’re probably not doing much celebrating this, or any other, Feb. 2.

Here are some interesting groundhog (or as they’re known in Minnesota: woodchuck) facts:

• They are the largest member of the squirrel family, weighing up to ten pounds or more, and measure only one and one-half feet long.
• They feed on green, leafy vegetation and on small grains. Garden plants are a favorite, much to the dismay of gardeners in our ever-expanding suburbs.
• The woodchuck is found in most Minnesota counties, usually at the edge of open woods and especially in hilly areas. It is diurnal and hibernates for about six months each year.

Happy Groundhog’s Day!!


Waterbirds worldwide are in decline.: Long-billed curlew. Photo US Fish & Wildlife Service
Waterbirds worldwide are in decline.: Long-billed curlew. Photo US Fish & Wildlife Service

Scientists report that over 40% of the world’s waterbirds are declining in population. The problem is most severe in Asia, though all continents are suffering losses.

The problem is habitat. Some of the richest ecosystems are “edge habitats,” where one type of environment meets another – like, where the sea meets the shore. However, a whopping 2/3rds of the world’s human population lives near the sea shore. As our population grows, more of this habitat is developed for human use, leaving less for birds and other wildlife.

This afternoon I saw a bald eagle circling over Irvine Park, just to the west of the museum. We're lucky: we see eagles a lot here in Minnesota and along the museum's stretch of the Mississippi River. Have you seen any eagles this winter? When and where?


You're invited to attend the annual Fall Color Blast on Sunday, October 1, from 1-5pm, at the Warner Nature Center. The event is free and features a professional storyteller, live fiddle music, bird banding demonstrations, canoeing, rides on a solar-powered pontoon, hikes, kids' crafts, free apple pie and ice cream, cider and coffee, and more. (Want more information about programs at the Center?)


Hawk watchers at Hawk Ridge: Photo courtesy Mark Ryan
Hawk watchers at Hawk Ridge: Photo courtesy Mark Ryan
Duluth, Minnesota is one of the best places in the Midwest for watching hawks and other birds of prey as they make their annual migration south for the winter.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight: Photo courtesy National Park Service.
Red-tailed Hawk in flight: Photo courtesy National Park Service.
Since the migrating birds avoid crossing large expanses of water, Lake Superior acts as a funnel, forcing them into Duluth where the lake narrows to its western point, and crossing is easier. This means that thousands of hawks and raptors fly over the region, coming down from Canada and other points north. One of the best sites to see them is at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, which is situated, in eastern Duluth at an overlook along the city’s Skyline Parkway.

The observation site draws not only vast numbers of birds (averaging over 94,000 per year) but also vast numbers of visitors who come each fall to watch the migration and enjoy the stunning panoramic views of Lake Superior and eastern Duluth.

If conditions are right, a lucky visitor may see Broad-wing Hawks, Osprey, Bald and Golden Eagles, Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Goshawks, and Peregrine Falcons. Great Horned and Long-eared Owls can also be seen at times.

The raptors can be seen just about everyday during Autumn, except when it’s raining, Generally, the birds begin migrating over Hawk Ridge in mid-August through November. The best time to spot them is when the wind is blowing in from the west or northwest for a couple of days straight. Official counters scan the skies with binoculars most days and tally the migration. During “The Big Days”, which generally take place between September 10-25, tens of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks can be spotted soaring over the ridge. This past week over 28,000 of them were counted in just two days!

For directions and further information visit the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory website. Then pack up your binoculars and camera, and head north to Duluth.

The US Forest Service has a neat page with up-to-date information about fall foliage hotspots and peak dates, plus information about why leaves change color in the fall. Check it out, and maybe plan an outing to take advantage of the colors before they're gone.


Loud this time of year: Fork-tailed bush katydid (Photo courtesy Jenn Formann Orth)
Loud this time of year: Fork-tailed bush katydid (Photo courtesy Jenn Formann Orth)

This article, by Tyler Rushmeyer, appeared in the local news section of today's Pioneer Press:

Racket bugging residents: Night music made by katydid colony
Many White Bear Lake residents were baffled when they started hearing a new sound reverberating through their neighborhoods.
As night falls, a loud "yack, yack" sound has filled the air. "It sounds like a tropical rainforest on my block," said White Bear Lake resident Mark Nevala, one of several people to call city officials asking about the noise.
The culprit: katydids, loud insects performing mating calls by rubbing their wings together. The mating season should last into early October.
Closely related to grasshoppers and crickets, katydids are spread throughout Minnesota. The bugs residents are hearing are the northern katydid species, said Dick Oehlenschlager, assistant curator and collections manager for biology at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
"They move in colonies and shift every year, and this year their colony seems to have taken residence in the Twin Cities area," he said.
The insects--about 2 inches long and bright green, with long, coiled antennae--are near-motionless during the day and reside on the leaves of trees. But soon after dusk, they become active. They are difficult to spot, Oehlenschlager said, which is why many people are confused about where the noise is coming from.
"Even I didn't know what I was hearing the first couple times I came in contact with them," Oehlenschlager said.

Look for our new fall phenology section, featuring other seasonal behaviors of insects and birds, coming to the Mississippi River Gallery and the Buzz website after next week.


I was sitting on our front stoop tonight, talking to my mother on the phone, and a family of raccoons was out for a stroll. They came from somewhere on the Tilsner Carton Factory property, crossed at the corner, and made their way into a neighbor's front yard.

Right now is actually the peak time to see raccoon families in the city. Baby raccoons stay with their mothers until the fall, at least, and now they're old enough to leave their dens and accompany their mothers on nightly food foraging trips.

Raccoons: Courtesy SeattleYogi
Raccoons: Courtesy SeattleYogi

Raccoons are omnivores, eating everything from frogs to fish to insects to eggs, berries, vegetables, pet foods, and garbage. They're equally comfortable in wilderness or and dense urban areas. They're intelligent, resourceful, curious, and dextrous, and keeping them out can be a serious challenge.

This site has cool pictures of raccoons and their tracks.

Raccoons are fascinating to watch, but one note of caution: like many mammalian carnivores, they can be aggressive if cornered or threatened, and they can carry rabies. So be careful if you find one in your garage or on your back porch. Their wariness about humans is what keeps them and you safe, so don't feed them or otherwise encourage them to visit you. But enjoy watching from a distance. (I'm just glad that this troop wandered into Josh and Jenny's yard instead of ours!)

Our summer phenology feature--which talks about raccoons as well as other species--will be online soon.