Phenomenal Phenology

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Cumulus clouds are associated with warm summer days.
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John Latimer entertains listeners with timely tales of trillium, aspens and Orion.
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The appearance of mushrooms such as the Pleurotus species is related to weather.
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Blue Flag Iris a common plant seen most in the North.
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Trillium flowers are a sure sign of spring.
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This Monarch caterpillar may be migrating as a butterfly.
Tips & Tricks of a Phenologist
Diary of a Phenologist: A few typical entries
Learn to Speak Phenologist
Tools of the Trade

Every Tuesday morning, John Latimer’s smooth voice flows like syrup over the air waves on KAXE-FM 91.7 public radio in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, during his 10-minute “Phenology Show.” Phenology, as Latimer explains every week, is the study of the rhythmic nature of biological events as they relate to climate. For 26 years, the 58-year-old has been keeping area residents in touch with the natural world. Joel Rosen, an organic farmer in Mahtowa, Minnesota, calls in regularly to report seeing the first robin, swatting the first mosquito or watching the ice go off his lake.

Listeners hear that the trillium have started blooming in Mike Rybak’s yard, or that the quaking aspens are flowering in the woods behind John Zasada’s house. Bill Berg reports that the loons have returned to Trout Lake, and Ed Dallas says the cardinals are back at his house near Deerwood, Minnesota. Latimer tells you where to find the constellation Orion in the night sky, why tamaracks begin to turn color from the inside out and from the bottom up, and how to tell a flock of cormorants from a flock of geese.

“People will say, ‘I didn’t know that,'” Latimer says, admitting he’s not a scientist but a rural mail carrier whose college degree is in economics, not biology. A disciplined naturalist, he seldom rises later than 5 a.m., and two days a week he spends the quiet early hours writing. “I think the thing that drove the whole works was my own curiosity,” he says, and he has tried to instill that same curiosity in his son and daughter.

Lately, Latimer has expanded his reach to a dozen classes at area elementary schools. Students call in to report their sightings each week prior to the show, and Latimer makes a point of visiting each class several times during the year to instruct children in the art of observing nature.

“I think kids need to connect with nature a little better,” he says, “and I think it’s going to be more and more important that they do.” He believes fifth or sixth grade is perfect, because children don’t have a lot of distractions at that age. “They don’t mind asking questions,” Latimer says, “and they don’t mind telling stories.”

In the beginning

Latimer began recording phenological events back in 1983 when he met Mary Barquist, a woman on his mail route who had been keeping records of natural events since the 1950s. She gave him some of her calendars, and he was hooked. Now his show is the most popular locally produced program on KAXE, and he says, “People are counting on me, and that’s always prodding me. In the back of my mind I keep thinking what’s new, what’s different today?

“People used to remark that this winter was a lot warmer than last year, and I could never remember,” Latimer says, “so I started keeping track. I began with a few records, just jotting them on an ordinary calendar. Then one Christmas my sister gave me the Minnesota Weatherguide calendar. That’s when I became aware that there was a method to the madness, that this thing I was doing had a name, and that the name is phenology.

“It starts off superficial,” he says. “First you notice the flowers on maple trees, and then you start noticing that when maple trees flower, the yellow-rumped warblers are back catching bugs at the maple trees that are flowering. The more you look at it, the more there is to know.”

KAXE Program Director Scott Hall has coproduced the “Phenology Show” since the beginning, and he admires Latimer’s passion for learning and respect for all different kinds of people. “John has a terrific sense of humor and a great laugh,” Hall says. “He’s the same in person or on the air. John is John. He talks right to people as if he were talking to his neighbor. He’s keeping track of our lives for us.”

Following the “Phenology Show,” Latimer cohosts “A Talk on the Wild Side” with Harry Hutchins, a natural resources instructor at the local community college. Hutchins attributes the success of the two shows to the time Latimer spends doing research once he discovers something new and unusual. “He’s very thorough. He doesn’t just give a date when he saw something,” Hutchins says.

Latimer’s mail route

Reaching across the front seat of his 1995 Dodge Caravan and out the passenger-side window, Latimer gently eases a spider onto the roof of a rickety country mailbox. “Watch out there, darlin’,” he says. “You stay on the lid. I don’t want you in the car because you’ll end up in somebody else’s mailbox.” The dashboard is littered with field guides, binoculars, a camera and a small tape recorder. As he spins down mile after mile of gravel road, Latimer scans the forest on either side. “Oh, look at those purple anemones,” he says, veering into the ditch. He unzips his camera case with one hand, stops the car abruptly and scoots across the seat to snap a close-up. A few miles farther along, he reaches for his tape recorder to report: “Wild plums continue to emerge. Seeing more of them in bloom today, and Juneberries are definitely popping out.”

Lecturing as he drives his 90-mile route, Latimer shows off his repertoire of  “gee whiz” tidbits, like that Minnesota has 45 species of mosquitoes; that alder leaves stay green until they fall; and that goldfinches breed only after the thistle goes to seed because they use thistle down to line their nests.

Listening to him, I’ve learned that milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s favorite food, makes the monarch distasteful to predators; that juncos display a unique style of food gathering, hopping backward slightly while tugging at vegetation underfoot; that you don’t begin to see cumulus clouds until the snow cover has left the ground because these formations are the result of convection-formed updrafts. When the snow is gone, the sun can warm the ground more, and that lets more warm air rise into the sky creating the puffy, high-topped cumulus clouds we associate with warm summer days. In winter, clouds are, for the most part, stratus or cirrus.

He’s taught me that certain lichens grow on birch trees; to identify red osier dogwood by their heavily veined, opposite leaves that reveal hairs when you break them apart and turn a deep pink color in the fall; that sometimes turtle eggs remain dormant until the following spring; that insects find no nectar in showy lady-slippers but follow lines in the blossom designed to lead them past the male and female flower parts where they collect pollen; and that some frogs hibernate in the leaf litter for the winter.

“I take something common, something people see every day, and try to figure out a way to tell them that it’s happening now, they should look for it, and here’s something else about it,” Latimer says. “Then they can turn around and amaze their friends with the information.”

Dispel myths

Latimer believes much folklore passes as scientific fact, and he tries to dispel such myths. He talks to people about the incorrect notion that frost brings on the change in leaf color. Actually it is length of day or amount of daylight that causes the tree to begin to shut down. “The tree stops producing chlorophyll, and the green that you’re familiar with disappears,” he says. “The color that remains is partly the result of sugars that get produced in the leaf during the day and get trapped there at night. The more sugars that are trapped in the leaf, the more red the leaf is, and the fewer sugars, the more yellow it is. Warm, sunny days with cool nights produce the reddest leaves.”

Goldenrod is often mistaken as the cause of hay fever, Latimer points out, but the real culprit is usually ragweed. “Pollen from ragweed is large and quite irregular in shape,” he says. “When it is inhaled, it can be an irritant.” (See “Don’t Blame the Goldenrod” on Page 18.) He rejects the old aphorism that the size of a muskrat’s house indicates the length of the upcoming winter. “The truth is that it was probably the availability of food that determined the size of a muskrat’s house,” he says. “If he didn’t have to forage too far, he could spend more time working on his house.”

Word pictures

Latimer paints word pictures that let his listeners see nature images as clearly as if they were viewing a video, and his musings have forever changed my perspective when I observe the plants and animals around me.

“The popple leaves were twisting and spinning toward the ground, just letting go of fall.”

“The oblate shape of yellowing dogbane leaves is reminiscent of a Zulu warrior’s shield.”

“Tamaracks at their peak of color look as if the sun itself has become entangled in the branches.”

“Milkweed pods burst open to expose the white parachutes of their seeds.”

“The ruffed grouse weaves a chain as it travels over the snow. Follow it and you’ll find where the bird spent the night.”

“Plum blossoms back in the woods look like little clouds caught in the trees.”

Hard-pressed to choose a favorite season, Latimer says, “That’s like asking which is your favorite child.” He is partial to fall because of the colors, the smells and the ultimate disclosure of the landscape. “Fall represents an assault on all the senses,” he says, “the brilliance of color, the crispness of the air, the redolence of rotting leaves.”

Everything is new in spring, though, giving him more events to record. “There are probably as many events to record in the fall, but it’s hard to record an absence,” he says. “Just about all my monarch butterfly entries in the fall have a question mark beside them. It’s so hard to know when the last of something has moved south.”

Nothing new

Phenology is nothing new. The first documented practice dates to the time of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), founder of our binomial system of nomenclature and originator of the modern scientific classification of plants and animals. In 1750, Linnaeus started the first plant watch in his home country of Sweden, selecting 18 sites and composing yearly plant calendars of leaf opening, flowering time, fruiting and leaf fall. He added to those observations a record of weather conditions, combining for the first time the key ingredients of phenological study: natural phenomena and seasons.

The renowned naturalist Aldo Leopold made phenological observations all his life, recording many of them in his much-revered Sand County Almanac.

Many places in Europe have plant-watch records going back to 1850, and Nova Scotia’s plant-watch network dates from 1896. In earlier times, such knowledge of natural events once meant the difference between life and death. Our grandparents, for instance, relied on phenological knowledge when they gardened, as evidenced by such maxims as “plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear” and “when daffodils begin to blossom, it’s time to plant peas.”

Growing up on a western Kentucky tobacco farm in the 1940s, Jim Conrad, a botanist and environmental writer, remembers being close to nature. “The changing seasons affected us profoundly, particularly in terms of when we had to plant and harvest,” he says. “We also gathered foods from the wild. As with any society based on traditions and intimacy with nature, ‘practicing phenology’ was simply surviving.” Phenology does not always involve record-keeping, according to Conrad. “For me, a phenological event is not something I feel compelled to document,” he says. “Rather, it is an event that confirms for me that nature continues to work the way she is supposed to.”

Latimer believes that many today are disconnected from nature. “They see nature as something they can watch on television or something they plan a trip to visit once a year,” he says. “I see nature as that which I observe when I’m not distracted or cut off from it – when it’s dark outside or I’m in a room with no windows. Nature is something you take in with your whole body. It’s the smells, the sounds, the feel, the taste – it’s everything.”

Phenology is the perfect family activity, according to Latimer, and all ages can enjoy recording natural events.

“That’s one of the beauties of it,” he says. “All you need is a calendar and a pencil. Start simple. Start in your own backyard. Start with what is familiar with you – what’s outside your kitchen window, what you drive by every day going to work. Notice when daffodils bloom, when maples change color, when robins return, when your local lake freezes over. You’ll have a desire to know more, and every time you see something, you’ll want to know about that thing, too.”

The biology surrounding Bovey, Minnesota, keeps author Margaret Haapoja on her toes.

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