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Read the April 2014 update now

This month’s MyMinnesotaWoods update from the University of Minnesota Extension Forestry team is now available. You can read it here.

This month’s features:

  • MMWemail 2014apr screencapMN Family Woodlands Conference is this month in Rochester
  • Oak wilt risk status: Safe through April 15.
  • MN Forest Health Update: What’s in Your Woods and What’s Coming
  • Northern Minnesota phenology for April 2014: Red Elderberry
  • Quiz of the Month: Maple states
  • And as always: Upcoming events, other items you may have missed, news, and more.

 

April 2014 update

2014/april

Quiz of the month: April 2014

tapped silver maple

Our April quiz:

Four states have named sugar maple their state tree, more than any other tree species. For which of the following states is sugar maple NOT the state tree?







Northern Minnesota phenology for April 2014: Red Elderberry Shrubs

By: John Latimer

Sambucus racemosa Red Elderberry. CC - licensed photo by David A. Hofmann

Sambucus racemosa Red Elderberry. CC – licensed photo by David A. Hofmann

In April the red elderberry buds begin to swell. These are not the first flowers seen in the Northland but they are among the most intriguing. The plant is opposite branched so the flowers are paired along the stem. This puts a mirrored image of each leaf and flower bud right in front of you.

As they begin their development they are peanut sized and bright purple. This makes them pretty hard to overlook along the smooth gray bark of the branches. Depending on the weather they may jump past this phase in a week or less, though in a spring like 2013 they were stuck at this point for two weeks.

As the buds start to crack open revealing the leaf and flower structures beneath, streaks of green bisect the buds. This serves to accent the purple of the bud scales. With continued development the leaves start to separate away from the flower bud. Wispy thin tendrils, somewhat burgundy in color, stretch above the swelling bud.

The leaves are compound like those of the ash trees, and they start to spread their leaflets like fingers around the flower bud beneath. With increased exposure to sunlight the leaves start to photosynthesize, banishing the burgundy, and turning green. Rising up from the center of the bud is the flower. In this early stage of development the flowers resemble a floret of broccoli, except that they too emerge a deep burgundy. The sun will also shift their color to green, but only for a short period. Soon they will start to open and cones of white flowers will cover the entire bush.

Red elderberry shrubs prefer edges or openings within the forest. That doesn’t mean they won’t be found deep in the shade under a canopy of trees. They are a hardy, coarse shrub usually associated with wetter sites, and are found state-wide with the exception of the far western and southwestern counties. The older branches arch back toward the ground and new shoots arise vertically from them. This habit gives them a recognizable look and a practiced eye will locate them with some ease.

Sambucus racemosa (red elderberry). CC licensed photo by Tom Potterfield

Sambucus racemosa (red elderberry). CC licensed photo by Tom Potterfield

From April through July you won’t need to worry about the subtle shape of the bush, starting with the swollen purple buds, followed by the broccoli-like flower buds, then pyramidal clusters of white flowers and finally by the appearance of the bright red fruit, they are hard to overlook. You’re not the only one looking for them however; the birds are watching their development very closely. As the fruits ripen the robins and white-throated sparrows swoop in to dine. Should they not move quickly enough the bears will strip the fruit overnight.  Each berry contains three to five seeds and once they pass through the digestive system of whatever animal eats them they will fall to the ground amid a load of fertilizer ready to grow a new plant.

For humans the berries are not edible in the raw state. They must be cooked to remove certain toxins. The roots, bark, wood, and leaves all contain traces of cyanogenic glycosides and should not be eaten at all. The berries can be processed to make jelly and Native Americans cooked the berries down to a primitive form of a fruit roll-up. A sort of fruit leather that modern day back to the land types find not overly palatable. It has been suggested that this paste may have been combined with other fruits to produce something a bit tastier.

Everything I have read about them suggests that perhaps the best use of red elderberries may be as a food for wild animals. Go out and enjoy every stage of their development and when the fruit is ripe stand aside and let nature take her course.

John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work.  John appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods.  This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal.  It is printed with the author’s permission.

Read the March 2014 update now

This month’s MyMinnesotaWoods update from the University of Minnesota Extension Forestry team is now available. You can read it here.

This month’s features:

  • 2014Mar screencap 220px-1Minnesota Family Woodland Conference update.
  • Tick-borne diseases in Minnesota: Tune in March 18 for an update.
  • Women woodland owners, we want to hear from you!
  • What to look for in your woods this month.
  • Northern Minnesota phenology for March 2014: Robins and Blue Herons
  • Sustaining a Family Business: Lovdahl Logging Company.
  • And as always: Upcoming events, other items you may have missed, news, and more.

 

March 2014 update

2014/march

Northern Minnesota phenology for March 2014: Robins and Blue Herons

By: John Latimer

The month of March is often a study in contrasts. We experience days of warmth and promise, days that have us thinking about short sleeved shirts, followed by icy blasts of winter that send us back to the closet looking again for the parka. In like a lion and out like a lamb might cover the month some place well south of here. Ours may be more aptly summed as, in like a lion and a lamb followed by a meal of mutton and a nice wool sweater. Whatever the case March almost always produces two contrasting events, both suggest that winter is indeed in retreat.

Spring is here! A robin in my front yard! CC-licensed photo by blmiers2

A robin in spring. CC-licensed photo by blmiers2

March nearly always heralds the return of the robins. And March 26th is the average day of this auspicious event. In 30 years of observing their migration there have been only six years when they didn’t make it back in March. In five of those six years our tardy travelers were here in the first week of April. Last year the first robins didn’t make it back to Grand Rapids until the twentieth of the month. Though the average is the 26th the range runs from March 6th through the 20th of April. This is a remarkable span of time and serves to reinforce the notion that robins migrate based on temperature.

Compare that with the great blue heron whose return is so predictable I can with some confidence state that they will be returning to northern Minnesota within a few days of April 1st. Their average date of return is March 27th and in those same 30 years the range runs from March 17th to April 4th. In only seven of those thirty years did their return deviate from the average by greater than four days. Obviously the great blue herons are using something far more predictable than temperature to guide them back to northern Minnesota. They rely on day length or the angle of the sun to tell them when to return.

When the robins return they almost immediately begin to sing and establish territory.The first ones back are the males and if they can defend a particularly desirable piece of ground they stand a far greater chance of attracting a mate. Often times singing alone won’t do and then we will observe robins chasing one another. When even that isn’t enough to settle the dispute they may come to blows. Two males scrapping in flight, wings smashing into one another, beaks stabbing like rapiers, they attempt to drive their rival off the best ground.

Great Blue Heron shot on the New River in Virginia. CC - licensed photo by David Pitts

Great Blue Heron shot on the New River in Virginia. CC – licensed photo by David Pitts

Contrast this with the great blue herons that nest in colonies. Several large trees may support as many as twenty nests. These nests are perhaps two feet in diameter and often are removed from their neighbors by only a few feet. The great blue herons return peacefully to their rookery and take up residence among familiar faces, at least to them, for they all look the same to me. Arguments may ensue, but for all of that the difference between the herons that nest within feet of one another and the robins that vigorously defend a nesting territory that may encompass several hundreds of square feet they are as different as the days of March.

From the phenology notebook:

March 3, 1993   Bald eagles are returning to the north. I spotted two today, one over Pokegama Lake and the other near the nest by my house. A pair of gray jays has discovered the dog’s food and are making frequent trips to abscond with the bounty. I watched as one picked up six chunks, each the size of the tip of my little finger, and stored them in its throat before flying off to cache them. Pussy willows are beginning to open and the furry aments are shining against the darker bark.

March 11, 2006   In another tumultuous day rain falls and the sound of thunder is heard for the first time this spring. Perhaps this noise woke up the chipmunk that could be seen poking his head out from the woodpile. This is the first one of the season. Another phenologist in the Akeley, Mn. area reports seeing an otter. Redpolls are still mobbing the feeders. Spiders are getting more active in mailboxes and one was seen spinning a web.

John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work.  John appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods.  This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal.  It is printed with the author’s permission.

Northern Minnesota phenology for February 2014: Gray Fox

By: John Latimer

The warming earth has brought many new animal species to northern Minnesota. Several new species of birds are routinely seen throughout the area. Cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers have taken advantage of the warmer weather to expand their range northward.  Opossums are expanding their territory to include north central Minnesota. More recently in the Itasca County region we have been witnessing the arrival of the gray fox.

This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. It was there about an hour. CC-licensed to John McClure

This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. CC-licensed photo by John McClure

The gray fox has been widespread in North America ranging from southern Mexico to the southern reaches of Canada. In the United States they can be found nearly everywhere with the exception of the Great Plains and the mountainous west. In Minnesota they were limited to the hardwood forests of the central and southern portions of the state. Over the past ten years my own observations and those of others have confirmed their presence in the northeastern corner of Minnesota.

The gray fox is a small, rather short-legged canid with mostly gray fur on its back and sides. The neck is reddish from the ear to the shoulder and there is a white streak running from the bottom of the muzzle down between the front legs. Most gray foxes weigh between seven and fifteen pounds so they are generally smaller than the red fox. Both foxes are about three feet long. Nearly a third of the length is made up of a rather handsome tail. Separating the two species can be troublesome since the red fox can be quite gray depending on its genetic background. Perhaps the gray foxes’ most distinguishing feature is the black tip on its tail, contrast this with the red fox and its white tip and identification can quickly be confirmed.

The gray fox is a bit shyer than its cousin the red fox. It prefers the woods and dense underbrush. Its strategy for escape is to dash into thick cover and hide, unlike the red fox that likes to run. It will establish territories away from red fox and avoid areas of farmland whenever possible. Crevices in rocks, hollow logs, and abandoned dens of other burrowing animals are all potential sites to locate a gray fox.

This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. It was there about an hour. CC-licensed photo by John McClure

This Gray Fox was found up in our Desert Willow tree in the front yard. CC-licensed photo by John McClure

One truly astonishing thing about the gray fox is its ability to climb trees. It grasps the tree trunk with its forelimbs in a hugging gesture and then digs in with the long sharp claws on its back feet and scampers up the trunk. Using this technique it can climb nearly any type of tree from a limbless, smooth barked aspen to the furrowed trunk a basswood. One was reported resting on a limb fifteen feet up in a saguaro cactus.  Once among the limbs of a tree it is quite adept at scampering about.

This habit of retreating to the safety of trees rather than running has made it undesirable as a quarry in the English tradition of fox hunting with hounds and horses. It is also of little value as a furbearer since the fur is rather coarse. The gray fox has few natural predators. Bobcats and lynx in this area pose the biggest threats. Coyotes and red fox would attempt to take them but the gray foxes’ ability to climb trees and the ready availability of those trees makes it difficult for these larger canids to capture them. Whenever possible the gray fox avoids the territories of red foxes. Bald eagles and great horned owls might snag a young kit from time to time but for the most part the gray fox is free to wander the forests unmolested.

Gray foxes eat a diet of meat during the winter. Most of the meat comes from cottontail rabbits and small mammals such as voles, mice, and an occasional shrew. As the weather warms their diet expands to include insects, grasshoppers and butterflies seem to comprise most of this. During the summer as much as 70% of their diet may be fruits and nuts. Though they wouldn’t turn away from a meal of poultry a well maintained coop should be enough to discourage them. All things considered these lovely foxes should be welcome immigrants into the north.

 

From the phenology notebook:

February 4, 2012:   This is the first gray fox I have seen this far north. It bolts across the road scales a 15-foot drop to a swamp and disappears on the full run into the tamaracks. The rest of the day I can’t get my mind off the fox but the day is one for the birds. Chickadees are singing their “Fee Bee” song for the first time, and I hear a downy woodpecker drumming to establish territory. There is a rough legged hawk sitting on a power pole along County Road 330. A good friend reports seeing a robin in his crabapple tree, no doubt a bird that has decided to stay the winter up here. I spotted a flock of white winged crossbills among the white spruce at Itasca Community College. Flocks of pine grosbeaks are stealing gravel from the county roads. Back home the raven pair that lives in the tree farm appear to be in their courtship mode, and a northern shrike is trying to capture lunch from the birds coming to the feeders.

 

February 13, 2002:   A Minnesota DNR deer specialist reports that three deer have moved from their winter area back to their summer area. He has 51 deer collared and has lost only one all winter, that one was taken by wolves. Not all deer migrate, but among those that do some travel as far as 25 miles.  Six miles appears to be the average. Typically they move in January and then return to their summer range in March. There isn’t any hard and fast rule for why or where, though they prefer a winter area with overhead cover. It provides protection from snow as well as reduces heat loss. Deer typically travel to the areas that they learned from their mothers. In fact they often return to the 20 acres where they spent the winter or summer the year before. In the winter of 1995-1996 one doe traveled 22 miles in two days bounding through 3 feet of snow the whole way. Bald eagles are returning to the north. Many do not make an effort to migrate, but among those that do most settle along the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities to spend the winter months. Pussy willows are starting to open and the red osier dogwood stems are intensely red.

 

February 26, 1988:   I saw my first skunk of the spring today. I was beginning to think this might be the first February without a sighting. Ruffed grouse are bouncing and swaying among the birch boughs as they dine on this year’s flower buds. Typically they would be eating the flower buds of the aspens but every few years the aspens infuse their buds with some foul tasting chemicals to prevent the grouse from eating them. The birch buds are smaller and not as nourishing so the grouse have to spend more time eating them. That means a longer time to be exposed to their enemies, and that means greater predation. It’s part of the cycle of ups and downs in the overall grouse population. Along the edge of the prairies the horned larks are starting to migrate north. I seldom see them here in the Grand Rapids area but those who live in Brainerd and Bemidji are quite familiar with them.

 

John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work.  John appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods.  This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal.  It is printed with the author’s permission.

Sustaining a family business: Minnesota logging video from Red Wing Shoes

This short video, produced by the folks at Red Wing Shoes, gets into the woods with the Lovdahl logging company, based in Effie, MN. It’s fun to watch, and presents a different side of loggers than many of us tend to think of.

Winter cold impacts on EAB: Minnesota data

By Eli Sagor, University of Minnesota Extension

A few weeks ago the local and national media ran a number of hopeful stories about the effect of this year’s deep cold on EAB larvae overwintering under ash bark. We got in on it too: Will winter cold save us from emerald ash borer?

Sensing perhaps a bit too much optimism, last week Dr. Rob Venette and colleagues put a finer point on things in a concise summary of key findings about the effect of winter cold on EAB: Cold snap no snow day for EAB. Their post includes a figure illustrating the impact of different cold intensities on EAB populations over time. I have republished that figure below. Clearly, only a high level of mortality every few years from cold or some other agent is sufficient to keep EAB populations permanently in check.

Figure by Venette et al. (click image for original)

So, how often do we see cold in the -20 to -30F range in Minnesota? I ran some data from the Minnesota Climatology Working Group this morning for St Paul, Cloquet, and Ely to find out. My results show how often each location has recorded those threshold low temps in the past 100, 40, and 20 years. (My data are here in Excel format.)

These data should be interpreted conservatively. Venette and colleagues continue to research the relationships between cold and EAB mortality. EAB overwinter under the bark, where temps may be slightly more moderate. And as MPR’s Paul Huttner notes here, there is a clear trend toward fewer very cold nights in Minnesota (this winter being an exception). Venette and colleagues emphasize that their predictions have to be confirmed with field observations. Nonetheless, my quick and dirty analysis of weather observations supports their suggestion that it is unlikely that cold will control EAB populations, particularly in central and southern Minnesota.

Bottom line:  EAB is a serious threat, and communities and land managers need to be vigilant about preparing for emerald ash borer. Management may be different in different parts of the state that experience differing degrees of cold.

What does that mean? Family woodland owners should consult our ash management guide and recommendations. Communities should do all they can to prepare  for ash mortality from EAB.

Thanks to Rob Venette and Angela Gupta for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

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QUIZ OF THE MONTH

More states have named sugar maple their state tree than any other tree species. For which of these states is sugar maple NOT the state tree?

Choose your answer here.