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Dennis Anderson: Minnesota's phenologists see the natural world in a new way [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-OTD-ANDERSON-COLUMN:MS]

When the Minnesota Phenology Network holds its eighth annual gathering in a couple of weeks in Lake Itasca, Minn., very little about the natural world will go unnoticed. Ducks and geese flying overhead will be spotted and their numbers and species recorded, as will the last leaves to drop from the region's maples and aspens.

An interesting bunch, phenologists, about whom most people know nothing - including the thousands of Minnesotans who in autumn scatter into the hinterlands, their eyes peeled for antler rubs on trees made by buck whitetails or the cut cornfields favored by mallards hoping to fatten their migratory reserves.

These pursuers of game, aka hunters, also are phenologists, or "students of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life."

They just don't realize it.

John Latimer of Grand Rapids, Minn., was introduced to phenology in 1979 while delivering mail on a rural route that covered some 100 miles of byways and back roads.

"I had a woman on my route who was in her 70s when I first met her, and she would greet me by saying something like, 'I saw my first robin today,' " Latimer said. "She had a journal of every deer hunt she made since the 1950s, and she recorded everything about every hunt: wind direction, temperature, whether there was snow and how much, and which direction deer came from on which days."

Inspired, Latimer began recording his own seasonal observations about birds, trees and mammals, at first making notes on a calendar he brought with him on his mail route. Ten years later he abandoned the calendar scribbling for more formal recordings.

Now he has 47,000 such notations.

"I'll tell you what I recorded this week," he said. "Quaking aspens have just now reached what I call their first solid color. It's not the peak of color, because some leaves are still green. But it's close."

Also this week near Grand Rapids, beaked hazel, which turns yellow in fall, and American hazel, which turns red, are beginning to drop their leaves, Latimer said. This means ruffed grouse hunters soon can spot their quarry more readily as they flush ahead of dog and gun.

Dallas Hudson, who lives near Akeley, Minn., also will be at the Oct. 20-22 meeting of the Minnesota Phenology Network at the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories, a research station for the University of Minnesota.

He has had his eyes on chokecherries this past summer, and baneberry and blazing star. The latter are important because they provide nectar for migrating monarch butterflies, whose numbers have been depressed in recent years.

Hudson watches and records the comings and goings around his home not only of monarchs but of lesser-known butterflies such as anglewings and mourning cloaks, among many others.

"I write down everything I see," Hudson said. "The variations in times that the different butterflies appear, year to year, is interesting."

Others find phenology interesting, too. For the past 34 years, Latimer has hosted a popular weekly radio show on public radio station KAXE 91.7-FM in Grand Rapids. Simply enough, the program is called, "The phenology show."

"The station isn't affiliated with Minnesota Public Radio, so I have no time constraints," Latimer said. "The show comes on at 7:20 Tuesday mornings, and it lasts as long as I've got things to say. Sometimes its 10 minutes, sometimes 20."

The same station, among a handful of others in Minnesota, broadcasts the weekly nature observations of grade school kids from Baudette, Duluth, Hibbing, Virginia, Cherry, Bemidji, Crosby and Northfield. With their teachers' help, the students record their sightings as sound files for weekly playback on KAXE and the other stations.

Most phenologists are lay people without specific academic training. But, increasingly, their work is being utilized by scientists studying climate change. Latimer, for example, is helping Andrew Richardson of Northern Arizona University research the carbon-storing capacity of northern Minnesota bogs.

The U.S. Department of Energy funds the study.

"Bogs are a specific land type, with no water going in and no water going out," Latimer said. "They represent only a fraction of the total U.S. landscape but store about 30 percent of its carbon."

Academics who study phenology often use cameras to document minute changes in specific plants or portions of plants, such as roots. The photographs subsequently are converted to mathematical computations that can predict how and at what rate certain changes might occur, given climate variations.

Scheduled to address the upcoming Lake Itasca conference are Jim Cotner of the University of Minnesota on the phenology of Minnesota lakes, and Jill Hamilton of North Dakota State University on the phenology of spruce trees.

Jessica Savage of the University of Minnesota Duluth also will speak about "precocious flowering plants and how they prepare for spring and thus balance the costs and benefits of flowering early."

"Phenology data are incredibly valuable to researchers," Savage said, crediting, "citizen phenologists [who] are able to collect data on a spatial scale larger than is feasible for most scientists."

Registration cost for the meeting in Lake Itasca $175, which includes meals, lodging, two days of workshops, guided hikes and research presentations. Register online at mnpn.usanpn.org.

A note of caution if you plan to travel to Lake Itasca by vehicle: Phenologists can have wandering eyes, even while behind the wheel.

"If I'm going down the road and I see a hawk in a tree, I want to see what kind of hawk it is," Latimer said. "So I look. That makes my wife a little nervous."

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