Springing into phenology
4/3/2023 by Sara Holger, Karlin Ziegler, Jaide Rykes
Snow melts, birds begin to sing and the air warms. Spring is here! There are many evident and telltale signs that spring is upon us. Biologically, this is called phenology — seasonal, cyclical events due to climate. Phenology helps us explore, understand and build a relationship with nature. Additionally, evidence shows phenology has health and well-being benefits.
Robins returning to the north is probably the most common sign of spring. It means the tree buds are blooming and snow is melting, a refreshing sign of the end of winter. Many other bird species return to Minnesota in the spring as well. For example, red-winged blackbirds return to nest in wetlands and feed on insects. Turkey vultures also return — their bald heads and legs don't hold enough heat to survive our frigid Minnesota winters. Lastly, spring means the warbler season. Colorful species migrating through, like the Blackburnian warbler and northern parula, peak bird lovers' interest. Spring means bird migrations are at a high, an important time for area bird-watchers.
Spring flowers are another phenological favorite. Virginia bluebells, yellow trout lily and bloodroot are among the many species of spring ephemerals in Southeast Minnesota. Ephemeral plants have short life cycles and grow in woodlands, which makes getting out for a spring hike even more important, so you don't miss out on the beauty of new spring growth. They sprout before the rest of the forest plants to guarantee sunlight through the woodland trees. The best time to view spring ephemerals is late April to late May. Check out some of Southeast Minnesota's parks for viewing the beauty of spring ephemerals.
Spring is bursting with new life, new plant growth, migrating birds and so many wildlife babies. But what about the things you don't normally notice? Chorus frogs begin their springtime serenading, insects resume buzzing and snow mold appears (a fungus that grows under the snow on the damp grass). Get out in nature and enjoy what spring has to offer. Southeast Minnesota parks are excellent for bird-watching and even hold public bird-watching programs.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
With 75 state parks and over 1,300 miles of state trails in Minnesota, there are countless opportunities to explore nature this spring!
The return of robins, bluebirds and blackbirds is a welcome sight after a long Minnesota winter. Frontenac State Park boasts the most bird species of any Minnesota state park. During the spring migration, various warblers and other birds that winter in the tropics can be seen here. Take the Prairie Loop Trail to the wildlife observation blind to see a variety of birds and waterfowl.
Each Minnesota state park has a bird checklist you can download prior to your trip. Many state parks also have birding kits you can check out for free at the park office. Bird-watching programs are offered throughout the year at different state parks.
Spring ephemerals are short-lived flowers that wither away once shaded by the leaves of the forest trees. Hardwood forests are plentiful in the valleys throughout Southeast Minnesota, where a variety of ephemeral and other spring wildflowers thrive.
- On the south-facing bluffs at Great River Bluffs State Park, you'll find Pasque flowers, so named because of their early bloom time during the Easter or Paschal season.
- An early spring hike up the Rock Slumps Trail at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers visitors a glimpse of skunk cabbage flowers.
- During the first two weeks of May, witness the magical experience of seeing acres of Virginia bluebells in bloom at Carley State Park.
The mushroom season begins when the forest soils begin to warm with spring rains. Morel mushrooms, the Minnesota state mushroom, are a highly prized mushroom that grows in association with hardwood forests and the elm trees in this region.
- Whitewater State Park offers programs in early May to introduce visitors to ethical foraging on public lands and morel hunting tips.
The warmer temperatures mean the tick season has begun. Make sure to take precautions before and after exploring outdoors to stay safe from tick-borne illnesses.
Olmsted County Parks
Olmsted County is home to four county parks, each with unique opportunities for spring phenology.
Rochester, the center of Southeast Minnesota, has over 100 parks that are good for spring phenology.
- Quarry Hill Nature Center is a great place to explore nature. Check out their website for more details.
- Parks & Recreation maintains a facility directory that can be a useful tool for finding amenities for all seasons. Check out the directory on their website.
Sara Holger is the lead interpretive naturalist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Whitewater State Park. She is a certified nature and forest therapy guide and a lead member of the Southeast Minnesota Park Rx group.
Karlin Ziegler is the parks director for Olmsted County Parks. She serves on the Southeast Minnesota Park Rx group, educating the public about important physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature. She also teaches parks and trails employees from around the state how to engage health care professionals in Parks Rx.
Jaide Rykes is a naturalist at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo. She works to directory support the missions of Southeast Minnesota Parks Rx by providing programming opportunities to the visitors in Olmsted County Parks.