Four Seasons of Phenology
Updated: Apr 8
Written By: Ashley Goldbeck
Take a peek at our naturalists’ visual journal of phenology discoveries and witness all there is to uncover here at the park, and even in your very own backyard!
What is Phenology?
Phenology is a segment of ecology focusing on the study of periodic plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal changes in the environment from year-to-year.
Example: wild strawberry's and raspberries ripening, Baby turtles emerging from underground nests, rough-legged hawk arriving from the arctic to overwinter here in WI.
Below is a list of month-to-month discoveries (starting with the most current entries) that just might encourage you to hit a familiar trail, or even venture off of one in search of your very own ecological phenomenon.
I followed a set of coyote tracks from right outside the Nature Center up to the natural playground area this morning. They are very similar to dog tracks but the difference is in their formation of travel. Coyotes and wolves tend to walk in a straight line like you see here. While domestic dogs tend to wander around curiously. Dogs and Coyotes are very common in the park. Wolves are not!
The water is crystal clear this time of year. Below the Little Falls Dam it almost has the same green gleam of the glacial meltwaters out west. Before the lake freezes over stop out and take a look at your reflection in the Little Falls Lake or along the Willow River!
The honkers and peckers are enjoying this week of warm weather almost as much as I am! On Little Falls Lake I counted over 200 geese. On my way back to the Nature Center I watched this Red Bellied Woodpecker grab a bite to eat.
These last bursts of warm weather give little critters like squirrels and chipmunks the opportunity to collect some last minute nuts and seeds before setting off for a snooze. Lucky for these two, we keep our bird feeders packed full of sunflower seeds so they never have to work too hard. I call them Chip and Dale. Today they are enjoying the 70 degree weather.
The cold weather is keeping wildlife on the move! All week long I've had close encounters with wild turkeys and deer in the park. Even the Whitetail bucks have been out and visible.
This curious doe came out to say "hi" as I was setting up items for our Spooky Nocturnal Animals Hike event on the Hidden Ponds Trail. Perhaps she was hoping to be apart of the fun!
We are prematurely covered under a heavy and wet blanket of snow down here at the Nature Center! I don't know about you, but I do not particularly enjoy shoveling sidewalks as early as October. How about you?!
The fall colors have reached their peak! Now is the time to get out and bask in all of their glory!
The new Little Falls dam is now open to the public to explore by foot traffic only. As the leaves begin to drop on some of the trees west of the dam you can spot the historical Eau Claire Formation once again (shown in the right photo). This formation is approximately 500 million years old and was formed in what was once an ancient shallow sea.
While foraging for fall fungi I watched a Short-tailed Weasel scamper into the trunk of this tree on the Brown Oak Ridge trail. He/she was carrying a very unfortunate mouse in its mouth. Dinner is served!
Paper wasp nests throughout the park appear quiet and uninhibited. Perhaps they are all tucked inside waiting for another burst of heat before calling it game over for the year?
The fall colors are in full bloom, and possibly even peaking early this year! Even the beautiful shades of red that tend to show later (mid October) are already showcasing themselves proudly on some of our trees here at Willow River State Park.
Fall fungi is bursting at the seams throughout the park! Here are a couple interesting photos of Elm Cap mushrooms popping out of a tree just above my head as I hike the Green Falls Snowshoe Trail.
Already, the fall colors are a beautiful sight to see throughout the parks. The maple trees always tend to show off their colors first and the lovely purple Asters are blooming magnificently!
Does this plant look familiar? White Snake Root has taken over the forest floors in certain areas of the park and possibly in your backyard. This annoying weed contains tremetol, which is extremely poisonous. Keep livestock from eating it. If large amounts of are consumed, animals can develop ''trembles'' which may cause death. Livestock can excrete the toxin in their milk and meat, which can then pass to humans that eat or drink the produce, though it is rare today due to modern processing techniques. Native Americans used to use the this plants roots for the treatment of rattle snake bites, hence the name!
Today I had a Least Bittern follow me up the river as I kayaked to the falls. It was fun to watch him forage at the edge of the shallow water.
I ran into this cute and curious mouse today. It was munching on seeds off of surrounding plants. My guess is it is feasting and fattening up for the long cold winter ahead. It was completely un-frightened by my presence and even skittered across my boot at one point while I was trying to get its picture!
Nobody was home at the resident eagles nest along the Willow River today. Fledglings have likely left the nest by this time of the year and on such a bright, sunny day I'm sure mom and dad were out looking for their next meal. This nest will be covered in snow before we know it!
Tasty edible mushrooms such as Smooth Chanterelles, King Bolete, Chicken of The Woods, Lions Mane, Jelly fungi and more are popping up throughout several trails at the park. Head for our damper, heavily-shaded trails such as the Oak Ridge, Mound or Hidden Ponds trail to track these desired fungi down. This jelly fungi was found growing on a stump along the Hidden Ponds trail. Do not attempt to eat any mushrooms that are not positively identified, as there are several poisonous mushrooms statewide.
Fields of dense goldenrod bloom within the park with the promise of fall right around the corner! This particular blanket of yellow was captured on the silver trail at Willow River State Park.
August 22 After the flower has been pollinated late in the summer, Jack-in-the-Pulpit plants showcase a large clump of bright red berries. Each berry contains several seeds, which will be spread by birds and other small animals after ingestion. This particular plant can be spotted most commonly on the Hidden Ponds trail.
Often mistaken for massive spider webs, these spine-chilling formations are actually the work of web worms. They spin these webs as a defense mechanism so they can feed on the leaves inside of the web while avoiding hungry avian predators. August is a month where you will see these webs draped over several species of trees here at the park or along any country road.
Black Wasps feast on the Spotted Bee Balm out front of the Nature Center. Its a cool but scary thing to get so close you can see the metallic sheen of their wings. August is a common time to see them busily eating the nectar and pollen from flowers. Like other insects, they are an important pollinator species. Although they look intimidating they are solitary species and not aggressive towards humans. Look out though, they still have the ability to sting!
I LITERALLY stumbled upon this Black Trumpet mushroom today. A highly desirable and tasty mushroom in the chanterelle mushroom family. Also known as the "Horn of Plenty" or more sinisterly the "Trumpet of Death" because of its dark color. They are hide to find because they blend in so well to their surrounding environment.
Wild Quinine is thriving along the Orange Knapweed trail. This is exceptionally exciting as this wild flower is listed as threatened in WI and is on the endangered list in MN. This flower has many medicinal properties including the ability to treat certain cancers and was once used by Native Americans to heal burn wounds.
Dozens of wild flowers prosper throughout the park. Hit our open and sunny trails such as the Orange Knapweed, Yellow Pioneer, and Red Whitetail trails to spot flourishing beauty’s like: Wild Bergamot, Black Eyed Susan, False Sunflower, Milkweed, Blue/hoary Vervain, Purple Cone Flower, Heal All, Butterfly weed and more!
Tasty raspberries bloom and make a nice treat while hiking on the purple, silver, orange, red trails
Jack in the Pulpit popping up along the Hidden Ponds Trail. Such a strange but interesting plant to see!
Monarchs begin to emerge and flourish on milkweed plants throughout the park.
Swallowtails, red admirals, Sulphurs, and painted lady’s flitter about the prairies and flowered trails
Hummingbird hawk moths have been fluttering around the Nature Center enjoying the large quantities of bee balm to feast on
The same Whitetail doe and her two fawns have been spotted foraging along the park road near the Natural Playground area
Thousands of baby toads emerge from water onto land at the boat launch
Snapping turtle attempts to nest near Nature Center once again!
Large juvenile Bald Eagle sighted along northern side of Little Falls Lake with potential parents
Painted Turtles bask in the endless sunshine along the blue Willow Falls trail
Mamma Turkey and babies frequently visit the bird feeder out front of Nature Center, likely from all the sunflower seeds being dropped on the ground in their favor!
Coyote spotted 10 yards south of the Purple Trout Brook Trail During the middle of the day
3ft x 3ft Spider web along Willow River on Purple Trout Brook Trail
Hairy Woodpecker, pecking away at common mullein for breakfast on Red Whitetail Trail.
Ground webs cover several of our grassy trails, I believe the funnel weaver spiders can be to blamed for this eerie behavior