Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 12/31/10

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/31/10 – 1/ 13/11
by John Bates

Pete Esche in Presque Isle sent me a fine picture of an ermine that has been a frequent visitor on his deck throughout December. The picture clearly shows how the ermine has molted from its brown summer pelage into its white winter coat, retaining the black tip on the end of its tail. The black-tipped tail seems an anomaly in its otherwise perfect camouflage; however, one research study found that hawks easily captured fake weasels that had no black-tipped tails. Conversely, the hawks would first hesitate and then attack the tails of the normal black-tipped weasels, presumably mistaking the tails for the ermine’s heads, thus giving the ermines a better chance for escape.
The Northwoods has three species of weasels: the short-tailed (also called the ermine), the long-tailed, and the least. To tell them apart, the short-tailed and the long-tailed weasels have a black-tipped tail, while the least weasel is all white. Long-tails are typically more than a foot in length and their tail is half again as long as their body. Ermines are less than a foot in length and their tail is about a third of their body length, so it works out that long-tailed weasels are about twice as long as ermines.
Still, the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) and the ermine (Mustela erminea) are nearly impossible to distinguish in the field. Genders are easier to tell apart given that the males weigh about twice as much as females.
The Genus Mustela (Weasels and Minks) also includes minks, pine martens, otters, badgers, skunks, wolverines and fishers, but none of these change colors. All mustelids are active in winter, except for the skunk, which becomes semi-dormant in winter, living off its fat.
It’s interesting that when a person is referred to as a “weasel,” it’s a derogatory term usually associated with someone who is gutless and conniving. These slurs are true character assassination, because weasels are bold and confident out of all proportion to their size. They’re considered by some to be the most efficient and fiercest predator on earth, and are well known to attack prey that is often bigger than themselves. Weasels have even been observed to attack snowshoe hares, which weigh at least 5 times as much as they do. One observer also watched a hawk pluck up a weasel, but it soon plummeted from the sky, dead, with the weasel’s teeth sunk into its breast.
Weasels suffer an unduly poor reputation for eating birds when research shows they mostly eat rodents, including rats. They certainly eat some birds, but a 1999 study of least weasels showed that small rodents (mostly voles) constitute 41% of their diet in summer, along with birds, eggs, and insects, while their winter diet is predominantly small rodents. The shape of their bodies tell their evolutionary story - weasels apparently adapted their small, long, sinuous bodies over some four million years expressly for the purpose of following rodents into their burrows.
Weasels are lean, mean, fighting machines particularly in winter because in large part they have no choice. They’re built long and skinny, with very short fur and very small stomachs, and they also put on very little body fat in the winter. These physical attributes combine in winter to make them nearly always cold and hungry, thus their resting metabolism is twice that of other animals their size. They also have to eat more food per day than any other winter-adapted animals. Males consume almost half their own weight every day to stay warm, while females need two-thirds of their own weight daily in order to nurse 8-10 young for three months.
The body-size differential in the genders allows the much larger males to overpower prey too large for the females, while the smaller females can get down burrow holes too narrow for the males, thus making the species as a whole even more efficient hunters.
Weasels hunt at night usually only about 800 feet from the center of their territory investigating every nook and cranny. They’re so active that Richard Conniff in a Smithsonian magazine article perfectly compared their metabolism to “a hip-hop dancer on a caffeine bender.”

Christmas Bird Count
            We conducted the 18th annual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird on 12/19, and we broke our total species count record with 31 species! Now if you live in Madison, where they found 82 species during their count last week, then you will be less than impressed with our total. But Madison is 250 miles south, and the difference in winter conditions between northern and southern Wisconsin is more than amply demonstrated by the vast difference in wintering bird species.
            Notable in our count this year were 43 wild turkeys. We never counted a wild turkey until our 2005 count when three appeared, so 43 is quite a jump.
Goldfinches were the one finch species in profusion so far this year – we found 420 of them within our count circle.
We had firsts of a northern cardinal and a white-crowned sparrow. I expect the cardinal numbers to climb steadily in the next decade, but that white-crowned sparrow was either seriously lost, ill, or injured.
            Common redpolls showed up in our count (114 of them), even though virtually no one has seen them at their feeders yet. They seem to currently be working white birch trees for their seeds.
            Our easiest count of the day occurred when Mary and I were awakened by the calls of two barred owls beneath our window – the only barred owls we got on the count!
            Eleven trumpeter swans appear to be spending the winter on the Manitowish River. We first counted wintering trumpeters on the Manitowish back in 1999, and we’ve counted some every year since then. They usually hang out on the open water just before Benson Lake.
            We had a great day in Manitowish as well – we counted 16 species out our windows, a record day for us.           
Guy David organized the Minoqua count the day before, 12/18, and found 25 species, a very good count for our area as well. Notable on their count, I thought, were the 65 snow buntings they found still hanging around. They’re usually long gone by now.
            Perhaps as important as the data we collected were the smiles and camaraderie we all experienced when we met for lunch and shared our mornings successes and disappointments. Good stories always abound, and our mutual enthusiasm is worth every bit of the effort.

Judith Bloom in Lake Tomahawk sent photos of a flock of 13 wild turkeys which arrived in their yard on 11/29 and seem to like their ground seed and the shucks from the black sunflower seed.  Judith noted, “Once they are done feeding they often hunker down at the far end of our backyard against the hillside and just enjoy the chance to be out of the wind and in the sun if it is shining.”
Sharon Lintereur reported purple finches at their feeders on 12/16,  “about a month behind from when they usually come.” Sharon’s doing better than most everyone I know – purple finches are rare so far this winter.
Jane Flanigan in Hazelhurst had an ermine visiting their suet several times during the snow storm on 12/11. She noted, “I think he was determined to take it with him, but wasn't very successful. Entertaining to watch him, but not very photogenic . . . We also have several flying squirrels visiting the sunflower feeder right next to our patio door. They come like clockwork every night.”
            A reader in Springstead called on 12/20 to report that a small flock of pine grosbeaks were coming to her platform feeder. Pine grosbeaks have also been very uncommon this winter.
            Rich Egdorf in St. Germain had a female red-bellied woodpecker come to his feeder on 12/21. He also has pine grosbeaks coming in.
Al Denninger, who lives between Lake Tomahawk and Rhinelander, told me he has had two pairs of red-bellied woodpeckers nesting on his property for five years now.
            On 12/25, we had our first pine grosbeaks appear at our feeder, and on 12/27, a lone bohemian waxwing picked away at the few remaining crabapples left on one of our trees. Later that morning, Mary also spotted a large hawk sitting on the snow beneath our feeder, but it took off almost immediately so she only got a very brief look at it. It was most likely a Cooper’s hawk enjoying either one of the songbirds or some of the mice that often try to grab some seeds from beneath the feeder.

Accessing Earlier Columns from 2010
Over the years, a number of readers have asked me to post my columns so they could read them when they were unable to pick up a copy of the Lakeland Times. Daughter Callie showed me how to create a blog, and though it’s taken me a while to get the hang of it, you can now find my old columns at: www.manitowishriver.blogspot.com.

Celestial Events
            January 7 marks the last of the latest sunrises of the year – 7:40 a.m. From here on in, the sun comes up earlier a minute or two every morning until June 20. That’s worth a major cheer!

Best Natural History Books and Outdoor Gear of 2010
Before nearly every Christmas over the last 20 years, I’ve posted a list of books and outdoor gear in this column that I think are worth considering giving as gifts. This year I plain forgot! So, given it’s too late for Christmas, I thought I might solicit your  thoughts – what do you think are the best books and/or outdoor gear from 2010 that folks might like to take a gander at? Send me your thoughts via e-mail, and I’ll post the best of the lot. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 12/3/10

A Northwoods Almanac for Dec. 3 – 16, 2010

Christmas Bird Count
The 18th annual Manitowish Waters Audubon Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for Sunday, December 19. We need people to actively help us search for birds within the count circle, or to just count out their window the birds at their bird feeder that day. If you live within a 7.5-mile radius of the intersection of Highways 51 and County W, and want to get involved, please contact me through my e-mail at manitowish@centurytel.net or by phone at 476-2828. Counting birds at your feeder is simple, takes very little time or expertise, and is our area of greatest need. Winter birds concentrate around feeders, so we tend to get our best counts from folks watching from their windows.
            A Christmas Bird Count for the Minocqua area, which uses the intersection of Hwy. 51 and 70 West as its center point, is organized through the North Lakeland Discovery Center, and is scheduled for Saturday, 12/18. If you want to help out on that count, please call Guy David at 588-3694 or Zach Wilson at 543-2085.
The first CBC was done on Christmas Day of 1900 as an alternative activity to an event called the “side hunt” where people chose sides, then went out and shot as many birds as they could. The group that came in with the largest number of dead birds won the event. Frank Chapman, a famed ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, recognized that declining bird populations could not withstand wanton over-hunting, and proposed to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.
Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. All individual CBC’s are conducted in the period from December 14 to January 5, and each count is conducted in one calendar day.
The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.           
For instance, CBC data shows that evening grosbeak numbers were stable or increased until 1980, when their numbers began to decline significantly. The rate of decline increased between 1990 and 1998, and the Northeast and Great Lakes region show the steepest declines in evening grosbeak numbers, while evening grosbeak numbers appear stable in the Rocky Mountain region.
The cause of the decline in evening grosbeak numbers is unknown, but there are several possibilities. The most obvious is that evening grosbeaks may simply not be moving as far south during the winter due to the hemispheric trend in warmer winter temperatures. The declines might also be related to food availability – large spruce budworm outbreaks have subsided since the 1980s and seed sources may be changing due to logging practices. Or evening grosbeak numbers in the East may simply be stabilizing after their colonization of the Northwoods. Prior to the late nineteenth century, the evening grosbeak did not occur east of the Great Lakes.

Manitowish Waters designated a Wisconsin Bird City
Manitowish Waters has been named as one of an initial class of 15 towns designated by the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative as a “Wisconsin Bird City.” A celebration of this award will take place on Monday, December 6, at 6 p.m. at the Manitowish Waters Community Center.

Winter Fruit for Birds
All but one of the crabapple trees in our yard are already stripped bare of their fruit, as are our mountain ashes. We think the local robins are circulating a map of our house to other robins migrating through, because every year they arrive in October and take nearly all the berries and fruits we have.
This deprives us of some winter bird watching, but more importantly, winter berries are a major food source for many birds and mammals, and their early consumption will make life all the tougher for local wildlife come March. Ecologist Bernd Heinrich writes of collecting bagfuls of regurgitated pellets from under a winter crows’ roost, picking them apart, and finding the undigested remains of mostly berry seeds, like wild grape seed, wild holly, staghorn sumac, and various species of Viburnums. Abundant fruits can make a big difference in a long winter.
            Heinrich notes that of the 38 species of berries native to his Maine home, only nine are “summer” berries, or those which ripen full of sugars and rot quickly, like strawberries and raspberries. This leaves 29 berry species that aren’t sweet but which have a staying power that makes them still edible the following March. Species like nannyberry, maple-leaved arrowwood, winterberry, highbush cranberry, hawthorn, even the invasive buckthorn, feed woodpeckers, ravens, grouse, fox, coyotes, and just about any other critter you can think of that’s trying to make its way through an interminable winter.
            These fruits hang on through the winter because they’re very low in sugar, fats, and water content, but high in acids. Their very “tastelessness” is what makes them so dependably available in March.

            At our feeders in Manitowish on 11/17, we had 24 bohemian waxwings briefly visit our relatively barren crabapple trees, and then move on within an hour. On 11/18, a northern shrike was stalking our feeders, but numerous blue jays appeared to be harassing it, perhaps in an effort to drive it away though blue jays are larger than shrikes and not one of their prey species.
            On 11/20, we still had a robin, several tree sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, a grackle, and a red-winged blackbird at our feeders, all species that typically are well south of here by now. On 11/25, we counted 50 goldfinches at our feeders, as well as two pine siskins and a female cardinal.
            Rolf Ethun reported seeing four male evening grosbeaks at his feeders on 11/16. Linda Thomas also reported a small flock of evening grosbeaks visiting her feeders on 11/20. She also noted that her son saw a snowy owl just south of Boulder Junction, but I’ve not heard any other reports of it to date.
Dave Foster reported observing a flock of about 40 redpolls on Bear Trail in Natural Lakes, feeding in the tall birches. This is the first report of redpolls I’ve received this winter.
            And as of 11/22, nearly all Wisconsin and Minnesota loons fitted with radio transmitters have crossed the state line and are heading south and/or east. To see a really fascinating time-lapse graphic display of these loons’ migrations, loons that specifically nested on Manitowish Lake and on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, go to: http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html The graphics show just how variable their departure dates are, as well as the variability in their migration routes and stopover sites.
            December specializes in short days, offering less than 9 hours of daylight on every day of the month. From 12/5 to 12/15, we experience the earliest sunsets of the year, all occurring at 4:14 p.m, which means most of us arrive home from work in the dark. The good news is that on 12/16, the sun will set one minute later for the first time since June 20th.
The latest sunrises, however, don’t begin until 12/27, when the sun deigns to finally arise at 7:40 a.m.

Celestial Events            
            The new moon occurs on 12/5, providing dark skies for stargazers. On 12/6, look after dusk for Mars less than one degree south of the day-old crescent moon.
December 13th marks the day that Jack Schmitt left the last human footprint on the moon in the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.
            The Geminid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours on 12/14, but is also active a day on either side of the peak. The Geminids average 75 meteors per hour, and can be very impressive. The waxing gibbous moon interferes early on, shining bright during the evening hours but finally setting around midnight. However, since this shower tends to gain strength after midnight with the climax roughly around 2 o’clock in the morning, you won’t miss the peak.
The Geminid shower radiates from the constellation Gemini, specifically from a point near the star Castor, one of the brightest stars in the sky. But you don’t have to locate Gemini to watch the shower since meteors in showers appear in all parts of the sky – just let your gaze wander.
If you do want to locate Castor, look fairly low in the east-northeast sky around 9 p.m. Castor and Gemini swing upward through the night, climbing nearly overhead by around 2 a.m. If you can stay awake this late, the meteors should then be raining down from nearly straight above you.

Injured Deer
            Chad McGrath sent me a trailcam photo of a doe feeding on corn on his property in Springstead. The doe has two large round wounds in her side, each about four inches across, with no exit hole on her other side (from other pictures taken that night). The question is what would have caused these wounds?
            I e-mailed Sue Drum, a retired veterinarian in Presque Isle, to get her thoughts, and she and her husband Al concluded this: “Al thinks someone shot the doe with birdshot. Birdshot would make two round patterns and would not penetrate much beyond the subcutaneous layer which would not kill or even cripple the deer. All those little pellets would cause infection and trauma and cause the dead tissue to slough (separate from the healthy tissue) and new tissue to re-grow. One wound is more healed than the other but I imagine they will both heal and the doe will be fine.”
Chad’s theory is that a buck gored her with his antlers. He notes, “The spacing of the two wounds is about right for several of the bucks that I have pictures of, taken by the same trail camera. By the way, I have pictures of at least 8 different bucks, all but one of good size, all taken within the last 40 days by two different trail cameras and I haven't seen but one in the flesh...and he was a scrawny fork buck who is in my freezer.”
Any other theories would be welcome!

Northwoods Almanac 12/17/10

A Northwoods Almanac for December 17 – 30, 2010

You Think We Have It Bad
It was mighty cold last weekend with near-blizzard conditions, and the newscasters were making it sound like we survived a near-Armageddon. But like everything in life, we need to keep some perspective. For instance, it’s certainly true that we sometimes face pretty tough conditions when we do our Christmas bird counts, but consider doing the count in the Arctic. Folks there have done count days with windchills of minus 65°F at Sanningaruq, Alaska, and minus 70° at Prudhoe Bay. Plus an Arctic CBC is usually done in a “twilight zone,” given that the sun last sets in November and does not rise above the horizon again until February17.
Arctic CBCs can be completely birdless as well, even though observers spend hours on snowshoes, skis, and snowmobiles trying to find something avian. Many Arctic CBCs do find some life, but turn up only one species – common ravens – and usually only because there’s a town dump nearby where the ravens can find food daily.
But as with most outdoor ventures, the counters still say they have a great time. In a recent article in the journal American Birds (“Birding in the Twilight Zone”), one bird counter in Nunavut, a bayside Inuit hamlet of 600 people on the north coast of Baffin Island, said he considers its tundra, fjords, and frozen ocean to be “one of the magical places in the world.” He made the record books in 2008 when he found a rock ptarmigan, and not only doubled the size of the Arctic Bay’s CBC list, but was the first to ever record another species other than ravens north of 70° latitude.
I particularly enjoyed this quote from another birder in Prudhoe Bay who has only recorded one species – common ravens – in 23 years of doing the CBC there: “Only ravens? That’s a good one! Have you ever seen a common raven, its face covered with frost, sitting nonchalantly on the ground six feet from an Arctic fox? Or two of them performing aerobatics and exchanging an empty cigarette pack in mid-flight as if the sub-zero weather was just perfect?”
Besides trying to help the scientific data-collecting world, that ebullience is why we’re out there counting birds in the winter. Yes, when the cold creeps in, sometimes we wonder if we’ve lost our minds, but usually the world offers us something of interest, if not of great value and we come up a good story or two that we can tell later on.                                    Winter’s a quiet time, but life is going on out there, and we can best honor it by making ourselves present as observers. Besides, the experience of cold is often more in our head than in our bodies – if bird counters in the Arctic can enjoy a day (night?) out in -70°, I think we can handle 15° with a smile.

Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle e-mailed on 12/6 to say she has been enjoying two male cardinals and a red-bellied woodpecker at her feeders for the last two weeks.
On 12/10, Sandi Hodek Arbor Vitae sent me a photo of a grouse that has visited their flowering crabapple tree for several years.  And now a second grouse has joined it in the feasting. Sandi noted, “Though it would probably be geriatric by now, we can't help wondering if one of them is the same grouse that played with our lab-mix one October day four years ago.”
On 12/1, Jim Kruse sent a photo of a great horned owl that had been sitting in a tree behind their house for quite a long time.
That same day, Mark Pflieger sent a photo of a barred owl feeding on some bear fat he had put out. Over several years, a barred owl has visited his feeder around this time, and he’s wondering if the same one has returned.
As of 12/13, we still have three tree sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, and a northern junco visiting our feeders. Given the recent heavy snowfall, it will be interesting to see if these ground-feeding birds remain or if they hightail it south as they should have a month or more ago.

Celestial Events – Total Lunar Eclipse
            Winter solstice arrives on 12/21, along with the full moon and a total lunar eclipse! We will be graced with only 8 hours and 39 minutes of daylight, but we will have been compensated by the total eclipse, which will "officially" begin on Dec. 20 at 11:29 p.m. CST as the moon begins to enter Earth's outer, or penumbral, shadow. Totality occurs at 1:40 a.m. on 12/21, and ends at 2:52 a.m., so this total lunar eclipse lasts only 72 minutes from start to finish.
The entire total lunar eclipse will be visible from all of North and South America, the northern and western parts of Europe, and a small part of northeast Asia, including Korea and much of Japan. In all, an estimated 1.5 billion people will have an opportunity to enjoy the best part of this lunar show. 
Christmas day, 12/25, not only brings material presents, but also marks the first day since summer solstice that our days start growing longer. We’ll be blessed with one whole additional minute of sunlight – 8 hours and 40 minutes worth – but on every day for the next week, we’ll get another minute yet.
Our latest sunrises of the year (7:40 a.m.) begin on 12/27, and then the sun seems to hang there like a yoyo on the end of a string until January 7 when the sunrise comes a minute earlier for the first time since June 11.

View the Tundra Swan Migration
Arctic-nesting tundra swans migrate through Wisconsin in large numbers in the spring and the late fall, stopping off by the tens of thousands in November along the Mississippi River near LaCrosse. While they are most often seen feeding by the thousands in southern Wisconsin cornfields, they occasionally migrate through our area and usually are commonly seen on the Wisconsin River south of McNaughton.
If you’ve ever wondered about the actual paths of their migration, in July and August of 2008, fifty tundra swans across Alaska were surgically implanted with satellite transmitters to document inter-population differences in their migration patterns and wintering distribution. Using helicopters, planes, and inflatable boats, ten birds were captured at each of five breeding areas. Through this research, scientists hope to first better understand the swans’ movement patterns and estimate their dispersal from these areas, with the larger goals of understanding genetic differentiation within populations of tundra swans and the avian influenza viruses they carry. 
You can see their migration using Google Earth. Note how many of the swans stopover in the Brownsville, MN/Lacrosse, WI area. http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/avian_influenza/TUSW/index.html

A Passing
            On 12/9, Mary’s father Del Burns passed away peacefully at the age of 95. He had the wonderful privilege of making his transition at home in his own bed in Manitowish Waters with his two daughters at his side, Mary and her sister Nancy, and with our daughter Callie playing the harp for him.
            I note his passing out of honor for a man who expressed dignity and integrity in every fiber of his body, and who graced me with a trove of wisdom in the time I knew him. He’ll be missed in a thousand ways. But his passing also marks another loss, a loss of someone raised in the time when life on a farm was non-electric, non-motorized, non-computerized. He was born in 1915, and grew up as the eldest son on a small farm near Wausau where he milked cows by hand, plowed fields behind a horse, hauled wood he split by hand into town behind a team of two horses, and on and on – it was a time when nearly everything was still fashioned by hand and his iron-grip handshake was the result.
            I loved to listen to his stories of the first time they got electricity and turned lights on in the barn, the first time they got a tractor, the first time he used a power saw, and on and on with firsts that marked the headlong modernization of life in the 20th century.
            Mary wrote a poem to commemorate this part of his life and I wanted to share it with you because, as usual, she was able to find the true heart in things:


We wrap my father in the colors of dawn
and lay him in a carved maple sleigh,
bones of the ancient forest he helped to clear.

Come Bill and Bob
Queenie and Bird
from the horse-shadows
to carry this man home.
You remember the boy
85 years gone by
who curried, fed
and harnessed you so gently.
Step up, step proudly
for this final journey
down the morning road.

My father, eldest of six,
goes to meet the others
all gone ahead.
The pace quickens
as he thinks of Ernest, his closest brother,
dead at 17 in a wagon accident.
Parents, aunts and uncles,
cousins and baby daughters, all waiting.
But it is my mother
whom he seeks.
They have kept a vigil
for one another
a candle in the heart
burning the same flame.

Come Bill and Bob
Queenie and Bird
from the horse-shadows
to carry this man home.
Four days before his passing
he said he could hear the horses coming,
his father driving both teams
with the sleigh bells ringing through the forest.
Step up, step proudly
for this final journey
down the morning road.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 11/19/10

A Northwoods Almanac for November 19 – December 2, 2010

Historical Methods of Hunting Deer - Drives
            According to numerous historical accounts, Native Americans most often hunted deer in late autumn, just as we do today, because deer were then in prime condition and were congregated more than in any other months due to seasonal herd movements and the annual rut. The autumn vegetation was also dormant, permitting far greater ease of sight and travel. Perhaps most importantly, autumn hunting was essential for preparing critical food and clothing for winter survival.
Hunting was not done for sport or excitement, but was arduous and practical. Communal hunting was used far more than lone hunting because it resulted in more kills. Though hunting deer was mostly a male job, it wasn’t unusual for women and children to help in drives.
One large-scale method utilized for driving deer by the Mohicans in eastern New York was to have 100 or more people walking in a line about 100 paces apart and beating sticks on hollow bones. The deer were driven into the Hudson River where other Indians were waiting in canoes to kill them.
Another method utilized by many tribes for hunting deer was to drive deer along fences to isolated points where the deer could essentially be ambushed. The Mohicans drove deer between V-shaped wings of split trees stacked eight feet high for a mile in length. The “V” opening was initially 2,000 paces wide, but narrowed at the trap end to only 5-feet-wide.
The Iroquois in northwestern New York constructed fences of brush in the shape of a V that were said to be 2-3 miles in length. The deer were driven down the V to its apex where they were easily killed.
Samuel de Champlain in 1615 described a Huron drive in Ontario involving “four or five hundred . . . in line . . . shouting and making a great noise to frighten the animals, they keep on until they come to the end of a point . . .” I’m not able to confirm this, but Bersing, writing in 1966, states that the Ojibwa word for lake was “Mitichigan” which literally translates as “as a wooden fence to catch deer near its banks.”
Newspaper articles in Marinette and Phillips in 1883 noted that tribes in northern Wisconsin drove deer along fences 12 to 15 miles in length, built of felled trees that narrowed in a funnel shape (Fence Lake in Lac du Flambeau is thought to have been named for this hunting technique).
I found these particular newspaper accounts to be highly suspect given the incredible number of trees that would be required to build a fence that long, so I asked Ernie St. Germain, an Ojibwa elder, what he understood to be the truth of the matter. Ernie’s response was this:
“As for the hunting style, Shinaabe definitely used "fences" to herd deer. This wasn't any mass killing like you might have seen portrayed in buffalo hunt paintings with the buffalo crashing over a cliff, or hundreds of hunters waiting at the "narrows" and killing wholesale. Much like the "drives" that hunters use to this day, a group would walk in a line following along the fence line while others positioned themselves down the line in waiting.
“The old fence in Flambeau that gave the lake its name began down by the swamp area by the lake . . . The fence headed northwest up along where . . . the old T&L Minimart [was] and where [there now is a] gas company. It continued NW through where the school is today, and all the way to Pokegama (elbow) Lake. This certainly wasn't any 12 miles long but long enough if you can imagine how long it would take to construct. The fence was made by felling timbers and shoring up any places where the wiley waawashkeshi might sneak through and spoil the hunt.
“When I first came to Flambeau in 1975 . . . my grandpa walked me down the old trail that he said was the old line of the old hunting fence. I was very disappointed when that entire area was slashed for timber and the old trail disappeared. Road construction, schools, housing projects and timber harvest have pretty much destroyed what remained of that old fence line trail.”

Finch Forecast
            Ron Pittaway, an Ontario ornithologist, issues a “finch forecast” every fall, predicting what northern finch species will most likely be moving south for the winter, and which ones will stay in Canada for the winter. He bases his forecast on the availability of key boreal tree seed crops, the most important of which are white and black spruces, white birch, and mountain-ashes. South of the boreal forest in the mixed coniferous/deciduous forest region, white pine and hemlock are additional key finch trees. Other trees play a lesser role, often boosting or buffering main seed sources. These trees include tamarack, balsam fir, white cedar, yellow birch and alders.
            One of the difficulties in making his forecast is that not all regions experience the same seed abundance. White spruce cone crops, for instance, are very good this fall across the northern half of the boreal forest in Canada. However, spruce crops are much lower in the southern half of the boreal forest, and they’re poor in the mixed forest region of central Ontario.
            With that variability in mind, here are his assessments of other key tree seed crops specifically for only Eastern North America:
White pine: Cone crop is spotty with scattered good crops across Ontario. White pine crops, however, are low in Atlantic Canada, New York and New England States.
Hemlock: Cone crop is poor in Ontario and elsewhere in the East.
White birch: Crop is poor across the boreal forest of Canada and in central Ontario, but birch crops are much better in southern Ontario. 
Mountain-ash: Berry crops are generally excellent across Canada.
            So, how does this translate into what we may or may not see at our bird feeders this winter? Here’s a tally of common irruptive finches:
Most pine grosbeaks should stay in Canada this winter because the mountain-ash berry crop is generally excellent across the boreal forest of Canada. So, we should see very few pine grosbeaks.
On the other hand, most purple finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall because the majority of deciduous and coniferous seed crops are sparse. Though purple finch numbers have declined significantly in recent decades due in part to a decrease of spruce budworm outbreaks since the 1980s, look for ample purple finches at your feeders.
Common redpolls should irrupt into southern Canada and the northern United States this winter because redpolls in winter are a birdseed specialist and their movements are linked in part to the size of the birch crop. The white birch crop is poor across much of northern Canada, so look for lots of redpolls.
            Pine siskins love bumper white spruce cones, thus some might winter in northern Ontario where the white spruce crop is heavy. However, siskin numbers were uncommon this fall in the Northeast, so there are only very small numbers that could irrupt south into eastern North America. The bottom line – don’t expect many siskins this winter.
            Evening grosbeaks are found in the highest numbers in areas with spruce budworm outbreaks. Current breeding and wintering populations are now much lower than a few decades ago mainly because large spruce budworm outbreaks have subsided since the 1980s. So, evening grosbeak numbers are low everywhere to begin with – don’t expect to see many.
Finally, bohemians waxwings will stay close to the boreal forest this winter because mountain-ash berry crops are excellent across Canada. So, don’t get your hopes up of seeing them here either.

Then Again . . .
Having said all of the above, Mary Kaminski looked out her window on Cochran Lake in the Springstead area on 11/5 and saw six evening grosbeaks on her feeder, four more on the ground, and two on another feeder.  In Manitowish the day before, we also counted 17 evening grosbeaks visiting our feeders. And in the Ashland area, there have been numerous reports of common redpolls, red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and evening grosbeaks.
So, as with any generalization that purports to estimate wildlife populations over a large geographic area, it’s important to remember that local conditions and populations will vary, sometimes dramatically, from the average. That’s normal, expected, and to be appreciated. It doesn’t disprove the generality, but instead demonstrates normal diversity across extensive landscapes.
Thus, it’s always important to never give up looking, because you just never know what the world will offer. One life adage I try to adhere to is to always put myself “in the way of grace.” Grace, of course, comes in a lot of forms and definitions, one of which is the grace of seeing wildlife. As John Hay wrote in his book A Beginner’s Faith in Things Unseen, “What I am really doing is trying to keep open to the unexpected. Who knows what miracles lie in wait? Out of the world that keeps rushing in and out below our house, out of the clouds in their endless transformations and the trees that hold the wind, come messages that could illuminate my existence.”
We’ll see how the finch forecast holds up this year, but if you figure the birds won’t be there – thus why bother looking – you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way we’ll know if the forecast was accurate is to keep our eyes and ears open, and to stay awake to it all. And perhaps we’ll be graced to see some things we never anticipated as well.

            The most significant natural event of every November is the first snowfall that sticks and stays, and we got that on 11/13. The next most important natural event in November is ice-up, which typically occurs around 11/25, at least according to Woody Hagge’s 34-year average on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst. I would be surprised, however, if the lakes ice-over this year by that date given our mild October and November, but as we all have experienced, things can change fast.

Celestial Events
            The full moon occurs on 11/21. Called variously by local tribes “the freezing moon,” “the ice is forming moon,” and “the snow moon,” the names reflect the truly life-altering events of first snowfall, ice-up, and continuous below freezing temperatures. Winter should be here to stay for the next five months, and every living creature has to have figured out its survival strategy, or perish.
            By 11/29, we’re down to 9 hours of daylight – the sun rises at 7:17 a.m. and sets at 4:17 p.m. And the last day of November marks the beginning of “the long freeze,” when our average high temperature no longer reaches 32°F.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 11/5/10

A Northwoods Almanac for November 5 – 18, 2010

The storm that struck on 10/25-26 was a truly historic storm, producing record low barometric pressures by a non-tropical system for both Wisconsin and Minnesota. The pressure dropped to 28.20 inches of mercury in Minnesota and to 28.38 inches in Superior, Wisconsin. To illustrate how strong of a storm this is, 28.21 inches is equivalent to a Category 3 Hurricane. The lowest pressure for the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975 was 28.95 inches. Even during the massive Armistice Day blizzard in 1940, the lowest pressure recorded was 28.55 inches.    
In the upper Great Lakes area, the storm had a wide variety of impacts. A lot of precipitation fell across the region, with the highest total of 4.94" of liquid precipitation recorded through the morning of October 27th at Askov, in Pine County, MN. Some of that precipitation changed over to snow on the evening of October 26th, and a band of 2 to 6 inches of snow developed through the Brainerd area and up along the north shore of Lake Superior to near Tofte. Isolated totals of up to 9 inches were reported just northwest of Duluth.                                                                                                           
The winds were extremely strong causing extensive multi-day power outages. The highest gust recorded in Minnesota was 65 mph on the Blatnik Bridge that connects Superior and Duluth. In Wisconsin, the highest gust was 76 mph at Sherwood, with 68 mph gusts recorded at Algoma and Kenosha.
The winds were also strong out over the Lake Superior. A ship reported 61 mph winds in the open waters of western Lake Superior. Just east of Grand Portage, the Rock of Ages observation on Isle Royale, Michigan, recorded a sustained 68 mph wind at 3 a.m. October 27th, with gusts to 78 mph. The very strong winds over the lake helped to generate huge waves. The western mid-lake buoy on Lake Superior reported wave heights up to 18.7 feet, while wave heights in the far northern part of the lake were measured at 26.6 feet at the Canadian NOMAD buoy.
The Northwoods lost many individual trees in this storm, but I’ve not heard any reports of extensive forest damage. As for the general types and effects of windstorms on forests in Wisconsin, we experience three principle sources of extreme winds:
1- Severe low-pressure systems (extratropical cyclones). These storms, like the one last week, are a significant source of small-scale canopy gaps in a forest, but they are not known to cause catastrophic wind damage.
2- Tornadoes. Two researchers (Canham and Loucks) reviewed weather records from a 25-year period (1953-1977) in Wisconsin and determined that the expected frequency of tornado-caused windthrow is 5 patches per year covering 2062 hectares, or around 5,000 acres. So tornadoes are also not a significant mechanism for catastrophic forest loss.
3- Thunderstorm downbursts. These storms are usually far wider than tornado tracks, and they are considered the principal mechanism for catastrophic windthrow in Wisconsin forests. The 7/4/77 windstorm that hit eastern MN and northern WI contained 25 separate downdraft cells and flattened some 40,000 acres in just 3 hours over an area166 miles long and 17 miles wide.
             All of these windstorms demonstrate that “change is an immutable rule for forests . . .  Even though species come and go, the forest itself is resilient. What stands out is the mosaic of restless change (Loucks).”
We need to also be careful how we appraise such natural changes. In describing a blowdown in the Adirondacks in 1995, author Jerry Jenkins wrote that it is “conventional to emphasize the destructive aspects of powerful storms, using words like “disaster” and ‘devastation’ [but the] language of destruction is inappropriate – it contains assumptions . . . seen in economic terms . . . From a biological view it makes no sense to describe a blowdown as a disaster.”
He further notes that blowdowns “actually create small increases in diversity . . . a longer pulse of carbon and nutrients cycled through coarse woody debris . . . [They] will replace old trees with young trees, and probably increase canopy diversity . . . Openings will be filled with herbs, shrubs, tree seedlings and saplings, and will be much used by birds and mammals. The blowdown sites are very much alive, and can in no sense be considered wastes . . . One hundred years from now the overall state of the forest may be little different than if the blowdown hadn’t occurred.”
Perhaps author Jan DeBlieu, who wrote a book on the power and beauty of wind, and its historical impacts and importance, should have the last word on this. Among other notable quotes she wrote, “Wind is capable of tender caresses yet is strong enough to destroy any being or structure on earth. It has the power to arrive unbidden, to slip through the cracks in our houses, in our lives, and hurl us to the ground. All this makes it more like the god we purport to worship (every one of us, in our myriad religions) than anything else in the human realm of consciousness.”

Wolves and Deer
With hunting season upon us, it’s important to recall that last year eight wolves were found illegally shot during Wisconsin’s deer hunting season, a dismal display of disrespect for conservation and rule of law. I bring this up because I’ve recently run into a small cadre of angry people who believe that various predators are taking too many of “their” deer (or fish or grouse or whatever), and it is their right to both take the law into their hands and to determine the fate of wildlife species in our state based on their success or lack thereof during any given hunt.
This recent history of illegal killing of wolves in not only Wisconsin but other states led the leaders of numerous national hunting and conservation organizations to recently issue a joint press release that helps shed light on hunters’ traditional roles as conservationists. The statement reiterates the need for the return of the wolf to state management plans, but also admonishes those who espouse poaching or other illegal acts against wolves.
The statement comes from the heads of the Boone and Crockett Club, the Mule Deer Foundation, the Pope and Young Club, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Safari Club International and Safari Club International Foundation, the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Wildlife Management Institute, all strongly pro-hunting organizations. Here's an excerpt:
"Finally, as we seek hard commitments from government, we also need to draw a hard line for ourselves: we are sportsmen, not wolf-haters. Statements on the Internet about poaching wolves are an affront to the American conservation ethic. Illegal killing is wrong, self-defeating, and exactly opposite of how sportsmen created conservation and the privilege of ethical hunting in the first place. Hunters in America fought poachers and pushed for laws to regulate hunting. Later, sportsmen paid fees and taxes on our own licenses and equipment to fund wildlife restoration that brought wildlife back to abundance, including the game we hunt. Ours is a history of self-restraint and respect for wildlife."
Clearly hunters have played, and continue to play, an essential role in deer management, a role that I as a non-hunter and outdoor writer fully support. As a small minority (14%) of the population of this state, deer hunters have carefully and rightfully earned the general support of most state’s residents. However, the fastest route to losing public support is to self-righteously engage in illegal killing of non-game wildlife. Thus I wish hunters both a successful deer hunt this fall and the wisdom to keep their sights always trained on the bigger picture.
Second Blossoms
Diane Scapes in Boulder Junction sent me a picture of a lily that bloomed at her home on 10/11, and noted that “They won't even bloom in the spring and all other vegetation is dead around it.” She wondered how unusual it was for a spring flower to bloom so late in the fall.
Well, it’s certainly unusual, but not rare. Some cultivars of roses, daylilies, irises, and lilacs are bred specifically to rebloom in fall. And in the true wildflower world, on occasion Mary and I see various individual flowers in bloom in the fall. As for why this occurs in wild settings, it may be simply a case of normal behavioral diversity occurring within every species and every individual. Or it may be that plants detect the same amount of daylight and experience similar temperatures in the fall as in the spring and are triggered again to bloom, particularly if they didn’t bloom in the spring.

Gray Fox in Tree
            Ed Brodsky in Presque Isle sent me a night photo he took of a gray fox in a tree on his property. One doesn’t think of a fox being able to climb trees, but unlike red fox which are not known to climb, gray fox are well-known for climbing.

            Mary, Callie, and I hiked a 9-mile-long trail in the Sylvania Wilderness Area on Nov. 1, and our most interesting sighting was of 10 tundra swans lounging on Deer Island Lake. Tundra swans are migrating into our area now, so be on the lookout for them. We also kicked up numerous flocks of snow buntings along the road there and back, so they, too, are currently migrating through our area.

Celestial Events
            We’re down to 10 hours of daylight as of 11/3 – it’s getting dark fast! The new moon occurs on 11/5. November 7th not only ends Daylight Savings Time, but also marks the halfway point between autumnal equinox and winter solstice. On this day also look after dusk for Mars just a degree or two north of the crescent moon.
            The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the early morning of 11/17. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 10/22/10

A Northwoods Almanac for October 22 – November 4, 2010

            Given the gift of perfect autumn weather over the last two weeks, Mary, Callie, and I have hiked in the Porcupine Mountains, the Sylvania Wilderness Area, the Guido Rahr Sr. Tenderfoot Forest Reserve, the Van Vliet hemlocks, and on the Escanaba Trail, portions of Mercer’s Mecca ski trail, and the North Lakeland Discovery Center trails. We’ve hiked nearly every day, and the most striking feature of every hike has simply been the diverse beauty we’ve been privileged to experience.
            Five of the seven places we hiked support substantial old-growth forest communities, and I admit to a particular love of these places. Here, beauty lives a full life. Complexity spreads its wings, wholeness speaks as the final interpreter, and, for me, the sacred finds form. A forest that has lived and breathed uninterrupted, unfragmented, a forest where natural processes continue, where natural destruction is constructive, complicated, and necessary, is a sanctuary of beauty. Because of their age and their relative lack of disturbance, these sites offer a glimpse into intact, holistic communities of life that we seldom experience anywhere else.
            Their beauty arches well beyond the superficial. As Robert Morgan writes, “Beauty is not glamour. Most of what the media . . . the fashion world . . . Hollywood . . . the art world has to offer is glamour. Glamour is a highly fickle and commercially driven enterprise . . . It appears and disappears.”
            Old forests appear and disappear, too, but over a much longer framework of time, in a stable dynamism. They aren’t just sanctuaries of huge trees. They’re sites of substantial decay and death, and thus of all the lives that have adapted over thousands of years to find their life support in that decay. All of life’s stages are represented here, and so there’s a sense of something much larger, more complete than what we can ordinarily sense in managed forests and in our own lives. “The experience of the beautiful . . . is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things,” wrote Hans-Georg Gadamer.
            The Irish poet John O’Donahue says it this way: “Beauty is . . . a transforming presence, wherein we unfold towards growth almost before we realize it. Our deepest self-knowledge unfolds as we are embraced by Beauty.”
            However one wishes to interpret and ultimately try to express beauty, I think it’s most easily possible to take the first step – to experience beauty – in old forests that in their biological integrity somehow express Beauty most deeply.

Leaf-covered Trails
            The other striking feature of every hike we’ve recently taken is how noisy it’s been walking on leaf-covered trails. Between crunching the sugar maple, red oak, and aspen leaves, you can hardly hear yourself think. After awhile you forget how much noise you’re making until you come to a stretch of pine-needle-covered trail and the silence is suddenly startling.
            Hardwood trees drop over 90% of the leaves they produce in any given year, creating a prodigious carpet of leaves that becomes part of the “leaf litter,” or the basic soil surface of any forest. If you were to dig down through these leaves, you’d first hit the dry, mostly intact leaves from this year that are easily still identifiable. Probe a little deeper, and the leaves become moister and flimsier, riddled with holes made by minute mites and insects. Probe further yet and the leaves become skeletonized. The leaves often have only their petioles and veins left, and they feel slimy due to colonization by various fungi and bacteria. Farthest down, the last layer consists of tiny fragments of leaves, and the microenvironment is dark and moist. This is the transition zone, the humus layer, where organic matter makes its final metamorphosis into soil.
            By probing through the leaf litter, you’re doing a walk through time. Each species of leaf runs its course from fallen leaf to soil in well over a year. Alders, sugar maples, and ironwoods make the fastest transition, taking only a year to a year and a half. Basswoods will take 2 ½ years, while red oaks, aspens, beech, pines, and tamarack often require three years or more to decompose.
            It’s hard to imagine the tens of thousands of leaves that we shuffled through these last few weeks all being soil in a few years. It’s a process that’s still not all that well understood, but that’s part of the magic of Nature.
Juncos Coming Through
On October 10, Mary Kaminski observed at least 30 dark-eyed juncos in her yard on Cochran Lake near Springstead. She noted, “That is a sure sign of winter coming for us,” and indeed it is! Numbers of migrating juncos usually peak in mid-October, and though on occasion a few crazies remain the winter up here, these ground-feeders nearly all continue south to where the ground remains snow-free.
Within the flocks, note that the dark, slaty birds are males, while the tannish gray ones are females (the juvenile males look very similar to the females). Those of us living in northern states usually see flocks dominated by adult males; those in central states see flocks evenly divided between males and females; and those in southern states see flocks with more females than males.
One theory on why the adult males remain further north than the females is that they are slightly larger than the females – the average wing length of a male, for instance, is 4 ¼ inches, while the female’s is 3 inches. And since larger bodied animals generally survive better in colder climates than smaller-bodied animals, the male is more adapted to cold winters.
To envision this, think of a two blocks of ice that are each 2 feet on a side. If you broke one of the blocks into a bunch of ice cubes, the cubes would melt much faster than the block because they have far more exposed surface area per volume than the larger block. Thus, researchers estimate because of its slightly larger size, the larger average male junco could stand fasting about 1.6 hours longer than an average female, perhaps allowing it to survive an intensely cold winter night which might otherwise kill the female.
Another theory explaining why the males remain farther north is that they compete for breeding territories in the spring, and the birds that stay the farthest north would theoretically be first to arrive, and thus secure those breeding sites.
It may also be simply that male juncos aren’t known for their fellowship. The smaller females may be pushed south by the pugnacious males who refuse to share their limited food resources.

All the rains this summer made for fungi-filled forests this fall. Mary and I continue to be novices at mushroom identification, but we’re having a great time trying to figure them out. Elaine and Dana Hilmer sent me a photo of a brilliant orange fungus they found on a broken-off tree while hiking on a trail around Day Lake. They correctly identified it as a “chicken of the woods” (see the picture), one of the most desired edible mushrooms in our woods.
Chicken of the woods invades the heartwood of living trees, causing a brown rot that ultimately hollows the trunk. Hollow trunks provide habitat for denning mammals and cavity-nesting birds, so there’s a positive offset to a process that might be construed by some as only negative.

Kay Rhyner on Yawkey Lake in Hazelhurst dropped me a note saying that every September she starts seeing gulls on their lake. She wondered if the gulls are migrating from Lake Superior, and where they winter.
The gulls are almost certainly coming down from Lake Superior, which is the closest nesting site for them. Ring-billed gulls winter on Lake Michigan and further south, while herring gulls winter on Lake Superior and south, or basically wherever the water stays open. Large numbers of gulls show up in late summer and into the fall, but they may just be feeding rather than migrating.  Gulls are exceptionally hardy birds, so they really don't have to hurry south.

At the end of September, Kathy Eder sent me a photo of a barred owl sitting in a tree about 20 feet from their house. She noted, “He was perched on a branch looking down at a 130-foot-stream that we built in our backyard. I don't know if he was fishing (do they eat fish??), but if he was, he was out of luck because there are no fish in the stream. Maybe looking for frogs? A lot of critters come to drink out of the stream, maybe he was looking for them. He hung around for a couple of days and then didn't come back. He was utterly unafraid of us. Michael got within ten feet of him to take pictures and he just sat there . . . we've never seen one this close up.”

Celestial Events
            The October full moon, also known as the “hunter’s moon,” takes place tonight.
On 10/24, we’re down to 10.5 hours of daylight.
            Planet watching in November: At dusk, look for Mars very low in the southwest and for brilliant Jupiter in the southeast. At dawn, look for Venus and Saturn both very low in the southeast. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 10/8/10

A Northwoods Almanac for October 8 – 21, 2010

Loon Migration and Avian Botulism E
I recently attended portions of a two-day meeting organized by the University of Wisconsin Limnology Center entitled “Science in the Northwoods.” Over 60 presentations were given on current scientific research taking place in our area with each researcher given five minutes to summarize his/her research.
In this column, however, I want to share just one of the presentations, because it refers to events taking place right now with loons. Kevin Keenow, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, WI, discussed the movements of migrating loons and their foraging patterns in northern Wisconsin, with a particular focus on Avian botulism E, a neuromuscular illness caused by a toxic bacteria (Clostridium botulinum). In birds, botulism E produces weakness, dizziness, inability to fly, muscular paralysis, and respiratory impairment, and is often fatal among fish-eating birds like loons and gulls in coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems. The bacteria typically live in lakes and wetlands, but only sporadically produce the toxin when certain environmental conditions apparently develop. Recent history in Wisconsin includes small Botulism E die-offs in 2006, 2007, and 2008 in the Door County area of Lake Michigan, and much larger die-offs along the Lake Michigan shoreline in western Michigan and in Lake Erie.
While Botulism E has been implicated in waterbird deaths in the Great Lakes since the 1960’s, in the last decade these mortality events have increased dramatically. Keenow noted that since 1999, 49,467 waterbirds have been recovered that died from Botulism E, of which over 24,000 were common loons. Unfortunately, this only represents the carcasses that were found. Researchers estimate the total mortality at over 80,000 waterbirds in the last decade.
It’s not just waterfowl that are affected. Botulism E-associated mortality has also been documented in endangered or special concern species, including piping plover and lake sturgeon.
In response to these outbreaks, the WDNR began monitoring waterbird deaths in the fall of 2008 to identify botulism E outbreaks (and other diseases) along the Wisconsin shores of the Great Lakes. Throughout the later summer and fall, when most Botulism E occurs, DNR personnel are conducting active transect surveillance along the shorelines of Door County and on islands in both Green Bay and Lake Michigan. In addition, in 2009 DNR researchers began a study of the impacts of Botulism E on the Wisconsin breeding populations of common loons.
Then, in July 2010, 10 common loons were equipped with satellite transmitters to provide information on their movements over the next year. The marking of common loons this summer was part of an effort to study the migratory movements and foraging patterns of loons while they migrate through the Great Lakes in association with the USGS study on avian botulism. In addition to satellite transmitter-marked loons, nearly 80 loons were equipped with a geolocator tag. These devices are programmed to record a daily location estimate, temperature, and pressure data to provide information on foraging depths.            
Right now, little is known about what habitats loons use along their entire migratory routes, and it’s unclear what drives the outbreaks of botulism. In order to come up with a strategy to combat the botulism-related deaths, the researchers hope to better understand the feeding patterns of loons during migration, where along the way exposures to the botulism is occurring, and how the botulism works its way up the food chain. It appears the botulism outbreaks are related to environmental variables such as water quality and food web structure.
Movement of the loons carrying satellite transmitters from previous studies and loon movements from the current study can be followed online at the USGS UMESC website (http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html).  Of the ten outfitted with satellite transmitters, one has died, three have already migrated to Green Bay, and six are still forging on and around their breeding lakes as of 9/30.

            At our home on the Manitowish River, the river has risen to its highest flood stage, a level that we ordinarily only see at the peak of heavy snowmelt in April. So, we’ve gone from a famine of water in May to a feast in early October, a reversal of typical water flow regimes.
Of course, our flooding is only a small part of the flooding occurring around the state. I was in Baraboo on 9/27 when the Wisconsin River reached the highest flood levels ever recorded. In nearby Portage, the Wisconsin peaked at 6 feet above flood stage, and was considered a “100 year flood.” The Wisconsin reached 7 feet above flood stage in Merrill and flooded the sewage disposal plant there. At Rothschild, the river reached 4 feet above flood stage.
Later in the week I was in the New London area where the Wolf River had topped its banks. Flooding also occurred throughout Western Wisconsin in Buffalo, Crawford, Grant,
La Crosse,
Pepin, Pierce,
and Vernon
Autumn floods are quite unusual, of course, given the more typical diminishing  water levels in river systems throughout the summer and fall. Flooding in the spring provides a host of positive benefits to river systems. But flooding in the fall? I suspect it’s more of a mixed bag since most organisms have not evolved behaviors over time to meet such an unlikely event.
I’ll be very interested to see what water levels are like next spring after our snow melts. Perhaps we’ll actually have the high waters in the right time frame that are so necessary for the ecological health and integrity of river systems.

More on freshwater jellyfish: Randy Neuberg on Sumach Lake in Arbor Vitae wrote to tell me that in 2008 he observed thousands of freshwater jellyfish in the lake. He’s lived there since 2001 and had never seen anything like that. Randy noted that he spends quite a bit of time on the lake fishing and that in the area where he was seeing them the most (the south end of the lake), “There wasn't a fish anywhere nearby to be had. It is one of my most productive areas to catch fish and I didn't even get a nibble. So I highly doubt the fish were feeding on these creatures. I feel that they really didn't care to be around them.”
Fox sparrows and northern juncos are migrating through. They both arrived at our feeders on 10/2.
Witch hazel came into bloom at the end of September. As arguably our latest flowering shrub, the flowers will hold on well into November, defying heavy, killing frosts and extending the flowering year into the first snows. The fruit, flowers, and next year's leaf buds all appear on the branch simultaneously, a rarity among trees.
The name witch in witch-hazel apparently has its origins from the Old English wice, meaning "bendable". Hazel, on the other hand, is likely derived from the use of the twigs as divining rods, just as hazel twigs were used in England. Since divining for water is also called “witching” for water, this may also have influenced the origin of the name. One way or another, the yellow flowers, while not showy, are a most welcome source of color in the whitewash of early winter.

First Frost
We had a series of very light frosts in early-to-mid-September (9/5, 9/9, 9/15, and 9/19), but our first hard frost of the year didn’t occur until September 26. This follows the pattern of later fall frosts that we’ve experienced over the last decade. When Mary and I moved to our home in Manitowish in 1984, we learned very quickly to expect our first hard “fall” frost around August 20. Green tomatoes were all we ever got out of the garden, and in fact we often debated whether we should even bother to try to plant tomatoes or other hot weather plants like green peppers, eggplants, and melons because they were an inevitable failure. These days that’s no longer an issue. We seem to be able to reliably count on a 100-day growing season rather than a 70-day season.
This is a good news/bad news issue. While good for our table fare, a longer growing season grows other things besides garden crops. Winter bounds the Northwoods in every way. It’s the ultimate limiting factor for all plants and animals, and to alter its long reach may be to fundamentally alter the life processes that define the North Country.
While pondering the implications, we’ll continue to enjoy our last tomatoes picked on 9/25.

Dawn Fog
We’re now in the season where nearly every morning brings a beautiful tunnel of fog over the Manitowish River that is slowly burned away by the rising sun. The horizontal light goldens the fog and offers an ethereal beginning to many October mornings.

Celestial Events
            Since the new moon occurred last night, 10/7, the dark sky will provide an excellent backdrop for the Draconid meteor shower, which peaks tonight, 10/8. The radiant point of the Draconid meteor shower occurs within the head of the constellation Draco the Dragon in the northern sky. And though the Draconids are rated at a mere 10 meteors per hour, on occasion, Draco has been known to spew forth hundreds – if not thousands – of meteors in a single hour. However, an outburst is not predicted for this year, but one never knows. Unlike most meteor showers, more Draconid meteors are likely in the evening than in the morning hours after midnight, so look northward after sunset for the very slow-moving Draconid meteors.           
On 10/9, look for Venus about 3 degrees south of the two-day-old crescent moon. Also look for Mars, which will be 4 degrees north of the moon.
We’re down to 11 hours of daylight as of 10/14.
The Orionid meteor shower peaks before dawn on 10/21. The Orionids tend to be fast, occasionally leaving persistent trains and producing bright fireballs. They appear to originate from the north of Orion’s bright ruddy star Betelgeuse and are typically at their best about one to two hours before dawn. On a dark, moonless night, this shower exhibits a maximum of about 15 meteors per hour; however, this year the light of the nearly full moon will wash out all but the brightest Orionid meteors.