Friday, January 22, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 1/22/10

A Northwoods Almanac for January 22 – February 4, 2010
Wood Frogs on Ice – Sleeping Beauties
Whenever we’re out snowshoeing, I’m always amazed to think that a wood frog (or a spring peeper, chorus frog, or Eastern gray tree frog) might be buried in the leaf litter right beneath the tree we’re passing. Wood frogs in particular have been heavily studied because of their remarkable capability to withstand winters all the way to the Arctic Circle, the only frog to do so. 
Two-thirds of their body fluids freeze, their hearts stop, their breathing stops, their brain functions stop. Kept “warm” by the snow and leaf cover, their actual body temperatures drops to between 21° and 30° Fahrenheit during the entire winter. 
They’re dead. 
Except for the fact that come spring, they restart their hearts and then head for the nearest ephemeral pond to breed. 
If water froze within our cells, it would expand as it froze, tearing the cellular membranes, bursting blood vessels, and killing us. Actually, we’d never get anywhere near that cold before dying – if our core body temperature drops below 82°, we usually die of hypothermia.
The wood frog freezes selectively. About one-third of its bodily fluids remain liquid, including some water within its cells. They accomplish this by pumping glucose from their livers into their blood as they begin to freeze, raising the glucose concentration in their blood stream to more than 50 times that found in a human diabetic. Ice crystals still form, but now first in its body cavities and around the organs, which then draws some water from the cells inside its organs. This further concentrates the glucose within the cells, creating an antifreeze that can withstand temperatures down to 20°F. The glucose also bind the molecules of water together, preventing the cells outside the organs from dehydrating and shrinking during freezing, so that the cells that do freeze are unharmed.
Using a sugar to prevent freezing isn’t unusual – the antifreeze we use in our vehicles is ethylene glycol, a form of a sugar alcohol similar to glucose.
Like Sleeping Beauty the wood frogs wait for a kiss, but in their case it’s the kiss of the spring thaw. They then also thaw, working from the interior out, the heart thawing first, then the brain, and only at the end, the limbs. Amazingly, the process only takes several hours, and the frogs then hop away none the worse for wear.
Researchers have done MRIs on living frogs, and have been able to observe the entire process of their freezing and thawing, replicating how it happens in nature. They have spent a great deal of time trying to understand this process because of the potential applications to humans. Every day in the United States, twelve people die for want of transplant organs. Every year nearly 50,000 people wait for a heart transplant, but only about 3,000 get one, in large part because doctors have only five or six hours from the time the donor heart is removed until in must be implanted in the recipient. If doctors had 24 hours instead of six by chilling a heart like the wood frog does, many more people could receive transplants. 
Another application would be to buy time for people after they experience a severe injury in a car accident or a wartime wound. Without oxygen, our heart cells begin to die in 20 minutes, and our brain cells last just 5 minutes without oxygen. 
If a wood frog can stop its heart and its breathing for 8 months while in hibernation in Alaska, and can then restart itself like a car that’s been sitting in a garage, perhaps we can figure out how to do so for just one day and save thousands of lives.

Goldfinch Populations
The population of goldfinch at our feeders has steadily increased all winter, and stands now at around 50. While goldfinch nest here in the summer, and many of those nesting birds remain here for the winter, many others migrate. And of those that migrate, many don’t go to one place and settle down for the winter, but rather will move to different locations throughout the winter. So, numbers will fluctuate at your feeders as the winter progresses.

  While evening grosbeaks continue to be hard to find this winter, on 1/7, Jim and Tally Schuppel on the Pike Lake Chain had 20 evening grosbeaks come to their feeder, while Jeff Newton near Presque Isle has had a flock about 50 to 60 strong coming to his feeders every day for weeks. He noted, “There are so many that they can empty the feeders about every three days.” About 20 years ago, this used to be the norm for evening grosbeaks. I recall many people, including Mary and I, griping about how much food the evening grosbeaks consumed. On occasion we were known to wish there weren’t quite so many of them! Today, of course, that’s all changed. The evening grosbeak population nationwide has dramatically declined, and it’s uncommon for someone to get a large flock like Jeff is experiencing.  
Dave Gammon in Woodruff reports he has had a bobwhite quail coming to his feeder since November. Northern bobwhites, of course, don’t belong here at any time of the year. Most likely, the quail was an escapee from a flock raised by a bird hunter to train his hunting dogs in the fall.
 Laurie Timm on Witches Lake has observed a solitary male pine grosbeak coming in to her feeders since December 28th, one of the only reports I’ve received of pine grosbeaks in the area.
Several weeks ago, Jeff Richter from Mercer reported seeing a kingfisher on the Manitowish River near Benson Lake. Kingfishers winter as far north as central Wisconsin, but obviously must have open water in order to catch fish. Though we usually have some open water in the Northwoods every winter, sightings of kingfishers in the area are quite uncommon.
At our feeders in Manitowish, we finally had our first flock of pine siskins appear on 1/16, and a week earlier on 1/9, we had a small flock of bohemian waxwings visit our crabapple trees. We also had a Cooper’s hawk sail by our feeders on 1/10. Since they typically winter only as far north as central Wisconsin, we rarely see a Cooper’s up here.
Jane Wierschem on Blue Lake south of Minocqua sent me a photo of a squirrel who visited their feeders several times this summer. It’s a black squirrel with a bright orange tail, a combo I’ve not seen before. Black squirrels are a color phase of gray squirrels, and relatively common in our area. But a gray squirrel with a red tail is an anomaly. In doing some research on this, I did find one description of gray squirrels that said, “There are rare instances of a reddish colour phase and some animals may also have a combination of colours, for example a black body with a red tail.” So apparently, this combo has been seen elsewhere on occasion. I’d appreciate and e-mail from anyone who has seen this combo before– perhaps this is more common than I am aware.

Groundhog Day or Imbolc
Though we focus our modern day energy on groundhogs on February 2nd, the date actually marks the approximate halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox, heralding the return of light. This day was known variously in ancient cultures as Imbolc, Oimelc, Candlemas, and the Feast of Brigid. 
For pagans, Imbolc was the celebration of the first promise of spring, and the return of the Goddess known as Brigid in Ireland. If the weather was warm at Imbolc, it was interpreted to mean that winter would return. 
The Christian feast of Candlemas occurs when candles are blessed for religious use during the coming year. This festival commemorates the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus. By the middle of the 5th century, candles were lit on this day to symbolize the association of light with Christ.
The ancient Scots looked on Candlemas a bit more meteorlogically. According to Scottish folklore about Candlemas:
“Should Candlemas be fair and clear,
There’ll be twa winters in the year.”
“Twa,” means two, thus, if the weather is sunny and clear, and any animal, including a hibernating groundhog could see its shadow, that bodes another month or more of winter.
This year, February 3rd actually marks the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox.
Celestial Events
On 1/29, look at dusk for Mars about seven degrees north of the gibbous moon. 
The full moon occurs on 1/30. Called the “Wolf” or the “Frost in the Teepee” moon by some Native American tribes, this will be the largest full moon of the year because the moon will be at its closest to the Earth (221,576 miles) of any time during 2010.

Nature, Science, and Spirit
“We find ourselves in a new movement of thought. In a movement where, through science and through the searching of our hearts, everything has become mysterious. Science has led us from knowledge to knowledge, but also from mystery to mystery. Mystery alone can lead us on to true spirituality, to accept and be filled with the mystery of life in our existence.” – Albert Schweitzer

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 1/8/10

A Northwoods Almanac for Jan. 8 – 21, 2010

Christmas Bird Count Results
            The Christmas Bird Counts in Minocqua (12/19) and in Manitowish Waters (12/20) were relatively quiet in terms of total numbers of birds, but both counts still found a good number of species given that this is the Northwoods in December. The Minocqua count tallied 22 species with good numbers of bohemian waxwings (134!) and wild turkeys, as well as four red-bellied woodpeckers, a southern species still quite uncommon in the Northwoods.
            The Manitowish Waters count tabulated 27 species, but with average to relatively small numbers of nearly every species compared to previous years. Winter finches other than goldfinches were scarce and remain scarce.
            One way to measure the difference between northern and southern Wisconsin in terms of winter intensity and the effects on wildlife is to look at the Christmas Bird Counts. For instance, the Madison Bird Count tallied 93 species and 27,046 individuals. By comparison, we found, as noted above, 22 and 27 species in our two counts, and only 809 individuals in Minocqua and 978 individuals in Manitowish Waters (counts take place in a 15-mile diameter circle wherever the counts are done).
            So, winter temperature matters. Snow depth matters. Ice cover matters. We have at least 150 bird species typically nesting in Wisconsin’s Northwoods during the summer, but of those nesting, only some 26 species may be seen in representative numbers during an average northern winter. And of those, many are still very uncommon (for example: northern goshawk, evening grosbeak, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse).
Clearly, Madison’s count is bolstered by the number of people who feed birds and by their higher number of people involved in the count. Perhaps if we had thousands of people feeding birds within our count circles, and a hundred more counters, we’d get higher numbers of individual birds and a few more species, too. But despite the additional free lunches, I suspect most birds would still find the prospect of survival up here very daunting and wisely glide south a few hundred miles where the living is typically far easier.
            This was the 110th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count making the Count the longest continual wildlife-monitoring program in the world. Scientists rely on this remarkable trend data to better understand how birds and the environment are faring throughout North America – and what needs to be done to protect them. Data from this citizen science program has provided the basis for numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Celestial Events
            The sun rises at 7:39 a.m. today, one minute earlier for the first time since June 11, 2009. Looking ahead, our earliest sunrises of 2010 will first occur on June 11, rising at 5:08 a.m. That’s something to look forward to!
            On average, the coldest days of the year occur from 1/16 to 1/20 – we average a high of 18°F and a low of -1°F.
            At dusk on 1/18, look for Jupiter about five degrees south of the waxing crescent moon.
            For planet watching in January, at dusk Mars rises in the northeast, Jupiter is well up in the southwest, and Saturn rises in the east before 11 p.m. At dawn, Mars is low in the west, and Saturn is still well up in the south.

            Woody Hagge in Hazelhurst sent a picture of a gray squirrel eating a blue jay (see the photo). I’m not surprised at the squirrel eating the jay, but I do wonder how it came by it. Blue jays are very smart, and I’d be surprised if the squirrel was able to catch it. Perhaps the jay hit a window and was stunned long enough for the squirrel to make an easy capture. Or perhaps this squirrel was tops in its class in hunting skills and took the jay in a fair fight.
            On 12/24, Sue and Al Drum in Presque Isle reported a flock of 15 to 20 evening grosbeaks feeding regularly at their home. Evening grosbeaks have been virtually absent so far this winter, so it’s good to hear that a few are present.
            A northern hawk owl is being seen in Rhinelander in the vicinity of Hwy 17 and CTH W, most often on the west side of the road, and just north of that intersection. Northern hawk owls are rare visitors from the muskegs of northern Canada, so named because their long, rounded tail, perched appearance, and flight resemble a small hawk. This one appears to be hunting for rodents along the roadway and hopefully won’t be hit by a vehicle.
            On 12/29, John Bie in Woodruff reported a varied thrush at his feeder (see the photo by Betsy Bie). That’s the second report of a varied thrush in our area, the other coming from Lake Tomahawk.

One Way to Avoid Hibernation
            On 12/21, Gloria Johnson in Woodruff wrote: “This morning I had my Peace Lily plant in my kitchen sink giving it a bath and a good watering. Out jumped a cute little green tree frog [Eastern gray tree frog]- probably about 1 1/2 inches long. It jumped to the counter, then to the floor, then it started climbing up a counter stool and found a spot on the leg to "hide." My husband grabbed a tupperware container and we got it in there safely. I called the Wildlife Center here in Minocqua and Mark Naniot said he'd take it. Mark said it must've been eating well because it looked nice and healthy. That plant had not been outside this summer - so it must've come in on another that was.”
            This little frog avoided the usual winter trials and tribulations that many frogs must undergo. Eastern gray tree frogs usually hibernate a few inches down in the forest duff, where their body freezes. They avoid death by removing water from their cells, which freezes between the cells but without harm to the cell structure. They then pack their cells with glycogen that serves as an antifreeze, allowing them to safely ride out the winter. This same strategy, called extra-cellular freezing, is utilized by trees in northern Canada to survive temperatures down to -80°F.

Winter Walking Paths
            Mary and I frequently ski the Mecca Trail in Mercer because it’s well groomed and maintained by the local ski club, it’s close to home, and it’s a community-friendly trail. By community-friendly, I mean the trail policy is versatile – it allows people to bring their dogs, it’s got easy loops for families with children, it has skating loops for those looking for a work-out, it has a snowshoe trail, and it has a large warming cabin with picnic tables for people to gather and talk after skiing or snowshoeing.
            While skiing the trail last week, we met a couple from Madison who were skiing with their dog, and they couldn’t say enough about how much they appreciated having a place where they could take their dog with them.
            Meeting them brought home for us the recurring vision of every small northern town having a plowed winter walking path for its residents and visitors. It’s a long winter up here, and to enjoy it, we all need to get outside, breathe fresh air, get some exercise, and be amidst the beauty with which we’re blessed. Skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are the typical recreational options available, but those options all present their own limitations, one of which is that lots of folks have dogs that need the exercise just as much as they do, and dogs usually aren’t welcome on those trails. More importantly, there are also lots of people that would just like to take a walk when they get home from work, or elderly or less mobile people that need a safe and quiet place to briefly get outside without vehicle traffic. And there’s a genuine need for people just to see one another along a path and be able to stop and talk.
            So, here’s a vote for every town board and every chamber of commerce to work together to create a plowed loop trail (or two!) for walkers and dogs and kids and the disabled and folks that work all day, all of whom just need a chance to get out and breathe. And while we’re dreaming, make at least part of the loop lit, so that the folks who don’t get home from work until after dark would have a place to walk as well.
Why should the chambers get involved? I suspect an array of tourists might also utilize the trails, helping to bring a little more income into our towns.
Many towns have bike trails that could partially be plowed. But if there’s no public land that could easily be used, perhaps a private landowner would permit placement of a trail loop on their land as a means of giving back to their community.
            I know one thing – if kids and dogs could vote, it would be unanimous and done tomorrow.

Nature, Science, and Spirit
            “The most beautiful and the most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” – Albert Einstein from The World As I See It