Friday, February 19, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 2/19/10

A Northwoods Almanac for Feb. 19 – March 4, 2010

            At this time of year, Mary and I always scrutinize our woodpile to make sure we’ll have enough wood to make it to May (which still may not actually mark the end of the heating season). We usually burn somewhere between four and five full cords of wood, and we’re thankful to have an efficient wood stove that squeezes out the most BTUs.
            But it wasn’t always energy efficient to burn wood. America once operated almost entirely on an exceptionally inefficient wood-based energy economy. Heat for homes, energy for industry, and fuel for transportation in 18th century colonial America were all wood-based. Fireplaces in homes were extremely large – up to ten feet wide and four feet deep. While this greatly saved on the cutting and splitting of logs, since one could easily lay a 7-foot-long log on the fire, as much as 90% of the heat went up the chimney. Such practice was accepted then because of the perceived “inexhaustible” supply of wood. As Francis Higgeson wrote of living in New England in 1630, “Here is good living for those that love good fires . . . Nay, all Europe is not able to afford to make so great fires as New England.”
Estimates of firewood used per family in a typical 18th century home vary widely, but all fall within the range of 20 to 60 cords. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, wrote in 1772, “[Wood was] really squandered away in immense quantities day and night all winter.”
Benjamin Franklin invented the fuel-efficient Franklin stove in 1742, but it was too expensive for the average settler to purchase. Plus, it took far more time to chop up the wood into smaller lengths, so the stoves weren’t adopted widely until the 1820s, and then mostly in urban environments where wood shortages had begun to appear. Both smaller fireplaces and the Franklin stove brought consumption down in the 19th century to 10 to 20 cords per family, which meant every fireplace still required 10 to 20 acres of woods, given that an acre of woods typically produces about 0.5 to 1 cord of wood per year.
The price of firewood in cities became particularly high due to transportation costs. In 1806, wood cost $1.25 a cord inland in Maine, $2.50 a cord on the coast, and $6 to $8 a cord when transported to Boston. Fuelwood became scare in the more populated areas along the East Coast, starting perhaps the first discussion of energy policy in the U.S. when Noah Webster proclaimed in 1817: “We must either reduce the annual consumption [of wood] within the limits of the annual growth, or that time will arrive when we must search the earth for fuel.” Little did he know of the bigger energy picture to come in the next two centuries.
To show how prevalent and wasteful the use of firewood was, until 1890 much more wood went into fireplaces and stoves than was used in construction of houses. Total fuelwood consumption across the Northeast and Midwest peaked in the 1870s at about 90 million cords per year, but even as late as 1919, over 45 million cords were still consumed per year.
Coal-burning stoves became more common in the 1830s, and eventually displaced wood as the major source of fuel in the 1880s. Soon after, we began our energy journey into two new “inexhaustible” energy sources – natural gas and oil.
Now, nearly 200 years later after Webster’s prescient words in 1817 (the world’s population then is estimated to have been 1 billion), our energy policy fears have escalated because non-sustainable gas and oil have no annual growth like wood, and the world now contains over 6.7 billion people who utilize energy in ways and amounts Webster could never have imagined.
And everyone wants more. 
That’s the big picture. For now though – the little picture – we just want our wood to hold out to May.

Food Caching and Early Nesting in Gray Jays
Gray jays are the earliest nesting songbird in the Northwoods, laying eggs as early as mid-February, although most clutches are laid between early March and mid-April.                        Nesting when the snow remains deep and sub-zero temperatures still prevail at night seems nonsensical, but like everything else in nature, it reflects an evolutionary compromise that works to these birds’ ultimate advantage. Whereas most birds and mammals are struggling to just find food during March, the gray jay is sitting pretty because of the food caching it did during autumn. Gray jays are able to store food that won’t rot for long periods of time because of the remarkable composition of their saliva. Whereas most spit is slippery in order to enable food to slide down one’s throat, the gray jay’s spit coagulates on contact with the air. Gray jays mix the plentiful food of autumn with their saliva to form a glue-like mass that they can store in bark fissures, knot holes, and in clusters of conifer needles. Coupled with their superior memory, which allows them to find most of these caches months later in the depths of the winter, they have then, in effect, cupboards full of food that they only they know exist. Thus, they can begin nesting, a highly energy-intensive labor, before any other songbirds.
Still, it’s quite cold in March, so the gray jays also have evolved the ability to construct a very well insulated, deep, and bulky nest quite unlike the see-through, bare twig nests of their cousins the blue jays. By using fur and feathers to cradle their eggs, their eggs remain warm enough to incubate. In fact, if you have gray jays near your home, put out some cotton balls, grouse feathers, or facial tissue for them – they’ll readily accept your generosity for the construction of their nests, a fact researchers use to help them when they need to locate gray jay nests.
Gray jays utilize one last critical behavioral component to permit them to nest so early. While they often raise three to four chicks, usually no more than one of them is permitted to spend the next winter with them. Researchers think the strategy has evolved because trying to support the entire family throughout the winter would potentially overwhelm their cache supplies and cause them all to starve. The weaker individual juveniles that are aggressively chased away in the fall often survive the winter by catching on with another gray jay pair whose nesting failed.

Bobcat Sightings
Bob Hart’s bobcat picture in my last column generated numerous responses. Pat Schwai on Cochran Lake sent me several pictures of a bobcat that came into her yard: “Neither of our cameras really caught the detail even though the critter was only 12 feet away. But in our defense, trying to crack open the door and hold the camera steady while our dog was going bonkers was a challenge. The bobcat seemed completely unfazed by Zoie's ferocious barking, although it did briefly turn its head in our direction. The cat was within pouncing distance of two feeders . . . Before "nature could take its course" in front of my eyes, my husband went out to shoo the cat away. Instead of running away from the house, it jumped onto and ran the length of our deck before heading into the woods.”
Chomingwen D. Pond in Minocqua wrote that a bobcat has been around the south shore of Lake Shishebogama this winter: “Most recently, I glanced out the window Wednesday morning, Feb. 3, to see it tussling with a gray squirrel. (A black and possibly another gray escaped.) When it got the squirrel's head in its mouth, it sat up and apparently bit the squirrel's head or neck until the squirrel stopped thrashing. Then some minutes later it stood up and trotted off into the woods, the squirrel's body hanging from its mouth.  Not a pleasant thing to watch, but as Mel Ellis (naturalist at the "Milwaukee Journal" "eons" ago) said, ‘The first law of life is not 'Survival of the fittest' but 'to give up life for the sake of other life.'"
Karen MacGregor on the Pike Lake Chain wrote that when skiing at the Round Lake Wilderness Area a few weeks ago her brother identified some bobcat tracks. Her question was: Are there a lot of bobcats here in the Northwoods?
             The WDNR estimates the state’s bobcat population by looking at harvest numbers and data from the winter furbearer track survey. Their analysis suggests that fall population size increased from about 1,500 to about 3,100 during the 1990s and early 2000s, but the population appears to have stabilized and declined slightly in recent years. The 2009 fall population estimate was 2,100 total bobcats in Wisconsin.

Other Sightings
Elinore Sommerfeld wrote: “We occasionally see fox on our property, but we've had 3 sightings in 2 days! I've never seen them on our road, but yesterday, I saw a pair trotting down the road ahead of me. They casually kept an eye on me and eventually peeled off into the woods. On the same stretch of road today, a single fox headed towards me.  Even as I kept approaching it and making noise, it kept coming till it was within 50 feet of me before heading into the woods. And this afternoon, on our property, about 1/2 mile from where I saw the others, we saw a fox roaming the woods.” Fox mate in January and February, so perhaps these fox had other more important things on their minds than the presence of a human.
 Joyce Brundage in Mercer e-mailed that on a 17 degree morning, while watching the snowmobiles on the trail in front of her house and fisherman on the frozen lake out the back window, a robin flew into the tree by her front window.
Mitch Mode forwarded a picture of a Cooper’s hawk tearing apart a mourning dove in his yard in Rhinelander. The red eyes indicate the bird is an adult.

Northern Lights
Numerous people have asked me why we haven’t seen any northern lights for what seems like a very long time. Well, on Feb. 8, we received the following e-mail from the Aurora Forecast Website: “After 3 years of no auroral alerts, this is to let you know that you are neither forgotten nor dropped from the list. The first solar flares of the new solar cycle have now begun to produce auroral activity.  The effects of one of these flares will be arriving today . . . it is good to know that the sun is awake again.”
To subscribe to the Aurora Alert mailing list at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, click on . The Aurora Forecast page can be viewed at

Celestial Events
            On 2/25, look for Mars about 5° north of the waxing gibbous moon. We hit 11 hours of daylight on 2/27 The full moon occurs on 2/28. Called by some Native American tribes the “Hunger Moon,” the name reflects the great difficulty that many animals have in surviving the last few months of winter.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 2/5/10

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/5 -18, 2010
Mary and I frequently showshoe in the Frog Lake and Pines State Natural Area, which rests across the Manitowish River from our home. On 1/31, we came across two very interesting tracks. One was made of three parallel lines in the snow. The middle line, tough unclear, looked like a grouse track. Our best interpretation is that a male grouse drooped its wings during a display, his wing tips dragging in the snow on either side of him as he walked along trying to impress a female.
The other track was a gutter-like pathway through the snow, about a foot wide, and running a short distance between a number of old-growth white pines and cedars. Along the path was the very obvious scat of porcupines, which looks like elongated sawdust pellets. We looked into the trees, and the more we looked at a “burl” on one of the pines, the more it took the shape of a fat porcupine. The other clue to the porkie’s presence were dozens of white cedar branches laying on the ground, obviously snipped off by some critter. I don’t know if porkies have a particular affinity for cedar, but they were certainly doing some serious pruning.
Birdlife was practically nil on this hike except for a few chickadees, but perhaps some of the irruptive finches that have been so elusive this winter are finally starting to show up. On 1/22, David Foster reported seeing two pine grosbeaks on the ground in his driveway and a small group of them a few days earlier just up the road, both on McCullough Lake in Natural Lakes, northeast of Boulder Junction. Then on 1/30, David reported seeing small numbers of redpolls and pine siskins for the first time this winter season at his feeders, mingled with the goldfinches.  
At our feeders in Manitowish, the one bird of considerable note was a merlin which appeared on 2/1. Our daughter Callie was the only one home at the time when she heard a rapid knocking on one of our windows. She came into that room and saw a small raptor hunkered on a branch right next to our largest feeder. She got a very close look at it before it flew and clearly could identify it as a merlin, which I believe is the first merlin we’ve ever seen in the winter up here. I suspect the knocking sound was either a bunch of birds scattering from the feeder and hitting the window as the merlin sailed in, or the merlin itself trying to capture a bird against the window.

Pine Barrens 
Mary and I hike in the Frog Lake and Pines State Natural Area because it represents one of the oldest white and red pine stands left in the state. The uncut portion of the site is totally dominated by pines, with numerous pines showing large fire scars at their base. The trees appear even-aged for the most part with some scattered very large pines, meaning that most of these pines began growing during the same period, and likely after a major fire.
I find the uncertain history of this stand  particularly intriguing. The site may well have been a pine barrens at one time, at least according to an article from Richard Vogl, a botanist, published in 1971 and titled “Fire and the Northern Wisconsin Pine Barrens.” He wrote, “The Manitowish River Barrens . . . occur on a series of scattered sand flats around the headwaters lakes, [and] become extensive in the vicinity of Boulder Junction where they stretch north to Grassy Lake, south to Trout Lake, and west to the Trout River, surround most of the Manitowish Waters chain of lakes, and end downstream near Manitowish in extreme eastern Iron County. The bracken-grasslands, frost pockets, and openings that once existed or still occur around the springs and streams that feed the Manitowish headwaters lakes, extending north to the Michigan border and south almost to Star Lake, are included as part of the Manitowish Barrens.”
Frog Lake SNA is situated a half-mile south of Manitowish on Hwy. 47/182, so it’s right at the edge of where Vogl believes the barrens ended, and thus it may have been a barrens at one time. Pine barrens are akin to oak savannahs in the southern part of the state, and were described by botanist John Curtis in 1959 as “true savannas, in that the dominant plants are grasses, forbs and shrubs, with a scattered stand of trees. The most usual tree is jack pine, although red pine may be the main species in unusual cases . . . The outstanding feature of the groundlayer in the pine barrens is the extraordinary development of shrubs . . . the blueberry . . . is of even greater importance.”
Vogl considers other areas within our locale to also have been barrens: “Additional barrens occurred on the Bear River upstream from where it joins the Manitowish River. They occupied reddish sandy benches and flats adjacent to the river and between and around the Lac du Flambeau chain of lakes, extending east of Fence Lake and south to Squirrel Lake in Oneida County. Most of these barrens are now gone with only coppiced oaks, decadent open-grown jack pines, scattered red pine stumps, lakeshore stands of red pine, large juneberry bushes, and dry openings remaining in a closed or planted forest.”
Pine barrens once covered 2.3 million acres, or 7% of Wisconsin’s presettlement landscape, but today these pine savannas with scattered large trees (2 to 8 per acre) are extremely rare because of fire control. Forest fires occurred on these barrens regularly, with return intervals to the same site of 50 to 75 years. It’s very likely that Native American tribes regularly used fire in these areas to maintain game habitat and enhance fruit and berry crops.
Barrens also were associated with the upper Wisconsin River in the vicinity of Land’O’Lakes and Conover. In Oneida County, barrens were associated with the Wisconsin and Tomahawk Rivers. Openings once spread in the vicinity of the Squirrel and Tomahawks Rivers from Pine Lake, Swampsauger Lake, and the now Willow Reservoir east beyond Hazelhurst and Bearskin Lake. 
Those of us who live on these sandy soils today don’t need to be told how nutrient-poor and droughty the soils are – our struggles to grow a garden prove it!
Bob Hart forwarded a photo he took on 1/6 of a bobcat hunting close to his deck on the Pike Lake Chain. He still saw the bobcat hunting in his yard as of 1/29, apparently trying to clean up the squirrel population, though I suspect if there were any snowshoe hares or cottontails in the vicinity, they were being given a run as well. Any muskrats, chipmunks, mice, voles, shrews or other small critters that ventured above the snow may also have regretted the day.

Wintering Golden Eagles in Wisconsin
Every summer I get calls from folks saying they just saw a golden eagle, when in fact they actually observed an immature bald eagle. It’s an easy mistake to make if you aren’t aware of the dark plumage of the young balds. And since golden eagles don’t breed in Minnesota or Wisconsin – to spot one, Wisconsin residents typically must travel 1,000 miles west – it’s usually a default assumption that a dark eagle in our area automatically means an immature bald eagle.
Well, that’s an assumption that doesn’t hold true in the winter. In the last decade, consistent reports have filtered down of goldens wintering along the Mississippi River, especially in the Wabasha, Minnesota area. So, six years ago, the National Eagle Center in Wabasha organized a volunteer survey program to count golden eagles using the coulees and bluffs along the river from Red Wing, MN to LaCrosse, WI. And this year the January survey found 85 golden eagles and 635 bald eagles. 
  What makes the golden’s presence along the Mississippi so compelling and mysterious is that no one knows the breeding origin of these wintering golden eagles, nor does anyone have any information about their migration routes or their habitat use and timing during the winter. Far from being off-course loners, these birds are turning out to be part of a population of 100 or so consistent visitors who make their home in the state from November through March.
Golden eagles are a threatened species in Canada, although not in the U.S. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 pairs nest in the lower 48 states, so the ones in Wisconsin are a small subset of the total population. While bald eagles are large fish-eating birds that live close to water, sport white heads, and lack leg feathers at the base of their legs, golden eagles hunt mammals and reptiles, live in hilly, dry countrysides, and have completely feathered legs. Their name comes from the dull bronze feathers on the backs of their heads.
Last March, one of the wintering golden eagles on the river was equipped with a radio transmitter after being caught in a leg-hold coyote trap. Researchers expected that the bird came down from nesting grounds in northern Ontario near Hudson Bay, but when the bird migrated in the spring, it ended up above the Arctic Circle where no one expected it would go. Researchers are hoping this winter to capture and equip three more goldens with transmitters to help determine their migration routes and timing.
Very small numbers of goldens are usually seen during spring and fall migration in our area, typically at hawk-watch sites like Hawk Ridge in Duluth, the Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, and Brockway Mountain in Copper Harbor, Michigan. 
Celestial Events
Today, 2/5, marks the average halfway point between ice-up and ice-out according to Woody Hagge’s 33 years of ice data on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst. On February 7, we become the recipients of 10 hours of daylight, and by 2/17 we will receive 10.5 hours of sunshine. The new moon occurs on 2/13.