Friday, March 19, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 3/19/10

A Northwoods Almanac for March 19 – April 1, 2010

March Phenology
Mary and I live on the Manitowish River, so we pay attention to the phenology of the river – “the dates of arrivals and departures, the births, the flourishings, the decays and deaths of wild things, their successions, synchronicities, dependencies, reciprocities, and cycles – the lived life of the earth,” as Jack Turner writes in his book The Abstract Wild. We paddle and play, botanize and bird, ski and snowshoe, exploring the river and the woods around it every way we can every moment we can. And the longer we live here, the richer this community of life grows in our hearts and minds.
We journalize our experiences, Mary weaves some of the river’s life into her artwork, and I use sightings of this and that as jumping-off points for my writing and for my naturalist work. 
I have to admit, however, that we’re guilty of not always keeping complete records of all that we see, so that we can provide absolutely accurate, objective data on the phenological changes occurring here. Still, we’ve kept good records on a number of springtime events, in particular the first arrivals of birds. For instance, here are our recent records on the arrival of red-winged blackbirds and robins:
Dates for Red-Winged Blackbirds Return to Manitowish
March 2, 1997
March 23, 1998
March 24, 1999 
March 6, 2000
March 21, 2001
March 26, 2002 
March 24, 2003 
March 24, 2004
March 27, 2005
March 24, 2006
March 20, 2007
March 30, 2008
March 16, 2009
Thus, the 13-year average for the return of red-winged blackbirds is March 20. 
Dates for American Robins Return to Lakeland Area
March 25, 1997
March 28, 1998
March 27, 1999
March 17, 2001
March 25, 2002
March 23, 2003
March 20, 2004
March 28, 2005
March 25, 2006
March 24, 2007
March 30, 2008
March 16, 2009
Thus, the 12-year average for the return of robins is March 24.
We’ve kept longer track of ice-out on the Manitowish River below our house. The 21-year average was March 18. The ice went out this year already on March 9, nine days early.
The value of folks like us keeping such records, a practice called citizen phenology, is the wealth of scientific, political, and educational value that the data can provide. But at the end of the day, the value of such observations really comes down to the personal wealth gained by each individual in learning to love a place and its inhabitants. 
The goal in living anywhere is to no longer be a visitor or tourist, but to become a card-carrying member of where you live, to be someone who belongs within that place, to no longer be standing apart. 
The process of paying attention to phenological events helps us to love a place. By bringing the landscape into focus, we can make it a true part of our lives, and then we can feel that we are no longer lost in our own neighborhoods.
Can a study of phenology do all that? Yes and no. Phenology is just one path to understanding the natural world. However, the study of phenology is a particularly good one because it can be applied anywhere, anytime. The center of the world is always where we are right now. So, we don’t need to dream of the big trip to Glacier or Yellowstone or some other charismatic site – all the world we need is right here. While hiking a charismatic mountaintop helps knock the blinders off faster than looking at a robin in our yard, major trips to astonishing landscapes can be a bit of an addiction. It’s a seeking of big highs, when most of our world is made of a vast assortment of little highs. “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common,” said Emerson.
Phenology is all about seeing the common, and seeing it year after year with a growing sense of appreciation, not boredom. Wendell Berry’s great quote, "The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling, and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home," brings it home even better. It’s a soulful perspective. Once we get beyond the initial attraction to a place and look deeper, we begin to see the soul of the lake, the soul of the woodlands, the soul of everything.
Thus, phenology leads to reverence and helps dissolve the perception that some species are worth saving more than others based solely on their beauty or usefulness. Of reverence, Gary Zukav (The Seat of the Soul) writes, “Reverence is contact with the essence of each thing and person and plant and bird and animal.” Reverence drives the endless passion needed to fight for obscure species like the Karner blue butterfly, Fassett’s locoweed, and the winged mapleleaf mussel, all of which have as much right to existence as charismatic species like bald eagles and black bears.
Backyard phenologists are also more likely to get the bigger concept of biodiversity because they have been spending time looking at common species all along. Backyard phenologists call me regularly to talk about grackles and chipmunks and all manner of common critters and plants. They have built a relationship with these creatures, and have found, at a minimum, a deep curiosity for them, and, at a maximum, a reverence for them. We backyard observers are connected in a hundred small ways to our place and its inhabitants. Biologist E.O. Wilson wanted people to take “a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” Backyarder observers have the best chance to take such voyages as they observe the life around their home.
I think phenology also helps people talk across their fences. I’ve been envious for a long time of my 94-year-old father-in-law’s youthful connection to the land where he was raised and to his neighbors. Farming communities back in the 1920’s were deeply connected through the sharing of tools, labor, and information. Neighbors needed one another. Crops wouldn’t get in without help. If you got sick, your neighbor would milk the cows, and you’d milk their cows in a similar emergency. Not everyone could afford a thresher, so one machine rotated around through everyone’s fields. 
If I ask Dad about something, he has a hard time giving me just the bare details – he talks about things always by referencing them to a bunch of other things. Say I ask him directions: “Well, that’s over on County J just down from the Hardy farm; you know, they’re the folks that had draft horses that they used to loan to us if we needed some extra power in plowing a rocky field. They were related to . . .” And on he goes, seeing in his mind all the relationships between people and the land and their work. Sometimes I get impatient with the stories, but Dad has lived a life where the stories of the plants, animals and the land blend with those of the people. 
He has a blessing, a deep sense of community that many people don’t have. Today, many of us have gained the highly sought after glory of independence, but as the price, have lost our sense of community. We’re often surprisingly isolated. But observing the natural world breaks down some of the barriers because we have shared experiences in nature around which to talk, to lean over the fence.
I’d love to see a time come when people bought homes and received not only the title to the property but the phenology of the property, like a family album. This house album would point the way for every new owner – what to look for, where to look, when to look, and why to look. The writings, the photographs, the data would hit every new owner square in the head, hands, and heart – this is what this place has been all about for a century or more. The scale and scope of it would provide the framework for an ethical, if not spiritual, connection.
In her poem “Spring,” Mary Oliver writes, "There is only one question; how to love this world." Phenology is basic to that love. But love of the natural world isn’t just a one-way street. It’s also the path to understanding yourself. "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are," says Wendell Berry. I buy that. We need to know our backyards, our communities, our landscapes, and on up the scale, if we wish to honor the life we’ve been given and honor the lives of all others on this earth.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 3/5/10

A Northwoods Almanac for March 5 – 18, 2010

Water Levels
            With spring snowmelt only a little over a month away, the question foremost on many people’s minds is what will our area lake levels look like? The drought we’ve experienced over the last 5 years has taken a huge toll. Biologist David Schmoller from Minocqua kindly sent me the following precipitation data that was taken over the last decade at the Minocqua Dam (average precipitation for our area is 32.1 inches per year):
Year             Precipitation Difference
2000            32.56 inches            +0.46 inches
2001             34.07                        +1.97
2002            38.00                        +5.90
2003            27.26                        -4.84
2004            32.03                        -0.07
2005            30.79                        -1.31
2006            26.88                        -5.22           
2007            28.97                        -3.13
2008            25.32                        -6.78
2009            17.54                        -14.56
            Note that the last year we received more precipitation than the average was 2002. In 2004, we received the average precipitation, but it’s been downhill since then. Since 2003, our area is down 35.91 inches from normal, which has created exceedingly low water levels in many lakes across northern Wisconsin.
The shortage of precipitation isn’t the whole story, however. Our lake levels have also declined due to shorter winter ice-duration and increased average annual temperatures this decade, which have resulted in increased evaporation from our lakes and increased transpiration from plants.
I asked Tim Kratz, director of the UW Trout Lake Limnology Station, to comment on the scientific data that pertained to local historical water levels. He wrote, “The USGS has water levels data for Anvil Lake (just east of Eagle River) going back to the late 1930s. It shows that the current water level in Anvil Lake is lower now than at any other time since the record started. The Wisconsin Valley Improvement Corporation has water level data for Buffalo Lake (off Hwy J between St. Germain and Minocqua) from the early 1940s to the early 1990s. We have data from Crystal Lake from 1981 to the present. When we compare the overlapping period of record between Crystal Lake and Buffalo Lake and then use that relationship either to predict earlier Crystal Lake water levels or post 1990s Buffalo Lake water levels we also conclude that water levels now are lower than any other time in the historical record.”
One of the major ecological issues we face as shorelines retreat due to lower water levels, is that the shoreland branches and logs that fell into these shallow waters over many decades are left high and dry. Numerous research studies have conclusively shown that this coarse woody habitat along shorelines is essential habitat for everything from fish to frogs, and that as coarse woody habitat decreases so does the growth rate and reproductive success of fish and other organisms.
To reverse this trend, we need snow now and rain in a month, and lots and lots of both. Our current moderate snow depth is of significant concern because it will translate into only a minor pulse of spring meltwater. While most of us start begging for the snow to go away in March, in truth we need some major snow storms between now and April if we wish to have a good recharge of our rivers and lakes from the spring thaw. And then we’ll need spring rains of Noah-like proportions to refill our groundwater and wetlands, which provide the slow and steady release of water to our rivers and lakes throughout the summer.

March as Armageddon
“Winter is a predictable kind of Armageddon,” wrote naturalist Diane Kappel-Smith. While Kappel-Smith referred to the entire season, I think she had March in mind as the most predictable time for Armageddon to occur. It’s March when the accumulated stressors of five months of cold, snow, and ice weigh most heavily on animals. It’s March when hunger and weakness arrive at their peaks. It’s March when life often hangs by a thread and extreme weather can push an animal beyond its endurance. And I’ll bet it was March when someone coined the old adage of “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” because March is the final straw.
Take wintering deer, for example. White-tailed deer employ every trick they know to conserve enough energy to make it to March. At night, they conserve heat, and thus energy, by curling up in sheltered beds under conifers that slow skyward radiation and inhibit wind. In deep snow, they winter in “yards” where they can share a network of tramped trails and conserve more energy. They stand on their rear legs to feed on tree branches seven feet above the ground, creating browse lines easily observable in particular around lakeshores. They change their diet of woody browse, eating five or more pounds a day of buds and twigs of plants that aren’t all that nutritious, but are what’s available. And they slow down their natural metabolic rate to a point which one ecologist describes as “a walking hibernation” that reduces by 30 percent their need for food.
Nevertheless, they slowly starve over the winter, typically losing a minimum of 15 percent of their body weight in the best of circumstances, and 20 to 25 percent in poorer habitats. When their weight loss reaches 30 percent, they’re near the cliff edge of dying from exposure and starvation.
It’s March when that cliff draws near. And even if survival is granted, a malnourished doe may lose her fetuses, or produce only one fawn, which though alive may be born underdeveloped and then be poorly nourished by the starving mother.
So, while cabin fever descends in March on the human population in the Northwoods, a different sort of fever takes hold of much of the animal world. It’s make or break time, where an intense cold spell or heavy snowstorm can mean everything. To date, our winter has been very mild in terms of low temperatures and average depth of snow, which bodes well. But there’s more winter to come, and the quality, quantity, and duration of late winter snow and cold will make all the difference.

On 2/28, Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk reported watching two pine siskins “carefully selecting the dog hair I threw outside after brushing. One supervised while the other one looked for just the right hair!” She wondered if they might be building nests already. I checked the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Wisconsin, which said, “During April and May following a greater than normal winter presence, isolated pairs of siskins in central Wisconsin will engage in breeding activities that include courtship, copulation, and nest building. However, these birds have no intention of remaining to raise young, but instead, and almost without exception, leave the area entirely.”
Now it’s always possible that these siskins didn’t read the literature about their behavior, and have chosen to breed anyway. But it would seem very unlikely, particularly in February.
On 2/22, Barry Dalberto in St. Germain reported hearing “the remarkable sound of ‘trumpeting’ sounds, low and melodious. Then I looked up and saw 5 black beaked trumpeter swans flying just above tree level.”
More than likely these were local over-wintering trumpeter swans simply moving about to find the best open-water feeding sites. There’s a family of trumpeters over-wintering this year on the Manitowish River, as they have for numerous years. I don’t know of a wintering trumpeters in the St. Germain area, but that would be most likely.
On 2/22, Rolf Ethun reported seeing a small flock of evening grosbeaks. “I was lucky enough to have a small flock of at least a dozen at my feeder about 7:30 this morning. In ten minutes they were gone.”  
Mary & Mark Pflieger in Harshaw sent me a photo of a barred owl they’ve been watching feeding on their suet all winter, which is really quite uncommon. Sometimes barred owls come in to feeders in late winter, apparently out of great hunger, but it’s very unusual for an owl to utilize a feeder all winter.
And for the most unexpected observation of February, on 2/21, attendees at a birding trip of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club watched a pair of common loons on the Beaver Dam river where it flows under the Meadow Road bridge south of Leipsig. Early spring migrants are often observed on southern Wisconsin lakes by mid-March, but loons in February are exceptionally early.

Golden Eagle Attacks White-tailed Deer
A recent posting on the Wisconsin BirdNet showed a series of photos taken of a golden eagle attacking a white-tailed deer at the Nachusa Grassland in Lee County, Illinois (see Given the number of ruses that come over the Internet, some questioned whether a golden eagle would really attack a deer. Tom Erdman, curator of the Richter Natural History Museum at UW Green Bay, wrote in response that adult golden eagles in the West “kill mule deer and some mountain goats . . . Typically they hit the hind-quarter, rump, first and then when the animal swings around to respond, the second foot hits the head, and the first foot moves up to the neck. At 500 lbs pressure per/square inch at the tip of the talons, it can be quick.”
He added, “Golden Eagles have been used to hunt fox, coyotes and wolves for 100s of years by falconers.”

Celestial Events
            Our average high temperature reaches 32°F on 3/6. By 3/8, we are blessed with 11.5 hours of sunlight. New moon takes place on 3/15.
            In March, the only planet visible at dawn is Jupiter, low in the southeast. However, after dusk, Venus is brilliant low in the west, Mars is high in the southeast, and Saturn rises in the east.