Friday, April 30, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 4/30/10

A Northwoods Almanac for April 30 – May 13, 2010
Killdeer Nesting
Mary and I stumbled upon a killdeer nest at a city park along the Lake Superior shore in Ashland. We wouldn’t have seen the cryptically colored female if she hadn’t scolded us as we came within a few feet of her nest, but killdeer are not in the least shy – in fact, they seem to noisily advertise themselves whenever possible.
Killdeers typically exhibit little architectural flair in the design of their nests, and this female followed suit, incubating her eggs in a shallow scrape she had made in the sand right in the middle of the park. You’d think she would have wanted a little privacy. But the eggs are so well camouflaged that spotting them is virtually impossible.
She was sitting on four buff-colored eggs, the norm for killdeer. The male, who was nearby and also scolding us, helps incubate, a process that takes the about 25 days. 
Killdeer nest almost always in dry uplands, from beaches to gravel roads and parking lots, to lawns and golf courses, and even on top of flat roofs. All the land-clearing and development engaged in by humans has greatly increased their reproductive success which is up some 50% in the last three decades.
Killdeers mostly eat insects, so welcome them back with open arms. 

Coming Soon To Your Local Feeders
Mother’s Day weekend marks the average return time for highly desired species like ruby-throated hummingbirds, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Given how extraordinarily early this spring has been, I suspect we may see these species a week earlier than normal, so be sure to have your feeders out and ready by May 1 just in case. 
Woodcock Sky Dance
The male woodcock below our house continues to put on his show at twilight every evening and every morning. Woodcocks’ courtship flights begin when the ambient light only measures one to two footcandles, which occurs about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset and before sunrise. It’s nearly dark, so one usually hears the male rather than sees him. His courtship flight begins when he jumps into the air and ascends to two hundred feet, producing a trilling sound from vibrating his wing feathers as he climbs. At the apex of his flight, there’s a moment of silence, and then he zigzags back to the ground, vocalizing loudly this time in a series of five to six notes: chip-CHIP-chip-chip-chip-chip. The whole sky dance takes up to a minute to complete, whereupon the woodcock lands very near to where he began his flight and begins repeating a raspy note that is variously described as “peent” or “beezp.”
The courtship flights last about 40 minutes, less if the female deigns to appear and mate with the male in a brief flirtation. She quickly disappears never to see the sky dancer again, builds her scrape nest much like a killdeer’s, unconcealed, and begins incubating her eggs.
The male in the meantime continues dancing, hoping another female will find his art too dazzling to ignore.
Frog Count
On April 20, Mary and I conducted our first of three frog counts that we do every year for the DNR, and in the 16+ years that we’ve done the count, we have never heard so few frogs. We count at 10 different sites, all picked because of their excellent habitat for breeding frogs, and at three of the sites, we only heard silence. Usually all 10 sites have chorusing spring peepers, but of the seven sites where we did hear frogs, only four of them had enough peepers singing to call it a chorus.
It’s very dry out there, and those species dependent upon wetlands for any part of their life cycle are experiencing significant hardships.
Nourse Sugarbush SNA
Mary and I celebrated our 31st anniversary last week by spending a couple of days in the Bayfield peninsula hiking, biking, exploring, and meeting some great people. One of our hiking destinations was the Nourse Sugarbush, a state natural area established in 2006 to conserve what is arguably the finest old-growth sugar maple stand left in Wisconsin.  The sugarbush rests on the northwest flank of Mt. Ashwabay, a steep-sided hill rising over 700’ above Lake Superior. Large hemlock and sugar maple, some towering 100 feet high, dominate the canopy. The site has a long history of maple sugaring. For hundreds of years, the Ojibwe tapped the large trees for maple syrup production – diagonal slash marks from early sap collecting are still visible on some trees. The trees are still tapped today.
Nourse Sugarbush was purchased by the Mt. Ashwabay Outdoor Education Foundation, then donated to the State of Wisconsin and designated as a state natural area.
Because the site supports a healthy understory of saplings and shrubs, black-throated blue warblers, a relatively rare species, are said to flourish there. However, we missed them on this trip – the neotropical warblers that nest in our area usually don’t return until mid-May.
4/13: Mary and I heard our first-of-the-year (FOY) winter wren.
4/14: We heard toads trilling in the wetlands below our house, which is nearly a month earlier than we ordinarily first hear them.
4/14: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst reported seeing his FOY yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and chipping sparrows.
4/17: While taking part in the annual sandhill crane count, we heard our FOY hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, and pine warbler. While we were out there before sunrise specifically to count cranes, their presence is only part of the reason any of us participate in the count. Every year produces some unusual sighting, and for us this year, we had the best close-up looks we’ve ever had at green-winged teal. The sun had just come up and was behind us, illuminating the teal in that magical first morning light that makes colors richer than seems possible. The teal’s dark rufous head with the brilliant broad green stripe running through the eye is absolutely stunning. I was surprised to see that the green stripe turned dark brown when the teal turned its head, much like the red neck of the ruby-throated hummingbird turns dark if it moves its neck away from the direct sun. 
Also on 4/17: We’re convinced the eagle chicks in the nest across from our house were hatched by this day, if not earlier, given the eagle’s behavior around the nest. Eagle chicks typically are all hatched by 5/1, so this was an early hatching.
4/18: We saw our FOY yellow-rumped warbler and dragonflies (species unknown). 
4/19: I heard my FOY American bitterns on Powell Marsh.
4/20: We saw our first wild strawberries and bog leatherleaf in flower.
4/23: We saw our FOY marsh marigolds and juneberries in flower.
4/26: We saw our FOY wood violets and goldthread in flower. Flowers in general are very sparse so far – we need rain for more reasons than filling our lakes!

Celestial Events
The full moon from last night (4/29) is still 98% illuminated, so enjoy! On 4/3, look low in the west at dusk for Mercury three degrees below brilliant Venus. 
Planets visible at dusk in April: Mercury low in the west for the first half of the month, Venus low in the northwest, Mars high in the south, and Saturn in the east. At dawn, look for Jupiter low in the southeast, and Saturn setting in the west.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 4/16/10

A Northwoods Almanac for April 16 – 29, 2010

On April 1, David Schmoller in Minocqua sent me a note saying, “We are now 39.18 inches behind normal [rainfall] since 2003. We have had 0.68 inches this year; normal is 3.95.The early ice-out is not welcome.”
Regionally, as reported in the U.S. Drought Monitor, warm temperatures continued the first week of April. Most of the Midwest experienced temperatures more than 10°F above normal. Western Iowa and southwest Minnesota were 6° to 10°F above normal while the rest of the Midwest saw double digit temperature departures with northeast Ohio nearly 20°F above normal. More than 1000 record highs temperatures were set across the region with at least 60 record highs in each state and at least 40 record highs each day.
In the northern half of lower Michigan, stream flows are now within the lowest ten percent for their periods of record, which is a minimum of 30 years. In addition, the January to March 2010 season went down as the driest on record at Alpena, Traverse City, Sault Sainte Marie, and Gaylord. At Traverse City, only 1.18 inches of liquid equivalent precipitation fell during the period, which breaks the old record low of 1.98 inches set nearly a century ago (1912).  In upper Michigan, the area of moderate hydrologic drought conditions has expanded, based largely on the very dry weather in recent weeks, precipitation deficits over the past 12 months, and the early snowmelt, with several river sites at or approaching record low stream flow values for this time of year. At Iron Mountain, MI, the 21-month precipitation deficit is now approaching 15 inches.
Some lakes in northern Minnesota experienced a record early ice-out due to the warmth this spring, while in southern Minnesota, the winter's heavy snow caused one of the biggest winter fish kills on record, the worst in many decades.
The U.S. Drought Monitor can keep you up on these details nationally as well as regionally and locally – see
Also see the Wisconsin Palmer Drought Severity Index at This site provides specific data on North Central Wisconsin, and currently is showing our area in moderate to severe drought condition. To get an historical perspective on droughts, please see the graph illustrating the cycles of high and low precipitation for our area since 1895.
Another website to consult for historical climate data is the Wisconsin State Climatology Office at
One can also get specific site climate data for our area. For instance, there are data recorders locally for Rest Lake, Eagle River, Buckatabon, St. Germain, Phelps, Minocqua Dam, Rhinelander, Sugar Camp, Park Falls, Prentice, and many others. Check the Midwest Regional Climate Center site to reference all their data:
In the meantime, if the lake or river closest to you is experiencing very low water levels, please spare the DNR the blame. One of the understandings required of all of us who live on water is that water levels rise and fall in natural cycles. We need to learn to accept the risks of flood and drought, as well as the joys, inherent in living on water.

Vernal Ponds Drying Up
            One of the direct effects of drought is the drying of vernal ponds in our woodlands. These ephemeral sites typically fill with water in the spring after snowmelt, then gradually evaporate until they’re often completely dry by mid-summer.
Our early breeding frogs and salamanders lay eggs in these ponds on the bet that their young can grow and metamorphose into adults before the water disappears. So, species like spring peepers, wood frogs, and chorus frogs are dependent on these sites for reproduction. Where the ponds have vanished, or where the water levels are so low that the water won’t last long enough for the young tadpoles to reach adulthood, the frogs won’t successfully reproduce.
One of the great joys of spring in the Northwoods is hearing the absolute din created by spring peepers in the wetlands and vernal ponds. There are certainly spots where the water is sufficient to send the frogs into their utter merriment. But overall, that sound has been significantly muted by the drought conditions.

Exceptionally Early Ice-Out
            Woody Hagge has collected ice-up and ice-out data on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst for the last 37 years. The average date for ice-out prior to this spring was April 17. This year the ice went out on March 27, three weeks earlier than average.
Ice-out in March occurred on Foster during only one other year in this 37-year period – on March 25 in 2000. For comparison, the latest ice-out date was May 7 in 1995, the only time in Woody’s record where the ice remained into May.
            Most lakes in our region were ice-free as of the end of March.

            On 3/31 at the Vista overlook on Powell Marsh Judy and Tom Erickson counted at least 51 swans, most of which were very likely tundra swans. They also observed 30+ ringnecked ducks, 30+ geese, five sand hill cranes, and a Marsh hawk.  
             During the first week of April, Mike Trost was able to watch a northern harrier pluck a blackbird from its nest on Muninghoff Marsh near McNaughton.
In Boulder Junction, Dave Bosshard e-mailed with tongue planted firmly in cheek, saying he was “pleased to announce the very first wood tick of the season parked comfortably behind my wife's ear on the evening of April 3.”
            On 4/1, John Randolph reported hearing his first wood frogs on Bolger Lake Road in Minocqua.
            On April 1, at 11:00 AM, Renn Karl reported that his mother-in-law, Jerri Warling of Somerset, WI, was driving north on Highway 47 when she saw an adult cow moose about midway between Highway 182 and Highway 51. The moose stood in the southbound lane as Jerri approached and continued to stand there until Jerri came to a complete stop. The moose seemed undecided as to which direction to proceed when another car approached, and then the moose turned and loped into the woods.
Pat Schwai reported seeing juncos everywhere on 4/1. Although she had spied the first one of the year on March 23, they were moving through in numbers that day. She noted, “They're even sipping at a pedestal birdbath.”
In Manitowish, aspen trees and maple trees came into flower on 3/30. On 3/31, a woodcock took up residence in the wetland right below our house and began “peenting” in earnest. We’ve been able to watch and listen to him doing his “sky dance” for the last two weeks. We heard our first spring peepers, wood frogs, and chorus frogs also on 3/31. On 4/1, we heard our first Wilson’s snipe winnowing over the house, while on a human phonological note, we slept with our windows open and hung the laundry out for the first time this year. We also saw our first great blue heron. On 4/2, we observed FOYs (First-of-years) wood duck, blue-winged and green-winged teal, goldeneye, pied-billed grebe, song sparrow, yellow-bellied sapsucker, marsh hawk, and cowbird. We saw our FOY flicker on 4/3. For a first-ever sighting on Powell Marsh on 4/4, we watched two juvenile golden eagles soar close overhead. On 4/7, we saw our first osprey, and on 4/10, we found trailing arbutus and hepatica in flower, and saw our first flock of tree swallows. Finally, on 4/12 during our first paddle of the year, we watched and listened to10 tundra swans on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.
Timing Off in an Early Spring
            During a typical Northwoods spring, the arrival of loons on most area lakes occurs within 24 hours of ice-off. Prior to ice-off, the loons are usually seen biding their time on the open waters of the Wisconsin River. Every day, however, it’s thought that they fly over the frozen lakes to check when the ice vanishes. Then, presto, they appear on the lakes.
Well, not this year. Though some loons are back, the timing of ice-off was so early that many lakes have still not seen the arrival of “their” loon pair as of this writing (4/12). Postings this past week on the Wisconsin BirdNet tell of loons by the dozens still hanging out on lakes in the Madison area apparently awaiting whatever signal goes off within them to move the next leg northward.
Lots of other natural events have come early this spring, from early blooming shrubs and trees to the return of many bird species like tree swallows. Even leopard frogs were singing on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage on 4/12, at least a month before we typically first hear them (the TFF usually is still totally iced-up until April 20 or so).
The fear regarding such early arrivals is that the timing will be thrown off for other species that may not have responded with such robust enthusiasm to the flirtings of April. For instance, unless a spate of insects hatch soon, the tree swallows will find slim table fare and then death via starvation. The various plant species that bloom or leaf-out now may also regret their blind fervor when hard frosts hit later in the month and possibly long into May and early June.
So, we’ll see how all this works out. Ruby-throated hummingbirds were reported in southern Illinois on 4/11. They’re not “supposed” to return to the Northwoods until around Mother’s Day, a month from now. But they’re not far from our doorstep, and they fare poorly when evenings frost hard. Let’s hope their innate wiring dictates appropriate caution rather than exuberance.

Migration at Sunset – Watch For It on Weather Maps
            Most songbird migration takes place about a half hour after sunset. This phenomenon can easily be observed on any weather website that shows regional weather radar. To see the migration taking place on any given night, check the regional radar just before sunset to see what the actual weather is like in a given area. Then check again a half hour or so later to see the mushroom-like “blooms” of birds that are taking off and heading north – see the attached radar map from April 4 this year.

Celestial Events
            Tonight (4/16) at dusk look for Venus about four degrees south of the two-day-old moon. The peak Lyrid meteor shower occurs on the night of 4/22. The Lyrids are rated at an average of 10 to 20 meteors per hour.
            We’re up to 14 hours of daylight as of 4/24! The full moon occurs on 4/28.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 4/2/10

A Northwoods Almanac for April 2 – 15, 2010

First of Spring Sightings
3/10: Sue Aitken on the Manitowish Chain reported the first Canada geese.
3/11: Jane Wierschem on Blue Lake in Minocqua reported seeing the first chipmunk.
3/14: Nancy Burns on the Manitowish Chain reported the first hooded mergansers.
3/14: Pat Schwai on Cochran Lake reported the first mourning cloak butterfly flitting along their south facing hill.
3/15: With temperatures around 60°, Ron Winter in Boulder Junction also reported seeing a mourning cloak butterfly and a silver-spotted skipper fluttering around his yard. He noted that some adult butterflies which hibernate fly around during a mid-winter thaw.  
3/16: Jim Sommerfeldt on Middle Sugarbush Lake reported the first robin.
3/16: Nancy Burns on the Manitowish Chain reported the first common mergansers.
3/19: Sue Aitken on the Manitowish Chain reported the first buffleheads.
3/19: Jim Sommerfeldt on Middle Sugarbush Lake reported the first juncos returning. 
3/21: We returned from a 10-day trip to North Carolina and noted immediately that “our” pair of bald eagles was sitting on eggs in the nest across the river from our house. We also saw our first red-winged blackbirds and grackles.
3/22: Mary and I observed our first rough-legged hawk of the year near Springstead.
3/22: Terry Daulton reported hearing sandhill cranes calling from a marsh in the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.
3/23: Dave Foster reported observing a pair of hooded mergansers in a wetland pool near their house in Natural Lakes, the earliest he has seen this species in the five years they've lived here. 
3/23: Jim Sommerfeldt saw his first single American tree sparrow (we had two tree sparrows stay at our feeders the whole winter which was quite unusual).
3/24: Jane Wierschem on Blue Lake about five miles south of Minocqua reported that black bears are out.  She had one hit her bird feeders, and then saw one in her front yard on 3/26 (see her picture).
3/24: John Randolph reported seeing seven male Buffleheads and a single loon on open water on the Wisconsin River north of Rhinelander. 
3/24: John Werth  reported seeing three loons on Maple Lake.
3/25: Pat Schwai on Cochran Lake wrote that “the lake opened up enough for waterfowl to land early this morning although large sheets of ice remain. My neighbors Frank and Nancy Sevcik saw two swans on the lake. My neighbors Sig and Mary Kaminski spotted the first 3 loons of the year. They seemed confined to a long "channel" of open water and by mid-afternoon were gone.”
3/26: Mary and I heard our first sandhill cranes of the year at Murray’s Landing on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.
3/27: John Werth reported the first great blue heron of the year fishing on the Manitowish River.
3/27: On our first spring walk on the Powell Marsh dikes (usually we would be skiing the dikes on this date, but they’re dry now), we spotted several rough-legged hawks, dozens of geese and mallards, two sandhill cranes, four hooded mergansers, and two trumpeter swans. Most unusual of all, we came across the severed lower half of an ermine, the upper half likely carried off by a raptor. The ermine was still white, and thus an easy target when set against the all-brown landscape. Very early springs like this one can upset the timing that animals have evolved for changes in their pelage.
3/28: Fox sparrows appeared at our feeders in Manitowish, giving us three sparrow species feeding below our house - white-throated, tree, and fox. We also have a bevy of goldfinch and pine siskins, several purple finch, four evening grosbeaks, and dozens of red-winged blackbirds and grackles along with the usual array of woodpeckers, nuthatches, blue jays, mourning doves, and chickadees. After a relatively quiet winter for birds, we’re back in the seed-buying business.
3/29: We saw our first ring-necked ducks of the year at Powell Marsh, and later that day saw six sandhill cranes on the almost completely open Turtle Flambeau Flowage.

Swan ID
On 3/15, Jeff and Diane Zanski observed two large white swans landing on Squaw Lake.  A few days later on 3/19, Phil Williams sent me photos of two swans that had arrived on the open waters of Rock Creek north of Winchester. We’ve had many others report swans in the general area, and as of this date, 3/29, it’s a very good bet that those reported have been trumpeter swans because only the trumpeters winter-over in our area. But migrating tundra swans were reported in large numbers this last week in southern Wisconsin, and a few of those will likely be migrating through our area, so swan identification becomes a much more difficult task now.
The easiest way to tell the difference is by voice. The trumpeter sounds like the very poor and loud effort of a first-time trumpet player, while the tundra sounds like a baying hound or a bit like honking geese. Visual identification, on the other hand, is very nuanced (if you can get close enough, look for the yellow spot on the bill of the tundra). I confess to still having problems easily telling the difference between the species. Dust off your bird guide (get Sibley’s if you need a new one), and see what I mean.
But whether tundra or trumpeter, don’t get so lost in the ID process that you forget to simply appreciate the stunning beauty of these birds. Trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl species in North America, and when they fly close overhead, they’re a sight to behold.

Viewing the International Space Station
To view the ISS, as well as space shuttles approaching the ISS to dock, go to: When you click on the date of a visible pass, a chart shows the path of the ISS or the shuttle across the sky. It displays the exact path through the constellations that the satellite will travel while it is visible.
Another website: will also give you times and locations for the ISS and various satellites.
Here’s an example: On 4/10, look at 5:31 a.m. in the southwest for the ISS to appear. It will arc across the sky for 5 minutes, blazing like a very bright star at negative 3.0 magnitude, and then fizzle out in the northeast.

Drought and Fire Danger
            It is dangerously dry in the woods right now, and no one should be outside burning anything until we get significant rain. The risk is simply too high.
            Still, fire has always been a part of our natural ecosystem. On our sandiest soils, like the “jack pine flats” around Boulder Junction, fires occurred regularly, returning to the same area on average every 50 to 75 years. In fact, jack pines evolved specifically to take advantage of fires by producing seed cones that only open when temperatures reach 116°F. Their cones don’t drop off every year like other pine species, but hang on for up to 25 years awaiting a fire. One study reported up to two million jack pine seeds per acre waiting in reserve in unopened cones.
Historically, the smell of fire was always in the air over Wisconsin. From original surveying records, ecologists estimate that 178,000 acres once burned annually from natural fires (now only about 2,500 acres annually). However, in 1870 when settlement began in haste with the first railroad entering northern Wisconsin, there came a whole new era of fire. In 1871, the worst forest fire disaster in American history occurred, the Peshtigo Fire. Then for 60 years, fires were always burning somewhere in the Northwoods, creating the great era of holocausts that lasted into the 1930s. Only with the exhaustion of virgin timber, the abandonment of agricultural settlement, and the statewide commitment to fire control did the fires cease.
The fires were considered by most as positive, because settlers were needed to hasten the transformation from forests to fields, and fires cleared the land faster than any other tool. The Detroit Post depicted the devastating fires of 1881 that occurred throughout the Midwest as: [a] “chance for new settlers . . . Where the fires have raged the forests have been killed, the underbrush burned and the ground pretty effectively cleared. There are square miles and whole townships where the earth is bare of everything except a light covering of ashes; and other square miles where all that is needed to complete the clearing is to gather up a few scattered chunks per acre and finish burning them.” 
In 1898, Filibert Roth described northern Wisconsin this way: “During forty years of lumbering nearly the entire territory has been logged over . . . In addition to this, the fires, following all logging operations or starting on new clearings of the settler, have done much to change these woods. Nearly half of this territory has been burned over at least once, about three million acres are without any forest cover whatever, and several million more are but partly covered by the dead and dying remnants of the former forest . . . Here are large tracts of bare wastes, ‘stump prairies,’ where the ground is sparsely covered with weeds and grass, sweet fern, and a few scattering, runty bushes of scrub oak, aspen, and white birch.”
In 1905, fires broke out in nearly every one of the 32 northern counties – 1,435 in all, and they burned over one million acres. The smoke was so bad that navigation was impeded on Lake Michigan.
Times have changed, of course. Since the 1930s the success of fire-suppression efforts has eliminated most of the wildfires. But when severe drought occurs, even the best fire-fighting efforts can be overmatched. We need rain, and lots of it. But until it arrives, please exercise the greatest caution with fire.