A Northwoods Almanac for April 30 – May 13, 2010
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.
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!
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.