Friday, June 25, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 6/25/10

A Northwoods Almanac for June 25 – July 8, 2010

Drought Update
We received nearly four inches of rain in Manitowish during the first half of June, a welcome respite from the severe drought which has impacted our lakes and rivers since 2003. This drought is the worst in the historical record for north central Wisconsin; however, it has not been uniform in its effects. First, weather stations at various northern Wisconsin sites have recorded dramatically different local precipitation totals:
Location                        Precipitation Deficit from 2003 - 2010
Rest Lake                         - 59.4 inches
Rice Reservoir             - 55.9 inches
Rhinelander                        - 47.4 inches
Wausau                        - 39.5 inches
Minocqua Dam            - 37.0 inches
Lac Vieux Desert            - 24.7 inches
Eagle River                        - 19.24 inches
Phelps                                    - 17.2 inches
            Thus, the Manitowish Chain of Lakes and the Manitowish River have experienced the worst local effects of the drought, which confirms the local belief that storms have been tracking just north or south of us for many years.
            Second, the drought has impacted distinct types of lakes very differently. Lakes with no inlet or outlet streams – those that get their water solely from precipitation and ground water – have fared much worse. Water levels in these “seepage” lakes have historically fluctuated between 2 ½ and 11 feet. Lakes that get their water from streams and rivers (“drainage” lakes), as well as receiving water from precipitation and groundwater, have historically fluctuated far less – between 1 ½ feet and 4 feet. Many drainage lakes in our area have only dropped 1 or 2 feet during this drought, while many seepage lakes are at least 6 feet down.
            Third, lakes that are high in the landscape have fared worse than those lower in the landscape. Since groundwater flows downhill, lakes at high elevations receive very little groundwater compared to lakes lower in the landscape that get the benefit of lots of water draining downhill and into their basins.
            Fourth, humans impact water levels in a drought, too, though in our area the effects are unclear. In central Wisconsin, the pumping of irrigation water onto farm fields has substantially lowered groundwater levels. In the Lakeland area, we don’t have that intensive agricultural use to draw our water tables down. However, one wonders what the impacts are of cranberry marshes that draw water directly out of rivers and lakes.
            Dams also alter water levels, for better or worse. The Manitowish Chain, for instance, is drawn down 3 ½ feet every winter to protect docks. As of June 1, water levels had only come up 1 foot. If the Chain had only been drawn down 1 foot last fall, it would have been at full pool in late May.
Drawdowns at dams are always a major problem when drought occurs, given that the public’s water must be shared with wildlife, plants, and people throughout the watershed.
            The far more difficult issue in this drought is to determine how long it will take to refill the many seepage lakes in our area that are way down. Since every seepage lake is different in terms of its inflow of groundwater, limnologists are unable to say how much rain we’ll need above our annual average to bring all of the lakes back up to “normal”. Many people have docks and boathouses that are now literally hundreds of feet away from water, and the problem, of course, spills over into wildlife and plant communities. The shoreline branches and logs that supported abundant fish, insect, and amphibian communities are high and dry, reducing the reproduction and growth rates of many species. Beaver lodges and bank dens are completely out of the water; waterfowl nesting along shorelines are impacted as waters continue to recede; frogs that hatched from eggs laid in marshes or woodland pools that have dried up won’t make it.
            Some good has also come of the low water. For instance, rusty crayfish are faring poorly as the logs they utilize for cover in shallow water are no longer available. Plants that are adapted to germinating on exposed shorelands during a drought are singing halleluiah. Unfortunately, non-native plant species often are best adapted to disturbed soils, so they may win the race to colonize the new open ground.
Nature always operates under a dynamic profit-loss statement, with the decline of some species providing opportunities for others. A fire, a flood, a drought – any natural disturbance – has a host of species that are adapted to the “disaster”. In fact, a number of species require powerful natural disturbances to occur.
As I’m writing this on the evening of summer solstice, it’s dark and a thunderstorm is marching through. Every drop it gives us will help, but how long will the road back to recovery take?

During our last frog count on 5/25, we heard whip-poor-wills calling at three of the ten sites we visited. At one site near Nichols Lake, we’ve heard a whip-poor-will calling for at least a decade. It’s a sound that we are thankful to hear every year, though we are equally thankful that one doesn’t sing below our window. Their extraordinarily loud and repetitive call could easily drive someone to dark thoughts.
A ground-nesting species, whip-poor-wills lay their clutch of two eggs directly on the leaf litter of the forest floor where the adults remain motionless on the nest or on a roost site during the day. At dusk, they begin actively foraging for flying insects, and on moonlit nights, they catch moths and beetles all night long. The hatching of their chicks seems to be closely tied to when the full moon will occur, so the parents can forage all night and supply the extra energy needed for their growing chicks.
Dry forests with little or no underbrush and a high degree of openness appear to be their optimal habitat, habitat we seem to have in abundance. However, whip-poor-will populations appear to be declining gradually, though their presence has been poorly sampled over the years because most breeding bird surveys occur in the early morning when whip-poor-wills are quiet and nearly impossible to see. Still, most ornithologists agree that today they occupy less of their available breeding range due to habitat loss from agriculture. The closing of forest openings due to growth and succession of trees also appears to be a major cause. Grazing by farm animals in open woodlands also causes whip-poor-wills to fail to return to those areas because of loss of understory nesting cover.
On the other hand, too many plants in the understory can be equally problematic, particularly when invasive shrubs like honeysuckle and buckthorn take over. The appropriate balance of food and cover in a habitat, as always, is the key.
Whip-poor-wills actually sing 100 to 200 different songs, though few of us have the endurance to differentiate their nonstop songs from one another. The males sure must want to impress the lady whip-poor-wills, though one could argue that perhaps they need an adaptation lesson in quality over quantity.

Luna Moths
            Jody Bognar sent me a lovely picture of a luna moth a few weeks ago. I hope the paper is able to print her picture in color, because luna moths rank right up there with some of the most stunningly colored creatures in North America.

Batty Volunteers Needed
            The WDNR is trying to collect as much baseline data as it can on bat populations in Wisconsin and needs your help. A disease called “white-nose syndrome” is devastating bat populations in the eastern U. S., causing “the most precipitous wildlife decline in the past century in North America,” according to biologists. This fungal disease causes bats to awaken more often during hibernation and use up their stored fat reserves, leading to their death by starvation or freezing. The syndrome has killed more than a million bats in fourteen states since 2006, and will very likely make its way into Wisconsin in the next few years.
            Thus the rush to get baseline data, so we at least know what the bat populations were before we lose many of them. A citizen monitoring program has been established utilizing a recorder that makes the echolocation calls of bats audible and also visible as a sonogram. One method to capture this data is for volunteers to slowly paddle or quietly motor around the circumference of their lakes after dark, press a button on the device to save the information whenever a bat call is registered, and then go home and download the data onto a computer and e-mail it to Madison.
            The process is very simple, and I’ve had a number of people tell me it’s great fun as well – most folks were surprised to learn the bats were so active and so noisy! Given the positive ecological value of bats – they eat mosquitoes – their presence is highly desirable.
            I’d love to see every lake association take this and run with it. To volunteer, call wildlife biologist Linda Winn in Woodruff at 365-5211, extension 207, or call the North Lakeland Discovery Center at 543-2085. A training session will be held at the Discovery Center on July 21.

Celestial Events
            The full moon – the Strawberry or Rose Moon according to tribal traditions – will occur on 6/26. A partial lunar eclipse, the first of two lunar eclipses in 2010, will also occur this night, though it won’t be visible in northern Wisconsin. It will be visible after sunset from Australia and eastern Asia if you wish to hop a plane. Or it can be seen before sunrise over western North and South America, but the moon will set just as the eclipse starts to become interesting.
The second lunar eclipse will be a total eclipse on 12/21, winter solstice, and that one we’ll apparently see.
July 2nd marks the mid-point in the calendar year, and though the solstice occurred back on 6/21, the sun finally begins setting one minute earlier on this date. The Earth reaches its farthest point (its “aphelion”) from the sun on 7/6, some 94.5 million miles away. Nearly six months ago, on January 2nd, we were a mere 91.4 million miles away. It may seem strange that it was coldest when we were closest to the sun, and it will be warmest when we’re farthest, but the degree of tilt of the earth toward or away from the sun is the important number, not the distance away.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 6/11/10

A Northwoods Almanac for June 11 – 25, 2010

Frog Count – Bullfrogs Already Singing
            On 5/25, Mary and I conducted the second round of our annual frog count for the DNR in western Vilas County, and we were very surprised to hear bullfrogs and green frogs already calling. We began running this route in 1988, and can’t recall in those 22 years ever hearing bullfrogs this early.
            The timing for the singing of breeding frogs goes like this: In the ephemeral woodland ponds of spring, the water warms far more quickly than in larger permanent lakes, so we hear the early spring woodland frogs singing first (spring peepers, wood frogs, chorus frogs, and a little later, the northern leopard frog) when water temperatures hit an optimal point for their breeding, usually about 50°F. As the temperatures in wetlands and lakes increase, other frogs begin to chime in. The late spring breeding frogs (American toad, eastern gray tree frog) breed most productively in semi-permanent wetlands when the water temperatures reach 60°F. Finally, the summer breeding species (green frog, mink frog, and the bullfrog, which is the last voice in the choir), usually don’t vocalize until at least mid-June or when water temperatures hit 70°F.
            The calling of these frogs so early in the season tells us how quickly the lakes have warmed up. Pair abnormally shallow waters with abnormally warm April and May temperatures, and one result is much earlier breeding frogs.

Nighthawks Booming
During our frog count, we also heard nighthawks peenting and booming along Bear Lake Road, which has had substantial recent clearcutting. A nasal “peent” or “beernt” (some say the sound resembles the word “beard” being whispered) is produced during level flight by both sexes.
However, the booming sound produced (presumably) by the male is the real attraction. The males produce the sound as air rushes through their primary feathers after a sudden downward flexing of their wings during a dive. They begin their dives from 15 to 100 feet up, and descend at about a 70° angle, often only turning when they are less than 10 feet from ground, and then climbing upward at about a 60° angle. They dive on average about once per minute.
The booming flights are associated with mating displays, and are not made outside of the breeding season, so if you want the best chance to see and hear them, you need to go out within the next two weeks. Recent clear cuts are the best sites to find them, or over open fields.

Early Flowerings and Fruitings, Egg-layings and Hatchings
            Everything has been early this year (except for perhaps the arrival of neotropical migrating birds like hummingbirds). Leaf-out, wildflowers, and fruits seem to be at least two weeks ahead of what I consider “normal” dates. Rosy Richter in Mercer reported finding ripe wild strawberries over the Memorial Day weekend – the normal time is mid-June. Mary and I found wild roses in prolific bloom on Powell Marsh on 6/5 (though they may have been in bloom earlier). We usually expect them at the earliest in the latter half of June. Blue-flag iris was also in flower prior to the Memorial Day weekend, and is also a flower we would more normally expect to see in June.
            Painted and snapping turtles were laying eggs over the Memorial Day weekend, typically a mid-June event.
            We saw our first loon chick out on Powell Marsh on June 5th. June 15th is the usual average date for around here.

5/26 – Betsy Ullman, next door to us in Manitowish, had a red-bellied woodpecker visiting her feeders.
5/27 - Jim Sommerfeldt reported seeing a male goldfinch, “except the bright yellow color was all white. All the black color was normal.” 
5/29 - Jim and Tally Schuppel reported hearing a whip-poor-will “for the past four nights that is doing a wonderful job as an alarm clock at all hours of the night. It's been about 7 years since we have heard a whip-poor-will. We also spotted a pair of cedar waxwings in our yard this morning.” 
5/31 – Mary and I were biking an old railroad grade near Sandy Beach Lake and were looking into the surrounding bog when a sandhill crane suddenly stood up about 50 feet out from us. A few seconds later, another crane stood up right in front of the first one. The second crane walked steadily away, but the first stayed relatively tight to the area where it first stood up, a likely indication that it had been sitting on a nest. So, we quickly walked our bikes away, and as quickly, the crane settled itself back down on the bog mat, further indicating that it was probably on a nest. The “Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin” states that the latest recorded date in Wisconsin for eggs is June 20. Incubation averages around one month, thus for a sandhill to still be on nest on May 31 would not be unusual for our area.
6/2 – John Werth reported hearing “a sound we never heard before! It took some time and a visit to our bird book when we got back home. I've seen many nighthawks in my life, but never heard that sound which came at the low part of which I would explain as almost a freefall! It was fantastic as the bird was only about 50 yards from us!”
6/3 – Lynn Wilkins on Squaw Lake was delighted to find a luna moth on her property. To my eye, the exquisite green coloration, split tail, and four-inch wingspan of the luna moth make it one of the most beautiful creatures one can find in the Northwoods.
6/3 - Jane Flanigan in Hazelhurst sighted seven bears in her yard. “At 6:20 a.m., we had two medium-size bears, one of which got the hummingbird feeder. Then at 6:40 a.m., along comes mama bear with her three little cubs. And at 8:30 am I finally thought the coast was clear and was going to open the door to let the dog out and along strolls another bear. Far too many bears for me.”

Drought Update
            We received a long steady rain on 6/4, amounting to nearly an inch – good news for the start of June. But the month of May came up well short of the average precipitation, adding to our drought condition. According to biologist David Schmoller, the precipitation data for May showed 0.89 inches at the Minocqua Dam. Thus, for the year, we are at 3.32 inches at the Minocqua Dam, which is 6.27 inches below our average to date of 9.59 inches. Since 1/1/03, we are 36.14 inches below normal.
Summer Solstice/Celestial Events
            June 21 marks the summer solstice, the sun reaching its highest altitude above the horizon and rising its farthest north of the equator. We are blessed today with 15 hours and 45 minutes of sunlight. Tomorrow, the sun will rise a minute later – the first time since December 27th.
            The sun rises today, 6/11, at its earliest time of the year – 5:08 CDT.
New moon occurs on 6/12. On 6/14, look at dusk for Venus about four degrees north of the crescent moon.

Wolf/Deer Role Reversal
            Last year, I read an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about Jim Hintz, a logger from Fifield who in mid-February, 2009, was using his skidder to move logs at a timber sale in Ashland County when he watched several adult deer charge two wolves. “The smaller wolf didn’t wait. It ran away,” Hintz said. “The big one stayed and those deer just overhauled him. First they stood on their hind legs and batted him with their front hooves, and then some of them turned and kicked like mules with their back hooves. I’m sure they broke his ribs . . . I doubt the whole thing lasted a minute . . . If I hadn’t seen it myself, I’d think someone was telling a bald-faced lie.”
Hintz had been cutting maple and yellow birch for several months, causing 30+ hungry deer to congregate every day and eat the tops. Hintz wasn’t surprised when the wolves appeared because he often saw their tracks.
Veteran wolf researchers, Dave Mech at the University of Minnesota and Michael Nelson of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wolf Project, said that although they had never witnessed similar attacks in nearly 80 years of combined field work, they weren’t surprised. Nelson once saw a deer face down three wolves until they left; and Mech saw a deer leap over a wolf three times and mule-kick it each time it landed. Plus, they cited a case in which a wolf died after getting gored by a buck’s antlers — and another died after a deer crushed its skull with a kick.
They also said wolves kill deer in only 20 percent of their chases. “People generally think wolves kill anything they want, but their success depends on the deer itself and the wolf’s age and experience,” Mech said.
I’m citing this article to run a bit of interference for me in relating a similar observation I had on 5/31. Our daughter Callie and I were walking a logging road north of Minocqua in the late afternoon when I heard a loud crashing to my left and saw a deer running towards us through the woods. I could also see, however, that the deer was chasing a large mammal, which I couldn’t see well enough to immediately identify. They burst out onto the road, crossed it in a second, and were gone into the woods on the other side. The deer was chasing what clearly looked like to me to be a mangy wolf.
Now, when folks call me with strange sightings, my “doubting Thomas” antennae go up, and I try as kindly as possible to ask pertinent questions that will help confirm what they saw. I start kiddingly with things like their state of sobriety, and move on to questions about size and coloration, how good a look they got, and their familiarity with the species in question. I do this because I know how I often I misidentify things. If I had a nickel for every time I was wrong about something, we’d have some major land holdings.
So, yes, I was sober. Yes, I got a very good look, but it was also very brief. And no, I’m not an expert on coyote vs. wolf identification.
In the meantime, our little (28 pound, one-year-old) Australian shephard, Zoe, took off at race-car speed after the deer and wolf, and fortunately gave up the chase with Callie and I screaming at her to STOP! She likes to play with other dogs, you see.
So, what to make of it? I related the story to Rosie Richter who worked the front desk at the Woodruff DNR for many years, and thus heard many stories, and she said that they would get three or four calls every year around Memorial Day from folks who were having trouble with deer intimidating their dogs. Does are well-known to occasionally give birth to their fawns close to people’s homes, presumably to reduce predation from bears, wolves, coyotes, and others which tend (but not always) to stay deeper in the woods. Thus, many Fidos and Fluffies of all breeds have likely had an unfriendly enounter with a protective doe.
So, I suspect the large doe I saw was protecting her fawn from this single wolf, which, in its mangy condition, may no longer be associated with a pack, and may not be healthy enough to win a battle with an angry and much larger doe.
Hard to know, of course. We speculate a lot about animal’s intentions, observe and study their behaviors endlessly, and hope by doing so that we can better understand their life cycle, and thus do a better job of managing their habitats and our behaviors that affect them. We get it right lots of times, and are surprised lots of times. All we can do is share what we see, and by a consensus of similar observations try to gain a little understanding into the life of an animal.
All I know is that Callie and I saw something quite amazing, and we were buzzing about it for long afterwards.