Friday, August 27, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 8/27/10

A Northwoods Almanac for August 27 – September 9, 2010

Goldenrods in Bloom
            Late August and early September marks the time when acres of goldenrods blaze along roadsides and in open fields. Though ten species of goldenrods are listed as occurring in our area in Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest (Black and Judziewicz), I seldom bother trying to identify the individual species because many goldenrods are difficult to differentiate. Mabel Osgood Wright, an American nature writer in the early 1900s, wrote, “If a botanist is ever condemned to the severest punishment that the underworld can mete, the penalty will be to write a monograph accurately describing and identifying all the known goldenrods.” Not wishing to enjoy the wonders of the underworld, I’m content just knowing these rods of gold are a goldenrod, or Solidago, as the genus name is known. Some 90 species are known in North America, and all are native. Europeans have only a few native species, and thus have imported and cultivated many American species in their gardens.
Solidago derives from the Latin solido, meaning “to make whole or heal.” Goldenrod was known variously as “the plant that consolidates” for its reputed ability to staunch bleeding and heal wounds, and as gizisomukiki by the Ojibwe, which translates as “sun medicine.” Donald Law, an English herbalist, said that because goldenrod was used to treat so many maladies that “it is as much a panacea as any plant could be.”
Bees heavily gather nectar in the acres of flowers, and if you should get stung by a bee that is collecting goldenrod nectar, the flowers of stiff goldenrod were said by the Meskwaki Indians to be made into a good lotion for stings. Since goldenrod is insect-pollinated, it’s equally important to note that it is not a source for hay fever as it is so often accused.
My wife Mary weaves rugs and wall hangings for a living, and the flowers of goldenrod have been used for centuries to make a reliable yellow dye.
I’ve no idea if goldenrods have any true medicinal value, but to worry about either identifying them or using them in some medicinal manner detracts from their simple virtue of being beautiful. Perhaps September should be known as the golden month, for the early September wildflower plumes of goldenrod and the late September gold of sugar maple leaves.

Spotted Knapweed and Friends
            When we first moved to Manitowish in 1984, we noticed a few exotic spotted knapweed plants on our property. Over the first two decades we lived here, it didn’t seem to increase significantly, so we paid it little mind. In the last few years, though, its growth has exploded. I now see fields the purple spotted knapweed along roadsides, often intermixed with the yellow of either tansy or birdsfoot trefoil, two other exotic species. While lovely to look at, like the pretty purple loosestrife in the wetlands, their beauty deceives.
            I suspect our prolonged drought initiated this invasion, given spotted knapweed’s preference for invading dry and sandy areas. To remove it, pull it by the roots, but be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves – the stems can irritate the skin.

Nighthawks Migrating
            On 8/21, Mary and Callie were driving through Ontario near Georgian Bay when they saw a flock of nighthawks migrating south. They arrived home the next morning, 8/22, and later that afternoon near Fisher Lake north of Mercer, Mary and I also saw a flock of nighthawks in migration.
            Nighthawks were being reported in migration throughout the state this last week, so be sure to keep an eye skyward for these unique migrants. On 8/21, one observer on the Holcombe Flowage reported seeing at least 225 nighthawks over a period of about 30 minutes, mostly in groups of 10 to 15. Then on 8/22, he reported seeing at least 450 nighthawks west of Wausau, some of which were flying in "kettles" of around 80 to 100.
He noted that he stopped right under a flock of about 80 and listened, but never heard them make a sound.
The nighthawk’s darting, wheeling flight, and the bold white stripe on each wing makes them easily identifiable.

Leaves Changing
            Given the extraordinary amount of rainfall and warmth we’ve received this summer, one would think our trees would hold on to their leaves, and turn color, later than usual this fall. But a number of trees are already changing, and perhaps our eight years of drought prior to this June explain why. Plants in our area were universally stressed in the spring due to the prolonged lack of moisture. Mary and I commented many times how this spring was the earliest, driest, and most pleasant we could remember in all our years here. We hiked bug-free and puddle-free from early April until the beginning of June when the rains began. Springs like that just don’t happen in the North Country!
In previous years I’ve written about how complex it is to forecast fall leaf change. I’ve quoted Peter Marchand who in his book Autumn (2000) wrote: “We are aware now that any growth processes dependent upon accumulated sugars or starch reserves can be affected by environmental conditions in some cases extending back into the previous growing season, and this complicates our attempts to explain (and certainly to forecast) year-to-year differences in autumn color considerably.”
I don’t know of any research that details how eight years of drought followed by one of the rainiest summers on record impacts fall leaf change. Thus, we’re in a bit of uncharted territory, but it seems logical to expect an early leaf fall given the extreme stress of this spring. However, I learned a long time ago that my logic doesn’t always parallel the natural world’s logic. So, as always, we’ll just have to do our best to both accept and enjoy whatever happens.

La Nina Rains
            Rains have continued to pour down in August, and according to the National Weather Service are attributable to a La Nina that they forecast will last through the northern hemisphere into early 2011. 
            Despite all the rain, water levels on many area seepage lakes are still far below normal, while other drainage lakes and rivers are brim-full.

Hummingbirds Moving
Pat and Ron Drought on Spider Lake, Mercer reported being “absolutely astounded at the number of hummingbirds around our feeders in recent weeks. You have to watch out that you don't get dive bombed when on the deck. In over 40 plus years of feeding hummers in the northwoods, we have never seen more than 3 or 4 at our feeders. Now, there are so many that we have trouble counting them. They empty the feeders daily.” 
While the Drought’s hummingbird numbers are likely due to an influx of successful local families of hummer, they may also be due to early migration. Birders in southern Wisconsin were reporting “swarms” of hummingbirds appearing at their feeders as of 8/15, the result of some early migrational movement.
The rule of thumb for hummers around here is that the local birds are usually gone by September 15. However, I always encourage folks to leave their feeders up until the end of the month in case of late migrants still moving through.
“Our” hummers are typically on their way to Central America, though some apparently winter along the western Gulf Coast. They normally arrive in Costa Rica by late September to early October.
The males precede the females in migration, while juveniles of both sexes lag somewhat behind the adult females in the fall. The overland migration in North America is nearly synchronous with the peak flowering of jewelweed (Impatiens biflora), suggesting that this flower is an important nectar source and may influence timing of migration.

Celestial Events
            Planet watching in September is particularly good at dusk. Look for Venus and Mars low in the southwest and Saturn low in the west.
            We’re down to 13 hours of daylight as of 9/6. The new moon occurs on 9/8.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/13/10

A Northwood Almanac for 8/13 - 26, 2010

Tornado on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage
            As a wild storm blew through the Manitowish area during the early evening of July 27th, Mary and I knew a major problem had occurred near us when four ambulances passed our house heading north toward Mercer. We found out the next morning that a tornado had struck the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, beginning over the western edge of the Flowage near the southern tip of Big Island, and damaging many of the smaller islands between the Turtle Dam, Springstead Landing, and Murray’s Landing. Many trees either snapped off or were uprooted in the tornado. Aerial photographs reveal trees laying cross-hatched across one another. Substantial tree damage occurred near Springstead Landing with many structures in the area damaged by falling trees up to 2 feet in diameter.
The tornado lasted only briefly, continuing eastward and uprooting or snapping trees in many campsites before the damage became much more sporadic and the tornado apparently lifted. The tornado path was embedded within a 1 to 3 mile swath of intense thunderstorm wind gusts that also caused damage and stretched across the Flowage such that bulk of Flowage campsites received at least some sort of tree damage. Ten campsites will likely be permanently closed, while four others will be further evaluated when the leaves drop in the fall.
Rescuers needed three hours to cut through downed trees to get to Murray’s Landing and two hours to get to Springstead Landing. DNR personnel began a campsite by campsite boat search in the dark for people at the 60 campsites on the Flowage and found three people seriously injured– two with broken vertebrae – who were eventually taken by ambulance to Howard Young. Since all campsites on the Flowage are non-reservable and first-come-first-serve, no one knew which sites were occupied and which weren’t. Trees had fallen on many tents, and those who had wisely huddled under picnic tables were least injured.
The Master Plan for the Flowage states that, “In event of natural disaster, the trees [within 300 feet of the shoreline] will be left lying and salvaged or cut.” Flowage manager Chris Niehaus told me that the trees on the islands will be left as is except those directly around the camping areas which will be cut into firewood. The accessible trees felled beyond the 300-foot zone were in a number of established timber sales already, and other sales will be set up to take out the rest.
The good news is that the downed trees in the water will provide woody habitat for fish and other aquatic species, further improving an already exceptional fishery. The fallen trees on the uplands will provide habitat for a host of amphibians, salamanders, ground-nesting birds, and other animals that utilize dead and dying wood for food, cover, and nesting/denning.
On many of the islands, Niehaus noted that as a forester in 1992, she helped plant thousands of white pines under existing stands of aging white birch in anticipation of the white birch dying. The white birch had held on longer than anyone thought they would, but most came down in this storm, revealing the 10-foot-tall white pines that had been planted 18 years ago. These pines are now reveling in the full sun and will grow quickly to replace the birch.
Many of the largest super-canopy white pines were also snapped off in the storm, a number of which supported eagle nests for decades. But many large white pines survived just off the edge of the storm path, and the eagles will very likely build anew in these trees. Callie and I paddled out from Springstead Landing on 8/6 to observe the storm damage, and while we were taken aback by the damage, we were also encouraged by how much was still standing overall.
Windstorms, like fires, floods, and other major disturbance events, have always been part of biological change in northern forests. The forests are remarkably resilient and have responded with rapid regrowth again and again over the centuries. The species change, but over time, barring other major distubances, the species that were lost usually return.
Researchers (Loucks 1993) looking at presettlement survey records found blowdowns in 25 percent of the 1,600 Wisconsin townships, covering 213,084 acres in 535 separate blowdowns. The largest blowdown observed by the surveyors was 15,000 acres with four others just under 10,000 acres. The researchers calculated that windstorms blew down nearly 11,000 acres of trees every year in Wisconsin.
Those blowdowns were nothing compared to the 1999 storm that hit the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, leveling 477,000 acres, so the TFF storm was relatively little in the larger scheme of things.
            When will the next big storm return to the TFF? Researchers (Shulte and Mladenoff, 2005) estimate that the return time (the expected number of years between a disturbance of comparable area at a particular location) for heavy wind events in the Northern Highlands area is 636 years. So, while that’s a long time in between major storms, wind still has always been THE major disturbance event for most of the Northwoods. The damage wrought is emotionally very difficult to see, but needs to be accepted as part of the natural dynamics of northern forests. Mother Nature has always been the CEO of this ship, and always will be.

National Data Buoy Center
Water temperatures measured at a buoy stationed in the middle of Lake Michigan recorded 80°F temperatures on August 1, the first time temperatures have reached 80 since 2001. The highest temperature ever recorded at the buoy on the southern end of the lake, 40 miles offshore from Racine, was 81°F on 8/18/1995.  
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates a number or moored buoys on the Great Lakes that record current water temperature, air temperature, wind speed, wave height, and a number of other measures.
To view current daily data for the western Great Lakes, go to the following website and simply click on the buoy:

Wood Turtles
            Ferdy Goode sent me a photo of a wood turtle he saw on the Bear River in late July, a rather rare observation. Wood turtles are a threatened species in Wisconsin, and Mary and I have only seen a few over the 27 years we’ve lived in the Northwoods.
            Fortunately, wood turtles are easy to identify due to the patterns on their shells that look like the cross-sectioned woodgrain of a tree branch.
            Wood turtles prefer to live in lowland hardwood forests, and typically dig their
nests into south-facing sandy river banks. They are semi-terrestrial, often wandering into uplands a few hundred yards away from rivers and wetlands. The hatchlings and juveniles appear to particularly utilize alder thickets along shorelines, habitat that is considered critical for them.
            Once found statewide, wood turtles now exist only in small scattered populations primarily in the northern and western two-thirds of Wisconsin. They do best in clear rivers with moderate to fast flows and uneroded shorelines. Because they nest communally, they are particularly vulnerable to predators like raccoons, skunks, and humans. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until 10 to 14 years of age, but can live as long as 58 years. If you see a wood turtle, by all means snap a picture, but otherwise give it a wide berth out of respect for its threatened status.
Various migration events appear to be commencing a bit earlier than normal this year. Nighthawks, which usually migrate in later August, have been seen in migration as of 8/8. Warblers have been observed in migration since the beginning of August, and numerous reports have recently been posted on the Wisconsin BirdNet of large migrations of common green darner dragonflies. Thousands are being seen in Cudahy,
along Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, and in Menominee Park in Oshkosh. “The air has been full of green darners,” say the observers.
            If you’re not familiar with green darners, the adults average about 3 inches long. Both genders have a green thorax, while the male has a slender, bright blue abdomen and the female a brick red to gray abdomen. Their huge eyes meet across the top of their head, so they look a bit like they’re wearing a helmet.
            The darners are voracious predators, eating insects of all sizes including other dragonflies and damselflies. In turn, they are highly desired by avian predators from songbirds like Eastern kingbirds and nighthawks to raptors like kestrels, peregrine falcons, merlins, and even broad-winged hawks. During autumn migration, researchers have observed merlins, kestrels, and peregrines eating them on the wing. One researcher has even theorized that kestrel and merlin migration is correlated with green darner movements at Hawk Ridge in Duluth.
Two different populations of green darners are thought to live in Canada and the U.S: a resident population that overwinters under the ice as larvae, and another population that migrates. It’s the offspring of these migrants that return to the Northwoods very early each spring to breed in the north, their young emerging in late summer, and then as juveniles migrating south by the thousands during August and September.

Celestial Events
            The peak night for the Perseid meteor shower occurred last night, 8/12, but many should still be viewable tonight, 8/13. The complete Perseid meteor shower lasts from July 13 to August 26, so, if you missed the chance to see them last night, be sure to go out tonight. The best meteor observing hours occur after midnight, but you should still see many meteors earlier if the late night is not your cup of tea.
If the predictions are correct, meteor observers in a clear, dark location away from city lights should see from 60 to possibly as many as 100 meteors per hour. Look to the northeast where the constellation Perseus is located.
On 8/23, look for Venus just below Mars at dusk. On 8/24, the full moon occurs, the year’s most distant and smallest full moon.