Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 12/31/10

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/31/10 – 1/ 13/11
by John Bates

Pete Esche in Presque Isle sent me a fine picture of an ermine that has been a frequent visitor on his deck throughout December. The picture clearly shows how the ermine has molted from its brown summer pelage into its white winter coat, retaining the black tip on the end of its tail. The black-tipped tail seems an anomaly in its otherwise perfect camouflage; however, one research study found that hawks easily captured fake weasels that had no black-tipped tails. Conversely, the hawks would first hesitate and then attack the tails of the normal black-tipped weasels, presumably mistaking the tails for the ermine’s heads, thus giving the ermines a better chance for escape.
The Northwoods has three species of weasels: the short-tailed (also called the ermine), the long-tailed, and the least. To tell them apart, the short-tailed and the long-tailed weasels have a black-tipped tail, while the least weasel is all white. Long-tails are typically more than a foot in length and their tail is half again as long as their body. Ermines are less than a foot in length and their tail is about a third of their body length, so it works out that long-tailed weasels are about twice as long as ermines.
Still, the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) and the ermine (Mustela erminea) are nearly impossible to distinguish in the field. Genders are easier to tell apart given that the males weigh about twice as much as females.
The Genus Mustela (Weasels and Minks) also includes minks, pine martens, otters, badgers, skunks, wolverines and fishers, but none of these change colors. All mustelids are active in winter, except for the skunk, which becomes semi-dormant in winter, living off its fat.
It’s interesting that when a person is referred to as a “weasel,” it’s a derogatory term usually associated with someone who is gutless and conniving. These slurs are true character assassination, because weasels are bold and confident out of all proportion to their size. They’re considered by some to be the most efficient and fiercest predator on earth, and are well known to attack prey that is often bigger than themselves. Weasels have even been observed to attack snowshoe hares, which weigh at least 5 times as much as they do. One observer also watched a hawk pluck up a weasel, but it soon plummeted from the sky, dead, with the weasel’s teeth sunk into its breast.
Weasels suffer an unduly poor reputation for eating birds when research shows they mostly eat rodents, including rats. They certainly eat some birds, but a 1999 study of least weasels showed that small rodents (mostly voles) constitute 41% of their diet in summer, along with birds, eggs, and insects, while their winter diet is predominantly small rodents. The shape of their bodies tell their evolutionary story - weasels apparently adapted their small, long, sinuous bodies over some four million years expressly for the purpose of following rodents into their burrows.
Weasels are lean, mean, fighting machines particularly in winter because in large part they have no choice. They’re built long and skinny, with very short fur and very small stomachs, and they also put on very little body fat in the winter. These physical attributes combine in winter to make them nearly always cold and hungry, thus their resting metabolism is twice that of other animals their size. They also have to eat more food per day than any other winter-adapted animals. Males consume almost half their own weight every day to stay warm, while females need two-thirds of their own weight daily in order to nurse 8-10 young for three months.
The body-size differential in the genders allows the much larger males to overpower prey too large for the females, while the smaller females can get down burrow holes too narrow for the males, thus making the species as a whole even more efficient hunters.
Weasels hunt at night usually only about 800 feet from the center of their territory investigating every nook and cranny. They’re so active that Richard Conniff in a Smithsonian magazine article perfectly compared their metabolism to “a hip-hop dancer on a caffeine bender.”

Christmas Bird Count
            We conducted the 18th annual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird on 12/19, and we broke our total species count record with 31 species! Now if you live in Madison, where they found 82 species during their count last week, then you will be less than impressed with our total. But Madison is 250 miles south, and the difference in winter conditions between northern and southern Wisconsin is more than amply demonstrated by the vast difference in wintering bird species.
            Notable in our count this year were 43 wild turkeys. We never counted a wild turkey until our 2005 count when three appeared, so 43 is quite a jump.
Goldfinches were the one finch species in profusion so far this year – we found 420 of them within our count circle.
We had firsts of a northern cardinal and a white-crowned sparrow. I expect the cardinal numbers to climb steadily in the next decade, but that white-crowned sparrow was either seriously lost, ill, or injured.
            Common redpolls showed up in our count (114 of them), even though virtually no one has seen them at their feeders yet. They seem to currently be working white birch trees for their seeds.
            Our easiest count of the day occurred when Mary and I were awakened by the calls of two barred owls beneath our window – the only barred owls we got on the count!
            Eleven trumpeter swans appear to be spending the winter on the Manitowish River. We first counted wintering trumpeters on the Manitowish back in 1999, and we’ve counted some every year since then. They usually hang out on the open water just before Benson Lake.
            We had a great day in Manitowish as well – we counted 16 species out our windows, a record day for us.           
Guy David organized the Minoqua count the day before, 12/18, and found 25 species, a very good count for our area as well. Notable on their count, I thought, were the 65 snow buntings they found still hanging around. They’re usually long gone by now.
            Perhaps as important as the data we collected were the smiles and camaraderie we all experienced when we met for lunch and shared our mornings successes and disappointments. Good stories always abound, and our mutual enthusiasm is worth every bit of the effort.

Judith Bloom in Lake Tomahawk sent photos of a flock of 13 wild turkeys which arrived in their yard on 11/29 and seem to like their ground seed and the shucks from the black sunflower seed.  Judith noted, “Once they are done feeding they often hunker down at the far end of our backyard against the hillside and just enjoy the chance to be out of the wind and in the sun if it is shining.”
Sharon Lintereur reported purple finches at their feeders on 12/16,  “about a month behind from when they usually come.” Sharon’s doing better than most everyone I know – purple finches are rare so far this winter.
Jane Flanigan in Hazelhurst had an ermine visiting their suet several times during the snow storm on 12/11. She noted, “I think he was determined to take it with him, but wasn't very successful. Entertaining to watch him, but not very photogenic . . . We also have several flying squirrels visiting the sunflower feeder right next to our patio door. They come like clockwork every night.”
            A reader in Springstead called on 12/20 to report that a small flock of pine grosbeaks were coming to her platform feeder. Pine grosbeaks have also been very uncommon this winter.
            Rich Egdorf in St. Germain had a female red-bellied woodpecker come to his feeder on 12/21. He also has pine grosbeaks coming in.
Al Denninger, who lives between Lake Tomahawk and Rhinelander, told me he has had two pairs of red-bellied woodpeckers nesting on his property for five years now.
            On 12/25, we had our first pine grosbeaks appear at our feeder, and on 12/27, a lone bohemian waxwing picked away at the few remaining crabapples left on one of our trees. Later that morning, Mary also spotted a large hawk sitting on the snow beneath our feeder, but it took off almost immediately so she only got a very brief look at it. It was most likely a Cooper’s hawk enjoying either one of the songbirds or some of the mice that often try to grab some seeds from beneath the feeder.

Accessing Earlier Columns from 2010
Over the years, a number of readers have asked me to post my columns so they could read them when they were unable to pick up a copy of the Lakeland Times. Daughter Callie showed me how to create a blog, and though it’s taken me a while to get the hang of it, you can now find my old columns at: www.manitowishriver.blogspot.com.

Celestial Events
            January 7 marks the last of the latest sunrises of the year – 7:40 a.m. From here on in, the sun comes up earlier a minute or two every morning until June 20. That’s worth a major cheer!

Best Natural History Books and Outdoor Gear of 2010
Before nearly every Christmas over the last 20 years, I’ve posted a list of books and outdoor gear in this column that I think are worth considering giving as gifts. This year I plain forgot! So, given it’s too late for Christmas, I thought I might solicit your  thoughts – what do you think are the best books and/or outdoor gear from 2010 that folks might like to take a gander at? Send me your thoughts via e-mail, and I’ll post the best of the lot. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Northwoods Almanac 12/3/10

A Northwoods Almanac for Dec. 3 – 16, 2010

Christmas Bird Count
The 18th annual Manitowish Waters Audubon Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for Sunday, December 19. We need people to actively help us search for birds within the count circle, or to just count out their window the birds at their bird feeder that day. If you live within a 7.5-mile radius of the intersection of Highways 51 and County W, and want to get involved, please contact me through my e-mail at manitowish@centurytel.net or by phone at 476-2828. Counting birds at your feeder is simple, takes very little time or expertise, and is our area of greatest need. Winter birds concentrate around feeders, so we tend to get our best counts from folks watching from their windows.
            A Christmas Bird Count for the Minocqua area, which uses the intersection of Hwy. 51 and 70 West as its center point, is organized through the North Lakeland Discovery Center, and is scheduled for Saturday, 12/18. If you want to help out on that count, please call Guy David at 588-3694 or Zach Wilson at 543-2085.
The first CBC was done on Christmas Day of 1900 as an alternative activity to an event called the “side hunt” where people chose sides, then went out and shot as many birds as they could. The group that came in with the largest number of dead birds won the event. Frank Chapman, a famed ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, recognized that declining bird populations could not withstand wanton over-hunting, and proposed to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.
Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. All individual CBC’s are conducted in the period from December 14 to January 5, and each count is conducted in one calendar day.
The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.           
For instance, CBC data shows that evening grosbeak numbers were stable or increased until 1980, when their numbers began to decline significantly. The rate of decline increased between 1990 and 1998, and the Northeast and Great Lakes region show the steepest declines in evening grosbeak numbers, while evening grosbeak numbers appear stable in the Rocky Mountain region.
The cause of the decline in evening grosbeak numbers is unknown, but there are several possibilities. The most obvious is that evening grosbeaks may simply not be moving as far south during the winter due to the hemispheric trend in warmer winter temperatures. The declines might also be related to food availability – large spruce budworm outbreaks have subsided since the 1980s and seed sources may be changing due to logging practices. Or evening grosbeak numbers in the East may simply be stabilizing after their colonization of the Northwoods. Prior to the late nineteenth century, the evening grosbeak did not occur east of the Great Lakes.

Manitowish Waters designated a Wisconsin Bird City
Manitowish Waters has been named as one of an initial class of 15 towns designated by the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative as a “Wisconsin Bird City.” A celebration of this award will take place on Monday, December 6, at 6 p.m. at the Manitowish Waters Community Center.

Winter Fruit for Birds
All but one of the crabapple trees in our yard are already stripped bare of their fruit, as are our mountain ashes. We think the local robins are circulating a map of our house to other robins migrating through, because every year they arrive in October and take nearly all the berries and fruits we have.
This deprives us of some winter bird watching, but more importantly, winter berries are a major food source for many birds and mammals, and their early consumption will make life all the tougher for local wildlife come March. Ecologist Bernd Heinrich writes of collecting bagfuls of regurgitated pellets from under a winter crows’ roost, picking them apart, and finding the undigested remains of mostly berry seeds, like wild grape seed, wild holly, staghorn sumac, and various species of Viburnums. Abundant fruits can make a big difference in a long winter.
            Heinrich notes that of the 38 species of berries native to his Maine home, only nine are “summer” berries, or those which ripen full of sugars and rot quickly, like strawberries and raspberries. This leaves 29 berry species that aren’t sweet but which have a staying power that makes them still edible the following March. Species like nannyberry, maple-leaved arrowwood, winterberry, highbush cranberry, hawthorn, even the invasive buckthorn, feed woodpeckers, ravens, grouse, fox, coyotes, and just about any other critter you can think of that’s trying to make its way through an interminable winter.
            These fruits hang on through the winter because they’re very low in sugar, fats, and water content, but high in acids. Their very “tastelessness” is what makes them so dependably available in March.

            At our feeders in Manitowish on 11/17, we had 24 bohemian waxwings briefly visit our relatively barren crabapple trees, and then move on within an hour. On 11/18, a northern shrike was stalking our feeders, but numerous blue jays appeared to be harassing it, perhaps in an effort to drive it away though blue jays are larger than shrikes and not one of their prey species.
            On 11/20, we still had a robin, several tree sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, a grackle, and a red-winged blackbird at our feeders, all species that typically are well south of here by now. On 11/25, we counted 50 goldfinches at our feeders, as well as two pine siskins and a female cardinal.
            Rolf Ethun reported seeing four male evening grosbeaks at his feeders on 11/16. Linda Thomas also reported a small flock of evening grosbeaks visiting her feeders on 11/20. She also noted that her son saw a snowy owl just south of Boulder Junction, but I’ve not heard any other reports of it to date.
Dave Foster reported observing a flock of about 40 redpolls on Bear Trail in Natural Lakes, feeding in the tall birches. This is the first report of redpolls I’ve received this winter.
            And as of 11/22, nearly all Wisconsin and Minnesota loons fitted with radio transmitters have crossed the state line and are heading south and/or east. To see a really fascinating time-lapse graphic display of these loons’ migrations, loons that specifically nested on Manitowish Lake and on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, go to: http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html The graphics show just how variable their departure dates are, as well as the variability in their migration routes and stopover sites.
            December specializes in short days, offering less than 9 hours of daylight on every day of the month. From 12/5 to 12/15, we experience the earliest sunsets of the year, all occurring at 4:14 p.m, which means most of us arrive home from work in the dark. The good news is that on 12/16, the sun will set one minute later for the first time since June 20th.
The latest sunrises, however, don’t begin until 12/27, when the sun deigns to finally arise at 7:40 a.m.

Celestial Events            
            The new moon occurs on 12/5, providing dark skies for stargazers. On 12/6, look after dusk for Mars less than one degree south of the day-old crescent moon.
December 13th marks the day that Jack Schmitt left the last human footprint on the moon in the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.
            The Geminid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours on 12/14, but is also active a day on either side of the peak. The Geminids average 75 meteors per hour, and can be very impressive. The waxing gibbous moon interferes early on, shining bright during the evening hours but finally setting around midnight. However, since this shower tends to gain strength after midnight with the climax roughly around 2 o’clock in the morning, you won’t miss the peak.
The Geminid shower radiates from the constellation Gemini, specifically from a point near the star Castor, one of the brightest stars in the sky. But you don’t have to locate Gemini to watch the shower since meteors in showers appear in all parts of the sky – just let your gaze wander.
If you do want to locate Castor, look fairly low in the east-northeast sky around 9 p.m. Castor and Gemini swing upward through the night, climbing nearly overhead by around 2 a.m. If you can stay awake this late, the meteors should then be raining down from nearly straight above you.

Injured Deer
            Chad McGrath sent me a trailcam photo of a doe feeding on corn on his property in Springstead. The doe has two large round wounds in her side, each about four inches across, with no exit hole on her other side (from other pictures taken that night). The question is what would have caused these wounds?
            I e-mailed Sue Drum, a retired veterinarian in Presque Isle, to get her thoughts, and she and her husband Al concluded this: “Al thinks someone shot the doe with birdshot. Birdshot would make two round patterns and would not penetrate much beyond the subcutaneous layer which would not kill or even cripple the deer. All those little pellets would cause infection and trauma and cause the dead tissue to slough (separate from the healthy tissue) and new tissue to re-grow. One wound is more healed than the other but I imagine they will both heal and the doe will be fine.”
Chad’s theory is that a buck gored her with his antlers. He notes, “The spacing of the two wounds is about right for several of the bucks that I have pictures of, taken by the same trail camera. By the way, I have pictures of at least 8 different bucks, all but one of good size, all taken within the last 40 days by two different trail cameras and I haven't seen but one in the flesh...and he was a scrawny fork buck who is in my freezer.”
Any other theories would be welcome!

Northwoods Almanac 12/17/10

A Northwoods Almanac for December 17 – 30, 2010

You Think We Have It Bad
It was mighty cold last weekend with near-blizzard conditions, and the newscasters were making it sound like we survived a near-Armageddon. But like everything in life, we need to keep some perspective. For instance, it’s certainly true that we sometimes face pretty tough conditions when we do our Christmas bird counts, but consider doing the count in the Arctic. Folks there have done count days with windchills of minus 65°F at Sanningaruq, Alaska, and minus 70° at Prudhoe Bay. Plus an Arctic CBC is usually done in a “twilight zone,” given that the sun last sets in November and does not rise above the horizon again until February17.
Arctic CBCs can be completely birdless as well, even though observers spend hours on snowshoes, skis, and snowmobiles trying to find something avian. Many Arctic CBCs do find some life, but turn up only one species – common ravens – and usually only because there’s a town dump nearby where the ravens can find food daily.
But as with most outdoor ventures, the counters still say they have a great time. In a recent article in the journal American Birds (“Birding in the Twilight Zone”), one bird counter in Nunavut, a bayside Inuit hamlet of 600 people on the north coast of Baffin Island, said he considers its tundra, fjords, and frozen ocean to be “one of the magical places in the world.” He made the record books in 2008 when he found a rock ptarmigan, and not only doubled the size of the Arctic Bay’s CBC list, but was the first to ever record another species other than ravens north of 70° latitude.
I particularly enjoyed this quote from another birder in Prudhoe Bay who has only recorded one species – common ravens – in 23 years of doing the CBC there: “Only ravens? That’s a good one! Have you ever seen a common raven, its face covered with frost, sitting nonchalantly on the ground six feet from an Arctic fox? Or two of them performing aerobatics and exchanging an empty cigarette pack in mid-flight as if the sub-zero weather was just perfect?”
Besides trying to help the scientific data-collecting world, that ebullience is why we’re out there counting birds in the winter. Yes, when the cold creeps in, sometimes we wonder if we’ve lost our minds, but usually the world offers us something of interest, if not of great value and we come up a good story or two that we can tell later on.                                    Winter’s a quiet time, but life is going on out there, and we can best honor it by making ourselves present as observers. Besides, the experience of cold is often more in our head than in our bodies – if bird counters in the Arctic can enjoy a day (night?) out in -70°, I think we can handle 15° with a smile.

Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle e-mailed on 12/6 to say she has been enjoying two male cardinals and a red-bellied woodpecker at her feeders for the last two weeks.
On 12/10, Sandi Hodek Arbor Vitae sent me a photo of a grouse that has visited their flowering crabapple tree for several years.  And now a second grouse has joined it in the feasting. Sandi noted, “Though it would probably be geriatric by now, we can't help wondering if one of them is the same grouse that played with our lab-mix one October day four years ago.”
On 12/1, Jim Kruse sent a photo of a great horned owl that had been sitting in a tree behind their house for quite a long time.
That same day, Mark Pflieger sent a photo of a barred owl feeding on some bear fat he had put out. Over several years, a barred owl has visited his feeder around this time, and he’s wondering if the same one has returned.
As of 12/13, we still have three tree sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, and a northern junco visiting our feeders. Given the recent heavy snowfall, it will be interesting to see if these ground-feeding birds remain or if they hightail it south as they should have a month or more ago.

Celestial Events – Total Lunar Eclipse
            Winter solstice arrives on 12/21, along with the full moon and a total lunar eclipse! We will be graced with only 8 hours and 39 minutes of daylight, but we will have been compensated by the total eclipse, which will "officially" begin on Dec. 20 at 11:29 p.m. CST as the moon begins to enter Earth's outer, or penumbral, shadow. Totality occurs at 1:40 a.m. on 12/21, and ends at 2:52 a.m., so this total lunar eclipse lasts only 72 minutes from start to finish.
The entire total lunar eclipse will be visible from all of North and South America, the northern and western parts of Europe, and a small part of northeast Asia, including Korea and much of Japan. In all, an estimated 1.5 billion people will have an opportunity to enjoy the best part of this lunar show. 
Christmas day, 12/25, not only brings material presents, but also marks the first day since summer solstice that our days start growing longer. We’ll be blessed with one whole additional minute of sunlight – 8 hours and 40 minutes worth – but on every day for the next week, we’ll get another minute yet.
Our latest sunrises of the year (7:40 a.m.) begin on 12/27, and then the sun seems to hang there like a yoyo on the end of a string until January 7 when the sunrise comes a minute earlier for the first time since June 11.

View the Tundra Swan Migration
Arctic-nesting tundra swans migrate through Wisconsin in large numbers in the spring and the late fall, stopping off by the tens of thousands in November along the Mississippi River near LaCrosse. While they are most often seen feeding by the thousands in southern Wisconsin cornfields, they occasionally migrate through our area and usually are commonly seen on the Wisconsin River south of McNaughton.
If you’ve ever wondered about the actual paths of their migration, in July and August of 2008, fifty tundra swans across Alaska were surgically implanted with satellite transmitters to document inter-population differences in their migration patterns and wintering distribution. Using helicopters, planes, and inflatable boats, ten birds were captured at each of five breeding areas. Through this research, scientists hope to first better understand the swans’ movement patterns and estimate their dispersal from these areas, with the larger goals of understanding genetic differentiation within populations of tundra swans and the avian influenza viruses they carry. 
You can see their migration using Google Earth. Note how many of the swans stopover in the Brownsville, MN/Lacrosse, WI area. http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/avian_influenza/TUSW/index.html

A Passing
            On 12/9, Mary’s father Del Burns passed away peacefully at the age of 95. He had the wonderful privilege of making his transition at home in his own bed in Manitowish Waters with his two daughters at his side, Mary and her sister Nancy, and with our daughter Callie playing the harp for him.
            I note his passing out of honor for a man who expressed dignity and integrity in every fiber of his body, and who graced me with a trove of wisdom in the time I knew him. He’ll be missed in a thousand ways. But his passing also marks another loss, a loss of someone raised in the time when life on a farm was non-electric, non-motorized, non-computerized. He was born in 1915, and grew up as the eldest son on a small farm near Wausau where he milked cows by hand, plowed fields behind a horse, hauled wood he split by hand into town behind a team of two horses, and on and on – it was a time when nearly everything was still fashioned by hand and his iron-grip handshake was the result.
            I loved to listen to his stories of the first time they got electricity and turned lights on in the barn, the first time they got a tractor, the first time he used a power saw, and on and on with firsts that marked the headlong modernization of life in the 20th century.
            Mary wrote a poem to commemorate this part of his life and I wanted to share it with you because, as usual, she was able to find the true heart in things:


We wrap my father in the colors of dawn
and lay him in a carved maple sleigh,
bones of the ancient forest he helped to clear.

Come Bill and Bob
Queenie and Bird
from the horse-shadows
to carry this man home.
You remember the boy
85 years gone by
who curried, fed
and harnessed you so gently.
Step up, step proudly
for this final journey
down the morning road.

My father, eldest of six,
goes to meet the others
all gone ahead.
The pace quickens
as he thinks of Ernest, his closest brother,
dead at 17 in a wagon accident.
Parents, aunts and uncles,
cousins and baby daughters, all waiting.
But it is my mother
whom he seeks.
They have kept a vigil
for one another
a candle in the heart
burning the same flame.

Come Bill and Bob
Queenie and Bird
from the horse-shadows
to carry this man home.
Four days before his passing
he said he could hear the horses coming,
his father driving both teams
with the sleigh bells ringing through the forest.
Step up, step proudly
for this final journey
down the morning road.