Sunday, December 18, 2011

NWA 12/9/11

A Northwoods Almanac for December 9 – 22, 2011

Snowy Owl Irruption!
Observations of snowy owls are being reported coast-to-coast in the U.S. signaling that we’re in the midst of an irruption year. In Wisconsin, ornithologists are estimating that at least a hundred are already in the state (normally, we see no more than a dozen).
Eight individual snowies have been spotted in the Ashland area alone, but most are being spotted in central and southern Wisconsin. Birds are being seen in agricultural fields, along lakeshores (Lake Michigan in particular - eight snowies were reported on 12/5 along the breakwater in Oconto), and even in cities. One birder in Madison reported on 12/2: “While I was stuck in rush hour traffic just west of Rimrock Road on the beltline at about 5:30 pm, I was startled when a large, light-colored owl flew over the highway from the north and landed on a street light just ahead of my car! The light from the lamps and car dealer (Zimbrick Mercedes/Porsche) illuminated the owl on its perch, making it clear it was a snowy.”
About the only place snowies are not being seen is in forests, which makes sense given that they nest on windswept hummocks and boulders in the arctic barrens, and their prime winter habitat closely matches their tundra habitat. They are usually seen perched on the ground or on slight rises, sometimes on buildings, telephone poles, fence posts, or almost any structure.
            It’s long been believed that the boom-and-bust cycles of their primary food choice, lemmings, determine if snowies are able to spend the winter in the far North, or whether they are forced to move south in search of food. But Arctic researchers report that it was a very big year for most lemming populations with numbers of lemmings at close to historical highs in many areas. So, the complete opposite appears true this year – because of plentiful lemmings, many Arctic nesting raptors, including snowy owls, had extremely successful  nesting and fledging success. Thus, the snowy irruption we are experiencing most likely relates to the  owl's breeding success. There may not be enough wintering territories to go around further north, causing many snowies to head south. Evidence of this comes from the fact that most of the snowies being seen are juveniles. When overcompetition occurs, the adults typically push the juveniles out of their winter territories, and they have to move south.
The last big irruption year occurred in the winter of 2005-07 when 112  
snowy owls were counted in 31 Wisconsin counties. Only twelve of the owls were identified as adult males, the rest were females and young birds. Two thirds of the owls were observed along the Great Lakes (43 in Ashland county alone).
The snowy owl differs from most diurnal owls by hunting during the day. They usually eat mammals, from small rodents to large hares. But they also consume birds, ranging from small songbird nestlings to medium-sized geese, and on occasion eat fish and other small aquatic animals. Several times Audubon observed a snowy owl catching fish while lying lengthwise belly down on a rock beside a water hole. The small fish were devoured near the hole, while the larger ones were carried off.
            To tell the difference in the age and gender of a snowy, adult males are noticeably smaller and paler than adult females, while immatures are the most heavily marked.
Keep an eye out for them this winter!

Christmas Bird Count
The 19th annual Manitowish Waters Audubon Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for Saturday, December 17. We need people to actively help us search for birds within the count circle, or to just count birds visiting their bird feeders 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 or by phone at 476-2828. Counting birds at your feeder is the simplest way to get involved, 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.
            The 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 Thursday, 12/29. If you want to help out on that count, please call Guy David at 588-3694 or Zach Wilson at 543-2085. They’re in particular need of feeder counters, and since many of you watch your feeders throughout the day, why not help out if you can?
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, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.           

Winter Park Conservation Easement
On December 1, 2011, the Lakeland area received an early Christmas present, one which will be long remembered. Ken and Carolyn Aldridge signed papers with the Northwoods Land Trust establishing a conservation easement on their 3,195-acre property that includes 43 of the 75 core kilometers of groomed ski trails surrounding Minocqua’s 40-acre Winter Park. Winter Park is a not-for-profit town park operated by the Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation in cooperation with the town of Minocqua, and is one of the most popular Nordic Centers in the Midwest. Over 10,000 visitors come to the park each season to cross-country ski, snowshoe, and skijord amid the solitude and beauty of this sizable wild area. 
The easement includes 5.4 miles (23,220 feet) of natural frontage along the Squirrel River, or nearly one-fifth of the entire shoreline of the river. It also includes about 23,220 feet or 4.4 miles, of natural shorelines along Yukon Creek, a small tributary to the Squirrel River, and roughly 2,700 feet of frontage, or about ½ mile, along Howard’s Creek, a Class III trout stream supporting brook trout.
The upland forest is dominated by second or third growth red oak, red pine, white pine, aspen, red maple, and white birch. The Aldridge’s hope to restore older pines on the property while keeping the land protected forever from development.
The Northwoods Land Trust (NWLT) is a non-profit, tax-exempt conservation organization headquartered in Eagle River that works with property owners who want to see their land protected. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust to permanently protect a property's natural characteristics by limiting how it can be used. The land remains private property, but it can only be developed to the extent specified in the easement. The land can be sold with the easement in place or passed down to successors. Unlike deed restrictions and covenants, a land protection agreement comes with a stewardship commitment from the land trust to monitor the land and ensure that the easement's terms are carried through into perpetuity. 
The public is invited to the dedication of the Winter Park preserve on 12/29 at 11 a.m. at the Winter Park chalet – please come and celebrate this remarkably generous legacy of the Aldridge’s.

The juvenile summer tanager spotted several weeks ago by Arlene Smith on Lemma Creek Road disappeared that same day, but it has reappeared a few blocks down on Lemma Creek Road at Al LaPlante’s house. The young male has been there since 11/28, and seems to be most attracted to the peanut suet that Al has put out.
From Cheryl and Bill Crawford on 11/30: “Two to three weeks ago Bill and I noticed a little greenish bird hanging out with all the usual suspects at the feeders. We determined it is a ruby crowned kinglet, a variety of bird we've never seen before. It is amazingly tiny and constantly flicking its wings. It doesn't sit still for photos, either. After some reading, it occurred to us that it should be long gone from the northwoods by now. I feel it’s going to get stuck here but seems there's nothing to do about it. It was still here today . . . Hopefully his instincts will kick in soon.”
On 11/26, Paul Lehmkuhl in Manitowish Waters came within 10 feet of an ermine, and wrote: “I was taking wood up to the porch, and he/she was coming around the corner of the house. We both stopped and looked at each other for 10-15 seconds. I guess he figured I would not take the mouse he had in his mouth, and did a jog past me to the wood pile. Beautiful animal, all white except the tip of the tail was black.”
On 11/29, Mary saw the first pine grosbeak of this winter at our feeders in Manitowish.

Celestial Events
            The northernmost and highest full moon of the year occurs on 12/10. Called the “Long Night Moon” or “Popping Trees Moon” by native tribes, a total eclipse of the moon will also occur before dawn, its last total eclipse until 2014. The farther west you are in the U.S. or Canada, the better you'll be set up for the show. If you're in the Pacific time zone you can watch the moon slip into Earth's shadow completely. From roughly Arizona to the Dakotas, the moon sets while it's still totally eclipsed. In the Central time zone the moon sets while still only partially eclipsed, before the total stage even begins.
            The peak Geminid meteor shower occurs on the evening of 12/13 and in the pre-dawn skies of 12/14. The Geminids average 50 to 100 meteors per hour, and is the year’s most reliable display, so this is one worth bundling up for. Look in the east in the constellation Gemini. The shower lasts for several nights, so watch a day on either side of 12/13 for more meteors.
            On 12/20, look for Saturn about 7 degrees north of the crescent moon.
Winter solstice occurs on 12/21, marking the shortest day of our year with just 8 hours and 39 minutes of daylight. The sun continues to shine this length for an additional three days, and thus it won’t be until Christmas Day that we finally begin the long climb back toward summer solstice, which is perhaps the best Christmas present anyone could ask for.

NWA 11/25/11

A Northwoods Almanac for November 25 – December 8, 2011

Swans Migrating
Tundra swans have been migrating through northern Wisconsin in the last few weeks. Thousands will congregate  on the Mississippi River near Winona, MN until the winter gets truly serious, and they have to complete their migration to Chesapeake Bay.
In Wisconsin, we have two native species of swans – tundras and trumpeters – and one exotic species, the mute swan. The mutes comprise a very tiny population in northern Wisconsin, while the trumpeters number only in the hundreds. Thus, from a statistical probability point of view, when someone calls me at this time of year with a sighting of a large number of swans, my default reaction is to say they are very likely tundras.                                   
Over the last three weeks, Missy and David Drake have been treated on Round Lake to a growing flock of swans. Two small groups of swans initially appeared, one group comprised of three adults and four gray juveniles and the other with four adults and five juveniles. A week later, the flock had grown to 32.
Noting the physical differences between tundras and trumpeters can be very tough. However, their calls differ substantially, and David confirmed that their blaring trumpet-like calls all matched the bird tapes for trumpeters, so trumpeters they are!
Once identified, the next question is where these trumpeters will go for the winter, if they leave at all. Trumpeters that nest today in Wisconsin are linked mostly to those originally brought here fifteen to twenty years ago as eggs from Alaskan nests in an effort to re-establish trumpeters in the state. So their DNA is saying to them one thing – “look for the Pacific Ocean” perhaps – while the physical reality in Wisconsin is telling them something quite different. Being thus displaced, Wisconsin trumpeters migrate an array of directions and distances, still pioneering and establishing new routes. Much of the population either remains on their breeding areas or makes relatively short (<100 miles) migrations to locations where water remains ice-free and they often receive supplemental feeding. Still, more than 50% of the Wisconsin and Iowa breeding flocks depart their breeding areas by the first or second week of October, migrating rather long distances to areas in the lower Midwest and South. The bottom line is that trumpeter swans may now be seen wintering almost anywhere in the continental United States.

Deer Intelligence – Learning to Avoid Hunters
Annually during the deer hunt, mutters of “there aren’t enough deer out there” are heard throughout the Northwoods. And depending on the year and the site, that can be true. But what’s also true is that deer are intelligent, they’re capable of learning, and they will alter their behavior in response to danger. Deer learn very quickly that hunters pose a threat to them, and they respond by reducing their movements during the day, by retreating to areas within their home range where there’s heavy cover, and by being expert at remaining still until a hunter passes. Thus, not seeing a deer doesn’t necessarily mean that there were no deer in an area – it may simply mean the deer in the area did a great job of avoiding hunters.
One study undertaken from 1999 to 2002 monitored six radio-collared deer for their positions and activity throughout the day during the hunt. They found that by the second day of the hunt the deer’s activity decreased by half. The deer also became more active at dawn and dusk by the second day of the hunt, clearly reacting to the presence of hunters.
As for locations, by day two, the deer hunkered down into swampy thickets and sat out the remainder of the season. One doe, radio-collared in the winter of 2000, was monitored for four years for her reactions towards hunters. In each of the four deer seasons, she retreated to the same 40-yard swath of tag alder thicket, and in two of those years she had fawns right by her side. She was finally shot a few years later, but only because the successful hunter walked through the same alder thicket and the doe finally jumped from her bed when he was less than five yards away.
This study isn’t a news flash by any means – most deer hunters know that deer will hunker down and that they change their habits until the hunt is over. I believe it’s simply important to give the deer credit for being masters at avoiding predation, and to tip our hats to them when they outsmart us.

On 11/9, Pat Schwai spotted her first redpoll of the season, a male.
Christa Conner in Minocqua sent me a photo of “a mystery white bird” that she was able to photograph while hiking the Bearskin Trail this late summer/early fall. Rather remarkably, she had photographed a great egret, a species that is highly uncommon in the Northwoods. In Wisconsin, great egrets nest along the Mississippi River and occasionally as far north as central Wisconsin. Once in a while, they wander up our way for reasons unknown – I've only seen two over our 27 years living here.
This particular egret allowed Christa to come up right under the tree it was perched in so she could get some wonderful photos.

Summer Tanager in Arbor Vitae
            Arlene Smith in Arbor Vitae gave me a call on 11/17 and described a bird at her feeders that had so many colors it was hard to picture in my mind. Eventually, I remembered that years ago we had a juvenile summer tanager show up at our feeders in Manitowish, and we were astonished at its colorful plumage. Figuring that the bird had to be a summer tanager, and given that summer tanagers belong well south of us, Mary and I hopped in our car and drove down to Arlene’s to photograph it. And it was wonderfully cooperative, hanging around her feeders for the 20 minutes we were there. Our photographs, taken through a screen and window, don’t do justice to the beauty of this bird, but they give you a good sense of it.
The juvenile summer tanager is dramatically different from either the adult female or male, being something of a randomly colorful cross between the two. The adult male summer tanager is arguably one of North America's most striking neotropical migrants with its distinctive rosy red plumage, while the female is more greenish. Summer tanagers are found across the southern United States from California to Florida, but usually only as far north as 40°N.
They’re noted for their consumption of bees and wasps on both their breeding and wintering ranges. They capture the adult bees and wasps in flight by sallying out, then carrying the prey back to their perch and beating it it repeatedly against the perch until it dies. They then remove the stinger by wiping the prey on a branch prior to consuming it.
Eastern populations of summer tanagers favor open deciduous forests particularly near gaps and edges. No breeding pairs were recorded as of 2000 in “The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin,” but they’re being seen more frequently every spring in southern Wisconsin, so no doubt Wisconsin has a nesting pair or two by now.
Summer tanagers winter in Central America and northern South America, so this juvenile needed to reset his compass and get out of Dodge before our snowstorm arrived on Saturday 11/19. And apparently it did. It came to Arlene’s feeder the morning of 11/17, and left that afternoon. What it was doing here in the first place will, of course, always be a mystery.
Summer tanagers typically begin arriving at their wintering sites in Central and South America by late September. They appear in Honduras by September 27, Guatemala by September 28, Costa Rica and Panama by the first week of October, and Ecuador by mid-October. The tanagers fly across the Gulf of Mexico, and must put on 55% of their average lean body weight in fat to fuel the crossing.

Pete Johnson reported that 39-acre San Domingo Lake in Mercer iced-up on 11/18, as did a number of other small lakes and marshes in the Lakeland area. Larger and deeper lakes have yet to ice-up as of this writing on 11/20.

First Snow
            On the opening day of the deer hunt (11/19), the snow started in the afternoon and left that evening after dropping about 5 inches on us in the Manitowish area. We had missed the earlier snowstorm that hit Rhinelander and south a week or so earlier, so this was our first landscape-transforming event of the winter season.
I don’t know of any day in the year that quite matches the first snow for utterly changing the way the world looks. Nor do I know of another day that has the ecological impact on plants and animals that the first snow has, though the first hard autumn freeze may be close in impact. Most ground-foraging birds and animals just had the difficulty it takes to find food upped by a factor of ten, and it surely hits home for them now, if it hadn’t before, that the long road to spring has truly arrived. Every Northwoods winter has the capacity to be an Armageddon for individuals of a species, and the culling of nature’s weak has begun.

Celestial Events
On 11/26, look in the southwest for Venus about three degrees south of the crescent moon. November 30 marks the day when, on average, our high temperature drops to 32 degrees F. The long freeze now begins, and it won’t be until early March that the average high comes back up to 32.
December 6th marks the first day of the earliest sunsets of the year. From 12/6 until 12/15, the sun will set at 4:14 p.m. and then will begin to gradually set later. Our latest sunrises won’t begin to occur until 12/27. The winter solstice, as a result, occurs in between these dates on 12/21.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NWA 11/11/11

A Northwoods Almanac for November 11 – 24, 2011

Kadunce River Gorge
            Last week, Mary, Callie, and I spent four days on Lake Superior’s North Shore, and the highlight of the trip was a hike we did along the Kadunce River northeast of Grand Marais. We had hiked this trail last summer, and were greatly impressed by the sheer walls of the river’s gorge as it neared Lake Superior. The river was running well then, and when we could see down into the gorge, there was plenty of whitewater.
            This fall, however, water levels along the North Shore are way down, and the Kadunce was much quieter and often pulled well back from the walls of the gorge. So, when we began the hike we thought we might be able to hike a little ways up the gorge itself. As it turned out, we were able to go a long ways, frequently having to hop on rocks to get to one side of the river or the other where there was a little exposed shoreline to hike, but enjoying the challenge. The vertical walls of the gorge were maybe 50 feet high on average, and the gorge frequently narrowed to perhaps 15 feet, though we read that the gorge at some point narrows to only 8 feet wide.
            We were eventually stopped by a waterfall and had to turn back, but what a great adventure we had for a half hour or so working our way up the gorge. The rivers along the North Shore are truly spectacular, having cut paths through sheer rock canyons. It’s rugged and steep country, a hiker and sightseer’s paradise.
            We’re always very happy to come home from any trip, one of the many gifts of living along the beautiful Manitowish River. But, we all would have stayed far longer if we could – there’s a lot of country to explore up there.

Mountain Ash Berries
            We were surprised at the bounty of mountain ash berries that were present just about everywhere along the North Shore. In the Lakeland area, we’re at the southernmost edge of the normal range for mountain ashes, so we seldom see them growing wild here.
            Mountain ash dresses up late autumns with its big yellow fronds of leaves and its hundreds of shiny red berries. This little tree, which seldom reaches 25 feet in height, often gets lost in the understory during summer’s abundance of foliage. But once the other deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, the mountain ash takes center stage and holds it for the rest of the winter if the birds don’t strip the tree of its berries.
            We’ve planted several of the red-berried native American mountain ashes in our yard to attract birds during the winter, in particular bohemian waxwings and pine and evening grosbeaks. The problem we often have is that robins migrating through find the berries to their liking as well, and we just don’t have enough berries on our two young trees to withstand their appetites.
            Called the rowan tree by many, the name derives from the Old Norse name for the tree, “raun”. Linguists believe that the Norse name is ultimately derived from a Germanic word “raudnian” meaning "getting red." Rowan grows throughout the British Isles where it has a delightful array of English folk names including Delight of the Eye, Quickbeam, Rune tree, Thor's helper, Whispering tree, Wicken-tree, and Witch wood tree.

Odd Fungi and Slime Molds
Some mighty odd fungi exist in this world, and Mary and I have been trying to not only take note of them but also really appreciate them. One unusual species is called “Orange Jelly,” a fungi which grows as a gelatinous mass and feels kind of like a slimy juicy fruit candy. It grows in dense clusters on conifer logs or stumps, and lives off the decaying wood.
A very similar fungi wonderfully named “Witches’ Butter” grows on dead hardwoods, and dresses up in vibrant yellow. Another relatively similar species, “Lemon Drops,” is also brilliant yellow, but deviates from merely being a blob like the others and takes the shape of tiny shallow cups that look like a colorful place setting for a sophisticated chipmunk tea party.
            Then there’s the perfectly named “Dead Man’s Fingers” which looks like, well, something out of a Hitchcock movie. They’re typically attached to below-ground rotting wood of maples, birch, or basswood.
            We’re also really quite enamored these days with slime molds. They’re not fungi per se, but exist as an amoeba-like organism called plasmodiums. They move very slowly by oozing their way along while consuming bacteria or other microorganisms.
These guys are way out there as a life form. Slime moulds are not fungi, not plants, not animals. They don’t flower, don’t pollinate, they crawl around and live on living matter without killing it. They begin life as amoeba-like cells and multiply if they find food like bacteria. They can then mate and grow into plasmodia, which can grow to be meters in size. One variety often seen is a slimy yellow network on rotting logs which lives by engulfing microorganisms. Though I’ve never seen this, if watched carefully, the plasmodium can stream and can be seen to slow, stop, and even reverse direction. When the food supply depletes, the plasmodium will migrate to the surface of its substrate and transform into the rigid fruiting bodies we commonly see. They will then release spores, which hatch into amoebae-like forms to begin the life cycle again.
I don’t pretend to understand them, but I sure enjoy just how bizarre they are. And you’ve got to love some of their common species names like chocolate tube slime, red raspberry slime, tapioca slime, and a host of others.

Beaver Caches
            Beavers are mighty busy right now building their winter food caches before ice-up. They’ve got to “put-up” enough food to last them over the five months or so of winter ice that we commonly experience, and that’s a lot of branches to cut. The cache is usually built out about 10 to 15 feet from the lodge, and is comprised of a dense array of branches that the beavers will later swim out under the ice to procure for a given day’s meal. Beaver seem to most prefer aspen and willow cuttings, though the cache’s composition generally reflects whatever is most available, and still edible, along the shoreline.
            In the spring, the sprawling network of unutilized branches often provides a great basking spot for painted and snapping turtles as well as northern water snakes that want to get out of the cold spring waters.
            Beaver dams also have to be reinforced prior to winter because the dam may be all that’s holding back enough water for the beavers to swim under the ice to get to their cache.
            So life is a lot of work right now for beavers, but once the ice is on, they will have little to do but hang out in their lodges, grab a cutting when they’re hungry, and wait out the winter.

Doll’s Eyes
            There’s not much color left in the woods in November, but on occasion one can see the fruiting stalks of either red or white baneberry, both of which produce fruits that look a lot like doll’s eyes. As you might guess, the red baneberry produces red fruits with little black eyes, and the white baneberry produces white fruits also with little black eyes but on bright red stalks.
            The berries are strikingly pretty but also the most toxic part of the plant; hence the “bane” in baneberry. Eating as few as six berries will cause nausea, dizziness, increased pulse, severe gastrointestinal discomfort, and can possibly lead to cardiac arrest. As few as two berries may be fatal to a child, so enjoy this plant with your eyes only.
Celestial Events
            On 11/12, look in the southwest at dusk for Mercury 2 degrees below Venus. November 15 brings us less than 9.5 hours of daylight.
            The peak Leonid meteor shower occurs in the early mornings of 11/17 and 11/18. The Leonid meteor shower is famous for producing some of the greatest meteor storms in history with rates as high as many thousands of meteors per hour. These storms sometimes recur in cycles of 33 to 34 years, but in most years, the Lion has a very modest roar, averaging 15 to 50 meteors per hour. The Leonids ordinarily get going after midnight and display the greatest meteor numbers just before dawn. This year, however, the last quarter moon will be shining near the radiant point of the shower in the constellation Leo. The presence of the moon will likely wash-out much of the 2011 Leonid display.
            We’re not too far from ice-up – the average date on many of our small lakes is around 11/26.

Sunday, November 6, 2011



The frogs are chorusing tonight.
The peepers chime like ten thousand winter sleigh bells
rung by ecstatic Salvation Army volunteers.
Meanwhile, the toads trill at diverging pitches,
harmonizing in drones like a hall of chanting Buddhists.

All night they sing.
Whenever I wake up, they’re still there
in the dark and the damp
under the moon and stars that stagelight
their Dionysian debauch.

I have tried to sneak up on them
to witness the passion that has brought them,
and their thousands of generations before,
to these ephemeral ponds.

But even in the midst of their single mindedness,
they always hear me
and go stone quiet.

If I wait long enough,
one will give in to his need for a mate and begin singing again.
Then the choral dam breaks,
the din commences
because it must.

It’s a game of Russian roulette,
this fertilizing of eggs.
The bet is that the pools won’t dry up
before the great metamorphosis,
from fins to legs
from gills to lungs
from water to forest.

All this.
Then, without apparent discussion,
they agree to gather again,
next spring,
when a south wind will warm air and water just enough
triggering their tumultuous voices
like a thousand drunken guests at a lavish wedding party
breathing rapture in the dark spring night. 

Small Things

Small things

In late April, I find trailing arbutus in flower
under the ridged old white pines.

In early May, I discover the first hermit thrush
singing within the hemlocks
its spiraling opera.

Every day, new things arrive,
or bloom, or are born, or die.
I try to find as many of them as I can.

I don’t collect them in plastic bags,
or put them in vases,
or pin them on cardboard,
or exile them to my freezer,

or eat them.

I just try to find them.

Sometimes I find them with my ears,
sometimes by nearly stepping on them,
sometimes they just come to me.

If I were to put them all in a container,
they would look like nothing more than where I am now
which is lying under a white pine
that is leaning over the river
a river flowing so softly I can only hear it
now and again
amidst the birds that sing
among the needles that fall.

- John Bates

Why the Old?

Why The Old?

“I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before us on a road by which we too may have to travel, and I think we do well to learn from them what it is like.”
Socrates, in Plato’s Republic

Old-growth forests take histories that are lodged in the imagination and bring them to life. Here, the ancient – people, culture, animal and plant communities – are brought down to earth, where our imaginings can gain a foothold. If this 2,500-year-old redwood was alive that long ago, so it is possible that Alexander the Great once lived, that Christ, that Mohammed, that Socrates once had flesh and bone. That a hemlock or white pine, now 500-years-old, still stands, takes Michelangelo from the shadows, brings Copernicus and Leonardo de Vinci to life, and makes possible whole, intact cultures of American Indians. Old-growth takes yellowed words on fragile pages and embodies them with real blood seen through green leaves. 
These old trees were alive back then, are alive now, will live into the future. They provide the rope that ties time together. They’re not fossils, not hardened amber, not footprints, not stories and histories imbued with human biases and imperfection, but living tissue, the griots of African cultures, the keepers of what has come before, the archives, the arboreal Smithsonian. In human life, so fragile and impermanent, we look for connections, bridges from then to now to what will become, and nothing but old-growth lives long enough to provide the crossing. Old-growth offers a time and scale perspective that is impossible to perceive in the short lives that we humans are given.
An old-growth white pine beams like the oldest of lighthouses, and though it may not have always lit the way of humans, it lived along the way, housed generation upon generation of lives along the way, and still guards the way, still illumines in its shadowing. Thoughts slow here, layers slough off, and we travel the rings of our lives, and the rings of those lives that made us possible.
Standing here now, I am part of that lineage, that continuity, the travelers, the thinkers, the seekers, the ancient. Under old-growth, I have the chance to feel a spiritual cohesion that the modern world scatters into fragments. Ancient people once stood under the same shade of the same sun of this same tree, and pondered the needs and questions of that time on this spot, that blink.
That a bristlecone pine can live 4,000 years and still sprout spring leaves despite fierce wind, sun, drought, and cold staggers the imagination.
            All of us at some point seek a vision, an overarching wisdom and grace that puts life in a perspective that can be encompassed in one horizon line. An old tree, an old forest, a wild place, does not automatically provide the vision, but it permits us to bid it come, and to think that it is possible.
            Beauty lives a full life here. Complexity spreads its wings, wholeness speaks as the final interpreter, and the sacred finds form. A forest that has lived and breathed uninterrupted, unfragmented, a forest where natural processes continue, where natural destruction is constructive, complicated, and necessary, is a sanctuary of beauty. And as all of us eventually learn, beauty is not optional, nor is the sanctity of solitude or the perpetuation of the sacred. 

NWA 10/28/11

A Northwoods Almanac for October 28 – November 10, 2011

Robin Migration Update
            In my last column, I reported that on 10/4/11, counters on Hawk Ridge in Duluth tallied 9,050 migrating American robins flying south over the ridge.
Well, that was nothing.
On 10/9, an astonishing 39,127 robins flew over the ridge, followed the next day by another 10,329!
Why so many? I think it’s a reflection of the remarkable adaptive capabilities of robins and their subsequent nesting success in virtually every known habitat in North America. We’re simply awash in robins.
A major reason is that robins rear usually two and sometimes three broods a season. One study modeled on breeding data from Madison, WI, took a hypothetical robin population of 1,000 pairs, and found 147 pairs, or 15%, would successfully raise three broods, 621, or 62%, would raise two broods, 191, or 19%, would raise 1 brood, and 41, or 4%, would fail to breed successfully.
Robins usually lay 3 to 4 eggs per clutch, though how many of those survive to become fledglings varies widely. Using field data to model a hypothetical robin population, one researcher estimated the rate of survival of young from hatching through November 1 to be only 25%. Even so, by then more first-year birds were estimated to be in the population than adults.
Robins can live a long life, too – one banded wild bird lived 13 years and 11 months – though average life expectancy of robins, and most songbirds, is typically only a few years. Within six years, one can usually expect a complete turnover in a population of songbirds.

Crows Now Migrating in Large Numbers
            Migrating robin numbers peaked two weeks ago, and have dropped in the last week. Now, migrating crow numbers are peaking, but in considerably smaller numbers. On 10/18, the counters observed 1,825 crows migrating over Hawk Ridge; on 10/19, 1,182 crows; and on 10/20, they tallied 3,232 crows crossing the ridge.
            Crows, like blue jays, are hard to figure out when it comes to migration. Some migrate, some don’t, and why there is such variability is unclear. In one study, half of 49 crows banded in winter between 38° and 43°N latitudes in the Eastern U.S. were permanent residents. In other studies, individuals banded in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba migrated southeastward through Montana, N. Dakota, and western Wisconsin as far as Oklahoma and Texas. In yet other studies, some wintering crows in Illinois were found to come from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario.
            When we’ve done our Christmas bird counts in Manitowish Waters in the last decade, we have had good numbers of crows, but whether they are resident birds staying for the winter or migrants which have come down from further north is completely unknown. Prior to our milder winters, crows were seldom present in our counts.
Crows weren’t always a major component of our landscape. Considered rare in Wisconsin prior to 1855, crows became common in the southern part of the state by 1875, and were considered abundant by 1890, as more and more land was cleared.

Abandoned Bald-faced Hornet’s Nests
A reader recently e-mailed this: “We have a magnificent wasp nest hanging from our garage on the back of our house. It’s at least a foot in diameter and more than that deep. It’s really a work of art. Dare I saw it off the overhang and explore its innards? Do you know what happens to the wasps in the winter? Do they just die, in or outside the hive? Could they be awakened by our messing with the nest?” 
All good questions. So, here’s the scoop as best as I understand it: Near the end of summer, the bald-faced hornet queen (bald-faced hornets belong to the genus of wasps called yellowjackets) lays eggs. After pupation, these fertile males and females will mate. As winter approaches, the hornets die – except any just-fertilized females. These hibernate underground, under logs or in hollow trees until spring. The nest is abandoned, and will not be reused.
As to when it’s safe to take a nest down, once we’ve had hard frosts in the autumn, it’s very unlikely that any hornets will still be present. However, discretion being the better part of valor, I think some lengthy observation should be entertained until it’s clear that no hornetss are coming or going.
I should add that old hornet nests are good winter shelter for other insects and spiders, and that birds will tear them apart, looking for food. So, leaving the nests up for the birds is perhaps the best practice.

A River of Birds
Gloria Johnson from Woodruff sent me this on 10/19: “My husband and I are driving on I80 in Nebraska on our way to Phoenix. Last evening at dusk we witnessed at least a 5-mile by approximately 20-yard-wide formation of birds. It almost looked like a ribbon. They were flying just above tree top level. We couldn't ID them but I'd say they were between a junco and robin in size. I've never seen anything like it. We were traveling west. They were flying east quite close to the highway. Do you think they were looking for a place to land? As my husband commented, they were flying with purpose!”
I suspect this was a roosting flock of blackbirds, which can reach several million birds. Each morning the roosts spread out, traveling as far as 50 miles to feed, then re-forming at night. Roosts peak in number of birds in September. In fall, some birds continue in late-summer roosts, some in roosts of migrating transients, and some in winter roosts.
I’ve never seen this phenomenon, but there are many videos online – here’s one: 

Celestial Events 
            Planets in November: At dusk, look for brilliant Venus and Mercury both very low in the southwest, and setting soon after dark. Jupiter is also very bright at dusk, but is found in the southeast and then rising high in the south as the evening progresses.
            At dawn, look for Mars high in the south and for Saturn very low in the southeast.
            On 11/1, look for Mercury about two degrees south of Venus at dusk. On 11/3, we’re officially down to 10 hours of daylight. 11/7 marks the midway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. Full moon occurs on 11/10 – the “Beaver/Freezing/Ice is Forming/Snow” moon – depending on what tribe one references.

            Mary and I saw our first migrating fox sparrow on 10/17, and our first migratory flocks of snow buntings on 10/19.
            I’ve never birded on Pelican Lake in Oneida County, but it sounds like I sure should, because on 10/21 at 1 p.m., a birder reported seeing the following from the pullout along Hwy 45/47 on the south side of the lake: 12 white-winged scoters, 7 surf scoters, 1 long-tailed duck, 54 horned grebes, 14 pied-billed grebes, 110 scaup, 20 redheaded ducks, 21 common loons, 16 common goldeneyes, and 1 common merganser.

Tamarack: Autumn’s Last Canvas
            After the multi-hued maple leaves have drifted down, and then the yellow aspen and birch leaves scatter, autumn delivers one last splash of color that trumps all those – tamarack’s gold. Perhaps tamarack delivers such breathtaking colors because it comes last, standing mostly alone among the skeletal trunks and branches of the deciduous trees that await the first snow. Or perhaps tamarack’s gold pops so brilliantly because the trees are often illumined by slants and shafts of sunlight escaping from the frequent gray overcasts of late October. Or maybe tamarack offers such stunning moments because so few people are now around and the world is clearly shifting into the seasonal Armageddon we call winter where any color becomes a rarity on a white canvas. November brings out much that is bittersweet, and tamarack is the last antidote to it before the cold settles hard into our bones.
            Tamarack needles are falling with every wind now, and the golden branches will soon turn threadbare, fulfilling November’s riches to rags story. Good news in the botanical world is called May, and it’s a long ways off. The last tamarack needle dropped may be the best definition we have of when winter truly starts.