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 email@example.com 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.
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.