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.