Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Northwoods Almanac 1/28/11

Last weekend, Mary and I led a snowshoe trip into The Nature Conservancy’s Guido Rahr, Sr. Tenderfoot Forest Reserve. This 971-acre parcel between Presque Isle and Land O’Lakes contains 500 acres of old-growth hemlock-hardwood forest, the largest remaining tract of privately-owned old-growth left in Wisconsin.
The Rahr family had owned the land for 120 years and sold it to The Nature Conservancy in 2005, donating more than $1 million of the land’s value to TNC. Guido Rahr, Sr., served on the Wisconsin Conservation Commission for 23 years in the 1950s and 60s, and among his many legacies, perhaps the family’s century-long protection and eventual sale of the property to a conservation organization was his greatest.
The following day, Mary and I snowshoed in the Frog Lake and Pines State Natural Area, perhaps the best remaining stand of older-growth pine in the state. The stand lays within the state-designated Manitowish River Wilderness Area, a 6,265-acre mosaic of wetlands and pine uplands that we access simply by going out our back door and crossing the Manitowish River. Mary’s grandparents, John and Ann Nutter, owned 280 acres within this area, which they sold to the State in 1967. We’re certain that John and Ann are now smiling from above, knowing their legacy includes the land they loved and conserved.
And back over the holidays, we snowshoed with our oldest daughter Eowyn in the Papoose Creek Pines State Natural Area, a 563-acre stand of mature red and white pines (80 to 100 years-old) that is easily accessed off County K just north of Manitowish Waters.
These places are priceless. Over the years, we’ve explored dozens of State Natural Areas in our region. In Vilas County, we’ve poked around and occasionally gotten lost in lots of SNAs, including the Plum Lake Hemlock Forest SNA and the Bittersweet Lakes SNA, the Rice Creek SNA, the Day Lake SNA, the Trout River SNA, and the Nixon Lakes SNA. In Iron County, we’ve wandered around in the Moose Lake SNA, the Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods SNA, the Island Lake Hemlocks SNA, the Turtle-Flambeau Patterned Bog SNA, the DuPage Lake Peatlands SNA, and the Toy Lake Swamp SNA. In Oneida County, we’ve walked in the Patterson Hemlocks SNA, the Germain Hemlocks SNA, the Squirrel River Pines SNA, the Holmboe Conifer Forest SNA, and the Pat Shay Lake SNA.
While it’s enjoyable to remember those experiences, its doubly fun to think about how many we’ve yet to explore.
In all, the SNA Program has grown to 609 sites encompassing more than 330,000 acres of land and water. These sites comprise the last remaining vestiges of our native landscape in the more than 75 unique types of natural communities which made up Wisconsin's landscape of the early 1800s.
Each site has its own story, many of which revolve around individuals who had the foresight to conserve an area, and by doing so left truly important legacies that over time will only rise meteorically in value. These SNAs provide the last refuges in Wisconsin for rare plants and animals. In fact, more than 90% of the plants and 75% of the animals on Wisconsin's list of endangered and threatened species are protected on SNAs.
These lands and waters were acquired from willing sellers, and through donations, conservation easements, and cooperative agreements. Many SNAs are owned by government agencies, but others are owned by educational institutions, private conservation organizations, and private landowners.
Most sites are open to a full array of public non-motorized recreation, though a very few are reserved for vital scientific research because they provide some of the best examples of natural processes acting over time with minimal human interference. All of the SNAs act as essential benchmarks against which researchers can judge human impacts on the rest of Wisconsin's natural landscape.
Vilas County leads the state with 30 SNAs, while Oneida County has 22, Forest County 18, Iron County 12, and Price County 8.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the concept of a legacy. We all want to leave something behind that truly matters, and these sites capture that sentiment as both biological legacies and human legacies. They tell the stories of natural communities as they were intended to be experienced. And they tell the stories of people who looked beyond their pure self-interest and honored something much larger in themselves and something larger yet outside of themselves.

Bird Kills
Recent news broadcasts have been full of mysterious bird kill stories. On New Year’s Eve in Beebe, Arkansas, more than 3,000 red-winged blackbirds and migrating birds of several other species tumbled from a night sky lit with fireworks. Just three days later, more than 500 birds were found dead and dying near a power line outside of New Roads, Louisiana. 
The diagnosis? Preliminary necropsy reports from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison confirmed “impact trauma” as the culprit.
According to press releases posted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, unusually loud explosions from the fireworks display caused nearby birds to flush from their roosts. Forced to fly low in order to avoid the effects of the ongoing light display, birds slammed into houses, towers, trees, vehicles and other obstacles, most of them likely dying on impact. 
             As for the event three days later in Louisiana, “On the birds we examined, we consistently found shattered beaks, broken backs, broken wings, trauma to organs and internal hemorrhaging,” said Dr. James LaCour, State Wildlife Veterinarian for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. LaCour and his colleagues believe a fast-moving cold weather front plus traffic on a railway line flushed roosting birds directly into a nearby power line. “Nearly all of these birds were found within 10 feet of either side of the wires,” noted LaCour.
Unfortunately, large die-offs like these are not particularly uncommon. In analyzing bird counts, journal records, and other observations dating back to the late 19th century, European researchers found frequent reports of deaths of birds in the hundreds and thousands. One massive kill occurred in spring 1964, when an estimated 100,000 king eiders, representing nearly a tenth of the species’ western Canadian population, perished in the Beaufort Sea. They starved when pools of open water among the sea-ice re-froze suddenly. More recently, an estimated 40,000 individual birds from 45 different species were killed on April 8, 1993, when a tornado crossed their migration routes off the coast of Louisiana.
Since 2000, 188 bird die-offs have been documented in the United States involving 1,000 or more individuals. At least three of those events involved no fewer than 10,000 birds, and in the last eight months alone, NWHC has recorded 95 fish and wildlife die-offs in North America. 
These events bring into focus the unfortunate and unintended impacts of human activities on wildlife. Alteration of habitat due to urban sprawl, roads, power lines and energy development take particularly heavy tolls on migratory bird populations. Bird collisions due to confusion from man-made light sources have racked up spectacular death tolls. Between 4 million and 5 million migratory birds still die annually from collisions with signal towers.
As alarming as these massive die-off events may be, the gravest threat to wildlife resources remains ongoing habitat alteration and climate change. Habitat loss often occurs slowly and may seem invisible at any given moment, but it’s as certain a killer as any chemical, electric line, or weapon. An estimated 17,000 plants and animals are currently threatened with extinction because of human activity, mostly through habitat loss. This includes 12 per cent of all known birds, nearly a quarter of known mammals, and a third of known amphibians.

Deb Hunter in Hazelhurst e-mailed to ask if I knew why she and others have seen so many starlings this winter. She correctly noted that starlings are very uncommon winter residents in our area of the Northwoods. But if you look at a range map for starlings, they can winter all the way up into southern Canada. They are also recorded every year on nearly every Christmas bird count in the state.
However, in the 18 years that we’ve conducted the CBC in Manitowish Waters, we’ve only found starlings on four occasions. Our lack of starlings is a testament to how natural our overall landscape has remained. The starling’s habitat is restricted to areas near human beings where buildings provide nesting and roosting sites, farming creates foraging habitat, and garbage, livestock feeding and farm crops provide lots of food.             Starlings have a close “commensal” relationship with humans, the word deriving from the Latin cum mensa, meaning "sharing a table". We have so few wintering starlings ordinarily because we have comparatively few people living full-time in our area, and thus starlings find that other places offer far more tables with many more entrees to share.
So why are the starlings wintering this year in Hazelhurst? My speculation is that because our winter has been relatively mild with moderate snow depths, this allows the ground foraging starlings to have a reasonable chance at survival. Add more snow and increase the cold that should on occasion be reaching into the -30 to -40° range to reflect a true Northwoods winter, and the starlings would likely be gone.
On 1/21, Deb and Randy Augustinak in Lac du Flambeau sent me this note: “On literally the coldest morning of the season thus far (-21°F), we just observed a male and female pine grosbeak feeding on the ground beneath our bird feeder. The male's warm, rose-colored markings contrasted sharply with the sparkling snow, as the sun slowly crept above the trees in the southeastern sky. What a great way to start the day!”

Celestial Events
            On 1/29, look before dawn for Venus 3 degrees north of the waning crescent moon. February 2 marks the new moon, while the 3rd marks the midway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. By the 7th we will have jumped up to 10 hours of daylight, a large gain from the 8 hours and 39 minutes we experience at winter solstice.

Please share your sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, or drop me an e-mail at, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.

A Northwoods Almanac 1/14/11

A Northwoods Almanac for January 14 – 27, 2011
by John Bates

Al Denninger called me three weeks ago to report that he had three badgers coming in at night under his bird feeder and eating sunflower seeds. Al then called again last week to say he had noticed a large new hole dug in his yard, and when he went out to take a look at it, dirt started flying out of the hole! Al stood within five feet of the hole and watched the dirt fly until a young badger finally popped out and saw him. Interestingly, Al said the badger didn’t seem disturbed by his presence, allowing Al to get numerous good pictures.
Al wondered what the current status of badgers is in the Northwoods, given that in the nine years Al has lived at his home between Lake Tomahawk and Rhinelander, he had never seen a badger, and his neighbor, who has lived there since 1940, had never seen one until this summer when this small family showed up. It’s a question I’ve had as well because there’s very little research data available despite the fact Wisconsin is known as the “Badger State.” Even basic information like how many are in Wisconsin and where they are found are unknown.
I’ve always thought of badgers as a grassland animal which prefers sandy, treeless areas like prairies and meadows, and thus I’ve considered badgers to be a species largely confined to southern Wisconsin. But it turns out they do fine along forest edges, along old railroad tracks, and even along dirt roads and driveways, and are found in every county of northern Wisconsin, with particularly good numbers in Douglass, Burnett, Bayfield, and Langlade counties. In fact, the highest observation rates for badgers are in northern and central Wisconsin where sandy soils and jack pine savannas dominate. So much for badgers being a southern Wisconsin specialty!
It’s not known if badgers prefer one habitat type over another, or if they are equally adept at surviving in forests, agriculture, and natural prairie. Perhaps the key factors are how sandy the soil is and whether prey species are plentiful.
Badgers opportunistically eat almost anything the size of a woodchuck or smaller, and are adept at capturing burrowing mammals like woodchucks, 13-lined ground squirrels, chipmunks, and gophers. They’ll also take voles, mice, turtle eggs, ground-nesting birds, insects, and carrion, but to a less significant degree. Their consumption of 13-lined ground squirrels plays an important role in the survival of ground-nesting grassland birds whose nests are often raided by ground squirrels.  Their large burrows also may serve as the initial excavations from which fox and coyote construct their dens.
Badgers patrol large home ranges, up to a square mile for females and two square miles for males, at least according to an Idaho study. Like most animals’ home ranges, if food resources are plentiful, their ranges are smaller, while in poorer habitats, they will range more in search of food. Badgers are known to move multiple miles in a single day and can dig a lot of holes along the way. They are reputed to greatly reduce their activity during the winter in northern climates, but they don’t hibernate, as evidenced by Al Denninger’s photos.
A 1975 Wisconsin study estimated the statewide population between 8,000 and 10,000, but badgers are darn hard to count since they’re mostly active at night and spend most of their time underground. And while their large burrows are easily identified, they often dig many burrows nightly in pursuit of prey, making burrow counting a useless endeavor.
Since so little is known, the WDNR and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee teamed up in 2009 to learn more through a study they’re calling the Wisconsin Badger Genetics Project (see Researchers are conducting genetic sampling of individual badgers, and as of early fall 2010, have collected 110 samples.                        Observations reported by citizens are the key to the process. If you see a live badger, a badger carcass, or find a burrow, please e-mail with exact details of the badger’s location. Since the researchers will follow up by visiting the site, photos are particularly helpful so that the researchers don’t go out on wild goose chases. Trail cameras have proven particularly useful for positive identifications.
Badgers have been protected from harvest in Wisconsin since 1955, and thus trapping is illegal.

Detective Work
Kay Lorbiecki in Presque Isle e-mailed the following puzzle: “My Airedale and I just got back from a walk on the lake. We discovered 30 feet from shore the frozen remains of a grouse . . . basically plucked clean (cool feathers) and everything eaten off the bones, but the bones were still attached to each other and included the feathered feet, feathered wings but not the head. Big bird tracks around it and an obvious aerial attack, deep depression where the grouse hit the snow . . . couple of clear hop spaces, then big bird tracks and the arc of a wing in the snow. From the outside edge of the foot track to the wing tip where the feathers flare, it measured 24 inches. I could see the wing leading edge in the snow, then the bend down to the flare of separated feather tips. It happened sometime after 4 p.m. yesterday, but I suspect closer to morning because the resident coyote and fox have not been nosing around for meager scraps. Some kind of owl, do you think? Goshawk?”
Kay did a great job of gathering all the facts and putting them together. So, let’s see if we can analyze the data and reach a likely answer:
1-    The wingspread of the bird was around 48 inches. According to Sibley’s Field Guide, the only real suspects, because of their average wingspan, would be as follows: the average wingspread of a barred owl is 42”, a great horned owl 44”, a goshawk 41”. An eagle is 80”, so it’s out of the picture. On occasion in winter, we have a rough-legged hawk or two come down our way – their wingspan is 53”. On rare occasions, we see a snowy or great gray owl – both average a 52” wingspan. It should be noted that other guides differ on the average wingspans, and that average means, well, average. There will be larger birds than the average.
2-    The attack appears to have taken place at least at dusk, and most likely at night. According to Tom Erdman, a highly respected expert on raptors, goshawks do not hunt at night – they’re considered pretty blind at night, which is why female goshawks can be taken by nest-raiding fishers in the spring. Still, never say never – goshawks often remain far north in the taiga and have to be able to hunt in low light during the winter. Owls, of course, hunt very well at night.
3-    The head was gone. Different raptors have different techniques for killing prey.  Most hawks use their feet, get a good grip and squeeze. Owls typically do not bite pieces off of their prey – they simply swallow it whole most of the time. But something large like a grouse, they will have to eat "piece-by-piece." And owls have an established reputation for biting the heads off of prey, but then again, hawks do as well.
4-    The attack occurred 30 feet off shore of a lake. Goshawks typically are an interior forest hunter, while owls hunt openings and lakeshores regularly. Still, why was a grouse 30 feet out onto the lake? Could the goshawk have chased it out there?
5-    So . . . for me, the evidence overall points to the greatest likelihood of an owl. But which one? There is only one snowy owl so far reported in the state, and no great grays, so the likelihood of one of those is very slim. So, a barred or a great horned? A grouse is a pretty big prey for a barred owl, and a much more common prey species for a great horned owl. So, my best guess based on the evidence . . . a great horned owl ate the grouse.

            On 1/7, Jean Hall reported seeing several pine grosbeaks at her feeders near the Minocqua Airport. Interestingly, Jean has had evening grosbeaks at her feeders all winter. Evenings are quite uncommon so far this winter.
            Jayne Stenstrom in Oneida County sent me photos of wild turkeys that have whitish feathers mixed in among the more common brownish feathers. I asked Bruce Bacon, wildlife manager at the Mercer DNR station, about this, and he said this wasn’t particularly unusual. The males have pale gray flight feathers, but these birds are plainly  blessed with more white on them than usual. Bruce noted that breeding the whitest of wild turkeys is how we ended up with white domestic turkeys.
            Jane Flanigan in Hazelhurst sent me several fine photographs of an ermine eating suet from her hanging suet bag.
            Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk sent me a photo of a barred owl that’s hanging around her feeders right outside her kitchen window.
            And in Manitowish, we now have 17 pine grosbeaks visiting our feeders regularly. We also had our first common redpolls appear at our feeders on January 1st.

Celestial Events
            Look for the full moon on January 19. The moon is near the Pleiades star cluster on the evenings of January 14 and 15; near Gemini’s brightest stars Castor and Pollux on the night of January 18 and near Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, on the night of January 21. Look for Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, about half-way up in the southwestern sky during evening twilight. Venus is easily visible in the southeast sky about one hour before sunrise.
Please share your sightings and thoughts: call me at 476-2828, or drop me an e-mail at, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.