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.

NWA 10/14/11

A Northwoods Almanac for October 14 – 27, 2011

Peak Robin Migration
At Hawk Ridge in Duluth, the primary focus is always on hawks migrating over the ridge, and the fact that songbirds also fly over often goes unnoticed. Well, on 10/4/11, the hawks were insignificant in number, and all the action was instead with songbirds. The counters tallied 9,690 migrating non-raptors that day, the vast majority, 9,050, of which were American robins. That number was not an anomaly either. The day before, 10/3, 5,035 robins crossed over the Ridge, and the day after, 10/5, another 6,524 flapped by.           
Just to show the migration action isn’t all at Hawk Ridge, a few days later on 10/9, DNR biologist Ryan Brady counted 13,836 robins migrating over his house in Washburn between 7:15 and 10:15 a.m. He reported, “The sky was full of migrating robins – masses of birds constantly streaming by, in every direction, at every height, both along the lakeshore and inland, but all headed south-southwest. Most flocks were 100-300 birds thick, and I counted by 10s, 25s, or 50s, clearly missing many as it was impossible to keep up with all the action.”
Those numbers are particularly impressive because not all robin populations are migratory. Robins that nest as in our area and further north nearly always migrate, and the massive seasonal migrations noted here occur across large areas of Canada and the northern U.S. in response to the availability of fruit in the fall.
Surprisingly, however, robin migration remains poorly understood despite how common their commonality. What is known is that robins migrate in flocks primarily during the day, often in large flocks of hundreds or thousands of immature and adult birds. But individual robins do not return to their same wintering territories as many other songbirds do. Nor does the term “routes” seem to apply to robin migrations.
Banding records show that robins wintering in a particular place are usually from widely scattered areas to the north. For instance, individuals recovered in Florida in winter are from as far west as North Dakota. So, robins appear to be “plastic” in their migration, often picking a new wintering strategy as conditions dictate.

Best Hiking
            Mary, Callie, and I took as much advantage as we could of the glorious fall weather we were given over the last two weeks. The leaves mostly came down in the recent high winds, but last week the autumn hiking was spectacular. Our four favorite local hikes we took this fall were around the Van Vliet Lake Trail, the Uller Trail west of Hurley, the Tramper’s Trails around Star Lake, and the Anvil Trail east of Eagle River. Give them a try if you’ve never hiked them – I think you’ll come away very happy.

Still in Flower
            Big-leaf aster remains in flower in the woods, along with a few other remarkably hardy “roadside weeds” like pearly everlasting and a few daisy fleabanes. The witch hazel we planted in our yard is also in flower, and probably garners the prize as the latest flowering shrub in the Northwoods.

Sunflower Seed Price!
The cost for a fifty-pound bag of sunflower seed has hit nearly $40, apparently due to Ore-Ida, a brand of potato-based frozen foods currently produced and distributed by the H. J. Heinz Company. Ore-Ida accounts for a large amount of the processed potatoes sold – think “Tater Tots” – and they recently switched from using corn oil to sunflower oil. Thus, they purchased most of the sunflower crop, which led to these astronomical prices.
The name was used in the company's long term advertising slogan: “When it says Ore-Ida, it’s All Righta.” Well, it’s not All Righta that the price of seed has gone through the roof. The cost will certainly dampen enthusiasm nationally for feeding birds this winter.

Yellow-rumped Warblers Still in Migration
We’ve had a least a dozen yellow-rumped warblers foraging in our yard for the last 10 days, likely stalled in their migration due to the prevailing south winds. Yellow-rumps are one of the last warblers to migrate in fall, remaining in their northernmost breeding areas into October. On occasion, they’re known to linger north of their winter range into December when both the climate and food supplies are favorable.
Interestingly, yearling males winter north of older males, while yearling females winter south of older females. During the winter, the sex ratio in northern wintering areas shifts even more strongly toward males, while females increase in the southeast U.S.

Sightings – Hummers, Moose, Badgers, Hawk/Flicker Predation, and Bluebirds
            Renn Karl in Presque Isle sent me photos of a male ruby-throated hummingbird nectaring in their still flowering Million Bells hanging baskets. Renn noted, “We had 'hummers' late into September, but I haven't seen a male in weeks! I can never recall having 'hummers' into October! He appeared healthy, quite plump, [and] intent on eating.”
            Ginny Grueneberg called on 10/3 to say she had just seen a moose in her yard on Hwy. 70 near Mitten Lake Road. She said her dog was barking, so she stepped outside to see what the commotion was, and noticed the hair on the dog’s back was standing up. And then from between the house and her garage, out stepped a moose! The moose walked down the driveway, turned off into the woods, and headed east. Later that same day, there were reports and photos of a young bull moose seen on Lake Shishebogama, and I suspect it was the same moose on a walk-about.
            Annette Tellefson in Manitowish Waters noticed some very large holes that were dug at night in her yard next to some chipmunk holes. She confirmed that next day that it was the work of a badger.
            Grace Wanta on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage called on 10/5 to report seeing a flock of Eastern bluebirds at her house for the previous three days. Usually the few bluebirds we have up here are long gone by the end of September, and any northern migrants have passed through, but our warm October apparently induced this flock to stick around.
Carol Ritter-Eaton in the Lake Tomahawk/Cassian area sent this sighting: “About three weeks ago, Mike went out our back door into the garage. Just off the paved apron on the ground in front of the garage was a hawk feasting on a flicker it must have just killed. There had been 5-6 flickers in the yard for several days, though now they are gone. The hawk immediately flew down a footpath into the forest, carrying the flicker in its talons.”

Autumn Scents
             Carol went on to ask in her e-mail, “What is the wonderful alehouse smell of the woods in the fall? It is usually pretty localized, except this year it is much more diffuse during those grey rainy days last week. I noticed it most in the pine plantations, but also in some hardwoods. Very yeasty and fermentative, so I always assumed it was some type of plant breaking down, but could never pinpoint it.”  
            Well, I don’t have any fancy scientific articles to point to. I think we’ve all picked up a handful of leaves and stuck our nose in there, breathing as deep as we could that unique odor of autumn. Oak leaves smell different from maples, which are different from ash, which are different from pine needles. It’s just a smorgasboard of smells, all very well described by Carol as an “alehouse.”

Why Do Deciduous Trees Drop Their Leaves?
I’ve always thought that deciduous trees in the Northwoods dropped their leaves because, given the frozen drought they experience in winter, they would die of thirst if they held on to them. Well, biologist Bernd Heinrich in his wonderful book “Summer World” suggests that “a large leaf surface area is needed to intercept solar radiation and to absorb carbon dioxide in the summer; but the same leaf surface is a liability in the winter because snow loading could collapse the tree.” He goes on to describe early autumn snows that wreaked havoc on trees that had still retained their leaves, breaking branches and often snapping the main trunks.
            I was a bit surprised to read that there’s still controversy as to just why trees drop their leaves. These common and “elementary” events in nature seem easily explainable until one looks more deeply into them and finds complexity where he expected simplicity.

Celestial Events
            Today, 10/14, we’re down to 11 hours of daylight.
The peak Orionid meteor shower takes place on the evening of 10/21. You can expect around 15 meteors per hour all seeming to originate from the constellation Orion. Unfortunately, the rather large waning crescent moon will obscure the shower somewhat, although the moon doesn’t rise until after midnight. But the Orionids usually wait until the wee morning hours to pick up steam, so sometimes you can’t win. Still, these fast-moving meteors occasionally leave persistent trains and bright fireballs, so it just might be worth staying up! 

NWA 9/30/11

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/30 – 10/13, 2011

Hawks Migrating
            Peak numbers of migrating hawks, primarily broad-winged hawks, have been passing through Wisconsin over the last two weeks. On 9/15, the hawk counters at Hawk Ridge in Duluth tallied a high of 13,276 raptors, of which 96% (12,790) were broad-wings. The next best day, 9/19, they counted 7,432 raptors, with broad-wings again dominating the count at 93% (6,881) of the total. For the month of September, at least as of 9/24, the total count stood at 46,218.
            These are rather pedestrian numbers for Hawk Ridge. The record count for September occurred in 2003 when 174,830 raptors were observed.
            Raptors, of course, aren’t the only birds that fly over the ridge. On 9/23, the counters also tallied 5,179 migrating non-raptors, including 2,718 blue jays, 595 cedar waxwings, 225 pine siskins, 148 American robins, 130 yellow-rumped warblers, and 109 American goldfinches.
            It’s a busy place, and still highly worth a visit in the next few weeks. For directions, see

Cranes Staging
Imagine the sound and the sight of thousands of greater sandhill cranes flying and calling, all in a whirl of action in one concentrated area. That’s what awaits you at an autumn sandhill crane staging ground. These staging areas are traditional sites that the cranes return to every fall, but don't use in the spring in their haste to reach their breeding grounds. Here in autumn fields and marshes, the cranes may remain for up to a month, feeding and loafing in little haste to finish their migration south.
            No one can really say why cranes stage at all. During spring, sandhills drive away any intruders who venture near their territories. But in September, crane pairs socialize and feed together in the same fields, often gathering together in large flocks. The availability of food, safety, and the familiarity of one area, plus the loss of other areas that may have been used historically for staging, all contribute to funneling large numbers into one spot.
            Best viewing is in early morning before they scatter to feed, and then in late afternoon/early evening when they come all back together to roost. By late fall, the exodus to southern states like Texas, Georgia, and Florida begins with the cranes usually sailing a mile or more above the ground, riding like gliders on the northerly winds.
In the upper Midwest, we are not blessed with major staging sites, but we do have a number of excellent smaller sites, island stepping stones as such, that still draw in thousands of cranes. In Wisconsin, the 9,150-acre Sandhill Wildlife Demonstration Area near Babcock hosts flocks of up to 1,000 sandhills from mid-October to mid-November. Crex Meadows often attracts up to 6,000 staging cranes by late October. Navarino WMA (Wildlife Management Area), White River Marsh WMA, Comstock Marsh State Natural Area, and Grand River Marsh WMA are also traditional fall staging areas worth visiting.

Turtles Going into Hibernation
            Beth and Cal Huizenga found a nest of baby snapping turtles on 9/24 in Presque Isle and sent a photo. It’s certainly past time for the hatchlings to emerge. While adult snappers overwinter in shallow water, and may either sit on the bottom or shelter themselves by digging into the mud, the hatchlings can spend the winter either in their sandy terrestrial nest or in the water. It all depends on how warm and dry the weather was during the summer. Snapper eggs are typically laid in mid-June, but the eggs will hatch in anywhere from 50 to 125 days. More females hatch during warmer temperatures, and more males hatch during cooler temperatures. Likewise, hatching is accelerated by warm weather and delayed by cooler weather. Hatchlings that overwinter in their nest at our latitude where the ground freezes hard don’t survive well.
Hatchling turtles use their egg tooth and claws to break out of their shell, and then have to dig their way out of the nest and find water. When they emerge, they’re 1 to 1.25 inches in length, about the size of a quarter, and highly vulnerable to predation. From any given clutch of eggs, 60% to 100% of the young may be lost to predators, and those that make it to the water are then prey for large fish, large frogs, northern water snakes, and some bird species. It’s a wonder any make it all.
Snappers are slow to mature, reaching sexual maturity in 5 to 7 years. An amazing 60% of the individuals reaching maturity will live to age 50. Unlike in any other species, survivorship does not decrease with age. Longevities over 100 years can be expected especially in the northern populations where their active season is much shorter.

Blue Jay Migration
It’s a surprise to most folks that blue jays migrate, but the many thousands of migrating jays counted at Hawk Ridge every year gives clear evidence that they do. Interestingly, however, nearly all aspects of blue jay migration are poorly understood.  Some jays remain in their breeding range year-round, while others migrate. However, the distance traveled by migrants is highly variable, and, in most areas, most jays appear to reside all year – the best estimate is that less than 20% of any jay population migrates even in northern parts of their range.
Some research suggests that migration may be influenced by fluctuations in mast (acorn) abundance. Other studies point to younger jays being the ones that migrate – one researcher working on the shore of eastern Lake Superior calculated the ages of 1,271 blue jays he captured during a six-year study of spring migration and found 72% to be second-year birds. However, the proportion of second-year birds captured ranged from 2% to 90% over the six years, so age as a factor in migration remains unclear.
Plus, individual blue jays act differently from year to year. An adult jay that breeds at one location may breed substantially farther south in subsequent years. Likewise, jays captured and marked as adults during winter have been recaptured substantially farther south in subsequent winters.
So, what can be said to summarize the migration behavior of blue jays? Very little! Clearly they are all not hard-wired to migrate, yet some do.

            Sue Drum in Presque Isle sent the following note (see her photo): “After nine years spent watching red squirrels fight over the sunflower seeds in a dish on our deck, the extraordinary suddenly happened. Two red squirrels, after a brief squabble, occupied the dish together, peacefully. Because of their small size we guess they may be siblings.”
            Sandra Wenzel observed an albino blue jay among a flock of six other normally-colored blue jays at her feeders in Sayner.

Celestial Events
            For viewing planets in October, look at dusk for Venus very low in the southwest twilight and Jupiter rising around 7 p.m. in the northeast. Before dawn, look for Mars high in the southeast and Saturn emerging also in the southeast but not until the last week of the month.
            The Draconid meteor shower peaks on 10/8, averaging a handful of languid meteors per hour in most years. However, earlier this year, Canadian astronomer Paul Wiegert predicted that this year, fiery Draco might spew forth up to a thousand meteors in a single hour. In 1933 and 1946, the Draconids produced “meteor storms” where shooting stars were produced at rates of 10,000 per hour or even more.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the peak of the shower typically lasts only one hour, and the narrow peak of the Draconids will come this year during daylight for us in North America – between 1 and 2 p.m. EDT – in other words, nearly high noon for us in the Midwest. Making matters worse, once it gets dark, a brilliant waxing gibbous moon on the nights of this shower will interfere with the show.                         Nevertheless, you might try viewing it on the evenings of October 7 and 8 to see if the outburst occurs a bit off its predicted schedule.
            The full moon occurs on 10/11. It will be the year’s most distant and thus smallest full moon, and will rise north of east for the first time since February.

Fall Colors – Still Not Quite at Peak
            Autumn leaf change is moving quickly now, but is much less than peak as of this writing (9/26). Still, there are splashes of color everywhere that just dazzle the eyes, with the promise of even more to come. It’s a time of year that truly is enlivening, with the crisp air, lack of insects, and winds that carry the dry sounds of leaves whisking along the ground. Everything just seems sharper, more poignant. Tom Anderson in his fine book Learning Nature by a Country Road wrote, “I don’t believe there is a wind that has more responsibilities than one conceived in autumn . . . It is in the fall that the winds most need to hurry and get their jobs done. The passengers on these winds are many. Sailing away are summer’s dreams, while winter’s promise rides the same wind.”