Friday, December 14, 2012

NWA 12/14/12

A Northwoods Almanac for December 14 – 27, 2012 by John Bates

Landscaping for Wildlife – Best Native Trees and Shrubs
While winter has barely begun, lots of folks use these long nights as their planning time for spring planting. If in your planning you want to maximize the diversity of your wildlife viewing, here are some thoughts.
Try to plant trees and shrubs from each group below:
Summer Fruit 
Black cherries (Prunus serotina), pin cherry (P. pennsylvanica) or choke cherry (P. virginiana): at least 47 bird species eat the fruit, including red-headed woodpecker, northern flicker, rose-breasted grosbeak, eastern bluebird, and white-throated sparrow.
                        Serviceberries (juneberries) including juneberry (Amelanchier laevis), dwarf serviceberry (A. spicata or stolonifera) and downy serviceberry (A. arborea): the fruit attracts at least 19 bird species.
                        Blackberries/Raspberries (Rubus spp.): at least 63 bird species eat their fruit.                                    American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): at least 33 species eat its fruit, including red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers, and northern cardinal.
                        Currants/Gooseberries (Ribes spp.) including native species like wild black currant (R. americanum) and prickly gooseberry (R. cynosbati): the berries are eaten by at least 16 species of birds.
                         Blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) including native low-bush blueberry (V. angustifolium), and Canada blueberry (V. myrtilloides).

Fall Fruit
            American mountain ash (Sorbus americana): the fruit is eaten by at least 14 species, including cedar and bohemian waxwings, brown thrasher, eastern bluebird, gray catbird, and grosbeaks.
            Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) including pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia), red-osier dogwood (C. stolonifera), and silky dogwood (C. amomum): their fruits are eaten by at least 34 species, including various thrushes, wild turkey, and northern cardinal.
            Viburnums (Viburnum spp.) including nannyberry (V. lentago), downy arrowwood (V. Rafinesquianum), and maple-leaved viburnum (V. acerifolium)
Winter Fruit
            Hawthorn: their fruits attract more than 20 species, while the thorns offer great cover for nesting
            Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ): Fruits are eaten by songbirds, winter waterfowl, and upland game birds.
            Sumacs (Rhus spp.) including smooth sumac (R. glabra) and staghorn sumac (R. typhina): at least 3l species eat the fruit.
Seed Trees
            Maples including sugar maple (Acer saccharum), red maple (A. rubrum), and silver maple (A. saccharinum)
            Tamarack (Larix laricina)
            Birches including paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and yellow birch (B. lutea): the seeds are a favorite of pine siskins, and fox and American tree sparrows.

Shrubs for Nests
                        Alders (Alnus spp.), American elderberry (Sambucas canadensis), roses (Rosa spp.), willows (Salix spp.), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

Shelter Trees
            White cedar (Thuja occidentalis), white spruce (Picea glauca), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Cavity Trees
            Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) or big-tooth aspen (P. grandidentata)
            Oaks (Quercus spp.) including northern red oak and pin oak
            Ashes including white ash (Fraxinus americana), green ash (F. pennsylvanica), and black ash (F. nigra), even though emerald ash borers are on the horizon. If the trees die, they’ll become great cavity trees.

Nut Trees
            Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and pin oak (Q. ellipsoidalis): species of birds include wild turkey, numerous waterfowl, ruffed grouse, northern flickers, and blue jays, plus many mammal species from deer and bear to flying squirrels.

Christmas Gifts for Someone Who Loves the Northwoods
            I can’t think of a better gift to give someone than a good pair of waterproof binoculars. Mary and I own four pairs (we get carried away sometimes), and we often bring them on trips when we expect folks won’t bring their own binocs for fear they’ll get wet and fogged-up.
            If you can’t find a good pair of binocs locally, go to, a great optics store in Middleton, WI, that sells several brands guaranteed for life no matter what you do to them (like leaving them on top of your car and having them shatter when they drop off at 45 mph). I can attest to how valuable that guarantee is!
            Yes, a good pair will cost you at least $200, but the enjoyment you’ll get from them will far outlast your concern over the cost.
            Eagle Optics has an excellent online guide to understanding how to buy the best pair of binoculars for your interests, and they’re superb at offering advice over the phone.
            If giving books is more within your price range, try anything by Bernd Heinrich, but his latest book is “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.” I also recommend his books “Summer World” and “Winter World.” Try anything by Mary Oliver for poetry lovers.
            Outdoor equipment like snowshoes (try Iverson snowshoes made in the U.P.) are great presents. Or how about heated birdbaths for folks who love to watch birds? Winter birds need water, and lots more will come to feeders with water than without.

Celestial Events
            Winter solstice takes place officially on 12/21, signifying the shortest day of our year – 8 hours and 39 minutes – and thus the longest night – 15 hours and 21 minutes. However, the latest sunrises of the year (7:40 a.m.) won’t begin until 12/27. Oddly, the sun seems to just hang there until January 8th, when it finally begins rising one minute earlier.
            Look on Christmas evening for Jupiter just a half a degree above the waxing gibbous moon. The last full moon of the year occurs after Christmas on 12/28. Called variously “The Long Night Moon” or “The Popping Trees Moon,” the intense moonlight should flood upon a typically snowy landscape, making for one of the brightest nights of the year. It’s also worth noting that in the winter, the moon crosses the night sky at its highest elevation above the horizon, making winter moonlit nights particularly bright.           

Audrey and David Theuerkauf in Minocqua have a pair of cardinals coming to their backyard feeder, “the first time ever in our 25 years in this area!” They also report that flocks of bohemian waxwings have been in, but are now thinning out as their backyard berries decline in number.
             Ken Larsen in Lac du Flambeau reported the following: “When we had the gradual warm-up to about 50 degrees, I noticed something moving in the sump pit, which was completely dry. I grabbed a flashlight and noticed there were 5 adult blue-spotted salamanders underneath the suction inlet to the sump pump. Knowing that I needed to get them out of there sometime, I decided to carefully remove them and place them outside. Fortunately, the weather was cooperative, as it warmed to 50 degrees. I went out to an area I have been dumping leaves for the last 10 years and opened up a burrow to place them in, feeling fairly confident they would survive the transfer to the cooler environment.”
            I wrote back to Ken that blue-spotted salamanders don’t hibernate over the winter – they’re not freeze-tolerant, like wood frogs or spring peepers. So, they must "hibernate" somewhere that doesn't freeze. One literature source had this to say: “Some authorities suggest they go down abandoned small mammal burrows or other soil openings to below the frost line and remain there over winter. There are a number of anecdotal reports of people finding Blue-spotted Salamanders in their basements in January and February, suggesting that the critters are still active down below the frost line. I've kept some in the fridge over winter and whenever I opened the container to check on them they were active! Rather than truly hibernating I think they just seek out habitats below the frost line, avoid freezing and keep on being salamanders: possibly moving around and hunting invertebrates all winter.”
Kerrie Filip had an albino chipmunk this summer and fall in her yard in Woodruff. Her father, Howard, wrote, “With the glass door and seed on steps, the two cats were well entertained watching Snowball, as it was named, come and go as it hid the seed in its hole! Pure white with pink eyes, Snowball was real magical for us to see and enjoy. In my 75 years I have never seen a albino chipmunk! I’ve seen an albino squirrel and deer, but no one we have talked to has seen a white chipmunk.”

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

NWA 11/29/12

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/29 - 12/13/12, by John Bates

Snowy Owl Tries to Eat Common Merganser!
On 11/14, Ryan Brady, a research scientist with the WDNR, was watching an immature female snowy owl sitting on one of the walls of Tern Island in Ashland, an artificial structure on Chequamegon Bay that hosts a nesting colony of common terns, when “the owl began head bobbing as if intrigued by potential prey. It soon jumped its perch and flew hard toward one of the pilings. From my vantage, the bird was hundreds of yards away and the pilings somewhat obstructed my view, but I knew it had attacked something, and I figured it was probably a mink. But soon I noticed that the snowy owl was literally floating in the water. And not too long after that, I was able to see the head of a female common merganser under her and barely above water. The owl continually drifted away from the pilings farther out into the lake, likely the result of wind drift and the merg's attempts to escape. But the bird had only moderate trouble swimming back toward the pilings with the merg in tow by rowing its wings like many of us have seen an eagle or osprey do. The problem, though, was getting back up onto the pilings, which the owl could not do with its hefty catch. So again and again, the bird would float away from the pilings and swim back. After about 15 minutes, the owl gave up and released the merg, which surprisingly swam off looking completely frightful but seemingly uninjured. The owl hopped on its perch and spent some time drying off, later showing interest in several other waterfowl nearby. It flew half-heartedly toward a few, which thankfully brought it closer in view, but nothing else ever materialized.”
Ryan was able to briefly video the snowy owl swimming, but he got far better photos of the owl in flight – please see his photo. Ryan also photographed a second snowy owl on a beach north of Washburn, so snowies are already moving into Wisconsin.
Ryan’s observation of the snowy capturing a merganser is remarkable but not unheard of. Snowy owls have been observed on occasion preying on ducks. A recent study on the snowy owl’s wintering grounds in southwestern British Columbia found that grebes and ducks made up 80% of the owls’ diet, with the horned grebe, captured on the water, most prevalent.
Snowies are even known to catch fish. In 1840, John James Audubon wrote about observing a snowy owl catching fish while it was lying lengthwise belly down on a rock beside a water hole. Small fish were devoured near the hole, while larger ones were carried off.
Winter Finches Swarming into Wisconsin
            The winter finch flight into Wisconsin so far has been spectacular! Reports of evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, common redpolls, white-winged and red crossbills, and bohemian waxwings are coming from every corner of the state, and it’s only mid-November! These birds come down out of Canada in large numbers whenever tree seed and fruit crops fail, and apparently the trees are bare in Ontario because the  birds are showing up early and in big numbers.
            Perhaps most abundant have been evening grosbeaks, particularly in the eastern part of the state, and all the way down into Illinois. Evening grosbeaks are particularly attracted to box elder and maple seeds, but if you want to attract them to your yard, spread black oil sunflower seeds on the ground or on platform feeders, and provide a bird bath or fountains for them.
            Pine grosbeaks are numerous as well – we have at least seven females and/or juvenile males coming to our crabapple trees. Pine grosbeaks love fruit sources like mountain ash berries and crabapples, but they’ll readily come in to feed on sunflower seeds, too. They have a lovely, soft whistle that is easy to identify, and they’re often very tame, permitting close-up views and photography.
            Bohemian waxwings have been observed in our area in flocks of well over 200. Several people reported a massive flock of bohemians swarming fruit trees in Woodruff. Bohemians typically roam in these large flocks in search of fruiting trees, descending en masse to denude them in rather short order. They don’t come in to sunflower seed feeders – they want fruit. Find cherry trees, crabapples, mountain ash, high bush cranberry, you name it, and that’s where they’ll be if they’re in the area. You don’t have to tramp into wild areas to find this species – they readily feed right in the middle of cities. This may be one of the biggest flights of bohemians into our area in many years, so be on the lookout for them now while the fruit lasts.
            Common redpolls and pine siskins are seed eaters, consuming birch, alder, willow, and various conifer seeds, as well as gleaning seeds from still-standing tall herbaceous plants like goldenrods. They, too, are already widespread across the Northwoods. Both species commonly come into sunflower and thistle feeders, but often don’t come in large numbers until later in the winter when the wild seed supply has dwindled.
            The last finches to watch out for are the crossbills. Both species have irrupted into the state, though I’ve not been seeing them so far in our area, nor have I heard from others that are seeing them. They are specialists on conifer cones, with the red crossbills being separated into 10 types based on the shape of their bills and the subsequent conifer cones they focus on. The “Type 3” red crossbills are the one being seen most right now. These have rather small bills, and thus work the smaller cones of hemlocks in particular.
            The white-winged crossbills also feed on small cones, and are most likely to be found in conifer bogs where they’ll be working on tamarack and black spruce cones. Neither crossbill species utilize sunflower seeds at backyard feeders, so you need to be checking their favored habitats to find them.
            So, this winter is shaping up to be a great year for finches! Please keep me posted on what you’re seeing!

The Wolf Hunt
            The wolf hunt has generated lots of controversy, and rightly so – there was a lot to be desired in how the hunt was created. Part and parcel of trying to judge the correctness of a wildlife management strategy is to first do our best to understand the biology of the animal in question, so here are some wolf statistics from previous studies:
Approximately 25% of adult wolves are lost every year due to the following:
-       Diseases like mange, canine parvo virus, and blastomycosis
-       Car kills
-       Interspecies and intraspecies territorial disputes that result in death
-       Wildlife services killing wolves that have preyed on livestock
-       Farmers shooting wolves that have preyed on their livestock
-       DNR culling of wolves that have become “too close” to people
-       Illegal shooting of wolves (25 wolves were found shot last year)
Approximately 70% of wolf pups die before reaching adulthood.
Approximately 30% of wolf packs don’t produce pups, often because the alpha male has died.
Twenty wolves were reported killed during the 2012 Wisconsin gun deer season, 18 of which were killed by hunters with firearms while two were taken by trappers.
The wolf harvest stands at 98 as of 11/26 – the season will close on 2/28 or when harvest quotas are reached, whichever comes first. The DNR set a statewide harvest quota of 116 wolves for non-tribal hunters and trappers.
Trappers have killed 57% of the wolves in the Wisconsin season. Sixty percent of the wolves were male, while only two of the wolves had radio-collars, leaving about 45 radio-collared wolves remaining in the state’s wolf population.
Wisconsin had a minimum of 815 to 880 wolves in late winter, though the number typically doubles each year after pups are born, according to wolf experts.
            Given all these numbers, what is the “right” number of wolves to harvest, if any? My hope is that there will be thorough scientific analysis and discussion this spring after the hunt has concluded, something that was sorely missing from the original hunt proposal. In such matters, there never is an exact “right” answer – our knowledge of wildlife populations is too incomplete and our value systems too complex and contradictory to find an absolute truth. But there’s no substitute for science-driven discussion, even if the science can never be perfect (science, after all, is always the pursuit of truths, not THE truth).

Unusual Sightings Around the Area!
Near Marquette, MI in the town of Chatham, a male vermilion flycatcher has been hanging around near a farmer’s manure pile since the beginning of November. Vermillion flycatchers belong in southern Arizona in the summer, and Central America in the winter, not in the U.P. in November, so this fellow is in for a world of trouble if he doesn’t get his compass reoriented.
John Spickerman in Lac du Flambeau had a Townsend’s solitaire briefly visit his feeder on 11/14. This species nests in the mountains of Colorado, and is only a rare visitor east of the Mississippi, so John had a great sighting! Unlike the vermillion flycatcher which is used to warm winters, the Townsend’s could stay around and survive our winter if it chose to do so. Why it’s here in the first place, however, will always be a mystery.
            As of 11/19, several thousand sandhill cranes are still roosting at Crex and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas. Check the Crex refuge an hour after sunup or an hour before sundown. During the day large numbers of cranes can be seen feeding in agricultural fields south and east of Grantsburg.  
            On 11/18, 1,000 Tundra Swans were reported on the west shore of Green Bay off of the Pensaukee Wildlife Area – “Their calls and whistles were awesome to hear,” wrote the observer.

Celestial Events
             According to Woody Hagge’s 37 years of statistics, today, 11/30 makes the first time the average high temperature will drop to 32° since March 8. Minocqua averages 99 days with high temperatures that are at freezing or below. Thus, the long freeze begins.
            Despite the fact that winter solstice occurs on 12/21, the earliest sunsets of the year (4:14 p.m.) commence beginning on 12/5, and last through 12/14, at which point the sun will begin setting one minute later every day until we reach summer solstice in June.
            On 12/11, look before dawn for Venus a degree or so below the waning crescent moon. The peak Geminid meteor shower occurs in the predawn of 12/13 – the new moon should provide perfect darkness. The Geminids average 50 to 100 meteors per hour.

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

NWA 10/26/12

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/26 – 11/8/2012
by John Bates

Looking for the Way Things Once Were – State Natural Areas
            Last weekend while Mary, Callie, and Nancy (Mary’s sister) were cavorting in Ireland (leaving me at home with our Australian shephard, Zoey – oh, the injustice of it all!), we decided to go exploring, Zoey alert in the front seat and carefully monitoring my navigational abilities. I have on my desk stacks of maps of State Natural Areas that lure me daily, so I picked five sites in Ashland and Bayfield counties that were described as having old-growth characteristics, and off we went in the morning fog.
            State Natural Areas (SNAs) contain the best remaining examples of what Wisconsin may have looked like before settlement, so they are places that excite my curiosity. They often convey a feeling, a spirit of place if you will, that I can’t find elsewhere. These are the places where I go to find a certain quiet, an historical integrity, that allows me to walk more slowly, more reverently, and thus to think and feel more deeply about who I am and whether I am living this life as I should.
       This isn’t to say that all SNAs are pristine, untouched, or “virginal” landscapes. Few such places exist today, and one can argue they never did. Virgin says something is completely untouched, unsullied, or unexploited. But ancient forests are represented by all stages of life, from the seed to the seedling, from the sapling to middle-aged tree, from the old to the decaying and to the dead. These forests are not a place apart from humans, but a place where native people often modified the landscape. And even if humans somehow left no apparent imprint, then natural disturbances have left their myriad calling cards, through windstorm, fire, disease, or insects. Old forests live dynamically, and have been naturally changing in large and small ways for thousands of years.
Even were we to find a forest never touched by humans, still no Midwestern forest could be said to remain in ‘virgin’ or ‘primeval’ condition. Too much environmental change has occurred in the last century and a half, from acid rain, mercury and other air pollutants that drift from distant sources on the winds, to exotic plants, insects, and tree diseases brought with equal parts great promise and/or ignorance.
Thus, no forest today breathes as it once did, nor absorbs nutrients from “virgin” soils. So, in today’s forests, the terms “wilderness” or “primeval” stumble within their meanings.
Yet, when we walk into a forest that resonates with age, we rightly feel transported into what we believe forests “should” look like. We feel like we’re walking through a historical dream, into a book written in languages foreign yet palpable. Voices seem to speak in ancient forests to those who listen.
So, that’s the vision I at least had in my head – Zoey just wanted to go anywhere – and down the road we rambled, heading first for the least “virgin” of the five sites, the Camp Nine Pines SNA in the sandy soils of Bayfield County. Camp Nine Pines attracted me not because of what they are now, but for what they could become. The site contains a contiguous canopy of 75- to 100-year-old pines and oaks that stretches over nearly 3,000 acres and is arguably the largest block of natural red and white pine on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Like nearly all of northern Wisconsin, the forest was cut and burned a century ago, but the pine forest that sprang back up was permitted to redevelop with only minor harvest. So, this area represents the best opportunity in Wisconsin to restore a large block of old-growth pine. And while those of us living today won’t see it in its glory, perhaps our grandchildren will be some of the first to see what a forest dominated by big pines once looked like.
            We then stopped at the Lake Owen Hardwoods SNA, also in Bayfield County, but supported by far better soil than the Camp Nine Stand that is only 12 miles away. The site, 1,535 acres in total, is bisected by the North Country Trail, and here Zoey and I walked awhile amidst mostly maturing second-growth hardwoods, but every so often, coming into a glade of old hemlocks that spoke an older language. The value of the Lake Owen site lies in the size of its unfragmented and relatively undisturbed current state, though again, it’s greater glory will come a century or more hence when “mature woods” have become “old woods.”
            Stops at Fairyland SNA along the south shore of Lake Namekagon, featuring a half mile of undeveloped shoreline habitat inhabited by some beautiful hemlocks, at Brunsweiler River and Mineral Lake SNA, and at English Lake Hemlocks SNA all yielded flashes of old growth amidst a far larger sea of second growth forest. Still, the feeling one gets in a place that you know will be conserved and which will have the chance to flourish over time pushes one to see not only the present but to envision  centuries into the future. Author Bill McKibben said this very well: “In the sense that a place is recovering, it makes the place that much more precious, as an emblem of how much recovery is possible . . . The glory of current old growth does not devalue the second- and third-growth birch and popple a quarter-mile distant. Instead, the majesty of the ancient forest makes this tentative wildness all the more valuable, for it shows what it might become someday. Old growth is not simply a marker of past glory, an elegy for all that once was. It is a promise of the future, a glimpse of the systemic soundness we will not see completed in our lifetimes but can fire our hopes for the timelessness to come.”

Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods SNA
            The next day, good friend and big-tree hunter Chad McGrath joined Zoey and me to paddle a short stretch of the Turtle River to reach the Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods SNA in Iron County, a 829-acre site described in part as a “relict old-growth stand dominated by large hemlock, yellow birch, and sugar maple with the largest trees averaging near 50 inches in diameter [and with] super-canopy white pine occurring near the lake.
We didn’t find any 50-inchers, but we did find some exceptionally large white pines, two of which were nearly 44 inches in diameter, with one being 128 feet tall when measured by Chad’s hagameter. In total in one area, we found around two dozen white pines over 36 inches in diameter, a truly impressive grouping of super-canopy pines scattered within the far more dominant hemlock-hardwoods. 
We only got a little ways into the stand – there’s lots of exploring left for us to find the even larger trees. We did find one yellow birch that was twisted and blown over that was likely 50 inches in diameter, but it had been down awhile.
Again, this forest varies in its age and composition, but among the six SNAs I visited last weekend, this one excited me the most. It’s great fun to take a good compass and a good topo map and go exploring in areas like these that can surprise you with their beauty. And with snow cover soon to come, it will be equally enjoyable on showshoes.
For information and maps on the 653 state natural areas in Wisconsin, just do a web search for Wisconsin state natural areas. There’s over 360,000 acres protected, or about 1% of the total acreage in Wisconsin, and I assure you, that one percent is worth exploring.

Gluttonous Robins
            Flocks of robins continue to strip our crabapple trees of their abundance. They’ve been at their gluttony now for weeks, and I’m wondering if they’ll stay until the trees are bare, or if they’ll move on and leave a few for the winter finches we hope will visit us when the snows fly.
            Robins are among our last songbirds to depart for the winter, and while some don’t go much further than southern Wisconsin, most winter further south, with some small percentage going as far as Mexico.
During the nonbreeding season, large flocks of hundreds or thousands of immature and adult birds form roosting aggregations from which they seek sources of berries. Bird banders have found that only 25% of young robins survive the first year. The longest known lifespan in the wild of an American robin is 14 years; the average lifespan is about 2 years.

            On 10/18, Jane Flanigan sent me a jubilant note saying she had finally seen her first cardinal in the Northwoods after waiting six years to see one – see her fine photo.

Celestial Events
            Venus remains brilliant in the predawn southeastern sky, while Mars is the planet to look for low in the southwest after sunset with Jupiter also rising now in the northeast.
            Look for the full moon, the “Hunter’s Moon,” on 10/29. On 11/1, Jupiter will ride the early evening sky just one degree above the waning gibbous moon.
            And, not to be depressing, but we’re down below 10 hours of daylight as of 11/3, with 11/6 marking the midway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. Ten hour of daylight will sound pretty good in late December.
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.

Friday, October 12, 2012

NWA 10/12/12

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/12 – 25/2012 by John Bates

Freshwater Jellyfish
            On 9/29, Cindy Carpenter reported seeing lots of freshwater jellyfish on 214-acre South Two Lake near Lake Tomahawk, a relatively deep lake for our area with correspondingly clear water. These quarter-sized jellyfish typically hover in the water column from several inches deep to as far down as one can see, and are translucent with a cross shape on their back.
            It’s thought that the jellyfish are one of two species native to China, both of which (Craspedacusta sowerbii and C. sinensis) live in the Yangtze River. Freshwater jellyfish were unknown outside of China until 1880 when the jellyfish were found swimming in a large, water-lily tank at the Royal Botanic Gardens outside London, England. Four years later in 1884, immature jellyfish polyps were found in a stream in Pennsylvania.            
            The jellyfish eventually found their way to Wisconsin and were first reported from a farm pond near Baraboo in Sauk County where wood ducks are speculated to have carried them to the pond. By October 2006, jellyfish had been reported from 40 water basins in Wisconsin, and as of 2012, in 89 Wisconsin lakes.
            The literature on the jellyfish’s natural history in Wisconsin says to look for jellyfish during dry and hot summers, and while this wasn’t officially a drought year for us, it’s certainly been dry. When lake shallows warm rapidly during spring, the jellyfish emerge in mid-June and swim toward the water surface. Only when they are full-grown and densely “bloomed” near the water surface do they draw attention.  And that typically doesn’t happen in Wisconsin until August to mid-September.
            The jellyfish are restricted to a narrow band of water temperature between 65 to 75 degrees. If the water surface of a lake becomes warmer than 75°, as some of our lakes do during hot summer afternoons, the jellyfish congregate in deeper water where they can find their preferred temperature range.
            The jellyfish feed on zooplankton, using their tentacles to sting these critters and capture even larger prey, such as water mites and insect midge larvae. These tiny jellyfish are not considered dangerous to humans. The mature jellyfish live a few weeks, release eggs, and die.
            Their impact, if any, is unclear. While their preference for large, predatory zooplankton could influence zooplankton species structure, no one knows if this is an issue.

            A bull moose was photographed swimming across Rest Lake in Manitowish Waters, but other moose were also reported in a number of locations. Usually these are young bulls out for a walk-about, perhaps looking for a female, but who really knows?
            On 9/28, Sharon Lintereur spotted a white-crowned sparrow at her feeders. Tree, Harris, fox, white-throated, and white-crowned sparrows are all migrating through now.
            We’ve had a bevy of American robins, house finches, and yellow-rumped warblers around our house eating our abundant crabapples. One usually doesn’t think of warblers as fruit eaters, but the yellow-rumps have the most diverse diet of our warblers. Hopefully there will be a few crabapples left for the pine grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings to feed on this winter.

Dark-eyed Juncos
On 9/29, Jane Gau near Boulder Junction reported seeing about a half dozen dark-eyed juncos under her feeder, the earliest she can ever recall seeing them. We’re at the southernmost edge of their nesting range, so we do have local birds that are seen throughout the summer, but it’s usually October that brings large flocks of juncos down out of Canada on their way to their wintering grounds.
Juncos are familiar to nearly everyone because of their ubiquity, abundance, tameness, and conspicuous ground-foraging winter flocks. Audubon (1831) stated that “there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird,” a reference to its plumage which is characterized by white outer tail-feathers that flash when the bird takes flight and by a gray or blackish hood and back that contrasts with its whitish breast and belly. A recent estimate set the junco’s total population at approximately 630 million, so plenty to go around!
All juncos breeding in the North migrate, because as seed eaters, they need open ground in the winter upon which to forage. East of Mississippi River, females tend to migrate farther south than males, and adults migrate farther than hatching-year birds, a process called “differential migration.” Northern-breeding birds typically begin migrating in September, and are on their wintering grounds by early December.
Juncos commonly migrate at night and some are killed every year in collisions with human-made structures like television towers, indicating that many juncos migrate below tower heights.
In fall and spring, migrant juncos forage almost entirely on the ground and are common on lawns and along roadsides. Their winter food is almost entirely seeds from plants like chickweed, crabgrass, pigweed, knotweed, and sorrel. Analysis of their stomachs have also shown 0–66% sand and gravel, and gravel has even been found in the stomach of their nestlings, therefore being brought by adults. Because they lack teeth, seed-eating birds need to eat grit to help them digest their food. The grit grinds the seeds they eat in the gizzard, while the grit itself is slowly ground down and dissolved allowing the minerals to enter the bloodstream.

Fall Colors
            Autumn colors have peaked and many leaves have dropped, but what a glorious array of colors we were blessed with! Look now for the smoky gold of the tamaracks around our bog lakes – the color usually peaks around 10/15.
More Gleanings from the Rest Lake Dam Environmental Analysis
To understand how much water to hold back behind a dam, and how much to equitably disperse over a dam, you have to know how much is coming in. So, the water entering the Manitowish Chain comes from three sources:
1-    Precipitation: we average 34 inches of annual precipitation, which includes our 85 inches of annual snowfall in the watershed.
2-    River flow: the five major river/creek contributors to the Manitowish Chain are: Manitowish River – 48%
            Trout River – 28%
            Rice Creek – 15%
            Papoose Creek – 7%
            Gresham Creek – 2%
3-    Groundwater: groundwater contributes to the system, but the amount of water is difficult to study and poorly understood. During the summer, evaporation rates can be as high as 4 to 6 inches of water surface elevation loss per month; however, summer evaporation loss and groundwater inputs were estimated by the USGS to essentially cancel one another out.

When the Chain is drained 3.5 feet in elevation in late September, nearly 660 million cubic feet of water are released (at 5’0” elevation, the Chain holds 350 million cubic feet, and at 8’6”, the Chain holds 1,010 million cubic feet). Downstream, the narrow river basin typically floods in a few days, and the Turtle Flambeau Flowage is raised about 11 inches during the drawdown.                       
There are about 656 acres of surface water dewatered when the Chain is lowered 3.5 feet, most of which is the littoral zone where aquatic plants grow. The wetlands of the Chain provide important habitat for foraging, nursery, spawning, and cover for a diverse assemblage of fish, wildlife, and other aquatic organisms. They also provide important ecological function such as flood storage retention, water quality protections, scenic beauty, and shoreline protection.
The natural annual flow pattern of northern Wisconsin rivers is characterized by high flows in the spring when rain combines with snowmelt, and low flows in autumn. March 25th is the average date for spring runoff in the Northwoods, and 75% or more of the spring runoff has passed by April 15th, the average date when the refill of the Chain is begun. When the process of refilling the Chain begins, the flow in the river below the dam is instantaneously reduced from around 250 cubic feet per second (depending on the year) to 50 to 75 cfs, quickly ending the spring high flows. From the EA: “Many of the backwater and oxbow areas become dewatered and disconnected from the main river channel within 24 to 48 hours. These quickly changing water levels would continue to result in fish standing as well as having direct impacts to other organisms dependent on these habitats.” (See the photos to compare the differences in water depth at these different flow rates).
More from the EA: “Eliminating or reducing the 3.5 foot winter . . . would greatly reduce the frequency of low water conditions in the wetlands and shallow water areas on the Chain. This would increase the wetland functionality, habitat availability, and plant and animal diversity in these areas. In many of the shallow wetlands and bays, there would be sufficient water early in the spring which would restore habitat during critical periods for fish and wildlife reproduction needs.” It would also increase earlier recreational opportunities, and protect against low water levels during drought years.
What about piers and boathouses? There would be need for some landowners to do a one-time fix. “To reduce or eliminate the potential impact of ice, more landowners would likely remove their piers at the end of the summer. For structures that cannot be move, aeration systems and other methods to minimize ice damage would need to be installed by landowners. These methods are commonly employed on thousands of other lakes and impoundments that have a minimal winter drawdown or no drawdown. Other lakes chains in Northern Wisconsin also have numerous permanent structures at or below the ordinary high water mark such as the Eagle River Chain and the Minocqua Chain of Lakes. The Eagle River Chain is usually operated with only a 0.3 foot water level difference year round. The Minocqua Chain has a 1.05 foot difference between summer and winter water levels.”
 The draft environmental analysis (EA) of the Rest Lake Dam is available for public review. See

Celestial Events
            10/14: We’re down to only 11 hours of daylight.
            10/15: New moon occurs.
10/18: Look at dusk for Mars two degrees south of the crescent moon.
10/20: The peak of the Orionid meteor shower occurs. It’s best viewed predawn                                     on the 20th and 21st. Look toward Orion for the best viewing. The Orionids                         average 15 to 25 meteors per hour.

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

NWA 9/28/12

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/28 – 10/11/12   by John Bates 

9/13: Rick and Pat Schwai visited Hawk Ridge and were treated to both a glorious day and the second largest count number so far (6600+) this month.  Pat noted, “I didn't expect the hawks to be flying so high that they were invisible to the naked eye and still tiny with my 8x32 binoculars.”
9/16: Jim Ferguson went out on Lake Tomahawk for a last day of summer pontooning and was surprised to come across two red-necked grebes. He observed, “The two birds stayed close together all the time. We also counted 39 loons. All the birds were on the western end of Tomahawk Lake.”
9/17 Sharon Lintereur in Lake Tomahawk watched a barred owl hunting in her woods and was able to get some fine pictures (see photo).
9/19: Ellen and Kit Deubler had a rare visitor, a bull moose, at their home on Elsie Lake in the Township of Lac du Flambeau (see photo).
9/23: Mary, Callie, and I were very lucky to come across three migrating Lapland longspurs on one of the dikes in Powell Marsh.

Bumper Crop of Acorns
            Our native red oaks have outdone themselves this fall in their production of acorns. There are so many underfoot in places it’s hard to walk! Productive red oak trees can produce over 1,000 acorns in a banner year – some white oaks are known produce over 10,000 acorns with yields reaching as high as 6,000 pounds per acre. However, white oaks are quite uncommon in the Northwoods, attaining their northern range boundary usually a few counties south of us.
I’m sure a host of wildlife species have also taken note of the acorn bounty. Among birds, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, red-headed woodpeckers, blue jays, crows, white-breasted nuthatches , brown thrashers, rufous-sided towhees, and common grackles are heavy consumers of acorns. And though red oak acorns are more bitter due to their high tannic acid content than white oak acorns, many mammals consume them, chief among them being rodents and squirrels, as well as black bears and white-tailed deer. For deer, acorns are preferred above all other food items whenever and wherever they are available.
But wildlife are not the only consumers of acorns; people have consumed acorns for thousands of years. In fact, acorns are still a commercial food crop in China and Korea, and are harvested to a lesser degree in Mexico and Japan. You can buy acorn flour online right now from Acorns were particularly important to certain tribes in California, comprising half of their diet! There, oaks were planted, transplanted, and intensively managed in “orchard-like” settings.
But what about Native American use of acorns in northern Wisconsin? The Woodland tribes of the Upper Great Lakes Region relied on seasonally abundant plant and animal resources, chief among them in the autumn being fall-spawning fish and wild rice. But archaeological evidence indicates that acorn use was also widespread, though the sweeter acorns (white and bur oak) were preferred over red oaks. Red oak acorns require leaching of their tannic acid to be edible, but the practice was common, as described in the Menominees by Huron Smith in 1923: “The acorn was boiled till almost cooked. The water was then thrown away. Then to water, two cups of wood ash were added. The acorns were put into a net and were pulled out of the water after boiling in this. The third time, they were simmered to clear them of lye water.” Smith added, “Because the red oak was so abundant in Ojibwe territory, the acorns were one of their most important starchy foods.” 

Environmental Analysis of the Rest Lake Dam
            On 9/15, the WDNR released an Environmental Analysis (EA) related to the eventual new operating order it will issue on the Rest Lake Dam. The purpose of the EA is to provide a factual disclosure of the levels and flows of the river and how the large community of species are impacted, the management alternatives considered, and their anticipated environmental impacts. Here is a beginning attempt at summarizing this complex document:
Summary of the Issue
            The Rest Lake Dam, located on the Manitowish River in Manitowish Waters and incorporated into the County ‘W’ bridge, creates an upstream reservoir that controls the water level on a chain of ten natural lakes and river channels known as the Manitowish Chain of Lakes. Elevations upstream of the dam are raised between 9.2 and 13.5 feet.
            Downstream of the dam, the Manitowish River flows through three small lakes and then travels another 15 miles until the Manitowish and Bear Rivers combine to form the North Fork of the Flambeau River, eventually flowing into the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage.
            The chain of lakes is drawn down about 3.5 feet every fall to protect piers and boat houses on the Chain. The drawdown results in significant autumn flooding downstream. The Chain is then refilled every spring after most of the ice is off Rest Lake, which unfortunately is after nearly all of the snowmelt has already gone downstream. Based on USGS estimates, to raise or lower the Chain 1 inch takes 14.8 million cubic feet of water. This amount of water translates to a daily flow of 171 cubic feet per second that is either taken from, or added to river flows downstream of the dam. The natural streamflow below the dam is thus profoundly altered in order to empty or fill the Chain – photographs throughout the EA dramatically illustrate this.
            The current owner of the Rest Lake Dam is Xcel Energy. The hydropower generated downstream resulting from the fall drawdown of the Chain was evaluated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which in 2001 concluded that the management of water levels and flows was “neither used and useful nor necessary or appropriate to maintain or operate” hydropower generation. 
            Thus, given that the dam has no functional value to Xcel, its current operation is summarized by the EA as “focused primarily on upstream water interests including minimizing possible ice damage to piers and shoreline structures, as well as keeping water levels above the dam in a narrow operating range near the maximum water level from June through October.” 
             According to the EA, the problem with this management strategy is that at any time of year, the minimum river flow required at a dam stems from Chapter 31.34 Wisconsin Statutes, which states that a dam must, at the minimum, discharge at least 25% of the stream’s natural low flow. This is calculated by estimating the “Q7-10 flow” which is defined as the lowest average flow for a consecutive seven-day period with an average recurrence interval of ten years. The Q7-10 is mainly used for the permitting of wastewater discharges, and, importantly, these flows are not considered protective of aquatic life and habitat. The USGS has since estimated the Q7-10 for the Manitowish River to be 40 cubic feet per second (cfs).
            The downstream flows of the Manitowish, however, have often been lower than 40 cfs, sometimes for months at a time, and thus of very significant ecological concern. So, the DNR began meetings in 2002 to re-evaluate the 1937 operating order that today still acts as the legal directive for the management of the dam.
            The other statutory issue surrounding the management of the Rest Lake Dam stems from Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine (Wisconsin Constitution: Article IX, Section 1), which establishes public water rights and the State’s obligation to protect those rights in navigable bodies of water. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has declared that the State holds navigable waters in trust for all citizens, and that public water rights such as water quality, quantity, scenic beauty, and recreational use need to be protected for the benefit of current and future generations.
            In response to these statutory directives, intensive data-collecting studies were eventually undertaken by the DNR, and in November of 2009, the USGS placed gaging stations to record the river flow on the three largest inflows to the Chain (the Manitowish River, Rice Creek, and Trout River), the water level elevation at the dam, and the river flows downstream of the dam. This information, along with historical dam operating records and nearby long term gaging stations on the Bear and Trout Rivers were used by USGS to develop inflow models for the Manitowish River at the Rest Lake Dam.
            Other information gathered in the EA addressed the major sources of water loss from the Chain and the rivers, which include water withdrawals for cranberry operations, private irrigation, evaporation, and plant transpiration. It also evaluated other issues such as water quality, aquatic habitat with discussion of the functions and values of wetlands, fisheries populations and habitats, wildlife populations including birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and mussels, wild rice habitat, and cultural values such as local economics, land values, recreational uses, and shoreline structures.
Cranberry Growers Water Withdrawals
            The entire EA is thorough, essential reading and quite revealing. For instance, the EA quantifies what the actual water withdrawals are from the three cranberry operations around the Manitowish and Trout Rivers.
             Cranberry production uses water to irrigate cranberries during the growing season, to flood beds for harvest in August, to flood beds in winter to protect the vines from freezing/drying, and to either flood beds or irrigate to protect the plants from frost in the spring.
            Approximately 960 acres of cranberry production is located downstream of Wild Rice Lake where pumps keep water levels high on Little Trout Lake, from which water is then pumped or flowed to individual cranberry beds. Water diverted to these cranberry beds is likely not returned to the Manitowish Chain because it is located in the Bear River sub-watershed. 
            The pumping station is only operated when water levels on Little Trout Lake are low during dry years. In 2007, a drought year, operating records indicate that pumping occurred 24 hours a day from June to October. Given the 10-14 cfs pumping rate from this operation, the USGS estimated the amount of water withdrawn from the Chain and diverted to Little Trout Lake ranged from 11 to 27% of the natural inflow of the river.
            Another cranberry pumping station located upstream of Wild Rice Lake is used to keep water levels high on Great and Little Corn Lakes. Approximately 177 acres of cranberry production occurs in this location. This cranberry operation diverts from 2 to 100 percent of the flow of the Trout River when the pumps are turned on. For example, on December 11, 2009, USGS measured 2.41 cfs below the pumps and 25.0 cfs upstream (a diversion of 22 cfs). This means that under low flow conditions, the pumping rates can and were measured by the USGS gage to temporarily reverse the direction of flow on the Trout River.
            The third cranberry pumping location has approximately 41 acres of cranberry beds and takes water out of Alder Lake, recycling it directly back to where it was withdrawn minus losses due to evaporation and evapotranspiration. 
            A fourth operation is currently under construction in the watershed that will have approximately 20 acres of cranberry beds, and which will divert water from Lower Gresham Lake. The outlet of this lake is Gresham Creek, which is a tributary to the Trout River upstream of Wild Rice Lake.
Operating Order Yet to Come
            The draft EA is available for public review and can be downloaded at:
            Comments on the draft EA need to be received by the DNR by 10/31/12. An updated Rest Lake Dam operating order will be drafted after the certification of the EA.
            I highly recommend reading the EA. It’s a lesson in the complexity of natural systems and our relationships to them. My hope is that objective and bighearted discussion will follow, the sustainable management of the rivers and the Chain will ensue, and people will come together to work with the DNR to optimize the health and integrity of the rivers and lakes throughout this watershed.

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