Tuesday, January 17, 2012

NWA 1/20/12

A Northwoods Almanac for January 20 – February 2, 2012

Ice-up on the Manitowish River
            In the 28 years we’ve lived on the Manitowish River, we’ve not seen the river remain open as late as it has this year. It finally iced up at our home on 1/3, but barely. Open water into January likely pleases semi-aquatic mammals like otters, beavers, and muskrats, and fish eating birds like bald eagles, but I’m not sure I see late ice-up in our area altering the behavior of most wildlife species.
            However, the lack of ice this winter on the Mississippi River has altered the wintering pattern of bald eagles. The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN, does a weekly winter count at several sites in WI, and their count numbers are very low for this time of the year. With the mild weather, there’s both plenty of open water and no snow cover, so the eagles are roaming the snow-free countryside looking for food. Normally the dams along the Mississippi offer some of the only open water available to the eagles, and so concentrate the eagles there. But not this year.
The serious downside to the widely foraging bald eagles is that they are finding deer gut piles and unrecovered deer from the hunting season that would ordinarily be hidden under the snow. Inside the deer are very small fragments of lead bullets, which if eaten by an eagle can be enough to kill them. The Center had four bald eagles brought in during December, and three of them had to be euthanized because of high lead levels. The other one is still being treated for lead at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
The PBS nature film “American Eagle” photographed by Wisconsinite Neil Rettig, has a video sequence of a bald eagle dyeing from lead poisoning, which can be seen online at www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/american-eagle/video-full-episode/4349/
A bit closer to home, in the first week of January an unprecedented amount of open water on Chequamegon Bay produced another behavioral change in some waterfowl, inducing the following individuals to linger:
2 tundra swans (extremely rare January record)
275 common goldeneyes
39 common mergansers
9 red-breasted mergansers
2 greater scaup (very rare January record)
1 lesser scaup (extremely rare January record)
1 bufflehead (rare January record)

            Cheryl Crawford in Harshaw reported that a ruby-crowned kinglet continues to eat from her suet feeders and a feeder containing crushed peanuts. Ruby-crowneds winter well south of there, typically into Tennessee and Arkansas and south into Central America, so its presence is very unusual. Occasionally an individual is reported on a Christmas bird count in southern Wisconsin, but we’ve never seen one in the 19 years of our count in Manitowish Waters. We rarely get golden-crowned kinglets, but not ruby-crowned kinglets.
Neil Long, a long-time resident of Sayner and a highly respected outdoorsman, reported a sharp-tailed grouse walking by his feeders and apparently taking corn from neighboring feeders. I’ve never heard of a sharp-tailed grouse coming to a feeder in our area, so I’m really surprised and delighted to hear of one. Sharp-taileds are a species of brush prairies and wide-open spaces, certainly not a habitat characteristic of the Sayner area. In our area, I’m only aware of a tiny flock that lives in the huge Powell Marsh, and a flock that lives in the Riley Wildlife Area south of Hwy. 70 between Minocqua and Fifield.
Pat Schwai reported her good fortune in hosting a small flock of 10 to 15 redpolls in her yard each day so far in 2012. Redpolls are relatively scarce in our area this winter, so Pat is indeed lucky.
Dave and Suzy Foster also have had small groups of common redpolls at their feeders daily in Natural Lakes since December 16. However, they’ve also had groups of up to 30 evening grosbeaks almost every day since December 24, making pigs of themselves at their feeders as evening grosbeaks are wont to do. 
On 1/3, Ed Marshall had a northern shrike show up at his feeders. As Ed noted, the songbird-eating shrike “was not popular; all the other birds left for safer territory.”
Shrikes are very uncommon this winter –Mary and I are still hoping to see our first of the year.
Wil Conway sent me some fine photos of a coyote that he took through the glass doors at his home on Fence Lake. The coyote was adept at using cover to hide his presence, but Wil caught him easily visible several times.

 A Case of Cold Feet
The juvenile summer tanager that was first seen in Arbor Vitae nearly two months ago remained in the area until 1/13, and has not been seen since as of this writing (1/16). One of the people who has fed him reported on 1/10: “Wrong-way is suffering more problems with his feet. He does a lot of fluttering to move himself around our tray feeder (vs. ambulating himself with his feet), also on branches, and in relation to drinking from our birdbath . . . It appears that he is unable to bend down from his standing position to drink. Finally, in desperation what I've seen him do both yesterday and today is attempt to drink on the fly. Yesterday his feet landed in the water a little and he immediately flew away afterwards. Today he was able to hover and take two sips without getting his feet wet. It's not known exactly what the problem is with his feet but I fear that it could become the straw that broke the camel's back and cause him to perish – especially with more cold and snow expected soon.”
One of many reasons why most birds gladly depart our area for the winter is their inability to protect their feet from freezing. Only a few birds have feathers covering their legs and feet. Ptarmigans in the far North grow extra feathers on their feet during the winter to provide insulation and to offer a larger surface for support on the snow. Most owls have feathered feet, but the feathers appear to suppress flight sounds that might alert prey and not to provide warmth.
Thus the birds wintering in the North have had to come up with another way to prevent tissue damage to their feet due to freezing. Their solution is a specialized system of blood flow to their feet that goes through a “heat exchanger” on the way to the feet, and then again on the way back to the heart. The heat exchanger is located just below the thigh on each leg and is made of a mesh of small vessels that can take heat from the warm arterial blood flowing to the feet and use it to warm the cold venous blood that is returning. An example of the temperature gradient looks like this: the blood heading down to the feet enters the heat exchanger at 95° and by the time it circulates through the foot, the temperature has dropped to just a few degrees above freezing. The blood coming back up would shock the heart and kill the bird, so, as it goes through the heat exchanger, it is rewarmed to 91° by the 95° blood that is also circulating through the exchanger on its way down to the feet.
It’s a great system for the winter, but one that could cause problems of overheating in the summer when the birds need to cool themselves. So, on a hot summer day, the heat exchanger can be bypassed in order for the blood to be cooled as much as possible by using the feet as radiators – an ingenious solution.

Minocqua Christmas Bird Count
            The Minocqua Audubon Winter Bird Count took place on 12/29, picking up 24 species. Some surprising numbers included 19 eagles, 11 red-bellied woodpeckers, 15 pileated woodpeckers, and 60 snow buntings. Two non-native birds were tallied as well – 5 European starlings and 9 house sparrows.

Celestial Events
            It’s staying lighter longer! As of 1/27, we’ll be the recipients of 9 hours and 30 minutes of daylight, up from the 8 hours and 44 minutes we sustained around winter solstice. Our days are growing longer now by nearly 3 minutes a day.
            The new moon occurs on 1/23. On 1/30, look for Jupiter about 5 degrees south of the moon.
            Groundhog’s Day takes place on February 2. No self-respecting groundhog in the Northwoods would stick its head out on this day – they’re all in a very deep hibernation that will likely remain undisturbed into April.

Monday, January 2, 2012

NWA 12/23/11

A Northwoods Almanac for December 23, 2011 – January 5, 2012

Common Loon Migration on the Web
Where do loons go in the winter, when do they leave, and what routes do they take? We are now receiving some very specific data to shed light on these questions, all because of periodic outbreaks of type-E botulism that have resulted in die-offs of fish and fish-eating birds in the Great Lakes. The physical and ecological factors that lead to the botulism outbreaks are poorly understood, but central to the question are the feeding patterns and the migratory routes of waterbird species such as common loons. 
The Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) in La Crosse is conducting a study of these outbreaks through aerial surveys and by tracking migration movements of loons which are equipped with archival geo-locator tags and satellite transmitters. 
As part of UMESC’s public education efforts, they’ve put up a marvelous website that shows the daily migratory movements of dozens of loons through the Midwest. Go to http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html to see the rather stunning differences in the timing, distance, and locations of each loon’s migration.

Sightings - Ermine
Kay Rhyner observed from her kitchen window on Yawkey Lake in Hazelhurst a beautiful white ermine up in a tree. At first she thought "what a skinny-long white squirrel," but it was indeed an ermine. Kay noted that they have very few squirrels this winter, and she wondered if the ermine(s) might be the cause. 
Indeed they could be. A 1999 study of least weasels showed that small rodents (mostly voles) constitute 41% of their diet in summer, and their winter diet is also predominantly small rodents. Weasels, however, are considered by some to be the fiercest predator pound-for-pound on earth, and are known to attack prey bigger than themselves. So, they eat squirrels, but it’s impossible to say if they’re the culprit at the Rhyner’s home.

More Sightings – Robins, Eagles, and “Wrong-way Charlie”
On 12/14, Wil Conway in Lac du Flambeau sent me a photo he had just taken of a robin, and wrote, “Think this fellow’s seasonal clock is off . . . at least he found a few berries to tide him over.” 
On occasion, a robin will stay the winter up here, but why one would choose to remain says he’s not only off his seasonal clock – he’s off his rocker. 
On 12/15, a birder reported seeing 274 bald eagles along the Mississippi River near Wabasha and Read's Landing. “Most of these were visible from the town of
Read's Landing . . . one small sandbar had over 60 eagles sitting on it,” he wrote.  
The juvenile summer tanager I reported a month ago is still being seen in the Arbor Vitae area. One observer who has had the bird come to his feeders over the last few weeks wrote, “It's strange with Wrong-way Charlie (that's what we've nicknamed him, for obvious reasons.). He has shown up here every day since December 5th. However, some days he spends more time away than around our feeders and other days he seems to hang around most of the day. Some days he seems more skittish than others . . . some days he seems to tolerate us moving around inside our house more so than on others . . . Also, waking up from his nocturnal torpor seems more difficult some days than others. He was again somewhat unsteady and weak on our feeders. When it was somewhat warmer he took a full bath in our bird bath. However, he did this a day or two later when it was both colder and cloudy. Lately he's gotten in the habit of spending less time on our feeders and taking a nut, some suet, or small pieces of banana off to the branch of a nearby tree. So we're seeing changing, evolving patterns of behavior.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the winter range of summer tanagers, it’s from Central America to South America. So, “Wrong-way Charlie” is clearly not adapted to a northern winter, and it will be quite remarkable if he makes it to spring.

Christmas Bird Count
We conducted the 19th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Manitowish Waters on 12/17, and if there was one word I could use to sum up our collective experience, I would say it was “quiet.” I don’t have the full numbers crunched yet, but I’d be surprised if we weren’t close to our all-time low number of individuals. Black-capped chickadees and both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches were plentiful, but after those three species, well, it was QUIET. I should add though that we don’t only measure the success of the count by the numbers we observe. We’re also out there for the array of other experiences we invariably have by simply spending the day outside. 
But numbers are what most folks look at, so perhaps the most remarkable number for any species that day was the 22 trumpeter swans we saw on the Manitowish River just above Benson Lake. Numerous family groups with their respective young were obviously socializing together, and it will be interesting to see if they remain together this winter.

Van Vliet Hemlocks Land Acquisition
The Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) recently approved the sale of 432.5 acres of Trust Lands in Vilas County – the Van Vliet Hemlocks – along with 984.27 acres of mostly wetland in Iron County to the WDNR. The Van Vliet Hemlocks parcel contains an old-growth, northern hardwood-hemlock forest, a significant rarity today. The parcel also comprises 9,435 feet of frontage on Van Vliet and Averill Lakes, and 6,135 feet on four other small lakes and ponds, all natural shoreline that will now be protected for fish spawning, loon nesting, and an array of other wildlife and floral benefits. The 220-acre Van Vliet Lake and 71-acree-Averill Lake support a fishery including muskie, northern pike, walleye, largemouth bass, and pan fish.
It’s certainly an irony that a state agency has to purchase land from another state agency. However, the BCPL is authorized to manage timberlands for income, whereas the DNR has the authority to set aside specific ecologically rare sites for scientific and educational purposes. Thus, when a higher management purpose than logging is perceived for a parcel, the BCPL needs to divest the land to the DNR. The money received by the BCPL is then used to purchase timber-producing lands that fit within their constitutional authorization.
  It’s a win-win deal. The proceeds of these sales will be used by BCPL to acquire better timber and income-producing lands for the benefit of public schools. Since being granted “land bank” authority by the legislature in April 2006, the Board has sold 9,780 acres of land poorly suited for timber production or located within the boundaries of another government agency, and, in turn, the Board has purchased 8,611 acres of working forests. The benefits of these transactions include increased timber management efficiency, increased public access, reduced forest fragmentation, increased tax receipts for local municipalities, and the permanent protection of high-quality natural areas.  
With these transactions, the BCPL has increased public access to Trust Lands by 16%, decreased non-income producing wetlands by 17%, and increased timber-producing lands by 10%. All Trust Lands are open for hunting, fishing, trapping, and recreation. 
In the last 12 months, the BCPL has approved 148 loan applications totaling slightly more than $94.4 million. The loans can be made to municipalities and school districts for any public purpose. Earnings from this fund are distributed to K- 12 public school libraries annually – a total of $33.6 million in 2011. 
Examples of the most recent BCPL approved loans include $375,000 to Crawford County to finance courthouse remodeling, $290,000 to the town of Vinland in Winnebago County to purchase a fire truck, $100,00 to Germantown School in Washington County to finance the razing of an old school building, and $240,000 to the Town of Dunn in Dane County to finance road reconstruction. These are nearly always job-making loans. A list of loans approved in the last twelve months can be found at: http://bcpl.wisconsin.gov/docview.asp?docid=22373&locid=145 

Celestial Events
New moon occurs on 12/24. 
Our days finally begin to grow longer on Christmas Day. However, for reasons beyond my astronomical understanding, for the next two weeks the days only grow longer because the sun sets later every day – sunrises are a completely different story. On 12/27, the sun rises at 7:40, and for the next 11 days, it will continue to rise at 7:40, finally breaking through its inertia and rising one minute earlier at 7:39 on January 8. 
January 8, 2012, then, marks the first time since June 10, 2011, that the sun will rise earlier than the day before. 
The peak Quadrantid meteor shower occurs in the predawn skies on Wednesday, Jan. 4. Typically, 60 or so bright and fast meteors per hour will radiate from the constellation Bootes, some blazing more than halfway across the sky. A small percentage of them leave persistent dust trains. This shower usually has a very sharp peak, lasting only about an hour. Look to the north-northeast an hour or so before dawn.

Past Columns
All my past columns are now posted on my blog, so if you miss one, just go to: http://manitowishriver.blogspot.com

A Christmas Thought
“When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any division there of nations or state. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.” – Joseph Campbell

NWA 1/6/12

A Northwoods Almanac for Jan. 6 – 19, 2012, by John Bates

Sightings: Robin, Snowy Owl, Ermine, Swans, Bobcat, Summer Tanager
Elizabeth Mazur reported seeing a lone robin on the morning of December 22nd in Hazelhurst “munching on berries on our burning bush. Our dog saw him too, and the robin flew into a nearby tree awaiting dog removal. Since we left for the holiday I cannot say if he came back or not. This is the latest I have ever seen a robin . . . I did notice that there was no birdsong from him . . . He was just waiting to get back to eating.”
On 12/28 in the middle of the day, Jim Morgan observed a snowy owl sitting on his pier on Squirrel Lake. He watched as the owl flew low across the lake and through a number of ice shanties with most fishermen apparently too intent on fishing to notice the owl.
On 12/29, Jill Wilm on Van Vliet Lake sent me a series of fine photos of an ermine in her yard. Besides its normal natural fare, the ermine has been taking suet from Jill’s suet feeder. Three species of weasels live in northern Wisconsin – the short-tailed, the long-tailed, and the least. This one appears to be a long-tailed.
On 12/31, Vicki Shanahan on Fence Lake reported the following: “Bob, or maybe Bobette, is back. Not sure if it is the same one from last year . . . It seems more elusive than the bobcat last winter. He/she is systematically taking out the squirrels . . . the rabbits have already been dinner. Amazing how many squirrels there are... down to one now . . . I'm sure new ones will move in soon. Will the bobcat move on for a while until his supply is replenished?”
Bobcats, like just about every animal trying to survive a long Northwoods winter, are opportunistic feeders, meaning they generally go where the best menu opportunities present themselves. The bobcat will move along when it takes more energy to capture a squirrel than the meal of the squirrel provides.
On 12/31, Bill Weh reported seeing 33 trumpeter swans on the Manitowish River just downstream from Benson Lake, the most he has ever seen at one time. 
            Also as of 12/31, the juvenile male summer tanager that has been present since November continues to come to feeders in Arbor Vitae. One of the individuals who has been feeding him now for three weeks writes: “What continually amazes me is the capacity of this sub-tropical bird to adapt to our harsh winters. What worries us is the limitations of that capacity to adapt.
“At this point in time we are reconciled to the improbability of any attempt on his part to migrate south. We suspect that he will simply hunker down until spring (if he manages to survive our winter) and then fly south to join his kin somewhere in his normal summer range – at least that's our hope.”

Winter Finches
            Winter finches, other than goldfinches, are in short supply so far this winter. Common redpolls, purple finches, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, and pine grosbeaks all are pretty much no-shows at people’s feeders. The question that arises is, why?
            Ron Pittaway, an Ontario field ornithologist, publishes a winter finch forecast every autumn based on the tree and shrub seed crops available in Canada. Each finch species has its desired menu, and if that menu is well served in Canada, that particular species won’t bother coming south, at least in any significant numbers.
So, here’s the shorthand version of what Pittaway forecast back in September. “This winter’s theme is that cone crops are excellent and extensive across much of the boreal forest and the Northeast. It will not be a flight year.”
As for specific species, he forecasted:
“Redpolls are unlikely to come south because the dwarf birch crop is bumper in the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
“A small movement of Pine Grosbeaks is probable because mountain-ash berry crops are variable and some are of poor quality in the boreal forest.
“White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins should be widespread in low numbers. 
“Evening Grosbeak numbers are increasing as spruce budworm outbreaks expand in the boreal forest so some may show up at feeders in southern Ontario and the Northeast.
“Purple Finches will be uncommon in Ontario. A few may frequent feeders in southern Ontario. The Purple Finch has declined significantly in recent decades.”
So far, I’d say he’s pretty much spot-on. We have not been seeing the pine siskins or the crossbills here, but they are being seen in southern Wisconsin. I suspect we’ll see a push of them in March prior to spring.

Barred Owl/Cooper’s Hawk
            One of the joys of growing older is the need to get up in the middle of the night to empty one’s bladder. The joy comes in because it’s an opportunity to shine a light on your bird feeders and see if anything is going on. We’ve been seeing some flying squirrels in the wee hours of the morning, but our big sighting over the last week has been a barred owl perched either on our deck railing or on a black ash branch overhanging our deck. We’ve been checking the following mornings to see if there was any evidence of the owl making a kill, but we had no luck until our dog dragged out a headless cottontail rabbit from under a deck on the opposite side of the house.
            Now, we don’t know for sure that the owl killed this rabbit, but owls are well known for eating the heads of their prey first, so it’s a distinct possibility. The cottontails have been doing some serious summer damage to our perennial flowers and garden vegetables, so we’re rooting for the barred owl to maintain its vigil. The only problem, of course, is that barred owls eat flying squirrels, too.
            And just as I finished typing this sentence, I heard something hit a window, and Mary hollered, “Come quick!” A Cooper’s hawk was perched right above one of our feeders, but without a bird in talon, so it must have just missed its attack. Its eyes were red, so it was an adult (juveniles have yellow eyes). We have a large flock of mourning doves that roost under one of our decks, so I wonder if the Cooper’s has its eye on them, or if it will just dine lightly on our very numerous, but much smaller goldfinches.
Lake Skiing
            Until we received nearly a foot of snow on Jan. 1 and 2, this winter had been quite stingy in its delivery of snow. We averaged perhaps three inches on the ground throughout most of December, which made for great skiing along lake edges. Over the Christmas holiday, we skate-skiied eight consecutive days on eight different lakes, only two of which had any development. What a pleasure! I was almost sorry to see the new snow arrive, but it’s always a matter of switching gears and adapting to what the new day offers. Now that we have enough snow to groom all the ski trails, we’ll be hitting those as well as snowshoeing for the first time this year. It’s good to see winter clothed in its true northern character.

Celestial Events
            The full moon – the “Wolf Moon” or “Frost in the Teepee” moon – occurs on 1/9. If the cold isn’t too extreme, consider taking a hike on one of the evenings around this time. The moonlight on a landscape of snow achieves a surprising brightness.
            The coldest days of the year, on average, occur between January 16 and 20, with an average high of 18° and an average low of -1°.
            At dusk, look for Jupiter high in the south. Before dawn, look for Venus in the southwest, Mars high in the southwest, and Saturn in the south.

The Way of Natural History
            Mary gave me a marvelous book for Christmas entitled “The Way of Natural History.” Why marvelous? Because of lines like this from the book’s first essay: “Natural history is a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world . . . Simply put, it is paying attention to the bigger world outside our own head.”
And this: “Why does attentiveness to nature matter? In a very fundamental sense, we are what we pay attention to . . . A society that expends its energies tracking the latest doings of the current celebrity couple is fundamentally distinct from one that watches for the first arriving spring migrant birds, or takes a weekend to check out insects in a mountain stream, or looks inside flowers to admire the marvelous ingenuities involved in pollination . . . the latter can lift us up in a sense of unity with all life.”
            Paying close attention – being deeply mindful – brings an intensity to life that is truly enlivening. I tend to think of it as a perpetual form of “round-the-bend-itis” where you’re on total alert because something remarkable could be happening right now, and something equally great could be happening around the next bend. It’s being fully present in every moment. It’s being awake. It’s being really alive.
            That’s the gift of being fully engaged in the natural world. One gains a connectedness, a belonging, perhaps a greater sense of purpose. From these connections comes a deep gratitude, a sense of being blessed, a flowing of reverence.
            There are somewhere up to 30 million species on this amazing planet (no one knows for sure), so with one’s local sense of belonging also comes a profound humility, a realization of how utterly impossible it is to know even a tiny fraction of what there is. And that’s good. While we have unearthed an astonishing amount of information about the natural world, it is hubris to think we really know very much. Better to be amazed, to be full of excitement for discovering the next remarkable thing. “Attention is the most basic form of love,” says psychologist John Tarrant.
Thus, my resolution for this year is to pay better attention – and what better way to live one’s life than to be in love with this world?
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at manitowish@centurytel.net, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.