Sunday, May 20, 2012

NWA 5/11 - 24, 2012

A Northwoods Almanac for May 11 – 24, 2012

4/29: Pete and Carolyn Dring reported seeing FOY (first-of-year) little brown bats in their bat house in Land O’Lakes.
5/1: Mary and I observed our FOY white-crowned sparrows under our feeders in Manitowish.
5/2: We heard our first toads singing in Manitowish, and Pete Dring reported them singing the same night in Land O’Lakes. Pete also saw his first tiger swallowtail butterfly. The next night, 5/3, Pete heard Eastern gray tree frogs singing.
Dan Carney reported seeing killdeers and white-crowned sparrows on the Bearskin Trail and saw his FOY rose-breasted grosbeaks at his feeders.
May 3rd and 4th were big days for some long-awaited neotropical songbirds to reappear in our area:
5/3: Carol Hartman reported her FOY Baltimore oriole in Presque Isle.
Pete Dring reported his FOY ruby-throated hummingbird in Land O’Lakes.
Mary and I observed our FOY black-throated green, northern parula, and black-and-white warblers at Van Vliet Lake.
5/4 – Rod Sharka reported his FOY ruby-throated hummingbird in Land O’Lakes.
Carol Hartman reported her FOY ruby-throated hummingbird in Presque Isle.
Mary Madsen reported her FOY ruby-throated hummingbird in Presque Isle.
Deb Redemann reported her FOY ruby-throated hummer in Arbor Vitae.
Linda Thomas reported her FOY Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks in Sayner.
Jim Sommerfeldt reported his FOY rose-breasted grosbeak near Lac du Flambeau. He also noted an Eastern phoebe nest already with eggs just above their back door!
Cheryl and Bill Crawford reported their FOY ruby-throated hummingbird and rose-breasted grosbeaks in Harshaw.
Robert and Darleen reported their FOY ruby-throated hummingbird and Baltimore oriole, near Boulder Junction.
Peter Dring reported his FOY rose-breasted grosbeak near Land O’Lakes, and he also observed FOY red admiral, spring azure, and snout butterflies.
Mary and I observed our FOY rose-breasted grosbeaks in Manitowish, but we also saw and heard our FOY ovenbirds, blackburnian warblers, and blue-headed vireos on a hike near Star Lake.
5/5 - Carol Hartman reported her FOY rose-breasted grosbeak in Presque Isle.
Mary and I observed our FOY yellow warblers, Nashville warblers, and least flycatchers on the Bearskin Trails near Harshaw. We also had exceptional views of golden-crowned kinglets flashing their orange crown (not just golden!) and a singing winter wren.
Grace Wanta in Springstead  reported Canada goose goslings and mallard ducklings had hatched out on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.
5/7: Ron Winter reported his FOY ruby-throated hummer in Boulder Junction, as did Pat Drought on Spider Lake in Mercer, and Karen and Bob Dalle Ave in Hazelhurst.
I saw my FOY Savannah sparrows and common yellowthroat warblers on Powell Marsh and had my FOY Eastern kingbirds on a beaver pond in Mercer.

Whooping Cranes in Mercer area?
            I received a call from a Mercer area man who accurately described seeing a pair of whooping cranes in a wetland near Mercer on 5/3. He took me to the site on 5/7, but unfortunately the cranes had departed.
On occasion, individuals from the Wisconsin flock of whoopers have strayed from their rearing sites at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, and that may be the case here.
In other whooping crane news, a whooping crane chick hatched on April 30 in Wood County, the offspring of a pair of whooping cranes from the ultralight-led crane classes of 2002 and 2004. The pair has laid eggs every year since 2008, but until this year, their eggs have always been infertile. The pair proved to be good parents in 2010, when their infertile egg was replaced with a captive-produced whooping crane egg, and the pair hatched and raised the chick to fledging.
Of the 106 whooping cranes in the eastern migratory population, fourteen other pairs are currently incubating. Including the recently hatched chick, sixteen chicks have hatched in this population since 2006, though only three of them have fledged and joined the wild population.
While whooping Cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s, today, there are about 600 birds in existence, approximately 445 of them in the wild. Aside from the 106 Wisconsin birds, the only other migratory population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada, and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. 

Woodcock Courtship Flight
Every evening for well over a month now, Mary and I have been able to stand outside our house in Manitowish and hear three different male woodcocks “peenting”: one on the old railroad bed across Hwy. 47, another from the open wetlands below our home, and the third from an old field next to Hwy. 51. Hearing these plump little shorebirds display every night at dusk, and then every dawn just at first light, is a treat that will last on average only into the second week of June. The male’s courtship flights, in which they spiral up hundreds of feet on twittering wings while melodiously chirping and then circle back to the ground to resume their unique peenting display, led Aldo Leopold to write: “Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting . . . [these sky dances are] “a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.”
            So, how do males select their singing grounds? Apparently, these are not random choices since the same sites are used by different males over many years. The number of years sites are used is inversely dependent on the rate of vegetative change: males may use the same general openings in an aspen forest for 25 years, and in a stable, open, recovering coniferous forest for at least 40 years. The selection of a site may have to do structurally with the best sound transmission and/or the best light transmission, as well as whether females may reliably be found nearby.
The male is polygynous, meaning he establishes no pair bond with the female, gives no parental care, and offers the female no mate guarding. The female has her own promiscuity issues since some females visit at least four singing grounds before nesting and continue visits while incubating and with broods.
In Wisconsin, woodcocks begin displaying as early as mid-March. At dusk, the males fly or walk to their singing grounds commencing on average about 10 to 15 minutes after sunset. They’ll start up earlier under heavy cloud cover, and often continue later into the evening under a bright moon, but their evening performances on average last around 45 minutes.
They begin their display by “peenting,” which is a single, short, buzzy note that can be confused with the sound made by high-flying common nighthawks. So, if your hear a peent in the air, it’s a nighthawk – hear it on the ground, it’s most likely a woodcock.
The male spins around on the ground while he’s peenting, causing a directional change in intensity of his peents. His peenting last about a minute and a half before he takes off on his song flight which has five components: (1) the silent ascent which takes about two seconds; (2) the continued gradual ascent but now with light wing twittering  which lasts about 12 seconds; (3) a melodious wing twittering as the bird climbs steeper which lasts another 15 seconds; (4) the apex of flight, which may be as high as 300 feet, and now the wing twittering becomes intermittent, overlapping with loud, vocal chirping during the initial descent as the bird zigzags, banks, and finally dives down steeply; (5) and the final silent descent as the male brakes to the ground.
Look for these display in openings, including abandoned agricultural fields, forests gaps and cuts, meadows, pastures, orchards, bogs, other natural clearings, power line rights of way, and trails.

Warbler Waves Coming
            As of 5/7, Mary and I have seen and/or heard nine species of warblers in our area, beginning with yellow-rumped and pine warblers two weeks ago. Other species of warblers are literally arriving as I write this on 5/7 – one birder near Appleton reported seeing 21 species of warblers on 5/3. There’s no better birdwatching to be had than the next two weeks before we have full leaf-out.
            Maximum viewing of songbird numbers will occur if there’s a “fall-out” before sunrise. Fall-outs occur when birds take-off after sunset with great southerly winds at their back, but then they run into a front where the wind suddenly changes, and they have to “fall-out” of their migration. To know when a fall-out may have occurred near us, watch nightly weather radar to see if the birds are migrating, and then see if a front is stationed over our area. 

NWA 4/27 - 5/10, 2012

A Northwoods Almanac for April 27 – May 10, 2012  

4/4: Lisa Anderson reported a FOY (first-of-year) yellow-bellied sapsucker in her yard in Lake Tomahawk.
4/6: Pete and Carolyn Dring observed solitary bees all over their yard near Land O’Lakes.
 4/10: Carne Andrews and Katie Foley observed a FOY male Eastern Towhee.
4/13: Pat Schwai and her husband Rick successfully recovered a yellow-bellied sapsucker that hit the garage. Rick found him face down. The bird had a pebble in his eye and dried blood on his beak. Pat held him upright for 30 minutes before transferring him to a recovery box, where it still took him another hour before he could get his bearings and fly away. Pat and Rick also saw their FOY hermit thrush.
4/14: Mark Pflieger saw a FOY male rose-breasted grosbeak, an exceptionally early date – we usually don’t see our first one until around Mother’s Day.
4/15: Leatherleaf was in bloom by the tens of thousands in the bogs.
4/15: Carne Andrews and Katie Foley watched a sharp-shinned hawk perch on their deck eyeing the bird feeders. It was seen again the next day hunting for lunch near the feeders and chasing smaller birds in and out of the surrounding trees.
4/15: Dan Carney observed ruby-crowned kinglets in Hazelhurst.
4/16: Bob & Karen Dalle Ave in Hazelhurst observed a FOY beautiful indigo bunting sitting on a high stump right outside their living room window. Again, this is an exceptionally early sighting – Mother’s Day is the norm.
4/16: John Randolph saw two hermit thrushes on the parking lot of the Bolger Lake boat landing, and another in the front lawn of a neighbor, despite the light snow and chilly north wind.
4/17: John Werth watched a mink on their pier trying to get the fish guts from a platform feeder. John noted, “Amazing because it is on a steel post! Gale saw him make the leap!”
4/18: A Cooper’s hawk chased a mourning dove into one of our windows, killing the mourning dove on impact. The hawk flew up into a nearby tree, but never came back for it.
4/20: Judith Bloom on Lake Tomahawk photographed a pair of wood ducks in a pond on their property. She noted, “At times there will be four wood ducks and at least three or four drake mallards all in the pond along with a hooded merganser. We think the hen merganser is nesting in a nest box. This is the longest we’ve had the wood ducks stick around and we are so hoping to see ducklings.”
4/20: Ed Hunter on Round Lake in the Pike Lake Chain has a ring-necked pheasant strutting around his property and chasing his car. Ed figures the red fox that also frequents his property will likely be the ultimate beneficiary of the pheasant’s presence.
4/21: Hepatica was in bloom in the Frog Lake State Natural Area.
4/22: Juneberries came into flower. It’s such an early date for these to be flowering that we may actually have Juneberries ripe in June rather than July!
Dark-eyed Juncos and Fox Sparrows
            Numerous dark-eyed juncos and fox sparrows currently are vying for seed at our feeders with an array of purple finches, goldfinches, tree and white-throated sparrows, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles. The fox sparrows will soon pick-up and head far up into northern Canada and the Arctic to begin nesting. So will most of the dark-eyed juncos. But if you look at the junco’s range map, northern Wisconsin delineates the southernmost edge of their nesting territory, so some will stay behind to enjoy our comparative tropical heat.
            When we birded earlier in the month in southeastern Arizona, we were delighted to see a yellow-eyed junco, a Central American species that barely makes it way over the Mexican border. We saw the bird at about 6,000 feet elevation in some Ponderosa pines as we drove up Mt. Lemon near Tucson. Most yellow-eyed juncos are found above 6,000 feet in open coniferous forests, so we just happened to be in the right habitat at the right height.
            Juncos and sparrows have in common their foraging for seeds on the ground. Before spring migration is over, 11 species of sparrows will have returned (American tree, song, swamp, white-throated, chipping, clay-colored, Le Conte’s, Savannah, field, vesper, and Lincoln’s), all of which actively search the ground for seeds as well as eat insects. Juncos are also classified by ornithologists within the family “new world sparrows” as are towhees, longspurs, and snow buntings.
            I enjoy watching fox sparrows do “double-scratch” foraging. In one quick sequence, they position their head directly over the area being scratched, then hop forward with both feet, then sweep backward with both feet, kicking debris out from underneath themselves to reveal food, and then quickly returning to a normal standing position.           

Magnetic Migration
            How birds navigate just became more mysterious. For over a decade, birds were thought to use magnetic fields to guide their migration using magnetite in their beak tissue. However, Researchers from Austria, France, Australia, and England, writing in a new study in the journal Nature, report that iron-rich cells in the bills of pigeons are in fact specialized white blood cells called macrophages.
"The mystery of how animals detect magnetic fields has just got more mysterious," said study leader Dave Keays of the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna. "We had hoped to find magnetic nerve cells, but unexpectedly we found thousands of macrophages, each filled with tiny balls of iron."
Each spring, hundreds of millions of migrating birds utilize an array of navigational tools including the position of the sun, the position of stars, landscape features, and magnetic fields. The returning hummingbirds that will soon show up at your feeders likely will use magnetic fields at least in part to navigate precisely to your home once again. Remarkably, scientists are still quite uncertain how they do it.

Low Water Levels on the Manitowish River
            It’s a very dry spring, and water levels on the Manitowish River are as low as we’ve seen them in our 28 years here. We paddled the river on 4/14 and noted three beaver lodges where the entrance holes, normally well below water, were a foot or more out of the water.
            The Manitowish Chain of Lakes is filling up. Bob Kovar on Wild Rice Lake reported watching a Canada goose sitting on eggs as of April 12, only to have the water level continue to rise and eventually submerge the nest on 4/22. The goose tried for several days to bring up plant material to raise the nest, but to no avail and finally abandoned the nest.
Looking Back at March
National temperature records for March were not just broken, they were cooked.
Temperatures in the lower 48 states were 8.6 degrees F above normal for March, and 6 degrees F higher than average for the first three months of the year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, far exceeding the old records dating from 1895.
The atypical heat goes back before 2012. The U.S. winter of 2010-2011 was slightly cooler than normal and one of the snowiest in recent years, but after that things started heating up. The summer of 2011 was the second warmest summer on record.
The winter that just ended, which in some places was called the year without winter, was the fourth warmest on record. Since last April, it has been the hottest 12-month stretch on record.
But the month where the warmth turned especially unusual in the United States was March. Normally, March averages 42.5 degrees across the country, but this year, the average was 51.1, which is closer to the average for April. In March, at least 7,775 weather stations across the nation broke daily high temperature records, and another 7,517 broke records for evening heat.
Global warming? We always must keep in mind that one year is simply data, while many decades of data may show decisive trends. In a recent paper submitted to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, NASA climate scientist James Hansen shows that heat extremes aren't just increasing but happening far more often than scientists thought. What used to be a 1-in-400 hot temperature record is now a 1 in 10 occurrence, essentially 40 times more likely.
            I shy away from politics in this column, but this isn’t about politics – it’s about science. To hear Dr. Hansen speak on this topic, go to:

Celestial Events
            For May planet watching: look at dusk for Venus, exceptionally bright at -4.7 magnitude, in the northwest, for Mars high in the south, and for Saturn in the southeast. Before dawn, look for Saturn setting in the west, and for Mercury early in the month very low in the east.
            The full moon, known to native tribes as the “flower” or “planting” moon, occurs on May 5. This will be the year’s closest (221,800 miles from the Earth) and thus largest full moon. Unfortunately, the peak Eta Aqarid meteor shower (averages 20-40 meteors/hr) also occurs that night and will be effectively washed out by the brilliant moon. May 5 also marks the midway point between the spring equinox and summer solstice. Our days are growing longer by two minutes per day.

NWA 4/13 - 26, 2012

A Northwoods Almanac for April 13 – 26, 2012 

3/24: A first-of-the-year (FOY) Eastern bluebird was reported in a yard near Mercer.
3/26: Hannah (Bonnie) Dana in Arbor Vitae saw a June bug trying to get into her garage. She noted that last year she didn't see June bugs until the middle of May.
3/27: Pete Johnson reported his FOY loon on San Domingo Lake in Mercer, and John Randolph reported seeing his FOY loon on Bolger Lake.
3/29: Joe Mastalski reported his FOY loon on Lower Kaubashine.
3/30: Mary Kaminski saw loons on Upper Springstead Lake on 3/30, and on the Wilson Flowage on 4/1, but still hadn’t see one near her home on Cochran Lake as of 4/5.
3/31: Scott & Kathy Reinhard reported their FOY loon on the Lake Bastine area of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage.
4/1: Janet Alesauskas saw her FOY loon on Sunflower Bay on Tomahawk Lake as did Kit and Ellen Deubler on Elsie Lake in the Township of Lac du Flambeau.
4//1: Mike and Carol Beno in Presque Isle had the most unusual sighting, and he assures me it was no April Fool’s joke: “Passing Horsehead Lake on Cty B, we spotted some bright white birds on the surface along a line of emergent weeds. So large and brilliantly white, they had to be swans - 12-15 individuals. Many tundra swans have been flying around our neighborhood the last few weeks. These birds, however, had entirely black necks. Necks were serpentine in profile, as with all swans, but entirely black all the way to, and including, their heads.   
“Those we saw were at a distance of more than 100 yards . . . White fluffy bodies; solid black necks and heads.”
So, the question is what did Mike see? No such swans exist in North America, so my only thought is that these swans could have been dipping their heads down into black muck to get some delectable underwater tuber, but I really don’t know. Did anyone else see these birds, and does anyone else have a theory on them?  
4/2: Ospreys were seen on the nesting poles along Hwy. 47 near McNaughton. Ospreys usually don’t return until mid-April at the earliest, which is, of course, when ice-off usually occurs.
4/3: Janet Alesauskas reported the FOY pine warbler for our area on Lake Tomahawk.
4/3: Ralph Kerler heard his first beautiful call of a loon on Little Crawling Stone Lake.
4/6: Janet Alesauskas paddled into one of her favorite bays on Lake Tomahawk and watched a FOY solitary sandpiper.
4/6: Mary and I saw our FOY tree swallows on Powell Marsh.
4/6: We watched an adult eagle feeding a chick in the nest across the river from us. While we haven’t kept long-term records on hatch dates for this eagle pair, this is the earliest date of hatching that we can recall. Eagle chicks most typically hatch in the last two weeks of April. Given that fledging occurs on average in 70-90 days, this chick could be flying in late June.
4/7: Kay Streng on Diamond Lake just south of Hwy 70 reported the FOY yellow-rumped warbler for our area.

Trumpeter Swan Info
The trumpeter swans that migrated from our area in the fall have likely all returned, and if you want to learn more about the swans you may see, follow this procedure: If banded/collared trumpeter swans are seen, there are two simple ways to report them. A swan observation report ( can be filled out and submitted online. Or the observation report can be submitted over the phone by calling the DNR wildlife management office at 608-588-3432. Please be sure to note the color and any numbers that are written on the band.

Salmonella at Bird Feeders
I’ve received two reports of birds dying at feeders from what sounds very much like salmonella. The disease typically spreads by contact between birds or through their droppings especially where they are concentrated at feeders.
Feeders should be cleaned with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. The entire surface of the feeder should be scrubbed or brushed. Additionally, accumulations of discarded seed and droppings under feeders should be removed.
If people see dead or sick birds, they should keep their cats and dogs indoors, since with certain strains of salmonella the animals could become infected through eating affected birds.
Dead birds should be removed from feeder areas. People can pick the birds up by using a plastic bag to avoid direct contact with the bird; it's important to wash carefully after handling potentially diseased birds.

Arizona Birding Trip
In the last week of March, Mary and I led a Nicolet College adult continuing education class of 10 intrepid birders to southeastern Arizona. We had picture-perfect blue skies and warm weather, and tallied 101 species over 4 ½ days.
Our highlights included 9 species of hummingbirds: broad-billed, broad-tailed, rufous, magnificent, blue-throated, black-chinned, Allen’s, Costa’s, and violet-crowned. We also got close-up night-time views of a pair of elf owls and a whiskered screech owl. Our search for an elegant trogon came up short, but we had great views of gray hawks, Lazuli buntings, Scott’s orioles, a diamondback rattlesnake, and numerous southern Arizona bird specialties.
Most importantly, we enjoyed ourselves immensely and surrounded ourselves in the beauty of Arizona deserts and mountain canyons.

Eagles Swimming
Over the years we’ve had numerous people tell us about watching a bald eagle swim to shore with a fish that was too heavy for it to lift. Now there’s a video of an eagle in Louisiana swimming to shore with a nutria it found dead on the water:
Aspen Flowers Dropped Two Weeks Ago
Aspen catkins emerge before their leaves appear, their feather-like tufts of hair adorning numerous tiny seeds. We have two species of aspens in the Northwoods – quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and big-tooth aspen (P. grandidentata), and each individual tree is either male or female. While both male and female aspens produce catkins, only the male catkin has pollen. When the right breeze comes along in early summer, the pollinated female will release her seeds, which are swept away to some distant place.           
There’s often a significant distance between male and female trees given that aspen groves are clonal, meaning that all the trees in a grove are identical in gender. Hence, if a male sapling happens to give rise to the grove, all the individual trees in the grove will be male.
Because everything is so early this spring, look for aspen seeds blowing in the wind perhaps as early as late April!

Territorial Takeovers
Loons are currently returning to their territorial lakes, but just because they were the occupants of a lake last year, doesn’t mean they have title to the lake this year. In Oneida County, Dr. Walter Piper from Chapman University in California along with Charles Walcott of Cornell University and Jay Mager of Ohio Northern University have studied territoriality of common loons since 1993. Two to five undergraduate students from Chapman, Cornell and other universities join their field team each year.
Dr. Piper has found that one of the most striking aspects of loon social behavior is the frequency of territorial takeovers. He writes, “Takeovers (also termed “evictions”) are in fact the most frequent means by which nonbreeders of both sexes attain breeding status. They occur in a stereotyped way: an intruder enters a defended territory, physically displaces the pair member of its own sex through aggressive behaviors including wing-beating and head-dunking, and then quickly establishes a pair bond with the mate of the displaced bird. If it is strong enough, the displaced individual takes refuge on some undefended lake nearby. Weakened individuals, nearly always males, may be killed after repeated attacks by the usurper. Takeovers are statistically more likely to occur in territories that produced chicks in the previous year than those that failed to do so. This pattern suggests that intruders are targeting territories for takeover that have proven to be of high quality.”
So, returning loons have their work cut out for them if they want to maintain their nesting sites from last year. To learn more about Dr. Piper’s research and observations, visit his website:

Why Lakes Don’t Refreeze after Ice-out
            Ice-out occurred on nearly all of our lakes by 3/20, and with snow forecast for this week of April 8-14, several folks have inquired about the possibility of the lakes refreezing if our weather reverted to its normal April temperatures.
            Well, never say never, but it would be rare indeed if our lakes refroze. The reason? Water flip-flops its density at 39°F. Rather than being more dense as it gets colder, at 39° it becomes lighter as it cools to 32°F.  Thus, water directly beneath the ice is 32°, and the water temperature gradually increases to 39°F toward the bottom of a lake. This is a revelation to most folks, but otherwise lakes would freeze from the bottom up.
So, in spring, as sunlight penetrates the ice, the water just below the ice slowly  warms, becoming more dense, and thus sinking.  Eventually the entire water column of the lake reaches 39°F, and that’s when ice-out normally occurs. Now the water has become much too warm for lakes to refreeze if it gets cold again for a little while. It would take an exceptionally lengthy cold spell to cool lake water enough to refreeze again after ice-out – I don’t know if it’s ever happened.

NWA 3/30 - 4/12/2012

A Northwoods Almanac for March 30 – April 12, 2012

First-of-the-Year Birds
            With this unprecedented, record-setting warm spring, many birds and flowers have appeared much earlier than normal. Here’s what we, and others, have been seeing:
3/9: Dean Hall photographed a pair of hooded mergansers on the Bear River across from the Bear River pow-wow grounds.
3/12: Zach Wilson reported seeing snow buntings along the road near Manitowish Waters.
3/13: Grackles returned to our feeders in Manitowish, and we saw our first chipmunk.
3/14: Carl Ashe in Lac du Flambeau reported seeing grackles and redwing blackbirds. In Manitowish, a flock of dark-eyed juncos appeared at our feeders.
3/14: Linda Johnson in Minocqua was walking her dog in the moonlight before 6 a.m. and heard the unmistakable "peent" and wing twittering of woodcocks.
3/14: Pat Schwai heard two sandhill cranes.
3/14: Zach Wilson also heard woodcocks that evening and the song of a saw-whet owl.
3/15: Ron Winter in Boulder Junction reported seeing a silver-spotted skipper, an extraordinarily early date for this species.
3/15: Linda Johnson Minocqua watched a northern harrier hunting over the Tomahawk River.
3/15: Fox sparrows stopped off in Manitowish, and we continue to have 6 or more scratching up seeds under our feeders as of 3/25. I also got my first wood tick of the year, but no mosquitoes yet!
3/16: Tom Erdman in Oconto reported tundra swans passing over the bay of Green Bay in flocks of over 500. The next day, 3/17, Ann Eshelman in McNaughton reported seeing four flocks of tundra swans flying over the Muninghoff Marsh.
3/16: Pat Schwai had five pine siskins show up at her feeders after none had been around all winter. 
3/16: Sherry Tischendorf in Harshaw reported seeing a killdeer, the first one of the year that I am aware of in our area.
3/16: Ron Winter in Boulder Junction sent me a great photo of a roughed grouse drumming that afternoon.
3/16: Audrae Kulas photographed a Compton tortoiseshell butterfly as did Patricia Mabie in Boulder Junction. Laurie Timm on Witches Lake saw a mourning cloak butterfly.
3/16: On Powell Marsh, we saw our first sandhill cranes, a northern harrier, and several rough-legged hawks. We also saw our first common mergansers on the Manitowish River.
3/17: Gary Ruesch reported seeing about 100 tundra swans on the Rainbow Flowage.
3/17: At our home in Manitowish, a great horned owl was dueting with another bird at 2 a.m. We saw our first northern shrike of the year closely watching our bird feeders. And out on Powell Marsh, we saw our first hooded mergansers, green-winged teal, and goldeneyes.
3/18: Wil Conway wrote lamenting “too much open-water, too warm, too early – has many of my usual haunts full of fishermen and void of birds. I've lost the confinement factor the ice-pockets use to give me.” Nevertheless, he got some fine pictures of a flock of common mergansers.
3/18: We heard our first spring peepers and wood frogs of the year – we usually hear them first around 4/20. Aspens, hazelnuts, alders, and sugar/red/silver maples are all in flower. We saw our first buffleheads of the year on the Manitowish River.
3/19: Ron Winter in Boulder Junction reported seeing a few bats around his yard, and asked whether bats hibernate or migrate, noting that “either way, they could be in trouble if we get some cold weather in the next few weeks (very likely).” My knowledge of bats is superficial, but what I understand is that four species of bats live in the Northwoods, while the state supports 7 species. Big brown bats overwinter in walls and attics - the only Wisconsin bat to do so - so it’s a reasonable bet that the bats Ron was seeing were this species.
3/19: Phil and Nancy Williams on North Turtle Lake photographed 36 swans (likely tundra swans) on the partly opened lake.
3/20:  Over 50 bohemian waxwings with about 20 cedar waxwings fed in the crabapple trees at the entrance to Nicolet College in Rhinelander.
3/21 John Randolph heard an Eastern Phoebe singing its slightly raspy "fee-bee", while simultaneously hearing the sweeter “fee-bee" of the chickadees. Don and Greta Janssen saw their first fox sparrows of the year in Woodruff, “about a month earlier than last year.” They also had tree sparrows and many juncos along with pine siskins and a few red polls. Plus, cardinals were at their feeders all winter!
3/21 – Ruby-throated hummingbirds were seen in Madison! The state's record early arrival date for ruby-throated hummingbird is April 12, and most years' arrival dates are after April 20. We usually see our first hummers around Mother’s Day in May. So, how soon will the first ones arrive up here? They’re certainly poised to come. See either of the following websites for maps of where they are now:
3/21: We saw our first northern flicker of the year in Manitowish.
3/22: Woodcocks were “peenting” on either side of our house. It’s the time of the year to go out just before dark to watch and listen for the sky dance of the woodcock.
3/23:  Pete Dring near Land O’Lakes reported seeing a golden-crowned kinglet, and noted that alders were already past bloom, and Milbert’s Tortoise Shell butterflies were out.
3/24: I paddled for the first time this year, meandering out on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage with good friends Bob Kovar and Chips Paulson. Leopard frogs were singing constantly, an amazingly early date for them to be mating. Ordinarily, we don’t hear them until at least the first week of May. We saw many flocks of waterfowl, including our first ring-necked ducks of the year, numerous trumpeter swans, and a flock of tundra swans migrating high overhead.
If you are curious to see the records of early arrival dates for migrating birds in Wisconsin, visit:

Ice-Out: Loons Behind the Curve
Ice-out occurred on most of our lakes on either 3/19 or 3/20, nearly a month ahead of the 4/16 average date that Woody Hagge has logged for Foster Lake in Hazelhurst over the last 39 years. Typically loons appear first in our area on the Wisconsin River for a week or so prior to ice out, and daily scout their nesting lakes to see if the ice is off. They then appear on our lakes almost always within 24 hours of ice-out.
But not this year. In fact, as of this writing on 3/25, the nesting loons from our area that had satellite transmitters surgically placed within them by the USGS/DNR were still enjoying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The loons are way behind the phenology (see! It’s not surprising, given that there’s no long-term advantage to get up here this early to find normally frozen lakes, especially when there are relatively few lakes for stopping off and resting between the Upper Midwest and the Gulf.
Thus, loons rely on the photoperiod, or the length of daylight, to trigger their migration north. Their “switch” won’t go off for a while yet, so it will be fascinating to see when they finally show up in force.
Interestingly, on 3/20, Beth Huizenga e-mailed with the sighting of several loons on Pewaukee Lake in southeastern Wisconsin (Pewaukee Lake had the ice go out on 3/17). Then on 3/21, a birder reported seeing at least five loons on Lake Monona in Madison. And on 3/21, the first loons of the year were seen and heard as they departed Green Bay just before sunrise.
How to explain those few that are already here? There’s always a spectrum of the earliest to the latest, and these few are clearly in that earliest vanguard. My speculation is that they may never have made it all the way down to the Gulf for some reason, instead wintering on lakes somewhere in between.

U.S. Plant Hardiness Zone Map Officially Changed
On Jan. 25, 2012 the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the new version of its Plant Hardiness Zone Map, updating it for the first time since 1990. The new map is available online at Long-awaited changes in the climate zone guide show northward warming trends, while also targeting a few colder areas in the mountains. For those of us here in the Lakeland area, we are no longer in Zone 3, but now in Zone 4.
Hardiness zones are based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature during a 30-year period in the past. It is not based on the lowest temperature that has ever occurred in the past or might occur in the future. Each zone is based on 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Two new zones were added in hotter climates this year for a total of 13 zones.
The USDA web site is now also interactive. Just put in your zip code and you can see where your garden is zoned.

Celestial Events
            For planet viewing in April after dusk, look for Venus and Jupiter in the west, Mars high in the south, and Saturn rising in the east.
            On April 1, Woody Hagge’s average ice depth on Foster Lake over the last 39 years has been 11.2 inches. I guess it’s an April Fool’s joke this year.
            On 4/4, we reach 13 hours of daylight. The moon is full on 4/6. Called “the Maple Sugar” moon or “Grass Appearing” moon by native tribes, this is certainly one spring where maple sugaring barely occurred at all.

NWA March 16 - 29, 2012

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/16 – 29, 2012

Migration Is On!
            On 3/12 at our home in Manitowish, we saw our first-of-the-year (FOY) robins and red-winged blackbirds. Pat Schmidt in Hazelhurst called us the same morning to report seeing two robins. But Uwe Weichering in Arbor Vitae and Glen Esswein in Woodruff win the FOY contest on robins – they e-mailed with their observation of robins on 3/11.
            On the morning of 3/9, Glen Esswein saw a pair of Canada geese on the Little Trout River. On 3/10, John Werth observed several geese flying over his home on the Manitowish River! Those are the FOY geese that we’ve heard of. The next day, 3/11our daughter Callie and Mary’s sister Nancy Burns saw Canada geese flying over Powell Marsh.
Our average FOY dates for these species are as follows: March 20 for red-winged blackirds (14 years of data), March 23 for robins (13 years of data), and March 16 for Canada geese (12 years of data).
Coming very soon with all this warm weather will be other early birds like song sparrows, Eastern bluebirds, phoebes, juncos, woodcocks, grackles, tree swallows, fox sparrows, lesser and greater yellowlegs, snow geese, tundra swans, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, killdeer, northern harriers, horned larks, and waterfowl of nearly all species. Keep your eyes peeled!

Rivers Opening
The Manitowish River opened below our house on 3/8, then briefly iced over again on 3/9, and reopened on 3/10. Our 21-year average date for the Manitowish to open by our house is 3/17.

First Turkey Vulture
On 3/5, Rod Sharka sent me a photo of a turkey vulture perching on his bird bath and wrote: “Can spring be getting close? Check out the attached photo of a turkey vulture that visited my birdbath just 10 feet behind our house today. Needless to say, it was a rather unusual sight. I found it a bit creepy the way it was looking at me (and drooling). I'd say it was either jumping the gun on spring or a bit lost.”
He later added, “I almost fell over when I looked out the window and saw that buzzard. My wife said it must have been taking a sitz-bath as our bird bath is heated.”                        Turkey vultures typically first return to southern Wisconsin at the end of February/beginning of March, so apparently they’re on time down there. But we don’t tend to see them up here until much later in March or into April depending on winter conditions.

Your Cheating Heart – March as Country Music
            All these bird species returning so early are likely in for some tough sledding when winter kicks back in again. March may be our most fickle month, with the only thing consistent about it being its extraordinary inconsistency. I liken March’s infidelity, the way it always sets us up for disappointment, to some bad country music song titles like:
• It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing
• I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying
• It Didn’t Look Like Alcohol
• I Thought the Wreck Was Over
• Looking for a Heartbreak Like You
            I’m sure there are other titles that will make you cry as much as March wants you to. I’m willing to bet the farm that this 70° stuff is just a dream. Of course, I’ve been wrong ten thousand times before, but this bet has proven to have awful good odds.

March Mating
            Depending on a species’ gestation time, if an animal wants to give birth in the height of spring, March is typically the best time to mate. From cottontails and snowshoe hares to chipmunks and squirrels, and from muskrats and otters to bobcats and lynx, love is in the air. A few days back I watched two red squirrels dashing madly up and down trees, and it had nothing to do with territoriality. Despite March’s manic-depressive personality, spring is in the air, and hormones are in full tilt.

Bobcat Eating a Squirrel
Paul and Alene Lantz sent me several photos of a bobcat eating a squirrel in their yard, noting: “We live just west of Lower Kaubashine Lake, west of Hazelhurst. We saw this bobcat at the beginning of March when he tried to attack a squirrel, and started up a tree – he missed. Then a few days later, he got lucky! As you can see by the last picture, he ate the whole thing.”

Ruffed Grouse in Rooftop Suite
To stay warm during a cold winter’s night and for protection from predators, ruffed grouse are well known for diving into deep snow, then “swimming” in a few feet for maximum insulation. However, Ron Winter in Boulder Junction photographed a remarkable twist on this adaptation. He recently wrote to me:One evening about 6 PM, I was watching a grouse pick up sunflower seeds under my feeders. After getting his fill, he took off like a rocket (like they do) and flew right towards the house, above the window. I then saw a white flurry of snow from the roofline. Thinking he landed on the roof, I went out for a look. As you can see from the photo, he had buried himself in the snow on the roof. I didn't want to disturb him so I waited until the next day to investigate further. The tunnel was 14" deep, and this snow is compacted. I knew they did this on the ground but it kind of surprised me he chose the penthouse for his nights stay.”
Why a grouse would choose to tunnel on a rooftop rather than on the ground is wide open to speculation. My first, and only, thought is that the grouse would clearly be safer from mammalian predation up there. Any other thoughts from readers? And has anyone else ever seen this?

Other Sightings
Lynn Winchell saw a chipmunk in her yard in Mercer on 3/10. This week I suspect many of us will be seeing first-of-the-year chipmunks given the forecast for warm weather.

Headless Critters
It’s not Halloween time, but on occasion folks contact me about finding headless animals, and they wonder what the story is. A number of contributors to the Wisconsin BirdNet have been exploring the theme as well, and most are pointing to barred owls. One bird bander noted, “The consumption of the head only of another bird is typical of barred owls. I guess they only like the brains. While birds are not necessarily their first choice for a meal, they will eat birds if given the opportunity, such as those captured in mist nets at banding stations at dusk. They quickly learn to travel the net lines, and take only the heads, which they twist off. I've walked up on a couple barred owls doing just that in the past.”  
            Tom Erdman, a long-time expert bander and avian researcher in Green Bay, responded to someone’s post who found a headless coot, “ Typical owl kill.... either great horned or snowy. They usually eat the head first. I trapped a snowy once next to a coot that looked just like this. While we were taking biometrics she coughed up a pellet which contained the coots head!”
Another individual noted that when he worked in Colorado, red foxes were often guilty of killing people's chickens and ducks, and they often took only the heads, a phenomenon he witnessed quite often over a span of 22 years.
Finally, one punster noted, “The wise old owl is sometimes a ‘brainiac’.”

Wildlife Cams
Wildlife cams abound these days. To see the site of a great horned owl with two young in the nest as of March 9, and one to hatch, go to: The Decorah, IA, eagle webcam that received so much viewing last spring is also found on this website.
To see three webcams filming black bears in hibernation, go to, the North American Bear Center website in Ely, MN.
Celestial Events
            The official vernal equinox, where the sun is directly above the equator, occurs on 3/20. However, in terms of reaching equal days and nights, we hit the equinox on 3/17 when we receive 12 hours and 1 minute of daylight, the first time the day is longer than the night since September 26.
            The new moon takes place on 3/22. On 3/25, look for Jupiter about 3 degrees below the crescent moon. On 3/26, look for Venus 1.8 degrees above the moon.