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.

Friday, September 14, 2012

NWA 9/14/12

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/14 – 27, 2012 by John Bates

Hummingbird Migration
We still had female and juvenile ruby-throated hummingbirds coming to our feeders as of Saturday morning, 9/8, but given the strong northwest winds over the weekend, I suspect most of our local nesting hummers have now hit the migratorial road.                         Males precede the females in spring and fall migration, with the juveniles of both sexes lagging somewhat behind the adult females in the fall. The male’s earlier departure in the spring gives them time to establish territories so they can successfully court arriving females at the beginning of the breeding season, and they follow the same pattern for fall migration in order to establish their winter territories. If you have hummingbird feeders, you know how extraordinarily territorial the males can be during the breeding season, an obsession they apparently continue with throughout the winter.
Ruby-throated hummers winter throughout Central America, with a few stopping short to winter along the western Gulf Coast. Many fly across the Gulf of Mexico, but many also follow the coastal route around the Gulf. Large numbers are often observed flying low over wave tops to make landfall during spring migration; however, I’m unable to find any information as to whether they fly this low during fall migration.
On average, adult ruby-throated hummingbirds have a mass of only 1/10th of an ounce (3.5 grams.) Despite their almost indiscernible weight, many of these birds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during fall and spring migration, a one-way trip of more than 500 miles. To reach the Gulf, the hummers migrate by day, but to cross the Gulf, they typically leave at dusk and fly for 18-22 hours to reach landfall.  
To accomplish this flight, individuals will double their body mass to 6 grams by fattening on nectar and insects prior to departure. When they reach landfall, however, they typically weigh only 2.5 grams, having lost more than their entire normal body weight. While this may sound like a lot to us, losing only a tenth of an ounce while flying 500 miles non-stop is pretty amazing fuel efficiency – Prius owners take note!
Given their near weightlessness, it only makes sense that wind direction and velocity would strongly influence their migration. One study conducted along the ridges at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton, PA, found that migrants were most numerous after the passage of strong cold fronts and northwest winds.
The ruby-throats’ overland fall migration occurs nearly synchronously with the peak flowering of jewelweed (also known as spotted touch-me-not or Impatiens biflora), an important nectar source, suggesting that jewelweed may influence the timing of migration.
For a hummer that just hatched, there's no memory of past migrations, only an instinctive urge to put on a lot of weight and fly in a particular direction for a certain amount of time, then look for a good place to spend the winter. Once it learns a route, the hummer will likely retrace it every year as long as it lives.
The initial migratorial urge is triggered by the shortening length of daylight as autumn approaches, and has nothing to do with temperature or the availability of food; in fact, hummingbirds migrate south at the time of greatest food abundance. When the bird has put on enough fat, it migrates.
Although hummingbirds may fly over water in company of mixed flocks of other bird species, they do not fly in flocks with other hummers. Individual birds may spend the winter anywhere in Central America where the habitat is favorable (most ruby-throats only migrate as far as Panama), and most very likely return to the same location each winter, though banding data is limited.
To go from Wisconsin down to the Gulf coast would take a hummer about 4 or 5 days, assuming the hummer did not spend more than one day resting at any one place. It would then take a day to cross the Gulf, and another couple of days to reach its destination in Central America. But with big rest stops to wait for good weather and to build back up fat reserves, it probably takes about two weeks for “our” hummers to reach their winter homes. One study found that they usually arrive in Costa Rica by late September to early October.
Some amazing hummer factoids:
They beat their wings about 60-80 times per second in normal flight.
Their hearts beat about 250 times per minute while at rest, and about 1,220 per minute while flying. Their hearts are about 2.5% of their total body weight.
They take about 250 breaths per minute while at rest.
To follow the hummers in migration go to:

Autumn Equinox
Autumn equinox is right around the corner, occurring this year on 9/22 at 9:49 a.m. CST. The word "equinox" derives from Latin term "æquinoctium" which, in turn, came from "æquus" (equal), and "nox" (night). It, of course, refers to the moment that occurs twice a year when the nighttime is equal to the daytime.           
The seasons of the year are caused by the 23.5º tilt of the earth's axis. We Northern Hemisphere inhabitants are slanted furthest away from the sun during winter solstice, and slanted most toward the sun during summer solstice.
Autumn equinox is noteworthy because it marks our transition into days that have more darkness than daylight. Combined with killing frosts, the departure of most of our birds, and the rattle of brittle leaves in strong autumn winds, it can be a difficult emotional adjustment. But it’s also the time of many harvests, brilliant leaf-changing colors, and a crispness in the air that makes you just want to walk and explore as much of this world as you can. As always, the perception of outer landscapes depends wholly on one’s inner landscape. Bringing an energetic, joyful countenance to a morning makes all the difference.

Hawk Ridge in Duluth
            Hawk migration is now hitting its peak. What makes a good migration day at Hawk Ridge? Birds and the weather are both unpredictable (note this disclaimer!!), but northwest or west winds are best, and the more days in a row, the better. North and southwest winds are okay. South, southeast, and east winds are not good. The day before, or a couple of days after a strong front, usually produces more birds, and the flight essentially shuts down in the rain and fog.
So, while on average this weekend usually produces the biggest flights of the year, Mother Nature always bats last. Keep an eye on the weather forecast for Duluth, and head for the ridge when peak conditions appear to maximize your chances for a truly big day. And by “big,” I mean BIG – the record day at Duluth was on 9/15/2003 when over 102,000 hawks flew over the ridge. They already had a pretty big day this year on 9/9 when 16,135 hawks were counted, so the flight is on! 
It’s not just all about hawks either. On 9/9, they also counted 2291 migrating non-raptors, including among others 603 Canada geese, 35 American white pelicans, 40 sandhill cranes, 752 blue jays, 234 cedar waxwings, 76 warblers (only 3 species identified), 63 red-winged blackbirds, 9 red crossbills, 15 pine siskins, and 277 American goldfinches. 

Celestial Events
            New moon occurs on 9/15. On 9/18, look at dusk for Saturn 5 degrees north of the crescent moon. On 9/19, look for Mars almost on top of the crescent moon.

         As of 9/10, we’ve yet to experience our first frost, an event so destructive that author Diane Kappel-Smith writes: “Winter is a predictable kind of Armageddon, a calamity calmly weathered, an end of a world that they [wildlife] understand and are preparing for . . .”
         The first frost marks the end of the growing season for hundreds of species of plants and the end of life for literally millions of insects. While gardeners and farmers pay attention to it, for wildlife, there may not be a more important event than this in the entire natural year.  

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.