Friday, August 31, 2012

NWA 8/31/12

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/31 – 9/13/12
by John Bates

Nighthawk Migration
Common nighthawks are now migrating south, and birders from all around the state have been reporting seeing them in large flocks up to 1,000. Mary and I were in Mercer on Saturday, 8/25, eating dinner outside with friends when a flock of 18 came overhead, followed by irregular groups of two to six over the following several hours.
In the nightjar family (so-called for the "jarring" sounds made by the male when “booming” at night), or what is also called the goatsucker family (so-called from the notion that the birds suckled goats (what were those ancients drinking?!)), the common nighthawk is most often observed on the wing, hawking insects at dusk and dawn in both urban and rural areas. It’s unique for its loud, nasal peent calls, spectacular booming courtship dives, and erratic, almost bat-like flight. The name “nighthawk” is a complete misnomer because it is actually most active at dawn and dusk, not night, and like other members of its family, is not related whatsoever to the hawks.
Nighthawks nest most often on open ground, gravel beaches, rocky outcrops, and burned-over woodlands, but are also well known for nesting on flat gravel roofs in cities. They make no nest, but simply lay their eggs directly on the ground, depending on their cryptic plumage to make them difficult to see.
Nighthawks migrate both day and night, but most flights are observed during early evening in late summer. They fly a great distance between their breeding range and their winter range, traveling one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Their fall departures begin as early as late July in both northern and southern portions of the breeding range in the U.S. and Canada, and individuals become quite gregarious during fall migration, sometimes gathering in flocks of thousands.
They’re heading south so early because they require a constant supply of insects, and historically, we would commonly have frosts in late August which would wipe out the insect population.
They forage under low light conditions at dusk and dawn, and it’s thought that their vision may be aided by presence of a tapeta lucidum, a reflective structure within the choroid of the eye which improves night vision by reflecting light back to the retina.
They’re “good” guys, eating more than 50 insect species, the majority of which are queen ants, beetles, caddisflies, and moths. An analysis of one nighthawk’s stomach found 2,175 ants and another 500 mosquitoes.

Lack of Mosquitoes This Summer?
            Numerous people have questioned why there has been a lack of mosquitoes this summer. My best thought is that it has simply been a relatively dry year, particularly this early spring. In walking some forest trails recently, I noticed that most small woodland ponds are little more than mud holes. And while many of these ponds are ephemeral and are meant to dry up as the summer progresses, others are also usually “permanent,” and their lack of water is a good indicator to me of how relatively dry it’s been.

Hummers Leaving
            The first weeks of September are a farewell to many beloved bird species, and none more so than ruby-throated hummingbirds. Typically, they’ve departed by 9/10, and often earlier. Please leave your feeders up for another two weeks, however, in order to provide food for those hummers that will still be migrating south through our area.
            Speaking of hummingbirds, John Reichling in Winchester has had a downy woodpecker drinking from his hummingbird feeder all summer. It drinks for 5 to 10 minutes, and comes every day. Woodpeckers have an extendable tongue like hummingbirds, so that must be how it is getting fluid from the rather small holes of the feeder.

Hawks Leaving, Too
            The Northwoods’ most common hawk, the broad-winged hawk, peaks in migration in mid-September. Most migrate during a narrow two-week window lasting from about 9/10 – 9/23 when they come through in massive numbers. And there’s no better place in the Midwest to see them than in Duluth. I highly recommend visiting Duluth’s Hawk Ridge over the weekend of 9/15-16 when they hold their annual Hawk Weekend festival. If the weather is right, many thousands of broad-wingeds are likely to pass overhead. See for more details.

Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle sent me a photo of a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with dogwood berries and noted: “Not only the birds were enjoying the berries of our Pagoda Dogwood! The tree was picked bare in just a couple of days by a variety of birds.”
            Mary and I have made some pretty good elderberry jam the last two Augusts from our elderberry bushes, but this year the birds devoured nearly all of our elderberries in just a few days. Most surprising to me were the many white-throated sparrows that were part of the horde – I wasn’t aware that sparrows ate that many fruits!
            Our mountain ash tree is also loaded this year, and many robins and cedar waxwings have been gradually stripping it. One morning I watched a juvenile robin land right next to an adult cedar waxwing and open its mouth like it expected to be fed by the waxwing! The waxwing looked at it, then turned away, and I suspect if I was able to detect disgust in a bird, I would have seen it then.
            This is the time for many birds to build up fat for migration, so while we humans look forward to the autumn harvest, it’s clearly not just a human event.

Mushroom Time!
The 2nd edition of Fascinating Fungi of the Northwoods by Cora Mollen and Larry Weber was recently released with 38 additional species descriptions and accompanying images. Cora’s book includes notations regarding edibility of many of the featured mushrooms and is an excellent introduction to the mushroom world. Mary and I use Cora’s book as our identification guide to the most common mushrooms in the Northwoods, and we only wish we were one-tenth as expert on mushrooms as Cora.
Cora lives in St. Germain and helped organize a mushroom club there many years ago, which has now expanded to 60 members. If you’ve ever had an interest in learning more about mushrooms, I highly recommend joining the club, or at least participating in some of their events. See for more information.

Hemp Nettle
            In hiking the beautiful trails at Van Vliet Hemlocks last week, Mary and I discovered a new wildflower for us – hemp nettle. The plant was very common throughout the stand, which made us wonder rather uneasily about its origins. Unfortunately, our concerns turned out to be justified – hemp nettle is yet another exotic and invasive species that should be removed when found.
Hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit), one of many species in the mint family, has simple, toothed, and opposite leaves, with a bristly stem. Introduced as early as the 1940s, it was thought to be a disturbed soil, roadside/field/yard kind of a plant. However, in recent years it has begun to spread from forest roadsides into adjacent forests along roads and trails, and is now clearly a serious invasive. It also is found very widely in hemlock-hardwood forests of northern Wisconsin, which is the exact habitat-type of the Van Vliet Hemlocks.
An annual, hemp nettle depends completely on seed production to increase on a site – there’s no evidence of vegetative reproduction. It is likely that machinery operation in the forest exposes mineral soil, aiding the spread of this species. Forest soils that have been cleared of the layer of decomposing leaves by alien earthworms also appear more favorable to the spread of hemp nettle.

Celestial Events
            Full moon tonight, 8/31. For planet-watching in September, look after dusk for both Saturn and Mars low in the southwest. Before dawn, look for Venus brilliant and low in the east, and Jupiter almost as bright rising in the northeast.
            On 9/8, look for Jupiter just above the last quarter moon. On 9/12, look for Venus four degrees north of the crescent moon.
            We’re heading at high speed for the autumn equinox – enjoy the longer daylight hours while you can!

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, August 17, 2012


A Northwoods Almanac for August 17 – 30, 2012 by John Bates

Sightings – Broad-winged Hawks
Jeanne Milewski in Boulder Junction sent me photos of a juvenile broad-winged hawk and wrote: “I saw this hawk in my backyard on Sunday, July 29th. I had heard a screeching noise during the morning, but didn't really pay much attention to it until early afternoon when it sounded like it was right at the backdoor. I looked out the door to see it fly into a tree near our back deck. It appears to have been ‘kicked’ out of the nest. As it screeched, I heard another responding to its cry; maybe a nest-mate? I observed it regularly during the week. Also, I had seen it under our empty deer feeder and it appeared to be feeding on, perhaps, a small animal.”
Our most common woodland hawk, broad-wingeds spend most of their time below the forest canopy, perch-hunting for insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Small mammals and amphibians are their most frequent prey, but their diet depends entirely on the local availability of prey. Short-tailed shrews, eastern chipmunks, and American toads were the most frequent prey in a study of western New York breeding sites, with the proportions of prey types: 46% mammals, 26% birds, 14% amphibians, 14% reptiles. Another study in Alberta, Canada, found that the nestlings were fed mostly mammals with red-backed voles and meadow voles the most numerous items taken, with ruffed grouse chicks forming the largest component of their avian prey.
Insects and other invertebrates are also reported to occur heavily in stomach analyses.
The territorial adults can easily be located by their plaintive peee-uurr whistle, given during flights above the canopy and while perched.
Broad-wingeds migrate en masse in mid-September. You can celebrate their fall migration with the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory during their annual Hawk Weekend Festival in Duluth starting on Friday, 9/14, and going through Sunday, 9/16. Registration and event details can be found online at

Sightings – Adult Loon in Juvenile Plumage
Mary Rysz on Razorback Lake has been observing an adult loon since late April that is all brownish/gray. She noted that the loon never makes any noise and always stays in one bay. Her sighting didn’t make sense since loons migrate south in their first autumn and don’t return until their third year of life when they are in full adult plumage. However, never say always. In speaking with a loon researcher, I found out that about 5% of the immature birds come back early as two year-olds every year, and thus would not have adult plumage, so that's very likely the situation with Mary’s loon on Razorback.

Sightings – Fruiting Plants
            August means a host of plants are now fruiting, one of which is bunchberry, our smallest native dogwood. Barb Whenal sent me a photo of a bunchberry with its customary cluster, or bunch, of red berries conspicuously displayed above its leaves. The berries are edible, but I use the word unenthusiastically. The berry has a large pit, is rather slimy, and all but tasteless. Other than that, hey, it’s great! Bunchberries can be extremely plentiful, so if you’re willing to harvest them and pit them, they can, with ample sugar or honey, be made into a sauce or jam.

Archeological Sites: Archibald Lake and Butternut Lake
Last weekend, Mary and I co-led two hikes with Mark Bruhy, the recently retired archaeologist from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and his wife Katie Egan-Bruhy, an archaeologist with the Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group in Milwaukee. Both express their knowledge of our area with a passion and wisdom that brings thousands of years of history to light.
On Friday, we visited Cathedral Pines State Natural Area, which is over 1,800 acres in area and considered one of the finest old growth forest communities in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It also is a site where late prehistoric Native peoples were drawn long before Europeans entered the area. Called the Archibald Lake Mounds and Village site, the site was occupied by A.D. 1000 with people growing crops such as corn and squash, which had become an important part of Native subsistence in the western Great Lakes region. It had, however, been generally assumed that northern Wisconsin’s short growing season and sandy soils prevented crop production in this area, but this site has proven that to be untrue. 
The Archibald Lake Mounds site was first located by archaeologists in the late 1980s, and continued visits to this location revealed remarkable evidence of crop production, processing and storage. The location includes remnant garden beds, dozens of storage pits, and a small number of large conical and horizontal mounds (burial structures). The site’s significance was formally recognized in 2011 through placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Close to 300 agricultural or garden bed sites have been reported in Wisconsin. Information concerning these garden beds or ridged fields is extremely limited, however, as many have been destroyed by historic agricultural and logging activities. What is known is that garden beds or ridged fields were used for crop production and that corn was one of the primary crops.
Several hypotheses have been proposed to account for the function of the ridged configuration of field systems such as that represented at Archibald Lake Mound Group. Proposed functions include improved drainage and water retention; increased fertility; pest, disease, and weed control; temperature control (funnel cold air away from crops and thus lengthen the growing season); and erosion control.
The period of significance for the Archibald Lake Mound Group is defined as extending from around AD 1000 to 1500. This period is inclusive of the period of occupation, based on two radiocarbon dates (AD 1210 to 1290 and AD 1290 to 1420).
The Archibald Lake Mound Group has excellent archaeological integrity, and thus may provide data about the lifeways of the prehistoric occupants of the site and the relationship between the Late Woodland and Oneota populations in this region.
On Saturday, we visited the Franklin Lake Nature Trail, a segment of the 13-mile-long Hidden Lakes Trail east of Eagle River, which encircles Butternut Lake and threads through many of the 20 archaeological sites that are part of the Butternut-Franklin Lakes archaeological district. Seventeen of the contributing resources are located on National Forest System land, one is on State land, and two are on land privately owned. All of the sites are situated near lakeshores, and none extend further inland than 200 meters (656 feet). The 20 sites are estimated to be approximately 57 acres in area, though it is likely that future research will find many to be larger than currently estimated. 
The sites vary in function, age and season of occupation. Further, though they range from 7,000 B.C through A.D. 1600, there is a cultural continuity and association among them that is clear. 
Examples of the sites include the Butternut Lake village site, which was seasonally occupied between around A.D. 700 and 1600 and extends almost a mile along the lake’s east bay. 
The Isthmus site, while not used as a village, was used for processing and storing food.  Radiocarbon dates place Native occupation there between A.D. 800 to1200 with the remnants of numerous storage pits still visible along the surface.
The Hemlock Cathedral site is situated along a rocky terrace on Butternut Lake, the location marked by an ancient stand of hemlock. Used seasonally as a fishing station from A.D. 500 to 1300, archaeological excavation recovered evidence of fish processing with tools such as copper harpoons and knives, and stone net sinkers.
The Butternut Lake Inlet site was first occupied around 1500 B.C. Excavations revealed the foundation of the oldest dwelling thus far recorded in northern Wisconsin, along with evidence of hunting, fishing and gathering, domestication of dogs and other interesting aspects of the daily lives of the ancient residents.  
The twenty archaeological properties situated along the shores of the Butternut-Franklin lakes area were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. 

Bird Migration
            Shorebird migration is on, with warbler migration kicking into heavy gear. Insect-eating birds have to stay ahead of the first killing frost, so they’re already on the move south. Keep an eye out for mixed flocks of songbirds that will be both relatively quiet and difficult to identify due to many birds having molted into their winter plumage.

Celestial Events
Today, 8/17, our daylight now totals 14 hours, but our daylight is going fast – we’re losing about 3 minutes every day. It’s only a little over a month until autumn equinox, so get outside and enjoy the light while we have it.
 The new moon also occurs tonight, while our second full moon of the month will grace us on 8/31 (the first full moon occurred on 8/2). Full moons occur every 29.5 days, so every month but February has a chance to have two full moons, or what is called by some a blue moon.
            Why a blue moon and not a green or purple one? Folklorist Philip Hiscock traces the usage of the color back to the 16th century when folks used the phrase, “He would argue the moon is blue,” as a way of showing the person would say just about anything no matter the truth of it. Over time, the definition evolved from meaning something absurd to meaning something quite rare or impossible. Then there are historical examples of the moon actually appearing blue due to dust particles in the air from volcanoes or intense droughts. These were rare events, so the observations added weight to the use of the phrase a “blue moon” which came to denote something very uncommon.

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, August 3, 2012

NWA 8/3/12

A Northwoods Almanac for August 3 – 16, 2012 by John Bates

Conservation is Patriotic and Has Bipartisan Support
In the highly partisan atmosphere of a presidential election year, The Nature Conservancy recently released a bipartisan national poll showing that at least one issue is widely supported by Americans across the political spectrum: the conservation of our nation’s land and water. Conducted by the bipartisan research team of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (D) and Public Opinion Strategies (R) from June 16-19, the pollsters noted, from “Tea Party Republicans to liberal Democrats, more than four-in-five American voters say that conserving our country's natural resources - our land, air and water - is patriotic.”
In addition, three-quarters of the American electorate said that “one of the things our government does best” is protecting its “history and natural beauty through national parks, forests and other public lands.”  Not surprisingly, then, three-fourths of voters say they would prefer to go on vacation this summer in a national park or other public lands.
Voters also voiced overwhelming support for a number of specific federal policies to support conservation. Three-quarters (74 percent) of American voters say that even with federal budget problems, funding for conservation should not be cut. Many voters are even willing to reach into their own pockets to fund conservation, with 83 percent overall willing to pay more in taxes to fund protection of land, water and wildlife habitat in their area. This includes 72 percent of Tea Party Republicans, 73 percent of self-described conservatives, 88 percent of moderates, and 94 percent of self-described liberals. 
In fact, the overwhelming majority of American voters reject the notion that protecting our environment is at odds with a strong economy even when they believe the state of the economy is an extremely serious problem. More than three-quarters of voters (79 percent) said they believe we can protect land and water and have a strong economy at the same time. In fact, voters were twice as likely to say that protections for land, air, water and wildlife have a positive impact on jobs (41 percent), than a negative impact (17 percent), or little impact one way or the other (33 percent).
This poll confirms what I personally have experienced for many years: that conservation is an issue which more often unites than divides. Clearly there’s far more in common among Americans’ views on conservation than we’re often led to believe, and the false dichotomy that we have to choose between jobs and the environment doesn’t play with most Americans.
As a sidenote, I’m often skeptical of polls, and of a host of other “facts,” particularly if I don’t know their source. One non-partisan insight into sources of information is SourceWatch at  To try to get objective reviews of various other rumors dressed up as facts, try or

Sightings – Trains of Merganser Chicks and Northern Lights
Carol Pfister recently watched a female common merganser lead a train of 21 offspring behind her on Big Crooked Lake. She opined that the female was a likely recipient of egg dumping, a phenomenon where females lay eggs in other individual’s nests. The fancy term for this is “intraspecific brood parasitism” and is common among ducks. However, it may also be that this particular female adopted another female’s brood when she died or abandoned her chicks, a not uncommon occurrence, and a process with another fancy name – “post-hatch brood amalgamation.”
On July 14, the northern lights were dancing a bit, and Dave Eitel on Fence Lake wrote this very nice piece: “2:30 a.m. A waning orange crescent rises above the eastern horizon and glimmers on the glassy black surface of the lake. Jupiter, centered perfectly on the moon's concavity, rises with it. After a few minutes Venus silently edges above the horizon directly beneath the crescent.
“Four loons converse hauntingly across the water as bullfrogs gossip on the shore.
“Pale green light arcs across the northern sky. Heavenly spears of it thrust upward, slowly transform into cascading sheets, then become a playful Wurlitzer-like display of waves moving rapidly upward and fading into the Milky Way.”

Sphinx Moths
Barb and Barry Whenal in Lake Tomahawk sent me this note and an accompanying picture on 7/16: “We were taking a walk with our friends, John and Sandy Anspach, on the Nicolet Forest trail beside Shelp Lake in Forest County . . . Sandy noticed what she thought was  “a pretty flower” on one of the branches beside the boardwalk.  I said “that’s not normal for this plant.”  So we took a closer look only to find it wasn’t a flower after all but a large caterpillar with a host of what looks like eggs on its back . . . We are wondering what kind of moth or butterfly could this be and what is on its back?”
I’m no expert on caterpillars, so I sent the photo to the “Butterflies and Moths of North America” database, and they identified it as Sphinx luscitiosa, or Canadian sphinx moth. You can see pictures of the adults and caterpillar stages at
Some of the largest moths in the world belong to the sphinx moth family (also known as hawk moths or hummingbird moths) within the order Lepidoptera, the animal order that includes butterflies and moths. With long narrow wings and thick bodies, they are fast, acrobatic flyers that can hover in place, briefly fly backwards or dart away. Hawk moths are experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers after dark. They unfurl their exceptionally long tongues like party favors to explore flowers with long floral tubes that conceal pools of nectar.

Orb Weavers
Cindy Schreuder in Presque Isle sent me a photo of an orb weaver spider that was on her dock. Orb weavers make the circular webs that one commonly sees shimmering with dew in the early morning. Some 200 species are found in North America, and many have an impressively large, rounded abdomen with spots or lines, along with eight small eyes in two rows.
Nearly blind even with all those eyes, the orb weavers must sit in or near their web in order to feel the vibration of their captives as they struggle to escape. Threads called spokes, or radii, lead from the outside edge to the center. The non-sticky spokes allow the orb weaver to travel along the web to reach its prey – all the circular threads leading to the center of the web are sticky.
These webs can be 20 to 30 inches in diameter with15 to 35 radii, and typically a new web is spun every evening – quite a nightly architectural accomplishment when you think about it!
Identifying orb weavers within the Araneus genus, the most common orb weavers, is quite complex given their dramatically varying colorations and patterns. Check for great photos of all the variations of just one common orb weaver, the shamrock spider.

Mayhem in the Marsh
Mary, Callie, and I regularly walk in Powell Marsh, and this year we’ve been hearing the songs of a colony of marsh wrens on one of the pools. These tiny wrens are hard to see, but they make up for their lack of size with a pugnaciousness pretty much unequaled in other bird species. Marsh wrens, whatever the gender or age, peck at and destroy eggs and young nestlings of their own species as well as those of other species. They’ve been documented destroying least bittern eggs and destroying and partly drinking the contents of red-winged blackbird eggs. In one study, 14 of 51 blackbird nests showed evidence of wren destruction. Another study concluded that wrens destroyed up to 52% of red-winged blackbird nests in a British Columbia marsh. The male wrens also destroy both eggs and young nestlings of yellow-headed blackbirds.
Wrens also destroy the eggs and nestlings of other wrens. One observer reported watching a banded female repeatedly flying long distances outside her territory to find food for her nestlings. After several such trips, she flew directly to the opening of a neighbor’s nest and, in rapid succession, pecked each nestling in the head until it was dead, and then dropped it to marsh floor beneath nest.
In fairness, the wrens are also commonly attacked. Yellow-headed blackbirds are aggressive toward marsh wrens and appear to limit their nesting area. They are known to perch on or in front of wren brood nests, thus blocking the female’s return to incubate. They have also been observed chasing marsh wren males and hopping up and down on their nests, compressing them. Both male and female red-winged blackbirds also often attack singing marsh wrens, forcing them to escape by dropping into dense vegetation. Song sparrows and swamp sparrows on occasion also attack marsh wrens.
Like the proverbial playground clash, the question is: Who started it? Researchers lay the blame at the wren’s feet, saying these aggressive interactions are probably a consequence of the nest-destroying habits of the wrens.

Mammatus Clouds
            On 7/29, a thunderstorm was brewing over Manitowish, and as the clouds blew in, they formed a series of rounded, pouch-shaped forms that hung downward from the middle cloud layer (see photo). These very odd clouds often indicate severe weather, but on this early evening, they simply drifted by with some rumbling thunder as background percussion.

Old Columns
            I’ve written this column now for 22 years (since 1990), and I’m often asked where one can read my old columns. I wrote two books in 1997 – A Northwoods Companion Spring and Summer, and A Northwoods Companion Fall and Winter – that drew heavily from those early columns. A decade later in 2006 and 2008, I wrote another two books – Graced by the Seasons Spring and Summer, and Graced by the Seasons Fall and Winter – that utilized the new columns I wrote between 1997 and 2008, and which are completely different from the Companion books. It’s unlikely that I’ll do another set of books from my columns from 2008 onward, so most of those columns can be found on my blog at 

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.