Thursday, November 29, 2012

NWA 11/29/12

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

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

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

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

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

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