Thursday, November 7, 2013

NWA 11/1/13

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/1 – 14, 2013  

Bobcat or Lynx?
Mary Guenther in Minocqua wrote to tell me of a unique encounter she had early in October: “I was walking the half mile back from the mailbox on our quiet dead end road, reading the mail. I glanced up and stopped dead in my tracks. Right on the side of the road was an animal facing away from me. The first thing I noticed was its long golden tail with a black tip swishing in a cat-like fashion. Its legs were long, and its coat was sleek and beautiful, golden with black spots. It looked to be around 30#'s if I had to guess. Suddenly it turned and noticed me. Our eyes locked, no kidding, for a few seconds, and then it ran off. I think both of us were thinking, ‘Where did YOU come from!’ . . . I'm thinking it wasn't a bobcat because of the long tail. Any thoughts?”
Then a few days later on 10/24, Phil and Nancy Williams sent me some great photos of a pair of bobcats hunting in their yard. Phil noted, “I had to go out on the porch to get a better picture, and they just sat and looked at me even after one of our labs came out to see them.”            
So, how does one tell the difference between a lynx and a bobcat, and even a cougar? First, a disclaimer: I’ve never seen a lynx or a cougar, so I’m using what the literature says to try to clearly draw the difference.
The problem in ID’ing a lynx from a bobcat is that both are medium-sized cats with long, tufted ears and a short, bobbed tail! Adult male bobcats and lynxes weigh 20 to 30 pounds and average 3 feet in length, though the lynx tend to be a bit larger than bobcats. Because of their similarities, bobcats (Lynx rufus) and lynxes (Lynx canadensis) both belong to the Lynx genus, but they are clearly separate species.           
Here’s how to differentiate between them. The lynx sports extra-long tufts of fur on its ears – almost an inch long – and a shaggy mane of fur around its cheeks, while the bobcat’s ear tufts are perhaps a third of an inch.
A lynx also has much larger feet (3.5 inches in diameter) than a bobcat (2+ inches in diameter) and longer legs to help it navigate the deep snow common in its more northern range. In fact, lynxes are twice as effective as bobcats at supporting their weight on the snow. Their big, furry paws act like snowshoes to help then chase down food in the winter, their diet consisting of between 60-90 percent snowshoe hares, the animal most of us think of as the acknowledged master of running on top of snow. Because of the differences in paw size and leg length, the only area where the Canadian lynx and bobcat coexist is along the U.S.-Canada border.
The lynx also sports a heavier, mostly gray fur that lacks much of a pattern, whereas a bobcat’s fur is shorter with more spots and ranges from light gray to the more common brown.            
Lynxes and bobcats both have short, rounded tails that appear to be cut, or "bobbed." But the bobcat's is banded with black stripes and is black at the top of the tip and white at the bottom, while the lynx's tail lacks banding and is completely black at the tip. A bobcat's tail ranges from five inches to eight inches, averaging 6.5 inches in length. Although short compared to a domestic cat, the bobcat's tail averages two inches longer than the tail of lynx. Still, a bobcat’s tail can be up to 12” long, so it may be “swishable.”            The cougar is so much larger than a bobcat or lynx that there should be no confusion regarding them. Male and female cougars vary in size and weight with adult males reaching more than eight feet long and weighing 135 to 175 pounds. Adult females may be up to seven feet long and weigh between 90 and 105 pounds.
If size isn’t enough to ID a cougar, the tail length should be, measuring about one-third of their overall body length.

Sightings: Orange Peels, Snow Buntings, Hemlock Varnish Shelf, Sandhill Cranes, Northern Shrikes, and a Very Cold Hummer
Hannah Dana in Arbor Vitae sent photos of a beautiful red-orange fluted fungus that is growing in her yard despite the early snow. It’s called “orange peel” for its obvious resemblance to the remains of an orange, but it can come in a variety of shapes, from a perfectly round cup to wavy flutes to stubby, knobby projections. Orange peel grows most typically on disturbed soils, like on paths and roadsides, but is also found on woodland soils.
Because it contains carotenoids like a sugar maple leaf, the more sunlight that hits the mushroom, the brighter orange it will be.           
On 10/20 Judy Barnard on Pokegama Lake in Lac du Flambeau wrote, “We always plant a couple of planters of impatiens for the hummingbirds. And because of the weather, they are still in full bloom. Imagine our surprise when we had a hummingbird feeding on them YESTERDAY!!! He looked larger than usual, so hopefully he is getting ready to migrate. I was going to dismantle those planter boxes a couple of weeks ago - now I'm glad I didn't.” Judy’s sighting is why we are always encouraged to leave our hummingbird feeders up until later in the fall – there may be that one hummer which is taking its sweet time heading south.
On 10/22, the staff at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area conducted a count of sandhill cranes at Crex and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas, recording 12,201 birds! If you have an interest in going over to see these birds, the best viewing areas are on Main Dike Road on the south side of the Crex refuge.
On 10/24, Carol McKay emailed with a sighting of “a small group of birds that I thought were juncos until they took flight as a group. They were too white to be juncos, and they flew up in a group, not individually. The only birds that came close in the Peterson book were snow buntings, but our area is not their normal range.” Carol was indeed watching snow buntings, which nest in far northern Canada, and have begun migrating through our area.
Wil Conway sent me some photos of a large conk mushroom attached to a conifer.  He noted, “What caught my attention was the rich mahogany color and sheen . . . I have never seen anything like it; it must have had the snow or snow melting before I got there.” The mushroom is called “hemlock varnish shelf” for its shellacked-like surface, and is most typically found on dead hemlock trees.
Finally, on 10/24, Mary spotted the first northern shrike of the year, perched in one of our crabapple trees and within 20 feet of our bird feeders. While we were delighted to see it, our songbirds surely took a much dimmer view of its appearance.

First Wave of Monarchs Now in Mexico
The first wave of migrating monarchs were reported to be entering Mexico on 10/24. If you want to keep track of where they are, pull up the Monarch Watch website at for a series of different maps that show the monarchs progress to their 12 overwintering sites about 50 miles west of Mexico City
 The monarch colonies are located in a relatively small area at 19.5 degrees north latitude and 100 degrees west longitude, but why this latitude and longitude, and why these same locations in the forest each year to form colonies is unknown. Amazingly, the over-wintering area that the monarchs have to hit is very, very narrow, only 1.1 degrees wide in longitude (over 60 miles).
To survive from one season to the next, they migrate to oyamel fir forests above 10,500 feet, a cool habitat where the daytime temperatures seldom exceed 65°F and the nighttime lows are seldom below freezing. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out allowing them to conserve their energy. Monarchs remain relatively inactive through the winter, surviving by converting fats stored in the fall to blood sugars necessary to keep their bodies functioning.

Tamarack Gold
            Tamaracks are just past peak, glowing the most lovely gold in the slanting late afternoon light. In his book “A Natural History of Trees,” Donald Culross Peattie had this to say about tamaracks: “The tamarack goes farther north than any other tree in North America . . . growing in the summer by the light of the midnight sun. At this season, it is the most tenderly beautiful of all native trees, with its pale green needles like a rime of life and light.
            “But in winter it is the deadest-looking vegetation on the globe. Many a tenderfoot has been horrified coming upon a tamarack swamp, to see miles of these trees that he concludes have been swept by fire . . .
            “Then when spring comes to the North Woods . . . these same trees that one thought were but ‘crisps’ begin, soon after the wild geese have gone over, and the ice in the beaver ponds is melted, to put forth an unexpected, subtle bloom. . . . And there is no more delicate charm in the North Woods than the moment when the soft pale-green needles first begin to clothe the military sternness of the Larch.”

Celestial Events
            Planets to look for in November: At dusk, brilliant Venus can be found low in the southwest. Jupiter rises around 8 p.m. in the northeast and is high in the south by 4 a.m. At dawn, Mars is high in the southeast, while Saturn is very low in the southeast.
            As of 11/3, we’ll be down to 10 hours of daylight. The new moon also occurs on this date. The mid-season mark between autumn equinox and winter solstice takes place on 11/7. Look for the peak North Taurid meteor shower well before dawn on 11/12.

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.

NWA 10/18/13

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/18 – 10/31/13

Just in Time for Halloween: Dead Man’s Fingers and Wolf’s Milk Slime
            Well, Mary’s mushrooming passion is getting pretty macabre. In honor of Halloween, I’ve attached photos that Mary took of two very odd species. The first is “dead man’s fingers,” a non-gilled mushroom that grows out of the soil from below-ground rotting wood, and looks very much like decomposing fingers of a human hand – very cool in other words! The mushrooms emerge whitish but turn blackish in the fall. They’re saprophytes, meaning they live off dead, decaying organic matter.
            The second species is “wolf’s milk slime,” a slime mold that is pinkish and exudes a goo that looks like PeptoBismol, though as it ages, turns dark and fills with gray spores. Slime molds aren’t fungi – they’re amoeba-like organisms that reproduce by spores, sort of ooze their way around, and contribute to decomposition by consuming bacteria and other microscopic foods as they go. John Tyler Bonner, a Princeton professor and world expert on slime molds, says that they are "no more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath, yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia – that is, simple brains." Well, I’m not sure what they might think about in those brains, but I do know this: They are very, very odd, but also very cool!

Wild Cranberries
            Carne Andrews and Keith Reinemen stopped by our home last weekend and gave us a pint of wild cranberries that they had picked in a bog. Keith had called me the previous week to say he had picked seven pounds of cranberries in five hours, and was in breakfast heaven when he combined pure maple syrup with the tartness of the cranberries over homemade pancakes.
            My mouth watered then, and it’s doing it now again.
            Compared to commercially farmed cranberries (large cranberry or Vaccinium macrocarpon), most wild cranberries that I see are the small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus), and are typically tinier – about the size of wild blueberries. The small cranberry has teensy, pointed leaves, and a wiry, prostrate stem. They’re hard to spot unless you get down on your knees and poke around in the sphagnum moss.
Cranberry spreads over the bog mat by sending out long stems that root at the joints and begin another clonal plant.  The leaves, like those on most bog plants, are evergreen, an adaptation that saves the energy of spring leaf formation, energy that's hard to come by in the hostile habitat of a bog.
            The berries taste sour, making the eyes squint a bit with each bite, but they make fine sauces and jams (cranberries contain their own pectin). They also keep well, and early settlers picked their share.
Huron H. Smith wrote the Ethnobotany of the Menomini [sic] in 1923, the Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe in 1932, and the Ethnobotany of the Potawatomi in 1933, and said the following about the use of bog cranberry by each tribe:
“This is a Menomini food that is sweetened with maple sugar and eaten the same way as the blueberry.”
For the Ojibwe, “A tea for a person who is slightly ill with nausea . . . This is an important wild food . . . cranberry pie.”
“The Forest Potawatomi do not use the cranberry as a medicine, except insofar as they claim that all of their native foods are also at the same time medicines and will maintain health. . .”
(Huron Smith conducted ethnobotanical fieldwork among the Ojibwe during three trips, which lasted six weeks in duration. The first trip was made in June 1923 to the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in Vilas County. He visited the same region again later in the fall. During the spring of 1924, one trip was made to the Leech Lake Reservation, in Minnesota, where the Pillager Band of Ojibwa lives on Bear Island and the surrounding mainland. This was followed by trips to the Red Cliff Reservation in Bayfield County, Bad River Reservation, Iron County, Lac Court Oreilles, Clark County and scattered bands in various sections of northern Wisconsin.)

Highbush Cranberries
The highbush cranberry belongs to the honeysuckle family, so is actually unrelated to the familiar bog cranberry. The brilliant red clusters of autumn berries are supposedly treats for bear, fox, squirrel, grouse, cardinals, cedar waxwings, thrashers, and many others, but in the marsh below our house the fruits often last until late winter when little else can be found to eat. Folks rarely eat these raw like bog cranberries, but they do make a fine jelly or jam.
Big Pine on the Winegar Moraine
The ice sheet of the Wisconsin Glaciation advanced southward from Canada about 26,000 years ago, moving into northern Wisconsin in two major ice lobes, the Superior and the Chippewa Lobes (a third major lobe, the Green Bay Lobe, covered eastern Wisconsin). The maximum extent of the lobes at the time, about 18,000 years ago, were located south of the UP in Wisconsin, and are marked by terminal moraines. The ice then retreated in response to a moderation in climate, but advanced again about 12,00 to 13,000 years ago. This time the ice margin didn’t reach as far south because the climate was getting milder, stopping near the UP/Wisconsin border where it deposited the western section of the Winegar Moraine (the moraine is named after William S. Winegar who bought the Vilas County Lumber Company mill in 1910 in present day Presque Isle).
The moraine left behind an array of rocks, a tumbly topography, and sandy loam, a richer mix than the nearly pure sand and flatter lands in southern Vilas and northern Oneida counties. I enjoy leading hikes along the moraine because it supports big hemlocks, sugar maples, and yellow birch, and an occasional large pine.
Over the weekend, we were fortunate to be invited onto some private property on the moraine where one very large old grandmother tree still stood. Callie and I measured it at 47 inches diameter breast height, which is about as big as any I’ve seen still standing in northern Wisconsin. At nearly 4 feet in diameter, this tree would have been a bit larger than the average white pine that was cut during settlement, but not as remarkable as the giants that were up to seven feet in diameter.

Sightings – Blackbirds, Chipmunks, Tamaracks, Woodbine
Flocks of rusty and Brewer’s blackbirds have been visiting our feeders, sharing the sunflowers with a couple of chipmunks who continuously fill their cheeks beyond what looks possible and then cache the seeds in their winter dens.
Many sites in our area finally experienced their first hard frost on 10/14, a crazily late date for frost in the North Country. Perhaps now the mosquitoes will finally die off!
Tamaracks are now peaking in their gorgeous smoky gold attire. Likewise, the woody vine known as woodbine has peaked in its brilliant scarlet.

Monarch Migration
            The monarch migration is proceeding very slowly, perhaps as a reflection of our warm autumn and lack of frost until this week. With the winds finally shifting to the North this week, they began moving much more quickly to their Mexico wintering grounds.
            To follow their migration, go to

October Winds
Autumn winds carry an array of sensory messages. Here’s an excerpt from John Muir’s essay “A Wind-storm in the Forests”:
“There is always something deeply exciting, not only in the sounds of winds in the woods, which exert more or less influence over every mind, but in their varied waterlike flow as manifested by the movements of the trees, especially those of the conifers. By no other trees are they rendered so extensively and impressively visible . . . The waving of a forest of the giant Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime, but the pines seem to me the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.           
[Muir climbed 100’ into a Douglas fir and rode out a windstorm] “The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed . . . The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild exuberance of light and motion. The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur . . . Winds are advertisements of all they touch, however much or little we may be able to read them; telling their wanderings even by their scents alone.”

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.

NWA 10/4/13

A Northwoods Almanac for Oct 4 – 17, 2013

Loon Research
With autumn comes the pre-migratorial flocking of loons. Typically, loons that failed to breed, or that were unsuccessful in hatching or rearing chicks, group together first. But by October, all loons socialize, with flocks of 50 or more loons often congregating on large lakes like Fence, Trout, and Tomahawk. Despite their massing together, when it’s time to head south, loons will migrate singly or in very loose groups with adult loons preceding the chicks. For the chicks, it is a race against ice-up. Hopefully they’ve grown strong enough by November to handle their long flight to warm ocean water.
Several people have contacted me with sightings of flocks of loons congregating on their lakes, while Mary and I saw 13 loons just off the eastern shore of Madeline Island on Lake Superior last weekend.
All of which brings me to noting the exceptional research on loons that has been conducted for several decades in the Lakeland area. The researchers that I personally know sacrifice a great deal to increase our understanding of loons. They’re up night after night during the early summer capturing and banding loons, an exhilarating but exhausting enterprise. An example of their dedication comes from the email I recently received from Tony Waisbrot, chairman of the Alma-Moon Lake District in St. Germain. He copied to me a letter that he had sent to DNR Secretary Stepp:
“Secretary Stepp: Just a quick note to let you know how much we value and appreciate DNR staff member Mike Meyer from the Rhinelander office, who, on his own time on a Saturday night on Labor Day weekend at 8:15pm, came to Moon Lake East with his battery, light equipment, and net to rescue our loon chick from an embedded fishing lure.
“Our lake residents, Ken and Teri Beier, called Mike and assisted him with the boat, lights and net to capture the loon chick, remove the hook, inspect the bird and release it, thereby saving it.
“I wanted you to be aware of the selfless dedication shown by Mike Meyer who has always been helpful and available to our lake district residents. This was another of his outstanding efforts to provide assistance to us. He continues to be an example of a staff member that is truly living the mission of the DNR.”
Tony added this note to me: “Mike came out on his own time. He had his family up for the Labor Day weekend, but he took time out to do this service for us.”           
I’ve reprinted Tony’s emails because the DNR often is a lightning rod for intense criticism (some of which is certainly deserved, but most not). However, the field staff rarely receive equally impassioned praise when they do great work. Mike Meyer’s research on Northwoods loons has been cutting edge nationally. A wildlife toxicologist and research scientist, Meyer has studied Wisconsin loons' exposure to mercury for 22 years.
In one mercury study he conducted on lakes in four northern Wisconsin counties – Vilas, Oneida, Forest and Iron – Meyer and his crew found that concentrations in the blood of Wisconsin loons declined between 1992 and 2000, but increased from 2002 to 2010. Meyer attributed the increase in mercury concentrations not to increased mercury deposition, but to a change in lake hydrology because of ongoing drought in northern Wisconsin. Low water levels increased the rate of methylation of mercury that had already been deposited.
Meyer’s future research I’m told will synthesize his and others' decades of work on a multitude of stressors that impact breeding loons in Wisconsin, including botulism, lead fishing tackle, climate change, mercury, and development on lakes. Fifty loon citizen scientists assist Meyer in his research by monitoring loon productivity on over 75 lakes in northern Wisconsin.
Numerous other loon research projects are ongoing in our area, but one in particular is visually fun to follow. Kevin Kenow, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), studies common loon migration by tracking the birds' movements with satellite telemetry. In the summers of 2010 and 2011, Kenow put transmitters on 31 adult loons in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This has allowed him to track their migration and primary wintering locations in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Atlantic off the Florida, Georgia and Carolina coasts. A few loons have even surprised everyone by wintering on reservoirs in Kentucky and Indiana. The movements of these loons can be tracked by logging on the USGS website at:
Kudos to these men and women who continue to deepen our understanding of the lives of loons and our impacts upon them.

            On 9/25, Dick Schroeder had an experience that just about everyone in our area hopes to have at least once in his life. He was driving down Cty. N near Crystal Lake at 2:30 p.m. when he slowed down for what at a distance he thought was a horse standing by the road. The horse, however, soon could be seen to have a large rack, and quickly transformed into a bull moose, which eventually crossed the road and walked into the woods after Dick and another car had stopped to observe it.
Jim and Sue Ferguson on Lake Tomahawk dropped me a note regarding the date of last visit to their feeders of several bird species:
 Baltimore oriole – Male: August 28, Female: September 11
 Ruby-throated hummingbird – Male: August 22, Female: September 12
             They also observed a noticeable reduction in numbers of almost all bird species over the summer:
             Jim and Sue also took out their pontoon tow weeks ago for a last look around the lake, mainly to count loons, but were very disappointed by the lack of loons – only six from Windy Point to the western edge of Tomahawk, a small number for Lake Tom. However, as they were returning along the north shore, they saw four red-necked grebes. And soon after turning back westward they came across about 13 more grebes. The grebes were very wary, but they were able to tell that there was a red-necked with the rest being either horned or eared by their size. 
            One last sighting of note, and an unhappy note at that: we still have a good population of mosquitoes hanging about as of 9/30. The little ravagers should be long gone by now, but while I bravely and naively said earlier in the summer that this was a normal hatch, they’ve really turned out to be pretty over-the-top. We’re rooting for some serious hard frosts to do them in.

Mushroom Mania
            Mary and I led a 3½ day hiking trip to the Bayfield area last week, and though being really rank amateurs at identifying mushrooms, we were able to ID 27 species with our group. We totally thumbed up Cora Mollen’s excellent book “Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods” with the help of our group members, nearly all of who fell in love with finding and then trying to identify the mushrooms. We’re well known for leading slow hikes, but this was probably the slowest group we’ve ever been associated with! They knew how to take their time, poke around, and marvel at all the little stuff that most of us pass right by in our haste to get somewhere. With me looking up for birds, and Mary looking down for mushrooms, we got nowhere fast, and we had a brilliant time doing it!
            Mary photographed most of the mushrooms as did Gayle Overholt from our group, and I’ve included several of the most interesting photos in this column. They include a large cluster of yellow-tipped coral which we found on the ground, brilliant red scarlet waxy caps that were scattered in numerous locations, and a patch of black trumpets which look like black vases with a wavy arched lip.
            We even got into finding slime molds, one of the most bizarre life-forms I’ve run across, but which have wonderful names like “chocolate tube slime,” “wolf’s milk slime,” and the one we found, “scramble egg slime.” These guys sort of ooze through their habitats, consuming bacteria and microscopic food particles as they go. Very weird, and very fun. Kind of makes you into a kid again.
            Oh, and we saw a fascinating lichen called lungwort, which looks like oak leaves on a tree, but grows on the bark without any stem. Apparently this is a favored food of moose, and was used at a monastery in Siberia as a replacement for hops in brewing beer, an unusual idea born I suspect of living at the furthest reaches of the Earth with a bunch of guys and nothing to do on a Saturday night.

Celestial Events
            I don’t know how it got to be October, but so it is, and if you look at dusk in the southwest, you should see Venus glowing brilliantly, as well as Saturn. Before dawn, look for Mars high in the east and Jupiter high in the south.
            New moon on 10/4. On 10/6, look after dusk for Saturn about 2° above the sliver of moon with Mercury and Venus nearby.
            On 10/8, the peak Draconid meteor show occurs before dawn. A rather modest event, rated at 10 meteors per hour on average, they might still be worth looking for if sleep is eluding you.

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.

NWA 9/20/13

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/20 – 10/3/2013

First Significant Migration of Broad-winged Hawks
If the autumn winds are right, Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth is THE site in the Midwest to observe migrating raptors that originate from far northern summer breeding areas and which winter as far south as South America. Why Duluth? Most raptors are reluctant to cross large bodies of water, so when they encounter the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior, the birds naturally veer southwest along the lakeshore. Funneled along the western tip of Lake Superior, they concentrate in sometimes extraordinary numbers on the bluffs overlooking East Duluth and can be easily seen from the overlook at Hawk Ridge.
The raptor count that took place on 9/11/13 at Hawk Ridge in Duluth totaled1838 raptors including 1,185 broad-wings, 41 kestrels, and 510 sharp-shins. The 9/12 count was even better with 7,228 broad-wings among the 7,833 total raptors! But while the 9/11 raptor count was a good number of birds, the bigger news was the 6892 migrating non-raptors that flew over the ridge, including among others 271 Canada geese, 79 common nighthawks, 1,349 blue jays, 1,496 cedar waxwings, 107 rose-breasted grosbeaks (a new state record count), 86 bobolinks, and 261 purple finches. Additionally, there were hundreds of Swainson’s thrushes heard moving overhead before dawn.
Between 8/15 and 9/7, an amazing season total of 79,825 non-raptors were counted, a much higher total than normal for this period. Most of that number was due to an incredible August flight of 42,916 common nighthawks, with 30,874 being seen just on August  21st alone (the second-highest state count ever). The second most common migrant has been cedar waxwings, with 25,383 counted so far, including over 6,000 waxwings seen on two days in a row, August 20 and 21. The counters also observed a single flock of 156 American white pelicans swirling in unison on September 3, and a single flock of 56 red-necked phalaropes landing on a completely calm Lake Superior on August 20.
Banding of raptors also takes place on Hawk Ridge, but August numbers were just average with just 85 birds banded. The September numbers have shown some improvement, but are still lower than average likely due to the weather: Duluth had many days of extremely hot weather, followed by cold, moist days with east winds which discouraged migration.
The North Shore of Lake Superior is one of the premier migratory routes for raptors and passerines in North America. Fall migration counts of raptors and passerines at Hawk Ridge and during a recent North Shore study are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands to millions. Reasons for this concentration of birds along the North Shore are many. As migrating birds fly south they seek out cover and food along their routes, neither of which Lake Superior provides.  If birds approach the Lake during daylight hours they change their course to follow the shoreline.  If birds that fly during the nighttime hours find themselves over the lake at dawn, they reorient to the nearest shoreline.  This movement coupled with the prominent ridgelines that parallel Lake Superior that act as funnels, cause a massive congregation of birds within the Lake Superior coastal region.
One particular variable has also stood out in importance: closeness to the shoreline itself.  Data collected at three perpendicular distances from shore has shown that migrating birds, especially nonraptors (mainly songbirds), are concentrating within 1 mile of the Lake Superior coastline.
Mid-to-late September is primetime for the largest hawk flights of the year. Watch the weather, and if a west or north wind is forecast with no rain, I recommend you get to Duluth’s Hawk Ridge as fast as you can – you might just catch one of the days when tens of thousands of raptors are flying over.

Upside-down Hummers
Diane Steele sent me this email along with two photos of a hummingbird hanging upside from her feeder: “This is the first time I've ever witnessed this hummingbird behavior. It must be a young one? It stayed upright at the feeder for a long time, and would go into its acrobatic upside-down routine whenever another hummer came around. Was it acting submissive? Wanting to be fed? The other hummers tended to buzz around it once or twice and then ignore it.”
Well, the explanation I’ve found doesn’t quite fit Diane’s scenario, but it does fit scenarios I’ve been told about by other folks. When hummingbirds sleep, or when temperatures drop to near freezing, they go into a hibernation-like state called torpor. Their metabolism slows to one-fifteenth of normal, their body temperature drops to nearly hypothermic, and their heart rate drops to about 50 beats per minute (down form an average 500 beats per minute). Their breathing also slows to the point that it looks like they have stopped breathing, all of which saves up to 60% of their available energy.
When hummingbirds are in the torpor state, they occasionally hang upside-down and may even appear to be dead. It then takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour for a hummer to fully recover from torpor, but once they are fully recovered from torpor, they immediately seek out food, eating 25% of their daily intake.
This explanation works fine for sleep and cold weather, but Diane’s observation indicates an active process of hanging upside down whenever another hummer approached. Any thoughts on this from readers out there?

On 9/9, Kathy and John Jolin in Minocqua observed an evening grosbeak at their feeder. Given that this date seems too early for any wintering movement of evening grosbeaks, I suspect they have a nesting pair somewhere in the area. We are at the southernmost edge of their breeding range, so they are quite uncommon here but not rare.
Linda Johnson sent me a photo of what she thought might be some sort of sphinx moth caterpillar, and noted, “There were 8-10 on the fireweed in our yard.” She was right – they appear to a hornworm/hawkmoth called the Galium sphinx (Hyles gallii).
Missy Drake on Round Lake sent me a photo of a couple of Jell-O-like blobs and asked, “Just wondering if you can identify this disgusting thing growing on our lake ladder. I'm so glad I never stepped on it!” Her blobs are bryozoa, each one an extremely odd, but fascinating colony of “moss-animals” in the animal phylum Ectoprocta, a group whose fossil record extends back to the Upper Cambrian, 500 million years ago.
            They are very strange looking things, resembling a stiff, clear-gray Jell-O that one could easily imagine as a giant brain. The gelatinous colony is 99 percent water, but firm and slimy to the touch. The surface appears divided into tiny rosettes, each with 12 to 18 “zooids.” Each microscopic zooid has whorls of delicate feeding tentacles that sway slowly in the water and capture food, feeding on small microorganisms, including diatoms and other unicellular algae. In turn, bryozoans are preyed on by grazing organisms such as fish, and are also subject to competition and overgrowth from sponges and algae.
            Massive colonies may exceed 2 feet in diameter, although typical sizes are 1 foot or less. The colonies form on submerged logs, twigs, even wooden docks. They’re harmless and usually indicate good water quality.

Celestial Events

            Summer officially ends on 9/22, the autumn equinox, as daylight and darkness achieve equal presence and the sun crosses the equator into the southern celestial hemisphere. The sun will rise nearly due east and set nearly due west, and then on 9/26, we’ll experience our first night longer than the day since March 16.

NWA 9/6/13

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/6 – 19, 2013 
Public Lands
            I recently led a hike on a state-owned property, and one of our many discussions concerned the amount of public land in Wisconsin – was it too much or too little? One of the participants noted that relative to our state neighbors to the east and west, we have the least public land. I looked it up, and she was right:
State                        Total acres            Public acres            % of total
Wisconsin             34,766,000            6,189,000            17.8%
Minnesota            50,954,000            11,975,000            23.5%
Michigan            36,357,000            10,231,000            28.1%
            Remarkably, New Jersey has a higher percentage of public lands – 18.3% - than Wisconsin. Who would have thought that?
As for Illinois, our favorite neighbor to the south, 4.1% of their land is in public ownership, a similar number to Indiana (4.5%) and Ohio (4.2%).
Leading the list by far with the highest percentages are the western states, which also have the highest percentages of non-arable lands.
            The numbers do little to resolve the value-laden question of whether we have too little or too much public land statewide or nationally; however, they lend some perspective from which to begin to judge.
            There is, of course, no “right” percentage. It’s helpful to consider that the amount of public land within each state came about through a unique combination of conserving highly desired areas, and conversely, through receiving lands that were tax-delinquent – lands that no one else wanted at the time.
            During European settlement of the Northwoods, the prevailing belief was the plow would follow the ax, a belief that was based more on boosterism than ecological understanding. In the early 1900s, land companies acquired cutover lands with hopes of selling them at a big profit to settlers. The Blue Grass Land Company of Minneapolis advertised land for a settlement near Eagle River describing the area as “suitable for all kinds of farming . . . the land is rich, clay-bottomed, making it the most productive hay land in America, just as good as those famed ‘blue grass’ lands of Kentucky.” The Blue Grass Land Company town, Farmington, eventually changed its name to St. Germain.
            The Wisconsin Central Railway had 1 million acres to sell, and distributed brochures such as “A Farm in Wisconsin Will Make Money for You from the Start: Crops Never Fail” accompanied by pictures of prosperous farms, since pictures don’t lie.
The University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture distributed 50,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled “A Handbook for the Homeseeker,” printed in English, German, and Norwegian, extolling the virtues of farming in northern Wisconsin. Since most immigrants couldn’t read English, the booklet was filled with pictures of prosperous farms and employed boosterism to entice farmers to the Northwoods: “After a most careful and thorough examination of the situation I am prepared to say without qualification that I believe no better place exists today for profitable sheep husbandry than northern Wisconsin. The reasons for this is the natural adaptation of the soil and climate, the free and bountiful growth of Kentucky blue grass, red and white clover, the easy culture of root crops; the ample growth of corn for forage purposes, and the fact that oats and peas flourish here remarkably. The climate is all that could be desired for sheep . . . With farms supplanting the forest, northern Wisconsin will not revert to a wilderness with the passing of the lumber industry, but will be occupied by a thrifty class of farmers whose well-directed, intelligent effort bring substantial, satisfactory returns from fields, flocks and herds.”
This boosterism finally lost its shine in the early 1920s, and land clearing in northern Wisconsin slowed to virtual halt. In 1921, one million acres in 17 northern counties were offered for sale as tax delinquent (out of a total of 11 million acres in these counties). By 1925, 2.25 million acres were offered for tax sale, and in 1927, 2.5 million acres. Four-fifths of these deeds went unsold. Nearly one-fourth of the Northwoods was tax delinquent land at this time, and only 18% had been purchased.
After 40 years of the State and Federal governments making every effort to create farms, only 6% of the total acreage of the Northwoods was in cultivated crops (only 1.4% in Vilas Co.).
Meanwhile, by 1925, only 1.5 million acres of saw timber were left in the 17 counties.
            At a 1929 hearing in Madison, a letter about an isolated farmer described the reality of getting crops to market in the Northwoods: “This man lived several miles from a highway. It had taken him two days to get his year’s crop – 30 bushels of potatoes – out to the highway and another half day to deliver it the rest of the way to a lumber camp where he received 35 cents a bushel [he made $10.50 for his entire crop]. The road from his farm to the highway was sometimes covered by as much as 4 feet of water making it impossible to get through. His children were often unable to get to school.”
These isolated farmers created an enormous tax burden on towns and counties because state laws required local governments to build roads and schools, and provide other community services, but the towns and counties were going bankrupt trying to do so.
T.W. Brazeau, representing Nekoosa Edwards Paper Company, said in 1929 there ought to be a “fine and imprisonment for anybody to go there and farm such land. A man ought not to be allowed to take his family in there and subject them to the starvation and deprivation some of them are doing, trying to make farms out of something that is not farming land . . . It is too bad there is not some kind of comprehensive and efficient scheme to take it (this land) out of private ownership and put it into state forests.”
The combination of tax delinquencies and the impossible requirement to provide community services forced the northern counties to request the once unimaginable authority to zone their lands, a remarkable reversal of the long established right of northern land owners to use their land as they desired.  The counties desperately needed to deter the ill-advised location of farms and to relocate poorly situated farms. They wanted to classify lands for recreation, agriculture, and forestry, and they wanted large-scale reforestation and the establishment of county forests. The legislature responded in 1929 by giving counties the right to zone for the regulation of agricultural lands, and to acquire lands by tax deeds and put them under the forest crop law.
Wisconsin’s Attorney General declared: “The county zoning statute is undoubtedly in the public welfare. The cutover areas of northern Wisconsin speak as eloquently against haphazard development as any city condition. The spotting of these lands with remote or abandoned farms, resulting in sparsely settled districts with insufficient population or value to support roads and schools, . . . the misdirected efforts to farm lands not well-suited to agriculture, with resulting personal grief and social loss; the far-reaching economic ill effects of stripping the state of timber, the fire hazard of the cutover lands, and the fire hazard of human habitation in their midst, all cry out for planning, for social direction, or individual effort.”
And then the coup-de-grass – the Depression struck and some northern towns reported tax delinquency at 70% of all their land, while many whole counties reported up to 50% of their land as tax delinquent.
Oneida County, the most virulent of counties originally opposed to forestry, ironically enacted the first state zoning laws in 1933, which were also the first of their kind to be enacted in the United States. As a “Special Circular, Making the Most of Oneida County Land” published in 1921 had noted, “The future of Oneida County depends on knowledge of essential facts governing past and present conditions and a determination to face these facts and to plan for the future.” And though there were still a few who said that zoning deprived settlers of their constitutional rights, economic failure at every turn exacted its final toll.
By the end of 1932, Oneida County owned over 200,000 acres of tax deed land. By 1935, 23 counties had adopted zoning ordinances. And by 1944, 2 million acres of county forests had been established.
            Meanwhile, the state established the Northern Highlands State Forest in 1925, and the American Legion State Forest in 1929.
The Federal Government followed suit and purchased 1.5 million acres during the 1930’s for the Nicolet and Chequamegon National Forests, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted millions of trees in the 1930’s to help make forest restoration possible.
The total story is far larger than I have space for, but all of this is to say that any discussion of public land ownership needs historical perspective. It wasn’t a bunch of tree huggers who coerced various government entities into the creation of public lands, but a fierce economic reality that allowed no other choices, and which gave us, very thankfully, the reforested lands we enjoy so much today.

On 8/26, Randy and Debbie Augustinak in Lac du Flambeau wrote: “Last evening, one of the warmest of the summer, we looked up from our wooded Lac du Flambeau yard to see what appeared to be a squadron of sleek and very nimble birds feasting on dragon flies just above the treetops. Trying to focus the binoculars on these darting birds was nearly impossible, but they clearly had forked tails and a distinct white bar on the underside of each wing . . .The accompanying photo confirms that the 2 dozen or so feathered fighter jets we'd been watching were in fact nighthawks, a first for us here.”
               On 8/20, Gary Bohlin wrote: “This evening on a Vilas County lake I saw an eagle swoop down for a fish, which it caught but was unable to fly away. It simply dropped itself in the water and wrestled with the large fish for a few moments, then began to butterfly stroke to shore, which was a good 150' away. What a sight to see those massive wings rowing to shore! The eagle headed for a partially submerged log on shore and had a 20-minute feast on a large mouth bass. As I was watching this whole ordeal with binoculars, it then leapt into the air and a second eagle came into my field of view and intercepted the first. There was mid-air contact, and they were only 20 to 30 feet above the water when the first eagle dropped what was left of the fish. At that point the second eagle plummeted to the water and simply plopped on the fish carcass. Then within a few seconds it spread its massive wings and elevated itself like a harrier jet. As the second eagle was gaining some momentum in swooped the first eagle and made in-flight contact. The thief eagle made a turn into the dense pine shoreline with the other eagle in tight pursuit. I instantly lost sight, but the snapping of branches and loud noises made me just put down the binoculars and smile thinking you sure can't buy a ticket to see that.”

Celestial Events
            On 9/8, look for Venus just north of the waxing crescent moon. On 9/9, look for Saturn about 2 degrees north of the moon. On 9/16, we are down to 12.5 hours of daylight, less than a week away from equinox.

Loon Study Addendum

            In my last column on a loon research project that took place on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, I noted that the failure of nearly two-thirds of the loon nests was “not cause for great concern given that loons are long-lived, often to 20 years or more, and thus don’t need high annual replacement rates.” This was the stated conclusion of the authors of the study. However, I failed to note that that an estimated 3000 loons died from botulism in Lake Michigan in 2012. This could have a significant effect on loon populations if it occurs annually, given that there are only an estimated 20,000 adult loons in the Great Lake states. Many thanks to Helen Williams on Crab Lake for reminding me of this.