Tuesday, February 19, 2013

NWA 2/22/13

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/22 – 3/ 7/2013

Spring in the Air?
            Though at the moment February continues to offer its normal menu of snow and cold, there are definite signs that spring is coming. Black-capped chickadees are singing their “Hey, sweetie” song more frequently and robustly, ravens are engaging in courtship flights (rolling and tumbling), bald eagles are coming and going from their nests, and if you have cardinals around as Don and Greta Janssen do in Woodruff, the males have begun to more ardently express their desires in song. Even the male pileated woodpecker that uses a dead black ash right next to our house as his favorite drumming tree is now hammering away with a greater frequency and duration, The competition for territories and mates is in its earliest phases, but birds everywhere are heeding the change in daylight, as are our early flowering trees and shrubs. We’ve still got to be patient until May for spring to arrive in full dress, but its first faint expressions are in the air now.

Common Redpolls
Common redpolls have earned their first name this winter – they have indeed been common, a phenomenon that typically occurs in alternating years. I’m always impressed by these diminutive birds, because they are true cold weather birds. They breed circumboreally, meaning they’re found in boreal regions of the Arctic from northern Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia, to Greenland, Iceland, and the British Isles.
Their alternating irruption cycle is mostly driven by widespread failure in seed-crop production among spruce and birch trees, which forces them to winter farther south. But they don’t just wander straight south from their breeding grounds – some seem to go on long adventures. One redpoll banded in Michigan was subsequently recovered in eastern Siberia, while another redpoll banded in winter in Belgium was recovered two winters later some 5,000 miles east (89°) in Heilongjiang Province, China. The “why” behind such extraordinary migrations is hard to fathom.
Redpolls are highly acrobatic, feeding in trees on the outermost branches, and often hanging upside down while extracting seeds. They eat a lot – from 31–42% of their body mass each day, though given that they weigh less than a half-ounce, that’s not necessarily a lot of seeds.
As they eat, they store seeds in their diverticula – an expandable area of their esophagus – for later regurgitation, husking, and swallowing. Their diverticula can hold up to two grams of seeds, or about 15% of the bird’s body mass. This adaptation enables them to shelter in dense conifer cover while eating, a savings of significant energy at times of intense cold. This mass of stored seeds when digested provides over 25% of their daily calorie requirements in winter and can get them through a long Arctic night.
And those nights can be extremely cold – common redpolls in Alaska are able to survive at temperatures of -65°F, a figure topped by hoary redpolls, which can withstand -88°F.  To survive these temperatures, redpolls employ a number of other strategies besides storing seeds in their diverticula.  They retain heat by fluffing their feathers, an effective tool given that wild Alaskan redpolls have 31% heavier plumage in November than in July. Their plumage structure is also better for insulation than many other species.
They also know to remain inactive whenever possible to retain energy, and to seek shelter. In fact, they have been observed making roosting chambers in snow! They drop from a tree into the snow, and dig out a tunnel 10 to 15 inches long down to a chamber 2 to 4 inches below the snow surface. Then before dawn, they break the roof to depart, leave the roost, and start foraging, being active considerably earlier than other birds. They are even reported to be sunbathing at times, though I’m not sure how this is determined. (Do they sit in lounge chairs? Perhaps put on sunscreen?) I don’t know, but what I do know is that redpolls are remarkably adaptive, and we’re truly fortunate to have them at our feeders.

Red Crossbills
            A number of people have emailed to say they have red crossbills now coming to their feeders, a species that Mary and I have never seen at our feeders in Manitowish (we’re jealous!). Their highly distinctive mandibles are curved and crossed at the tip, an unmistakable feature shared only with white-winged crossbills. The adult male is a deep brick red to reddish yellow (some even greenish) with uniformly dark blackish brown flight feathers, and a short, deeply notched blackish brown tail. The female, on the other hand, is uniformly olive to grayish, with a greenish-yellow breast and rump and a white throat.
            Keep an eye out for these highly uncommon birds!

Cold Data
            I often hear this response to what seems like relatively small increases in overall annual temperatures: “Why would 2 or 3 degrees warmer matter to anything? So what?”
Well, here’s a great example of “so what” – the mountain pine beetle, a native species that has never before been much of a problem. In the last decade, however, an exponential increase in the beetle population has occurred from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico to the Yukon Territory near Alaska, the result of which has been that the number of forest acres killed by these beetles is 10 times that of any previous epidemic recorded.
Long thought to produce only one generation of tree-killing offspring annually, some populations of these native mountain pine beetles now produce two generations per year, dramatically increasing the potential for the bugs to kill lodgepole and ponderosa pine trees. Because of the extra annual generation of beetles, there can be up to 60 times as many beetles attacking trees in any given year, an exponential increase. Each beetle lays 60 eggs and, since nearly all survive, each of those beetles goes on to lay 60 more eggs in the same summer, which means 3,600 more beetles.
Why has this happened? In the last two decades at the Mountain Research Station in Colorado, mean annual temperatures were 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in the previous two decades. The number of spring days above freezing temperatures increased by 15.1 in the last two decades. Also, the number of days that were warm enough for the beetles to grow increased by 44 percent since 1970. It should also be noted that a serious prolonged drought has increased the forests’ susceptibility to the beetles.
The bottom line – warmer temperatures have given the beetle larvae more spring days to grow to adulthood.
Not only are the beetles expanding in all directions, they are expanding upward. In the last 25 years, the beetles have expanded their range 2,000 feet higher in elevation and 240 miles north in latitude in Canada.
So, what does a western beetle have to do with us? The Great Plains have long been considered an insurmountable barrier to the mountain pine beetle, but now some fear that the beetles could reach the Great Lakes region. The beetles are now between 60 and 120 miles from the nearest stand of jack pine, a species not previously acquainted with mountain pine beetles and which experimental evidence suggests that the beetles will thrive in. If the beetle hits the jack pines, nothing would stop it from plowing eastward into stands of eastern white pine and cruising south all the way to the loblolly pine forests of the Southeastern United States.
So, does a two or three degree average increase really matter?

Celestial Events
            The full moon, called by some tribes the “Snow” or “Hunger” moon, occurs on 2/25.
For planet-watching in March, after dusk look for Jupiter bright in the west, while Saturn rises in the east after 9 p.m. Before dawn, there’s not much to see until Mercury reappears low in the southeast around mid-month.
On 3/2, look later in the evening for Saturn about 3 degrees north of the moon.
March 6th marks the first day that our average high temperature again reaches 32 degrees, a figure we haven’t seen since November 30th. For those of you who think it’s always cold in the Northwoods, Minocqua averages 269 days with high temperatures above freezing every year.

NWA 2/8/13

A Northwoods Almanac for Feb. 8 – 21, 2013 by John Bates

A male cougar was treed by hounds near the Chippewa Flowage in Sawyer County on Jan. 19. The cougar was in some large dead white pines, but sat only about 15-20 feet up. Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist with the WDNR, later followed the tracks after the cougar left the tree and noted that its running strides averaged 134” (range 122-147”) and its walking stride was 42” in dense cover and 62” in more open cover. Russ Smith, an area resident who spotted the cougar, took a number of photos and kindly consented to my use of one of them. The cougar was estimated to weigh 160 pounds.
             Another cougar was also apparently treed in eastern Price County on 12/28/12, 49 miles to the east, but there is no way of knowing if this was the same cat.

Gail Rae Van Sluys wrote to me on 1/20 with the following:
“The temperature warmed from a frigid -11 to -4 as the sun streamed through the wide window, announcing a spectacular Sunday morning in January . . . We climbed a gentle ridgeline, each footfall breaking the stillness of the trail with snapping twigs and squeaking snow. Braced against a bone-chilling breeze, we ascended a point overlooking the immense frozen lake and scanned the shoreline for activity. Beneath the next point, less than a quarter mile ahead, a dazzling deep blue flowage lapped at an edge of ice.
“We focused our binoculars on the narrow passage of water, trying to capture the rapture of otters fishing and frolicking. Instead, we saw the bushy tail of a fox – but the colors were a mottled gray and brown. Now the body resembled a coyote, trotting beneath the point jutting out from the opposite shore. Seconds later, a tawny spindly-legged doe spilled out of the woods onto the ice. On the far side of the deer, a second canid leapt from the forest.
“Startled, the doe dashed for the open water and slipped on the icy edge. The wolves converged on the helpless creature, lunging and snapping at flailing limbs. Working together, one wolf found purchase on a hind leg while the other was a flash of fur, helping its pack-mate drag the hapless creature toward the opposite shore.
“Wild predator and prey engaged in a brutal struggle for survival. I cringed with the terror of the ambushed deer surrounded by gnashing teeth and blood-spattered snow in its last minutes of life. Realizing its fate, I begged the wolves to take the deer down quickly and end its misery. Evisceration was aggressive and swift. Nature’s lesson was fierce and necessary – the wolves had to eat and the deer was fair game.
“Several hikers backed away to face another direction. After five minutes, the deer was motionless as the wolves feasted. We trudged on toward the next point above the carnage.
“Within ten minutes we were directly across from the carcass. One wolf remained . . . The lens of my binoculars steadied on the wolf’s sturdy frame as I studied the unmarred markings of its finely patterned fur. The head swiveled, and for two long seconds, two dark piercing eyes fixed steadily on my own.
“A moment later the wolf turned to survey its surroundings . . . [and then he] launched away in a long lope along the opposite shoreline. The confident beautiful creature receded in the distance, leaving us stunned by death shamelessly splayed atop pink and red-stained snow.
“In our determination to find otters, we tramped on past the flowage and around the bend. Slides and tracks paralleled the trail, but no one appeared. Too cold to wait for activity, we backtracked past the kill site. The wolf had returned, but immediately detected our presence and again loped away.
“Timing is all. We never saw owls or otters. ”
             Gail’s story illustrates well how often our minds and hearts conflict over the issue of predation. We’ve all seen copious data, scientific articles, and ecological research on predator-prey relationships, all of which inevitably lead one to support sustaining healthy populations of predators. But to witness the predation of a large mammal by another mammal often places the heart deeply at odds with what had previously been a comfortable intellectual understanding.
I, too, am frequently conflicted in this way - for example, in exactly what Gail’s story is about. I thoroughly believe in the need for reducing the deer population and the value, and right, of predators in doing so. But watching an animal get torn apart by another just plain hurts my heart despite what my mind says. I also hurt when I see a deer dead beside the road, or see deer roped down on the roofs of cars during hunting season, even though I’m simultaneously rooting hard for hunters to maximize their kill.
Most of us have a hierarchy of acceptable “hurt” when it comes to predation. Watching a dragonfly capture a mosquito is cause for pleasure. Watching a songbird then eat that dragonfly also elicits enjoyment (and no emotion for the dragonfly). Watching an eagle or otter or walleye catch a fish is cause for greater excitement yet, with rarely an emotional twinge for the fish. But as we move up the continuum of “higher” animals, the heart starts responding. The fox pouncing on a mouse, the sharp-shinned hawk grabbing a goldfinch, the great horned owl grabbing a rabbit, the mink capturing a muskrat, the eagle taking a loon, the bear taking a fawn, the wolf taking a doe – for many, a process that had been a great moment to recount to others, now becomes painful to watch, even a moment to become angry about, perhaps even a moment to wish the predator dead instead of the prey.
All this, of course, is elicited even while we live the irony of eating venison that night for dinner, or perhaps a steak from a cow, a fish fry from some perch, an elk we shot out West, a turtle we trapped, a rabbit or grouse we shot.
All species live at the expense of other species. That’s an intellectual given. But to see it in reality, to hear a rabbit scream, or witness the terror of another animal in a fight or flight for its life, well, that’s hard to reconcile.
I debated whether to publish Gail’s story – I was concerned it would only give the wolf haters more fodder, and perhaps even those who irrationally fear wolves more reason to be fearful. But that’s the best reason for printing her story. Our heartfelt hates and fears are mostly irrational – they don’t line up with what our minds understand, or at least should understand. The very difficult trick, and one I’m unlikely to ever master, is to have the intellect and heart align, each listening to the other, and then seeing the natural world for what it is. And what is it? It’s a place we like to simplify as full of winners and losers, but it’s really one which is more amazingly dynamic and complex than our hearts and minds can fully fathom. And while our emotions may cloud our deeper wisdom at times, I’m glad that our hearts hurt when another species dies. Without compassion, without empathy, what would we be?
Which brings us back to the wolves. The campaign by some against predators has been long standing. But so has our ecological understanding that prey need predators. Aldo Leopold wrote 70 years ago, “Predators originally performed for deer and elk the function of dispersal which most other species perform for themselves. When we elect to remove deer and elk predators, we automatically assume responsibility for performing their job. We have failed to do this because we failed to realize that they had a job.”
 Four years later, he added: “It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for the deer hunter to maintain his sport by deer browsing out the forest, or for the bird-hunter to maintain his by decimating the hawks and owls, or for the fisherman to maintain his by decimating the herons, kingfishers, tern, and otters. Such tactics seek to achieve one kind of conservation by destroying another, and thus they subvert the integrity and stability of the community.”
Gail’s finely written piece explores this wild natural community where we have all chosen to live, and describes well the difficulty we have in reconciling the role of large predators in it. I suspect most of us will always have a strong visceral reaction to witnessing such events. How we respond over time speaks to our sense of the preciousness of life, and our ability to bring our heart and mind together in a deeper ecological understanding.

Other Sightings – Cardinals, Muskrats, and an Albino Gray Squirrel
Cardinals: Bill and Cheryl Crawford in Harshaw had the pleasure of being visited by a female cardinal last week. “She's very shy,” wrote Bill, “and obviously not familiar with bird feeders. The chickadees and the mob of finches and redpolls scare her away. So, we've been throwing black sunflower seeds on the ground for her. Unfortunately, the neighborhood herd of turkeys makes pretty short work of the seeds, too.
“We had a male cardinal earlier in the winter but he only stuck around a few short days. In the seven years we've lived here, those are the only two we've seen. And until you see a female, painted in some of Mother Nature's most subtle colors, you forget how exquisite birds' colors can be.”
Muskrats: Dean Acheson was returning home a few weeks ago from doing a photo shoot at the International Paralympic Committee's Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, when he came across a dark, furry animal in the road. He noted, “Turning around, I stopped just as it was finishing crossing the road. It immediately ran under the car and it took some banging on the car's lower body work to ‘encourage’ it to vacate its newly found shelter.
“The muskrat hightailed it into the ditch where it pretended to hide in some short pines. I got off a series of photos . . . I returned to the car to get the flash to open up the shadows, and by then the muskrat had scampered 50 yards into the woods, apparently headed to a swamp.
“While it was annoyed by my presence, it sure beat being watched by a coyote or an owl. I recall getting as close as 50 yards from a coyote in the Presque Isle area many years ago as it prowled the road, gulping down young muskrats it came across in the ditch. This was in the spring time.”
Albino Squirrel: Ferdy Goode in Woodruff sent a picture of an albino gray squirrel that shows up occasionally in his back yard.

Celestial Events
            As of 2/7, we’re now receiving over 10 hours of sunlight a day, and we’ll hit 11 hours by 2/26 – it sure feels good to have the light returning.