Sunday, March 24, 2013

NWA 3/22/13

A Northwoods Almanac for March 22 – April 4, 2013 by John Bates

How to Survive Falling Though the Ice
As March winds down, the danger of falling through thinning ice heightens. Many creeks are wide open, rivers will soon be opening, springs have created open water holes in marshes, and small lakes are showing signs of rotting ice.
So, what should you do if you fall through the ice? Mary and I took a wilderness first aid course last spring and were shown an exceptional video ( on exactly what happens to one’s body and mind when in icy water, as well as how to survive the experience. The narrator, Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a thermophysiologist at the University of Manitoba, actually does controlled demonstrations of himself as a skier and and as a snowmobiler going through the ice, and records what happens the longer he is in the water.
Here are a few notes on what he says: “First, be aware that as soon as your body hits icy cold water, it will experience something called cold shock phenomenon. This phase lasts between one to three minutes, and is characterized by an instinctive gasping response, which can lead to hyperventilation and a huge waste of energy. Try to slow your breathing down and know that you have more time than you think to survive.
“Once you are relatively calm, try to swim to the point at which you fell into the water and use your arms to grab hold of a solid edge of ice.
“For most of us, the natural instinct is to pull ourselves straight out, as we would do in hoisting ourselves out of a swimming pool. This is next to impossible. The most efficient way to get yourself out of the water is to keep your legs as horizontal as possible and kick like you're swimming, and try to get into a rhythm of kicking your legs and pulling your body forward onto the ice with your arms. Kick, pull, kick, pull, etc.”
These short videos show exactly what happens when you go through the ice, what to do to get out, and then what to do to survive hypothermia. They are the best videos by far that we’ve ever seen on this. Please watch them.

Salmonella at Bird Feeders
Reports are coming in of salmonella occurring at bird feeders, not an unusual phenomenon in early spring. A bird infected by salmonella typically becomes very lethargic and puffs its feathers up like it’s very cold, eventually dying in a few days.                        Salmonella bacteria live in the intestines of birds and are shed in the feces of infected birds. Birds contract salmonella through direct contact with infected birds or by consuming food or water contaminated by the feces.
Redpolls, goldfinch, and pine siskins are among the most susceptible species at Northwoods feeders, and since we currently have large concentrations of redpolls in our area, all of us need to clean up the seed hulls under our feeders, change the water in our birdbaths frequently, and clean our bird feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution.
If you observe dead or sick birds at your feeders, take the feeders down, clean them, and then wait a week before starting to feed again.
If you see dead or sick redpolls, keep your cats and dogs indoors, since with certain strains of salmonella the animals could become infected through eating the affected birds.
Dead birds should be removed from feeder areas. You can pick the birds up by using a plastic bag to avoid direct contact with the bird; it's important to wash carefully after handling potentially diseased birds.

The Ides of March
The Ides of March corresponds to March 15 on the Roman calendar and became notorious as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Caesar was stabbed to death at a meeting of the Roman Senate by some 60 conspirators. According to Plutarch, a seer had warned that harm would come to Caesar no later than the Ides of March. On his way to the Theatre of Pompey where he would be assassinated, Caesar passed the seer and joked, "The ides of March have come," meaning to say that the prophecy had not been fulfilled, to which the seer replied "Aye, Caesar; but not gone." This meeting is further dramatized in William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, when Caesar is warned by the soothsayer to "beware the Ides of March."
Because of the soothsayer's exchange with Caesar, the Ides of March now signifies at the very least a fateful day. But more than that, it intimates a sense of foreboding that an unpredictable danger is in the air; that anything might happen.
            And that pretty well summarizes normal March weather in the Northwoods. More importantly, it also reflects the reality of how hard life has become for most wildlife species. March is usually the month of greatest hunger for wildlife – the culmination of winter – and thus the month where death finally overtakes those individuals weakened by constant cold and want since November. That Spring Equinox occurred a few days ago is little more than an abstraction if the deep snow remains and the jet stream continues to draw down frigid Canadian temperatures.
            Thus, March is the month that for some will bring to light the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” for it’s now that individuals may die with the warmth of spring in sight just a few counties south and only a few weeks away.

Bird Song Again! Robins Returning
However, March is also a month of great vigor, where mating is taking place for many mammals, and even birthing for a few of the hardiest, and birds are winging north to proclaim ownership of territories and their simultaneous desires for a mate (or mates). It is a period of rekindled exuberance, and one of the first to try and sing spring into being is the American robin, that most common bird which most of us exult in for a few weeks and then summarily disdain and ignore the rest of the year.
I’ve been rereading The Singing Life of Birds, a book by Donald Kroodsma, a world-renowned birdsong expert, who has an entire chapter on the songs of the robin. He recorded and analyzed the familiar “cheerily cheer-up cheerio” carol of various robins and found it far more complex than most of us would ever realize. He discovered that every individual bird has its own unique repertoire of phrasing, its own tempo of delivery, and its own repetitive patterns that make it possible to identify individual robins solely by their song.
Robins, like most songbirds, also sing with a far greater intensity at dawn than they do the rest of the day. As Kroodsma writes, “Listening to how birds sing at dawn is key to understanding them . . . Hear any singing bird at dawn, and you’ll likely hear something special, perhaps even undescribed in all of the written literature about that species.”
So, as the robins return, and dawn is still at a reasonable hour, try to get out and hear the difference between their dawn song, and their songs later in the day.

Saw-whet Owls
            Speaking of songs, the male northern saw-whet owl begins his serenading of females usually in late March, though its serenade has not one whit of musical quality to it. Listen in the evening for the monotonous, single tone of the saw-whet, a sound likened to the beeping of a truck when it’s backing-up.

Migration is Starting
            Birdwatchers in southern Wisconsin are reporting a host of birds that have migrated back including waterfowl like tundra swans, goldeneyes, all three species of mergansers, wood ducks, scaup, pied-billed grebes, and ring-necked ducks. Add in great blue herons, sandhill cranes, and tundra swans, as well as songbirds like red-winged blackbirds, robins, and song sparrows, and despite our snow, the birds are telling us that spring is near.

Celestial Events
            On 3/26, we reach 12.5 hours of daylight. The full moon occurs on 3/27. Known to various tribes as the “Sap” moon, the “Crust on Snow” moon, and the “Death” moon, this may be the last full moon of this winter that will reflect off snow.
            On 3/29, look for Saturn three degrees north of the waning moon.
            In April, look for Jupiter in the west at twilight, and Saturn rising in the east.           

March Thought
“The seed catalogues are arriving again, and as I take them from their brown envelopes and study them at the kitchen table, I muse again on the dogmatic assertion which I often make that the countryman’s relation to Nature must never by anything else but an alliance. Alas, I know well enough that Nature has her hostile moods, and I am equally aware that we must often face and fight as we can her waywardness, her divine profusion, and her divine irrationality. Even then, I will have it, the alliance holds. When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves in thought outside of Nature of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone or our humanity.” – from Henry Beston, Northern Farm

NWA 3/8/13

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

Sightings – Carolina wren, Townsend’s solitaire, red crossbills, barred owl, ermine
Two rare bird sightings of southern species stand out over the last month. First, Dan and Donna Krejci in Rhinelander had a Carolina wren visiting their feeders since December, though they haven’t seen it for 3 weeks now. Carolina wrens typically winter only as far north as Illinois.
Second, Bob Orgeman in Rhinelander sent me photos on 2/18 of a Townsend’s solitaire perched on a tree overhanging the Wisconsin River. Townsend’s solitaires belong out west where they are closely associated with high mountain conifers, even nesting occasionally above tree line.
Red crossbills continue to show up at people’s feeders. Uwe Wiechering on Sparkling Lake sent me photos of red crossbills at his feeders, as did Cindy Olsofka in Harshaw, while Gordy Seifert  reported seeing them at his feeders in Springstead. Red Crossbills inhabit boreal forests from Alaska to Newfoundland, and mountainous conifer forests south to the Appalachians, Arizona, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and the Sierra Nevada of California. These birds are true wanderers, and may breed wherever they find a prolific source of conifer cones. Hopefully a few of those spending the winter around here will stay and breed!
Uwe Wiechering also sent me a photo of a barred owl perched near his bird feeders, very likely eating the mice under the feeders.
            David Schmoller in Minocqua sent me a photo of a red-bellied woodpecker searching for insects on a dying pine. Dan Carney in Hazelhurst also has a red-bellied woodpecker at his feeders, as well as a red-headed woodpecker and a hoary redpoll.
Finally, Judith Bloom sent me some wonderful photos of an ermine eating from their suet feeder, likely to the chagrin of the local woodpeckers.

Spring is Coming – Believe It!
Sandhill cranes, robins, red-winged blackbirds, and an array of waterfowl are being reported in southern Wisconsin. They’re all poised to come further north when our weather moderates a bit. We usually see our first robins and red-winged blackbirds right around spring equinox on March 21, so keep your eyes skyward.
Great horned owls are also now on their nests incubating eggs, and eagles are busy doing housework around their nests in preparation for laying their eggs, an event usually occurring near the end of March.

Celestial Events
Today, March 8, we receive 11 hours and 32 minutes of daylight, riding the wave toward March 17 when we hit 12 hours and 1 minute of daylight, the first time our day is longer than our night since September 24. The actual vernal equinox occurs on 3/20 when the sun crosses the equator into the northern hemisphere.
The comet PANSTARRS loops around the sun from 3/10 to /15, and should be visible low in the northwest after sunset. Look for the comet in the vicinity of the waxing crescent moon.
On 3/17, look for Jupiter 1.5° north of the waxing crescent moon.

More Cold Data
This morning (3/3), we hit -17°F, a reading which isn’t particularly welcome in March! However, the sun was shining, and by 10 a.m., the temperature had climbed 35 degrees on its way to a high of 30°. Indeed, the rest of the week is forecast to be in the 30s, leading to what will likely be region-wide cheering.
This time of year nearly everyone in the Northwoods suffers from cabin fever and spends inordinate amounts of time dreaming of spring, so writing now about the positive values of extreme cold is the height of foolishness. But apparently I can’t help myself, and it’s all David Schmoller’s fault. 
David lives in Minocqua and recently sent me the entire weather record kept at the Minocqua Dam from 1903 to 2011. He then summarized the coldest temperature data by decade, and noted: “What is happening is this: the past couple decades have seen a drop-off in low-end temperatures, particularly the -30°F and below. They were fairly evenly spread up until the 1990’s. The deepest bottom dropped off in the 1950’s, which is when a lot of data sets start showing signs of warming.” Here’s the chart he sent me:

Days at/or below

Several things pop out. First and foremost, from 2000 to 2011, the temperatures in Minocqua never hit -30°F or below.
Second, since 1940 we’ve only hit -40° in two of the last six decades. And in the 1990s, that only occurred in an anomalous three-day span in 1996.
Third, the total number of days at or below -25° is at its lowest, by far, in the last two decades.
Most folks greet this sort of data with a delighted “Thank God,” or “That’s great!” because those extreme cold temperatures make life really hard. Cars don’t start, heating bills go through the roof, things start to break, and we immediately freeze just stepping outside to go to work.
I totally get it, and I don’t enjoy it either! But it’s extreme cold, above and beyond all other things, that makes the North the North.
When I say “the North,” I’m thinking about the plants and animals that have adapted to this cold regimen over the last 10,000 years. Back in the 1940s and 50s, UW botanist John Curtis and his students fanned out across the state surveying over 1,000 plant community sites, culminating in his landmark book, The Vegetation of Wisconsin. The book described a “tension zone” in Wisconsin that marked a crossover between the Northern Mixed Forest—closely related to the forests of northeastern Minnesota, northern Michigan, southern Ontario, and New England—and the Southern Broadleaf Forest, which is more like forests you’d see in Ohio and Indiana. The zone stretches across the state in a loose S-shape from Burnett County in the north to Racine County in the south, with species from both floristic provinces intermingling in this narrow zone. 
David Mladenoff, a professor in conservation in the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology at the UW (and a Hurley native), writes: “The tension zone is marked by a climatic gradient, with cooler, moister conditions to the north and relatively warmer, drier conditions to the south . . . You’ll know you’re in the tension zone when you’re heading north and oaks that are dominant in southern Wisconsin, such as bur, black and white, meet up abruptly with red and white pine as well as paper birch and tamarack swamps that are more characteristic of the north . . . You’ll start seeing some birds that are absent or relatively uncommon in the south: common loon, ruffed grouse, osprey, common raven, white-throated sparrow and purple finch. You’ll also encounter northern mammals: snowshoe hare, porcupine, red squirrel, black bear and timber wolf.”
The vegetative differences between the Northwoods and southern Wisconsin are enormous. Curtis’ book includes a map of the number of species reaching their range limits in each county, and you’ll note that 50 plant species reach their range limits in Marathon County, while only one species reaches its range limit in either Iron or Vilas counties.
I bring this up because as our temperatures have continued to annually warm, the tension zone has been moving north. David Schmoller’s data is simple, straightforward, and undeniable – we’ve lost our extremes in cold winter temperatures. Every plant and animal species has a range of temperature tolerance, and when northern temperatures stop falling to those extreme lows, temperature barriers no longer apply, and southern species can live further north.
It’s already happening. Numerous species historically restricted to southern and central Wisconsin have already moved north or are now proliferating where they were once uncommon – cardinals, wild turkeys, and cottontail rabbits come to mind. Less clear is whether our normal northern Wisconsin species are moving further north, but they will. For long-lived species like trees, the movement will be hard to notice, but it will be inevitable.
In March, it’s hard to imagine that too much warmth could be “bad” for anything, much less for plants and for animals. But indeed it is, and at stake is what we now define geographically as our home – the Northwoods. Hard as it may be to accept, and worse, to desire, we need extreme cold.