Monday, June 3, 2013

NWA 5/31/13

A Northwoods Almanac for May 31 – June 13, 2013 

Mid-May offers perhaps the most stunning array of birds coming to backyard feeders. The color palette includes the deep blue of indigo buntings, the orange and black of Baltimore orioles, the varied reds of purple finches and scarlet tanagers, the yellow of goldfinch, and the red and black of rose-breasted grosbeaks. It’s a feast for the eyes, and as the birds settle in and begin nesting, it becomes even more a feast for the ears.
Lots of sightings to report. Dan Carney retired a few years back, and now has the time to be the passionate birder he always wanted to be. He lives in Hazelhurst and walks the Bearskin Trail just about every day looking for birds. A quick rundown of some of his sightings includes:
5/14: FOY (first-of-year) northern parula warbler, black-and-white warbler, magnolia warbler, Cape May warbler, and the first hatch of Canada goose goslings.
5/16: FOY northern waterthrush, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated green warbler, blackburnian warbler.
5/17: FOY yellow warbler and common yellowthroat.
5/19: FOY spotted sandpiper, Canada warbler, mourning warbler, red-eyed vireo, and a day-old fawn.
5/21: FOY Tennessee warbler and catbird on the Bearskin Trail.
Sightings for the rest of us:
5/16: Joanne Dugenske spotted blackburnian warblers at her home in Springstead.
5/17: Don and Greta Janssen reported their FOY male indigo bunting at their feeders in Woodruff, and noted: “It is quite a sight to see it with the male cardinal at the same time.”
5/17: A Harris sparrow visited our feeders in Manitowish.
5/20: Zach Wilson observed a red-headed woodpecker in the Manitowish area.
5/20: Debbie and Randy Augustinak in Lac du Flambeau sent me a photo of a red-headed woodpecker and wrote the following: “We have had the distinct pleasure sharing our property with the stunningly beautiful red headed woodpecker. It is the first time in our six years here in Lac du Flambeau that we have laid eyes on this magnificent bird. We are not certain, but think there may be a connection between the arrival of the bird and the logging, which has recently commenced on about 80 acres of nearby tribal property. Our property contains a nice mix of oaks, birch, red and white pines, and aspen. The woodpecker has not been able to relax much, as it seems that our local red-bellied woodpeckers enjoy harassing it, chasing it from tree to tree.”
5/23: A few days later, Deb and Jim wrote: “We just had a scarlet tanager come into the newly placed feeder (FOY), scattering a half dozen male rose-breasted grosbeaks and two indigo buntings (male and female) in the process. Just before lunch, we looked up to see four mature eagles soaring in the breeze, silhouetted against the bright blue Northwoods sky. It's truly been a day to remember!”

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
            A most amazing sparrow appeared under our feeders on 5/21, one which Mary and I had had never seen. While some sparrows are difficult to tell apart, this one had markings that were clear, distinct, and belonged to no Northwoods sparrow.
            So we went to our Sibley bird guide and leafed through until we came to a drawing that exactly matched the bird. It was a Eurasian tree sparrow, a bird we didn’t even know existed until that moment!
There is a reason we never had seen one. The range of the Eurasian tree sparrow is localized to extreme eastern Missouri, west-central Illinois, and southeastern Iowa. So what this one was doing in Manitowish is anyone’s guess. Wisconsin rare bird records indicate the species has only been seen seven times in the state, and nearly all in southern counties.
Here’s the thumbnail story of the Eurasian tree sparrow. A few Eurasian tree sparrows were brought to St. Louis, Missouri, in the nineteenth century as part of a shipment of European songbirds imported from Germany. The birds were destined for release as part of a project to enhance the native North American avifauna. Set free in late April 1870, they bred successfully and gradually established a permanent presence in that area. But although the Eurasian Tree Sparrow is widely distributed throughout much of Europe and Asia, it had only modest success in colonizing its new homeland, and remains localized near St. Louis. It has, in part, been displaced from urban centers by another introduced species, the larger, more pugnacious house sparrow. Today, its preferred habitat includes wooded urban parkland, farms, and rural wood lots.
Eurasian tree sparrows are widespread across Eurasia from the British Isles to Scandanavia and across northern Siberia, as well as south to the Mediterranean Sea into Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and on to Japan.
This is a non-indigenous species with a restricted range – it’s not proven to be invasive whatsoever. So, the Eurasian tree sparrow is an attraction to birders in the greater St. Louis area and adjacent parts of Illinois and to the north in southeastern Iowa. It left our feeders on 5/24, and hopefully has figured out a way back to Missouri.

Hatching Turtles in May?
On 5/21, Kathy Odau and Andrea Lorenz in Manitowish Waters found a baby snapping turtle wandering about in their yard in Manitowish Waters. Given that snapping turtles usually don’t lay their eggs until mid-June, and they don’t typically hatch until late August/early September, this was a head scratcher for them.
The explanation is that in some years, the later-hatching clutches don’t emerge from their nests in the fall. Instead, they overwinter in the nests and emerge in the spring.            
This strategy exposes the turtles to temperatures that often drop to 18 degrees Fahrenheit in their three-inch-deep nest cavity. Come April/May, they nevertheless emerge. The hatchlings survive the sub-freezing temperatures despite the fact their body fluids freeze at 26.5 degrees. Researchers have found they can survive in this frozen state for up to 11 days even though they experience no muscle movement, no breathing, no heartbeat, no blood flow, and virtually no brain activity. Yet when thawed, they rapidly return to normal activity.
            They accomplish this because the fluids that freeze are extracellular, meaning that they are located between the body cells. If fluids within the cells froze, the ice crystals would damage the cells beyond repair, killing the turtle.
            Only 53 percent of the hatchlings’ total body water actually freezes. Some water remains within the cells, and this remains liquid. A special protein is produced to stimulate the formation of tiny ice crystals within the cells, but the protein keeps the ice crystals so small that they don't damage fragile tissues.
            Oddly, only the hatchlings have this ability to freeze. Adult turtles cannot withstand freezing.

Wildflower Peak
            Mary and I led a wildflower walk on May 12, and given that it had snowed the day before, the pickings were slim to none. That was not all that unusual. We’ve led May wildflower hikes for over 23 years now, and we can recall at least three mid-May hikes that were undertaken through snow flurries.
            But the wildflowers have made up for lost time by growing at rates that seem impossible – it almost feels like you wouldn’t need time-lapse photography to see the growth! Every roadway has been clothed in the white blossoms of Juneberry trees (also know as serviceberry or Amelanchier), a small tree that is all but forgotten by most of us except for its 10 days of May glory. Mary and I, and the birds, however, don’t forget it about it, because later in the summer, it produces fine-tasting berries that you can only pick if the birds don’t beat you to them first.
            Mary and I hiked in the Oxbow Pines State Natural Area in Price County on 5/25, and hundreds of hepaticas dotted the old road in to the site. Later that day, in the far better soils of the Skinner Creek Hardwoods State Natural Area, the trail was completely awash in spring beauties, trilliums (both large-flowered and nodding), blue cohosh, bishop’s cap, wild leeks, trout lilies, bloodroots, wild geraniums, rue anemone, false anemone, wood anemone, bellworts, dwarf ginseng, and many others. It was just a feast for the eyes, at least when we could see through the clouds of black flies that hatched just that afternoon (we hadn’t had any in the morning!).
            The spring flowers are called ephemerals for a reason – they’ll be gone in another week at most. So, get out there and look for them while the opportunity beckons.

Celestial Events
            On June 1, we are the recipients of 15 hours and 30 minutes of daylight. We’re racing toward summer solstice, and the days are now just about as long as we’ll have all year.
            New moon on 6/8. The earliest sunrises of the year occur from June 10 through June 20 – all happening at 5:08 a.m.
            At dusk, look for Mercury and Venus low in the northwest, and Saturn in the south.

NWA 5/17/13

A Northwoods Almanac for May 17 – 30, 2013 

Lots of Sightings! Summer Tanagers, Loons, Hummers . . .  
Late April: For the two weeks prior to the ice finally going out on our area lakes, Scott and Kathy Reinhard had a group of nine loons staging in front of their home on the Flambeau River near Park Falls.
4/29: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst had first-of-year (FOY) pine warblers and hermit thrushes, and he got to watch two otters mate in Bearskin Creek.
4/30: Mary Nell Currie was walking on the Bearskin Trail and saw six loons in the water and three flying overhead at the Kawaga Trestle area on Minocqua Lake. 
4/30: Mary, Callie, and I spotted a flock of Bonaparte’s gulls on Powell Marsh along with numerous horned grebes.
5/1: Pat Schmidt on Silver Lake in Hazelhurst reported two loons had landed on her lake despite the fact the lake was still over half ice-covered.
5/2: Jill Wilm sent me several exceptional photographs of a yellow-bellied sapsucker along Van Vliet Lake near Preque Isle.
5/2: Dan Carney reported FOY rose-breasted grosbeaks at his feeders in Hazelhurst.
5/4: Barbara Just in Boulder Junction had a juvenile male summer tanager visit her feeders along with an adult male summer tanager. The juvenile males exhibit a rainbow of colors, and look like they belong in a tropical forest in Central America, not northern Wisconsin. And in fact, summer tanagers don’t belong here, but they do nest infrequently now in southern Wisconsin, so we’ll be seeing more and more of them as our climate warms.
5/5: Joan on Clear Lake in Manitowish Waters reported a FOY Baltimore oriole, eastern towhee, and brown thrasher. John Worth in Manitowish Waters also reported seeing a brown thrasher.
5/5: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst had FOY American redstarts, palm warblers, and veeries.
5/5: Jack Stellpflug forwarded photos and a short video he took of two merlins mating on a tree branch near the north shore of Elsie Lake in Lac du Flambeau. Jack explained how he was so exceptionally fortunate to capture the very quick mating of the merlins: “I heard an unfamiliar call between a pair of these birds two days before, but couldn't get a good view of them until today. The call sounded close to that of kingfishers, but the birds perched high and away from the water. Today, when I finally got a good look, this female was eating a mouse . . . Less than a minute before I started to record, a bald eagle flew overhead and through the frame close enough to hear the wind through its wings. I took this video with the intent of capturing the call between these birds. I got more than I bargained for! Sometimes you get lucky!!”
5/5: Mark Pflieger in Harshaw reported seeing his first rose-breasted grosbeak. We saw our first one in Manitowish the next day.
5/6: Kent Dahlgren sent me a photo of a pair of swans near his home in Presque Isle and noted, “Due to the lack of open water, there were a lot of species sharing the same areas.”
5/6: Jan Miller in Lac du Flambeau reported the first hummingbird of the year in our area. She noted, “I had been debating earlier if I should put out the feeder, and it buzzed my front window. I guess it is time!”
5/6: Gary Ruesch, a long-time bird watcher on the Rainbow Flowage, reported his first ever red-necked grebes and white-fronted geese.
5/7: Kathleen Kinney in Woodruff reported her first eastern towhee. Mary saw one perched on our shed roof in Manitowish this day as well.
5/7: Cynthia and Jim Krakowski on Squaw Creek in northeastern Price County reported five white pelicans drifting along on the creek. They also saw three moose the night before on Hwy. 47 not that far from our house in Manitowish. Mary and I have been on the lookout ever since, but the moose are not cooperating!
5/7: Here’s a non-wildlife sighting of great interest. Bill McCutchin was fishing off his pier on the Trout River on an otherwise warm and windless afternoon when he noticed water getting sucked up into the air in a funnel about six feet in a diameter and 10 feet high. The waterspout moved out onto the river and into some cattails, ripping them up and sending them up into the air, all the while making a great deal of noise. The spout then went down the river right past his house (he had retreated up into the house!), leaving the river full of debris as it passed. Bill had never seen anything remotely like this before, and neither have I, but I have heard of anomalous waterspout events, and this had to be one of them. Fair-weather waterspouts are associated with developing storm systems, but not storms themselves, and require high levels of humidity and a relatively warm water temperature compared to the overlying air. Apparently the conditions were just right in that one spot on the Trout River.
5/8: Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk sent me a photo of a pine warbler eating suet at her feeder, as well as a photo of a fisher that comes to her corn feeders nearly every evening. 
5/8: White-crowned sparrows finally appeared at our feeders in Manitowish.
5/10: Our first Baltimore oriole arrived at our feeders.
5/11: It was a very cold day with lots of snow squalls later in the afternoon. We were surprised to have two yellow-rumped warblers working over our suet feeder, the first time we have ever had a warbler on our suet. The insect hatch has been minimal at best so far this spring, so the warblers have had to find food where they can.
5/11: Bob Kovar on Wild Rice Lake in Manitowish Waters walked outside in the early evening while it was snowing like crazy and said the spring peepers were in full chorus, a rather remarkable juxtaposition. The male peepers apparently just can’t wait any longer to mate. Come what may, they are going to sing!
5/12: Jerry and Jan Crabtree have been watching a pair of red-necked grebes on their lake
south of Hazelhurst for over a week. Jerry noted, “First time in 30 years [that we’ve seen one] - I'm sure they are just passing through, but truly a unique sighting for us.” 
5/12: Chuck Templin on Papoose Lake sent a photo of a red-bellied woodpecker eating at his suet feeder, after the snow of Saturday night, May 11th.

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory Trip
Mary and I led a group of intrepid birders to the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory near Paradise, MI, at the far southeastern end of Lake Superior. We drove the nearly 300 miles there because Whitefish Point is the most important spot for documenting and monitoring waterbird movements in the upper Great Lakes. It’s also one of the most important spring flight corridors for raptors in North America. And Whitefish Point is a phenomenal concentration spot for migrating owls during both spring and fall.
We left in a sleet/ice storm on Friday morning, May 3, and drove into 55-degree weather at WPBO. Though the wind was out of the north, the birds didn’t seem to mind the headwind, and were migrating in good numbers throughout the weekend.
On Friday night, we stopped by the owl-banding shack to see what they were catching. On their first run they netted two saw-whet owls, one boreal owl, and one long-eared owl. We got face-to-face looks at all of the owls, which was quite a gift! The nets are operated every night (weather permitting) until dawn, and on their second run, the banders brought back 15 owls, 14 of which were saw-whets. Two participants in our group had stayed behind for the second run, and they reported that the banders hadn’t anticipated catching that many, so their jacket pockets were stuffed with owls! By the end of the night, they had banded 77 owls, and the following night, they banded 51 more, resulting in the banding of 105 northern saw-whets, 17 boreals, five long-eareds and one barred. They also caught three previously banded Saw-whets, including one of the juveniles they banded in 2010.
The next morning, the hawks were flying early, particularly sharp-shinned hawks which seemed to be constantly in the sky. All raptor observations are made from a platform on the “Hawk Dune” about 200 meters west of the Whitefish Lighthouse and about 20 meters above Lake Superior. The count for the day totaled 719, of which 468 were sharp-shinned hawks. Fourteen species of raptors were included in the count, all of which we got to see including bald and golden eagles, osprey, turkey vultures, kestrels, peregrine falcon, merlins, northern harriers, Cooper’s hawks, red-shouldered hawks, broad-winged hawks, rough-legged hawks, and red-tailed hawks. The WPBO hawk count has been actively gathering migration data for over 20 years and is partnered with the Hawk Migration Association of America website ( where you can view the numbers of hawks seen each day during migration.
We also checked out the waterfowl count and walked the shoreline looking for shorebirds. Loons were the order of the day, and on Saturday, they counted 747 common loons flying past or over the Point, along with 43 red-throated loons. The following Tuesday, 5/7, a record 478 red-throated loons were counted!
We were also treated to exceptional views of numerous horned grebes, and at least five piping plovers, several from within 15 feet! Piping plovers are a federally endangered species, and these were the first Mary and I had ever seen. Fewer than 3,000 breeding pairs of piping plovers were detected in the U.S. and Canada in the last major census undertaken in 2001.
So, to see them so close, and so frequently, was really quite remarkable.

Wildflowers? Still On Their Way
            Mary and I led a trip on Sunday, May 12, looking for wildflowers in an area a little southwest of Minocqua. Ordinarily by mid-May, this site would have been an absolute riot of flowers, but given this very delayed spring, we found only a couple individuals of a few species in flower. Most species had their leaves up, and some were budded, but they’ve wisely waited for the warm weather that was forecast for this week. I suspect if we returned to the site tomorrow, the flowers would be everywhere! Get out and enjoy them while you can – they’re called ephemerals for a reason.

Celestial Events
            From 5/24 through 5/29, the year’s best gathering of planets occurs when Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury all fit within a 5° circle. That means that you can view all three at the same time with most hand-held binoculars. The grouping is tightest on May 26th, when all three planets fit in a 2½° circle. Jupiter appears right next to Venus on the 27th, and after that it slowly pulls down and right of Venus, disappearing from view in early June. This is the tightest three-planet grouping that will be visible without binoculars until 2026. 

NWA 4/19/13

A Northwoods Almanac for April 19 – May 2, 2013 

One Value of a Late Spring
            Last year with our exceptionally early spring, a lot of plants budded out early and then froze when the inevitable May and early June frosts hit. We had only one apple develop on our six apple trees, and virtually none of our lilacs bloomed. Maple syrup producers had little if any sap to work with because the buds flowered so quickly.
            So, this year will likely look closer to normal for the plants. Spring in the Northwoods has always been a slow-to-arrive/quick-to-leave season, and the plants and animals have adapted to that general cycle. We need to remember that, though I understand it’s also equally in our DNA to perpetually complain about how late spring arrives.

Sonja Roediger on County O in Eagle River sent me photos of 50+ snow buntings that have spent all winter at her feeders, a very unusual behavior for snow buntings, which typically winter well south of our area where the snow depths are far less. Ordinarily, we start to see the males come through on their long northward migration to the Arctic in early April, while the females follow four to six weeks later. 
The males return when temperatures in the Arctic can still dip as low as -30°C, in order to compete for high-quality nest sites in rock cavities. By tucking their nests deep in narrow rock fissures, snow buntings suffer lower rates of nest predation than open-nesting arctic songbirds.
3/30: Paul and Ellen Gottwald on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Springstead saw their first robin of the year as well as two sandhill cranes.
3/31: Nick Petreman in Presque Isle reported 14 red crossbills at his feeder and a deluge of common redpolls – somewhere around 250!
4/4: Sharon Lintereur in Lake Tomahawk said the maple sap was running and they were making syrup. For those of us seriously addicted to the elixir, this is great news!
4/5: Mary Madsen in Presque Isle was visited by her first robin and grackle of the year.
4/5: John Werth on the Manitowish River reported seeing the first great blue heron of the year. Several days later John looked out his kitchen window and watched a mink running across his yard with a chipmunk in its mouth. Later that day he saw a redheaded woodpecker on Found Lake Rd., a pretty uncommon sighting these days.
4/6: Jim and Helen Travis in Lake Tomahawk were treated to their first sighting ever of a female cardinal at their feeders.
4/6: Joe Tennessen had four red crossbills visiting his feeders.
4/6: Our first flock of red-winged blackbirds returned to Manitowish. A northern harrier also flew over our house, the first one of the year. The next day a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk haunted our feeders for over an hour, giving us exceptional views of it.
4/8: Linda Thomas in Sayner observed a loon flying over the Sayner Chamber of Commerce. It was most likely scouting to see if any lakes had opened and instead had to return south with advice of patience. 
4/9: Mark Pflieger in Harshaw watched the 20 or so redpolls that had been at their feeders all winter suddenly increase to over 300 in two days.
4/9: Several fox sparrows appeared under our feeders in Manitowish, as did a northern shrike, and a flock of starlings.
4/11: Bill and Cheryl Crawford sent a photo of an army of common redpolls that suddenly showed up at their feeders.
4/15: A woodcock appeared below our house and probed for food on the exposed mud of the south-facing slope.

Courtship and Territorial Displays
            It’s spring, despite all the snowy evidence to the contrary, and the male birds that have returned are already cranking up their testosterone to establish territories and woo females. Grackles are back, and we often observe them “puffing themselves up” in what’s called their “ruff-out” display. Here the males spread their wings and tail, ruffle their contour feathers, and rise up by extending their legs so they look nearly twice their size. It’s impressive and effective!
In a relatively similar manner, the red-winged blackbird males around our feeders do a “songspread” display where they arch forward, spread their wings to the side, bend their tails down, and fully expose their red epaulets. Like the grackles, they make themselves appear much larger, and the brilliant red epaulets really accentuate the effect!             Right now, their display is only to impress other males, because the females usually don’t return until nearly three weeks after the males red-wings arrive. This year, however, all bets are off on that. The females may arrive “on schedule,” which is usually by the third week in April, though our snowy weather may discourage their timing.
            Various waterfowl are displaying as well. Trumpeter swans perform an elegant courtship display where the pair swim together, dipping their bills in the water. Prior to copulation, the male crosses his neck over the female’s neck, and she then extends her neck and lowers her body deeper into the water so he can mount her.
            Male common goldeneyes perform a ritualized courtship display where the male repeatedly flicks his head rapidly backward in a smooth arc, pointing his bill upward.
Not all birds are courting – many species of waterfowl arrive in the Northwoods already pair bonded. For instance, wood ducks perform their courtship more in fall and winter than in spring, which means that much of the population forms pairs prior to migrating north. Once they arrive here, their pair bonds are maintained through the initial incubation of the eggs, but soon the male wanders away, leaving the female to rear the chicks.
Mallards, too, perform courtship displays in the fall before migration, as well as on their wintering grounds, resulting in many individuals arriving here already paired. But many will still display in the spring, either because some individuals are not yet paired, or because mated pairs need to strengthen their bond. Mallard courtship includes an impressive variety of displays, some of which are performed by groups of males toward one or more females. In the “grunt-whistle” display, the male lowers his bill into the water, arches his neck, and raises his body upright and almost out of the water while still keeping his bill in the water. Then the drake tosses an arc of water droplets in to the air with his bill and gives a loud, sharp whistle followed by a deep grunt, all of which takes a second or two. Very romantic stuff!
Great blue heron males advertise their interests by howling, starting the loud call at a high pitch with the head and neck stretched up, and then lowering the pitch of the howl as he lowers his head and body into a crouch. He often follows this up with grabbing a twig or by appearing to “sharpen” his bill on the branch.
Sandhill cranes perform one of the most exquisite displays of all birds, performing an elegant dance that has five parts: the upright wing stretch, horizontal head pump, bow, vertical leap, and vertical toss.

Crane Count
            Speaking of cranes, on April 13, Mary and I participated in the very snowy Christmas Bird Count – oops – I mean, Sandhill Crane Count, and we heard a whopping total of zero cranes. In fact, only one of our counters reported hearing any cranes, though not all counts had been tallied as of this writing.
Usually cranes are back by now, even if we still have snow on the ground, so we expected to still hear them despite the light snow that was falling. We’ve conducted many crane counts over the last 20 years where we had to ski, or the temperature was below freezing, or a snowstorm was raging, but typically we still found cranes. Not so this year, and all I can think is that the snow was so unusually deep that it exceeded the cranes’ acceptable range of variation, a tipping point that apparently has kept the cranes mostly down in southern and central Wisconsin.
            On the other hand, they may have been “out there,” but were simply quiet that morning for reasons we’re unlikely to unravel.
            As always, though, we still enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Our territory for the count is a stretch of the Manitowish River from the Hwy. 51 state wayside down to the Hwy. 47 bridge by our home. We’ve always paddled the river, no matter the weather. But this year, after seeing the morning temperatures forecast for 12° with high winds, we gave in to our misgivings (discretion being the better part of valor), threw the snowshoes in the car, and decided to tramp along the edges of the river.
            We eventually got a bit turned around in all of the cedar swamps and upland aspen stands that border the wildly meandering Manitowish. But that made it all the more of an adventure! And though we saw few birds of any kind, we did find at least two small flocks of golden-crowned kinglets, the first we’d heard or seen this winter. We also found an esker we didn’t know about, a few big pines, as well as that cedar swamp I just mentioned which was just as amazingly tangled as any other one we’ve ever groped our way through.
            Our dog surely thought this was the way life should be – starting at daylight and going for a two-hour walk in the woods.
And I have to say we agree with her.
            This was the 38th annual Midwest Crane Count.  Some 2,000 volunteer counters survey for sandhill and whooping cranes over 100 counties in six states (Wisconsin and portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota).
            The count tally varies from year to year given April’s propensity for fickle weather conditions – very cold, very windy days make for poor counts.
Wisconsin’s count over the last six years has been this:
2012: 9,750
2011: 9,479
2010: 10,892
2009: 10,363
2008: 11,254
2007: 13,764
            I suspect 2013 will be one of the lowest totals in the last decade, not because of a declining crane population, but because of so much snowcover in northern part of the state. But perhaps the cranes were all just stacked up in the south and the numbers were high there. I’ll report the results when they’re released.

Celestial Events
            The peak Lyrid meteor shower takes place on 4/22, though the nearly full moon will wash most of it out. The full moon occurs on 4/25, and the way we’re going, will still be beautifully reflected on a snowy landscape. That same night, look for Saturn about 4° north of the moon.

NWA 5/3/13

A Northwoods Almanac for May 3 – 16, 2013  

California Birding
            Last week, Mary and I spent five days in sunny southern California with our oldest daughter Eowyn who works for the San Diego Natural History Museum. Besides reveling in the sunshine, we birded along the San Diego River mouth where it empties into the Pacific Ocean, and then traveled inland to the desert habitat of Joshua Tree National Park where we hiked and birded in the park and in several nearby preserves.
            While hiking, we tallied 96 species of birds, including some lifers for us like black skimmer, white-headed woodpecker, yellow-breasted chat, Cassin’s vireo, and little blue heron. In one very small park, we could easily see within 30 yards of one another a red-tailed hawk’s nest, a hooded oriole’s nest, and a western bluebird going in and out of its nesting tree cavity, while in a nearby tree sat a vermillion flycatcher. Just down the road, someone had put out hummingbird feeders where we enjoyed sitting on a bench watching Costa’s, black-chinned, rufous, and Anna’s hummingbirds along with black-headed grosbeaks and Scott’s orioles. This was one hotspot for birds! In the desert, where there’s water, there’s vegetation, and in an oasis like this park, the birds gather like they’re magnetized.
            We saw many species that we commonly see in northern Wisconsin, too. These included kestrel, robin, blue-winged teal, Canada goose, raven, dark-eyed junco, house finch, killdeer, and great horned owl, to name just a few, though very few of these were found in the desert portion of our trip.
            We came home to Wisconsin weather finally changing to spring, and birds finally returning to the Northwoods; a very welcome homecoming!

Sightings: First of year (FOY)
4/15: Cherie Smith observed a yellow-rumped warber (FOY) eating sap off her maple trees. Other yellow-rumped sightings included 4/22 and 4/23 observations by Mary Madsen in Presque Isle, Kay Rhyner in Hazelhurst, and Judith Bloom in Lake Tomahawk. We didn’t see our first yellow-rumped warbler until 4/27.
4/16: (FOY) Osprey appeared on their nesting poles near McNaughton.
4/21: Janet Alesaukus reported a turkey vulture soaring above Minocqua.
4/21: Matt Paris reported a varied thrush visiting his feeders in St. Germain, the first one reported in our area to me this winter/spring. Varied thrushes breed in the western states and occasionally wander east into Wisconsin, so it’s a wonderful and very random gift to have one show up at your feeder!
4/24: Nancy Skowlund in Powell had a white-winged crossbill coming to her feeders.
4/25: FOY song sparrow in Manitowish.
4/26: FOY white-throated sparrow in Manitowish.
4/27: Mary Madsen observed tree swallows and a loon (FOY) on some open water in Presque Isle. We also saw tree swallows that day on Powell Marsh.
4/27: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst reported seeing a flock of over 30 yellow-rumped warblers, a ruby-crowned kinglet (FOY), a winter wren (FOY), and a swamp sparrow (FOY).
4/27: At Powell Marsh, Mary and I saw our FOY snipe, northern flickers, rusty blackbirds, and most interestingly, white-fronted geese, a species we’ve never seen before.
4/29: Again on Powell Marsh, Mary and I saw FOY Bonaparte’s gulls and horned grebes.
4/29: Mary Madsen reported an amazingly early FOY indigo bunting at her feeders in Presque Isle.

It’s a Zoo Out There!
Bob Kovar in Manitowish Waters emailed me this on 4/27: “Lots of birds hanging out here waiting for spring. I had a hard time working yesterday – had a yard full of deer, cranes down by the ice, eagles soaring over, red winged blackbirds calling, kingfisher flying around, pewee stuck in my pole barn, turkeys lurking in the brush, purple finches scarfing bird food, pileated pounding on the suet by the window, otter sliding out in the ice, no kidding! It was like living in a zoo. Made me laugh. Mom always said, because my room was always such a mess, ‘You wanna live in a zoo?’ I never had the right answer . . . it always made me think and I couldn't decide.”
Along those same lines, a bird researcher (Ryan Brady) near Ashland wrote this, also on 4/27: “Floodgates opened in the north today. Finally a major overnight influx to the Lake Superior shore of all those short-distance migrants that have been backed up to the south - Fox, Song, Tree, Chipping, White-throated, and Savannah Sparrows, more Dark-eyed Juncos, Purple Finches, Hermit Thrushes, many N. Flickers, E. Phoebes, Tree Swallows, both kinglets.                                   
“By mid-morning, a big hawk flight developed and continued through the day. In just a few hours atop the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center just west of Ashland, Nick Anich and I had nearly 100 hawks in view at any given moment. The first wave of Broad-wings dominated (estimated 400+ birds) but diversity was spectacular with a great push of Ospreys, Rough-legs, Sharp-shins, Red-tails, T. Vultures, Am. Kestrels, N. Harriers, and more.”
The next morning, 4/28, I had my own “zoo” experience out on Powell Marsh. The first pool at the overlook parking lot was still frozen, but the back pool was mostly open, and in a world where open water was temporarily at a premium everywhere, the waterfowl were remarkably concentrated. I recorded 16 species of waterfowl including pied-billed grebes, wood ducks, American wigeons, mallards, Canada geese, blue-winged teals, green-winged teals, ring-necked ducks, greater scaup, hooded mergansers, common mergansers, pintails, shovelers, coots, buffleheads, and  redheads. A huge flock of rusty blackbirds formed, unformed, and formed again. Several dozen greater yellowlegs called and called as if they were lost, or celebrating, or arguing over the menu in the muck. Five species of sparrows flitted in and out of the shrub willows and alders. Cranes were calling in numerous directions. Even three otters were swimming among the ducks. 
Just one of those mornings where you hit the jackpot, and that’s what makes watching wildlife such an adventure – you just never know what may be out there if you take the time to look.

Migration on Radar
            Birds migrating at night typically depart 30 to 45 minutes after sunset, a departure that is easily visible on weather radar. As birds climb to the altitude at which they’ll migrate, they enter the radar beam and begin reflecting energy back to the antenna. Their mass departures appear as rapidly expanding circular patterns that look to me like blooming flowers. By examining the radar imagery during the departure times, you can identify the specific areas where birds tend to stopover for the night to feed and rest prior to resuming their migration the next day. Areas around La Crosse, Green Bay, Madison, and Duluth are Midwestern hotspots for overnight stopovers, and you’ll see them “blooming” any spring night in the spring when there’s a good south wind. Since not all habitats are attractive to migrating birds, and so much of this world is fragmented into farmscapes or cityscapes that aren’t suitable for birds, the hotspot phenomena is often striking.  
            So, just open your favorite weather radar site after sunset, and watch the migration taking off – it’s a remarkable visual tool to “see” what’s going on at night in the world of birds.

Celestial Events
            The peak Eta Aquarid meteor shower occurs in the predawn of May 5. This day also marks the midway point between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.
             In Woody Hagge’s nearly 40 years of keeping records on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst, the latest date of ice-out was May 7 in 1996. We may get close to that this year!
            On 5/12, look for Jupiter three degrees north of the waxing crescent moon.

White Deer of Boulder Junction on PBS Nature
On May 8th at 7 p.m., the PBS series Nature will feature a program on “The Private Life of Deer” that will include a segment on the albino deer gracing our area. The show’s creator came out to Boulder Junction last spring to film the deer and to interview Jeff Richter, the Mercer-based photographer who published the book White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest in 2007. In 2008, Wisconsin Public TV produced a video of the deer that eventually went viral over the Internet, garnering over 20 million hits. So, now Jeff’s going national, as are the deer! They even interviewed me, a frightening thought indeed.             So, tune in – hopefully we’ll have done justice to the uniqueness of the white deer.