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.
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.
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.