Thursday, January 30, 2014

NWA 1/24/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/24 – 2/6/14 

More Benefits of Extreme Cold
            January is giving us another hit of cold weather, though not nearly as intense as two weeks ago. As in my last column, I’m again singing the praises of the cold, despite the difficulty it poses for all of us. The reason is simple: extreme cold kills numerous invasive species. Here’s the story.
      Insects employ three strategies to survive winter temperatures:

1-    Some avoid the cold altogether by migrating (think monarch butterflies and green darner dragonflies), or some aggregate together as adults in sheltered locations to stay warm (think honey bees).

2-    Some don’t let themselves freeze by making chemicals that allow them to supercool below the freezing point of water (think these three invasive species: emerald ash borer, forest tent caterpillars, and gypsy moths).

3-    Some actually freeze, but survive by using special proteins to regulate the way their body freezes and to minimize damage to their cells. One way this is done is to use extracellular freezing, a process by which ice-nucleation occurs harmlessly outside of the cell walls (think woolybear caterpillars, which actually employ all three strategies).

4-    And some insects employ a combination approach – Asian lady beetles aggregate in sheltered areas, often in the walls of our homes, and also can supercool.

           The species that use supercooling are tolerant of the cold, but only to a certain point, and then they die, which is where extreme cold becomes hugely beneficial. For instance, emerald ash borers, an Asian native which so far has killed about 50 million ash trees in the Upper Midwest, start dying at -10°F.  But when temperatures dive to -20°F, 50 percent usually die. And if temperatures drop to -30 below, 98 percent perish!
            Another example are gypsy moths whose wintering egg masses begin to die as soon as temperatures get around -17°F. 
            Asian longhorn beetles, an invasive that kills maples and other hardwoods, winter as larvae in the center of trees, but freeze at -14°F.
            As for forest tent caterpillars, their egg masses can only supercool to -22°F, whereupon they die.
            The invasive that I’m most fearful of because of my love for hemlock trees is the hemlock wooly adelgid, which has killed millions of hemlock trees out East, and is coming our way. The wooly adelgids, a tiny insect the size of a period in one of these sentences, dies when temperatures hit -5°F.
            One last reason to cheer extreme cold: ice cover this winter on the Great Lakes is projected to cover over 60 percent of the surface waters. Ice vastly reduces evaporation rates, reducing loss of water, which has plagued our lakes in recent years. It also reflects the sun, keeping the water chilled, and thus further helping to reduce evaporation since warm water evaporates more quickly than cold water.
            So, while our bodies are shivering, and we’re complaining about not living in Arizona, our brains should be telling us to celebrate the return of a true northern winter. The extreme cold reinforces the range limits on a host of plants and insects, and for that we should be cheering.
            Now if research could only show that extreme cold kills ticks . . .

            While extolling the virtues of extreme cold, I would be remiss to not also extol the virtues of today’s merino wool products that Mary and I use daily to keep the cold at bay. Today’s wool socks, shirts, underwear, and trousers are not at all like your grandparent’s woolen wear. I wear a wool long-sleeve zip-neck t-shirt under my shirt virtually every day during the winter, and I love them. They’re very soft, don’t itch, don’t hold moisture like cotton, and don’t hold onto odors. In our opinion, wool far outperforms all other winter activity materials, from polypropylene to fleece. In fact, cold weather research shows that because of wool's effective moisture management, you maintain a lower and more stable core body temperature when wearing wool next to your skin instead of synthetics.
            We’re flat-out sold on wool. We’re not on these manufacturers’ payrolls, but we recommend the following companies: Smart Wool, Ibex, and Icebreaker.

Pancake Ice 
Several weeks ago, Gary Theisen sent me a photo of "frazil" ice at Lake of the Falls near Mercer. Frazil ice forms in fast moving, supercooled water that is coursing too rapidly for the ice crystals to freeze together into a sheet of ice. The frazil ice is basically slush which is herded by winds and currents into globs. In Gary’s photo, the frazil ice had formed into circular pancakes that looked like white lily pads made of ice. The pancakes can be up to 10 feet across and 4 inches thick. The raised rims occur when the pancakes collide together like bumper cars and the edges get bashed up, or from the slush that gets splashed onto the edges and freezes to gradually form a rim.

Black Moon Rising
            January provides us with two occurrences of a new moon within the month, something known as a “black moon,” a term I’d never heard before. This is analogous to the definition of a blue moon, which is when a month has two full moons occurring within it. The two new moons this month occur on 1/1 and 1/30.

Sightings – Woodpeckers and Evening Grosbeaks
Sharon and David Lintereur have been keeping records since 2004 of birds that come in to their feeders, and this winter is the first year that they have a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers that come in every day. Sharon also notes, “We have never had so many hairy woodpeckers as this year. We have downies and pileateds as well. This is the year for woodpeckers.”
Linda Novak in Presque Isle appears to be the only person in our area who is enjoying evening grosbeaks at her feeder. She sent me some photos and noted, “We usually get 30-50 evening grosbeaks and hundreds of finches competing for food on our ledge every morning! They used to dine separately because the grosbeaks would push them off; now there are way too many finches, so they dine together.”

Celestial Events – It’s Getting Brighter!
            The big news in the heavens is the gradual return of more daylight. As of 1/26, we’ll be receiving 9 hours and 29 minutes of daylight, up from our low at the winter solstice of 8 hours and 39 minutes. So, we’ve regained 50 minutes! As of 1/10, days were growing longer by two minutes, and by 2/3, our days will be growing longer by three minutes every day, and counting. Before you know it, it will be spring equinox, which rarely has had anything to do with actual spring, but will mean 12 hours of daylight.

Snowy Owl Update
As of 1/11, the count for snowy owls in Wisconsin now stands at around 219. One birder took a drive on 1/19 in the Dorchester and Abbotsford area (far western Marathon County and eastern Clark County), starting at 8 a.m. and finishing around noon, and tallied ten snowy owls (two in Marathon Co. and eight in Clark Co.). Then, on his way back to the Wausau area, he found another snowy in the Milan area, two more right along Highway 29 near Edgar and Marathon City, and last of all, one located at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee. So, he ended the day with a total of fourteen snowy owls between Marathon and Clark Counties!

The Pleiades
The Pleiades star cluster – also known as the Seven Sisters– is visible from virtually every place on the globe. It can be seen from as far north as the north pole, and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America. It looks like a tiny misty dipper of stars. If you’re familiar with the famous constellation Orion, it can help you be sure you’ve found the Pleiades. Draw a line through the three stars of Orion’s Belt to the right – and you come to a V-shaped pattern of stars with a bright star in its midst. The V-shaped pattern is the Face of Taurus the Bull. The bright star in the V – called Aldeberan – depicts the Bull’s Eye. A bit past Aldebaran, you’ll see the Pleiades cluster, which marks the Bull’s Shoulder.
To see the cluster well, you must be willing to spend time under a dark, moonless sky. Astronomers say that eyes dark-adapted for 30 minutes are six times more sensitive to light than eyes dark-adapted for 15 minutes.
I’ve read that the Greek name “Pleiades” probably means “to sail.” Supposedly in the ancient Mediterranean world, the day that the Pleaides cluster first appeared in the morning sky before sunrise announced the opening of the navigation season.           

Final Thought                                                                                                                                                “A universe of 50 billion galaxies blowing like snowflakes in a cosmic storm is astonishing, but even more astonishing are those few pound of meat – our brains – that are able to construct such a universe of faint light and hold it before the mind’s eye, live in it, revel in it, praise it, wonder what it means.” – Chet Raymo

Saturday, January 11, 2014

NWA 1/10/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/10 – 1/23/14  
albino buck photo by Jeff Richter

Bring on the Cold!
It’s -40°F this morning (1/6) in Manitowish. This is the actual temperature and not the wind chill. Call me crazy, as I’m sure you will, but I’m quite happy to see this extreme low temperature. Not happy from a personal comfort standpoint, mind you, but from a “this is the way it’s supposed to be in Northern Wisconsin” standpoint. In Manitowish, we haven’t hit -30°, much less -40°, since the winter of 1996-97. And while all of us have cheered thanks to our personal decrease in suffering, extreme cold is – I’m compelled to say it – what makes the North the North. It’s desirable, and yes, NECESSARY. That is, if we don’t want our landscape and associated wildlife to look like what those sissies in southern Wisconsin, or Iowa, or God forbid, Illinois have (just poking a little fun here – no nasty letters, please).
Extreme cold has its benefits. Here’s a quote to think about while you’re shivering: “Climate restricts the range of infectious diseases, while weather affects the timing and intensity of outbreaks . . . Warmer and sometimes wetter weather may already be extending the range of infectious diseases beyond regions where they are endemic and inhabitants have some immunity . . . As temperatures increase, these carriers are likely to spread into new areas and may have potentially devastating effects on wildlife populations that have not been previously exposed.”
Here’s another: “It seems possible to make several generalizations for farmers in the northeastern US: a) increased winter temperatures will likely mean higher populations of pathogens survive to initially infect plants; b) increased temperatures will likely result in northward expansion of the range of some diseases because of earlier appearance and more generations of pathogens per season.”
All of this is to say the obvious – extreme cold restricts the population of many species, from various bacteria to large mammals, from minute mosses to redwoods, from tiny insects to condors.
Gardeners know this via the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. Each zone is thus a geographically defined area in which a specific category of plant life is capable of growing. For example, a plant that is described as "hardy to zone 4" means that the plant can withstand a minimum temperature of −30°F. A more resilient plant that is "hardy to zone 3" can tolerate a minimum temperature of −40°F. Our area of the Northwoods has always been zone 3, at least until the last 15 years when our winter temperatures failed to reach -30°F, thus changing our status to zone 4.
It’s important to note, however, that temperature never tells the whole story. The USDA hardiness zones have a number of drawbacks. The zones do not incorporate summer heat levels into the zone determination; thus sites which may have the winter minimums, but markedly different summer temperatures, will be accorded the same hardiness zone. A great example of this phenomenon is seen when comparing the Shetland Islands and southern Alabama, which are both on the boundary of zones 8 and 9 and share the same winter minimal temperatures. In the summer, however, Alabama is about 30°F hotter than the maritime climate of Shetland, and there are very few similar plants that can be grown at both locations. Users need to combine the hardiness zone with the heat zone to gain greater understanding of what can be grown in a particular location.
Another issue is that the hardiness zones do not take into account the reliability of the snow cover. Snow acts as an insulator against extreme cold, protecting the root system of hibernating plants. If the snow cover is reliable, the actual temperature to which the roots are exposed will not be as low as the hardiness zone number would indicate. An ecology professor of mine used to say that white pines don’t do well in southern Wisconsin because it’s too cold compared to northern Wisconsin, by which he meant that there wasn’t enough snow cover in the southern areas to protect the root systems compared to up north.
Lastly, it’s said that in the real world, we garden in microclimates, not hardiness zones. A microclimate is the climate of a small area that is different from the area around it. It may be warmer or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less prone to frosts. Microclimates may be quite small - a protected yard next to a building, for example, that is warmer than an exposed field nearby. Or a microclimate may be extensive - a band extending several miles inland from a large body of water that moderates temperatures. Think Lake Superior. The classic microclimate for our area is our bogs, where nighttime temperatures often are 10 degrees colder than adjacent upland areas.
So, while I know virtually no one will agree with me, hip-hip-hooray for -40°! It’s just the medicine the Northwoods needs to regain its ecological identity.

WinMan Trails
Mary, Callie, and I have been skiing and snowshoeing on the new WinMan Trails which are located four miles north of Manitowish Waters. The trails span over 1300 acres of private and public recreation lands within the Northern Highland State Forest, offering opportunities for summer hiking, mountain biking, and trail running, and winter skate and classic skiing, and snowshoeing. The project was made possible through funding from The Gering Foundation, as well as in-kind volunteer time and donations from area businesses and individuals. Credit for the development and maintenance of the WinMan Trails goes in large part to North Lakeland Discovery Center staff.                                                            The main trailhead and parking lot are across from the intersection of Highways W and J. Skate and classic skiing includes 6 miles for skate skiing and 7.4 miles for classic. Groomed and ungroomed snowshoeing include 5 miles of double-wide, groomed trails and 6.5 miles of ungroomed, traditional snowshoe trails.

What To Do If You Go Through The Ice

Where Are the Birds?
I commented in my last column about how few birds seem to be in the woods this winter. Here’s another example. Ryan Brady and Tim Oksiuta, two expert birders, ran the Clam Lake Christmas Bird Count on 12/27/13, and this is what they found: “If you want a good example of just how poor the winter birding scene is in the north woods right now, then this it. We spent 8 hours in the field and tallied 39 birds - not species, individual birds. On 3 snowshoeing hikes totaling nearly 4 hours we tallied ZERO birds of any kind. Overall we tallied 11 species on the day, the highlight being a pair of Gray Jays.”

Earth at Perihelion
On Jan. 4, another in a string of very cold January days, the earth reached its closest orbital point in its annual trip around the sun. Since the orbital shape is elliptical, not circular, we were actually about 3 million miles closer to the sun on this date than we are in July. That makes very obvious the fact that our seasonal changes are due to the inclination of the earth's axis, not our distance from the sun.

Full Moon
On January 15, the full moon occurs. Called “The Wolf Moon” by some Native American tribes who named this moon for how often they heard wolf howls in the frigid nights of January, the Ojibwe called it “The Great Spirit Moon,” and the Lakota Sioux named it “The Moon of Strong Cold.”

Celestial Events
Tonight, 1/10, look left of the Moon at nightfall for the Pleiades.  As the night progresses, the Pleiades can be seen straight above the Moon.
Jupiter is very bright on NE horizon at sunset and rises as the night progresses, dominating the evening sky throughout January. Jupiter is easy to spot — it shines at magnitude –2.7. This means it appears more than three times as bright as the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, which shines some 40° south of Jupiter. Jupiter’s four largest moons, discovered by Galileo in 1610, are also easy to see even through small telescopes – we can see them with our bird spotting scope as 20x magnification.

Sightings – A Snowy Owl and Otters Eating a  Musky
Jim Burger sent me six pictures he took on 12/18 of otters eating a large musky on the channel between Stone and Spider Lakes on the Manitowish chain of lakes. He noted, “The musky was alive when he [the otter] started and there is one picture when he did share with a second otter and in total I think there were five. You can also see the blood on the ice as they pulled the fish on the ice. This went on for 2 to 3 hours before he took it back into the water and I did not see the fish again.”
photo by Jim Burger
I asked Jim if he thought the otter had actually caught the musky, something I would think is extremely unlikely, or whether it was injured. He replied, “I had the same thought about an otter catching a musky, but it did not appear to be injured. It was also alive since I did see it flopping on the ice in the beginning. I also have about 20 min of video and again it did not appeared to be injured. So is it possible that as the otter goes under water for well over 2 min at times he could get close enough?  Guess we won't know for sure but it was an interesting few hours.”
            On 12/27, Luke and Jessica Kuckkahn and their daughter Brooke of Lake Tomahawk were treated to a visit from a snowy owl. The email noted, “The bird sat at close range in a large tree just outside their home and stayed for the better part of a half hour. It allowed them to approach quite closely and only left when they tried to get a better picture at short range.”

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 12/27/13

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/27/13 – 1/9/14   

Snowy Owl Invasion
As of 12/21, the state tally for snowy owls had reached 116, with a number of other reports awaiting confirmation. While every winter brings a varying number of these arctic visitors to Wisconsin, this year snowies are staging a possibly historic irruption from the Great Lakes east to the Atlantic coast and as far south as North Carolina. One owl was even observed in sunny Bermuda 600 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, while observers in Newfoundland counted over 200 owls along a single 25-mile stretch of road.
Within Wisconsin, large numbers of owls have been seen along the Lake Michigan shoreline. An astonishing 11 birds had been observed at lower Green Bay by early December, with a much smaller representation of snowies inland, and virtually none in western Wisconsin and into Minnesota.
For some reason, the snowies are all heading east. The irruption has been centered in the northeastern states with the New York Port Authority reporting that between JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports, five snowy owls had been struck by planes in two weeks. The JFK Airport staff wasn’t impressed by their beauty and shot another three a few weeks ago, raising a din of protest in the birding community. Safety vs. rare birds creates some tough choices, though there were non-lethal methods of moving the birds.
December is often the month of peak snowy owl movements in Wisconsin. Since snowy owls nest on the wide open Arctic tundra with nary a tree in sight, when they migrate south they typically concentrate along open areas like coastal beaches, harbors, and breakwalls, or inland in open grasslands, agricultural fields, and large wetland complexes. Airports can be hotspots as can vast expanses of ice, which look a lot like the tundra.
Snowies are sometimes active throughout daylight hours, but most tend to sit tight and then become active around dusk and dawn. They’re not a night-hunting owl given that dark is an unusual occurrence during an Arctic summer!
             In the winter of 2005 - 2006, at least 150 Snowy Owls were reported/observed in Wisconsin, again mostly along the Great Lakes coasts, but this year may easily break that record.
Snowies are thought to move south primarily when their prey base of lemmings crashes. Lemming populations ebb and flow in roughly four-year cycles for reasons that are poorly understood. When the mouse-like rodents abound, a snowy owl might take 1,600 in a year, or about 190 pounds of lemming. More food means better nesting success and more owlets. A great lemming year can stimulate a strong push south when too many juvenile owls can overwhelm the tundra ecosystem. Lean lemming years trigger crashes in the owls and southward movement, which are termed irruptions.                                                So far this winter, mostly adults are being seen, so it appears the lemmings must have had a severe population crash.                                                                                                  To tell the age and gender of snowy owls, the dark speckled ones are the young. The larger ones are the females. Males and females of all ages may have more or less speckling but the tail tells all: males usually have 3 or less cross-stripes while females have 4 and often 5.
Christmas Bird Counts
            While snowies are showing up through much of Wisconsin, most other Canadian birds are staying north. We participated in two Christmas Bird Counts over the last several weeks, one in Minocqua and the other in Manitowish Waters, and the counts were remarkable for what we didn’t see, not what we saw. We were unable to find a single evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, pine siskin, common redpoll, purple finch, white-winged crossbill, red crossbill, or bohemian waxwing, most of which we seen every winter, sometimes in substantial numbers.
            The only finch either in the woods or at feeders is the American goldfinch, and there are large flocks of those. Otherwise, both the woods and most people’s feeders are relatively quiet except for the nesting birds that remain the winter like black-capped chickadees, both nuthatches, blue jays, and the like.
            I don’t have the final numbers yet, but it looks like both counts will be record lows.

Robins in Winter
            Jim Schumacher near St. Germain sent me a photo of a robin eating crabapples in his yard on 12/5, but it hasn’t appeared since, nor did we see any on our Christmas counts. Robins eat a lot of fruit in fall and winter, and a few often remain up here if we have low snow accumulations.
But that’s certainly not the case this winter. We have lots of snow, and snow cover plays an important role in the presence of wintering robins throughout the Midwest. Snow and ice limit the availability of the fruits and berries that American robins depend on. Robin observations decrease sharply where snow depths are greater than 5 inches. In a recent Great Backyard Bird Count, there were only 3 reports of American robins in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan where snow cover exceeded 5 inches, while in areas where snow cover was less than 5 inches there were many more American Robins-- including some areas with flocks of up to 1200 individuals.
Perhaps almost as important is the influence of metropolitan areas on American robin distributions. The ornamental fruit trees (hawthorns, mountain ash, etc) planted in those cities provide vast amounts of food for overwintering robins. While we get excited to see one robin in the winter, robin roosts can be huge, sometimes including a quarter-million birds during winter. What are they eating when the ground is frozen and they can't get worms? Fruits. While some fruits are sweet and juicy in the summer and are eaten right away, the best winter berries are those that start out tasting too bitter to eat, and after freezing and thawing several times, become tastier. Some of the best include: bittersweet, snowberry, sumac, mountain ash, crabapple, hawthorn, highbush cranberry, dogwoods, and chokecherry.
So, the bottom line on robins is this: robins can survive blinding blizzards, ice storms, and nights as cold as 30 below zero. Their thick down feathers hold body heat in, and they produce body heat by shivering, so they can survive cold temperatures. It’s food availability that influences the number of American robins that overwinter in an area. When snow cover is high, making food difficult to find, American robins move farther south. When snow cover is low and food is more readily available, they seem to overwinter in northern locales in higher numbers.

Sightings – Badgers and Shrikes
            Frank Fassino in Mercer contacted me on 12/21 with the following story. His son Jeff lives just down the road from him and called him excitedly on the phone to look out his window – a badger was running toward his house. The badger had been down Jeff’s driveway, and walked around his house, before heading toward Frank’s place. Frank looked out the window and sure enough, a badger was running down his sidewalk, then up his driveway and onto his deck, all the time running and clearly hunting. Eventually the badger gave up on finding prey at Frank’s place and headed across Echo Lake for better pickings. Frank noted two things: one, the badger was able to stay on top of the snow the entire time because of the crust we’ve had so far this winter. And two, the badger was an amazingly fast runner for such a squat creature.
            Mary and I had a northern shrike visit our feeders on Dec. 9, and then on Dec. 22, just as we were about to head out for the Manitowish Waters Bird Count, Mary noticed the birds at the feeders had all frozen stockstill, a behavior usually indicating a predator nearby. Mary couldn’t find anything lurking in the trees, but came outside and told me what had happened, and as I was walking toward the car, there it was – a northern shrike in the top of one of our black ash trees right above our feeders.

Celestial Events
            While winter solstice has passed, our latest sunrises of the year occur from today, 12/27, through 1/7 when the sun finally starts setting a minute later for the first time since June 10. That will be a welcome moment indeed!!
            On 12/29, look before dawn for Saturn just one degree north of the crescent moon.

Celestial Websites
If you’re looking for a great website on all things celestial, there’s lots of them - try, or, or

End of the Year Thought
            If you have joy, you have everything.

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 12/13/13

A Northwoods Almanac for December 13 – 26, 2013     

Winter Finch Forecast
Every year Ron Pittaway, a Canadian ornithologist, issues his “Winter Finch Forecast,” which, while he focuses on Ontario, can be extrapolated to the rest of the eastern half of the continent. The last two years he’s been dead-on, so his insights are well regarded.                                                                                                                        Unfortunately, Pittaway says this year looks rather sparse in comparison to last winter’s significant irruptions. Redpolls, nuthatches, crossbills, and grosbeaks are predicted to mostly stay put in boreal Canada, taking advantage of good cone and mountain ash crops across the region. The key trees affecting finch movements in the Northeast are spruces, pines, hemlock, birches and mountain ashes. Here’s what he says:                        Ontario’s cone crops (except white pine) and deciduous seed/berry crops are generally above average to excellent. Very good to bumper spruce cone crops extend across Canada’s boreal forest from Yukon (bumper) east to Atlantic Canada, with rare exceptions . . . Finches this winter should be widespread given the almost continent-wide extent of the seed crops. Limited movements southward to traditional wintering areas . . . are expected.                                                                                                                                    “Birders in the northeast may still see evening grosbeaks this year as their populations appear to be on the upswing following spruce budworm outbreaks in the far north, and white-winged crossbills are expected to range widely, though not in the numbers seen in recent years.                                                                                                            As for the non-finches that sometimes show up in big numbers in our area, the one species I look forward to most is the bohemian waxwing. Unfortunately, Pittaway believes “most bohemian waxwings will remain in the boreal forest this winter because mountain ash berry crops are very good to bumper from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador.”                                                                                                                                                So far this winter, Pittaway is right on the money. I haven’t had a single report of a redpoll, pine siskin, purple finch, or evening or pine grosbeak.                                               
Losing Heat
            Here’s a newsflash – it’s cold! The temperature this morning (12/8) dipped to minus 18°F, though the wind had finally died down. The temperature the previous night had dropped to -16°, and our highs have consistently been in the single digits. Two weeks ago during the opening weekend of the gun-deer season, low temperatures and strong winds caused many hunters to pack it up early and head inside. Whether the dip in harvest numbers can be attributed to the weather will be endlessly debated, but the conditions were just one more proof of how nature, and cold, always bats last.
            The deer were undoubtedly cold, too, and likely sought the most sheltered areas to hunker down. Their laying low, coupled with the decreased intensity of the rut due to the late date of the hunt, likely also played a role in the lower harvest numbers.
Cold changes behaviors. Deer, like all animals seeking to endure a northern winter, have had no choice but to make their survival of cold into an art form. There are many ways to lose heat, and the least deadly must be utilized at the right times.
            Animals are at the mercy of four physical forces that consort to drain them of every calorie of heat they possess. I’ve grouped these forces—radiation, evaporation, conduction, and convection—together into the acronym RECC, because of the wreck animals will find themselves in if they don’t pay attention to them.
The deer on opening day were losing heat through all four forces, as were the hunters. First, they were all losing heat by simple radiation—warm bodies emit energy. Radiation occurs even in a vacuum, so just by standing around, animals (including humans) lose heat.
They were also losing heat to evaporation, because heat is lost when water changes from a liquid to a vapor. Every breath pumps heat away.
They were also losing heat to convection – to the wind – a factor determined by the total area of exposure, the intensity of the wind, and by the difference in temperature between the temperature of one’s body surface and the outside air. That day the difference was about 91 degrees, while this morning (12/8) the difference is 116 degrees!
            Then every time something cold is touched, like snow, more heat is lost through conduction. The rate of conduction is heavily influenced by the thermal conductivity of the material that skin is in contact with. Thus dry snow conducts less heat away than wet snow since the conductivity of heat skyrockets with greater water content. Animals know well the commandment “Thou shall stay dry.”
            So, a deer, or any other animal, has to pick its poison relative to losing heat. Is it better on a given night for a deer to bed down in the snow, conducting heat away to the snow, but reducing the loss of heat via the wind?  The deer surely know the comfort difference between laying down on wet snow or dry snow, and they surely know the difference that convection makes, because you rarely find deer beds out in the open. Without taking a course in physics, deer know to bed down in areas with dense cover that stops the wind and reduces the snow on the ground. They may not be smart enough to build shelters, but they know how to utilize the natural shelter that microhabitats provide.
            The same holds true for the chickadees at your feeder. You do your neighborhood birds a great favor by planting conifers near the feeders that cut down the wind, and by placing your feeders on the east or south side of the house, away from the prevailing coldest winter winds.
Conserving energy isn’t optional for animals in the wild – it’s often the bottom line on whether an individual will see the spring.

Local Christmas Bird Counts
The 21st annual Manitowish Waters Audubon Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for Saturday, December 21. We need people to actively help us search for birds within the count circle, or to just count birds visiting their bird feeders that day. If you live within a 7.5-mile radius of the intersection of Highways 51 and County W, and want to get involved counting your feeder, please contact me through my e-mail at or by phone at 476-2828. Counting birds at your feeder is the simplest way to help, takes very little time or expertise, and is our area of greatest need. Winter birds concentrate around feeders, so we tend to get our best counts from folks just watching out their windows.
            The Christmas Bird Count for the Minocqua area, which uses the intersection of Hwy. 51 and 70 West as its center point, is organized through the North Lakeland Discovery Center, and is scheduled for Saturday, 12/14. If you want to help out on that count, please call Guy David at 588-3694. They’re in particular need of feeder counters, and since many of you watch your feeders throughout the day, why not help out if you can?

Sightings – Loon Rescue, Badger, and Ice-up
            Courtney Wright, the Assistant Director of Education at the Northwoods Wildlife Center in Minocqua, sent me several photos of a loon rescue that took place on Squirrel Lake on 12/4. Carol Bohlin found the loon trapped in a small opening on the lake and called the NWC who responded with a team of four people. They were able to skid a boat across the ice and eventually net the juvenile loon. They then transferred the loon to Marge Gibson’s Raptor Education Group in Antigo for treatment and hopeful release.
            We visited family for three days over Thanksgiving and returned home to find that a badger had dug four large holes next to our house in a likely successful predation of the chubby chipmunks that had for months been hauling sunflower seeds from our feeders down to their den. We’ve seen no sign of the badger since our return.
            The Manitowish River iced-over below our house on 12/4, a relatively average date – the river always ices over a week or more after most of our lakes due to the river’s velocity of flow.

Celestial Events
            The Geminid meteor shower is often one of the year’s best, but viewing this year will be hampered by the waxing gibbous moon which doesn’t set until an hour before dawn. The best viewing will therefore be in the pre-dawn hours of 12/14 when the meteor shower peaks. However, since the moon sets an hour earlier for each day before this, you can also try the pre-dawn hours on 12/12 and 12/13. The radiant of the shower is near the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini, though the meteors may appear anywhere in the sky – look to see a meteor every minute or two.
            The full moon occurs on 12/17. The moon’s path across the night sky attains its highest trajectory of the year in December, so combined with our snowcover, this should be an especially bright night to go exploring.

Science and Spirit
            In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “I spend a lot of time thinking about our relationships with land, how we are given so much, and what we might give back. I try to work through the equations of reciprocity and responsibility, the whys and wherefores of building sustainable relationships with ecosystems . . . This is why I made my daughters learn to garden – so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I’m gone . . . Gardens are simultaneously a material and spiritual undertaking . . . Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
            If I had one Christmas wish for everyone, it would be to love where you live, and to feel that the gifts of the land and water given back to you are your love returned. That relationship, that reverence for one another, would be a transformation we need, because it’s very difficult to harm someone who gives you love.

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. Merry Christmas!

NWA 11/29/13

A Northwoods Almanac for Nov. 29 – Dec. 12, 2013   

Deer Hunting Stats
I’m keenly interested in the deer hunt from the perspective of one who broadly observes the natural world and who often sees the extensive impacts of too many deer on understory trees, shrubs, and herbaceous species. The plant impacts cascade down to alter food and cover habitats for birds, small mammals, amphibians, various insects like butterflies, and many other species. Thus, I try to pay attention to harvest numbers, and how we try to manage deer on the landscape. Here’s a summary of Wisconsin’s deer-hunting statistics in even-numbered years (for the sake of brevity) since 1966:

Archery Harvest
% Hunter Success
Gun Harvest
% Hunter Success
Total Harvest

Analyzing this data requires an understanding of a dizzying array of factors, all of which combine to create endless discussion and controversy. I certainly claim no truth, particularly any with a capital “T”, but I do have some thoughts and questions:
 - Note the dramatic increase in archery harvest success and the percentage of hunter success over nearly 50 years. Archery now accounts for around one-quarter of all deer harvested.
- The up-and-down variability in harvests from year-to-year indicates just how many factors are involved in the hunt. Hunter success clearly is not a simple and direct result of a high deer population. (I did not include the buck vs. doe/fawn harvest numbers, but they tell an essential part of the story as well, and require interpretation. Harvesting antlerless deer helps reduce deer numbers and has been used effectively to do so.)
- The total harvest today is akin to that seen in the 1990s, and well above the previous decades.
- The number harvested in 2000 was the extreme high – nearly 100,000 above any other year (including the odd-numbered years not listed). Was this a “perfect storm,” and what were its implications?
- I often hear that the reason for our recent lower deer harvest numbers is that deer habitat is changing for the negative – forests are aging – and thus we need far more tree harvest to support the deer. I question that conclusion, though clearly deer prefer younger forests. We harvested over ½ million deer in 2006 (and in 2007) – there’s simply no way forest habitat could have changed that much in 6 years to cause the harvest decline we’ve seen in the last four years.
- Note the variability in percentage of hunter success, which begs the question: What is a reasonable expectation for success? If 4 out of 10 hunters experience success, is that reasonable? Success through the mid-1980s was less than 3 out of 10 hunters. I remember my father-in-law, who passed away three years ago at age 95, saying that in his prime hunting years even seeing a deer during the hunt was considered a pretty big deal, and he was an excellent, mobile hunter, not just one hunched over a bait pile.
            There are dozens of other thoughts and questions to ponder here, but the major question that bedevils anyone who loves the Northwoods is: What should we consider a “normal” hunt? And more importantly: What should we consider to be a desirable deer population within our overall ecological framework?
            My sensibility, when looking at the big picture of sustaining all native species, is that deer populations are still too high statewide. The trophic cascade they cause is real and serious. However, local variability in numbers is another set of stories, which adds yet other layers of complexity to consider.
One way or another, I find the discussion very challenging for everyone to get their arms completely around because so many factors and values enter into it.
            In the meantime, the hunt continues, the temperature is 7° (at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, 11/24), the wind is blowing hard (the wind chill is -23°), and I’m cold just sitting near the window. Despite our efforts, our 106-year-old home still loses heat quickly on a windy winter day. It’s the same home that Mary’s grandparents, her mother and father, and her brothers all hunted from beginning in the early 1900s. They took their share over many decades, and there’s still plenty of deer out there, as there will be in the future. My most immediate desire is for the ones jumping our fence and eating our apple trees to meet their demise.

            In the endless arguments over deer management, we often lose sight of the white-tail’s beauty, strength, and grace. One book I go back to again and again is Richard Nelson’s brilliant work, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America. He writes, “I realize that deer have always lingered somewhere beyond my understanding, elusive as moonlight on water. Enchanting, fascinating, beloved, bewildering strangers. Yet I am driven to know about them, to comprehend their lives more fully, to fathom more clearly my own relationship to them, and to consider their existence as wild animals on a continent they have shared intimately – for thousands of years – with humankind.
            “No scientist, no shaman, no stalker, no sentimentalist will ever understand the deer . . . and for this I am grateful. I am possessed by a powerful curiosity about this animal, but what I desire most is to experience and acclaim its mysteries. In our explorations of scientific and practical information about deer, we should always keep in mind what the elders and philosophers teach: that while knowledge dispels some mysteries, it deepens others.”

Sightings – Carolina Wren, Snow Buntings, and Bobcat
            Colleen Henrich in Lake Tomahawk has had a Carolina wren visiting her feeders since mid-November. Since the range of Carolina wrens barely reaches the Illinois/Wisconsin border, Colleen has a very uncommon sighting for the Northwoods. However, Carolina wrens are known to wander widely, their roving described by Sam Robbins in 1991 in this manner: “The simplest way to summarize their status . . . is to list it as rare at all times, but apt to turn up anywhere in Wisconsin in any season of the year.”
            Cherie Smith sent me photos of snow buntings that she observed in her yard, noting that “This is only the second time I have ever seen them at our place in Lake Tomahawk.” Snow buntings rarely remain the winter in our area, not because they can’t tolerate the cold, but because they’re ground feeders and finding food in our typically deep snow is simply too difficult. Most, if not all, should be well south of here by now.
            For over a month, a bobcat has been occasionally hanging around the birdfeeders during the day at the North Lakeland Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters, apparently having failed to read that it is supposed to be secretive.

Christmas Gift Ideas
            I’ve been reading two books by Robin Wall Kimmerer that are both highly informative and beautifully written: Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History and Braiding Sweetgrass.  
I also recommend nearly all the books published by Kollath+Stensaas Publishers in Duluth because all focus on the natural history of the Northwoods. Among them, consider Cora Mollen’s Fascinating Fungi of the Northwoods, Butterflies of the Northwoods by Duluth naturalist Larry Weber, Orchids of the Northwoods by Kim and Cindy Risen, and Dragonflies of the Northwoods by Kurt Mead.
Mary and I both extensively use Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest by Black and Judziewicz to identify herbaceous plants.
             We own waterproof binoculars, and wouldn’t be without them on any hike or paddle. Try Eagle Optics ( in Middleton for high quality, lifetime guaranteed, waterproof, and relatively inexpensive binoculars.
Lastly, consider giving gift certificates to local organizations and facilities that offer great outdoor recreation opportunities like Winter Park, the North Lakeland Discovery Center, and many others. You might even consider tempting someone into something they might never do otherwise, like dogsledding – try Two Moons Kennel in Springstead or Wolfsong Adventures in Bayfield.

Celestial Events
            Today, November 29, we are down to 9 hours of daylight, and headed for winter solstice where we’ll bottom out at 8 hours and 39 minutes before turning the corner. November 30 marks the first time on average since March 6 that our average high temperature drops below freezing (32°F).
            Keep your ears open for news of Comet ISON and whether it has become visible to the naked eye.

            And on 12/1, look for Saturn just over one degree north of the crescent moon. The new moon occurs on 12/2.