Saturday, March 29, 2014

NWA 3/21/14

A Northwoods Almanac for March 21 – April 3, 2014

Migratory Birds and Windows Don’t Mix
In a recent analysis of almost two dozen studies and over 92,000 records, federal scientists have found that between 365 and 988 million birds are likely killed in the United States each year as a result of collisions with buildings.
             The study (“Bird/building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability,” by Scott Loss, et al, in The Condor, February 2014) provides strong evidence that building collisions are second only to feral and free-ranging pet cats (estimated to kill as many as 3 billion birds each year) as the largest source of direct, human-caused mortality for U.S. birds.
The researchers found that roughly 56% of mortality occurred in collisions with low-rises, 44% with residences, and 1% with high-rises. For residences, that translates to between 159 and 378 million birds (median 253 million) that died from window hits.
So, with migration soon to swing into motion, what can each of us do to lessen the number of birds hitting our windows? The most important goal is to make windows – which birds can’t see as people do – visible. Here are some easy tips:
Affix a pattern of tape to windows to help make the glass visible to birds. American Bird Conservancy has created a translucent tape product especially for preventing home window collisions (see  
                        If you don’t want to alter the glass itself, you can stretch lightweight netting or screen over the window. The netting must be several inches in front of the window, so birds don’t hit the glass after hitting the net. Several companies sell screens or other barriers that can be attached with suction cups or eye hooks. 
                        Decals can work if spaced properly. To be effective, decals must be spaced no more than four inches apart horizontally or two inches apart vertically – the shape of the decal apparently has no impact.
                        For much more information, read the 58-page publication, Bird-friendly Building Design (available at

Planting Time Coming – The Importance of Using Native Plants
                        Since spring is a great time of year to plant perennial trees, shrubs, and herbaceous species, the question is always what to plant. One book with particularly good answers is Douglas Thallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.
            Thallamy’s thesis is that there are not enough native plants left in the “wild” to support the diversity of wildlife most of us would like to see survive. He contends that we need “reconciliation ecology,” which he defines as the redesign of human habitats to include the lives of other species.
Thallamy, a professional entomologist, argues for the vital role of planting urban/suburban yards and gardens with native plants as the means of saving wildlife. Our native insect fauna cannot, or will not, use alien plants for food; thus insect populations in areas with non-native plants are much smaller than areas with all native species. Insects are very good at converting plant tissues to insect tissue, which is used by higher animals. In fact, a large percentage of the world’s fauna depends entirely on insects to access the energy stored in plants. Birds are a great example – 96%, or nearly all of the terrestrial bird species in North America, rely on protein-rich insects to feed their young.
Some 50,000 alien plants have colonized the US, and the problem is that 90% of insects are specialists – most insects can only eat vegetation from plants with which they share an evolutionary history. Since every plant species has a unique taste, digestibility, and toxicity, native insects typically don’t eat alien plants because they haven’t coevolved to synchronize their life cycle with them. The leaf chemistry of non-native plants is simply too hard to overcome for native insects.
            The bottom line? Plant native species if you want to support wildlife.
           Numerous other books also provide excellent information on what to plant to attract wildlife. See Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds by Mariette Nowak.

Sightings – Eagles working on nest, albino chickadee, northern shrike, three-legged deer
            For well over a decade, we’ve watched an eagle nest across the Manitowish River from our house, and on 3/9, we noticed a pair of eagles sitting on the snow-covered nest. Eagles typically are incubating eggs by April 1, with chicks hatching by May 1, the dates varying with weather conditions. Right now, the eagles need a snow shovel to get to the bottom of their nest, but one hopes the snow will melt in time for the female to lay her eggs.
            Warren Luy on Squirrel Lake Road has had an albino chickadee visiting his feeder.
            On 3/11, Mary and Callie watched a northern shrike that was keeping a close eye on our feeders. The many songbirds that frequent our feeders left immediately and didn’t return for quite a while!
            Don Janssen sent us a photo of a three-legged deer eating sunflower seeds from one of his feeders near Squirrel Lake.
And here is an anticipated sighting: In our records over the last 17 years, red-winged blackbirds have returned on average to the Manitowish River on 3/21 – today! We’ll see if the weather breaks enough for a few hardy souls to make the flight north. They have been seen in southern Wisconsin as of 3/12, so it’s certainly possible, but the weather will have the last say.

Tundra Swan Hunt?
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress Annual Spring County Conservation Meeting is set for April 14. Question 36 on the ballot reads:Are you in favor of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress asking the Wisconsin Legislature to give the WDNR authority to develop a hunting season for tundra swans?”
Their rationale is as follows:
The tundra swan is the most common swan in North American and has very few predators . . . Tundra swans tend to favor larger bodies of water in great numbers as compared to trumpeter swans, which commonly stay in smaller groups and prefer smaller ponds and marshes. The trumpeter swan is well established as a breeding swan in Wisconsin and was removed from the state endangered list in 2009. Studies have shown tundra swan population numbers are currently rising, even with hunting allowed in other states. Each year tens of thousands of tundra swans migrate through Wisconsin with recent peak population counts on the Mississippi River of over 30,000 swans.
This rationale leaves out an important major issue – the close physical similarity between trumpeter and tundra swans. While it’s easy to tell them apart by voice, it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart by sight, even when they’re relatively close.
Thus, shooting trumpeter swans by mistake would likely occur, and that would truly be a shame. Trumpeters were extirpated from Wisconsin in the 1880s and were reintroduced to the state by the DNR beginning in 1987. Over the next quarter century, at a cost of slightly more than $1 million, the birds have come back from zero to between 1,000 and 1,500 in Wisconsin with 214 nesting pairs now gracing 23 counties.
My take is this – in weighing the costs vs. benefits of this proposed hunt, the potential risks of shooting a species that we worked so long and hard to bring back override any potential benefits of a hunt.           

Sale of DNR Lands
Since I’m treading, hopefully lightly, some political waters, I may as well jump in a bit further. Under the Authority of s.23.145, of Wisconsin Statutes, Wisconsin Act 20 was introduced in 2013, and directs the Natural Resources Board to make at least 10,000 acres of state land available for sale by June 30, 2017. The law stipulates that land being offered for sale shall be under the jurisdiction of the Department and located outside of project boundaries that were established as of May 1, 2013.
There are certainly some state-owned lands that are isolated and/or some we could do without, but the initial list that has been circulated for review includes 40 acres of land within a State Natural Area boundary – the Ridgeway Pines Relict SNA in Iowa County. The Ridgeway Pine Relict features eight separate pine relicts set among sandstone cliffs, numerous rock outcrops, shallow caves and rock shelters. Pine relicts are southern Wisconsin pine forests that have persisted since the last glacier receded some 12,000 years ago when a cooler climate was favorable for the growth of pine forests. Part of the site is also old field, and the intent of its inclusion was to restore it to mesic prairie and/or oak savanna below the cliffs.
To get more information and form your own opinions, see the initial list put together by the DNR at

The Difference Between Localized Weather and Global Climate Data
Continuing the nearly 29-year streak of above-average global monthly temperatures, January came in as the fourth warmest such month on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This makes it the warmest January since 2007, and was the 38th-straight January with a global temperature above the 20th-century average.
The global warmth came in stark contrast to the “polar vortex” induced conditions the eastern U.S. and Canada experienced, as well as the cold and stormy conditions in the UK and parts of Russia. Unusually high temperatures elsewhere more than compensated for these cold regions. For example, Southern Hemisphere land temperatures were the highest on record for the month.
In other words, it may have been very cold in the Midwestern and Northeastern U.S., causing all of us to now be genuinely obsessed with the coming of spring, but globally, the planet’s hot streak continues unabated.

Celestial Events

Look for Venus in the early morning sky near the waning crescent moon on the 26th and 27th of March. And remember that spring equinox occurred yesterday, and we’re continuing to receive 3 minutes more of sunlight every day – spring is coming despite what seem as evidence to the contrary!

NWA 3/7/14

A Northwoods Almanac for March 7 – 20, 2014

Red-throated Loon in Minocqua!
The most exciting, albeit brief bird sighting so far this winter occurred on 2/18 when Sally Murwin spotted a loon-like bird on a patch of water kept open by a neighbor’s aerator along the south shore of Lake Minocqua. The bird was actively diving and fishing, and appeared quite healthy, but it was smaller than the common loons that frequent our area during the breeding season.
Still not quite sure what the birds was, Sally called the Northwoods Wildlife Center to come out and rescue it, which they were unable to even try to do, given the bird’s very active behavior. However, they were able to identify it – a winter plumage red-throated loon, which I understand is the first red-throated loon ever recorded in Oneida County.
This sighting is a particularly unusual, because red-throated loons breed mainly on remote ponds, primarily in coastal tundra habitat in the Arctic. They begin migrating in late August and early September, the easternmost birds appearing along the Atlantic Coast in late September, and then peaking in big numbers in November – for instance, 8,262 individuals were observed on 11/14/96 near Cape May, NJ. Their migration routes often take them first to Lake Ontario where they stage by the thousands, while some migrate even further inland in the fall along Lake Ontario, turning south to western Pennsylvania, and then crossing eastward across Pennsylvania to the East Coast.
Many red-throated loons winter on the Pacific Coast from southern Alaska to Baja California, while the eastern birds winter on the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to Florida. However, small numbers also winter on the lower Great Lakes, and very rarely on other large interior lakes or rivers.
I emailed Ryan Brady, a WDNR research scientist and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative coordinator, about the red-throated loon’s presence, and he cited the probable reason for its visit: “Extensive ice cover across the Great Lakes has pushed waterfowl overwintering there to move inland in search of open water. Some are finding it, others aren't. Reports of stranded waterfowl (mostly divers) are being found in above average numbers across the region and inland reports of ‘sea ducks’ like White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and other birds usually out on the big open water are up as well.”
Thus, this bird was likely wintering on Lake Superior and was forced southward as the lake froze.
Two days later, Sally emailed, saying, “Yesterday, the eagles got our little friend. I saw about 10 eagles out in the middle of the lake - most of them took off, and one stayed and was eating. After that, and all day, I checked to see if I would see my friend in the open water. I checked again this morning - nothing.”
But . . . there is hope. The literature on red-throated loons says this: “Other loons need to run up to 100 meters or more before taking flight from water; red-throated loons need less distance and can even launch from land.”
So, it’s possible the eagles were lunching on some other prey, and the loon is somewhere south of here – let’s hope so!

Sightings – Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Short-tailed Weasel
Rolf Ethun had a barred owl perch right outside his patio door overlooking his bird feeder. Rolf noted, “Though I have seen many barred owls, never have I seen one this close up - what a beautiful bird. Unfortunately for the owl there wasn't a bird or critter in sight the whole time it was there. I watched it for about 45 minutes before it gave up and flew away.”
Will Conway in Lac du Flambeau sent me a sequence of photos of a male pileated woodpecker trying to figure out how to get on his suet holder.
Willy Bauerle in Lac du Flambeau on White Sand Lake sent a photo of short-tailed weasel who visits his feeder every morning at 8 a.m.

Snow Water Equivalent
Rod Sharka thought readers might be interested in the "Snow Water Equivalent," which provides an estimate of how much water is "on the ground" that can potentially run-off into rivers and lakes. Rod has become acquainted with this measurement recently since taking over Peter Dring's precipitation reporting duties for NOAA in mid-January.
The Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) value is a measurement of the amount of water in the total snow on the ground (equivalent to inches of rainfall). Rod noted, “Considering how fluffy and airy the snow seems to be on a cold day when shoveling, I believe the assumption is that it doesn't contain much moisture. However, since taking 4" snow core samples weekly, melting them down, and measuring the liquid water in a calibrated rain gauge, I was quite surprised at the results. I took a core sample yesterday (2/21) from an undisturbed area. The snow depth was 30". The water equivalent measured is equal to 5.69" of rain. Good news for recharging the local watersheds this spring.”
On 2/23, Rod took a couple more core samples: “My corrected measurement for what is now a 29" total snow depth (due to settling) is 5.83" water equivalent.”
If anyone is interested in learning more about voluntary precipitation monitoring and reporting, check out, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, an agency that gathers precipitation and weather event data for the National Weather Service.

Visitations to the Ice Caves Near Cornucopia in Bayfield County
As of February 26th, nearly 78,000 people have visited the ice caves, a number far greater than any previous year. In 2009, the last year with accessible ice caves, the visitation for January and February was 8,400. I wonder about the economic impact this has had on that area!
If you wish to visit, go during the week. The weekends have been extremely busy - cars have been parked along Hwy. 13 for more than 1.5 miles in either direction.
It’s impossible to predict how long will the ice caves be accessible. Make sure to call the Apostle Islands Ice Line at 715-779-3397 ext. 3 for the latest information.

Proposals to Hunt Albino Deer and Tundra Swans Statewide
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress Annual Spring County Conservation Meeting is set for April 14.  Several controversial proposals have been added to the 2014 WCC spring ballot including Question 35, which reads: “Would you favor legalizing the harvest of white and albino deer statewide?”
The rationale stated is as follows: “Albino, white and piebald deer have a recessive genetic mutation that causes a total absence (in the case of albinos) or lack of (in white and piebald deer) body pigment . . .
“In the wild, white fur and markings place these animals at a selective disadvantage because they lack the typical protective coloration and are more visible, making them more susceptible to predators. These animals often have other recessive traits and physical maladies such as poor eyesight in albinos, because of their pink eyes. These recessive genetic conditions are quite rare (estimated at less than one percent under natural conditions) and the phenomenon is often localized in a specific area. From a strictly biological perspective, there is no reason to protect white deer . . .”
            In response to this proposal, Marshia and Mike Crowley in Boulder Junction wrote to me: “We have had the privilege of observing a line of albino deer for the past 20 years and can tell anyone that they live long and healthy lives, and the does we have observed have had healthy fawns at 8 and 9 years of age (mostly brown fawns). The argument for keeping them out of the genetic pool just doesn't fly, and especially here in the Northwoods; their "winter" camouflage protects them for a considerable time period. They are special to so many people in this area, and I would think anywhere else they appear in the state. Boulder Junction even has economic benefit from them, as many people come to the area to try to get a glimpse of these ‘ghost’ deer.”
            It’s important to note that the statement, “From a strictly biological perspective, there is no reason to protect white deer,” is true. It’s equally true, however, that there is no reason to hunt white deer either. The fact that albinism is a recessive trait means little, because the term “recessive” doesn’t mean the trait needs to be removed from the gene pool. Most humans have many recessive traits occurring within them, the vast majority of which have no impact.
What I’ve learned about genetics over the years is that it’s really very complex. While we would like genetics to be black and white, it actually is all shades of gray. In the case of albino animals, they possess all the normal characteristics of their species, but their cells can’t produce melanin. Without melanin, an animal, or parts of that animal, typically appear white or pink. Thus, an animal can be a pure albino or a partial albino. As I understand it, the most critical factor in producing melanin is the presence of a special enzyme called tyrosinase – the “TYR” gene. If the TYR gene fails completely, an all-white, light-eyed albino animal will be born. However, the TYR gene can be altered in dozens of ways, producing other albino variations, such as albinos with light eyes but with some color on their fur.
The TYR gene isn’t the only player in the melanin game either; other hormones and proteins also impact melanin production, and their presence is determined by additional special genes. In house mice, for instance, a total of 130 genes are known to affect coat color, so for a layman to determine visually whether an animal is albino or not can be very difficult.
The largest problem with any assumption of albinism negatively affecting deer is that no behavioral studies exist on albino deer. One myth is that they are ostracized within a herd and thus have difficulty finding a mate. But within a herd structure, at least as is witnessed by many observers in our area, there’s no evidence that white deer are particularly ostracized in any manner. In fact, the number of pictures of mixed herds of deer mingling without incident suggests they get along fine.
For me, the final proof of their fitness is simply this: They have survived, and thrived, over time. If they were significantly unfit, they would have been culled out a long time ago.
            So, the argument for hunting them appears to comes down to this: do rarity and beauty enhance the value, and therefore justify the protection, of white/albino deer, or not? For me, rarity and beauty, not to mention the economic benefit to the area, are the trump cards, and thus I would vote no to the hunt.

Celestial Events

Ron Winter corrected a statement I made in my last column regarding Sirius being the closest star at 8 1/2 light years: “The bright star Alpha Centauri is 4 1/2 light years distant. Actually, it is part of a triple star system, Alpha Centauri A and B, along with Proxima Centauri at 4 1/4 light years. But this certainly doesn't diminish Sirius in any way, it is pretty spectacular.”

NWA 2/21/14

A Northwoods Almanac for February 21 – March 6, 2014 

Weight of Snow
On Sunday, Mary and I shoveled off our roof in anticipation of the warm days forecast for this week, and the depth and weight of the snow absolutely exhausted us. We had led a snowshoe trip the previous morning at Minocqua’s Raven Trail, and we’ve been out nearly every day skiing or snowshoeing, so we were well aware of how deep the snow has been this winter. But moving it somewhere else was another story, one which made me wonder about the weight of snow and how trees are adapted to withstand the mass. As you might recall, we had a major snowstorm around Christmas that coated trees with heavy, wet snow, and many trees in our area still are carrying the burdensome legacy of that storm.
Spruce and balsam trees evolved the first line of defense against heavy snow and ice storms by selecting a spire-shaped growth form that acts like a steep, pitched roof, allowing the snow to slide off. Plus, their pliant softwood allows the branches to bend with the weight, slough off the snow, and then spring back. Still, snow does get caught in the foliage. In his book Life in the Cold, Peter Marchand notes that in a coastal region where snows are full of moisture, the snow retained in a 40-foot-tall balsam can reach an astounding weight of 6,600 pounds, but the trees still survive.   
As a rule of thumb, saturated snow weighs approximately 20 pounds per cubic foot. However, the moisture content of snow can range from approximately 1% to 33%, so snow may potentially weigh from 1 pound per cubic foot to over 21 pounds per cubic foot. That’s a lot of weight on a person’s shovel, and on a tree’s branches.
Ice, too, can affect tree growth and survival. Along the surface of the snow, damage from blowing ice particles can pit or wear away the bark on the windward side of a tree. The ice particles can also strip needle foliage, increasing water loss and drying. Or ice storms can increase the weight of branches so dramatically that winds can break off branches altogether – branches that would have supported new growth in the spring. The resulting trees are then often lopsided, leaning toward the heavier foliated side, which increases the chances that they will eventually tip over due to wind or snow.

Winter Severity Index
The winter severity index (WSI) is a measurement to help gauge the effects of winter weather on deer survival. One point is added for each day the temperature falls below zero and another point for each day the snow depth is greater than 18 inches. Wisconsin’s WSI measurements are recorded annually from Dec. 1 through April 30 at 34 northern Wisconsin stations (local stations include Eagle River, Escanaba Lake, Gile, Mercer, Park Falls, Rhinelander, Saxon, Tomahawk, Trout Lake, and Woodruff). Winter conditions are considered mild if the station accumulates fewer than 50 points, moderate if between 51 and 80 points, severe if between 81 and 100, and very severe if over 100.                         In February, the WSI only gives a good indication of the potential for a severe winter. It’s really March when the index numbers tell us how well white-tailed deer are faring. In very severe winters, up to 30% of the deer herd may be lost. Our current numbers are above average for northern Wisconsin but not as high as the severe winter of 1995-96 when Iron County set the state record with 189 points and an estimated 150,000 deer died throughout the northern counties.           
The WSI doesn’t tell the whole story by any means. Last May, we were still waiting for spring to arrive, and its very late arrival had a significant negative impact on the deer population. So, timing matters, too, as does an array of other factors.           

Predator Study on Deer
An article in the Milwaukee Journal recently summarized some preliminary figures from a four-year research study to determine the causes of mortality in white-tailed deer in Wisconsin. Deer were radio-collared at two sites: the town of Winter in the northern forest region of Wisconsin, and Shiocton in the farmland region of southeastern Wisconsin.
The rates and causes of mortality in the northern forest from three years of data for yearling and adult deer of both sexes were:
Human hunting – 43%
Starvation – 9%
Coyote – 7%
Wolf – 6%
Roadkill – 6%
If you add poaching, which was an additional 8%, the human hunt gains even greater importance. Thus, human hunting causes nearly twice as much deer mortality as the other four causes combined.
An important note: On average, 73% of female deer survived the year, compared to 47% of adult bucks.
Fawns were also tracked, in this case daily through summer, and the eight-week survival average was 58% in the northern study area. Predators took 79% of the fawns that died. Black bears killed the most (9 individuals), with coyotes (6) and bobcats (6) tied for second. Unknown predators took 11 fawns.
In the eastern farmland area, the leading cause of fawn mortality was starvation and other natural causes (50%), followed by predators at 36%. Coyotes killed the most fawns (8 individuals), while black bear, bobcat, and a domestic dog killed one each. Unknown predators took 4 fawns.
The article notes that while wolves receive extensive blame for lowered populations of deer, the study refutes that. Coyotes are far more responsible for taking more adult deer and fawns in both northern and southern regions.
Final numbers won’t be available until late 2015 when the study on adult and yearling deer concludes.
Additional studies are in the pipeline, which is good news for the continued direction of science-based deer management, as well as the science-based management of various predator species.
My take: Predators need prey, and prey need predators. Each balances the populations of the other. Thus, it’s in everyone’s best interest to understand what those balances actually are and how our actions impact them.

Barred Owls at Feeders
I’ve received several reports, and some wonderful photos (from Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk), of barred owls recently appearing at people’s bird feeders. While this makes for great photo ops, the hard truth is that these owls are likely starving. Barred owls are residents of deep forests, not backyards, and are considered a seminocturnal to nocturnal hunter, although daytime hunting has been observed on occasion. Barred owls rely on secondary tree cavities for nests, so they’re most often associated with large trees in old forests. In fact, barred owls are often used as an indicator species in the management of old forests.
Since barred owls are essentially nonmigratory, and usually stay within their home range, they’re not often seen outside of their forested territories. However, the literature says that during winters of low prey availability, barred owls may become nomadic in search of prey. They are a true generalist predator, consuming a variety of birds up to the size of grouse; small mammals up to the size of rabbits; and in warm weather amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates.
I’d bet that our deep snow has made for superb protection of small mammals huddling within the snow, so the owls are now forced out of their home range to be looking for birds. And where are the best places to find birds? At backyard feeders!
As a side-note, a barred owl’s home-range is quite large. Radio-tracking studies have found that in Minnesota, 13 birds had an average home range of 674 acres, while 7 birds in Michigan had an average home range of 696 acres.
Barred owls are thought to prefer old forests due to the greater availability of potential cavity and nest sites, more open understories which facilitate easier hunting, and closed overhead canopy which provides greater thermoregulation and protection from mobbing.

Sightings - Pine Grosbeak and Shrike
Jo Knapp on Rosalind Lake in Presque Isle had a single male pine grosbeak visit her feeders last week. It then disappeared for a few days and then reappeared again last Sunday. Jo may be seeing the only pine grosbeak in this entire area – I know of no one else who has seen one this winter.
            Jim Mogg had a northern shrike visit his feeders south of Rhinelander, resulting in the complete disappearance of all of his songbirds until the shrike left.

Celestial Events
            Look after sunset in the south for Sirius, the first star of the evening, and the brightest star by far in the night sky. Sirius is “just” 8 ½ light years away, so is the closest of all stars outside our solar system to the Earth. As the evening progress, a “winter diamond” forms, with Sirius at the bottom, exceptionally bright Jupiter at the top, and two bright stars on either side – Procyon to the left, and Betelgeuse (in Orion) to the right.

            As of today, we are one month away from spring equinox on March 20. Hard to believe, but on average, robins usually first arrive on that day. They may be insane robins, but they’re robins nonetheless!

NWA 2/7/14

A Northwoods Almanac for Feb. 7-20, 2014 

Sightings – Varied Thrush
Kathy Cieszynski in Eagle River has had a varied thrush visiting her feeders throughout January. Kathy’s is the first sighting of a varied thrush that I am aware of in our area this winter. Varied thrushes are similar in size and shape to a robin, but are a very distinctive orange and black. They breed from Alaska to California in forests “where spruce trees and alders and crowding ferns contend for a footing, and where a dank mist drenches the whole with a fructifying moisture,” wrote W. L. Dawson in his 1923 book, The Birds of California.
This shy bird breeds most commonly in mature and old-growth forests. Its distinctive song—a slow series of single drawn-out notes at different pitches—“is as perfectly the voice of the cool, dark, peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home as could be imagined,” at least according to L. A. Fuertes, an early American ornithologist and illustrator.
Most individuals winter along the Pacific Coast, with occasional individuals seen throughout the western United States and, during irruption years, across the United States and Canada. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, most sightings occur along a 120-mile-wide corridor which corresponds with the southern extent of coniferous forest in both states.

Sightings – Barred Owl
In the pre-dawn of 1/28, Mary Guenther in Minocqua peered out her bedroom window and thought she was seeing a branch on the ground beneath their bird feeders. Instead, “Turns out it was this beautiful barred owl feasting on a rabbit, just sitting on its prey, and occasionally taking a bite.”
Mary and her husband observed the owl until mid-afternoon when it finally flew away. She noted, “The birds don't seem to be bothered by its presence, but the squirrels are reluctant to get too close … Throughout the day it appeared to rest (eyes closed), eat and check out its surroundings. The rabbit's head is missing, but the body, which it was sitting on, is still there.”

Sightings – Chukar!
Back on November 25, Marylyne Haag and her daughter Wendi Neupert sent me a picture of a chukar that was outside Marylyne’s apartment in Boulder Junction. Their comment, “Seems a long way from home,” was highly apropos given that chukars are found in the Great Basin of the western United States where steep rocky mountainous terrain harbors a mixture of brush, grasses, and forbs.
The Chukar Partridge was first introduced into North America in 1893, when 5 pairs were shipped to Illinois from Karachi, India (now Pakistan). Between 1931 and 1970, another roughly 795,000 Chukars were released in 41 states in the U.S. (including Hawaii), and 10,600 birds were released in 6 Canadian provinces.
The Chukar has become a favorite of western sportsmen and ranks first in harvest among upland game birds in Nevada and Oregon, second in Washington, and third in Idaho.
Chukars are a medium-sized partridge with a distinctive black line through their forehead, eyes, and down their neck. The practice of releasing captive-bred Chukars for sport shooting is fairly common throughout North America, and I suspect someone training their hunting dogs in the area released this one, and it got away.

Sightings – Northern Shrike
Sharon Lintereur in Lake Tomahawk reported that on 1/26 she watched as a northern shrike “went after a white-breasted nuthatch and won. It was a pretty spectacular sight. The nuthatch was sitting on the feeder with its bill straight up in the air being very still when the shrike went in for the kill.”
Over the years, Mary and I have watched birds many times freeze stock-still on our feeders, and we’ve often been able to then spot a predator nearby. It sounds like the strategy didn’t work for the white-breasted nuthatch at the Lintereur house.

Ice Caves on Lake Superior
You may have noticed that it’s been a bit chilly this winter, one positive result of which is that the ice caves on the Bayfield peninsula are accessible for the first time since 2009. They’ve even made the national news several times in the last few weeks. On 1/24, Phil and Nancy Williams journeyed there to hike the rough 2-mile trail to the caves. They noted, “There were hundreds of people, and we had to park about 1/2 mile from the lake. Yesterday was the warmest day of the week at 20F with a strong wind that made the trip back seem longer.” Nevertheless, they loved the trip and sent me several pictures, one of which I’ve included in today’s column.
            Seeps of melting snow, spring water from the rocky sandstone cliffs, and icy mists off the open lake congeal in formations that often seem to defy the laws of nature. Colors vary from turquoise to blue to green to rust to orange, and the shapes diverge wildly depending on the conditions when the ice was formed.
            Bundle up and make the trip if you can. Some would say it’s a pilgrimage required of everyone living in the Northwoods.

Hairy Woodpecker Enormous Beak
            Gary Kmiecik stopped by to show me a male hairy woodpecker that had died when it hit one of his windows. What was unusual about this bird was the size of his beak! It was 2.25 inches long, nearly twice the length of the normal hairy’s beak which averages 1.3 inches. Gary had watched this bird at his feeders for weeks beforehand, and noted that the bird often had to tilt his head upward to eat a seed. Normally, a woodpecker’s tongue can be extended beyond its bill to get at insects behind bark or in a tree hole, but it appeared that this one’s tongue was normal-sized and  couldn’t reach that far.
            We both felt that this was a mutation, one that if it offered some adaptive advantage, might be something carried over into future generations. But without the tongue also increasing in size, the bill appeared to us to be a hindrance rather than an asset. I also wonder how well it could fly, given that some perfect proportion of bill size to body size surely exists for this species of woodpecker. Bigger isn’t always better by any means - everything always has to be balanced, or the loss exceeds the benefit.

Snow Acoustics
A heavy snowfall seems to muffle sound, taking away the hard edges of even semi-trucks passing by, and leaving an overall extraordinary calm. Is there any science behind this? You bet. The pores in the snow cover are responsible for the quiet conditions, says The Snow Interest Group, a large group of scientists sponsored by the Cold Regions Research/Engineering Laboratory and the U.S. Army. Their research shows, “When acoustic waves travel horizontally above the snow, the increased pressure of the wave momentarily pushes some air into the pores. This air returns to the atmosphere after the wave passes, but some energy has been lost from friction and thermal effects. Over a short distance, this mechanism can significantly reduce the sound energy in the acoustic wave.” This contrasts to what occurs over acoustically hard surfaces, like concrete or water. Sound carries very well over these surfaces, as anyone on a lakeshore knows when clearly hearing a conversation on the other side of the lake. The snow scientists have tested their theory by firing a pistol from exactly the same spot and the same distance away in summer and winter, and recording the results. In the summer the pistol shot was a loud "bang" as one would expect, but in winter with snow on the ground, the pistol made more of a muffled "whoomp" sound.
Flying Squirrels
            Bob Kovar in Manitowish Waters sent me a photo of the family of flying squirrels that visit his seed feeders every night, arriving and leaving at the same times like clockwork. We have at least three flying squirrels visiting our feeders as well, but they are far more irregular in their appearance.
            When we watch them, they seem almost impossibly fast. They’re present one moment, gone in a flash, then return in an equally improbable blink.
Wisconsin boasts two species of flying squirrels, the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), and the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus). The southern flying squirrel is about the size of a chipmunk, about nine inches long, and the northern flying squirrel is slightly larger, almost 11 inches, including the wide flattened tail which is nearly half as long as the flying squirrel. Both only weigh two to three ounces.
Flying squirrels are the only nocturnal squirrels in Wisconsin. Their large, dark eyes are adapted for night vision, so they see as well at night as humans can see during the day. They frequently visit bird feeders, and lights at the feeders don’t seem to bother them, so one can often easily watch the flying squirrel's antics at night.

Celestial Events

            February 2nd may have marked Groundhog Day to the National Press, but more importantly, it was a cross-quarter day marking the midpoint between winter solstice and the spring (vernal) equinox. While we know we’re still in for lots of winter, the days are growing longer by three minutes each day, and by the end of the month, we’ll be receiving over 11 hours of daylight, a far cry from the meager 8 hours and 39 minutes we were rationed back on winter solstice. Hang in there!