A Northwoods Almanac for May 30 – June 12, 2014 by John Bates
While some songbirds are still migrating though, many have begun nesting, including Baltimore orioles. For several weeks, we’ve had three pairs of Baltimore orioles consuming oranges that we put out every day on our deck railing, and we’ve wondered if any of them might stay around to nest. Well, I have some evidence that at least one female has nesting in mind. On 5/25, I watched her pulling and pulling at a long string that was caught in a dogwood shrub by our house, presumably with the intent of using it in weaving her nest. The females weave their hanging, gourd-shaped nests out of various plant fibers like milkweed, grape bark and grasses, but they’re also known to use animal hair, string, yarn, and other fibers. So, our hope is that she was scrounging string from our garden for her nest. To help her out further, we’ve put out a basket full of Mary’s woolen yarns along with lots of dog hair to ease her search for nesting materials.
The next question is where she is building the nest. With Baltimore orioles, after the female has been courted and has chosen her mate, she then selects her nest site within the male’s defended territory. The problem with figuring out where the nest may be is that orioles nest in a wide array of habitats, nearly all of which are hardwoods – they don’t seem to like conifers.
In Wisconsin, Baltimore orioles formerly preferred to nest in American elms, but with the widespread loss of elms, they now generally nest in large American sycamores and cottonwoods in the central and southern parts of the state. In more northerly areas, the most commonly selected trees for nesting are still elms, when they can find them, then maple, aspens, willow, birch, and oak. One study in Ontario of the heights of 400 nests determined that they ranged from 2 – 65 feet off the ground, but most were found between 17 and 32 feet up.
This is a beautiful and complicated nest to construct. The females commonly build near the tip of the outer branches of a tree and they build fast – most nests are completed within about 1 week. The female weaves her nest in three stages, using three general types of fibers. The outer bowl is built first of flexible plant, animal, or human-made fibers to provide support. Then “springy” fibers are woven into the inner bowl to maintain shape. And finally, downy fibers are used to line the nest.
Three to seven eggs are laid, then incubated for 11 to 14 days. Only the female incubates, although the male closely protects the nest and at least some males occasionally feed the incubating female.
The chicks hatch nearly naked, eyes closed, and helpless. And like most songbirds, they’ll grow incredibly fast, and fledge in another 11 to 14 days. From helpless to flying in less than two weeks – amazing!
Orioles aren’t the only birds nesting on our property. Black-capped chickadees nest in tree cavities, but we have a pair nesting in a little bird house that our neighbor, Don Gray, gave to us. Just a few days ago, Callie watched as a chickadee carried some of the dog fur that we had combed from our dog into one of the birdhouses. And on 5/26, I watched as one of the chickadees panted from the opening, then hopped out on the perched and continued panting in our 80° heat (recall that birds don’t sweat – they pant to cool off). I took pictures of it from less than five feet away, and it didn’t care one whit – I think it was too hot to care!
Most chickadees nest in trees, of course, and many studies have shown that their nesting cavities are found most often in birch and aspen. When these trees die, the wood is soft enough for the chickadees to excavate.
Both sexes participate in excavation, using their beaks to remove the usually rotten wood. Since the female builds the nest inside the cavity, she most often selects the site, and then lines the nest with moss or finer material like rabbit fur and deer hair.
She will then typically lay one egg per day, usually early in the morning, and she exclusively does the incubation. The male isn’t a complete loser – he regularly brings food to the incubating female. Often upon his arrival at the nest, the pair leaves the nest together to forage, before the female returns to continue incubation.
The chicks are “altricial,” meaning they hatch out helpless, unfeathered, and with their eyes closed. The female now broods the chicks, and the male brings most of the food for the brooding female and for the nestlings.
Chickadee young usually leave their nests when they’re about 16 days old and do not return. However, the young still give frequent begging “dee” calls and are fed by both parents for another two to four weeks until they become fully independent.
The most unusual bird we have around our house is a sora rail. We’ve only seen it once, but we hear it very day and very frequently. Soras give one of the most distinctive calls of any marsh bird – a loud, descending whinny call: whee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee. Soras also give a 2-note, plaintive ker-wee (also described as per-weep or ter-ee). And they often vocalize at night. This one, or pair, woke Mary and I up twice early this week with their loud whinny call.
Soras live primarily in shallow, freshwater wetlands dominated by emergent vegetation like cattails, various sedges, bur-reeds, and bulrushes. I suspect we are blessed with a sora this year because the Manitowish River remains in full flood and the wetland right below our house continues to be flooded.
As uncommon and difficult to see as soras are, I was very surprised to learn that the sora is legally hunted in 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Apparently little information is available on their total harvest, their population trends, or the effect of the harvests on populations. We see them most often in September in wild rice marshes when they are feeding heavily prior to migration.
Sightings: White Pelicans
On 5/25, Diane Steele saw 3 white pelicans at the Powell Marsh. She also noted that “while we're happy to see the new leaves appearing, we're sorry it will bring an end to out clear view of the warblers.”
Since 5/15, Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle has had a bobwhite wandering around in her yard. She has sent me numerous photos of it, and she writes, “My husband seems to have a knack of calling him in, and he ends up quite close in our back yard, answering back.” Bobwhites don’t nest here, but hunters raise and release them to train their hunting dogs, and an occasional one gets away.
On 5/14, Joan Galloway on Clear Lake in Manitowish Waters reported she had four male and two female scarlet tanagers, and they were treated to the wonderful song of a whip-poor-will in their yard the previous night.
Also on 5/14, Sharon Lintereur in Lake Tomahawk sent me a photo of a weasel that her dogs had run up a tree. It appears to me to be a long-tailed weasel given that its tail is about one-half the length of its body. The other species of weasels in our area have tails that are 1/5 to 1/3 the length of the body.
On 5/16, Mike and Marcia Hittle observed a huge raft of Bonaparte’s gulls on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage right in front of their house. They noted, “Black heads and bills, pinkish/orange legs, and some wing markings matched up with book descriptions. But it was the behavior of the birds that caught our fancy. They would suddenly rise as one, flutter about, and then land almost in the exact spot from which they had lifted off. Other times, they would rise, make dazzling circling flights, and then settle into a new tightly packed raft. No air controllers were present, but amazingly, there were no collisions either!”
On 5/21, Joan Galloway in Manitowish Waters wrote, “I can't believe the birds we have seen and heard this past week. We've had evening grosbeaks, numerous orioles, red-bellied woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, female cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, belted kingfisher, green heron and heard a barred owl, whip-poor-will and woodcock.”
On 5/21, toads began calling, and on 5/26, we heard our first Eastern gray tree frogs calling.
Spring Ephemerals and Green-up
Mary and I had to cancel a spring wildflower hike for 5/11 because the flowers just weren’t up yet. But they’re up now! One of our favorite places to go is off Sheep Ranch Road (FR132), which runs south from Hwy. 70. I took a group of folks there from Land O’Lakes on 5/22, and we found a bounty of nodding trilliums and large-flowered trilliums, wild leeks, spring beauties, wild ginger, and toothwort among others. Most of the bloodroot had already gone by, but there were a lot of flowers just budding out, too, like blue cohosh and Virginia waterleaf.
With the trees leafing out so quickly, the spring ephemerals will be gone in no time. Most only last a few days to a week.
Speaking of green-up, can anyone possibly estimate the number of leaves that will appear over the next two weeks? It depends on the size and species of tree, of course, but estimates range from 200,000 to about 1 million leaves in the crown of one large tree. It’s an absolutely incredible amount of life coming into being, and all in multiple shades of green.
The Arietids meteor shower peaks on June 7, the result of the Earth’s orbit passing through debris from either the asteroid 1566 Icarus or the comet 96P/Macholz. The radient will be located between the constellations Aries and Perseus. The best time to see this shower is an hour before sunrise – most of the meteor shower actually occurs during daylight hours. The typical hourly rate of visible meteors is about 60 per hour. If the meteor shower fails to materialize, look for dazzling Venus in the east, the most brilliant starlike object in the morning sky. Full moon occurs on June 13.
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at email@example.com, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.