Wednesday, September 24, 2014

NWA 9/19/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/19 – 10/2, 2014 

Bob Klauer in Presque Isle Township sent me a photo of a pair of albino squirrels taken on their property in Presque Isle Township.

            Valerie Kuechler in Arbor Vitae sent me some pictures of deer and sandhill cranes socializing in her front yard in early August. She noted, “I was totally amazed when the deer came up while the sandhill cranes were here, and they all just hung out together.”

       Jack Washow read my comments in in my last column regarding turkey vultures on Lake Pokegama and  added to the story: “We live on Pokegama Lake and have observed on a nightly basis a roosting spot on the lake of usually 40 or so turkey vultures for the past five years. They usually start to ride the thermals between 5 to 6 PM, and you can spot them all over the lake. The trees where they roost are starting to die out, not unlike blue heron rookeries. Numbers were down somewhat this year; no idea why. I wouldn't think the late ice would be an influence. They definitely have become an ‘abundant’ species here.”
            Our first frost of the fall in Manitowish finally occurred on 9/15. The bad news is that our tomatoes and peppers never ripened, but that used to be normal for our garden - when we first moved here, we consistently had frost around 8/20. The good news is that the mosquitoes should have suffered a major hit. We took hikes early this week with only a few mosquitoes to bother us, and what a pleasure that was! It’s been a very tough year with mosquitoes.
            Ruby-throated hummingbirds have departed, most in the first week of September it seemed. We’re still leaving our feeders out until the end of the month in case a slowpoke or two may be migrating through.
Hummingbirds are carnivores (nectar is just quick fuel to power their flycatching activity), and they depend on insects. So, they must retreat back "home" to Central America or risk starvation, though a few ruby-throats remain along the Gulf coast each winter. There also is evidence that fewer ruby-throats cross the Gulf in fall than in spring, most instead following the Texas coast back into Mexico.

Raising Monarchs
Ron and Skippy Winter in Boulder Junction are trying to help deter the population decline of monarch butterflies. Ron believes that the main problem for monarchs in our area is predation, not by vertebrates (birds, mice, etc.), but by invertebrates – ants, spiders, flies, and a specialized form of parasite called parasitoids, which are insects that consume the caterpillar from the inside out. Ron says, “In the 18 years I've lived here, I have never found a chrysalis in my milkweed patch, so there is something going on.”
In order to help rebuild the population, Ron described how they raise monarchs: “We collect the eggs and caterpillars from milkweed, place them on milkweed leaves with the stems immersed in water in glass jars, which are placed in five gallon buckets with wire screen covering the buckets, wire of 1/8" mesh or smaller. This summer we had five buckets going. They must be supplied with fresh milkweed leaves every day, because they eat a lot. When the caterpillars are mature, they crawl up and attach to the screen, hang in a J for a few hours, do a quick jiggle to escape their skin, and form a chrysalis. After about 10 days, the mature butterfly emerges (a fascinating and quick process of a few seconds), and in a few hours the ‘paint is dry and the gas tank is full,’ and we place them on the milkweed plants or flowers.
“This summer we reared and released 43 butterflies. The attached photo is just one morning's production.” 

Great Cone Year
White pines are having a banner year producing cones, as are white spruces. What is absolutely remarkable about this production is that it’s not just local – it occurs over a vast region. Researchers have found that conifers at sites as far as 1,500 miles apart synchronize their seed production.  As difficult as that is to believe, trees are thus synchronizing their reproductive activities over an area of at least three million square miles!
The process is called “mast seeding,” and ecologists have hypothesized that it occurs because synchronous reproduction greatly increases reproductive success. The boom and bust cycle of seeds available to predators imposes alternating and varying starvation-satiation regimes which help ensure that when huge numbers of seeds are produced, plenty of them go uneaten.
Predator satiation is an example of “economy of scale.” The idea is that large seed crops are more efficient than small crops because each seed has a higher probability of escaping predation. Thus, it’s more economical for the tree to produce an occasional bumper crop over the long run than to produce the same size crop each year, even though in the other years it produces few or no seeds that survive.
Additionally, masting likely enhances pollination efficiency. Plants that synchronously produce masses of flowers and pollen once every few years are likely to experience higher pollination rates than plants that produce average amounts of flowers and pollen each year.
The benefits of having one binge year so outweigh the costs that masting species more or less forgo reproduction entirely in non-masting years.
Synchronous mast seeding is common in plant populations, but how the masting trees apparently come to a consensus when to produce a bountiful crop is still open to debate. How do trees synchronize their flowering? It is one thing for trees to produce more seeds some years than others, but how do they manage to coordinate their activities?
Weather appears to be the major cue for mast fruiting. The synchronization of populations due to environmental fluctuations is termed the “Moran effect,” from work in the 1950s by Patrick Moran, an Australian statistician. Moran showed that an external factor, such as weather, that acts across separated populations of a species will tend to produce correlated changes in their abundance, and hence synchronize their population cycles.
Got that?
The bottom line is this – trees appear to use fluctuations in temperature as the cue for whether to invest their resources in growth or in reproduction in any given year. This spring’s cold temperatures must have created a Moran effect. One way or another, it’s squirrel heaven out there, and they’re already snipping cones and storing the seeds for winter.

Hawk Migration Is On!
            We’ll be up on Hawk Ridge this weekend hoping to catch the wind coming out of the west or north, and thus funneling what we hope to be thousands of hawks our way. The forecast looks to be just the opposite of what we need, unfortunately, but Duluth is notorious for being in its own meteorological world, so perhaps we’ll get lucky.
            In the meantime, the weather early this week was near perfect, and the hawks have been active. On 9/11, the count was 2389. On 9/12, 4281 raptors flew past. And on 9/13, 2102 were seen.
            Broad-winged hawks are the showstopper right now and account for over four-fifths of all the raptors seen, with sharp-shinned hawks contributing another 10 percent or so every day. When the winds aren’t quite right for the thermal-gliding flight of the broadwings, the sharpshins become the star attraction because they can use a powered flight, flapping as needed to push through less than ideal winds.
Raptors aren’t the only birds flying over the ridge. The peak day for the non-raptor migration so far was 9/9 when 8603 birds passed by, including 2066 Canada geese and 4102 blue jays. On 9/11, 6277 migrating non-raptors also cruised by, including 226 Canada geese, 112 sandhill cranes, 4732 blue jays, 637 cedar waxwings, and 321 common grackles.
The day before, 9/10, was the peak day for cedar waxwings, with 1115 counted.
The peak warbler day was a bit earlier, on 9/6, when the counters were able to identify and individually count 16 species of warblers, along with 1675 unidentified warblers. How they identify any of them while they’re flying by is very impressive.

Celestial Events
In the eastern predawn sky on 9/19, look for Jupiter below and to the left of the waning crescent moon. On 9/20, Jupiter will be suspended just above the moon. Simply look eastward near the horizon.
Autumn equinox occurs on September 22nd this year. Because the Earth is tilted on its axis by 23-and-a-half degrees, Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places twice a year – spring and fall – when the tilt of the Earth’s axis and Earth’s orbit combine so that the axis is inclined neither away from nor toward the sun. On this day, Earth’s two hemispheres are receiving the sun’s rays equally, and night and day are approximately equal in length. This is a good day for finding due east and due west from your yard – just go outside around sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks.
On 9/27, look in the southwest after dusk for Saturn which will be just east of the waxing crescent moon. The next night, 9/28, the moon will shine between Saturn to its west and Mars to its east.

Mushroom of the Week
            We found on 9/15 a mushroom we’d never seen before – toothed jelly. You have to like a mushroom that is translucent white, tiny, and feels gelatinous. Very cool.

NWA 9/5/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/5 – 18, 2014

Jim Swartout in Minocqua sent me excellent photos of a young buck’s development of its antlers over the course of 31 days. He took his first photo on 6/30 and last on 7/31. The four intervening shots were taken on 7/7, 7/11, 7/16, and 7/20.
Antler development typically begins just before the first birthday of a male deer, usually in late May, though male fawns on occasion grow small antlers their first fall. The growing antlers are supplied with blood throughout this “velvet” stage until they are full-grown by the end of August. The size and shape of the antlers are determined by a combination of the animal’s nutrition and its genetics (the vigor of the doe as well as the buck). Once the blood flow is essentially cut off, the buck rubs the velvet off by rubbing the antlers on the branches or trunk of a tree, revealing minute pores where the blood vessels entered. The amount of bleeding that occurs during the rubbing stains the antlers and determines the final color of the rack, though the bark of the tree may also contribute to the color.
Most interesting to me is that once the rut is over, the degeneration of the bone-to-bone bond between the antlers and the pedicle (the attachment point on the skull) is the most rapid deterioration of living tissue known. A buck can be picked up by the antlers one day, and cast the antlers the next day. Antlers are also considered to be the only regenerating living tissue in the entire animal kingdom. To produce these remarkable appendages annually is simply unknown in other animals, though some animals like lizards can replace their tails, but this is not an analogous annual process.

Hawk Migration Is On
            Mary, Callie, and I stopped up at Hawk Ridge in Duluth in the late afternoon on 8/27, and while we didn’t see any hawks at that time, we did see nighthawks, which aren’t true hawks, migrating through Duluth as we drove into town.
The peak hawk migration occurs in mid-September with daily numbers occasionally in the tens of thousands. Hawk Ridge holds an annual weekend festival to celebrate this marvel, which this year is the weekend of 9/20-21. Mary and I will be up there on 9/20 with a group from Nicolet College – we hope to see some of you there as well!

Mushrooms – Sometimes You Have to Look Small
Lisa and Mike DeHorn in Hazelhurst recently emailed photos of some great coral fungus they have growing under the ferns in their yard. Mary has become very good at spotting mushrooms wherever we walk, and this wet year has certainly provided a bundle of opportunities for mushrooms to grow! Some mushrooms are large, colorful, and very obvious, but many are much smaller, and require an observer to go slow, poke around, and sometimes get down on the ground with a hand lens to really get a good look at them.
One species that we’ve noticed poking through the soil is crested coral, a delicate, white mushroom with many branches, all of which are decorated with a crest at the tip.
Another species of coral looks much different - strap-shaped coral pops up from the soil looking usually like a bunch of tiny yellow tongues. Both corals are saprophytic, meaning they live off of dead, decaying matter on the forest floor.
A great book to get started on learning the mushrooms is “Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods,” co-written by Cora Mollen of St. Germain and Larry Weber of Duluth.

Monarch Butterflies – A Threatened Species?
Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle sent a fine photo of a monarch butterfly on a purple coneflower. She noted, “It's nice to see monarchs this summer after a summer without them last year. They're really enjoying the cone flowers, and a bumper crop of milkweed.”
We’ve noticed a few monarchs as well, but the news on monarchs is very disheartening. The population of monarch butterflies in the eastern U.S. has declined by 90 percent since 1995. Just last week, three major conservation groups and a leading monarch researcher called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate monarchs as a threatened species, a move that would provide federal officials with more latitude in efforts to preserve them.
In a nutshell, here’s the amazing life cycle of our eastern monarchs: In March, monarchs begin their migration back to the eastern U.S. from their mountain wintering grounds in Mexico. In April, now in the southern U.S., they lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which, after four days, hatch into baby caterpillars. The baby caterpillars eat the milkweed for about two weeks, at which point they will be fully-grown. They then find a stem or leaf to attach to and start the process of metamorphosis, transforming into a chrysalis. The adult monarch butterflies emerge from the chrysalis in ten days and fly away, feeding on flowers but only living for about two to six weeks. This first generation of monarch butterflies will then die after laying eggs for generation number two.
The second generation of monarch butterflies is born in May and June, and heads further north, repeating the same life cycle, and then the third generation will be born in July and August. These monarch butterflies will go through exactly the same four-stage life cycle as the first generation did, dying two to six weeks after they become adults. In the Northwoods, the third generation then migrates to Mexico beginning in early September, and will live there until it is time to start the whole process over again. In more southern areas, a fourth generation may be born in September and October, and goes through exactly the same process as the first, second and third generations.

Diane Steele sent a great photo taken by her son-in-law Benj Drummond of a tiny chorus frog resting on a coneflower in their garden.
On 8/22, Audrae Kulas observed a huge flock of grackles off Hwy. B. Pre-migratory flocking of various blackbird species is occurring now, and will continue until they migrate south.
David Schwerbel sent this note back on 8/11: “Sitting in a cove on the east side of Pokegama Lake (Lac du Flambeau), watching three mature eagles try to take a fish away from an immature eagle, we noticed what appeared to be 7 or 8 crows sitting in a dead tree . . . Turned out there must have been at least a dozen turkey vultures, including the birds we mistook for crows in the dead tree.” All I can add to this is that turkey vultures continue to appear much more common than they have historically, though this is just a personal observation – I don’t have any data to support this, nor any literature to cite.

Curly Leaf Pondweed – A Model Case Study
Rolf Ethun sent me a thorough summary of the exceptional collaborative success that the Harris Lake Association, the DNR, the North Lakeland Discovery Center, the Winchester Town Lakes Committee and Town Board, and the Army Corp of Engineers had in controlling an infestation of curly leaf pondweed found on Harris Lake.
In 2008, Sandy Wickman, a DNR water resources management specialist, was teaching Harris Lake residents how to collect and identify aquatic vegetation when she was shocked to pull up invasive curly leaf pondweed (clp).
            Sandy quickly passed the news to Kevin Gauthier, a DNR grant specialist, through whom a DNR Rapid Response Grant application was begun in conjunction with the Harris Lake Association.
            The grant award provided the funding to conduct a survey of the extent of the infestation, and then to provide remedial treatment and follow-up monitoring over a three-year period.
Then – and here’s one of the best parts of this story – the Winchester Town Lake Committee recommended that the Winchester Town Board cover the 25% local cost share. And they did, considering it a town-wide problem, rather than just a lake owners' issue.
            Onterra LLC of De Pere, WI, was then contracted to conduct the survey, manage the treatment, and do the long term monitoring. The initial survey indicated approximately 14 acres of infestation scattered around Harris Lake.
            In 2011, 2012 and 2013, spring surveys were completed right after ice-out, with chemical treatment of the emerging curly leaf pondweed (which grow under the ice) prior to emergence of the native species.  Each fall a second survey was completed to determine the results of the remediation. 
            Following the 2011 treatment, residents of Harris Lake were concerned about possible damage to native vegetation, fish and other aquatic life from the chemical applications, and volunteered to hand-pull the plants in smaller patches in shallow water. Though pulling of curly leaf pondweed had not been tried elsewhere, the scientists at Onterra and DNR agreed that it was worth an experimental try.
            During both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, a large number of lake residents regularly monitored and pulled CLP plants out by the roots.
            Also due to concern for residual negative impacts of the herbicide treatments on water quality, vegetation and animal life, the Army Corp of Engineers did weekly surveys of water quality throughout the summer of 2012.
            The spring 2014 spring survey of infestation sites revealed no new emerging plants in any of the previously identified sites. However, it will be necessary for continual monitoring for at least seven years, since the overwintering buds can lay dormant on the lake bottom for five to seven years.
            The Winchester Town Lakes Committee has since proposed, and the Town Board has unanimously approved, a multi-year town-wide lake management planning grant project to be managed by the North Lakeland Discovery Center, including employment of a summer intern to work with Winchester residents. The 2015 grant application will include Harris Lake and one other lake, with two or three lakes in each of the subsequent years.
While it is wonderful that Harris Lake is currently free of curly leaf pondweed, perhaps most noteworthy is that it was only accomplished with the collaboration and cooperation of all of the partners. This is the way things need to get done in the Northwoods – through maximizing cooperation between government agencies, town boards, and private citizens for the good of all concerned in a township and beyond.

Celestial Events
Full moon occurs on 9/8. Planets visible this month include Mars (magnitude +0.5) and Saturn (magnitude +0.4), both still visible low in the southwest after sunset. Venus (magnitude - 4) is still a morning object, low in the east at dawn early in the month, but disappearing behind the sun at mid-month. Jupiter has now moved into the morning sky and may be viewed in the east before sunrise throughout the month.

NWA 8/22/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/22 – 9/4/2014  

Late August Flowers
            Summer’s end is at hand, and as always for those of us who live in the North Country, we question its departure when it seems like it just got here. The first hard frost could occur at any time, and the wealth of flowers that we are blessed with now will hit that precipice, some collapsing as their cells freeze. Others, however, will survive into the autumn, adapted over millennia to this annual calamity. So, let’s celebrate a few of those that are with us now.

Roadside Flowers: Common Evening-Primrose
            The lemon yellow, four-petaled, sweet-smelling flowers of evening-primrose open widest late in the day or on overcast days (thus “evening” primrose), each individual flower only blooming for a day or two until pollinated and going to seed. Evening primroses often self-pollinate while still in the bud, but are also insect pollinated primarily by night-flying moths. Mrs. William Starr Dana, a naturalist from the early 20th century, wrote, “Unless we are already familiar with the owl-like tendencies of the evening-primrose, we are surprised some dim twilight to find this same plant resplendent with a mass of fragile yellow flowers, which are exhaling their faint delicious fragrance in the evening air.”
            Prodigious numbers of seeds appear in rather graceful capsules with flaring tips, each plant producing on average 140 capsules, and each containing about 180 seeds. Most seeds fall within a few feet of the plant unless they’re transported by seed-eating birds like goldfinches, and the seeds can remain viable for 80 years in shallow soil!
            The nectar-bearing flowers attract ruby-throated hummingbirds and sphinx moths – this summer we’ve watched many hummers nectaring in these flowers in our perennial flower garden.
            Though I’ve never tried it, the literature says every part of the evening-primrose is edible “if not tasty to humans – peppery but palatable is the common verdict.”
            Eminent American naturalist John Burroughs wrote that it is “a coarse, rankly growing plant; but in late summer, how many an untrimmed bank is painted over by it with the most fresh and delicate canary yellow.”
Woodland Flowers: Indian Pipe
            Sometimes referred to as “ghost plant” or “corpse plant,” this pure white, translucent herb bears a solitary nodding flower in August, and, once pollinated, eventually turns jet black. The flower resembles a pipe whose stem has been stuck in the ground, with the flower resesmbling the bowl.
            Without chlorophyll and unable to photosynthesize, Indian pipe obtains nutrients by sharing the mycorrhizal fungi that are attached to the roots of conifers. These fungi get their nutrients from the tree's roots, and in exchange, extend the tree's root system out further into the soil. This was all discovered by researchers injecting radioactive carbon into the bark of a spruce and discovering that nearby Indian pipes had become radioactive five days later. So, while Indian pipe is not a direct parasite on conifer roots, it does obtain its nutrients indirectly through them, though it may also receive some of its nutrients from the decay of dead organisms in the soil.
            Some naturalists a century or more ago didn’t look favorably upon this plant. Neltje Blanchan wrote, “No wonder this degenerate hangs its head; no wonder it grows black with shame on being picked, as if its wickedness were only just then discovered . . . To one who can read the faces of flowers, as it were, it stands a branded sinner.” Another 19th century poet saw a different face, referring to the flowers as “pearly rays . . . a spotless sisterhood . . . these forest nuns.” Sinner or nun, see if you can find these unique plants and let your imagination determine their virtue.

Aquatic Flowers: Wild rice
            Wild rice, a native grass that was the most important component of regional Native American diets, blooms rather modestly, the tiny wind-pollinated female flowers sitting atop the plant in long, thin, broomlike clusters, with the yellow-green male flowers dangling beneath the females. The lower position of the male flowers reduces the chances of self-pollination. The male flowers only last a few hours, shedding their abundant yellow pollen, then dropping. The female flowers, once pollinated, ripen in long, rodlike seeds from the top of the stalk downwards, with only about 10 percent of the flower producing mature seeds at any one time. The grain “shatters,” meaning it simply falls off the plant when it’s ripe.
            Wild rice is an annual, and thus may come and go in stands from year to year. A poor year can vastly reduce the stand the following year, but the seeds are so well-loved by waterfowl and various songbirds, as well as muskrats and deer, that they are readily moved from wetland to wetland and usually will repopulate. 

Migration and Window Strikes
Birds are on the move, and window collisions cause an estimated billion or more birds to be killed each year in the United States alone. The latest U. S. numbers come from Scott Loss of Oklahoma State University, and collaborators at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who just published a two-year study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. They believe the total could be as high as 1.3 billion birds killed each year.
In their study, they also looked at building types. Although bird kills at high-rise buildings get the most attention, the vast majority of annual bird deaths can be traced to residential and low-rise structures. An average single-family residence is estimated to kill one to three birds each year, but when you multiply that figure by the huge number of homes in this country, a midrange estimate of 253 million bird deaths can be attributed to houses.
Two properties of glass make it lethal for birds. Glass can appear completely transparent, so birds spot greenery on the other side and try to fly straight through. Or glass can also be a mirror, reflecting the sky and surrounding vegetation, creating the illusion that the habitat continues.
The researchers say there are simple ways to reduce window strikes at existing homes. The so-called “2 x 4” rule governs how patterns may best be applied to glass to deter bird collisions. Most birds will avoid windows with a pattern of vertical stripes spaced four inches apart, or horizontal stripes spaced two inches apart and placed on the outside of the glass. Use the “2 x 4 rule” to apply decals, washable paint, hanging strings, soap, or tape. Fine netting placed over windows is also effective, as are regular window screens.
Studies have also shown that homes with feeders can have more bird deaths from window strikes, so it’s vital to place feeders a foot or less away from windows.

Nighthawk Migration
            The first migration of nighthawks statewide was reported on 8/17, so the time is now for nighthawks to begin to appear in our area. Look for nighthawks usually close to evening, flying erratically as they try to capture insects on the wing. Their pointed, angular wings, each with a broad white line, helps to ID them quickly.
Individuals become quite gregarious during fall migration, sometimes gathering in flocks of thousands. Mary and I typically see small groups of a dozen or so.
Recent breeding bird survey data suggest a substantial decline in numbers of this species. It has been listed as Threatened in Canada – a decline of about 50% has been noted there over the past 3 generations. In the United States it is considered critically imperiled or imperiled in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Delaware.
Nighthawks winter in South America in Brazil and Paraguay, making one of the longest migrations of all songbirds. Note: nighthawks aren’t hawks; they’re in the same family with whip-poor-wills.

Science on Tap
The remarkably successful “Science on Tap” speaker series resumes on 9/3 with retired DNR wildlife biologist Ron Eckstein discussing “The Bald Eagle: The Fall and Rise of a Northwoods Icon.” Ron banded several thousand bald eagles during his career, and knows their life histories as well as anyone in the state. Grab a beer and catch Ron’s talk, which begins at 6:30 – I recommend getting there early to find a seat!
Mercer has followed suit with this very successful pairing of beer and science. The next “Mercer Science and Conservation on Tap” is on 9/4 with Zach Wilson sharing information on “The Endangered Marten of Iron County.” The program starts at 6 pm at the Pines Beer Garden in Mercer.

Jeff DeFrancisco of Harshaw has had two sandhill cranes feeding under his songbird feeders since July, a rather unusual sighting!
Back on 7/25, I received an email from John Randolph in Hazelhurst, who wrote: “For the first time, Karin and I have been enjoying adult and fledgling red-headed woodpeckers on our deck, mostly eating suet. A friend in Harshaw and another, who lives on Lake Tomahawk, both have the red-heads and fledglings as well. It would be nice if this becomes a sustained trend, with this population increasing up here. Such beautiful birds!” John and Karin are indeed fortunate as red-headed woodpeckers remain quite uncommon in our area – I don’t believe Mary and I have seen a single one this summer.
Mary, Callie, and I bird Powell Marsh regularly, and this summer we’ve been able to watch a pair of trumpeter swans successfully incubate, hatch, and raise four young on the main pool at Powell. The young take around 14 weeks to fledge, so we expect to see them in flight in early October.

Celestial Events
August is prime Milky Way time. Look for the Milky Way running from Sagittarius and Scorpius in the southwest, up and left across Aquila and through the big Summer Triangle high in the southeast, and on down through Cassiopeia to Perseus rising low in the northeast.