A Northwoods Almanac for 10/17 – 30, 2014
Autumn Colors Waning
Autumn is a smorgasbord of cool temperatures, brilliant colors, powerful winds, and pungent smells, all combining to make any hike a glorious opportunity. While the winds propel literally millions of birds southward for the winter, they also are workmanlike in their stripping of leaves so that any walk presents a kaleidoscope of colors underfoot. If you focus too much on the ground at this time of year, you can get dizzy!
The last two weeks of October are a celebration of yellows and golds, with the preeminent painter being any bog encircled by tamaracks. Just as spring is a dazzle of seemingly endless shades of green, so autumn is its equal in yellows.
The white canvas of winter awaits us not too far down the line, but its beauty arises from a far more austere series of painters than those who seem to splash color everywhere in in October. So, enjoy this last profusion, as well as the last of our open water, which will be turning to ice in a month or so. Though 50 degrees for a high feels cool now, it will seem like a heat wave in March. Breathe it all in while you can.
“For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad." Edwin Way Teal
“Delicious autumn ! My soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns." George Eliot
"Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all." Stanley Horowitz
Sightings: A Standoff Between Blue Jays and a Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Rolf Ethun on Papoose Lake sent this email on 10/9: “This morning I had an interesting encounter between a sharp-shinned hawk and half a dozen blue jays at my feeder. The jays were totally oblivious to the hawk and even appeared to be taunting it. The hawk would dive on them at the feeder, and they would scatter to the nearest balsam branches. The hawk would land on an adjoining branch where they would sit looking at each other as though taking time-out in a game. Almost immediately the jays would go back to the feeder, and then the hawk would dive on them, which went on over and over again. The jays seemed completely unperturbed and the hawk would occasionally take out its frustration going after a red squirrel with similar results.
“I was secretly rooting for the hawk to get a squirrel and give up on the jays. After nearly an hour of watching this on-going game I had to leave while it appeared to continue . . . The jays had half emptied the feeder and I was entertained on a cool and gray morning.”
Rolf’s sighting illustrates how similar in size a sharp-shinned hawk is to a blue jay. Blue jays average 11” long, with a 16” wingspan, and weigh 3 ounces. A sharp-shinned hawk averages 11” long, but has a wider wingspan of 23” and weighs 5 ounces. Males are much smaller than females, and may only weigh 3.5 ounces, so I’ll bet Rolf had a young male who thought he should be able to handle those blue jays but forgot to look in the mirror and see that he was no bigger than they were.
Sharp-shins are known for hunting songbirds – they’re experts – but these jays apparently were much more experienced at the importance of size than the sharpie was.
Sightings: Snapper Hatchlings
Bob Kovar in Manitowish Waters sent me a photo of 11 snapping turtle hatchlings that he and his daughter Addy found in the parking lot of Aurora Borealis restaurant on 10/3. He noted, “The parking lot there was littered with baby snapping turtles. Half of them were run over by people eating breakfast. We rescued these 11 and put them back in the river below the dam.”
It’s pretty late for snappers to be hatching, but cool, wet summers slow down the incubation process, and we certainly had a cool, wet summer.
Science in the Northwoods and the North American Loon Symposium
This will be a remarkable week for awareness of all the scientific research that’s being done in our area. The third annual Science in the Northwoods Conference began yesterday and ends today at Camp Manitowish with 93 different presenters describing the ecological research they are doing in the Northern Highlands region of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula. Sponsored by the Trout Lake Station Center for Limnology, the Kemp Natural Resources Station, the US Forest Service, the US Geological Service, and the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, this conference brings together scientists in a vast array of fields. See www.scienceinthenorthwoods.org for abstracts of all the presentations.
A week later from 10/25 – 26, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute is hosting the North American Loon Symposium, convening researchers, wildlife experts, state and non-profit agencies, and loon enthusiasts at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. A loon symposium of this size and scope has not taken place in North America in more than a decade.
The nation’s premier wilderness researchers will be presenting, including scientists who have done extensive loon research in our area like Dr. Michael Meyer, Dr. Kevin Kenow, and Dr. Walter Piper. Topics ranging from mercury and lead toxicology, migration, behavior, loon banding, impacts of climate change, habitat management, wintering habitat, citizen science, and many other critical topics will be discussed by North America’s premier experts. This is the first time a Loon Symposium of this magnitude has been held in this region.
Yellow-rumped Warblers and Juncos
Flocks of both yellow-rumped warblers and dark-eyed juncos are coming through our area on their way south. Yellow-rumps are perhaps the latest migrating warbler, in large part because of their very diverse diet that allows them to winter inland as far north as Indiana and Ohio, though many will travel as far south as Mexico and the Caribbean (and who wouldn’t?). The yellow rump’s ability to digest the waxes in bayberries (Myrica spp.) make it unique among warblers, and allows populations to winter in coastal areas as far north as Nova Scotia.
As of 10/13, we still have them foraging in many of our trees, not only fly-catching insects, but also eating various fruits.
If you’ve been driving along the last few weeks and kicking up flocks of dark-colored birds by the roadsides, you’ve probably been seeing juncos. As seed-eaters, they can migrate later in the autumn than insect-eating birds, so we’ll still be seeing them well into November. A junco’s plumage is characterized by white outer tail-feathers that flash when the bird takes flight and by a gray or blackish “hood” and dark back that contrasts with its whitish breast and belly. A recent estimate set the junco’s total population in North America at approximately 630 million, so it’s common to see lots of them!
Juncos utilize “differential migration,” meaning females tend to migrate farther south than males, while adults migrate farther south than hatching-year birds. The sex and age classes that travel the farthest migrate the earliest. So, the first flocks coming though are likely females, both juveniles and adults.
Juncos can remain as far north as central Wisconsin – they’re hearty birds. On rare occasions, a few are even seen on Christmas bird counts in the Northwoods.
Electrically-charged Spider Webs
From the file titled “What I love about studying the natural world is the improbable things one learns all the time,” comes this research on spider webs. It sounds impossible that the threads of a spider web could actively reach out for prey, yet recent studies show that it is yet another ingenious spider strategy for capturing insects on the fly. How do webs do this? Static electricity. Flying insects build up a static electrical charge on their bodies from the friction of passing through the air the same way a person can pick up a charge by shuffling in fuzzy socks along a carpet. Bees are known to pick up a charge of as much as 200 volts!
As these insects fly through a normally safe space in a spider's web, the threads of the web react to the insect's static electrical charge and snap shut (as much as two millimeters) due to a phenomenon known as static induction. This is the same effect that we've all experienced by rubbing a balloon on our heads and sticking it to a wall.
Orb webs are particularly adapted to use electrostatic charges. The silk is coated in a glue that tends to hold water droplets, which can build up a lot of static charge. The silk in the webs is also especially stretchy, and thus perfect for reacting to a passing insect.
Remarkably, pollen can also be positively charged and be caught in their webs. Orb web spiders are especially fond of pollen, which can make up as much as a quarter of their diet.
Celestial Events - Orionid Meteor Shower
The Orionids meteor shower will peak during the evening of 10/20 and into the morning of the 21st. The shower usually produces about 20 fast moving meteors per hour and occasionally produces fireballs. Look near the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. The meteors are debris from the orbit of Halley’s comet.
Mushroom of the Week – Bear’s Head Tooth
Last week, Mary and I found a large bear’s head tooth fungi on the Lauterman National Recreation Trail near Florence. The fungi looks like a cascade of little white icicles to me, though some either very creative, or delusional, folks think it looks like a shaggy bear’s head. The books say it’s delectable, but I would hate to cut it off and deprive someone else from seeing this really remarkable mushroom.