Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NWA 11/14/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/14 – 27, 2014

Winter Finch Forecast
            Every autumn, Ron Pittaway, an ornithologist in Ontario, issues his “winter finch forecast,” which he bases on food availability throughout Canada. If the necessary amount and kind of foods are available in Canada for each bird species, they will most likely stay north. However, if the food supply is low, they’ll come south, and hopefully to our bird feeders!
            Pittaway says this autumn is a mixed bag because food sources are quite variable. The key trees for winter finches are both spruces (white and black), both birches (mostly white, but some yellow), and mountain ashes. Spruce cones are widely variable in Ontario this year, with good crops in western Ontario and generally poorer crops eastward. Birch seeds are poor to average, while there’s a bumper crop of mountain ash berries across most of the boreal forest of Canada, but not so in northeastern Ontario.
            Pittaway predicts the species we are unlikely to see: Pine grosbeaks should mostly stay north because the mountain ashes are so laden with berries. Pine siskins should also stay north for the most part given that they depend on spruce seeds, and the spruces had a good cone year. White-winged crossbills will likely remain north as well, since they, too, depend on spruce cones.
Species that we are likely to see: Purple finches should be coming south in large numbers because the birch seeds are so limited. Common redpolls should also be relatively common at our feeders because they, too, depend on birch seeds. Watch also for hoary redpolls that will be mixed in with the redpoll flocks. Red crossbills may come south to feed on our abundant white and red pine cones. Evening grosbeaks may make a small movement south because of poor seed crops. But their numbers are greatly reduced from the population peaks seen during the 1980s, so that even if they make a major flight south, they will still be uncommon.
One non-finch species we always look for is the bohemian waxwing. We had a flock of eight feeding on our crabapples on 11/3, but they only remained one day. Pittaway predicts they will stay north this winter because of the abundant mountain ash berry crop. If some do come our way, look for them feeding on crabapples, mountain ash, and buckthorn.
Pat Schwai on Cochran Lake is ahead of the winter finch game. She sent me a note saying she was surprised to see six pine siskins in her garden on 11/1, recalling that she didn’t see any last winter. Given Pittaway’s forecast, she may not see many more this winter. One thing to always remember, though, is how localized wildlife populations are. Pittaway is trying to predict movements for an area several thousand miles across, so his generalized thoughts must be taken with a grain of salt.

Christmas Bird Count
Speaking of seeing birds this winter, we will conduct the 22nd annual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, 12/14. 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 at manitowish@centurytel.net or by phone at 476-2828. Counting birds at your feeder is the simplest way to help and takes very little time or expertise. Since winter birds concentrate around feeders, 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, 12/20. If you want to help out on that count, please call Guy David at 715-439-0777 or email him at bgdavid@wildblue.net. They’re also in particular need of feeder counters, and since many of you watch your feeders throughout the day, why not help out if you can?
            For folks counting in Rhinelander, contact Vanessa Haese-Lehman at 715-369-3708 or markvanlehman@yahoo.com. In the Park Falls area, contact Tom Nicholls at 762-3076 or nicho002@umn.edu. In the Phelps or Three Lakes area, contact Bill Reardon at 479-8055 or breardon@nnex.net.

Juvenile Loons – Where Are They Now
Scientists from the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center captured and radiomarked 17 juvenile common loons on lakes scattered across Minnesota and Wisconsin during the last two weeks of August 2014.  Their objective is to describe the movements and wintering ground use of juvenile loons using satellite transmitter and geolocator tag technologies. 
Five of the seventeen loons radiomarked were from lakes in our area: Clear Lake, White Sand Lake, Upper Gresham Lake, Tomahawk Lake, and Butternut Lake. As of 11/10, the Tomahawk Lake juvenile was still on its natal lake, while the juvenile from Upper Gresham Lake had made its migration to the Gulf of Mexico.
The l7 loons can be followed on the UMESC website – watch for updates at: http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html
Survival rates of loons during their first few years of life is much lower (about 50% over three years) than that of adults (about 93% annually). Surprisingly little is known about the movements, habitat use, and causes of mortality of common loons during these first few years, so hopefully this data will help clarify their story.

I finally saw my first flock of snow buntings on 11/6 along Hwy. 47 where it bisects Powell Marsh. As seed eaters, they do best wintering on open ground with little snow. Birders in southern Wisconsin usually see them all winter, while we only get to view them in spring and fall migration.
The pair of eagles that nest across the river from our house failed to raise any chicks this summer and were seldom seen near the nest after mid-June. In the last several weeks a pair, presumably the same ones, began working on the nest. Every day now they’re in the nest, and often flying back and forth above the river. We’re not sure what they’re up to, but we’re pleased to see the nest hasn’t been abandoned.
Rusty blackbirds have been visiting our feeders in the last few weeks, but are very unlikely to remain any longer now that so much snow has arrived.
Colleen Henrich from Lake Tomahawk has a male red-bellied woodpecker coming to her suet feeder. One had visited her feeders two years ago, but hadn’t stayed around. While common to southern Wisconsin, red-bellieds are still quite uncommon in our area, and always a welcome sight.
Kay and Andy sent me photos on 11/7 of a bobcat patrolling their front yard in Natural Lakes. Kay noted, “We have seen rabbits in our yard this past summer and understand that they are the main diet for bobcats. I have seen a couple of rabbits since then, so I know he didn't get all of them.”
I’m writing this column on Monday, 11/10, and it’s snowing to beat the band. Eighteen inches or more are forecast, and the birds that have been only casual visitors at our feeders over the last month are omnipresent today. The first big snow covers up not only seeds on the ground, but many of the smaller plants that still retain their seeds. If we think the first snow is a wake-up call for us, it’s a message that portends far more for birds.

Celestial Events – Leonid Meteor Shower
The Leonid meteor shower takes place every November as the Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The peak night of the shower is expected from late evening November 17 to the morning of November 18.
The Leonids are usually a modest shower, with typical rates of about 10 to 15 meteors per hour at the peak. The Leonid shower is known, however, for producing meteor storms. In 1966, observers in the southwest United States reported seeing 40 to 50 meteors per second (that’s 2,400 to 3,000 meteors per minute!) during a span of 15 minutes on the morning of November 17.
Meteors showers are named for the point in our sky from which they appear to radiate. This shower is named for the constellation Leo the Lion. If you trace the paths of Leonid meteors backward on the sky’s dome, they do seem to stream from Leo. However, the meteors often don’t become visible until they are 30 degrees or so from their radiant point and are streaking out in all directions. Thus the Leonid meteors – like meteors in all annual showers – will appear in all parts of the sky.

November in a Nutshell
In his book Sundial of the Seasons, Hal Borland beautifully describes November:

"One thing about late Autumn, it displays the stubborn simplicity of the earth. Man may contrive himself into all kinds of human complications, but this earth which bore him and will be his home until the end of his days seems to settle back periodically into quiet contemplation. There stands the hills, rugged as time, and there lie the valleys at rest. The sun cuts its small arc in the southern sky and the long night is the counterpart of June's long day. The tree stands stark, life at rest in the root, and the meadow is sere with frost. The goldenrod is a dead stem, and a waiting seed, restless in the wind. The simplicities are everywhere. The frog has buried itself in the mud and the woodchuck sleeps only a few degrees this side of death. Leaves begin to molder in the simple economy of nature, last Summer's shade leaching back into the soil.  The urgencies are eased for another season. Only the wind hurries now. Soon even the rain will flake down, wafted crystal drifting on the brittle air.  Ice, the most stubborn of all the simplicities, will pry at the fundamental rocks. And out there in the depth of the night the entire universe will be in eternal order.”

NWA 10/31/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/31 – 11/13/14

Halloween – A Cross-Quarter Day
Despite the current-day emphasis on costumes and candy, Halloween is really an astronomical holiday, a “cross-quarter” day. A cross-quarter day is a day more or less midway between an equinox and a solstice. In modern times, the four cross-quarter days have morphed into Groundhog Day (February 2), May Day (May 1), Lammas (August 1) and Halloween (October 31).
While we say that winter begins on winter solstice around December 21, the Celts used cross-quarter days to mark the beginnings of their seasons, in this case, the beginning of winter. Halloween is approximately the midway point between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, though the true cross-quarter day falls on November 7, a discrepancy of about one week.
Far from the ghoulish connotation given it today, the word Halloween actually means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening”. It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows' Eve (the evening before All Hallows Day). All Hallow’s Day (also known as All Saints' or Hallowmas) came on November 1, with All Souls’ Day following on November 2. These three days are collectively referred to as Allhallowtide and are a time for honoring the saints and praying for the recently departed souls who have yet to reach Heaven.
Halloween also marked the end of the harvest season, the transition from light to dark, and for some, a time when the space between life and death blurred. The Celts called it “Samhain,” and it was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies could more easily come into our world. To appease them, offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left outside.
If trick or treaters take the time to look up rather than into their shopping bags of candy, they will notice Mars shining in the southwest at sunset along with a half-moon.

Sightings – Trumpeter Swans
From Arlene Bozicnik: “This afternoon (10/18) I got a call from a friend that lives on Big Muskellunge Lake Rd here in Boulder Junction:Swans are back.” I drove out and met her at the rustic boat landing, and there they were. We counted 24 trumpeter swans. They were big and noisy. They were like kids having a good time at the lake floating around, and you could here them splash and talk to each other. They started to swim in formation in a line and then they took off! What a sight: 24 of the big white swans up in the air, talking amongst themselves. We saw them go down the lake and they came over us just above the tree tops and you could hear the swish of their wings . . . They only thing they left behind were feathers floating on the lake.”
Since tundra swans are migrating through at this time of the year and are nearly impossible to tell apart visually from trumpeter swans, Arlene took the perfect action to determine what species they were – she listened for their call. Trumpeters, as one might suspect, sound like a gentle trumpet, albeit like a kid taking his first lesson on one. Tundras sound like bugling, or like dogs barking or geese honking in the distance.
As usual, words do a poor job of describing sounds, so go to this website to hear the difference: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/tundra_swan/sounds

Science in the Northwoods
            I attended the “3rd Science in the Northwoods Conference” held on 10/16-17 at Camp Manitowish, a rapid-fire two days of five-minute-long presentations by scientists, managers, and educators doing research in our region. Ninety-three presenters did their best to summarize what for some was years of research, and I walked out at the end of it all rather dizzy with the flood of scientific lingo. It was an intellectual challenge to keep pace with the remarkable breadth, diversity and scope of studies being done in the Northern Highlands. I honestly wonder if there is any other geographical area in Wisconsin receiving this much scientific attention.
It was a scientific blizzard of info, from studies on walleyes, smelt, beavers, wild turkeys, songbirds, dragonflies, crayfish, wood turtles, and wolves, to plant research on mosses, aquatic invasives (Eurasian water-milfoil), wildflowers, algal blooms, black ash wetlands, and hardwood forests, to topics like “Bridging spatial scales and clarifying atmosphere-biosphere interactions with high-resolution tree phenological data.”
One highlight was a study on the Kirtland’s warblers and the effect of climate change on jack pine, the bird’s required habitat. The great news was that the Kirtland’s warbler has recovered sufficiently that it is being considered for removal from the endangered species list! The other side of the coin was that its wintering ground in the Bahamas is being affected both by drought and by sea level rise.
Other highlights included the ban on lead tackle this spring on the Northern Highlands Fishery Research Area, an area that encompasses only three lakes (Escanaba, Pallette, and Nebish), but which has very high importance for its long-term research on fish populations. Perhaps their research will help anglers and legislators to find the simple resolve to ban lead tackle statewide.
One other encouraging study looked at populations of the invasive rusty crayfish on 17 lakes in our area, nine of which have gone from boom to bust. Why the rusties have diminished so dramatically on these lakes remains unclear. Is it due to drought, parasites, disease, change in habitat, management efforts, or combinations thereof?
If you’d like to look at summaries of all of the sessions, go to http://scienceinthenorthwoods.org, and click on “Presentations and Abstracts.” All the presentations were recorded and will eventually be available on the Trout Lake Station’s website: http://limnology.wisc.edu/Trout_Lake_Station.php

North American Loon Symposium
            I also attended the North American Loon Symposium held at Northland College on 10/25-26. This conference brought together top researchers from Alaska to California, and from Nova Scotia to Florida and all the states and provinces in between, to share their findings. Those of us living in the Northern Highlands were perhaps best represented of all, because there’s more research being done on common loons in our area than anywhere else in the world. Between studies conducted for over two decades by Dr. Mike Meyer, Dr. Walter Piper and others, over 3,500 individual loons have been captured and color banded in our area, a prodigious effort that makes objective insights possible on reproduction, territoriality, migration, nesting, dispersal, mercury impacts, function of various calls, et al.
            The researchers have dispelled an array of myths, showing, for instance, that loons do not mate for life, that territorial takeover by usurping males and females is very common, and that loons have temporary vocal dialects that change if they move to another lake – in other words, they can change how their yodel sounds to better “fit” the new lake they are on and the neighboring loons that surround them.
            Dr. Piper found that on average, loons delay settling on territories until they are older. Males, for instance, on average delay 2.5 years, thus waiting until they are larger and stronger at age 6 or so to forge their own territory. Dr. Piper’s blog, loonproject.org, provides a great deal of information on his findings. If you’d like to watch some vicious battles between loons for ownership of a territory, go to “Findings,” then “How does a loon acquire a territory?”
            Loons from the Upper Midwest are migrating right now, most of whom will first stopover in northern Lake Michigan, rest and feed awhile, then move to southern Lake Michigan. They eventually then take off for their wintering sites, which are primarily on the Gulf of Mexico from Gulf Shores, Alabama, to Tampa Bay, Florida.

Comings and Goings
            Coming soon in November or just now arriving: snow buntings, some waterfowl, deer into full rut, muskrats building huts, amphibians/reptiles/insects nearly all dead/migrated/hibernating/pupating/wintering over as adults, snowshoe hares and weasels turning white, Canadian birds like bohemian waxwings/pine siskins/redpolls/ pine grosbeaks/rough-legged hawks/snowy owls, wind rustling through dead vegetation, snow, ice, and a white canvas.
            Leaving soon or already departing: last of songbird migration south like tree sparrows/white-throated sparrows/red-winged blackbirds/grackles, black bears into dens, loons, cranes, some eagles (some stay), some trumpeter swans (some stay), crows (some stay), tamarack needles and all other deciduous leaves (except oaks and ironwoods which hang on).

Robin Kimmerer
            Callie, Mary and I traveled to Northland College on Monday night to hear Dr. Robin Kimmerer talk about her book Braiding Sweetgrass, which won the prestigious Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. I couldn’t be more impressed with her person or her writing – she’s a treasure as both a PhD botanist (expert on mosses) and a Potawatomi elder.
            Here’s a quote: “I sat once in a graduate writing workshop on relationships to the land. The students . . . professed without reservation that they loved the earth. And then I asked them, ‘Do you think the earth loves you back?’ No one was willing to answer that . . . So I made it hypothetical and asked, ‘What do you suppose would happen if people believed this crazy notion that the earth loved them back?’ The floodgates opened. They all wanted to talk at once . . . One student summed it up: ‘You wouldn’t harm what gives you love.’

            “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 the relationship for a one-way street into a sacred bond.”