A Northwoods Almanac for 12/26 – 1/8/15
Snowy Owls Still Proliferating
As of 12/20, the statewide tally for snowy owls stood at 174, compared to 123 on the same date last year. Given that the winter of 2013-14 was the record year for snowy owls in Wisconsin, this winter is already shaping up to shatter that record as more snowies are being spotted every day and the total rockets upward.
The heavily forested Northwoods, however, is poor habitat for a bird raised on the treeless tundra, so very few snowies typically winter here. The only snowy owl I’ve heard of in our area was reported on Little Arbor Vitae Lake on 12/5 by Todd Boyd. Todd only saw the owl that day, so it has likely moved on. Nevertheless, folks in that area should keep their eyes peeled – perhaps it has remained.
In some areas of the state, the owls are not only numerous but concentrated in a very small area. In Green Bay on 12/20, Christmas bird counters saw at least five distinct snowy owls along the perimeter of the Austin Straubel Airport. They reported that four were adult males and one or two were immature/female birds. Three birds were observed at one time along Pine Tree Road, an eighth of a mile west of the airport. To see a map of where snowies are currently located throughout Wisconsin, go to http://bit.ly/1zwcC2o
Sightings – Cardinal and Ermine
On 12/16, an anonymous reader emailed me about a cardinal that suddenly appeared in his yard at 4:15 pm. His simple but poignant comment: “So red against the white snow.”
Bob Kovar in Manitowish Waters sent this note along with a photo: “I watched an ermine carry at least two flying squirrels that it had apparently killed through the snow. I saw it in my driveway, then I went home and unloaded a ton of pellets, then went back out and it was still there. So, not sure how many dead bodies it was moving around!”
I can’t tell from Bob’s photo if he was watching a long-tailed or a short-tailed weasel. A southern flying squirrel only weighs 3-4 ounces (northern flying squirrels can weigh up to 7 ounces), and is mostly fur, so there’s not much of a meal in one for a weasel. Then again, a long-tailed weasel only weighs around 3 ounces, so perhaps a flying squirrel comprises a banquet.
Bob’s observation led me to wonder how an ermine would capture a flying squirrel, which on the surface would appear to me to have an advantage in speed and tree-climbing acrobatics. I suspect the ermines figure out where the flying squirrels hole up in a tree cavity during the day, and raid the cavity. Long-tailed weasels have a high metabolic rate and need to eat 20-70% of their body weight per day depending on season and activity level. In a cold winter, their caloric needs would certainly be at their highest, so a diet of several flying squirrels in a day might be a necessity.
Christmas Bird Counts
We conducted the 22nd annual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, 12/14, and despite the omnipresent fog and warm temperatures (40°!), we were able to find 27 species of birds. Unusual finds include a hooded merganser on the Manitowish River, a grackle, three red crossbills, three golden-crowned kinglets, several dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows, and a Canada goose. We found our highest total ever of ruffed grouse – 29 – for reasons I can’t explain. We were also fortunate in that pine siskins and common redpolls had just arrived in our area during that week, so we were able to observe modest numbers of them. The Manitowish River also continues to support an over-wintering flock of trumpeter swans – we had eight this time, but have had as many as 28 in previous winters.
Species that we know nest and winter here but we missed included gray jays and barred and great horned owls. We also missed numerous northern species that often come down out of Canada and visit us during the winter, such as evening and pine grosbeaks, northern shrikes, white-winged crossbills, and bohemian waxwings.
I also participated in the Minocqua Christmas Bird Count on 12/20, and the weather was far more cooperative – 22°, little wind, and overcast. I don’t have those total numbers yet, but will report on them in my next column
While our local lakes all iced up in mid-to-late November, some of our rivers remain open, including the Manitowish River by our home. It’s partially iced over, but a narrow path of open water still flows steadily.
This is late for ice-up on the Manitowish. Our record late date was Jan. 14, 2008, during the very mild winter of 2007-8.
Climate Data for 2014
According to NOAA, after a relatively cool start, 2014 is now on pace to break the warmest year record set back in 2010. Despite our snowy start this winter, November 2014 was the seventh warmest November on record, and the year-to-date-period, January to November, was Earth's warmest such period since record keeping began in 1880.
Global ocean temperatures during November 2014 were the warmest on record. This marks the seventh month in a row (beginning in May 2014) that the global ocean temperature broke its monthly temperature record.
Remarkably, the record-warm global sea surface temperatures have occurred in the absence of El Niño, a large-scale warming of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean that historically has been present whenever record global ocean temperatures have occurred. Most models still predict El Niño will happen, and NOAA is holding out a 65% chance of an El Niño event this winter. However, given this late date, if an El Niño does emerge, it is likely to be a weak event.
Arctic sea ice extent during November 2014 was also the 9th lowest in the 36-year satellite record, but it was slightly above November 2013 levels, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
To watch the largest glacier-calving event ever recorded, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hC3VTgIPoGU
New Year Resolutions
My wife Mary is a master weaver. She joins colors, blends weave structures, discovers patterns, arrays light, and fuses her own spirit into work that invariably possesses a reverent beauty, a radiant energy, a joyful grace. I deeply admire who she is, and the work that she does, and I try (usually failing) to emulate her visual artistry in how I use words on paper.
In thinking of what my New Years resolution should be, her weavings have come into my mind again and again. So it must be that I want to weave like her, not with thread, but instead with the two main stories of our time: how we are to respect and appreciate human diversity, and how we are to equally honor natural diversity. One can’t stand without the other, of course – we are truly and utterly entwined within the natural world whether we choose to see this or not.
My resolution then is to weave together a life like Mary’s that joins and blends and discovers and arrays and fuses. In essence, I want to come awake to the blessing of how all life is woven together, whether two-footed, four-footed, feathered, scaled, or leafy. I want to feel the sacredness of all life, and moment by moment be sure to always put myself in the way of its grace. Then perhaps I will be able to do the work that I am most called upon to do. And in doing so, perhaps I can help weave together a fellowship, a community of life that is a fabric we all recognize we belong to and wish to preserve for our children.