A Northwoods Almanac for 7/25 – 8/ /2014
Fall Migration Already!
It seems like summer just got here, but on July 20, Callie and I were hiking on Powell Marsh when we were surprised to see and hear three greater yellowlegs, a shorebird that nests in central Canada and southern Alaska.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. Male shorebirds fail mightily any checklist for family values, as do the adult females for that matter, leaving their young to fend for themselves soon after they fledge.
Greater yellowlegs are easily identifiable by their bright yellow legs, upright stance, and their distinctive three-noted call. The call is so loud that its common names include telltale, tattler, and yelper. Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his 1927 book Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, said that many a yellowlegs was shot “by an angry gunner as a reward for its exasperating loquacity.”
Greater yellowlegs are one of the first shorebirds to arrive on their northern breeding grounds in the very late spring. Those that failed to breed successfully leave their breeding grounds as early as late June, followed by the breeding females and then the males. The juveniles depart last and have to find their own way.
Migratory shorebirds include nearly 40 species of plovers, sandpipers, phalaropes and their relatives, and require specialized wetland habitats such as mudflats, shallow water, and exposed sandbars. Few shorebirds nest in Wisconsin. The majority only make brief pit stops here as they migrate thousands of miles south for the winter.
Late July is blooming time for a host of upland flowers that require full sun. Many roadside “weeds” are flowering now, including species like evening primrose, common milkweed, fireweed, daisy, daisy fleabane, cow vetch, common St. Johnswort, white and yellow sweet bush clover, hoary alyssum, heal-all, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, goatsbeard, forget-me-nots, common mullein, and spreading dogbane.
As for the term “weed,” UW aquatic botanist Susan Knight taught me years ago that “a weed was a plant without a press agent.” Weeds often are also victims of circumstance, growing in the wrong place at the wrong time – a tomato plant in the rose garden gets pulled as does the rose in the vegetable garden.
Many “weed” species are specialists at growing on disturbed land, in effect being the pioneers of those places and healing them from the abuse they suffered. And most do good work, quickly rooting, holding soil together, and making the way possible for other species to come.
However, over the past 150 years, many of these plants that have taken up residence in Wisconsin are non-natives. Some were brought intentionally, but most were unintended guests that now are here to stay. Of these, most grow in limited numbers and cause little ecological harm. But a growing number of weeds have proven to be especially troublesome, and invasive, by rapidly colonizing natural habitats – woods, prairies, wetlands, and waters – and crowding out native plants.
One plant that has the misnomer of “weed” in its name – fireweed – is a native species that does important work as a healer of poor soils and fire-blackened areas. I point it out in particular because it grows along roadsides and in ditches, and is often mistaken for purple loosestrife, a truly invasive wetland species that needs to be removed wherever and whenever it appears. Count the flower petals to easily note the difference – fireweed has four petals, purple loosestrife has six. Praise the fireweed and pull the loosestrife.
Dragons and Damsels
The mosquito legions seem to be declining, perhaps due in part to the many hatches of dragonflies that have ensued this summer. We are blessed with dozens of a yellow-gold dragonflies in our yard that I have photographed but am having trouble identifying. I believe it is one of these three: the juvenile white-faced meadowhawk, ruby meadowhawk, or cherry-faced meadowhawk, all of which as adults are bright red, but which as juveniles are yellow. Whatever their ID, they are a very welcome presence in our yard. The river below our house has been in flood since snowmelt, so our floodplains remain inundated, and the mosquitoes have rejoiced. We, in turn, have rejoiced as the dragonflies appeared and began eating those mosquitoes.
We also have our usual cadre of ebony jewelwing damselflies and river jewelwing damselflies, both of which also eat mosquitoes. These lovely and delicate insects are closely related to dragonflies, but differ in their resting posture – they hold their wings up over their backs while dragonflies hold their wings straight out like fighter planes. They also have separate eyes (most dragonfly have eyes that contact one another), and fly rather weakly, quite unlike the zooming dragonflies that fly with the speed and maneuverability of hummingbirds.
Many tadpoles are now teeming in many lakes and rivers. One tadpole that is easy to identify is the American toad – they’re the only frog species whose tadpoles school in large, inky masses. Toad tadpoles typically metamorphose in mid-to-late July and leave the water to forage in uplands for a variety of invertebrates like beetles, slugs, caterpillars, and the like, so catch them while you can.
Bullfrog tadpoles, on the other hand, don’t metamorphose until July and August of their second year, overwintering as tadpoles. The young frogs then take 2 to 3 years to mature, at which point they can then begin breeding.
Green frogs lay their eggs in June and require 70 to 85 days to metamorphose. If the eggs are laid after July 10, however, the tadpoles will overwinter and then transform the following June.
Leopard frogs lay their eggs in mid-to-late May (the female may deposit up to 6,000 eggs!), and they metamorphose in 70 to 100 days. So, they should be leaving the water soon. Richard Vogt, author of Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles of Wisconsin, writes, “If in late July the grass seems to pop like popcorn as you walk along a marshy pond, the hundreds of small frogs you stir up are usually young leopard frogs.”
The dedication of the Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail System is on Saturday, 7/26, celebrating the completion of the segment from Manitowish Waters to Boulder Junction. Combined with the trails leading from Boulder to Sayner and St. Germain, the total paved trail is now 45 miles in length, and quite scenic. Mary, Callie, and I have been riding the new Manitowish Waters segment and thoroughly enjoying it as it weaves through the woods paralleling Cty. K.
What I really love about these trails are the number of people using them. From very young to very old, and from very fit to perhaps not so fit, folks are out there biking. They’re also walking, pushing baby carriages, roller blading, even pushing wheelchairs. These trails allow folks to safely and comfortably be in the woods without some of the concerns for traffic, ticks, and as many mosquitoes.
We also recently rode a portion of the new WinMan mountain bike trails near Winchester, ranging from easy to quite challenging. The trails go up and down along the Winegar Moraine, so they offer some topography that we often don’t see.
And in June, we rode a portion of the Wilderness Lake Trails system from Land O’ Lakes. We were particularly impressed with a newly opened 3.2-mile beautifully forested segment from Thousand Island Lake Rd. to E. Forest Lake Rd. Wow, was it pretty!
Kudos to everyone who has worked so hard to make these trails happen – they are great assets to our communities. Get out and enjoy!
Sightings – Scarlet Tanagers, Bobwhites, White Fawns, Herons
Audrae Kulas sent me this note: “For the last couple years, we’ve had a male Scarlet Tanager visit, but only for a day. This year on July 13th one came again. Later in the day, we saw two. We’ve had one each day since. Most unusual for us off Cty. B on High Lake Rd. I saw it fly down and pick a daisy petal, fly to a piece of driftwood and eat it. Today he appeared to pick an insect from the driftwood and eat that. It’s the highlight of our day!”
Peter Esche sent me a gorgeous photograph of a northern bobwhite on 7/12. He noted, “We have had a visitor to our lake community here in Presque Isle this year - a Northern Bobwhite. I have no idea how he got here but I imagine he might have escaped from someone who uses them to train hunting dogs. It’s amazing how one single quail can make so much noise. Our neighbors often see him in their yard (they are a quarter mile away), and he likes to call from logs and benches and large rocks in our garden.
Scott Ewers on Island Lake in Manitowish Waters forwarded me a photo of a brown doe with a white fawn. Given that the gene for albinism is recessive, it’s not uncommon for a brown deer to have a white fawn, as long as the doe mated with a buck which also had the recessive albinism gene.
Jim Swartout sent me photos of a great blue heron eating a red squirrel. He wrote, “My office in our house is on the ground level under a wrap-around deck with five bird feeders on it. Due to the dropped seeds, there is an abundance of chipmunks and squirrels. I now have a great blue heron, which is actively hunting these guys. Yesterday I saw him with a chipmunk, and this morning I saw him chase down and stab a red squirrel. I got the attached pics as he struggled to flip it up and to swallow it head-first, which he accomplished.”
The La Crosse area experienced a massive mayfly hatch on 7/21 which can be seen on radar on this link: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/images/arx/mayfly/July202014.gif
The Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower occurs on 7/29-30. This is a minor shower with an ill-defined peak. The shower can be seen several days before and after this date. At best, a peak rate of 20 meteors per hour can be seen. The absence of moonlight interference will be a plus – best observing is always in the hours after midnight. The downside is that a new moon coinciding with the peak of the Delta Aquarids means it’s pretty much a full moon that accompanies the peak nights of the 2014 Perseid shower on 8/10-13.
Spirit and Nature
“Like all treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality. The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods.” Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac