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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. In the Park Falls area, contact Tom Nicholls at 762-3076 or email@example.com. In the Phelps or Three Lakes area, contact Bill Reardon at 479-8055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”