Monday, December 29, 2014

NWA 12/26/14

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

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

River Ice-up
            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
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.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

NWA 12/12/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/12-25, 2014   by John Bates

Ski Trail Seeds – Ash and Birch
Mary, Callie, and I have been skiing or snowshoeing every day in this wonderfully snowy winter, and we consistently see yellow birch seeds and white ash seeds on the ski trails. The birch seeds look like tiny three-fingered mittens or little fleurs-de-lis, while the ash seeds look a bit like tiny canoe paddles. The birch and ash trees appear to have had a banner seed year, and our wintering birds will be the beneficiaries.
            Both species drop their winged seeds in the winter, an adaptive design intended for the seeds to land on hard-packed snow where the wind will skitter the seeds far away from the parent tree. If the snow is soft, well, all bets are off – the seeds won’t get far.
Juvenile Loon Migration Update
In my column on 11/14, I’d mentioned that scientists had captured and radiomarked 17 juvenile common loons on lakes scattered across Minnesota and Wisconsin. 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 (Forest Co.). I noticed the juvenile loon from White Sand Lake was no longer on the USGS internet map, so I contacted Kevin Kenow, a research wildlife biologist for the U. S. Geological Survey, to see if he knew what happened to it. Here is his reply:
“The White Sand juvenile evidently has bent the transmitter antenna and the locations for this loon have been few and far between. Consequently, we removed 107277 from the Loon Migration webpage. I receive temperature information from this loon from single transmissions every few days, but not enough information is transmitted to estimate a location. I know he made it to the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast and probably arrived near Florida on about 19 November. The radiomarked juvenile loon from Butternut Lake is another loon for which we seldom obtain a location, but I still get occasional temperature data (we will probably remove 107274 from the website as well).”
As of 12/5, the map shows that the Lake Tomahawk juvenile is off the northeastern coast of Florida; the Clear Lake juvenile is off the southwest coast of Florida; the Upper Gresham lake juvenile is off the far western edge of the Florida panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico; and the Butternut Lake juvenile has made it only so far as the border of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Snowy Owl Update
As of 12/1, we stand at 72 snowy owls in Wisconsin this year, compared to 22 by this date last year.
Cindy and Chris Wills from Presque Isle saw two snowy owls on 12/7 at the Superior Middle School, one perched on a snowbank and the other perched on the edge of a sidewalk, overlooking a frozen pond. Cindy sent me photos – it’s remarkable how well snowies blend into a hill of snow!

Sightings – Goshawk and Moose
Kaye Oscar sent me some great photos of a juvenile goshawk eating a wild turkey in her back yard. I don’t know if a goshawk is capable of taking down a bird as large as a wild turkey (a goshawk weighs 2 pounds, a turkey 9-16 pounds), but goshawks are well known to take ruffed grouse.
Sondra Katzen also sent me excellent photos of a young bull moose crossing Oxbow Lake in Presque Isle on October 10. She noted, “It was amazing how fast he swam across the lake.”

Celestial Events – Geminid Meteor Shower and Winter Solstice
            The Geminid meteor shower is at its maximum on the late evening of 12/13 and early morning of 12/14. Best time to watch is before the moon rises around midnight. Peak numbers can be 50 meteors per hour.
            Winter solstice occurs on 12/21. We now begin the slow turning towards more sunlight and longer days, a welcome, very welcome, change.

Thoughts on the Deer Hunt
            The 2014 9-day gun-deer hunt had the lowest kill in 32 years. Here’s the breakdown on the gun-deer harvest:
Total bucks: 90,336
Total Antlerless: 101,214
Total: 191,550
The total number is down 15.5% from 2013’s total of 226,582. The buck harvest was down 8%, and the antlerless harvest was down 21%. Note that the totals don’t include the harvest by archers and muzzleloaders, which may increase the numbers by 25 percent or more.
The lower numbers were expected, and here’s why:
1-    The deer population is down after two consecutive tough winters. 2014 had an estimated 1,182,000 deer compared to 1.4 million in 2013 and 1.5 million in 2012. Winter is THE limiting factor for deer – deer are on a starvation diet all winter. The last two long-lasting winters were the major factor in a fawn mortality this spring that was estimated at 43 percent.
2-    19 counties only allowed bucks to be shot, the largest “no doe” zone in 20 years. Thus, the antlerless numbers were meant to be way down – the mission was accomplished. Plus, there were additional restrictions on antlerless permits around the rest of the state.
3-    Rain and fog throughout much of the state on opening weekend made for difficult hunting conditions.
4-    In the northern counties, our early winter brought deep snow, so it was hard to get far into the woods. And then melting conditions occurred on opening weekend, flooding some of our forest roads, further limiting truck, ATV and snowmobile access. Hunters I talked to gave up early.
5-    The season started late – the rut was nearly over.
6-    In the central and southern counties, there was more standing corn than normal, making hunting on farm fields more difficult.
7-    Baiting and feeding deer continued to concentrate deer on private lands.
8-    Fewer licenses were sold – down 4% from last year.
9-    We have an increased array of predators, with very high numbers of coyote (40,000-50,000), bears (about 20,000), and bobcats. However, wolf numbers are down to 600-700 in 2014 (estimated 800 in 2013 and 1,000 in 2011). Predators move deer away from obvious feeding areas, making hunting over bait less successful.
10- Predators and bait make deer more nocturnal. Trail cameras show deer are using many areas, but only during the night.
11- Some say the aging forest is a factor since deer do better in younger forest habitats. But actually, there’s still plenty of good young habitat in most northern counties, so this is generally a non-factor.
Adjoining states also all have seen declines in their deer populations and in their harvests. Minnesota’s harvest was down 22% to 110,000 deer. Iowa has had a 33% drop in deer numbers since 2006. And while Iowa’s and Michigan’s numbers aren’t in yet, both states are saying their populations and their harvests are well down. The U.P. harvest was particularly low due to having 40 inches of snow on the ground.
Given all of the above, it was clearly expected that the largest decrease in buck harvest would occur in the northern counties – the harvest was down 18% from 2013.
Until recently, it should also be remembered that Wisconsin legislators and DNR had worked hard to bring the herd down since 2000. The 2000 harvest was 442,581 by gun hunters in 9 days, and 528,494 for the year, an all-time record. That wasn’t the good old days. That was the time when a seedling tree or an herbaceous species stood very little chance of ever growing. And the cascading impacts on many other wildlife species were equally severe.
As for hunter success, in 2000, it was 76%, compared to 40% in 2013, a number that may be lower yet this year. But again, note that in the 43 years from 1966 to 2009, the average success rate for gun hunters was 37 percent.
Unfortunately, deer biologists are again the target of blame for this year’s low harvest, despite all of the above data. Individuals who make these accusations continue to forget that the DNR does not manage deer in order to set record kills. The DNR is legislated to manage for a balance of habitat for all species, for overall biological integrity. Deer are but one among a tribe of species.
I love deer, but no more than I love the rest of Wisconsin’s wildlife and plantlife. Thus, I perceive low deer numbers in a positive light. I see the results every day when I walk in the woods – the reproductive success of trees and shrubs and wildflower is significantly up. White pine reproduction in the understory of our sandy soils is robust, in large part because of the decrease in deer, which eat five pounds of buds every day in the winter. The difference can most easily be seen when someone erects a deer exclosure, which totally excludes deer. However, deer belong on the landscape like every other species that God and evolution have blessed us with – they just can’t be so numerous that they become a detriment to the overall floral and faunal diversity of our forests.
I’m cheered by these lower numbers and have little quarrel with the DNR’s management. However, the time will soon come when our winters warm again and deer numbers rebound. Then, the DNR will again have to cut deer populations, undoubtedly using doe permits and “earn-a-buck” measures to get the job done. The wrong-headed hue and cry will rise again against the DNR wildlife managers, and the irony will be that anomalous winters like the last few we have experienced are highly unlikely to continue in this era of climate change. These winters will instead be remembered by us old-timers as the last real winters the North saw. Deer will become ubiquitous because the winters won’t be limiting anymore, and like back in 2000, we’ll have most people pounding on the DNR to reduce the herd, not increase it.
Taking the long view, perhaps we should enjoy these hard winters and low deer numbers – very different scenarios will soon enough be upon us.

A Christmas Thought – Contemplate the World with Awe

            Only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening-point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe. - Sigurd Olson

NWA 11/28/14

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/28 – 12/11/2014  

11/11: Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle still has a single bobwhite coming to her feeders. She notes, “He's become less tame, which is a good thing. Comes for corn/seed most days. Hoping he makes it thru the winter. I'm sure it's unusual for them to be this far north.” Mary knows her range maps – bobwhites rarely winter much further north than southern Wisconsin.
11/14: Howard Peitsch in Minocqua has had a male cardinal coming to his feeders all fall. He adds, “Comes with lots of blue jays. Have one starling and 16 turkeys! Had one purple finch last week and . . . have one red-bellied woodpecker!”
11/15: Jane Lueneburg lives just south of Tomahawk and noticed purple finches “here for the first time today. And two days ago we had a red-bellied woodpecker on the sunflower feeder. I also saw a flock of nine robins on south side of Tomahawk (right by the river) eating berries from a flowering crab tree. Was so amazed when I heard the soft 'cluck' of a robin and looked up. I had been hunched down in my coat as it was cold and breezy.”
11/16: Bill and Mary Ann Thompson on the Minocqua island have a female red-bellied woodpecker visiting their suet feeder. Bill wrote, “We had them come by once or twice over the past few years but never stay. This lady has been here regularly for about two weeks.”
11/17: In Manitowish at our feeders, we had purple finches, three evening grosbeaks, a rusty blackbird, two tree sparrows, a fox sparrow, several juncos, and a dozen or more goldfinches and mourning doves. Two feet of snow and plummeting temperatures sure help convince the birds to come to feeders!

Record Finch Count at Hawk Ridge in Duluth
Hawk Ridge in Duluth is known for its huge flights of raptors, but given its location at the southwestern base of Lake Superior, it’s also a funnel for songbird migration. Bird counts in November are typically low given that most birds, raptors and songbirds have already moved south. But this November, finches have broken all expectations of what was considered possible. As of 11/16, the counters have tallied 106,147 finches, the most ever, including 51,322 pine siskins and 34,440 common redpolls. They just keep coming and coming, with flights of over 1000 every day for the first two weeks of November, including a peak of 8,435 common redpolls on 11/9 and 7,271 on 11/12.
Even more interesting, the USFWS Avian Radar Project had a radar unit stationed at Little Marais, MN, for most of the fall. They reported very good nocturnal migration during the first third of November, which in the opinion of professional ornithologists could only be finches (there are not any other birds migrating in significant numbers at this time). If over 100,000 finches have been seen in the day, how many additional hundreds of thousands have come over at night? The numbers could be staggering, further highlighting how little is still really known about migration.
And just to add to how important it is to fund professional counters at these migratory hotspots, on 11/20, they counted 209 common ravens, a new state high count, bringing their season count to 2195 common ravens.

Snowy Owl Irruption Again This Year?
At least 31 snowy owls have been recorded in Wisconsin already this month, according to Ryan Brady, research scientist with the WDNR. Last year, a record 300 snowy owls were observed in the state, making the number of snowies currently in Wisconsin even more extraordinary since last year only one snowy owl had been seen by mid-November.
Snowies aren’t just flooding into Wisconsin. As of mid-November, snowy owls had been reported by the dozens in the Northeast and Great Lakes, including birds as far south as Illinois and Maryland. One snowy owl that made it all the way to Oklahoma, unfortunately, was killed on 11/16 by a vehicle.
Last winter was the largest snowy owl irruption nationally in the last 50 years. A new initiative called Project Snowstorm funded research during the irruption. As part of their study, researchers were able to tag 22 snowy owls from Minnesota to Massachusetts, including 4 in Wisconsin, with GPS/GSM transmitters. The transmitters use cellphone technology to transmit data. When the bird is out of range of a cell tower, the transmitters can store up to 100,000 locations, then transmit that information — even years later — when the bird flies within cell coverage. The technology now is so advanced that transmitters have enough storage capacity for more than 12 years worth of data.
The transmitters weigh about 40 grams — about as much as seven U.S. quarters, and transmit a location every 30 minutes. The snowies with transmitters will hopefully migrate south again this winter, though there’s no guarantee they will. If they do, the data will be received as soon as they come within cell phone range.
This research effort hopes to answer questions such as where these irruptive birds are coming from; how far and how fast they move across the landscape during the winter; what kinds of habitats they’re using, and how that differs from daytime to darkness; and what threats they face while here in the south, including what their fate may be following a big irruption.  
Project Snowstorm’s website has maps which show the daily movement of the owls last winter. Some owls stayed all winter within a one mile area, while others traveled hundreds of miles. Go to to access the maps.

Science on Tap
Sponsored by UW-Madison Trout Lake Station, UW Kemp Natural Resources Station, and the UW Alumni Association – Lakeland Chapter, along with Minocqua Brewing Company and Minocqua Public Library, the remarkably successful “Science on Tap” series continues with How Water Works in the Northwoods. Join UW-Madison professor Emily Stanley and US Geological Survey hydrologist Randy Hunt as they explore the ecology of northern lakes and rivers on Wednesday, December 3, 6:30 pm at the Minocqua Brewing Company. 

Celestial Events
            The full moon occurs on 12/6, variously called the “Full Cold” moon or the “Long Dark” moon.
            The earliest sunsets for middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere happen around December 7. While it seems paradoxical, at middle latitudes throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the earliest sunsets of the year come about two weeks before the winter solstice. And as you might have guessed, the latest sunrises come in early January.

Thanksgiving Grace
            As holidays go, Thanksgiving holds a special place for me because it aspires to something very simple – to bring families together around a meal and to give thanks for all that we have been given. Thankfully, little relentless commercialism alters its essential character. The ideal is for families to feel graced to be together, and to express in the grace before the meal their gratitude for one another and for the bounty of food.
I try to hold the concept of grace close to me every day, and this week I remembered that I had written about grace in the opening chapter of my book River Life. Though the piece talks about warmer seasons and paddling a river, I thought it would be good to share with you in light of this coming Thanksgiving weekend. Here it is:
“In many spiritual texts, we are told to put ourselves in the way of grace. I think we intuitively know this when we paddle – putting-in on a river is a way of putting ourselves in the way of grace.
But there are many forms of grace. Fortunately, the river seems to embody them all. Consider the gracefulness of the dancer: the swirl, the glide, the floating-on-air otherworldliness, the effortless strength and subtlety, the symmetry, the elegance of simple beauty. The river is all of these.
Consider the saying of grace before a meal: the request for blessing of what we have been given, the thankfulness for being given anything at all, the gratitude to the animals and plants whose lives we take into our own. The river offers blessings too – the gift of seeing the world in action as it should be; the gift of free travel through an ever-changing landscape; the gift of quiet.
Consider receiving the grace of God, the hand of the divine cupped in offering, the rapture of beauty revealed, the understanding of what it means to be ALIVE, NOW, HERE. The river offers that.
Consider grace as charity and forgiveness. There but for the grace of God, go I, we say. The river washes away sins in many faiths.
Consider being graced with beauty – adorned, crowned. The river is crowned with otters, yellow warblers, dazzling dragonflies, regal water lilies.
Consider gracious people – kind, good-hearted, good-natured. Rivers are my definition of good nature.
Consider what it means to be graced by someone in your presence – to be honored, to be exalted. The river graces you in the same way.
So, to float on a river is to put yourself in the way of grace . . .
Mary Oliver says about writing poetry, “One learns the craft, and then casts off. One hopes for gifts. One hopes for direction. . . It is intimate and inapprehensible.”

Well, on the river, one learns about one's craft too – the canoe, the kayak, the raft – and then casts off, hoping for direction, for intimacy, for revelation of the inapprehensible.”