Wednesday, December 23, 2015

NWA 12/25/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/25/15 – 1/7/16  

Around Christmas and into the New Year, we are asked to think more deeply about what really matters to us, what it is we wish to honor, and then to commit ourselves to actions. I wrote the following essay while thinking about how blessed we are to live in this area, and what our obligations are to reciprocate that blessing.


Scottish, Welsh, English, German, French, Dutch – McPherson, Montgomery, Baetz, Suydam, Dugdale, Holcombe, Michaux, and a blizzard of other names – that’s me. Basically, I’m a mutt. To be sure, such thorough blending in America isn’t unusual, but it can leave one feeling not without a country, but like someone without a culture. I’m continually envious of those who can trace their lineage back along a relatively clear path (though there’s always a rogue uncle or aunt who went “off course”). I’ve no clear ancestral celebrations or festivals that I can attend every year, no cultural songs to sing, dances to dance, art to make, architecture to visit, recipes to repeat. All in all, I have little to reconnect to and no real cultural values to embrace. Unless, of course, I wish to follow them all, in which case I would be a multi-house-divided and not home much.

To add further sand to my cultural desert, I have no particularly strong religious lines – I’m not Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or even Christian – so I can’t honor Ramadan, have a bar mitzvah, revel in Buddha Day, or even truly appreciate Easter with a sense of “those are my people.” We went to four different churches when I was young, and by the time I left for college, we ended up in the fifth – agnostic. I now define myself as “spiritual,” which offers, like my ancestry, traditions galore, but no binding path.

I fell into the American melting pot, or at least all of my ancestors did. I’m diced into so many pieces that I’m like a conglomerate rock, a bunch of cultural debris loosely cemented together. The choice from there is whether I wish to continue to be randomly stuck together with other cultural bits in a disharmony, a jumble of fractured pieces, or if I want to find a way to become a fusion, an integration of those pieces.

For that integration to happen, however, we mutts need a touchstone, a way to connect to a personal lineage.

I think I’ve found a way. In a conversation, Tim Fox, an archaeological technician in the Oregon Cascades, called himself a “landescendant” of the area in which the Kalapuya Indians lived near his home in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. I was struck powerfully by the term. Tim felt the way I did as a European mutt – he described himself as a culturally lost soul. But he believed there was another way to be personally connected to the past which didn’t require a bloodline linkage to the people who had lived there. His love of his home ground, his fascination with the historic use of the land, gave him what he called the sense of being a “landescendant.” He was linked to the past, and all the ancestral people who had lived there, via his reverence for the land itself. They all shared a common home and an honoring of the land.

Tim said this while we were standing at the junction of two creeks on an ancient campsite of the Kalapuya, a fact he discerned by the evidence on the ground – shards of jet black obsidian. The chips came from someone who had made tools from the obsidian, a volcanic glass that can be fractured into exceptionally sharp blades, a material so valued that the various tribes traded for it up and down the West Coast and even into the Midwest. Why the flakes were there and not somewhere else was historical speculation, but by reading topographical maps, Tim knew that an obsidian cliff-face was twenty miles away. The easiest way for the Indians to get there from their home in the Willamette Valley would have been to follow these creeks up to the ridgelines where the trees would be thinner and walking more effortless. He held the chips out to us and said, “Hold an artifact in your hand, you have a short story. Leave it on the ground, you have an epic novel – you have the interaction of people and place.”

He then went on to explain many of those interactions – what the Kalapuya ate, how they hunted, what they wore, how they collected plants.

We all want to be part of such an epic novel. We want connections to a line of people, as well as to the contours of land and water. As a mutt, my blended past may have its own epic qualities, but my story lacks a binding thread, an overall weave. Giving yourself to a place, marrying it, pledging your life to it, brings one into a long line of people who enacted their love for the same land. One joins a circling tradition of storytellers and explorers, seekers and seers, believers and doers.

Tim’s work in the archaeology of the McKenzie River area places him in that circle, as I hope does my work as a naturalist in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I try to live as closely as I can to the traditions of knowing the plants and animals, their habits, life histories, interconnections, interdependencies, and future possibilities. While Tim and I don’t directly depend on these species for sustaining our lives’ physical needs as our landcestors did, we still feel a powerful connection to the land and a profound desire to be a part of the natural community of life.

I belong here, tied to Wisconsin’s Northwoods, because of the relationships I have tried to create with the land and the water, the plants and the animals. Though an Ojibwe or Sioux may still have very mixed emotions about my European presence on what was their ancestral land and water, I hope they can see me instead as a “landescendant,” by dint of my love for this place, too. I work every day to honor this place and all those who came before me on this land, a fact I don’t think is lost on the ancestors of this site.

The Native tribes and I may not share a bloodline, but we share a landline, a riverline, a birdline, a treeline, a deerline.

I joyfully jump into this melting pot of landescendants, and bid all others who live in a place they love, too, to make their leap. To love a place deeply, peacefully, consciously, as intertwined and integrated as we can be whatever our genetics, can be a tradition that we begin now and can carry on. While our bloodlines may appear to separate us, there are other lines by which we can live in unity, lines by which we can find common ground as humans tossed together in a time and place.

As a mutt, the landescendant line avails itself to me if I invest the time and love to earn it. Then, perhaps, I may be someone who becomes a worthy ancestor to generations of landescendants to come.

NWA 12/11/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/11 – 24, 2015

Winter Solstice – 12/21
          Eight hours and 39 minutes. That’s it for sunlight on 12/21. A pittance. This is as far south as the sun ever gets, and thus it’s your longest noontime shadow of the year. Today, all locations south of the equator have day lengths greater than 12 hours while all locations north of the equator have day lengths less than 12 hours.
          It’s all because Earth is tilted on its axis by 23-and-a-half degrees. The tilt of the Earth – not our distance from the sun – is what causes winter and summer. On the solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning the farthest away from the sun for the year.
          The good news, of course, is that on 12/22, the days begin to get incrementally longer, and the nights shorter. But just to confuse the matter a bit, the latest sunrise doesn’t come on the solstice. For mid-northern latitudes, the latest sunrise won’t come until early January. And perhaps you noticed that the earliest sunset time is already occurring – the latest sunset times remain the same from 12/5 – 12/14. On 12/14, then, our sunsets will start getting later.
          One way or another – hooray!
          Hal Borland, Twelve Moons of the Year: “Now we are on the last steep slope of autumn with the winter solstice just ahead. The span of daylight is almost six hours less than it was six months ago . . . The lesser voices are stilled, but the throb of time and change beats beneath the sighing of the wind in the hemlocks and the rush of the wind in the naked maples, the cold and wintry wind. Restless, surging life has retreated to the root, the bulb, the seed and the bud. Life sleeps in the egg, awaiting another spring . . . The wind may howl and roar, but the earth and its insistencies of life whisper of time and eternities.”

Christmas Thoughts
            Oh, what to buy, what to buy. It’s ironic, if not utterly silly, that while I’m never sure what to give to Mary and our two daughters for Christmas, I feel free to offer you advice on what to buy for your loved ones. Such is the power of being the one behind the keyboard.
            Wooden snowshoes (Iverson’s from the U.P.) – I still believe in the wood shoes over the metal shoes. They’re far quieter, and I think, give better flotation in deep snow.

            Subscriptions to magazines that inspire: Orion magazine, Northern Woodlands magazine (from Vermont), and Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine
Books to help you appreciate, and yes, enjoy, winter: Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology by Peter Marchand (now in its 4th Edition) and Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich.
Binoculars – good ones. Not hand-me-downs from 1953 that are scratched and weigh a ton. Check Eagle Optics in Middleton, WI, for highest quality, best prices, and best advice.

Spotting Scope – get carried away with seeing things up close! Eagle Optics is your best bet again.
Clothing – all things wool. Try Smart Wool, Ibex, or Ice Breaker clothing. We wear wool every day in the winter - it’s soft, non-scratchy, warm, and looks great.

Old Birds
          The world's oldest known seabird, a female Laysan Albatross, was spotted at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge on 11/19. She was first banded in 1956 by Chan Robbins, but has since worn multiple bands as each wore away over time. She is estimated to be at least 64 years old, but could actually be older.
            She hasn’t led an easy live either. She has raised as many as 26 chicks over her lifetime. Breeding albatrosses also typically spend about half the year rearing and feeding their young, foraging hundreds of miles out at sea for prey, so that’s a lot of ocean to have explored over 64 years. Midway Atoll NWR is about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu and part of the Papahanaumokuakea (say this fast five times) Marine National Monument.
            The albatross isn’t the only one living a long life. Chan Robbins, the ornithologist who first banded it, is now 97 years of age.
            Speaking of old birds, a trumpeter swan first brought to Wisconsin as an egg gathered from a nest in Alaska in 1988, is still with us. Now 27 years old, she is the oldest known trumpeter swan.

Christmas Bird Counts
            The Minocqua Audubon Christmas Bird Count takes place on 12/17, while the Manitowish Waters count takes place on 12/19. The Minocqua CBC has been conducted sporadically in the past, the first time in 1962! The North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Club began to sponsor the Minocqua CBC in 2006, so this will be the tenth consecutive year for the bird club and eighteenth year over the history of the count. The Manitowish Waters count is now in its 23rd consecutive year.
            The center for the Minocqua CBC is the intersection of Hwy 51 and 70 West and encompasses all of the area within a 7.5 mile radius of the count center. The center for the Manitowish Waters count is the intersection of Highways 51 and County W and also encompasses an area within a 7.5 mile radius. Birds may only be reported that are observed within the count areas.
            Contact Donna Roche ( if you’re interested in participating in the Minocqua count, and give me a holler ( if you’d like to help out on the Manitowish Waters count.
           Donna and I are both looking in particular for people to count the birds visiting their bird feeders on the count days. We’ve found – surprise, surprise – that many birds prefer the good life near people’s feeders in towns or backyards compared to eking out a winter living in the surrounding forests where food is less reliable.
           You don’t need to be an expert on bird identification to participate. It’s really quite easy and warm – counting is done from inside your homes.
            Other counts are taking place around the area. For folks counting in Rhinelander, contact Vanessa Haese-Lehman at 715-369-3708 or In the Park Falls area, contact Tom Nicholls at 762-3076 or In the Phelps area, contact Bill Reardon at 479-8055 or

Update on Snowy Owls
            Ryan Brady, avian research scientist for the WDNR, reports that “There has been an incredible drop-off in reports since the atypically large October influx. Roughly 87 Snowies had been tallied across 40 counties in Wisconsin by Nov. 30, but 65 of those came during the Oct. 15-31 period alone. Only a handful of new birds have been reported over the last few weeks. Moreover, repeat sightings of those early-arriving owls have been few.”
           This doesn’t bode well. Ryan notes that “an uptick in reports of rehabbed and dead owls suggests that a high proportion of these birds, mostly juveniles hatched this summer, probably did not survive the journey and died of dehydration or starvation.”

Tundra Swans Still on the Mississippi River
            If you’re looking for a wildlife-inspired road trip, consider going to see tundra swans by the thousands. Some 15,000 or so tundras have been reported off Brownsville, MN's, viewing area along the Mississippi with some spilling over into the DeSoto area in WI. The birds typically remain until the river begins to freeze up, which given our warm December so far, may not be for several weeks.

Loons Still Migrating
           Kathy and John Wilke in Phillips wrote to me on 12/2, “We had some excitement on Dardis Lake (east of Phillips) late last Saturday afternoon. The lake had frozen over the night before and a loon either landed or was dropped on the ice by an eagle and could not take off again. Our son-in-law, Peter Maslowski, ran out of the house and chased the eagle off the loon. Our daughter Katie took these pictures. The eagle came back and attempted to land on the loon but the loon held its beak up to protect itself and the eagle left. The loon continued to call for help but we did not want to go out on the thin ice to rescue it. Our grand daughter, Grace, just kept saying, ‘Papa, that loon has to go home and be with it's family.’ We walked back in the house (by this time it was dark) hearing the loon cry for help-very sad. The loon was gone in the morning.”
            Given our very warm November and December with some lakes still open, juvenile loons have hung around in Wisconsin and are still migrating. On 12/7, a birder reported seeing 83 loons on Lake Kegonsa just south of Madison.

           Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk shared a photo of a lone evening grosbeak visiting her feeders on 11/27. Cherie noted how she had seen flocks of evening grosbeaks when she was a kid, but now we’re lucky to see one or two a winter.

evening grosbeak range map

           We have a female cardinal visiting our feeders. She’s skittish, but we see her nearly every day. We also consistently have Bohemian waxwings eating crabapple right out the window from my office – I’m watching them as I write!

Celestial Events
            Pre-dawn is the time now to see planets. Look for Venus and Mars in the Southeast, and Jupiter high in the south. Saturn will join the crew in the last week of December.
            The peak Geminid meteor shower occurs in the late evening of 12/13 into the early morning of 12/14. The Geminids can produce 50 or more meteors per hour, in an often multi-colored display with most being white, but some yellow, blue, red, and/or green. So, they’re worth a look! They radiate out from the constellation Gemini, near the stars Castor and Pollux.

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

NWA 11/27/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/27 – 12/10, 2015  

Winter Finch Forecast
           Every autumn, Ron Pittaway, an Ontario ornithologist, publishes his “winter finch forecast,” an attempt to foretell what birds that usually winter in Canada might be seen wintering in the northern U.S.  Here’s a summary, species by species:
Common redpoll: like last winter, common redpolls will likely move south because birch seed crops are low to average in northern Canada.
Evening grosbeak: a small flight of evening grosbeaks is expected because of increasing numbers due to expanding spruce budworm outbreaks in Quebec.
Pine grosbeak: these beautiful birds should move south in small numbers because the mountain-ash berry crop is below average in northern Ontario.
Purple finches: many should migrate south out of Ontario this fall because cone and deciduous tree seed crops are generally low in northern Ontario.
Pine siskins: last winter, pine siskins were everywhere in very high numbers. This winter expect very few siskins because they will be concentrated in western Canada and the northern New England States which have heavy spruce cone crops.

Bohemian Waxwings!
           Bohemian waxwings aren’t a finch, but they, too, occasionally drop down into northern Wisconsin when mountain ash berries, their favorite food, are poor. This winter we can expect a moderate southward and eastward flight because mountain-ash berry crops are average in the boreal forest. On 11/19, we had 20 bohemian waxwings feeding in one of our crabapple trees, which is an early appearance for them.

Snowy Owls
            Chad McGrath and MJ Slone sent me photos of a snowy owl that they observed at Springstead Landing on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. This may or may not be the same bird that was reported eating a duck in the same area on 10/27.
As of 11/9, roughly 72 snowy owls have been reported from 37 Wisconsin counties, compared to five as of this date in 2014 and none in 2013.
            I sent the photos to Ryan Brady, an avian research scientist for the WDNR in Ashland and my “go-to” guy for bird identification, in hopes that he could say what gender and age it might be. He responded, “We can't accurately age and sex these guys based solely on pics of plumage. See the Popular Resources tab of our snowy owl page:
            “With that said, it's most consistent with a young male – I can't be certain though. Many birds this year aren't doing very well, and the first signs seem to be roosting in odd places and allowing exceptionally close approach. That appears to be the case here.”

Oregon Old-growth
            When Mary and I spent two weeks in October on a wrtier/artist residency in an old-growth forest in Oregon, we reveled in the size of the trees (see the photos of one of our biggest white pines in Wisconsin compared to a large Douglas fir out there). One theory on why the trees in that area are so large is that while their annual rainfall is around 95 inches, they only receive an inch a month during the summer – the area receives 90% of its rain in the winter! The trees are thus thought to grow so large as a means of storing sufficient water to get them through the dry summer, much like a camel.

Rough-skinned Newts
           One salamander we frequently saw while hiking in the Oregon old-growth was the rough-skinned newt, which is plain brown on top, but brilliantly orange on its underside. These creatures were quite placid, moving slowly on numerous trails. I picked one up just to see what it felt like, examined it a bit, and then set it back down. The newt seemed quite unfazed by my handling it.
Later on I learned this was not the wisest thing I’d ever done. Rough-skinned newts secrete one of the most poisonous substances known, a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX). The poison occurs in their skin, muscles, and blood, and can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. “Sufficient quantity” turns out to be not much – one study estimated that 25,000 mice could be killed from the skin of one rough-skinned newt. TTX blocks signals in the nervous system, leading to a quick death. In fact, TTX is 10,000 times deadlier than cyanide.

           Fortunately, it turns out that this poison can’t be absorbed through the skin, but it can enter through a mucous membrane, like the eyes, or through a cut in the skin. Luckily I didn’t have any wounds on my hand or rub my eyes afterwards! Rough-skinned newts contain enough poison to kill people, a case in point being being a 29-year-old Oregon man who in 1979, on a drunken dare, swallowed a rough-skinned newt and died a few hours later (see for more guys like this).
           Apparently potential predators are quite aware of the newt’s poison, and if they’re not, the newt assumes a swaybacked defensive pose, closing its eyes, extending its limbs to the sides, and holding its tail curled up over the body, thus exposing its bright orange underside as a very serious warning. Scientists have tested 30 potential predators of newts, from belted kingfishers to great blue herons to bullfrogs and fish, and have found in every case that the newt killed them.
           What’s most remarkable, however, is that common garter snakes in that area have evolved an extreme resistance to the poison and prey on rough-skinned newts, their only known predator. In response, the newts have continually upped their production of TTX, which has resulted in the garter snakes evolving a yet higher resistance again and again, in effect engaging in what biologists have termed “an evolutionary arms race.”
           In evolutionary theory, their relationship is a prime example of co-evolution. The mutations in the snake’s genes that confer resistance to the toxin result in a selective pressure that favor more toxic newts. The more toxic newt then applies a selective pressure favoring snakes with even greater resistance. This evolutionary counterpunching, each continually adapting to the other, has resulted in the newts producing levels of toxin far in excess of what is needed to kill any other conceivable predator.
            The newt’s use of toxins goes yet another step. Researchers found that the females load their eggs that they lay in ponds with TTX to dissuade predators. Dragonfly larvae and other aquatic predators that eat plenty of eggs of other species from ponds won’t touch the newt eggs.
           But, like the garter snake, there’s one exception. Caddisfly larvae turned out to relish the newt eggs, actually growing bigger if they were supplied with newt eggs by researchers, even though the researchers estimate there’s enough TTX in one newt egg to kill somewhere between 500 and 3700 caddisflies. Thus, it appears that the caddisflies have evolved high levels of resistance much like the garter snakes.

Ice-up and Immature Loons
           As of 11/20, folks in our area are still observing juvenile loons on open water. In northern Minnesota, of seven juvenile loons implanted with satellite transmitters this summer, all were still on their natal lakes as of this date.
           Researchers from the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) also implanted satellite transmitters in juvenile loons in the summer of 2014. Of those 15 juveniles, their website map indicates that only 3 are known to be alive, 8 have died, and the status of the remaining 4 is unknown. To follow these birds, go to:

Eagles Nest Building
           Every fall Mary and I observe the eagle pair across the river from us carrying building materials to their nest, an activity seemingly out of synch with the breeding season. However, this is typical behavior, apparently having to do with the rapid change in daylight which spurs hormone production.  Ruffed grouse frequently drum in the fall, many birds still sing (though more weakly and intermittently), prairie chickens occasionally dance, all likely because the amount of daylight they’re experiencing in the fall is similar to the spring.

Climate Change – CO2 400ppm Benchmark Eclipsed Permanently
           NOAA announced on 11/18 that global temperatures in October 2015 showed the largest departure from the long-term average for any month going back to 1880. A week earlier, 11/11, a crucial milestone in global climate was also reached. The daily average concentration of carbon dioxide in the air that day at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory was 399 parts per million. On 11/12, it rose to 410 ppm, and researchers believe that we’ll never see another day with the daily Mauna Loa CO2 reading below 400 ppm.
           The 400-ppm mark was first reached in May, 2013, but only for a few days, during the annual peak of atmospheric CO2. Along with the year-on-year rise due to fossil-fuel use, CO2 ebbs and flows in the atmosphere each year as vegetation grows and dies back in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2014, the daily Mauna Loa readings stayed above 400 ppm for more than three months. This year they rose above 400 ppm even longer, only dipping below 400 ppm in August before climbing back above the benchmark this month. And there’s no end in sight to this increase – we’re adding 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere every year.
           A few years back, there was a concerted effort to reduce CO2 to 350 ppm, a concentration considered by most scientists to be the “safe” level of CO2. Instead, we’re continuing our global climate experiment into further uncharted territory.

Celestial Events
            On the morning of 12/3, look for Jupiter above the waning crescent moon. On the morning of 12/6, Mars will be right above the moon. On the morning of 12/7, Venus will be just below the moon.