Tuesday, January 27, 2015

NWA 1/23/15

A Northwoods Almanac for January 23 – February 5, 2015  

Remarkable Loon Drama Last Spring
Al Schwoegler has been a LoonWatch volunteer for about 30 years, monitoring loon territory and nesting on West Horsehead Lake in Oneida County. I met Al recently, and he told me a story about the intense loon competition that occurred on his lake last spring. It’s a long story, and while I know it’s January and loons won’t return until April, it’s really quite a remarkable read. Here’s an edited version of what he wrote in an email:
“In the last two decades, the ability of researchers to safely capture loons and outfit them with individualized color leg band combinations has been the biggest advance in loon research. It opened the door to study them in-depth. If your lake's loons are banded, it is possible to know who comes back to claim the territory each spring and know if they are able to remain on the lake for the whole year.
“People from our area all reported a poor year for loons. My home lake, West Horsehead (WH) in Oneida County, was especially disappointing. It was monitored by Walter Piper and his crew. Late ice-out was the start of problems. It compressed the time needed for the loons to establish a territory and get down to nesting. It got worse from there.
“WH lake's loon pair arrived May 2nd intact. The female was our long-term resident who was banded by Walter on WH Lake in the mid 90s and I estimate she is at least 25 years old. The previous year’s male also returned. He was banded as a new juvenile 14 years ago on Alva Lake, 3 miles NNE, and has been here at WH every spring for the last 8 years.
“Nesting started in the middle of May and looked like it was going well. There were two eggs. However, every day there were male loons from elsewhere checking out the territory and confronting our male. He worked hard chasing others away and managed to keep his territory and nest intact. 
“Around May 20 we had a period of many warm sunny days. This caused a huge hatch of loon-feeding black flies. These flies were in a thick cloud above the nest and were constantly biting the nesting loons. The loons were spending a lot of time off the nest, leaving their eggs cold and vulnerable, and diving to get rid of the flies. They weren't even preening their feathers because the flies would zero in on them everywhere and bite as the loon attempted to preen. Many area lakes had these flies, and it was so bad that 70% of loons on local nests simply abandoned their nests. These flies feed only on loon blood. They rarely landed on me, and if they did, they did not bite.
“I suspected our loons had also abandoned their nest because they were incubating the eggs less each day. It was over a week until the flies subsided. At that point, I observed loons back on the nest. I theorized that they were laying new eggs and would attempt to hatch a new pair of eggs. It would mean 28 days of egg incubation and hope for the best. I could not prove if the eggs were new or old, dead or alive, two eggs or four eggs. It was both a disappointment and a mystery. To make matters worse, there continued to be male intruder loons who tried to take over the territory and boot our male off the lake and usurp the territory. Our male loon was constantly on the defense.
“In mid-June I began to see a loon on the lake whose bands were not those of our resident male. I started to follow it to make an ID. On June 16th I anchored my rowboat for many hours in an attempt to ID the intruder and check on the nest. I was able to observe that our female was the one on the nest and the 2nd loon was a stranger, presumed to be male. As I watched, the intruder male approached the nest 2 times and stood in the water in a "penguin posture". This is well known as an aggressive behavior between loons. The female showed this same aggression to chase him off and returned to the nest. 
“While the female was off the nest, I spotted a brown ball of fur and a hatched egg. There was a newly hatched loon chick on the nest!! The eggs had remained alive through the onslaught of flies and lack of incubation in May! It was the female alone who had stayed on the nest for the last two days in the presence of a new male intruder. Normally males/females split the nest duty. An intruder/usurper will not.
“She defended the nest! The chick was hopping around on the nest and there were signs of a second chick pecking its way out of the other egg!! If only the intruder would leave and the first male return, we would have a beautiful pair of chicks paraded around the lake! The male usurper then showed up from across the lake in a final quest. He lunged at the female with his beak as if to kill her, and it forced her off the nest. As she paused in the water behind the nest and, the intruder pushed his way into the nest. He pecked the newly hatched chick and tossed it up like a rag doll, killing it. He then pierced the second egg, killing the hatchling inside. It was horrible to watch and a tearful scene for me.
“The male loon, obviously a usurper, left and rested on the water over 300 yards away. The female looked confused, shocked and still. She sat like that for about 10 minutes, left the area and swam to join the new male. They swam as a pair and began foraging together. The deed had been done. The original male was nowhere to be seen, and the territory now belonged to the usurper. What transpired was infanticide, somewhat common in nature. The male wants his own genes passed on, not those of the prior male who he has overpowered and chased away.
“Through all this activity I was able to make a call to Walter Piper and report it. It was a rare event I had witnessed. I was able to get an ID on the male usurper's bands, and Walter reported the male was an 9-year-old who was hatched on Harrison Flowage in northern Lincoln County 14 mi SSE of WH. Walter banded him on that lake.
“The new Harrison male did not mate with the female, and no further nesting occurred. He only lasted until mid-July when he was ousted by an unbanded male who then paired with our WH female. A few days later, I observed another new male usurper. This third male usurper was now the fourth male to be paired with the WH female this season. He was 5 years old and had been banded by Walter as a juvenile at Oneida Lake about 6 miles south of WH. He was still holding territory in September.
“It will be real interesting to see who returns to claim West Horsehead Lake in the spring. Stay tuned.”
Al’s story emphasizes just how intensely valuable a loon territory is to each pair, how vigorously they’ll defend it, how often defense is required, and how “monogamous” males and females are really wed to their territory and not to their mate.
For further information from Walter Piper’s excellent blog, go to: http://loonproject.org/recent-events/

            Winter has its drawbacks, of course, but for ease of exploration into otherwise very wet places, I’ll take these months of snowshoeing anytime. No mosquitoes and frozen wetlands and bogs – recall the hordes of mosquitoes we had last June!
            I was recently tipped off to a small stand of old-growth white pines on a small upland surrounded by extensive bog, and I told our friends Bernie Langreck and Peggie Bronsberg about wanting to explore it. Well, Bernie got the map and broke the snowshoe trail in before Mary and I could get there, so when we finally made it last week, we had a packed trail (we’ve taken to calling Bernie “the Bulldozer”). What a luxury!
            We found the pines and were treated to at least 20 or more with diameters over three feet, the largest with a four-foot diameter (see the photo of Bernie and Peggy next to the tree). These are very large pines for this time in Wisconsin’s history. John Curtis wrote in his seminal book Vegetation of Wisconsin, “Most of the big pines cut in the heyday of the lumbering business were about four hundred years old, and stemmed from widespread catastrophes in the 1400’s. The occasional giants of 7 to 10 feet dbh [diameter breast height] reported by the surveyors must have been still older. Results from modern studies, therefore, cannot give a true picture of the actual magnitude and majesty of a mature pine forest at its optimum.”
            I have a hard time imagining pines with diameters from 7 to 10 feet, given how impressed I am by one “only” 4 feet in diameter.
            This site adjoins a state natural area, and I’m writing to the state natural area council to recommend they extend the boundary to include this small stand. Pines of this magnitude are rare as hen’s teeth these days and deserve all the protection we can offer.

Sightings: Bohemian Waxwings, Shrike, Snowy Owl
            Beginning on 1/12, a small flock of bohemian waxwings have been eating crabapples in our yard. These northern visitors are among the most beautiful birds in the North Country, and the rarity of their appearances only heightens our appreciation.
            Ed Marshall sent me a photo of a northern shrike that was stalking his bird feeders. Shrikes have been conspicuous by their absence – we’ve yet to see one so far this winter.
            Sarah Krembs, who reported watching two snowy owls in Antigo a few weeks ago, observed another snowy owl, this time on a fence around the perimeter of the Central Wisconsin Airport. As of 1/14, the statewide snowy owl tally stands at 239 birds, compared to 224 as of this date last year. Reports of new birds have dropped off as the birds have settled into their wintering areas.

Celestial Events
            Planets to look for at dusk: Venus shines very low in the southwest; Mars sits very low also in the southwest and sets by 8 p.m.; and brilliant Jupiter begins in the east, moves across the sky to the south by midnight, and rests in the northwest at dawn. Also before dawn, look for Saturn in the south.
            We receive nearly ten hours of sunlight as of Feb. 2, a much better reason to celebrate the day than the possibility of a woodchuck coming out of hibernation.
The full moon occurs on 2/3. Variously called the “Snow” or “Hunger” or “When Coyotes Are Frightened” Moon, look also about 5° north of it to spy Jupiter. This day also marks the mid-way point between winter solstice and spring equinox.

Thought for the Week – On Our Need for Walking

            “How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and season, instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk.” – New York Times editorial, 1967

Friday, January 16, 2015

NWA 1/9/15

A Northwoods Almanac for January 9 – 23, 2015

Bald Eagle Watching
In 1969, Wisconsin was one of the first states to ban DDT, which scientists had clearly linked to massive eagle deaths, helping to trigger a national ban of DDT in 1972. The eagle population had crashed to only 487 nesting pairs in the continental U.S. from an estimated 100,000 nesting pairs in 1782, when America adopted the bald eagle as its symbol.
It’s been an amazing turn-around. Bald eagles were removed from Wisconsin’s endangered list in 1997 and from the federal list in 2007. In 2013, a record 1,343 occupied eagle nests were documented in 67 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. 
In winter, most of Wisconsin’s eagles migrate to where the food is, and the best restaurants are near dams and power plants, which provide open water for the eagles to fish. Because so many eagles congregate at these sites, eagle watching events are now held in Cassville, Prairie du Chien, and Ferryville on the Mississippi River, Sauk Prairie on the Wisconsin River, and the Fox Cities along the Fox River between Neenah and Kaukauna.
Here’s the lineup of events: “A Day with Eagles along the Fox River” will be held on January 17. The Fox Cities have identified 16 prime viewing spots in Kaukauna, Combined Locks, Little Chute, Kimberly, Appleton, Neenah, and Menasha. Sauk Prairie’s 28th annual “Bald Eagle Watching Days” also takes place on Jan. 17, while Cassville’s is on Jan 24-25, Prairie du Chien’s on Feb. 28, and Ferryville’s on March 7.

Snowy Owl Update
There are now an estimated 226 snowy owls across Wisconsin – see the eBird map at http://bit.ly/1Hi9NWL. There may be some duplication in the count, so the number is truly an estimate. However, using the same counting techniques, we had 173 snowy owls as of this date last year, making this the record winter for snowy owls in Wisconsin.
Across the U.S., this year’s snowy owls, compared to last year’s birds, arrived earlier, have a lower proportion of juvenile birds, are located more in the central/western Plains and less in the Northeast, and have stayed further north aside from a couple pioneering birds that have been seen Kansas and Oklahoma.
There’s been some heated discussion about folks getting too close to the owls. For the ethical way to view these birds, see http://wsobirds.org/about-wso/code-of-ethics.
If you do see a snowy owl, telling the males from the females is as much an art as a science. Males are usually much lighter, but not always. And snowies tend to get lighter with age, but not always. As a generality, the whitest birds are usually adult males, while the darkest birds are usually immature females. But if you see a bird with moderate markings, the jury is out. The key points to look for are the extent of the white bib on the chest (larger in males), the darkness at the nape of the neck (dark in females, mostly white in males), and the barring of the tail (some complete, or nearly complete bars on females; males with mostly broken bars, or nearly complete at best).
Locally, Sarah Krembs in Manitowish Waters heard that there were owls in the Antigo area, so she and her father took a drive. They found two snowies in the fields just north of Antigo – see Sarah’s excellent pictures! She noted, “One was just outside of Antigo on a telephone pole on Hwy 64. That was the dark one, a female, right? Then, the other one I spotted on our way back home just as we were leaving Antigo on Hwy 47. This owl was perched on the irrigation sprinkler system way out in the middle of the field. We pulled over and watched it for a bit. Then it flew closer to the highway and sat on the snow for a minute or two. I couldn't tell if it was eating anything. And then he went and flew to the very end sprinkler, which was the one closest to the highway. I got to take pictures and watch him for a long time. When he would look at us with those yellow eyes and I was seeing him through the binoculars . . . wow . . . blood-chilling. Very impressive. This guy was much whiter...male, correct?”
Sarah’s gender ID’s were spot on, given the best generalities we can go by.
There are no birds locally to observe, at least that I’m aware of. But a road trip like Sarah’s could turn up a number of owls – that’s where the adventure comes in.

Minocqua Christmas Bird Count Totals
The Minocqua Christmas Bird Count, which took place on 12/20, tallied 1,418 birds. This ties for the record high over the 17 years that this CBC has been conducted. Counters also recorded a total of 28 species, the record high. Another first was a report of a Cooper’s hawk. The total number of species recorded over all Minocqua CBC’s now stands at an impressive 53 species of birds. However, during any given count, the Minocqua CBC averages 644 birds of 20 species.

Christmas Bird Counts: One Difference between Madison and the Northwoods
What does being 250 miles south of our area mean to wintering birds? Well, Madison held its Christmas bird count on 12/20, the same day as the Minocqua count, and they tallied 92 species. Whereas Canada geese are a rare winter sighting up here, within Madison’s count area (a circle 15 miles in diameter), they counted over 15,000. They also tallied 2,438 mallards, 897 tundra swans, and 903 common mergansers, as well as birds we seldom see in the Northwoods like 46 tufted titmice and 223 red-bellied woodpeckers. On the other hand, they also had 4,217 starlings and 2,706 house sparrows, which we fortunately saw none of.
So, to state the ridiculously obvious, cold, ice, and snow matter a great deal to wildlife. If you want the real extremes, the Christmas count in Barrow, Alaska, typically turns up zero species, or, perhaps in good year, a raven. Of course, they have about two hours of semi-light in which to see anything, and the normal windchill is somewhere around -70°F. Try birding in those conditions some day.
On the other hand, the record number of species for the one-day Christmas count is 250 in the Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh count circle around Matagorda, Texas. Counting along the Gulf Coast must be a magical experience. One counter in southern Florida talked about tallying 30 species before they even left the parking lot. Eighty degrees in December makes just a wee bit of difference!

Surviving Cold, Redpoll Style
            This week’s sub-zero cold spell is par for the course in a Northwoods January, though to listen to the hyperbolic news reports, you’d think we might die if we even stuck our noses outside. Mary, Callie, and I snowshoed three miles on Monday when it was -5° with a windchill of -30° and somehow survived. Granted, though, we wore a lot of clothes and came inside after an hour and half.
Wintering species of wildlife don’t possess those options. However, one tiny bird has winter all figured out and puts anything we humans can tolerate to shame. The common redpoll has just arrived from its northern breeding areas at many local feeders. This tiny bird breeds circumpolarly, meaning it circles the globe in far northern regions from Norway to Russia to Alaska to Greenland. They’re dapper little birds, distinguished by their red berets and their black goatees, while the male also washes his chest in raspberry juice.
Redpolls only weigh about ½ ounce and stretch out five inches. Staying warm on -20°F nights can be a profoundly difficult chore given how little fat and fuel there is in those little bodies to burn overnight. One survival strategy is to eat, and eat a lot. Redpolls eat the equivalent of 31–42% of their body mass each day, particularly foraging for the small, high-energy seeds of birches and alders, as well as conifer seeds, various grasses and sedges, and a wide range of weeds. We purposely don’t cut down our garden plants that have gone to seed in the fall so they provide food for winter birds like the redpolls.
Another winter survival strategy they utilize is to store seeds in their diverticula – laterally expandable sections of their esophagus – prior to further digestion. Redpolls gather seeds quickly in the open, storing them in their diverticula for later regurgitation, husking, and swallowing. This way they can shelter in dense conifer cover and save significant energy at times of intense cold.
Their diverticula holds up to two grams of seeds, or about 15% of their body mass. This amount gives them over 25% of their daily caloric requirements in winter. They also consume a lot of grit, which is why they’re often seen on the edge of roads picking up sand and gravel, presumably for minerals. They’re very social – flocks of up to 50 individuals aren’t unusual. One birder near Ashland recently reported seeing a flock of 250 redpolls. So, watch for them along the roads and slow down – they are not at all adapted to traffic and much too easy to hit.
Other strategies they employ for winter survival include retaining heat by fluffing their feathers, remaining inactive, seeking shelter, and allowing peripheral vasoconstriction. Their plumage structure apparently is also better for insulation than many other species, and they add feathers in the winter – wild Alaskan redpoll species had 31% heavier plumage in November than July. They also roost communally – flocks of approximately 1,000 birds have been seen roosting in spruce. Most remarkably, they also make roosting chambers in the snow. They can drop from the trees into the snow and make a tunnel 10 to 15 inches long and 2 to 4 inches deep, breaking the snowcap in the morning to begin feeding.
These birds aren’t just tough – they’re astonishingly hardy. From captive studies, common redpolls in Alaska are able to survive at temperatures of -65°F, while hoary redpolls can handle -88°F.

Celestial Events
            As of 1/10, our days will be growing longer by two minutes a day. As for cold, on average, January 16th through the 20th mark the coldest days of the year in our area. On 1/16, look before dawn for Saturn about 2 degrees south of the waning crescent moon.

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at manitowish@centurytel.net, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.