Wednesday, February 25, 2015

NWA 2/20/15

A Northwoods Almanac for Feb. 20 – March 5, 2015

Boreal Owl Sighting!
On 2/7, a Minocqua reader reported a boreal owl hanging around her bird feeders, and she took a series of excellent photos of it perched on her fence posts. Unfortunately, the boreal owl hasn’t returned since, a shame given how rare these birds are to see.
Boreal owls are tiny, the males 8 inches tall and the larger females, 11 inches. Their two-foot wingspan is rather long for their height, but they’re mostly feathers, weighing from 3 to 7 ounces,  
Where they’re abundant around the world, they’re an important predator of forest rodents. Their asymmetrical ears help to locate prey concealed under the snow.
In North America, they breed in Alaska and Canada, and as far south as extreme northern Minnesota. They nest in cavities found in dense boreal forests of black and white spruce, aspen, white birch, and balsam fir.
In the winter, boreals disperse south when rodent populations are scarce – nearly four-fifths of their diet is voles, mice, gophers, chipmunks, and flying squirrels. They tend to irrupt every four years into northern Minnesota and in those years, a few make it down into Wisconsin. They irrupted last in 2012-13, so are next due in 20016-17.
“Irruption” is a bit of a misnomer, however, sort of like calling a fly or two a plague. If three or four boreals are seen in Wisconsin in a year, that’s a major incursion. So, having one spend a day in Minocqua was quite a gift!

Other Sightings: Northern Shrike, Bobcat, Pileated Woodpeckers, Red Crossbills
Terry Mann shared a sighting and a photo of a northern shrike, which had been hunting near his bird feeders for several days last week. He watched it catch a mouse on 2/2 and noted, “Our chickadees are rather nervous.” Shrikes do eat songbirds, too, so it’s certainly a mixed blessing to see one around your home. But everything has to eat, no matter how difficult it may be to watch a chickadee getting carried away.
Warren Luy sent me a photo of a bobcat that was crawling very slowly on its stomach towards two black squirrels scratching for sunflower seeds under his bird feeder. He noted, “[The bobcat] was spotted by one of the squirrels whose tail started whipping wildly back and forth. They were about 25 feet apart. That's when the picture was taken. This spooked the bobcat who ran into the woods while the squirrels ran up the closest tree for safety.”  
            Colleen Henrich in Lake Tomahawk sent me a photo of one of three pileated woodpeckers she has coming to her suet feeders. She also has a red-bellied
woodpecker every day, but can’t get it to stay long enough to get a good photo. “I have been trying to get a photo of him, but he is very shy and grabs a mouthful of suet or seeds and then flies into the woods.”
            Mary and I skied and snowshoed at Winter Park in Minocqua on 2/11, and as we were standing by our car in the parking lot, a flock of 10 red crossbills landed in a white birch in front of us. The flock contained males, females, and juveniles, and they were not in the least concerned about how close they were to us. We got exceptional views in our binoculars of their crossed bills, but didn’t have a camera handy. This was our first visual sighting of red crossbills this winter, and when we get the rare chance to see them, we’re always grateful to have been so lucky.

Eagle Osprey 2014 Nesting Surveys
WDNR staff completed aerial nesting surveys for bald eagles and ospreys in the spring and early summer of 2014, marking the 42nd consecutive year that these important wildlife surveys have been completed in Wisconsin. This is one of the longest running surveys of its kind in North America, and unfortunately some counties were not surveyed entirely due to staff changes and budget reductions. Still, the surveys found 1,279 occupied eagle nests and 542 occupied osprey nests. 
Eagle numbers were down this year from last year’s 1,344 nests, a decrease of 65 pairs. However, this drop doesn’t reflect the actual abundance of occupied eagle nests in Wisconsin as three counties (Buffalo, Dunn and Pepin) were not surveyed at all and two others (Grant and Crawford) were only partially surveyed due to observer changes in these areas. Occupied eagle nests were observed in 66 of 69 (96%) counties surveyed.
Overall statewide nest success was 63%, representing 1,034 bald eagle chicks.
Within the successful nests, 58% produced one young, 40% two young, and 2% three young. As I’m sure most of you recall, northern lakes remained ice-covered well into the nesting season, as late as early May in Vilas County. Still, Vilas County led Wisconsin with 151 nests. Oneida County was close on its heels with 144 occupied nests. Next highest statewide was Burnett County with 67 nests, making Vilas and Oneida the clear epicenter of eagle production in Wisconsin.
Ospreys are far less numerous in Wisconsin. The first osprey flight was completed in May to locate occupied nests. There were 542 occupied osprey nests found in 57 of Wisconsin’s 72 (79%) counties. This was an increase of 7 pairs from 2013 and the highest number ever recorded for Wisconsin. Oneida county had the most occupied nests by far – 88, while Vilas County had the second-most nests at 30.
Funding constraints limited the mid-July survey to count young to only Iron, Oneida and Vilas counties. Of the 97 successful nests found in those three counties, 57% had one young and 43% had two young. Osprey nest success was high in Iron County, with 84% of 16 nests successfully producing young at the time of the productivity flight.  In Oneida County, the nest success rate was lower at 63%.

A Legion of Pine Siskins
            We are inundated with pine siskins! It’s hard to get an accurate count on them, but we must have at least 80, along with 20 or so purple finches, goldfinches, and common redpolls, plus the normal suspects like blue jays, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, mourning doves, woodpeckers, and black-capped chickadees. We’re going through seed rapidly, but what a pleasure it is to hear and see so much activity around our feeders.
We often see flocks of pine siskins in the middle of the road where they are picking up road salt. Pine siskins share the proclivity of other finches for salt, suggesting some lack of minerals in their diet.
Siskins are tough little birds. In one study, they survived temperatures of -70°C for three hours. And they don’t back down from other birds at feeders, usually dominating goldfinch and the larger purple finches.
They eat seeds of a variety of annual plants, as well as the small seeds of various trees, with alder and birch apparently particular favorites. They also ingest the tender buds of various trees and actively forage for insects and spiders.

Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund
            The state Stewardship Fund is slated to be defunded in the upcoming budgetary session. Most of the press over the years on stewardship outlays has gone to major land purchases or easements, but most people aren’t aware of the many other uses of this fund. Here are just a few examples:
- Improvements for fish hatcheries.
- Aids to the state, counties, villages or towns for snowmobile, ATV, and UTV projects.
- Grants for acquisition and development of local parks.
- Grants for recreational boating facilities, boat ramps, and related parking facilities, navigational aids or markers, dredging, and weed removal.
- Grants to Non-profit Conservation Organizations (NCOs) like Door County Land Trust, Mississippi Valley Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, The Alliance of Dunn County Conservation and Sports Clubs, and the Manitowoc County Fish and Game Association, among many others.
- Grants for dam safety projects.
- Grants for acquisition of urban green space.
            The list is far longer than this and rather remarkable. If you want to really know how the Stewardship Program works, where the money has gone over the years, and how the debt service is handled, so that you can honestly appraise the value of the program, here is a very detailed resource:

Changing Weather and Climate: Online class and discussion
A 4-week-long MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for “Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region,” starts 2/23 and is available free (it’s also free of politics!). The course features short lectures and activities from instructors Steve Ackerman, UW professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and Margaret Mooney, director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. 
As an added feature, participants are invited to join weekly informal discussions at the Minocqua and Mercer Public Libraries. Margaret Mooney will lead the conversations on Thursday evenings – February 26, March 5, 12, and 19 – at 6 p.m.  To register for the course, go to and select the Weather and Climate MOOC. I’ve never participated in a MOOC before, but I’ve registered for this one.

Celestial Events

            Tonight after sunset, 2/20, look for Mars and Venus both just a degree or two below the crescent moon. The next night, 2/21, Mars and Venus will be appear to be stacked right on top of one another – look low in the southwest after sunset. By 2/25, we’re up to 11 hours of daylight!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

NWA 2/6/15

A Northwoods Almanac for Feb. 6 - 19, 2015  

Great Backyard Bird Count
The 18th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada, takes place February 13 through 16. The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track changes in bird populations on a massive scale and creates a real-time snapshot of where the birds are.             
An estimated 142,051 bird watchers from 135 countries participated in the 2014 count, documenting nearly 4,300 species on more than 144,000 bird checklists – that’s about 43% of all the bird species in the world!
Everyone is needed and welcome, from beginning bird watchers to experts. Participants count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the GBBC. You can count for longer than that if you wish and in as many places (not just your backyard) and on as many days as you like. Enter your results on the GBBC website at by clicking “Submit Observations” on the home page.
The top 5 species that appeared on the most checklists in 2014 were:
Northern cardinal
Dark-eyed junco
Mourning dove
Blue jay
Downy woodpecker
The top 5 most numerous birds reported were:
Red-winged blackbird
Snow goose
Canada goose
European starling
Worldwide, India reported the highest number of GBBC species at 819, although only 3,358 checklists were submitted there in comparison to the 124,310 checklists from the U.S. I was unaware that India was such a hotspot for birds!

Empathy for Squirrels?
Most folks who feed birds get riled up, perhaps even a bit crazy, about squirrels stealing food from their feeders, and many have rigged up ingenious methods to thwart them, some of which even work for a while! Mary and I gave up a long time ago trying to foil the acrobatic genius of squirrels, and now just consider them part of the family of wildlife at our feeders (well . . . let’s just say we aspire to this state of enlightenment).
One of the reasons we look more kindly upon them is because years ago we learned about a phenomenon called the “Lower Critical Temperature” (LCT) for animals in winter. An animal’s LCT is the point at which its metabolic rate must be increased in order to offset the amount of heat being lost. Said another way, it’s the lowest temperature at which an animal can rest comfortably, below which it will need additional energy to stay warm.
The LCT varies from species to species, and from season to season. Porcupines have an LCT in summer of 45°F, but their LCT is reduced to 10°F during the winter. Red fox LCTs are nearly identical to those for porcupines: 47°F in summer and 8°F in winter. Both accomplish their winter acclimation primarily by increasing the thickness of their fur, but also by increasing fat deposits. Arctic fox and moose are the supreme examples of such an adaptation, dropping their LCT to -40°F in winter. Both can rest comfortably at this brutal temperature (assuming no wind), without changing their behavior or physiology.
Squirrels have no such luck. Their fur is too short to make a difference, and they don’t put on significant fat deposits, so their LCT remains at 68°F in both summer and winter, very much like we humans. In order to stay warm, they thoroughly insulate their nests, and they must eat a great deal in order to keep their internal furnaces stoked. This utter lack of cold hardiness is evidenced by their abundant midden piles of conifer cones and their persistent refueling at our bird feeders.
So, next time you’re shaking your fist at the squirrels raiding your feeders and plotting extreme measures to foil them, imagine living in their shoes. Perhaps then you might be more willing to help them through a long winter, too.

Bohemian Waxwings
All winter, we’ve had inconsistent arrivals of bohemian waxwings feeding on our crabapples. They’re here a few days, then gone, then back again the next week – where are they going and why? I surely don’t know, but they’re named bohemians for a reason – they’re nomadic vagabonds known for their irregular winter wanderings.
What I find most interesting about them is that they are monogamous and non-territorial, apparently because the fruits that are most desirous to them are too ephemeral to be defensible. As a consequence of not defending nesting or feeding territories, waxwings do not have true songs – there’s no need. They’re highly gregarious, cooperating rather than competing for scattered, abundant fruit crops. Their large migratory and winter flocks associate closely, with little antagonism.
Their breeding sites vary from year to year, with pairs nesting and feeding close together, too. In the wild, they’re docile, perching calmly close to one another. And though they lack true songs, bohemians have a diversity of call types used in different social contexts that appear to have subtle meanings.
It’s difficult to anticipate when we may see them in Wisconsin because there’s no regular periodicity to their invasion years. For instance, beginning in 1879, major irruption years occurred in Wisconsin at intervals of 4, 14, 10, 13, 10, 11, 5, 11, 3, 5, 6, 8, 3, 3, and 1 year, though they have been seen at a higher frequency since 1960.
We always get excited and try to thoroughly enjoy them when they suddenly arrive, because we know they’ll be on their way before we know it. If you have crabapple trees or highbush cranberries, keep an eye peeled for them. They’re like spring wildflowers – here one moment, gone the next.

Van Vliet Hemlocks Snowshoeing
            Callie and I snowshoed in the Van Vliet Hemlocks State Natural Area last week, and as always, absolutely loved our time wandering around in the stands of old hemlock, sugar maple, yellow birch, and basswood. The Van Vliet Hemlocks were only recently designated as a State Natural Area in 2013, and as described on the State Natural Area website, the site “protects an ecologically significant stretch of undeveloped lake frontage and harbors one of the largest, old-growth hemlock-hardwood forests in this region - now very rare in Wisconsin.” Mary and I are leading a snowshoe hike there on Valentine’s Day, Saturday, Feb. 14 at 10 a.m. If you’d like to know more about this site, bring your sweetie (or not) and join us by registering with Nicolet College at 715-356-6753. Registration closes Monday, 2/9.

Climate Change Stats
Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA calculated that in 2014 the world had its hottest year in 135 years of record keeping. Earlier, the Japanese weather agency and an independent group out of University of California Berkeley also measured 2014 as the hottest on record.
NOAA said 2014 averaged 58.24 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.24 degrees above the 20th-century average. NASA, which calculates temperatures slightly differently, put 2014's average temperature slightly higher at 58.42 degrees Fahrenheit.
Earth broke NOAA records set in 2010 and 2005. The last time the Earth set an annual NOAA record for cold was in 1911.
NOAA also said last December was the hottest December on record. Six months in 2014 set marks for heat. The last time Earth set a monthly cold record was in December 1916.

Celestial Events
            Our days are growing longer now by three minutes every day. Look before dawn on 2/12 and 2/13 for Saturn hovering near the waning crescent moon. You’ll need a small telescope or spotting scope to see Saturn’s rings, which are inclined now at about 25° from edge, exhibiting their northern face. Saturn rises in the southeast about two and one-half hours after midnight in early February and roughly one-half hour after midnight by the month’s end.
Winter Ebbing?

I’ve no idea if the groundhog saw his shadow on 2/2, but I think we can expect at least six more weeks of winter whether he did or not. Still . . . “We think of January as a slow and trudging journey through the valley of winter, but in reality it is a long and steady climb up the cold slope toward spring . . . January is cold, and February is traditionally full of snow; what warmth remains in the rocks will ooze away and the ice fangs will bite deep, even as the daylight lengthens. But the slope is upward now. The ice will melt, in due time, and the rivers will flow and brooks will leap again. Buds, already patterned on the twig, will open. Birds will sing. These things we know, for they are as inevitable as the lengthening daylight. The long, cold slope still lies ahead, but we have already begun the long slow climb toward spring and April.”  Hal Borland, Twelve Moons of the Year