Thursday, June 25, 2015

NWA 6/26/15

A Northwoods Almanac for June 26 – July 9, 2015 

Green Herons
Joe Mastalski sent a beautiful photo on 6/20 of a green heron eating a dragonfly! I appreciate the photo because green herons are not commonly seen in the Northwoods, in part because they are far more secretive then their cousin, the great blue heron. They’re much smaller and stockier than great blues and don’t seem to tolerate people quite so readily.
Like a great blue heron, their most common feeding technique is to stand in a crouched posture, body horizontal, head and neck retracted, looking into the water. But, much different from a great blue, they may also dive from perches headfirst into deep water, becoming submerged. While perched, another feeding variant is for a green heron to wait patiently until prey emerges, then throw its body toward the prey but keep its hold on the branch, even hanging upside down on occasion to catch fish beneath its perch. Green herons are also known to stir up their prey, by raking the sediments.
But far more amazingly, they are among the few tool-using birds, fabricating various baits that they drop into the water to entice fish. These birds have been recorded as using bread, maize, popcorn, fish pellets, feathers, twigs, leaves, berries, flies and plastic to bait fish, clearly examples of tool use. Some birds were even observed to dig up earthworms and then use them for bait.
Green herons are primarily fish eaters, consuming anything they can catch and handle. But they’re also extremely opportunistic with a highly varied diet, including earthworms, leeches, spiders, crayfish, crabs, snails, frogs, toads, tadpoles, salamanders, lizards, snakes, rodents, and adult and larval insects such as dragonflies, damselflies, water bugs, diving beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids. They’ve also been observed apparently eating vegetable matter, such as acorns, but how often and how much is unclear.

Hail Damage to Trees
Back in May I received several phone calls from homeowners who were concerned that conifer trees on their property were yellowing and appeared to be dying. I was unsure of the cause and asked that they contact the forestry department at the DNR for an answer.  It turns out that hail damage from a storm on 9/4/2014 is the culprit, according to Linda Williams, a forest health specialist for the DNR. Linda has written an in-depth summary of the storm’s effects (see, but here is a quick overview:
“Most of the damage occurred last year on September 4, 2014, when a storm dumped large hail on many areas around the Northwoods . . . Hail damage to a twig is sort of like hitting your arm with a hammer, many times . . . The damaged conifers remained green all winter, frozen in time, but are showing symptoms of damage this spring as branches suddenly die from multiple hail wounds.
What can homeowners do? Trees that have some dead branches can be pruned to remove the dead branches if there are no longer any live buds on those branches. Then just wait for the trees to grow callus over the hail wounds. This could take several years,
so be patient. Be aware that additional branch mortality or whole tree mortality could occur if the tree is too badly damaged and insects or diseases attack the tree.”

New England Hiking
            Callie and I spent nine days hiking in early June in Vermont’s Green Mountains, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and New York’s Adirondacks. We had dropped Mary off in Montreal, Quebec, for an intensive Jacquard weaving class, but since that skill is way over our heads, we decided to sample some of the myriad hiking opportunities in northern New England instead.
            If I had to sum up the experience in two words, I would say “ruggedly beautiful.”
Folks in New England don’t seem to believe in trail switchbacks, rightfully assuming the fastest way between two points is a straight line, but forgetting that if the line is straight up, it will cause lots of pain. I don’t know that I’ve ever hiked steeper, rockier and muddier trails than we found in Vermont – we spent a lot of time gasping – but the rewards in beauty were worth it.
            One pleasure was our ability to drink directly from the mountain streams there, given that no giardia-carrying beaver in its right mind would have climbed these mountain trails and tried to dam the streams (we made sure the streams weren’t flowing from any ponds on top of the mountains).
            Another pleasure was observing the changes in vegetation and birdlife as we climbed. As the trees grew more stunted near the top of mountains, we heard again and again the song of blackpoll warblers, a bird we only rarely see in migration here in Wisconsin. The blackpoll warbler occupies an extensive breeding range across the northern coniferous forests of Alaska and Canada, in the transition zone between taiga and tundra, and in the subalpine forests of eastern North America. What’s remarkable about the blackpoll is that it undertakes the longest migration of any North American warbler, with some individuals traveling over 5,000 miles from Alaska to Brazil. Part of the fall migratory route is over the Atlantic Ocean from the northeastern United States to Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, or northern South America. This route averages 1,800 miles over water, necessitating a potentially nonstop flight of up to 88 hours, and requiring the blackpolls to nearly double their body mass for the necessary fuel to make the flight.
            The forest composition also changed as we climbed. We usually began in sugar maple-beech deciduous forests, which gradually morphed into spruce-fir forests, which gradually declined in size and number. We never hiked a mountain that went above the treeline – those required an elevation gain of 3,000 feet or more to summit, and we flatlander Wisconsinites were well aware of not being in shape for that. But we did reach the rock tops of several mountains where the trees were lucky to reach 10 feet tall, and here the blackpolls were common, as were dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows.
            We also found some beautiful old-growth forests in the Adirondacks, one of which had the best stand of old-growth white pines I’ve ever seen, all arranged along a gorgeous tumbling brook.
            The similarities in flora and fauna between New England and Wisconsin are extensive, and we felt quite at home (except for the mountains!). I should add that our hikes were all nearly bugless, a fact I’m still trying to understand, but which we were very thankful for.

Seven Swans A-swimming
Sarah Krembs sent several delightful photos of a trumpeter swan pair swimming with their seven cygnets on Powell Marsh. She noted, “Seven cygnets swimming . . . isn't there a song that goes like that? Those crazy swans hatched out SEVEN cygnets!!! (Last year they had four.)
“I first saw the babies on the evening of June 10th . . . They must have only been a day or two old when I took the pictures (on the 11th). On the 12th, the whole family ended up back by the nest after spending time foraging. The adult sat on the nest and let the little ones crowd around her. But, as the little ones were making their way up the fairly steep sides of the nest, two of them fell down and rolled back down the side. Have you ever seen fluffy little swan babies rolling down a nest?!! It is ADORABLE. When they came to a stop, each cygnet tried again, and made it to the top.  I bet they were tuckered out.”
The breeding phenology for trumpeter swans is lengthy. The female and male may share the brooding of the eggs, though the female incubates far more than the male. They incubate the eggs for 32-37 days, but the female doesn’t brood them with a brood patch on her chest like most birds; rather she keeps them warm with both her feet. If she leaves the nest to feed, she covers the eggs with down or nesting material.
Once hatched, the young are precocial and capable of feeding themselves on aquatic vegetation and invertebrates found on the water surface. The cygnets will take about 100 days to fledge, and sometimes as long as 122 days.
Both adults defend their territory against other swans as well as other waterfowl, mammals, and humans. In late May, I watched the Powell Marsh pair aggressively chase away two other swans that had landed a hundred yards or more from their nest. Last year, I saw one of the adults repeatedly attack a pair of geese until the geese finally left the area. Trumpeters are the largest native North American waterfowl, sporting a seven-foot-wide wingspan and weighing 30 pounds or more, so when one aggressively flies at an intruder, I suspect it’s a frightening sight to behold.
Though trumpeters remain a “species of special concern” in Wisconsin, by 2013, 220 breeding pairs were observed in 27 counties, and those pairs produced a record number of 349 cygnets.

Boom-Boom Means No Zoom-Zoom of Birds
            As July 4th nears, and the desire in some humans to create loud explosions seems to reach a peak, I’m compelled to remind folks that firecrackers scare wildlife. And not just in your yard where you set off the devices, but in your neighbor’s yards as well. May I humbly suggest that out of courtesy and regard for both humans and wildlife, if you wish to go boom-boom, do so at a ball field or some other large open public area, but not in the woods, over a lake, or near other people’s homes, many of whom may have worked hard all spring to attract wildlife.

Celestial Events
            On 6/28, look for Saturn about two degrees south of the waxing gibbous moon. On 6/30, look after sunset for Venus and Jupiter next to each other low in the northwest. The full moon occurs on July 1, the first of two full moons in July, and Venus will again be just below Jupiter.

NWA 6/12/15

A Northwoods Almanac for June 12 – 25, 2015 

Celestial Events
            Our earliest sunrises of the year occur from 6/10-6/20, all commencing at 5:08 a.m. Without Daylight Savings Time, it would 4:08!
June 19 marks the year’s northernmost sunset – 33.7° north of west. 
            On 6/20, look for Jupiter near the waxing crescent moon.
Summer solstice occurs on 6/21, marking our longest day of the year – 15 hours and 45 minutes. Compare this to our shortest day on winter solstice of eight hours and 39 minutes, a full seven hours less daylight. On 6/22, the sun begins rising one minute later each day for the first time since January 1.
            The latest sunsets of the year occur from 6/20 to 7/1 at 8:53 p.m.
Sightings – Fawns, Kingbirds, Indigo Buntings
5/18: Cheri Smith photographed an Eastern kingbird sitting on a weather vane in her front yard, noting “He was quite entertaining to watch chasing bugs in the yard. I remember as a kid how they used to torment our labs when they got too close to their nesting area.”
5/20: Ron and Pam Ahles on the Pike Lake chain of lakes sent a photo of a brilliant indigo bunting that stopped at their feeders for several days and then departed. Indigo buntings do nest in our area, but as the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Wisconsin says: “This is one species that has benefited greatly from habitat fragmentation since settlement. All types of shrubby and brushy sites, from forest openings and edge, to overgrown old fields, to thickets along fencerows and stream, are occupied by this common summer resident . . . the logging of the great forests in the northern part of the state and the conversion of prairie and oak savanna to agriculture in the south and west resulted in the creation and continual regeneration of much shrubby second-growth and edge so favorable to this species.” So, for those of us living in deeper woods, indigo buntings only stop briefly for a few free meals during migration before departing for more open habitats.
5/24: Paul Lemkuhl sent me a series of photos of a doe nursing her newborn fawn. Does typically give birth to their fawns in the last week in May and into the first week of June.
5/27: Jim Schumacher sent me a great photo of bog laurel in flower. Their anthers, which hold the pollen, are “spring-loaded” – when an insect lands on the flower, the anthers spring out of tiny depressions in the flower, spraying the pollen onto the insect.
5/28: Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk sent me a photo of a northern mockingbird that she observed in her yard.
5/30: Linda Johnson sent me a rather unpleasant photo of slugs eating earthworms – I would never have guessed they did this!
6/5: Don and Greta Janssen sent this note: “First time ever that we had a pair of mallards cleaning up the sunflower seeds below the feeder. We also had a doe and newborn fawn in the yard. The fawn was very wobbly on its legs and nursing and the doe kept licking it all over.”

Fawn Phenology
Within hours of its birth, a fawn can stand and will also nurse. The doe may leave the fawn(s) for much of the day, but will stay within 100 yards. If the doe had twins, she will move them to separate spots as far apart as 100 yards that first day. Over the next few weeks, a fawn most often spends its life hidden in dense cover where it is a master at remaining motionless. The doe will visit only two or three periods each day. Her strategy is that by keeping twins widely apart, and by visiting only occasionally, she will reduce the chances of predation on the fawns. Since newborn fawns have very little scent, predators have difficulty finding them.
            The fawn chooses its hiding place, walking away from its mother to bed down in cover. The fawn may often change its location throughout the day, reducing the likelihood that scent will attract a predator.
The doe pays little attention to the fawn’s departure, returning to the general area where they last parted and calling the fawn to come out and nurse.
The doe licks the pernineal region of her fawn while it’s nursing to stimulate defecation. In doing so, she consume the fawn’s feces, further removing scent from the fawn.
At three days, most fawns can outrun a man. At three weeks, most can outrun a coyote.
By three weeks, fawns begin eating vegetation and reducing the time spent nursing. By six weeks, does typically end most nursing, and by ten weeks, she fully weans the fawns, which are now capable of grazing and browsing.
Many people report seeing fawns apparently playing – kicking up their feet and racing around with their tails flagged, often zigzagging and bucking like an open-field runner. Perhaps it’s merely play, but equally likely, the elusive running gives them practice in eluding predators.
Research comparing the ultimate success of younger does with more experienced mothers shows that fawns of experienced mothers (four years old or older) had lower mortality rates. The older does aggressively claim the better habitat for hiding their fawns, move them shorter distances in the first weeks of life, and separate siblings further.
Sometime after ten weeks, the fawns’ behaviors look much like their mothers, and they then stay with their mothers all the time.

Hooded Merganser Chicks
Sue DeFrancisco in Minocqua sent me her observations of a hooded merganser nesting in tree cavity near her home: “What a remarkable experience this has been to watch our hooded merganser nesting in the wood duck box. It's Friday, June 5th. Sunny, breezy, 60+ degrees and not a creature in sight. At 9 a.m. our hen, who appeared extremely agitated, emerged and perched in the nesting hole. Every so often, she dropped into the nest for a few minutes and then returned to sitting on the hole. She never flew out. For 5 hours I sat staring at her perched 40 yards away! Around 2 p.m. I noticed the hen had reentered the nest, but I thought I saw something fall from the hole. Or did I? The hen then shot out of the nest and straight down like a rocket. This was it!! Faster than I could blink, the ducklings came shooting out one by one in all their furry splendor. The sweetest was the 2 in tandem. I lost count at seven and it was over in less than 45 seconds. I wanted to both laugh and cry. I definitely was speechless and in awe. They most likely went down river where it's safer and the current isn't as strong, but I sure hope our hoodie parades her family back up river in a few weeks.”

A White Pink Lady’s Slipper
            Diane Steele sent me a lovely photo a pink lady’s slipper, but contrast her photo with the one sent to me by Arlene Lantz of a white lady’s slipper. I’ve seen many pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule), but never a white one. In looking at photos of a true white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), this is a different species that is not seen in our area, and which has a different shaped flower. Thus, Arlene’s flower appears to be a white version of the pink lady’s slipper, a rarity in itself.

Beech Bark Disease
Callie and I have been hiking in Vermont and New Hampshire over the last week, and we’ve been surprised by the extent of beech bark disease on the American beech trees here. Since beech trees don’t occur as far west as the Lakeland area, we seldom see them and weren’t aware of the truly significant mortality and defects occurring in American beech. Recent data from plots in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine show that about 28 percent of the large beech have died, another 22 percent were dying, and many of the surviving trees are severely injured.
Beech once ruled the northern forest. “There’s been a monumental shift in the amount of beech from pre-settlement days, when there was a huge amount of beech everywhere,” says Charlie Cogbill, a plant ecologist with Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. “In northern New England, it was 40 percent of the original forest throughout almost the entire area. Today, according to FIA data (Forest Inventory and Analysis, done by the USDA Forest Service), it’s more like 15 percent.”
The disease results when bark, attacked and altered by a tiny exotic insect called the beech scale, is then invaded and killed by two species of fungi, one native and one exotic. The scale was accidentally brought to Nova Scotia around 1890 and has continued to spread to the north into Quebec and to the west and south throughout New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
The usually smooth, gray bark becomes highly disfigured with canker-like warts, or the bark becomes very rough, altering a beautiful tree into something quite different, and frankly, unattractive.
Other insects and wood-rooting fungi quickly invade the wood beneath the bark killed by beech bark disease. Many trees remain alive in a weakened state for years, but many are broken by the wind - a condition termed "beech snap"
Beech mast provides high quality food for wildlife, most notably black bear, but also white-tailed deer, marten, fisher, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, and many small mammals. Beechnuts have nearly the same protein content as corn and five times the fat. Compared to white oak acorns, beechnuts have nearly twice the crude protein and twice the fat.
The good news is that vigorous trees free of the disease have been found in heavily affected areas. Recent trials with some of these trees have shown them to be resistant to the scale, offering hope that methods can be developed to increase resistance in affected forests.

Painted Trilliums - Trillium undulatum
On a more positive note, we were delighted to find a trillium species in New Hampshire that we had never seen before – the painted trillium. The reddish purple splotch at the base of the petals serves as the “paint” providing not only beauty, but acting as a pollinator guide.

NWA 5/30/15

A Northwoods Almanac for May 30 – June 11 

Birdathon Results
            Raising money for any cause requires provocation, a reason that touches peoples’ hearts, their sense of justice, or their desire to see someone or something thrive. And sometimes it requires a creative, or a bit zany, event to draw attention to the cause, to raise it above the clamor that rightfully exists for so many other deserving people and issues.
            So, the bright idea arose that to get folks to pay attention to the needs of birds, we could do a birdathon, a one-day blitz to find as many bird species as possible.  Folks could then pledge money per species found, or donate a lump sum, to provide support for ongoing efforts to protect and/or enhance the lives of birds.
Thus the Great Wisconsin Birdathon came to life in 2012 as a joint effort between the Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI). In 2014, 217 birders, 55 teams, and 745 donors together raised $56,000 to support seven bird conservation projects in Wisconsin.
            As you’ve likely heard, budget cuts this year threaten funding for a wide array of environmental programs, agencies like State Parks, and science research positions. But it’s not an entirely new story. The Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation was formed in 1986 as declining budgets then severely compromised critical programs of the WDNR.
            Highlights from their more than 25 years of work include:
* $5.4 million contributed to public and private conservation efforts
* Creation of the Wisconsin Conservation Endowment, which includes 68 funds and $4.12 million in assets that permanently support specific lands, programs, and species
* Coordination of more than 1,500 field trips where 28,000 people have explored significant sites and projects across Wisconsin
* Support of nearly 500 grassroots conservation projects in every county of the state through their Besadny Conservation Grants Program
* Providing opportunities for 48 Wisconservation Corps members who have restored more than 14,000 acres at 150 State Natural Areas
* Helping fund the recovery of populations of trumpeter swans, whooping cranes, American martens, and other species
Funds raised through the Great Wisconsin Birdathon benefit the Bird Protection Fund, which supports the year-round needs of birds for breeding, migrating, and wintering.
This year, the goal is to raise over $70,000, and we tried our best to contribute on May 20 when, with a team of eight intrepid birders, we birded portions of Iron, Vilas, and Oneida counties.
We limited how far we went (some teams drive over 500 miles!) to about 40 miles, in part because we wanted to focus just on this area, but also because we didn’t want to race around and lose the joy we get from simply being in the beauty of the Northwoods.
So, we took our time, started at the late hour of 4 a.m. (many teams start at 12:01 a.m.), stopped at 8:45 to eat a good breakfast at our house, slowly walked a bunch of trails and sort-of trails over the course of the rest of the day, then said “enough is enough” at 7 p.m. Nevertheless, Mary and I finished the job well later that night by listening for birds while we did our DNR frog count survey.
Our efforts netted 108 bird species, a fine number for our northern forest area and for how we approached the day. Birders in other areas with a wider array of habitats got greater or lesser numbers (the record for the day was 213 species by a team in southern Wisconsin!), but the real deal is about how much money we are raising. Final tallies won’t be in until mid-June, but our team already has gone over the $2,000 mark. You can still donate until June 15 (go to if you wish to help Wisconsin birds. But more importantly, just keep watching birds. Giving money for conservation is only a small part of how we honor the communities of life around us.

5/12: Sarah Krembs sent a remarkable photo of an adult red squirrel carrying one of its babies. She wrote, “Almost every morning I am grumbling at the red squirrels outside my window as they gobble up all the sunflower seeds I have put out there for the songbirds. I admit to having had many uncharitable thoughts regarding squirrels. But then something happened yesterday which makes me rethink my opinions. On Benson Rd., I was watching the river when I heard rustling in the leaves near me and I saw a red squirrel carefully carrying something in its mouth. It paused to reposition “the something,” and I realized it was a baby squirrel! Mama was carrying it from one tree to another. I watched mama do this another time and spotted the new hole where she was carefully placing her babies. She ran off for another, and that’s when I left her to it because she had spotted me by then and was not happy with my presence . . . She was so careful, and the little baby’s arms were wrapped around mama like a little monkey. It was all so tender.”
5/15: Mary Kaminski on Cochran Lake, which borders the Chequamegon National Forest, has perhaps four pairs of evening grosbeaks frequenting her feeders. She wrote, “The year before last we had two pairs that were feeding their young ones . . . I think they all came back, as we have 5-6 males together and the females coming by also, but not as many at one time.  We have an open flat feeder, which they like.”
5/15: Brigitte Hornberg in Lac du Flambeau wrote, “We have been waiting forever to have a cardinal visit our feeders. Well, today is our lucky day! Had almost forgotten how striking they are. Did not stay long, but am now hearing his call in the woods.”
5/15: This evening was a perfect night for migration – see the snapshot of the radar over the Midwest taken at 10:30 p.m, just after the birds began rising from the ground and continuing their migration. Most songbirds migrate at night, lifting off a half-hour or so after dark.
5/16: Jim Swartout in Minocqua sent a photo of a beautiful smoke-phase hen turkey on his property that was displaying courtship behaviors. He noted, “When another hen intruded, she took serious umbrage.”
5/16: Sharon Lintereur sent an unusual photo of an American toad with very reddish skin.
5/16: Sue DeFranciso sent this note: “My biggest joy this year was our wood duck box which we put up five years ago along the Tomahawk River on the back end of our property . . . To the best of our knowledge we have our first nesting hen which we believe to be a hooded merganser and she went in (we think) on April 8th. What was so interesting was that we had two merganser hens fighting in the opening hole on April 2, 2015 . . . side by side. Added to that, we had pileated woodpeckers pecking at the hole to make it at least double the size starting in 2014. At the same time the two hens were fighting over the box, the pileated (male/female) were on the box/tree. I'm guessing they possibly wanted to nest in the box, too. I have no idea when to expect the ducklings to drop from the box. I feel like an expectant mother!”
5/18: Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk sent a rather unique photo of both a common yellowthroat warbler and an indigo bunting sharing her bird bath.
5/18: Dick Lemanski in Hazelhurst sent a photo of a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers that have created a nesting hole in an oak tree in full view of their living room window. He noted, “There has been a steady parade of parents going into the nest with food for over a week now, often from our suet cake which is nearby, and we hope to see fledglings peeking their heads out of the hole any day now.”
Photos like this always help answer the question of whether an older, perhaps dying tree is “going to waste.”
5/19: Dick Swartout sent a photo of a gorgeous scarlet tanager that had stopped by their property despite the snow that day.
5/19: Tom Oscar photographed begging robin chicks, showing how early robins nest and successfully bring off young. Given how early it is, I suspect this robin will mate and produce a second clutch yet this summer. The female incubates her eggs for approximately 13 days after laying the last egg. Hatching takes 24 hours, and nestlings usually fledge in 13 days. The second brood can fledge 5 weeks after the first. Robins regularly rear two broods per season. In one study, 41% of 39 pairs remained on the same territory for the second brood. Old nests may be reused, but they more commonly build new.
5/23: Sarah Kremb’s father, Dave, put up a birdhouse near their garden in the morning, and a house wren had taken up residence by the afternoon. Sarah noted there was competition: “The wren isn't the only one who wanted the new home. I watched as the wren fought off a pair of chickadees. They had gone inside a couple times, looked around, chatted with each other and flapped their wings a lot about it. They had decided to put in an offer on the house and were just about to call the moving company when the wren came and yelled at them to keep looking, this sale had already closed.”
5/24: Jane Lueneburg sent me a note that a nearby robin’s nest with newly hatched chicks was robbed by a bear making his rounds. Bears are true opportunists, so although I’ve never heard of them eating robin chicks before, I’m not surprised.

Celestial Events
On 6/1, look for Saturn about 2° south of the waxing gibbous moon.
The full moon, variously called the “Strawberry” or “Rose” or “Honey” moon, occurs on 6/2.