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: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb/publications/Informational-Papers/Documents/2015/62_Warren%20Knowles-Gaylord%20Nelson%20Stewardship%20Program.pdf
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 www.moocs.wisc.edu and select the Weather and Climate MOOC. I’ve never participated in a MOOC before, but I’ve registered for this one.
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!