A Northwoods Almanac for March 20 – April 2, 2015
Pat and Rick Schwai on Cochran Lake sent me this note, along with several photographs of a pine siskin with its head stuck in their thistle feeder: “This pine siskin got himself in serious trouble at one of our feeders yesterday. Rick took the photos thinking the little guy had expired. Not so! Rick then had to figure out a way to free the bird knowing his hand wouldn't fit in the feeder to support the head as he gently pulled. Rick found what he needed and I returned home moments later to find him warming the bird in his hands. We transferred the bird to a shoebox and took it indoors. Midway through the siskin's recuperation, we were encouraged when the bird briefly lifted his head and grasped onto a twig perch. After several more minutes we took the box outdoors, lifted the lid and waited as the siskin looked around, hopped to the edge of the box and finally flew away. I suspect he'll be content to feed off the ground from now on!”
3/13: Mary Madsen on Twin Island Lake in Presque Isle sent me an update on the bobwhite that appeared in her yard last summer: “He's made it through all of that bitter cold weather and still comes to eat twice a day. I’m looking forward to hearing him call again. Maybe we'll have to find him some friends . . .”
3/14: Jim and Deb Schumaker reported their first pair of geese had returned to Lost Creek, which runs between Big Saint Germain Lake and Lost Lake. Waterfowl will start to pour in now as rivers open – thousands have already returned to the open waters of southern Wisconsin.
3/15: Sharon Lintereur in Lake Tomahawk noted the start of maple syrup season: “We have 100 trees tapped and the sap is running, hurray!! Yesterday nothing except for a couple of trees and today we haven't found a dry one. Our prediction is this is going to be a fast and furious season. If it keeps up the way it has been, we will be boiling on the weekend.”
Later that evening, she updated me: “The sap started running around noon, and we just got done collecting approximately 75 gallons; not bad for the day.”
Fresh, pure maple syrup on waffles and pancakes – what could be better!
3/15: Mary and I skied on what is left of the North Lakeland Discovery Center’s ski trails, and notably heard a brown creeper signing. The male sings from the moment he begins courtship until the young fledge. Once mated, the males and females search for dead or dying trees in order to place their nest under the loose bark. They construct a hammock-shaped nest under the bark made of insect cocoons, bark, spider egg cases, and tiny twigs. They’re an early nester, but this would be particularly early if they began in the next week. Their use of dead and dying trees for nesting is one of dozens of examples of why we need to leave dead trees standing in our woodlands.
We also heard perhaps hundreds of pine siskins singing throughout the woods, a chorus one usually hears around a backyard feeder but not deep in the woods. Remarkably, the first confirmed breeding of pine siskins in Wisconsin wasn’t reported until 1948 in Iron County, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that siskins were known to breed in all the other northern counties. They still remain quite uncommon breeders in our state, often breeding early in April, but our knowledge of their breeding biology is really sketchy.
Given their enormous numbers currently in our area, and assuming some may remain to nest, this may be a great year to learn more about when and where they nest, as well as their overall breeding cycle.
Great Backyard Bird Count
Final totals are in for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Participants from around the world set new records for the number of species identified during the four days of the Count and for the number of checklists submitted. Total checklists amounted to 147,265 (up 3,156). Total species topped 5,090 (up 794). Estimated participants were 143,941 (up 1,890).
Bitter temperatures, snow, and high winds produced problems for folks in the Northeast, resulting in a drop in participants from that region.
Of note, pine siskins aren’t just common in northern Wisconsin this winter. 2015 was a banner year for pine siskins, which were reported on 10.5% of GBBC checklists compared to 1.2% of checklists in 2014 when most siskins stayed in Canada.
Speaking of pine siskins, on 3/6, Bruce Bacon, a master bird bander and retired wildlife manager in Mercer, came over to our home in Manitowish to band the birds at our feeders. We’ve been inundated with pine siskins, but also have small numbers of common redpolls, purple finches, and the usual assortment of black-capped chickadees, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, mourning doves, et al. We worked for nearly five hours, and in that time, Bruce captured and banded 106 pine siskins and 2 hairy woodpeckers. He also recaptured 6 pine siskins from earlier in the day. But we were unable to capture any other species of bird!
We quit around 3 p.m., but only because the day was getting long. Bruce usually quits when he starts seeing an equal number of recaptures to new captures, but we sure weren’t seeing that! Bruce estimates that we probably have around 300 pine siskins feeding on our property – we could have been banding until dark!
A few days later (3/8), Bruce banded the birds on his property just north of Mercer and caught 249 birds (2 blue jays, 2 chickadees, 1 hoary and 16 common redpolls. and 230 siskins). He noted, “A long-tailed weasel killed one siskin in a trap next to the window I was sitting at before I removed him. He was fast!!! Of 230 siskins, 125 were recaps, so your banded birds will still be around.”
Rivers Opening Up
The Manitowish River opened by our home on 3/16. Last year the ice went on 4/10, so we’re three-and-a-half weeks ahead this year from last.
Few natural events are as anticipated as ice-off, whether on rivers or lakes. Most creeks and small rivers are likely open by now, but it may be another month until the ice goes off on our lakes. Average ice-off dates vary from lake to lake, but a good general average is around 4/18.
Whooping cranes are due to begin returning to Wisconsin this month. On March 11, Operation Migration (www.operationmigration.org) reported that the birds had begun to leave their wintering grounds. Although they were originally led by ultralight aircraft to Florida in their first year, most of the eastern migratory population spent the winter elsewhere. As of the beginning of March, 22 whooping cranes were wintering in Indiana, 7 in Kentucky, 7 in Tennessee, 27 in Alabama, 3 in Georgia, 14 in Florida, 18 were at unknown locations or not recently reported, and 2 were long-term missing. The total for Florida includes 7 newly released juveniles.
Many sandhill cranes have already returned to southern Wisconsin. Given their propensity for coming north even when we’re still iced-up, I suspect we’ll be seeing some returning before the end of this month.
Spring equinox occurs today, 3/20, at 5:45 p.m if you are fussy about such things. This is an event that ought to be as anticipated as ice-off, but given that spring equinox rarely actually means that spring is here tends to dampen one’s enthusiasm. Still, we’ve now reached the point where our daylight will begin to exceed our night, and that is surely worth celebrating. We gain about 3 minutes of daylight every day now.
Look for robins and red-winged blackbirds any day now – the first wave usually appears around the equinox.
Tomorrow, 3/21, look after sunset for Mars just above the waxing crescent moon. The following night, 3/22, look also after sunset for Venus about 3° above the moon.