Monday, March 30, 2015

NWA 3/20/15

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.

Banding Birds
            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.

Cranes Coming
Whooping cranes are due to begin returning to Wisconsin this month. On March 11, Operation Migration ( 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.

Celestial Events
            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.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

NWA 3/6/15

A Northwoods Almanac for March 6-19, 2015

Bill and Sherry Tischendorf in Harshaw sent me this note on 2/15: “Throughout this winter we have been having our suet bags (we reuse the orange and onion bags) torn apart and the suet gone. We have never found tracks around the tree the bag hangs in. Then last Sunday we noticed the suet bag being jerked around, and we believe we have discovered the culprit – a weasel!” The Tischendorf’s attached a photo, then graciously added, “We are still finding the suet bags torn apart, but it is a long winter and everyone needs to eat, but at least now we believe we know who is doing it.”
Tom Oscar in Irma sent me a series of wildlife photos taken on his land, several of which were close-ups of a bobcat stalking prey in his yard.
            Otto and Linda Novak sent me a photo of an “albino like” bird they saw hanging around with the pine siskins, redpolls and goldfinches. The bird appears to be a pine siskin that is a partial albino – it’s all white except for the brown streaking on the breast that is characteristic of siskins.

Birds Courting, Displaying, Even Nesting
It’s been a long winter, as all Northwoods winters are supposed to be, but signs of spring are certainly at hand. Sara Krembs in Manitowish Waters noted in a 2/26 email that she has been observing “one devoted [blue jay] couple where the (presumably) male has been feeding the female little pieces of peanut consistently throughout the winter. They even did their courting routine this morning when it was 26 below zero.”
Mary and I have seen ravens carrying sticks for nest building, and engaging in what is usually thought of as acrobatic courtship displays. But in researching the aerial displays of ravens, it turns out that in one study, aerobatic rolls were seen in as many as 16% of observations of individual flying birds. The researchers noted that, “Sometimes [the raven] makes half-rolls onto [its] back (95% of recorded rolls), and occasionally makes full rolls (3%) and double rolls (1%). Aerobatic rolls may serve a socialization function (dominance or courtship display), but are performed throughout the year by solitary individuals and by birds in large flocks and small groups.” Remarkably, ravens have also been observed flying upside down for as far as one kilometer! So precisely what functionality is being achieved in their circus-like performances will always be a matter of speculation, but a wonderful thing to witness!
Great horned owls are already on nest, and some have already hatched chicks in the southern part of the state.
I’ve heard chickadees singing far more of their “sweet-ie” song in the last week, an indication they are getting in hormonal tune with spring.
And finally, an array of mammals are also hormonally getting exercised: red squirrels mate in March while some gray squirrels will have their first litter by mid-March. Mink breed in early March, red fox give birth to their kits as early as late March, and gray wolves breed in as early as February and into March.
So, love is in the air, even if our nights are still occasionally dropping to below zero.

Silent Sports Maps!
If you’re looking for excellent maps of local skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, and paddling trails, go to

Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas 2
            Whenever I have a question on the status of a bird in our area, my “go-to” book is the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin. The first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas was conducted from 1995 to 2000, and represented the largest coordinated field effort in the history of Wisconsin ornithology. Volunteer field observers documented 237 bird species, 226 of which were confirmed to be breeding in the state. Results from that first survey (available online and as a printed book) provided insights into Wisconsin’s bird community that DNR and others have used to make decisions regarding how to manage public lands and how to conserve birds.
Last weekend, Mary and I, along with 200 others, attended the kickoff meeting in Wausau for the second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas. Twenty years after the initiation of the first atlas, the second atlas will be a comprehensive field survey that documents the current distribution and abundance of birds breeding in Wisconsin. The new information will allow researchers to see changes in bird populations since the last survey. Many species face grave threats from habitat loss, climate change, and other human-caused pressures, and nearly one-third are imperiled or will be without intervention. To conserve them, we need a current understanding of birds that rely on Wisconsin to breed and raise their young.
The fieldwork will run from 2015 to 2019 and will update and expand on the findings of the first atlas. Meetings are being held throughout the state to gather volunteers to document precisely where birds are breeding. The first meeting locally will be in Manitowish Waters on May 9 at 1:15 pm at the North Lakeland Discovery Center. Nick Anich, the Breeding Bird Atlas coordinator, will speak about the atlas for the Northwoods Birding Festival.
For more information, go to

Snowy Owl Advertising for Quick Trip
Birders at the atlas meeting went on field trips on the sub-zero morning of 2/28 and found male prairie chickens already displaying on a lek in the Mead Wildlife Area. If you’ve never watched male prairie chickens fervently dancing in hopes of attracting a female, well, you’ve been missing one of the most remarkable courtship displays of any bird in North America.
Birders also found numerous snowy owls in the area, one of which has been perching daily throughout the winter on the Quick Trip billboard on Hwy. 39 just south of the Mosinee exit. It’s certainly not a quick trip for a snowy to wander its way down here from its Arctic tundra breeding grounds, but I suppose it’s only appropriate given the adjacent Central Wisconsin Airport.

Another Attempt to Hunt Albino Deer
The 2015 Wisconsin Conservation Congress Spring Hearing notice is out on the DNR website. Question 7 (p. 43) on the Spring Hearing questionnaire, reads: "Several areas of the state are becoming populated with white deer. This population is increasing because white deer are protected. Some landowners report seeing only white deer during the hunting season and dominant white bucks seem to chase other bucks away preventing harvest opportunities. Do you support a rule change that would allow County Deer Advisory Councils to recommend the hunting of white deer in their respective counties?"
I must admit to being very surprised that anyone is reporting “seeing only white deer during the hunting season.” The Boulder Junction area is the epicenter of the albino deer population of Wisconsin, and most people still find it a rare, and wondrous, occurrence to see a white deer. The notion that we are overrun with white deer is simply unsupportable by any field data that I’m aware of.
            The other premise that “dominant white bucks are chasing other bucks away and preventing harvest opportunities” is similarly unsupportable. From conversations with people that feed the white deer in Boulder Junction, and thus see them regularly in action, the white deer can be aggressive, but no different than brown deer. It’s a pecking order at the feeders, and the biggest and strongest, not the whitest, get first dibs.
As I’ve stated in this column before, there is no significant biological reason to either conserve or to harvest white deer. They represent a tiny fraction of the deer population, and appear for all intents and purposes to do well despite possible visual issues commonly associated with albinism. They’re here, and from written records, they appear to have been here since at least the 1840s. Their presence or elimination from our landscape is purely a matter of human values. I prefer to see them in the wild and not as a mount in someone’s home, because that’s what this vote is really about.

Celestial Events
            The full moon occurred last night, 3/5, but it will still appear 100% illuminated tonight. This last full moon of winter was called variously by Native Americans the “worm moon,” after the worm trails that would appear in the newly thawed ground; the “death moon,” acknowledging how many animals may die in this last hard month of winter; the “crust moon,” a reference to how snow becomes crusty as it thaws during the day and freezes at night; and the “sap moon,” after the tapping of the maple trees.
March is the time to enjoy the “winter hexagon,” the grouping of the brightest stars of the year. The group contains eight of the brightest "first magnitude" stars visible in our sky and is visible
high in the southern sky and moves slightly westward each
night. At the center of the hexagon, you’ll find Orion’s bright red star Betelgeuse. Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Procyon, Sirius, Castor and Pollux are the other bright stars that make up the large, circular pattern.
For planet watching, look after sunset for Jupiter in the eastern sky climbing higher as the night progresses. If you have a small telescope or good bird spotting scope, you can also see its four moons. In the western sky after sunset, Venus also continues to climb higher as the month progresses. At magnitude - 4, it’s the brightest object in the night sky other than the moon. The planet Mars is still visible low in the west at sunset, while Saturn remains visible in the southern sky in the early morning.