Thursday, April 30, 2015

NWA 5/1/15

A Northwoods Almanac for May 1 -14, 2015  

Mother’s Day = Hummingbird, Oriole, and Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Day
            Mother’s Day usually coincides with the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, and rose-breasted grosbeaks. This year, Mother’s Day occurs on 5/10, a bit later than usual, so we may see these birds arrive a few days earlier than the holiday itself. Our average arrival date in Manitowish for all three species is either May 7 or 8. Indigo buntings usually appear a few days later, on average by May 12.
So, get out those oranges for the orioles, the sugar water for the hummers, and the seeds for the grosbeaks and buntings. Spring is happening!

4/12: Ted Hobein observed 18 common mergansers on Lower Kaubashine Lake in Hazelhurst even though the ice didn’t completely go off the lake until the next day.
4/13: Tom Folsom in Manitowish Waters observed around 100 tundra swans on Little Trout Lake.
4/16:  Keith on Country Club Rd. in Minocqua was repairing his roof when he saw two white pelicans circling above him in some thermals. Thus, it pays to fix your roof in more ways than one!
4/16: A birder observed 28 common loons from the boat launch on Lake Monona in Madison. The loons’ presence in Madison on this date is an indicator of how many loons were still preparing to come north even though most of our lakes had opened by then.
4/16: We saw our FOY (first-of-year) greater yellowlegs where Papoose Creek enters Rest Lake. We also had our FOY pine warbler near Star Lake.
4/17: Along the lines of late-arriving loons, Mary Nell Currie on Malby Lake in Minocqua wrote: “We have been looking for days to see the loon arrive and finally, last night, one flew in just at dusk. So grateful they are back!!”
4/17: Kay Rhyner saw her FOY pair of kingfishers on Yawkey Lake in Hazelhurst.
4/18: Hannah Dana Arbor Vitae wrote: “ I had the privilege to watch two red-tailed hawks in an aerial courtship display which lasted approximately 15 minutes. The hawks built up speed by flying and then soared ‘free flight’ in symmetrical loops, forming an infinity sign in the sky. As each returned from making a loop, the female flew just below the male, and it appeared that the male was attempting to mate mid-air. Then they would separate and make their tandem loops again, and then the male seemed to attempt to push against the female at the intersection of the loops. I ended up with a neck ache from looking up for so long, but I wanted to see if the male would, indeed, consummate the mating. What I saw only lasted a couple of seconds and then they separated and flew over the trees. I ‘googled’ hawk mating habits and found that the aerial displays are impressive and that the red-tails mate in the nest. However, it really appeared to me that a brief mating occurred mid-air.”
            Hannah’s correct that the scientific literature says that red-tails mate on the nest, but perhaps this pair hadn’t read the passage! From Cornell’s Birds of North America: “Pre-nesting displays typically consist of both birds soaring in wide circles at high altitudes and the male performing maneuvers. After several series of dives and ascents, the male slowly approaches the female from above, extends his legs and touches or grasps her momentarily. The birds may grasp one another’s beak or interlock talons and spiral toward the ground. Two birds thus engaged struck the ground before releasing one another; both flew away apparently unharmed. These aerial acrobatics may last 5–10 min and include courtship feeding. Typically, copulation occurs when the female terminates courtship flight and postures from a perch.”
4/21: Bruce Bacon, retired wildlife manager, reported already seeing fledged pine siskin young near his home north of Mercer!
4/21: We had our FOY white-throated sparrow in Manitowish under our feeders in the snow.
4/23: Rod Sharka in Land O’Lakes sent me this note: “Ever hear of warblers eating peanuts? We've had a pine warbler visiting a satellite feeder we keep filled with peanuts (for the chickadees and nuthatches) the last week or so. Quite a sight.” I had never heard of warblers eating peanuts, but early migrants have to be flexible diners in what is loosely referred to as “spring” in the North Country, and this pine warbler clearly had that figured out.
4/24: Cherie Smith sent me a photo of a fisher in her back yard. She noted, “He was cleaning up suet pieces that fell from the hanging feeders. I have seen them before, but not in the middle of the day.”  

Duck from the Duck!
Tom Erdman, curator of the Richter Natural History Museum in Green Bay, posted the following on 4/22 on the Wisconsin BirdNet: “I've read about it happening to other people, eagles and ospreys dropping fish on boats and autos. Well, last evening I had one of our local adult bald eagles drop a mostly eaten black duck in the dead center of my windshield on my moving auto while driving through the Pensaukee Wildlife Area. That was an amazing shot!”
When I contacted Tom to get his permission to reprint his posting, he added: “It was mostly skeleton (whole) with most of the meat eaten off. If it had been a fresh kill it would have broken my windshield. The eagle was flying low down the road and I could see it was carrying prey. As we merged, the bird simply dropped it, much to my surprise.”
Another birder on the BirdNet responded to Tom’s story, saying, “I am reminded of the old joke, ‘How can you spot a birder? Yell ‘duck’ and most people crouch down but the birder looks up.’ But the joke doesn't assume the duck is coming at you.”
Tom later added, “Speaking of birds dropping things . . . herring gulls out east drop clams on rocks to open them. They learned that parking lots work even better, much to the detriment of parked cars and people. To combat that, some places painted flying gulls on the blacktop, the theory being that a gulls won't drop a clam if there was a gull closer to the surface than they are, which could grab the food.”
Our daughter Callie, lover of all things Greek, tells me that the poet Aeschylus in 5th century BC was supposedly killed by a turtle dropped by an eagle that had mistaken his bald head for a rock suitable for shattering its shell.
So, if you believe Greek legends, Tom Erdman’s story is just one in a long, long history of eagles acting as bombers.

Hatching Now!
            Bald eagle chicks typically hatch by May 1, so activity around eagle nests should be picking up with the need to haul food in to the chick(s). The chicks will reach full size (8 to 13 pounds – females are much larger than males) in just over two months, and fledge typically within 3 months.
            Canada goose goslings also typically hatch in the first week of May. The birds arrive on their breeding grounds already mated. Incubation lasts less than a month. Upon hatching, the precocial goslings are fully covered with down, but they leave the nest within 24 hours, by which time they are able to walk, swim, feed, and dive. They typically fledge within two months.

Early Bloomers – Hazelnut, Aspens, Willows, and Alders
            These four woody species waste little time blooming in the spring. Our aspens (quaking and big-tooth) bear their flowers in unisexual dangling catkins, each tree bearing either male or female catkins (termed “dioecious” flowers). The male catkins shed their pollen really quickly, and around our home, they bloomed and dropped from the trees, littering our decks, within three or four days.
Willows, too, bear unisexual flowers, each shrub being either a male or a female. By flowering and going to seed so quickly, the willows are ready to colonize exposed river banks when the water recedes after spring floods.
            Tag alders and hazelnuts produce “monoecious” flowers, meaning they produce both female and male flowers separately on the same plants. The male flowers are dangly catkins on both species, while the female flower of the tag alder show only their red stigmas in a short catkin. The female flower of the two hazelnuts (beaked and American) are quite different. They look like leaf buds with tiny, bright red stigmas. You have to look close to see them, but they’re really very pretty despite, or because of, their simplicity.

Crane Count
            It’s not often Mary and I paddle our kayaks at dawn when it’s 37°, but when Sandhill Crane Count day comes, you do what you have to do. Mind you, I’m not complaining. We’ve snowshoed at 10° on this day, been in white-outs, you name it – when it’s April in northern Wisconsin, zany weather goes with the territory. This was mild comparatively.
            Bob Kovar joined us at 5:30 the morning of 4/18 on the Manitowish River, and though our hands and feet got cold, we had a beautiful time on the water though the river was exceptionally low.
            Still, we found a good number of birds. Song sparrows had established territories all along the river, we heard our first hermit thrush, two trumpeter swans flew right by us, heading upriver, we saw our first rusty blackbirds, heard our first Wilson’s snipe, and saw quite a variety of ducks.
            The morning dawned beautifully on the river, the flat light warming everything both physically and visually.
            And, oh yeah, we counted five cranes!

Bird Festival!
            The North Lakeland Discovery Center’s 11th annual Northwoods Birdfest takes place on Friday evening, 5/8, and throughout the day on 5/9. It’s a very laid back, but very fun, chance to learn more about birds and to share your skills with others, from beginners to experts. Hope to see you there!

Celestial Events
            Full moon – the “Planting” or “Flower” moon – occurs on 5/3. Look for Saturn near the waning gibbous moon throughout the nights of 5/4 and 5/5. The peak Eta Aquarid meteor shower occurs before the dawn on 5/6, averaging about 30 to 40 per hour. But the light of the moon should wash out much of the show.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NWA 4/17/15

A Northwoods Almanac for April 17 – 30, 2015 

Sightings – Snowy Owl, Snow Buntings, Woodcocks, Eagles Eating Snails, More!
3/31: Peggy Grinvalsky photographed a snowy owl on Lake Minocqua. Her comment, “Wowowowowow!!!! Snowy owl on Lake Minocqua across from Savemore at 1:15 today . . . nobody even noticed!!!!! Been looking for one for at least 40 years. Great warm sunny day to just watch and be in awe.”  
3/31: Sarah Krembs reported seeing a flock of snow buntings north of Rhinelander on Highway 47. They were undoubtedly males given that male snow buntings return to their high arctic breeding grounds in early April, even though the temperature often dips to -22°, and the landscape remains snow-covered. The females, the apparently brighter of the genders, won’t arrive for another four to six weeks, when days are warming and the snow is beginning to melt.
Sarah also noted: “I went out for the nightly peanut run for the flying squirrels, and I heard a constant repeated sort of low whistling noise up in the trees far in the backyard. Whoa, ho! A saw-whet owl.  I love it. I went from a couple years ago listening to various owl sounds on a disc thinking, "Never, ever heard it," to now being outside at the right time of the evening to hear it in our own backyard. Incredible!”
Listen after dusk for the male saw-whets wooing females – their “song” sounds like the continual dinging that a commercial truck makes when it’s backing up.
4/1: Bill McCutchin reported a truly unique sighting: “We have four eagles on the [Trout] river behind our house. There is one mature, one almost mature and two immature all hanging around together. They are staying on the edge of the ice and appear to be pulling up wild rice and eating that. They are wading in 2 to 3 inches of water on the wild rice flats. Is this normal?” 
I had never heard of eagles eating wild rice, so I emailed Ron Eckstein, retired DNR wildlife biologist and an eagle expert. His response was this: “There is no record of eagles eating any grain including wild rice. They do pull aquatic grasses and use the grass to line their nests. So, actually eating wild rice seeds or wild rice stems is unknown to science.” 
            The next day, Bill responded saying, “The strange part about the eagles was they also used their feet to break the thin ice, then moved the ice with one foot, and then pulled up a clump of rice and swallowed it. It looked like spaghetti going down.”
The following day, 4/3, Bill sent another email this time with a possible answer to the mystery: “I was down by the pier and noticed all kinds of big snails (1”) all over in the shallows in the mud. Were they maybe eating these and the rice stems came with the lunch?”
Ron responded, saying, “The snails are likely the answer! This is great to document eagles eating snails.”
Who would have thought eagles were ingenious enough to pull up wild rice stalks in order to eat the snails clinging to them? Just another example of the remarkable adaptability and intelligence of wildlife.                                
4/1: Mary, Callie, and I counted ten sandhill cranes on Powell Marsh.
4/2: Ed Marshall sent a photo of a first-of-the-year (FOY) woodcock in the spring snow, noting: “This guy showed up outside my library window.” Woodcock probe the soil with their long beaks for invertebrates, so one wonders how difficult it was finding food while we still had snow on the ground.
4/3: We had a northern shrike show up at our feeders, and later that day, saw another shrike on Powell Marsh. We hadn’t seen a shrike all winter!
4/5: On a less happy note, cowbirds appeared at our feeders, while starlings had arrived on 4/2.
4/6: Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk sent a photo of a hermit thrush that was eating suet at one of her feeders. This is a FOY for hermit thrushes in our area, but also is a great sighting, because hermit thrushes simply aren’t known for coming to suet. Hunger makes for creative responses I guess.
She also noted: “Last year in March when the weather was really bad we had a robin come in. I started putting out mealworms for him and pretty soon he found them. If we didn't get outside fast enough for him, he'd perch on this log by the house and just stare in the window until we spotted him. He actually started running towards us when we'd go out. I never tried to tame him enough to eat out of our hand, but he'd stand about a foot away waiting for us to toss the worms to him. Then later on in the summer, he brought the "wife and kids" in for a treat. Well, to make a long story longer . . . darn if he didn't show up a few days ago. I wasn't sure it was the same robin, but when I went outside and called "Papa" (my nickname for him), he came running for the mealworms I had. He's quite the little beggar. We have two that we are feeding now, and I'm pretty sure the other one is his son. He does do his own hunting, but if he gets the chance he'd rather have the easy meal!!”
4/7: Don and Greta Janssen reported hearing cardinals singing at their home for the first time this year. A pair of cardinals have nested at the Janssen’s for quite a few years now.
4/7: A FOY fox sparrow appeared at our feeders in Manitowish.
4/10: Sarah Krembs sent a photo of a couple of trumpeter swans preening at Powell Marsh.
4/12: Mary, Callie, and I saw our FOY northern flicker, a flock of them in fact, as well as our FOY morning cloak butterfly, and one species of the “comma” butterflies, all of which overwinter here by hibernating as adults, and then emerge typically in early April.
4/13: Linda Johnson on the Tomahawk River reported the FOY eastern phoebe for this area.
4/13: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst spotted the FOY yellow-rumped warbler for our area.
            4/14: We had a pair of FOY yellow-bellied sapsuckers feeding on aspen flowers in our yard.

Loons Slow in Returning
Ice-out has come rather quickly this spring. Many smaller lakes were ice-free as of 4/10 or 4/11, which is about a week earlier than average. What I found unusual about the open water was the utter lack of common loons, at least on the lakes that I observed. Typically loons appear on their territorial lakes the very same day as ice-out, often before the ice is even completely off the lake. That has not been the case so much this spring.
I suspect the reason why is quite simple – the loons were just as surprised by the sudden 60° temperatures as we were. Their experience, particularly the last two springs, likely spurred a conservative approach to completing their migration into northern Wisconsin, a “I’ve been burned (or perhaps frozen) before by going up there too soon.”
Walter Piper, a long-time loon researcher in our area, had this to say in his blog ( about the unusually slow appearance of loons so far:
“Why would territory owners leave their lakes undefended, especially at a time when many adult loons without territories are on the prowl, anxious to seize any vacant lake? The answer is simple. Weather changes rapidly. As migrants that must fly hundreds of miles between the wintering and breeding grounds, loons face a meteorological puzzle. If they molt their feathers and migrate too early to the breeding grounds, they will encounter wintry conditions and uninhabitable frozen lakes on arrival, struggle to find enough food on open water along rivers, and ultimately settle on their breeding lake in poor condition. They will then be at risk for losing their territory to a fitter, stronger usurper who times his or her arrival better and remains in better condition. If, on the other hand, they wait too long to migrate, they might return to find that a squatter established on their territory. In such cases, a territory owner would have to battle the squatter to reassert itself as owner. In short, gauging when to return to the lake you own is an inexact business for a territorial loon.”

The Great Wisconsin Birdathon!
What is a Birdathon? It's kind of a Spot-a-thon with birds, a grassroots, community event that directly benefits bird protection projects in Wisconsin. Teams of birders from all over the state have 24 hours to find as many birds as they can. Our Birdathon team, the Northern Highlands team, will spend most of our 24-hour period in Iron, Vilas, and Oneida counties with the goals of seeing 100 bird species or more and raising at least $1000. Funds we raise will support eight statewide programs that meet the year-round needs of Wisconsin’s birds, programs like monitoring and managing Kirtland’s warblers or reintroducing whooping cranes.
I’ve never done one of these before, nor has anyone on our team, but the cause is really a good one. You can help us help Wisconsin birds by pledging or donating to the Northern Highlands team. Most folks contribute a set amount, or they pledge a quarter per species, whatever feels good to you. To donate online, go to, click on Donate to Someone You Know, find my name, and make a tax-deductible donation. Or find our signature team, and do the same.
The Great Wisconsin Birdathon started in 2012 as a joint effort between the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, 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. We’re hoping to make that number go higher.

Celestial Events
            The peak for the Lyrid meteor shower occurs in the predawn of 4/23. The Lyrids average about 10-20 meteors per hour.
            On 4/25 and 4/26, look for Jupiter near the waxing gibbous moon.
And, if you haven’t noticed, it’s staying light a lot later. By 4/29, we’ll hit 14 hours of daylight.

Friday, April 3, 2015

NWA 4/3/15

A Northwoods Almanac for April 3 – 16, 2015   by John Bates

Maple Syrup Success Based on Seed Production
            Spring weather is usually the first indicator of a good or bad maple sap run with freezing nights and warming days the desired condition. But the weather mostly affects how much sap will run out a tree – the quantity. It doesn’t determine the sugar content of the sap – the quality. A recent study in Vermont inversely connected autumn seed production to sugar content, concluding that the more seeds produced in the fall, the lower the sugar content in the spring.
The explanation is simple. When a tree produces lots of seeds, it doesn’t have enough carbohydrates left to produce a high sugar content in the spring.
            I don’t recall if maples produced a large crop of seeds last fall, but if they didn’t, it bodes well for the quality of syrup this spring. As a confessed but not penitent addict of maple syrup, I care about such things.

Haloes around the Sun
Susan Stanke sent me some beautiful photos of a halo around the sun. She described it this way, “While I was driving on Hwy. 70 on 3/14, I saw a spectacular sight. At first I thought I was seeing sun dogs; however, sundogs are not usually a complete arc. Rather they are many rainbows on both sides of the sun. This was [colors of] a rainbow . . . seen in a complete arc around the sun.”
Haloes are caused by refracted light passing through ice crystals in cirrus clouds. Blue is usually seen on the outside of a halo and red on the inside due to the angle of light passing through the crystals. The most common halo is the 22° halo, which refers to the size of its radius, or the distance from the center to the circumference. A 48° halo is also possible, with variations in between. If I’d paid better attention in physics class back when, I could tell you more. But alas, such is not the case.

Pine Siskin Invasion Continues
I reported in my last column how Bruce Bacon, a master bird bander from Mercer, had come over to our home in Manitowish on 3/6 and banded 106 pine siskins. Well, Bruce subsequently outdid himself on 3/26 when he banded at his home north of Mercer 212 new siskins and recaptured 165 previously banded siskins at his house, for a total of 377 in one day! Bruce figured he still had well over 100 unbanded siskins in his yard that day, but he was too worn out to try to get any more of them.
Bruce has banded 726 different pine siskins just at his house so far this winter. Of his recaptures at his house, some were originally banded in early January, so it’s clear that most of these siskins have been spending the entire winter here. Additionally, of the 106 he captured at our house in Manitowish, which is about 7 miles from his place, there was no overlap between the sites. “Our” birds appear to be staying put, as do “his” birds.
Also, as of 3/26, Bruce observed that numerous males appeared to have a swollen cloacal protuberance, indicating they were getting ready for breeding. (Warning: if bird reproduction offends you, read no further!) Structurally, the cloacal protuberance is not a penis. The cloaca is a chamber into which the digestive tract empties, along with the sexual ducts and the urinary tubes. Cloaca comes from the Latin for sewer, so it’s an all-purpose cavity. 
Male birds have two testes, which become hundreds of times larger during the breeding season to produce sperm. During copulation, the female moves her tail to the side and the male mounts the female. The cloacae then touch, so that the sperm can enter the female's reproductive tract. This can happen very fast, sometimes in less than half a second and is called a cloacal "kiss."
Just for the record, many waterfowl and some other birds, such as the turkey, possess a phallus, which is kind of like a penis, but not exactly. But perhaps we’re getting to the point of TMI.
Bruce additionally caught a female siskin with a full incubation patch, indicating she had laid eggs already! April breeding of siskins has been reported in the past, and since incubation only takes 13 days, it’s likely we’ll be seeing pine siskin chicks in mid-to-late April.

3/15: Joan Galloway reported the first-of-the-year (FOY) robin in her yard on Clear Lake on the Manitowish Chain. Our first robin in Manitowish didn’t arrive until 3/29.
3/18: Pat Schwai on Cochran Lake reported her FOY chipmunk. We saw our first chippie on 3/16.
3/19: Common grackles and red-winged blackbirds returned to Manitowish. Linda Johnson observed two trumpeter swans on the Tomahawk River and noted, “The river just opened two days ago, and these are the first visitors that I have seen.”
3/22: Loons are beginning to arrive in southern Wisconsin. They’re been reported on 3/22 at Lac LaBelle in Waukesha Co., on 3/23 on Lake Sinissippi in Dodge Co., on 3/24 in Oconomowoc, and on 3/27, eight were reported on Eagle Lake in Racine Co.
            3/22: Debbie and Randy Augustinak in Land O' Lakes observed a pair of trumpeter swans gracefully swimming in Helen Creek along Cty Rd B.
3/23: Linda Johnson reported the FOY woodcock flying over her along the Tomahawk River.
3/23: Cherie Smith observed an Oregon race dark-eyed junco in her backyard. She had never seen one here before and noted, “He was by himself and didn't hang around the other juncos in the yard.” 
3/23: We observed our FOY marsh hawk.
3/25: Rod Sharka reported several hundred pine siskins at his feeder, including a leucistic pine siskin. Rod also noted he had his FOY common grackle.
3/25: Tree sparrows returned to our feeders in Manitowish.
3/26: Rolf Ethun also reported either an albino or leucistic pine siskin at his feeders on Papoose Lake.  
3/30: An eagle is clearly incubating eggs in the nest across the Manitowish River from our house.

Great Horned Owl Pellet
On 3/22 Linda Johnson on the Tomahawk River sent me a photo of an owl pellet she found near her bird feeders. She gave it to her 8-year-old granddaughter, Alaysha Burrell, to take to AVW school. Linda then wrote, “The teacher did not have time to open it up, but encouraged her to do so at home and bring it back. So, last night I went over and we worked on it together. We think it was a vole (we have tons of them here) along with a few remnants of something larger due to a few larger bones that seemed out of place with everything else. I've attached a photo showing what we found. Her labels (going clockwise from the top left) read as follows:
    possible skull
    unknown??? [these are the larger bones]
    ribs and leg bones and spine
Although I've never found the nest, I suspect there's one around. We've heard them courting and have heard babies begging over the years.”
I’ve attached the photos Linda sent of the pellet, and of Alaysha and her work dissecting the pellet. This is great stuff – if you want your grandchildren to cherish the outdoors, doing detective work like this is just the ticket.
Owls usually swallow their prey whole and the food passes directly from the mouth to the gizzard. The gizzard uses digestive fluids and bits of sand and gravel to grind and dissolve all of the usable tissue from the prey. Muscle, fat, skin, and internal organs are broken down, but some of these tissues (fur and tiny bones) cannot be digested. This material is ejected from the vent as a pasty white excrement known as urea.          
The indigestible material left in the gizzard such as teeth, skulls, claws, large bones, and feathers can’t pass through the owl's digestive tract, so the owl's gizzard compacts it into a tight pellet that the owl regurgitates.

Celestial Events – Total Lunar Eclipse!
            Full moon (the Boiling Down Sap Moon or Grass Appearing Moon) occurs tomorrow, 4/4. The big news is that a total eclipse will occur, but you’ll have to get up early to see it. The eclipse begins at 5:15 a.m, and the moon sets in the west around 6:39 a.m., about 19 minutes before the total eclipse occurs. Still, we should see about 90% of the moon eclipsed into hopefully a deep coppery-red light as the light on the eastern horizon comes up. Use your binocs for the greatest effect.
            On 4/8, look for Saturn 2° south of the waning gibbous moon.
Ice-out on our smaller lakes occurs typically in mid-April. Woody Hagge’s 40-year average date for ice-out on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst is 4/15. Ice on the vernal woodland ponds goes out even earlier, an event we anticipate greatly for the first night of chorusing spring peepers! Keep an ear tuned.

We reach 13 ½ hours of sunlight on 4/17.