Wednesday, July 22, 2015

NWA 7/24/15

A Northwoods Almanac for July 24 – August 6, 2015   

            A few weeks back, Rod Sharka invited me along on a paddle to see orchids in a pristine northern Vilas County bog lake. Rod knows his wetland plants and regularly scouts area sites for orchids, so I knew I was in for a treat. And the bog delivered! We spent several hours slowly paddling the convoluted shoreline, and I’d conservatively estimate that we saw many, many hundreds of orchids, particularly rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). If we’d paddled a few days earlier, we’d have likely seen equal numbers of grass-pink (Calopogon tuberosis), but most of those were past flowering.
            The “lip” of the rose pogonia is “bearded” with a crest of white to rosy-purple short bristles that rise from the lip. Four or five pink-to-rose petals with purple veins frame the lip like wings. These orchids were sprinkled nearly everywhere throughout the bog, averaging perhaps eight inches tall. We found one pure white rose pogonia, a rare form called Pogonia albiflora, which I’d never seen before.
            The grass-pink orchid varies from nearly all other orchids in that its lip is located at the top of the flower rather than at its base. The lip is tipped with yellow bristles, which apparently mimics pollen-filled male anthers found in other flowers, and thus attracts pollinating bees. The lip is hinged, so that when the bee lands on the lip, it suddenly bends downward, throwing the bee onto the flower column. The bee then inadvertently contacts the female stigma, depositing any pollen it may have picked up on other flowers. Plus, it then picks up additional new pollen to haul away to the next flower it lands on, a remarkably clever co-evolution between the bee and the flower.
            When we pulled out, another orchid awaited us – spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata). We frequently see this orchid in older woodlands, and, indeed, two weeks later we saw numerous ones on a short hike into the Sylvania wilderness area. But next to the bog lake, there were several growing in a moss mat a few yards up from the water.
The lips of the tiny white flowers are spotted with purple dots, and grow along a reddish-purple stem. The plant lacks chlorophyll, so it appears to some more like a fungus than a flower. But indeed it’s simply a nonphotosynthetic saprophyte, extracting its nutrients from decomposing organic matter.
            On our paddle, we also encountered remarkable numbers of sundews, both round-leaved and narrow-leaved, perhaps more than I’ve ever seen on a bog lake. Nearly all of them were budded out, but not flowering, though Rod had seen some in flower a few days earlier.
            Sundew's leaf stems grow in a circular rosette about the size of a quarter to a half dollar, each leaf blade expanding at its tip into an oval "sun" that is covered with thick hairs. The hairs project like the rays of the sun, each with a glistening drop of sticky fluid at its end, like dew. The minute flowers bloom white or pink in July all on one side of a long (4-9") slender stalk. 
The carnivorous sundew attracts diminutive insects like mosquitoes (such a shame!) with its attractive rosy coloration, sweet smell, and sparkling fluid-tipped tentacles, and then traps them in its viscous droplets. The leaf gradually folds over the captive, and then secretes an enzyme to digest the insect, though digestion may not be complete for several weeks. While not as dramatic as a Venus flytrap, which closes instantaneously, the sundew can take larger prey. A botanist in Michigan watched a monarch butterfly fail to free itself from the syrupy “dew,” while a late 19th century naturalist referred to the sundew as a “bloodthirsty little miscreant.”
            Sundews have had a surprising amount of historical utility including use as a red ink, a wart and corn remover, an antispasmodic, and as a natural flypaper to be hung indoors. 
Darwin experimented at length on the insectivorous plants, attempting in one set of experiments to feed inedible substances to the sundew, whereupon the sundew, after a brief embrace, would drop the false hope and patiently wait for its next opportunity.

Horned Bladderworts
            One last uncommon plant we encountered on our paddle was horned bladderwort, like sundew, an insectivorous plant. Bladderworts typically capture minute insects underwater in a hollow bladder-like trap enclosing a partial vacuum that is triggered by hairs near its opening. The bladders work a bit like squeezing all the air out of a ball and then letting go, resulting in a sucking inrush of air. Insects swim by brushing against the bladderworts hairs, the compressed bladder releases and sucks in the insect, and an elastic trap door mechanism snaps shut preventing escape. Slick and quick, the whole process takes 1/460 of a second, though the insect must decay for several weeks before its fluids may be absorbed. 
            That’s remarkable enough, but what I like to do when I encounter a horned bladderwort is immediately pick one flower, hold it to my nose, and inhale as deeply as I can. Famous American naturalist John Burroughs wrote that it is “perhaps the most fragrant flower we have . . . Its perfume is sweet and spicy in an eminent degree.” I think it smells a bit like the old style Grape Nehi soda we drank as kids, but though I’ve searched, I have no idea what that flavoring came from. Whatever the smell may be  compared to, it is one of the most pleasantly aromatic flowers I know.

Roadside Weeds: Common Mullein
            Well, let’s leave the undisturbed, pristine bog and walk a roadside where plants that are adapted to poor soils and full sunlight thrive. One of these “weeds” is common mullein, a Eurasian native. Mullein is a biennial, growing in its first year only into a small rosette of leaves an inch or two across. But in its second year, the plant takes off, sometimes growing up to seven feet. Mary and I regularly bike the Manitowish Waters bike trail to Boulder Junction, and there’s a sandy area along the trail that is rife with mullein, looking to me akin to a stand of desert cacti.
            The stem and leaves are covered with velvety hairs, like a super-thick flannel shirt, while the central stem terminates in a small spike of unremarkable yellow flowers. One writer says of the dried-out stems that remain standing in the third year that they look like “burned out sparklers,” an apt description. They’re great perches for birds, and they produce many thousands of seeds, but whether the birds utilize the seeds is unknown to me.
            Mullein, like so many plants that grow on disturbed soils, is considered invasive, so cut it off wherever and whenever you can. Other roadside “weeds” now proliferating include natives like fireweed, common milkweed, and spreading dogbane, along with non-natives like purple vetch, bird’s-foot trefoil, butter-and-eggs, spotted knapweed, and bladder-campion.

Celestial Events
            Look for Saturn about two degrees above the waxing moon on 7/25. The Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in the predawn on 7/29, but unfortunately, the nearly full moon will wash out most of the show. Speaking of the full moon, the second full moon of the month, the blue moon, occurs on 7/31.

Longtime Loon Researcher Mike Meyer Retires
Just a quick note to recognize recently retired DNR research scientist Mike Meyer for his scientific contributions to our area. Mike dedicated much of his research to loon monitoring, including citizen science and public outreach. Meyer also did cutting edge research on contaminants such as mercury and other bioaccumulating toxins in a variety of bird species, including loons and eagles.
During his time with the WDNR, Mike, along with loon researcher, Walter Piper, directed the banding of over 3,600 common loons in our area. His research projects included: developing an Ashland/Chequamegon Bay shoreland restoration project from 2010-2012; assessing the potential population effects of Botulism E toxin and Gulf oil exposure on migrating Wisconsin waterbirds; developing a Wisconsin wildlife mercury monitoring plan and promoting Wisconsin as a National Mercury Monitoring site; evaluating the impact of legacy polychlorinated bioaccumulating toxic substances (PCBs, DDE, PBDE, PFOS, PFOA) on Wisconsin's Great Lakes bald eagle population – the “Wisconsin Bald Eagle Biosentinel Project”; evaluating the risk to native fisheries of the use of liquid herbicides (2,4-D) to control Eurasian Watermilfoil in Wisconsin lakes; examining the potential effects of climate change on inland glacial lakes and the implications for lake-dependent biota in Wisconsin; assessing the vulnerability and adaptation strategies of Wisconsin's wildlife to climate change; measuring the value of wildlife habitat restoration on northern Wisconsin Lakes: “The Wisconsin Shoreland Restoration Project”; assessing the impact of mercury exposure on Wisconsin's Common Loon population; and assessing the population effects of lead fishing tackle on fish-eating wildlife in Wisconsin.
Mike’s position was one of the 18 DNR science positions cut in the state’s recently passed budget – one-third of the scientific services staff – a stunningly misguided inclusion that had virtually no impact on our state’s economy. I’d like to simply thank Mike for his exceptional scientific contributions to our area. We understand one heck of a lot more about loons, eagles, mercury, shoreland restoration, and a host of other things because of his dedication. He’ll be missed.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

NWA 7/10/15

A Northwoods Almanac for July 10 - 23, 2015  

Sightings – Black-crowned Night Heron!
Sarah Krembs was birding the Powell Marsh on 6/26 when she observed, “A bird I have never seen before came up out of some shrubs quite near me. I must have caught it unawares. But, I got a very good look at it, because it made two giant circles around the marsh. This was NOT a great blue heron. Or a bittern.”
She sent me two photos and wondered if she could have seen a black-crowned night heron. Sarah knows to look at range maps, and she was appropriately questioning her ID because black-crowned night herons are rare this far north – I’ve never seen one in this area, and I can’t ever recall seeing a report of one either. Mary and I saw them occasionally when we lived in Green Bay back in the early 1980s, but they are not known to nest any further northwest.
Sarah was right – it was a black-crowned night heron! But given that black-crowns are a colonial nester, seeing one in June this far north all by its lonesome makes it a very odd occurrence. Kudos to Sarah for photographing it!

I’m sure you’ve all been noticing our hazy skies, brilliant sunrises and sunsets, and colorful moons, all due to smoke from wildfires burning in Canada’s Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces. As of Monday 7/6, there were 112 active fires in the province of Saskatchewan. Usually, 74,000 acres burn there annually, but this year, over 740,000 acres are burning.
In Alberta, there were 115 wildfires burning across the province. Of those, 45 were listed as out of control. And since April 1, 2015, Alberta has recorded 1,279 wildfires! 
In British Columbia, more than 70 wildfires larger than 25 acres were burning, with over 546,000 acres already burned. And in Alaska, seven named fires grew to a total of 235,783 acres, although their news reports a total of 299 fires currently burning.
In addition to sweeping smoke south, the jet stream’s position has caused a ridge of high pressure to build over western North America causing temperatures to rise as much as 20 degrees F above normal. The exceptionally warm and dry conditions have helped stoke the nearly 2,000 total fires so far.
If you like physics, the increased concentrations of smoke particles enhance the scattering of shorter wavelength sunlight, allowing the orange and red hues to dominate.              As long as the wind flow aloft comes from western Canada and Alaska, and the fires continue, we'll continue to see smoke.

Cavity Nests
Mike Hittle on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage sent me this note: “We recently had to hire a tree company to clear our property of substantial storm damage. As one of the guys was cutting up some maple into splittable lengths, he suddenly stopped and came running over to me with a chunk about a foot in diameter and asked me to listen to some curious noise emanating from a hole in the log. It was very faint, and while we surmised it must have been coming from tiny birds, we couldn't get a look at them. We took the log back into the woods, and for want of any other strategy, placed it horizontally on an old blowdown about five feet off the ground.  
“That was 6/26. On 6/28, I walked by and heard raucous cheeping from the hole. Today, 6/29, Marcia was similarly serenaded, and decided to keep a watch on the little log. Sure enough, in about a half hour, she saw a bird, probably a downy, fly to the hole, put its head in, and then depart. It would seem that the parent heard the faint calls, and has been attending to the nest. With luck, these little guys should fledge.  Absolutely amazing.”
            Well, the next day I got another email from Mike: “On my morning walk, I found the cavity log had been knocked from its perch on the old blowdown and was several feet away on the ground . . . and empty. I looked at the perch and there were two fresh stools, one of which was surely that of a raccoon. All in all, a graphic example of  ‘nature red in tooth and claw.’ I wish I could have written a different end to this story.”
            Nearly 30 bird species in the Northwoods nest in tree cavities, including such commoners as black-capped chickadees, and red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches. So, dead and dying trees are a necessity for many birds’ reproductive success, but those trees don’t come with an insurance policy for their susceptibility to windthrow. And when the chicks make a racket like that on the forest floor, a predator is surely to notice them.

Loon Nesting Success!
Walter Piper, in a 6/24 posting to his loon project blog (follow at, had good news to share about loons: “After 2014's disastrously low chick production owing to black fly infestation . . . this year is shaping up to be a very good year indeed. As of this date, 31 of the 120 territories we follow (25.8%) have already hatched chicks. In contrast, only 2 breeding pairs (of 112 pairs; 1.8%) had chicks on this date in 2014. That is an unfair comparison, because the black flies devastated early nests in 2014. However, 2013 was a rather good year for chick production, and in 2013 only 20 of 108 pairs we followed (18.5%) had chicks on this date. Although these data are slightly biased because of yearly differences in nesting schedules – that is, 2013 was a slightly later year than this year – 2015 should be an awfully productive breeding season for loons in northern Wisconsin.”

Slu - ughs!
Hannah Dana wrote me asking how slugs reproduce and what slugs eat. A neighbor of hers said she saw a slug eating another slug, and she was curious if they are carnivorous. Both wondered what these creatures do for a living, and asked me to write about them. So here you go . . .
Slugs won’t win any body beautiful contests. Their body consists of one broad muscular foot topped with a gut (thus the name gastropod), but minus the shell that their relative, the snail, hauls around. Their lack of a shell makes them very vulnerable to dehydration, so they work at staying cool and moist by doing most of their foraging in our gardens at night.  
Two antennae top their heads, each equipped not only with light-sensitive organs but with the sense of smell as well. They can’t see colors or distinct shapes, but they do see light and dark and are very sensitive to various smells.
Slugs need to grease the skids in order to get around, so they produce a slime that not only protects their fragile skin from drying out but also makes a temporary narrow skating rink to slide around on. Their slime also can act like a brake – if you place one on a sheet of glass and hold the glass vertically, it won’t slide down the glass. This allows them to climb up plants to get to the fruits and leaves.
Their mouthparts work like a little chainsaw, grinding and shredding plants, and that’s where they get into so much trouble with humans.
Their sex life is, well . . . creative (note: for the squeamish, it’s time to skip to the next section). Whoever designed this set-up, whether God or evolution, was having an off, or perhaps delirious, night.  Hermaphrodites, slugs carry both female and male organs. I have no idea how they decide who gets to play what role, but they exchange sperm via a corkscrew-shaped penis-like device. In fact, during a single coupling, slugs can mate reciprocally—with each partner inseminating and being inseminated.
A problem can arise when their slime binds them a little too tightly together during their embrace, and they can’t decouple. So, the only solution is for the current female to perform apophallation – the chewing off of the other slug’s penis, which only means that the castrated slug gets to be the lady next time around.
There you have it – the sex life of slugs. I’m not sure what the Supreme Court would say about this – is marriage possible in such an arrangement? I know I’d be interested in hearing the courtroom debate.

Celestial Events
            On 7/18, look for Venus sitting just above the waxing crescent moon. Jupiter will be another four degrees above Venus, so all three will be lined up in a vertical row.

Upcoming Events
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Wisconsin's Wild Rivers law. The Wisconsin system of state Wild Rivers was established by the 1965 Legislature with the enactment of s. 30.26, Wisconsin Statutes, specifically to afford the people of the state an opportunity to enjoy natural streams, to attract out-of-state visitors, and to preserve some rivers in a free flowing, undeveloped condition. Only a Legislative Act can designate a Wild River. The Pike, Pine, and Popple Rivers were the original designees, and since then the Totagatic River and a portion of the Brunsweiler have been added.
On August 23, the River Alliance of Wisconsin will celebrate the 50th by offering an intimate look at the Brunsweiler River in Ashland County. The Brunsweiler flows through the property of the late Martin Hanson, an avid conservationist and political activist who advocated for formal protection of this river. If you sign up, you'll learn about Martin and his conservation legacy from his grand nephew; see the Hanson compound where Gaylord Nelson and other prominent political figures convened over the decades; and learn why the beautiful Brunsweiler is deserving of protection. You can register via the River Alliance website ( or by calling them at 608-257-2424.
            Sounds like a wonderful event – we plan on attending!