Saturday, November 28, 2015

NWA 11/27/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/27 – 12/10, 2015  

Winter Finch Forecast
           Every autumn, Ron Pittaway, an Ontario ornithologist, publishes his “winter finch forecast,” an attempt to foretell what birds that usually winter in Canada might be seen wintering in the northern U.S.  Here’s a summary, species by species:
Common redpoll: like last winter, common redpolls will likely move south because birch seed crops are low to average in northern Canada.
Evening grosbeak: a small flight of evening grosbeaks is expected because of increasing numbers due to expanding spruce budworm outbreaks in Quebec.
Pine grosbeak: these beautiful birds should move south in small numbers because the mountain-ash berry crop is below average in northern Ontario.
Purple finches: many should migrate south out of Ontario this fall because cone and deciduous tree seed crops are generally low in northern Ontario.
Pine siskins: last winter, pine siskins were everywhere in very high numbers. This winter expect very few siskins because they will be concentrated in western Canada and the northern New England States which have heavy spruce cone crops.

Bohemian Waxwings!
           Bohemian waxwings aren’t a finch, but they, too, occasionally drop down into northern Wisconsin when mountain ash berries, their favorite food, are poor. This winter we can expect a moderate southward and eastward flight because mountain-ash berry crops are average in the boreal forest. On 11/19, we had 20 bohemian waxwings feeding in one of our crabapple trees, which is an early appearance for them.

Snowy Owls
            Chad McGrath and MJ Slone sent me photos of a snowy owl that they observed at Springstead Landing on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. This may or may not be the same bird that was reported eating a duck in the same area on 10/27.
As of 11/9, roughly 72 snowy owls have been reported from 37 Wisconsin counties, compared to five as of this date in 2014 and none in 2013.
            I sent the photos to Ryan Brady, an avian research scientist for the WDNR in Ashland and my “go-to” guy for bird identification, in hopes that he could say what gender and age it might be. He responded, “We can't accurately age and sex these guys based solely on pics of plumage. See the Popular Resources tab of our snowy owl page:
            “With that said, it's most consistent with a young male – I can't be certain though. Many birds this year aren't doing very well, and the first signs seem to be roosting in odd places and allowing exceptionally close approach. That appears to be the case here.”

Oregon Old-growth
            When Mary and I spent two weeks in October on a wrtier/artist residency in an old-growth forest in Oregon, we reveled in the size of the trees (see the photos of one of our biggest white pines in Wisconsin compared to a large Douglas fir out there). One theory on why the trees in that area are so large is that while their annual rainfall is around 95 inches, they only receive an inch a month during the summer – the area receives 90% of its rain in the winter! The trees are thus thought to grow so large as a means of storing sufficient water to get them through the dry summer, much like a camel.

Rough-skinned Newts
           One salamander we frequently saw while hiking in the Oregon old-growth was the rough-skinned newt, which is plain brown on top, but brilliantly orange on its underside. These creatures were quite placid, moving slowly on numerous trails. I picked one up just to see what it felt like, examined it a bit, and then set it back down. The newt seemed quite unfazed by my handling it.
Later on I learned this was not the wisest thing I’d ever done. Rough-skinned newts secrete one of the most poisonous substances known, a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (TTX). The poison occurs in their skin, muscles, and blood, and can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. “Sufficient quantity” turns out to be not much – one study estimated that 25,000 mice could be killed from the skin of one rough-skinned newt. TTX blocks signals in the nervous system, leading to a quick death. In fact, TTX is 10,000 times deadlier than cyanide.

           Fortunately, it turns out that this poison can’t be absorbed through the skin, but it can enter through a mucous membrane, like the eyes, or through a cut in the skin. Luckily I didn’t have any wounds on my hand or rub my eyes afterwards! Rough-skinned newts contain enough poison to kill people, a case in point being being a 29-year-old Oregon man who in 1979, on a drunken dare, swallowed a rough-skinned newt and died a few hours later (see for more guys like this).
           Apparently potential predators are quite aware of the newt’s poison, and if they’re not, the newt assumes a swaybacked defensive pose, closing its eyes, extending its limbs to the sides, and holding its tail curled up over the body, thus exposing its bright orange underside as a very serious warning. Scientists have tested 30 potential predators of newts, from belted kingfishers to great blue herons to bullfrogs and fish, and have found in every case that the newt killed them.
           What’s most remarkable, however, is that common garter snakes in that area have evolved an extreme resistance to the poison and prey on rough-skinned newts, their only known predator. In response, the newts have continually upped their production of TTX, which has resulted in the garter snakes evolving a yet higher resistance again and again, in effect engaging in what biologists have termed “an evolutionary arms race.”
           In evolutionary theory, their relationship is a prime example of co-evolution. The mutations in the snake’s genes that confer resistance to the toxin result in a selective pressure that favor more toxic newts. The more toxic newt then applies a selective pressure favoring snakes with even greater resistance. This evolutionary counterpunching, each continually adapting to the other, has resulted in the newts producing levels of toxin far in excess of what is needed to kill any other conceivable predator.
            The newt’s use of toxins goes yet another step. Researchers found that the females load their eggs that they lay in ponds with TTX to dissuade predators. Dragonfly larvae and other aquatic predators that eat plenty of eggs of other species from ponds won’t touch the newt eggs.
           But, like the garter snake, there’s one exception. Caddisfly larvae turned out to relish the newt eggs, actually growing bigger if they were supplied with newt eggs by researchers, even though the researchers estimate there’s enough TTX in one newt egg to kill somewhere between 500 and 3700 caddisflies. Thus, it appears that the caddisflies have evolved high levels of resistance much like the garter snakes.

Ice-up and Immature Loons
           As of 11/20, folks in our area are still observing juvenile loons on open water. In northern Minnesota, of seven juvenile loons implanted with satellite transmitters this summer, all were still on their natal lakes as of this date.
           Researchers from the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) also implanted satellite transmitters in juvenile loons in the summer of 2014. Of those 15 juveniles, their website map indicates that only 3 are known to be alive, 8 have died, and the status of the remaining 4 is unknown. To follow these birds, go to:

Eagles Nest Building
           Every fall Mary and I observe the eagle pair across the river from us carrying building materials to their nest, an activity seemingly out of synch with the breeding season. However, this is typical behavior, apparently having to do with the rapid change in daylight which spurs hormone production.  Ruffed grouse frequently drum in the fall, many birds still sing (though more weakly and intermittently), prairie chickens occasionally dance, all likely because the amount of daylight they’re experiencing in the fall is similar to the spring.

Climate Change – CO2 400ppm Benchmark Eclipsed Permanently
           NOAA announced on 11/18 that global temperatures in October 2015 showed the largest departure from the long-term average for any month going back to 1880. A week earlier, 11/11, a crucial milestone in global climate was also reached. The daily average concentration of carbon dioxide in the air that day at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory was 399 parts per million. On 11/12, it rose to 410 ppm, and researchers believe that we’ll never see another day with the daily Mauna Loa CO2 reading below 400 ppm.
           The 400-ppm mark was first reached in May, 2013, but only for a few days, during the annual peak of atmospheric CO2. Along with the year-on-year rise due to fossil-fuel use, CO2 ebbs and flows in the atmosphere each year as vegetation grows and dies back in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2014, the daily Mauna Loa readings stayed above 400 ppm for more than three months. This year they rose above 400 ppm even longer, only dipping below 400 ppm in August before climbing back above the benchmark this month. And there’s no end in sight to this increase – we’re adding 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere every year.
           A few years back, there was a concerted effort to reduce CO2 to 350 ppm, a concentration considered by most scientists to be the “safe” level of CO2. Instead, we’re continuing our global climate experiment into further uncharted territory.

Celestial Events
            On the morning of 12/3, look for Jupiter above the waning crescent moon. On the morning of 12/6, Mars will be right above the moon. On the morning of 12/7, Venus will be just below the moon.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

NWA 11/13/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/13 - 26, 2015

Sightings: Snowy Owl Eating a Duck
Barb and Jim Moore reported the following: “On Tuesday, October 27, about 8 a.m., we spotted a snowy owl on a large rock in the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in front of our house. The owl was occasionally harassed by several ravens and had a mature eagle on another rock within 40 feet but didn't budge from its position on the rock. About 10 a.m. the owl was in the water within 18 inches of his perch on the rock, ‘flapping’ his wings. We did not actually see how he entered the water as we had just been watching it only a minute earlier. The owl appeared to be in distress, but it turns out, it had nabbed a small duck and was ‘swimming’ to the nearby island, using its wings to propel itself with the duck in its talons. He proceeded to take the duck on shore and eat it. On Wednesday, October 28, the owl was still on the island near the now deceased duck; he remained there all day. The last sighting was at dark on Wednesday; he was gone on Thursday morning.”
One doesn’t think of owls eating ducks, but ducks are clearly on the menu of snowy owls. During the Arctic summer breeding season, lemmings of various species are their primary prey. On their wintering grounds, however, individuals eat a wide diversity of prey. In a study on uplands in Alberta, Canada, deer mice comprised over one-half of their winter diet, followed by meadow voles – the two together making up 90% of their diet. However, in coastal southwestern British Columbia, birds comprised 100% of the snowy owl diet, with grebes and ducks representing 80%. In another study along coastal New England, birds comprised 48% of their diet.
Snowies are surprisingly opportunistic predators. In an unpublished study covering 32 years at the Logan International Airport in Boston, Norway rats and meadow voles were their most common winter prey, but snowies were also occasionally observed to take species as unusual as Canada goose, herring gull, great blue heron, rough-legged hawk, peregrine falcon, barred owl, house cat, mink, and skunk.

Other Sightings: Weasel, Snow Buntings, Sandhill Cranes
On 11/7, Sarah Krembs photographed a weasel at her home in Manitowish Waters that had already turned white in anticipation of snow. Last year that worked out well. This year, not so well – the weasel looks very bright against the snowless brown ground.
Snow buntings are moving through. We saw our first flock on 11/3.
If you want to see vast numbers of staging sandhill cranes, head for Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in Burnett County. An official count done on 11/8 found 13,612 cranes! Check to see if they’re still there before visiting – they’ll be heading south very soon.

Tundra and Trumpeter Swans
            John Werth reported seeing 60+ swans on the Whitney Flowage on 10/30. A couple days later on 11/1, he went back and counted 82! The following day, Carne Andrews stopped at the same site and found 100! I visited on 11/6 and saw 22.
At this time of year, tundra swans are migrating through, and visually identifying a trumpeter swan from a tundra swan can be tricky. The swans were too far out for me to clearly see, but I could hear a few trumpeting, and Carne heard many of them trumpeting. So, most if not all of these were trumpeter swans.
            The way to easily tell the two species apart is by their voice. Trumpeters sound like a kid with no musical talent just blaring away on a trumpet, while tundras produce a higher-pitched call that has been likened to many things: a distant barking of dogs, soft  musical laughter, a mellow cooing, or something akin to a Canada goose honk, which amply demonstrates how limited human language is in describing the language of non-humans.
Tundra swans usually begin arriving in Wisconsin the first week of November, but the peak typically occurs in mid-November. They’ll remain for many weeks, or until ice begins to form, and then it's time for them to fly east to their wintering grounds in Chesapeake Bay. 
Tundra swans come by their name honestly, nesting high up on the Arctic coastline in tundra or sheltered marshes. Tundras may fly up to ten hours a day, and with good weather conditions, can sail along in a V-formation at 60 mph as high as 8,000 feet, thus traveling up to 600 miles a day.
            Our area is certainly not a hotspot for the tundra swan migration – the Mississippi River is where you want to go to see thousands. Scientists estimate that about 25% of the Eastern Population of tundra swans utilize the Upper Mississippi River as a stopover site during fall migration.

Lecanium Scale/Honeydew Forecast
In a few late summer columns, I wrote about the pervasiveness in our woodlands of “honeydew.”  The sticky residue on people’s decks and windshields, as well as the sweet smell, caught a lot of people’s attention. Well, next year looks like more of the same, according to Linda Williams, the Forest Health Specialist for the Northeast Region of the DNR. In her “October Forest Health Update” newsletter, she writes about the Lecanium scale which causes the honeydew: “Although I saw significant mortality by parasitoids and fungi in the scale populations along the lakeshore counties this year, I did not see that level of morality in the scale populations in the north. I recently checked the northern populations again and found large numbers of scale crawlers (immature scales) present on leaves and twigs. Based on that I would expect high numbers next year to continue to prompt calls about honeydew (sticky stuff) covering everything near infested trees.”
            To see the entire update, go to:

Birds Shared by Oregon and Wisconsin
            I wrote in my last column about the two weeks in October that Mary and I spent in the old-growth forests of western Oregon. Birds were relatively few in the old-growth, but two were quite common, and both also nest in Wisconsin as well - winter wren and golden-crowned kinglet. The kinglets were constantly giving their call notes in nearly every old-growth stand that we hiked. I’ve never heard anywhere near this many golden-crowned kinglets! My only complaint was that they were also very good at ignoring our attempts to “pish” them down. We saw them only fleetingly as they constantly flitted in search of food.
            The bird species that we saw the most was the varied thrush. They were common, much like robins here. We saw them mostly along roadsides, and particularly near dusk, when they were apparently feeding in the gravel.
            Seeing a varied thrush in Wisconsin is an absolute treat, but after a few days of seeing them so frequently in Oregon, we began to ignore them. How easily we humans lose interest!

Big Skis!
            Mercer residents, Peggy Bronsberg and Bernie Langreck, just returned from six months on the road to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and of the many exceptional pictures they took, I particularly enjoyed the picture of the giant skis at 100 Mile House in British Columbia. Peggy wrote, “Just like in the U.S., some Canadian towns have various big ‘mascots,’ like the loon in Mercer and the muskie in Boulder Junction. So, we saw big fly rods, big salmon, big you-name-its along our way. This is the only one that made us pull out the camera!” As lovers of cross-country skiing, Mary and I think this would make a great “mascot” for a town in our area as well.

Frog Survey Summary for 2014
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) began coordinating a volunteer frog and toad survey in 1984 because of concerns arising from declines in some frog populations. Wisconsin supports twelve frog and toad species, but only nine of those live in the Northwoods. One species (Blanchard’s cricket frog, which is not found in the Northwoods) is endangered and four species (American bullfrog, mink frog, northern leopard frog, and pickerel frog) are included on Wisconsin’s Natural Heritage working list as species of “special concern.”
Survey routes are distributed statewide and each consists of 10 sites which are monitored three times yearly. The occurrence of each frog species is determined at each site by the presence or absence of their call, and their abundance is ranked by the relative number of calling individuals.
Mary and I began running a frog survey route in western Vilas County in 1988, so we’ve been at it for 27 years now. In Wisconsin, leopard frog and mink frog have shown a significant decline since the initiation of the survey in 1984, while American toads have decreased slightly. Species that have shown an increase include gray treefrog and bullfrog. Species that have remained relatively stable include chorus frog, green frog, spring peeper, and wood frog. These numbers are important because frogs and toads are considered good indicators of the health of wetlands.

Celestial Events
            The peak Leonid meteor shower occurs between midnight on 11/17 and dawn on 11/18. It occurs when Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Leonids are known for producing extraordinary meteor storms, but predictions this year are quite modest – expect 10 to 15 meteors per hour.

The full moon (the “Ice is Forming” or “Beaver” moon) occurs on 11/25.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

NWA 10/30/15

A Northwoods Almanac for October 30 – November 12, 2015  by John Bates

Wisconsin Bird Atlas
The collection of data for the second edition of The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin began this spring, and in just over six months, 700+ Atlas volunteers surveyed 2,600 Atlas blocks, and submitted 23,900 checklists, documenting 1.7 million birds. In this first of five seasons in which data will be collected, 229 possible breeding species were recorded, and 212 species were confirmed to be breeding. In the first edition of the Atlas, 237 possible breeding species and 226 confirmed species were reported, so the project is already close to those totals. Exciting discoveries include sightings of eight species nesting in Wisconsin that weren't found here at all 15 years ago, and dramatic range shifts in other species, such as the wild turkey. The eight new nesting species include:
Bufflehead (1 confirmation)
Whooping Crane (multiple confirmations)
Eurasian Collared-Dove (4 confirmations)
White-eyed Vireo (1 confirmation)
Great Tit (2 confirmations)
Kirtland’s Warbler (multiple confirmations)
Yellow-throated Warbler (1 confirmation)
European Goldfinch (4 confirmations)
It should be noted that European goldfinch and great tit are non-native species that, as popular cage birds, have been inadvertently introduced into the wild from captivity. Whether they’ll spread throughout the state isn’t known.

Snowy Owl Invasion!
Significant numbers of snowy owls have already arrived in Wisconsin – 25 had been confirmed as of 10/22 with the first one seen on 10/15 in Ashland. These unprecedented reports are earlier in the season and higher in number than any year on record. Last year, the first snowy was reported in Wisconsin on 11/1, while in 2013, the initial observation was 11/15. The first snowies typically appear in Wisconsin in mid-November.
            Large southerly flights called "irruptions" have historically occurred about once every four or five years. But Wisconsin experienced snowy owl irruptions in 2011-'12, 2013-'14 and 2014-'15. In 2013-2014, a record 290 snowies were recorded in the state, which was almost equaled last winter when 280 snowies were counted. So, this winter looks like it will be the third irruption in a row and fourth in five years. In a “normal” year, perhaps 30 birds might be seen.
So, what’s going on? One researcher, Tom Erdman in Green Bay, suspects climate change. He said a warmer Arctic could be increasing the abundance of lemmings, the favorite prey of snowies, fueling snowies to produce more offspring more often. In a really good year, a pair of adults may fledge 10 young owls. But the lemmings are insufficient in winter to feed the overabundance of young snowies, so they’re forced to move south.
The snowies that migrate into Wisconsin often arrive exhausted and hungry. Since it's difficult to tell the difference between a healthy owl and one that is sick or injured, if you see one it’s important to call a local DNR wildlife biologist or wildlife rehabilitation center. Snowy owls prey mostly on voles and other rodents in Wisconsin, as well as some birds.

Oregon Long-Term Ecological Research
Mary and I have spent the last two weeks in Oregon, nearly all of the time at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the western Cascades Mountains. First established in 1948, the H.J. Andrews is a 16,000-acre ecological research site home to iconic Pacific Northwest old-growth forests of western red cedar and western hemlock, and moss-draped ancient douglas firs; steep terrain; and fast, cold-running streams. In 1980, the Andrews became a charter member of the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, which now supports 26 sites across North America (including the Trout Lake North Temperate Lakes LTER site near Boulder Junction).
The forests at Andrews are among the tallest and most productive in the world, with tree heights often greater than 250 feet. When established in 1948, the Andrews Forest was covered by a mix of old-growth conifer forest (around 500 years old) and mature forest (100-150 years old). The old-growth forests became the subject of intensive basic research in the 1970s, and has since spawned literally hundreds of technical studies.
Mary and I were selected to participate in their Long–Term Ecological Reflections program, which since 2004 has created a growing body of arts and humanities works closely linked with the LTER program in the forest. The project hosts writers' residencies where participants can interact with research scientists as they go about their work. Our writings and artwork will become part of a collection spanning hundreds of years, and that is gathered in permanent archives at Oregon State University, as well as being accessible via the Web.
            The concept is simple: science in the absence of the humanities often struggles to effectively communicate its findings. As their website states, “there is an unusual richness and joy in the community of art and science, in the coming together of insights from many different perspectives and disciplines.”
            So, we spent 12 days hiking, writing, and sketching at the Andrews and adjoining areas, trying to absorb as much as we could about the ecology of the area, the historical uses of the forest by the native people, and the social issues associated with old-growth in the Pacific Northwest.
            Some highlights of what we learned include our insight into the essential nitrogen-fixing abilities of a lichen that literally drapes the high canopy of the old-growth. Lobaria oregana, or lungwort, can weigh up to 500 pounds dryweight per acre in the canopy. It acts as a biochemical refinery, processing nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it to nitrites and nitrates that can be utilized by the all the plants in the forest. The lobaria literally rains down from the canopy, landing on the forest floor and appearing like large kale leaves. The “leaves” decompose, providing up to 22 pounds of nitrogen per acre, though the forest only needs 5 pounds per acre to maintain itself. Thus, a lichen, perhaps the most unlikely of plant origins, provides the largest source of nitrogen to the old-growth forests here. Lobaria only appears in stands over 100 years old, and doesn’t abound until the stand reaches 200 years.
            Another highlight was the astonishing amount and kinds of mosses that cover many of the trees from head to toe. The mosses soak up rainwater and release it slowly, as well as providing a perfect germination bed for tree seedlings on top of fallen trees in the forest. These “nurse logs” harbor remarkable numbers of young trees.
            And then there’s the importance of the underground mycorrhizal fungi, their root-like “hyphae” thinner than a human hair, that connect to the fine roots of the forests’ trees and link them to nearly 1,000 times as much soil area. The trees and fungi have a mutualistic relationship – the trees provide photosynthetic sugars to the fungi, and the fungi provide water and phosphorous to the tree, while also innoculating the soil with antibiotics that kill disease bacteria. In fact, some trees share nutrients between them via a bridge of connecting fungal hyphae. The hyphae, which look like thinnest of white threads, often grow in great tangled mats like a huge net covering hundreds of square feet of soil.
            So, in these most magnificent of old forests, it’s the tiny organisms – the lichens, mosses, and fungi – that make all the difference.
            We also visited and revisited a long-term tree decomposition site, a research effort designed to learn as much as possible about how trees rot over time and what their decomposition offers to the health of the forest community.
            We learned, too, about epicormic branches, where old-growth trees grow new branches well down on their trunks long after the trees have grown far, far taller. These epicormic branches come out in a fan shape and make excellent sites for birds to build their nests.
            There’s a lot more to share, but I’ll end with a plant we viewed when we drove over to the Oregon coast to see the Pacific Ocean. We stopped at the Darlingtonia Natural Area where the California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica), or cobra lily, grows by the thousands in a bog. The name "cobra lily" stems from the resemblance of its tubular leaves to a rearing cobra, complete with a forked leaf that resembles fangs or a serpent's tongue. They’re huge! And like our Wisconsin pitcher plants, they are a passive carnivorous trap, baiting in insects, then drowning them in their pitchers.

The cobra lily is unique, however, among the three genera of American pitcher plants in that it does not trap rainwater in its pitcher. Instead, it regulates the level of water inside by releasing water into the trap that has been pumped up from the roots. The plant then releases an enzyme to help digest the insect.