Saturday, January 23, 2016

NWA 1/22/2016

A Northwoods Almanac for January 22 – February 4, 2016

ermine photo by Margo Perkins

 Maple Syrup Is Medicine – I Knew It!!
I have to lead off with this because of my personal addiction to pure maple syrup. Scientists say they have found potential medicinal properties in a maple syrup molecule, which they have chosen to call “quebecol” (do you think the study was conducted in Quebec?).           
The studies indicate that quebecol might have potential as an anti-cancer drug. One study noted that it displays some similarity to tamoxifen, an antiestrogen drug often used to treat breast cancer.
Another study at Quebec City’s Université Laval found that quebecol stops inflammation before it even starts. The same was true for synthetic quebecol-like chemicals.
Interestingly, quebecol is only found in maple syrup, not sap, which suggests that the compound is a product of the processing stages.
The research team published its findings in “Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters” (January 2016). As quoted in the press release, chemist and co-author Normand Voyer said, "This paves the way for a whole new class of anti-inflammatory agents, inspired by quebecol, that could compensate for the low efficacy of certain treatments while reducing the risk of side effects.”
It also paves the way for yet greater consumption of maple syrup – all, of course, purely in the interests of greater health and medical breakthroughs. I am honored to be such a willing servant of the medical community.

Snowy Owl Reappears After Nearly Two Year Absence
You may recall my writing about Project SNOWstorm, a research project begun in 2013-14 during the historic snowy owl irruption. As part of the study, researchers were able to tag 22 snowy owls from Minnesota to Massachusetts, including 4 in Wisconsin, with GPS/GSM transmitters. The transmitters use cellphone technology to transmit data. When the bird is out of range of a cell tower, the transmitters can store up to 100,000 locations, then transmit that information — even years later — when the bird flies within cell coverage. The technology now is so advanced that transmitters have enough storage capacity for more than 12 years worth of data.
One of the snowy owls was trapped and fitted with a cellular tracking device on 12/23/2013 on the Buena Vista Marsh south of Wisconsin Rapids. He was a juvenile male then, and remained in a roughly one-square-mile area all winter, when he was last detected on 3/31/2014. Then he wasn’t heard from all last winter and into this winter.
But at the beginning of December 2015, the owl connected to a cell tower just south of Lake Manitoba, about 70 miles north of the North Dakota border. So, some of his data was finally transmitted! He was last in Wisconsin on 3/31/14, after which there’s a gap of almost a month until April 30 when he was 664 miles northwest of the Buena Vista grasslands, near the town of Gypsumville in southern Manitoba. From there, he flew 1,106 miles farther north to the edge of the Beaufort Sea in northern Nunavut, moving out onto the ice, then angling back southeast about 100 miles into the barrens near Bromley Lake where musk-oxen and caribou live. The last transmission date was June 7, 2014. He’d been out of touch for 20 months! Due to poor cellular coverage only a small sample of points from his transmitter were received, so all the researchers have is a look at his first early summer. And now he’s flown off again out of cellular range.
Go to for more information.

Great Backyard Bird Count
Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Since then, more than 100,000 people have joined the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. In 2015, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in more than 100 countries counted 5,090 species of birds on more than 147,000 checklists (BirdLife International recognizes a total of 10,426 bird species worldwide, of which 13% are threatened with extinction).
Anyone can participate. All you’re asked to do is tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, which runs from February 12-15, 2016. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world – you don’t have to be at your home.
If you’re new to the count, you have to register online, then enter your checklist. During the count, you can explore what others are seeing in your area or around the world. See for more information.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
The crackpots in cowboy hats currently occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNHR) in Harney County, southeastern Oregon, have my dander up on many fronts, but I’ll just focus on the most obvious – this is a national wildlife refuge for a reason.
A brief history of the MNWR: In the late 1880’s, plume hunters were decimating North American bird populations in the name of fashion – women were wearing part or all of a bird on their hats. Shorebirds and colonial nesting birds suffered the most as hunters targeted large flocks. An ounce of breeding feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold, so plume hunters focused their sights on Malheur Lake and the “white herons” (later renamed great egrets) that bred there by the thousands.
By 1898, most of the egrets had been killed, and by 1908, the population still had not recovered. In stepped President Theodore Roosevelt, a renowned hunter himself, but a hunter who couldn’t abide by seeing indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife. He established by executive order the Lake Malheur Reservation on August 18, 1908, setting aside unclaimed government lands encompassed by Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” The Lake Malheur Reservation was the 19th of 51 wildlife refuges created by Roosevelt during his tenure as president. At the time, Malheur was the third refuge in Oregon and one of only six refuges west of the Mississippi.
The refuge encompasses an oasis of water in the high desert of southeast Oregon. Historic bird counts show that the Refuge, as well as the Silvies River floodplain north of the Refuge, supports anywhere between 5 and 66 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating waterfowl populations. The Refuge also supports over 20 percent of the Oregon population of breeding greater sandhill cranes, while most colonial waterbirds (egrets, herons) have easily exceeded 10 percent of the regional population at their peak, even reaching up to 77 percent of the Great Basin population for certain species. Migratorial shorebird numbers have been documented at levels high enough to qualify the Refuge as a Regional Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve. The Refuge also supports very high densities of certain nesting riparian passerines and the largest local population of bobolinks in the western U.S. Plus, the refuge hosts over 58 species of mammals, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope and the occasional Rocky Mountain elk.
The annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival began in 1981 as a Kiwanis sponsored event, and is held the second weekend of April during the height of the spring sandhill crane, waterfowl and shorebird migrations along the Pacific Flyway. Birders from all over the country ought to attend, “occupying” the refuge for the purpose in which it was created.
So, would the highest use of this land by our government be to graze cattle on it, or to continue its use as a wildlife refuge?

Bird Mortality and Communication Towers
Scientists estimate that almost 7 million birds, most of which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, collide with communications towers in the U.S. every year. Research, however, has determined that birds are not attracted to the flashing lights of towers but are attracted to the non-flashing, “L-810” lights.
Last month the FAA released a new Advisory Circular for the marking and lighting of obstructions, including communications towers. This change allows tower owners to extinguish the non-flashing, L-810 side-marker lights on towers higher than 350 feet, an easy process that doesn’t require climbing the tower, and it saves tower owners construction costs, maintenance costs, and energy costs.                  
Most importantly, extinguishing non-flashing lights reduces migratory bird collisions with towers by as much as 70%.
It’s a win-win, and a good example of why we do scientific research.

Celestial Events
            Full moon on 1/23. On 1/27, look in the early evening for Jupiter 1.4 degrees to the north of the waning gibbous moon. 2/4 marks the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox.
The Mecca Ski Trail’s annual candlelight ski event takes place on 1/30 in Mercer. North Lakeland Elementary School’s Annual Candlelight event is on 2/19. Both are a great way to see stars while enjoying a unique, often magical opportunity to ski at night.
            Bill and Margo Perkins sent me a fine photo of an ermine (weasel) peeking out from under their back porch. Debbie and Randy Augustinak in Land O'Lakes also sent a photo of several pine grosbeaks visiting their feeders, a rare sighting so far this winter.  

pine grosbeak photo by Debbie Augustinak


Friday, January 8, 2016

NWA 1/8/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/8 – 1/21/2016 

Ice-Up – Finally!
            The Manitowish River below our home iced-up on 12/29, a very late date for the river. I had thought I might be able to paddle on New Year’s Day, but thankfully, no. 
            As for the late ice-up on many of our lakes, Foster Lake in Hazelhurst finally froze on 12/28. Woody Hagge sent me a summary of the 40 years of data (1976-2015) that he has collected on Foster. This year’s 12/28 ice-up is eight days later than the previous latest ice-up date – 12/20/1998. The 12/28 date is 32 days later than the average ice-up date of November 26. As result, the 40-year average ice-up date for Foster moved 0.8 days to November 27. At 39-acres with a maximum depth of 38 feet, Foster Lake is broadly representative of many of the modest-sized lakes in our area, though there are many other factors influencing ice-up beyond the size and depth of a lake.
Woody noted that Foster had 265 days of open water in 2015 from ice-out (April 7) to ice-up (Dec. 28), a startling 41 more days of open water than the average. That moved the 40-year average days of open water one full day to 224.6 days.
            Trout Lake, the largest natural lake in our area at 3,816 acres and 117 feet of maximum depth, iced-up on 1/4, the latest date since they began keeping records in 1981.

Wolves and Moose on Isle Royale
            The wolf population on Isle Royale has completely collapsed. Three wolves were counted as of September 2015, one of which was a pup that had so far survived to the age of eight months, but which was visibly deformed. The other two were middle-aged or older adults, likely mated, and both closely related.
            For wolf haters, this is good news. For the actual community of life on the island, it’s terrible news. Wolf predation has been minimal since 2012, and the two prey species that wolves depend on have responded by rapidly growing in population. The number of moose has doubled to 1,250 in 2015, while active beaver colonies have also doubled. At what point these populations exceed their carrying capacity and crash from starvation is unknown.
Prey species need predators Рplain and simple and undebatable. Unless, of course, one approves of decimation of the food base Рbalsam fir in the case of moose, and a wide array of tree and shrub species for beavers Рwith the resulting coup de gr̢ce of starvation when the moose and beaver overwhelm their range.
            The issue of whether to import wolves onto the island remains in limbo. The National Park Service has begun an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) which won’t be completed for at least two more years. The issue has high stakes because Isle Royale is the last place on Earth with a forested ecosystem, a wolf population, and moose population, none of which are exploited by humans.
While moose are thriving on Isle Royale, they are declining precipitously on the Minnesota mainland. Since 2006, the number of moose in Minnesota is down roughly 60 percent from a high of 8,840. An aerial survey by the state Department of Natural Resources puts the number of moose in Minnesota at 3,450 – down about 20 percent from 2014 but above the tally from 2013, the year the agency halted hunting of the animal.           
              On the mainland, moose have been dying due to a number of causes. Moose fall prey to wolves and bears, but there’s no indication that their predation has grown. Instead a tiny predator may be more the cause. Brainworm, a nematode parasite carried by deer but not harmful to the deer, has expanded into Minnesota’s moose territory. One-third of the adult moose radio-collared by the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa on their Grand Portage reservation have died of brainworm.
Studies have also connected winter moose deaths to a warming climate. Moose are highly sensitive to heat, and when it’s hot in the summer, they tend to lie in cool damp places and pant instead of eating, resulting in a weakened animal going into the winter.
              Another mortality factor is winter ticks, which attach themselves in late fall, then feast on the moose throughout the winter. Large infestations, which can reach as many as 50,000 on a single animal, can kill a moose. The moose scratch off their fur when trying to remove the ticks and get hypothermia.
              In New England, it’s much the same story. In 2014, the winter tick outbreak was so bad that more than half of the 22 collared moose calves in New Hampshire died. In Maine, 22 of 30 calves collared that year died, as well as ten adults, which are usually hardier than young animals. Sadly, 2015 has been more of the same. In Maine, 21 of the 35 moose calves collared by scientists are dead.         In New Hampshire, all but 7 of the 27 moose calves collared are dead. So far, all but one of the dead moose studied in New Hampshire and Maine have been infested with ticks with many also suffering from anemia due to blood loss.

December Weather
            This December was warm and dark. WJFW in Rhinelander reported that only three days out of the entire month were partly sunny or sunny. December was also the warmest month on record since 1887 in Milwaukee, and the second warmest for Madison.
             The abnormal warmth has impacted birdlife. More birds that normally migrate south have been hanging around the Northwoods. Ryan Brady in Bayfield reported on 1/1 that three gray catbirds have been seen in the area, along with a brown thrasher, a horned lark, a red-winged blackbird, and a Harris’s sparrow. It may be that a few individuals every year are sick/injured/unfit in some manner or another and are unable to migrate. In normal winter years, they would have died by now, but with our unusual warmth, perhaps these few have been able to live longer into the winter.

Celestial Events
            January 7th marked the last day of our latest sunrises. The sunrise in Minocqua had been stalled at 7:40 a.m. for 12 days, but today, 1/8, the sun rose one minute earlier, the first time since June 11th. Back then it appeared at 4:08 a.m. (5:08 using daylight savings time), and stalled for 11 days until 6/20 when it began rising one minute later. So, it has been nearly six months since we’ve seen the sun rising earlier every day! By 1/13, our days will be growing in length by two minutes per day – get out the sunglasses!
            Today, 1/8, look later in the evening for Venus stacked right on top of Saturn. Pre-dawn on 1/9 may be easier viewing – look in the low southeast. As for planet viewing in January, look after dusk for Jupiter rising in the east. Before dawn, look for Venus, Mars, and Saturn, all low in the southeast.
            The period from 1/6 to 1/26 marks Minocqua’s average coldest days of the year, combining the average coldest high temperatures (21°) with the average coldest low temperatures (3°).
            The new moon occurs on 1/9.
Christmas Bird Counts
            Christmas bird counts were conducted in Minocqua on 12/17 and in Manitowish Waters on 12/19. The surprise for both counts was the exceptional amount of open water we encountered. But even with so many lakes and rivers open, nearly all waterfowl had left for the comparatively balmy south. The Minocqua counters did find a large flock of common mergansers with a few hooded mergansers and mallards sprinkled in. And a small flock of Canada geese were resting below the Rest Lake Dam on the Manitowish River, but that was it for waterfowl.

photo by Jim Schumaker

            The Minocqua count garnered 27 species, the Manitowish Waters count 22 species, fairly typical numbers for our area. The biggest surprise for the MW count was a yellow-bellied sapsucker, while the Minocqua counters found some pine siskins, which are quite rare this winter, at least so far.
Our oldest daughter, Eowyn, lives in San Diego and mentioned that a Christmas count there garnered a mere 220 species, the fourth-most diverse count of more than 2,400 recorded in the western hemisphere. Humane soul that she is, she didn’t rub it in too badly. But if anyone needed some quantifiable data on the difference for wildlife between a winter in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and a winter along the Pacific Ocean near the Mexican border, there you have it.
            This was the 116th year of Christmas bird counts. In 2014, 2462 count circles were covered; 1888 in the United States, 460 in Canada, and 114 in the Caribbean, Latin America, Bermuda, and the Pacific Islands. 72,653 people participated, with 62,211 in the field and 10,442 watching feeders.
A total of 2106 species were counted, roughly one-fifth of the avian taxa on Earth. In the United States, 655 species were tallied – Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh in Texas led the way with 234 species. The Super Bowl winner, however, was a count circle in Yanayacu, Ecuador, where a mind-boggling 529 species were counted. For comparison, in Wisconsin, 109 counts were conducted, with a count circle in Madison the high at 92 species.

            Pine and evening grosbeaks have been very hard to find so far this winter – we’ve yet to see a single one. However, Lauri and Mitch Myers in Mercer have both species at their feeders, while Sarah Krembs in Manitowish Waters had several pine grosbeaks appear at her feeders on 12/27. She sent me some fine pictures of both genders.

photo by Sarah Krembs

            Donna Stone sent a photo of a red-headed woodpecker that appeared at her feeders near Rhinelander on 1/3. Red-headed woodpeckers remain very uncommon in our area and are a blessing to be seen during the winter.

photo by Donna Stone

“I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” – Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking