Sunday, March 20, 2016

NWA 3/18/16

A Northwoods Almanac for March 18 – 31, 2016 

3/4: Redpolls are the only winter finch being seen locally in good numbers right now. Bruce Bacon, a master bird bander in Mercer, has had over 200 at his feeders. We have perhaps 30 or more in Manitowish, and many others are reporting significant numbers at their feeders. But as for the other Canadian birds that we always hope to see over the winter – purple finches, pine siskins, evening and pine grosbeaks – they appear for the most part to have skipped our area.
3/4: John Werth reported seeing several geese, the first of the year, on the open water of the Manitowish River.
3/4: Jeff Burke in Presque Isle wrote the following about two recent experiences with eagles. “As we left the house, we came upon a large dining event near Crab Lake Road attended by five eagles – four mature and one immature, plus several ravens. They were feasting on a fresh small deer kill. But even better was last Saturday (2/27) on Big Lake when a group of us witnessed both nest building activities followed by a no-foreplay mating activity, a five-minute break and a repeat. Any day I see an eagle close up is a good day. Yesterday and last Saturday were way above average.” 
3/8: Speaking of eagles, Gary Ruesch on the Rainbow Flowage watched four immature eagles early in the morning sitting on the ice and eating something they were finding on top of the ice. The four took off, and soon after a number of eagles were circling around the same spot on the ice. Eventually 14 landed, a mix of adults and immatures, and all, too, were eating something that they were finding on the ice. Gary said that ice fishermen had been fishing near that spot all winter. He speculated that there was likely a bounty of fish guts free for the taking, and the eagles had found the treasure trove.
3/9: The first grackle returned to Manitowish.
3/12: A common loon was reported on a lake in Madison, the first of many to come, all of which will be scouting further north and looking for open water.
3/12: Thousands of tundra swans were being seen throughout southern and central Wisconsin.
3/13: Greg Holt on Benson Lake in Manitowish Waters observed several common mergansers on the open water.
3/13: The first flock of red-winged blackbirds filled the trees near our home in Manitowish.
3/14: The first junco returned to our feeders in Manitowish, as did our first robin, which was eating some very fermented crabapples. We also had our first snow bunting migrating back through, as well as a small flock of bohemian waxwings also eating the crabapples.
3/14: We had our first fresh maple syrup of the season thanks to the generosity of Bob Simeone – fabulous! The season is off to a shaky start with our overly warm weather, but there’s hope yet for the requisite below-freezing nights and warm days.
3/15: The first European starling arrived at our feeders in Manitowish.
3/15: Numerous people have reported seeing trumpeter swans on the open water in our area. Bev Engstrom took a marvelous photo of one on the Wisconsin River, which I’ve included.

trumpeter swan photo by Bev Engstrom

Coming Our Way Soon on a South Wind
            Depending on your location in the Northwoods, these birds may or may not be back already, but they typically first appear in late March:
American woodcock
Eastern bluebird
Northern harrier
Turkey vulture
Red-tailed hawk
Peregrine falcon
            American wigeon
Northern pintail
Green-winged teal
Ring-necked duck
Hooded merganser
Red-breasted merganser

Mourning Cloak Butterflies
            Not arriving on a south wind, but emerging from hibernation in a tree cavity or tucked under tree bark, mourning cloak butterflies are usually our first butterflies of the spring, often appearing while there’s still snow on the ground. Food is hard to come by this early in the year, but mourning cloaks can somehow find enough sustenance from tree sap and decaying fruit. In order to fly, they have to bask in the sun to raise their body temperature close to ours – their dark bodies and wings help in solar collection.
            Mourning cloaks win the longevity award among butterflies, living for 10 to 11 months.

mourning cloak butterfly photo by Mary Burns

Early Bats
On 3/13, Carolyn Paduzzi reported the following: “I went up to both the Presque Isle and Black River Falls. Interestingly, I saw two brown bats flying very close by me, one at each river's entrance into Lake Superior. Mid-day, bright sunshine, and there they were buzzing about me like two hummingbirds. I wasn't aware of any bugs in the air, so am not sure what they were eating. Is this a normal time to come out of hibernation?  By day?”
            I called Licia Johnson, lead naturalist at the North Lakeland Discovery Center and a lover of all things “batty,” and she said that she had received a number of phone calls in the last week from others seeing bats. Apparently, some bats will go in and out of hibernation briefly if the weather is quite warm. They don’t remain active long, so they don’t need to feed extensively, which is good given that the insect hatch at this time of year is minimal.
            However, another factor may be at work here – white-nose syndrome. Licia called a statewide expert on bats who said she had been receiving many reports of flying bats in southern Wisconsin since January. White-nose syndrome, a Eurasian fungal disease that has killed an estimated 6 million bats in North America, disrupts the hibernation cycle of bats, repeatedly awakening them and burning up their fat reserves. They then are forced to leave their hibernation site looking for food, which ultimately leads to their deaths. Some winter colonies have experienced 100% mortality.
            White-nose syndrome is now in 26 states and 5 Canadian provinces, and appeared through much of the U.P in 2014-15. The disease has now been confirmed in Minnesota and may be affecting our area as well.

Manitowish River Ice-Out
The Manitowish River opened below our house on 3/9, eight days earlier than our 27-year average of 3/17. Over that time, the river has opened on an earlier date only five other times. I anticipate an early ice-out for our area lakes as well, unless, of course, March is really yanking our chain and winter returns with a vengeance.
The snow melt in the last week has been remarkable, and most open areas are now clear of snow, while the shaded woods will hold the snow much longer. The early snow melt bodes poorly for river and lake levels, though significant spring rains can change all of that. We were still skiing on 3/9, but at 50°, the conditions were a slog.

Spring Equinox
            The first day of spring arrives this year at 11:30 p.m. on March 19, when theoretically we should experience equal periods of day and night. In northern Wisconsin, though, we’ll experience the equinox on March 17, which will be our first day longer than night since September 26.
            But spring IS on its way. How soon will spring occur in the Northwoods compared to southern Wisconsin? We can accurately predict the date of the first bloom of our northern spring flowers based on Hopkins Law, which says that phenological events vary at the rate of one day for each 15 minutes of latitude and one day for each 100 feet of altitude. (Phenology is the study of the seasonal march of observable biological events – when the first robin returns, when the first trillium blooms, etc.) If we compare biological events in Madison to those in Minocqua, there should be a 20-day interval between the two areas, given their distance apart (about 220 miles) and their differences in elevation.
            Note that variations do occur along the Great Lakes where the weather is moderated by the still icy waters. And Hopkins Law is considered valid only up to June 1, when other factors take control, like available sunlight, soil conditions, and rainfall.

Full Moon and Penumbrial Eclipse
            Look at 6:47 a.m for the moon at maximum eclipse to be 78% shaded. The sun rises just 8 minutes later, so much of the effect will be washed out.


“Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush.” – Doug Larson

Thursday, March 3, 2016

NWA 3/4/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/4 – 3/17/16

March Madness
            (Note: I wrote this 21 years ago, but it’s worth a reprint. March is still, and hopefully will always be, a long and convoluted affair, a carousel of ups and downs and all arounds that is maddeningly fickle but yet so full of possibility.)
            March is a month of optimistic promises and charming gestures. The spring equinox occurs on March 21, so spring will certainly arrive by then – right? If you believe this, you probably expect to win the lottery tomorrow.
            As the March hare in Alice in Wonderland said to Alice, "Have some wine."
            Alice looked at the table. There was nothing on it but tea. "I don't see any wine," she remarked.
            "There isn't any," replied the Hare.
            The month of March leads us on like the March hare, playing to our dreams of the wine of spring – gardening, wearing shorts, swimming, hiking. The mirage beckons, but the reality of winter persists.
            We aren't the only ones fooled. More than a few birds have hastened up north, only to be literally buried in a spring snowstorm.
            The word "spring" comes from the Old High German springan, meaning "to jump," and from the Greek sperchesthai, meaning "to hasten." I wouldn't recommend a literal interpretation of the terms.
            Poets, too, get carried away by the illusion of March. Chaucer described March as "The month in which the world began, when God first made man."
            Tennyson exulted: "All in the wild March morning, I heard the angels call."
            It's important to note that neither of these guys lived in the Northwoods.
            Mary and I tend to get carried away with our enthusiasm, too, even though we clearly recall our lessons from previous Marches. We start to plan our canoe, biking, and backpacking trips; we talk about how we'll build this, where and who we'll visit, and God knows what else. The winter ice is weakening within us, too, but we need to keep things in perspective and proportion. March has toyed with us before, and its song is hard to resist.

Signs of March
  • ·      Creeks and rivers open
  • ·      The first robins and red-winged blackbirds appear around the equinox
  • ·      Eagles incubating eggs
  • ·      Mud
  • ·      Potholes
  • ·      Pussy willows bud out
  • ·      The sun rises before you want to get up – in fact, you now have to get up early to see the stars
  • ·      Snow fleas surface by the millions on top of the snow
  • ·      Seed catalogs get dog-eared – we hallucinate watermelons actually ripening
  • ·      Rotting ice gets chopped off of decks, steps, roofs . . . only to ice up again
  • ·      The travel bug hits big-time – Corfu, Crete, Arizona, anyone?
  • ·      Lady beetles appear by the dozens/hundreds on inside windows
  • ·      Icicles drip, gutters drip, trees drip
  • ·      Sap rises
  • ·      Baseball is in the news while we still look out at a foot of snow
  • ·      One day a window is opened for the first time since October
  • ·      Spring cleaning/spring projects/spring garage sales all get envisioned
  • ·      The first chipmunk emerges
  • ·      Trumpeter swans bugle on the little open water they can find
  • ·      Otters play on ice floes
  • ·      45° feels like T-shirt weather
  • ·      One day the wood stove stays cold because the sun is warmth enough

Sightings – Swans, Bobcat, Shrikes, Chickadees
On 2/22, Mary Kingstad had a northern shrike visiting her feeders on South Turtle Lake in Winchester. She wrote, “I almost thought it could be a gray jay but this bird is rounder and has beautiful black design on the back of its wings. It is almost as large as a blue jay and had almost a bandit appearance on its face. The markings were so perfect it almost appeared to be painted on.”
On 2/22, Erika Lintereur sent a photo of 11 swans swimming on an open portion of the Trout River just off Alder Lake Rd.
On 2/23, Jim Schumacher sent some excellent photos of a pair of trumpeter swans that returned to his home on Lost Creek near St. Germain. He noted, “Over the years the swans have returned to our creek very consistently at the end of March, so this is more than a month early compared to previous years.”

Also on 2/23, Pam Ahles observed that “the swans are back at the open water at the Pike/Round Lake bridge on the Pike/Round Lake Chain . . . Seems really early!” She also noted that they have had red-bellied woodpeckers at their feeders all winter.
On 2/26, Kay Rhyner on Yawkey Lake in Hazelhurst sent this note: “Today the sun was out and there were two little pencil size dripping icicles off our kitchen window. A chickadee hung on one and drank the water drips off the other.”
Bill and Barb Schweisheimer have a white squirrel visiting their feeders. Given its pinkish eyes and feet and ears, I believe this is an albino rather than a white color phase. Bill wondered about its rarity, and that’s a difficult question. For mammals, the number is mostly a guess - perhaps one in 10,000 or 20,000. Whatever the number, it fits the definition of “rare” for me.
Den and Joan Hill on the Trout River sent me a beautiful photo of a bobcat that is frequenting their yard.

Bev Engstrom took an exceptional photo of a northern shrike nabbing a pine siskin clearly showing the markings of both birds, and illustrating well the songbird-based diet of a shrike.

photo by Bev Engstrom

On 2/27, the sun was out nearly all day and it was 50°! The meteorologists at WJFW TV in Rhinelander noted that in the last three months, we have had only six days where it was sunny. It’s also important to note that on 2/28, it snowed three inches, and on 2/29, it was 0 degrees.

Eagles Mating and Incubating Eggs
            Since early February, we’ve been watching a pair of bald eagles repair their nest across the Manitowish River from our house. They seem to work about as hard as most of we retirees – off and on with lots of breaks. We’ve been watching the pair sit shoulder to shoulder on the nest, hoping to catch them breeding. So far, no go, but we’re only watching occasionally, and bird mating is a rapid fire event.
 Bald eagles mate in late February to early March, but prior to mating, they engage in spectacular courtship rituals. The “cartwheel display” may be the most remarkable to witness. The courting pair fly to great altitude, lock talons, and tumble/cartwheel back toward earth. Just as it looks like they’ll crash and burn, the pair break off their display, though occasionally they misjudge their speed of descent. Twice in the last 30 years I’ve received phone calls from people who have watched the eagles tumble into a tree and get hung up in the branches. Paired individuals will also pursue each other, occasionally lock talons, roll, and dive in a “chase display.” And occasionally one of the eagles will fly to a great altitude, fold its wings, and dive directly to earth, averting a collision with the ground at the last instant, a display referred to as the “roller-coaster flight.”
Once mated, the female lays eggs shortly thereafter (usually 2), and both incubate the eggs for about 35 days.
Eagle nests are usually constructed in a white pine tree at the highest point where large branches join the bole. Typical nests are 4 to 6 feet in diameter and 2 to 3 feet tall. The largest nest on record, however, was 9 feet in diameter and 19 feet tall. A nest in Ohio was used for 34 years before the tree blew down, so eagles can also occupy a nest for decades. Eagles construct alternate nests within their territory and may switch their nest site in successive years, especially after nesting failures.
The eggs hatch asynchronously, with 1 to 4 days between hatching. In one study in Saskatchewan, the eggs hatched two days apart in 13 of 16 nests. This is significant because the difference in hatch dates gives the first hatchling a big physical advantage in competing for food. For example, in a study at a nest where the chicks hatched four days apart, and when the nestlings were four weeks old, the adult eagle brought in a fish and the older nestling got 76 pieces of fish while the younger nestling got 2 pieces. Not unexpectedly, the younger nestling died one day later during a rain and hail storm.

eagle nest on Lake Alice, photo by Ron Eckstein WDNR

Celestial Events
            On 3/7, we will receive 11 ½ hours of sunlight. On 3/17, we hit the Northwoods vernal equinox when daylight and night equal out.
            On 3/7, look before dawn for Venus 3 degrees below the waning crescent moon.
            Daylight Savings Time begins on 3/13 – we’ll make up the lost hour at sunrise on 4/14.
            For history buffs, the “Ides of March” occurs on 3/15, marking the date in 44 B.C. when Julius Caesar was assassinated. Caesar had been warned of his possible harm, a moment which is famously dramatized in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar when Caesar is warned by a soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March.”

March Quote
“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” – Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations