Sunday, June 26, 2016

NWA 6/24/16

A Northwoods Almanac for June 24 – July 7, 2016   

Sightings – Berry Year, Water and More Water, Pine Pollen
The first wild strawberries appeared this week, and ripe blueberries are only a few weeks off. Blackberries and raspberries have been flowering in profusion, suggesting it may be a great berry year for them. Get out the pails.
Water water water. What began as a dry spring has turned into a surprisingly wet early summer. The Manitowish River is in full flood below our house, and most other area rivers and lakes have high water as well.
            Pine pollen coated water surfaces just about everywhere in the last week, and now the male pollen cones are falling by the tens of thousands, giving the ground a reddish cast.

Porcupine Angler?
Beth Huizenga in Presque Isle sent me a photograph of a porcupine appearing to be fishing from her pier, a behavior seemingly impossible for porcupines given that they are herbivores. 
photo by Beth Huizenga
Still, I’ve learned to “never say never.” So, I researched the diet of porkies and found that their diet varies seasonally. In spring and summer, the adaptive porcupine consumes various grasses, leaves, flowers, herbs and raspberry canes. In the autumn and winter, their diet is restricted to acorns and other nuts, the phloem and cambium layer of trees, and the foliage of conifers.
But porcupines are perpetually starved of sodium due to a nutritional imbalance, so they also utilize a variety of sources to obtain concentrated amounts of sodium. This includes aquatic plants such as yellow pond lily and arrowhead, both of which contain high levels of sodium. Invertebrates like beetles, ants, and the larvae of of some insects have also been found in the stomach contents of porcupines, but they may be consumed incidentally with vegetation. Still, invertebrates contain relatively high amounts of sodium, so who knows what is purposeful or accidental in the mind of a porkie. Porkies are also known to gnaw on deer bones, likely because bone contains sodium.
I can’t find any records of porkies catching and eating fish, so I suspect the porcupine in Beth’s photo was hoping to consume an aquatic plant, not a fish. But one thing I’ve learned again and again is that animals are opportunistic, often highly adaptable, and they don’t read scientific journals. Who knows? Beth’s porkie may be the first angling porcupine ever recorded.

Nachusa Grasslands
            Mary, Callie, and I were in northern Illinois last week – Mary taking part in a workshop/conference, Callie visiting a friend, and me . . . well, I took my bike and explored all the bike trails I could find. But on our way home, we stopped briefly at the Nachusa Grasslands just north of Franklin Grove where bison roam wild on over 3,000 acres of Nature Conservancy Land.
This is a huge deal on two counts. Nearly 60 percent of Illinois, about 22 million acres, once was prairie. But over the last two centuries, farms consumed nearly all of it, leaving only 2,500 acres of prairie in Illinois. The Nachusa grasslands have doubled that number.
photo from The Nature Conservancy
Upward of 60 million bison once roamed North America, but sport hunting and mass slaughter dropped that number to fewer than 1,000 by 1906. Aggressive conservation efforts have brought the bison population up to 450,000, but the vast majority of bison are domestic livestock – fewer than 20,000 roam freely. These Nachusa bison are prairie survivors and saviors, not livestock. It’s essential to note that the Nachusa bison have not been interbred with other species, remaining genetically pure, and thus truly wild.
Better yet, in 2015,  Nachusa Grassland’s first bison calf was born, the first wild bison born on native Illinois prairie, and the first west of the Mississippi, in almost 200 years.
The Nachusa story began when The Nature Conservancy sought large tracts of grasslands untouched by plows, acquiring its first 400 acres in 1986. Buying land was just the first step. Volunteers and staff conducted the prairie restoration. People worked hundreds of thousands of hours — an estimated 450,000 — at the preserve, including years of harvesting native plant seeds.
The bison herd now numbers 45 and roams across thousands of acres of rolling land. The long-term vision is for about 100 bison to be grazing throughout an ever-expanding Nachusa.
If you ever visit, know that they’re often not visible over such a large area. We were fortunate to see two, and that was enough for us.
Prairie flowers were also ubiquitous – the preserve is home to 700 native plant species and has had 180 species of birds utilize its grasslands.

Center for Conservation Leadership
Last weekend I accompanied 16 youth from the Chicago area on a paddle down the Manitowish River. Representing an array of nationalities, they were a wonderful group of very bright and motivated young people selected to be part of the Center for Conservation Leadership (CCL), an educational initiative of the Lake Forest Open Lands Association, a nationally recognized and accredited land trust.
The students travel with staff to northern Wisconsin for three weeks of hiking, canoeing and kayaking through the region, learning about conservation, developing leadership skills, and working together as a team to become stewards of natural resources on a local, regional, national and global level. Their first week is spent at the North Lakeland Discovery Center, and culminates in a three-day camping trip, this year on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage.
In the third week, the students will apply their newfound knowledge and understandings as they explore issues of environmental justice with tribal leaders, citizen action groups and professors who are doing cutting edge research in conservation and the environment.
It’s a great program, and it reinforces how exceptional our youth can be.

Loon Wars
I regularly read Walter Pipers blog “The Loon Project” ( ), and in his most recent posting, he describes the brutal usurping of the older territorial male on Blue Lake by an aggressive four-year-old male. That apparently was tough enough to watch, but what followed was harder: “The strategic retreat of the territorial male left his mate in dire straits. Without another parent to engage intruders, the female alone had to defend the week-old chick from the aggressive onslaught of the four-year-old male. The situation was hopeless, the suspense only fleeting. The young male quickly discovered the chick and – in the grisliest moment we have observed while studying loons – snatched the chick out of the water and carried it for a time while pursuing the retreating female. When he dropped the lifeless youngster, it was over.”
Walter further noted that “intruding loons are adept at sniffing out weakness in territorial residents. When a breeding male or female is unable to drive competitors forcefully off of the lake, intruders congregate, leading to further confusion and attempted evictions, in a disheartening positive feedback cycle. The Blue-Southeast male, while a capable parent, has often encountered intruding males that he could not drive off of the territory in years past. It is quite possible that his troubles in 2015 occasioned more territorial challenges in 2016 by the same set of challengers.”
The biological good news in this is that the new stronger male will likely defend the territory with greater success than his predecessor and will pass on those genes. However, it’s a very hard business to watch – the heart and the mind often don’t see things in the same light.

Independence Day – Bird Style
While we celebrate on July 4th, a day sometime later in July will also mark independence day for bald eagle chicks. In the build-up to their first flight, they’re practicing, flapping their wings as they run across their nest and onto adjacent limbs, jumping up and down, all in an effort to develop muscle strength, flight coordination, and landing ability. Despite all their practice, up to half of first flights will end unsuccessfully with the young sometimes remaining on the ground for weeks and crying rather piteously. Parents usually continue to feed these young until they regain their flight ability, but the grounded birds are vulnerable to predators in the meantime.
The chicks attempt to fledge anywhere from 8 to14 weeks of age. The problem is that while the fledglings may desire their independence, they rarely are competent enough to catch live prey during their first six weeks of fledged life and end up having to rely on the adults to bring them food. The fledglings develop their hunting skill by trial and error, usually first by scavenging dead fish either along shorelines or by picking up floating dead fish.
So, as with most first departures from home, there can be some rough patches and a need for support. Independence isn’t gained simply by leaving home, but rather by gaining the skills required to be on one’s own. Which brings me to:

Thought for the Day: There’s No Such Thing as Independence
            The notion that any of us are independent ignores all the people who make our lives possible. Begin with the fact that the food we eat was raised by someone. Raise your own, and you’re still using tools made for you by someone. Make your own tools, and you’re still dependent on the miner and the factory worker to make your steel. Your clothes, your home, your energy sources – all are brought to you by communities of people.
            Even if a few of us were to find ways to do all of these things on our own, we are dependent upon rain, upon soil, upon trees, upon the Earth to supply all the materials we may use.
            So, while I know Independence Day is about commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, I wonder if we add an additional “Interdependence Day” or “Reciprocation Day.” That’s the reality of our lives – we live based almost entirely on work done by others for which we exchange work of our own. We are a community of beings – human, plant, animal, and a host of others – that need to be living in harmony between one another. For my two cents, that goal would equally worth all the fireworks.

Celestial Events
            This July 4 marks Earth’s farthest distance, the aphelion, from the sun. We’ll be 94.5 million miles away from the sun, about 3.1 million miles further than at perihelion which occurred on January 2. The sun is now rising one minute later and setting one minute earlier every day.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

NWA 6/10/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 6/10 – 23, 2016  

Barred Owl Chick Climbing a Tree
Todd and Chris Williams in Minocqua sent me a series of photographs of a young barred owl that they observed on the ground outside their front door.  It likely had either fallen out of its nest or had experienced an aborted first flight experience. Todd noted in his email that “as I was taking these pictures, mama (or papa) was giving me the evil eye and telling me in no uncertain terms to leave its baby alone. I was even dive bombed a couple times. Once the baby walked, climbed and flapped its way up the tree, we watched it all day outside our second floor bathroom window. The next morning it was gone and we've not seen it since.”
I was unaware that a barred owl chick could climb a tree, but Todd’s pictures clearly show it hitching its way up a tree. Further research revealed that the young climb trees by grasping the bark by their beak, then walking up the trunk while flapping their wings.

photos by Todd Williams

The flightless chicks leave the nest at at four to five weeks of age, dropping to the ground and climbing a nearby tree to perch, whereupon the parents continue to feed them until they are four to five months old. The young begin to molt into their adult plumage at around six weeks of age and begin attempting short flights around 10 weeks of age. They actually won’t attain their full adult plumage until they are five to six months old.

It’s Snowing Cotton-grass
            On a recent drive through Powell Marsh on Hwy. 47, the marsh appeared to be covered in snow. Instead, the snow effect was the results of thousands of cotton-grasses (Eriophorum) all in flower. Seven species of cotton-grass appear in Wisconsin. All are found in bogs, and all produce cottony flower heads.

Sightings: Chickadee Nest, Crane Display, Whimbrel    
Sarah Krembs sent me a fine photo of a pair of chickadees in Minocqua that were feeding caterpillars to their chicks in their cavity nest. She went back a few days later to see the chickadees, and the parents were again bringing caterpillars, but “then all of a sudden they were both up in the trees doing their warning ‘chick a dee dee dee dee’; very agitated. Then, I saw the hawk the chickadees had obviously spotted way before I did sitting on a dead log not very far away. The chickadees communicated something to each other and they both vanished but NOT into the hole for the nest. I imagine they didn't want to draw attention to the nest with a predator there. I yelled at the hawk and it sort of lazily flew off. I waited for the parents to return, and eventually they did. Birds are so smart and master multi-taskers, don't you think?”

photo by Sarah Krembs

Callie and I witnessed a distraction display put on by a sandhill crane on Powell Marsh, a behavior we’d never seen before from a crane. We were walking one of the dikes when we noticed a crane walking parallel to us in the tall marsh grasses. It was just a bit ahead of us, perhaps 100 feet to our side, and walking rapidly. It seemed to us to be trying to draw our attention, which it surely succeeded in doing! A little later when we returned the same way, it flew from the marsh and landed in front of us, again walking rapidly and flapping its wings. While it didn’t feign a broken wing like a killdeer might, or like numerous species of ducks do, it was obviously trying to lead us away from where we presume her chicks were hiding.
Tom Folsom gave me a call on 6/6, saying there was large bird with a long decurved bill wandering about on one of his cranberry marsh dikes in Manitowish Waters. Mary and I quickly took a drive out there, and soon found a whimbrel, a curlew species that nests in the Arctic tundra. Whimbrels are occasionally seen in Wisconsin during their migration, but are a rare treat in our area.

whimbrel photo by Mary Burns

Shrubs in Flower
Shrubs currently in flower include nannyberry, highbush cranberry, blueberry, and various dogwoods. Nannyberries (Vibernum lentago) get overlooked in our area, but provide an excellent crop of berries for many mammals and birds including ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, brown thrashers, red fox, and white-tailed deer. Nannyberries also serve as the larval host for the spring azure butterfly. For those who like to forage, I’ve read that the berries are edible and can be used to make jams and jellies, but I’ve never tried them.

nanny berry photo by John Bates

 “Clean” Woods
            I’ve recently noticed a number of forest understories that have been “cleaned up” by their owners – in other words, denuded of all understory plants. Some people refer to this as “German forestry.” The likely motivation of such extensive ground clearing is to improve airflow and thus reduce mosquito habitat. I get that – mosquitoes are particularly tough to deal with in June – and this can help a bit.
There are, however, major tradeoffs in managing a woodland to look like a park. Foremost is the loss of habitat for a large array of wildlife species. Numerous birds nest on the ground in forests including species like ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and many, many songbirds. One of my favorite songbirds is the very vocal ovenbird, a warbler species that builds its nest on a vertical plane rather than horizontal so that the adults enter it like an oven. The ovenbird’s insistent, loud song – “teacher, teacher, teacher, TEACHER” – resonates throughout most of our forested lands in the Northwoods.
Another favorite ground-nester is the hermit thrush, whose song has been likened to listening to the opening of a grand overture.
Northwoods bird species that nest on the ground in forested areas and in more open habitats include spruce grouse, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, wild turkey, American woodcock, whip-poor-will, yellow-bellied flycatcher, winter and sedge wren, veery, hermit thrush, dark-eyed junco, bobolink, as well as the following warblers: blue-winged, golden-winged, Tennessee, Nashville, palm, black-and-white, ovenbird, northern waterthrush, Connecticut, mourning, Wilson’s, and Canada. Numerous sparrows nest on the ground too, including savannah, Le Conte’s, song, Lincoln’s, and white-throated.
woodcock nest photo by Mary Burns
Many mammals, from small prey species to larger predators, den in or on the ground, with the primary requirement of having suitable cover to conceal their locations.
The list goes on, from various butterflies that utilize the understory plants to a host of other invertebrates who use plants and woody debris for cover and food.
So, for property owners, there are always choices to be made as to how one manages the land. Management always comes down to what one values and what role we wish to play in the natural world. I’m an advocate for natural random order in forest understories, but no management strategy will support all species and all desires. Leopold wrote: “I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

Celestial Events – Summer Solstice!
            Summer solstice occurs on 6/20, giving us our longest day of the year – 15 hours and 45 minutes. The sun rises at 5:08 a.m. and sets at 8:53 p.m. The sunrise and sunset are also at their northernmost points in our sky and now begin to swing back south.
            The full moon – the “strawberry” moon – also occurs on 6/20, and is the year’s southernmost moonrise.
            For planet watching, look after dark on 6/11 for Jupiter 1.5 degrees north of the waxing crescent moon.