Friday, August 19, 2016

Northwoods Almanac for 8/19/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/19 – 9/1, 2016  

Honeydew, Again
I’ve received a number of calls and emails recently asking about the syrupy smell emanating from some local woodlands, and like last summer, the culprit appears to be honeydew. You may recall that honeydew is the alias for the sticky, misty excretions made by Lecanium scale insects that feed on sap in the tree leaves. The insects take in much more sap than they can hold, and then exude the excess, the dew falling onto leaves, decks, cars, etc.

photo by Bev Wigney
Linda Williams, forest health specialist for the WDNR – Northeast Region, found that the scales causing the problem are European Fruit Lecanium (Parthenolecanium corni). She noted in her June Forest Health Update, “Although this pest has been previously identified in Wisconsin in the early 1900’s, this may be the first largescale outbreak of this pest in a forest setting in Wisconsin . . . Host trees that I’ve found scales on include: Oak, cherry, ash, maple, dogwood, musclewood, basswood, and hazel brush . . . Homeowners may want to rinse off the honeydew from outdoor items on a regular basis as the stickiness can be unpleasant and can allow sooty mold to grow.”      
The Lecanium scale is native and is usually controlled by ladybug larvae, as well as tiny parasitic wasps and fungal diseases. Obviously, enough Lecanium scale survived this summer to again create a sticky mess. Next summer, however, given the effectiveness of the scale insect predators, the woods hopefully will no longer smell like the local Waffle House.

Forest Tent Caterpillars – Wither Art Thou?
On the other end of the abundance coin is the lack of forest tent caterpillars. You may remember the last big outbreaks occurring in 2001 and 2002 when literally billions of the leaf-eating caterpillars defoliated trees on millions of acres of forest lands, the largest outbreaks in forest history. At their peak infestation, there were up to 4 million caterpillars per acre. Folks cancelled vacations, cancelled outdoor events, and were generally going over various psychological edges. The more rabid even accused the DNR of dropping the caterpillars at night from black helicopters, a story concocted for reasons only known to those who suffer such delusions.
Then the native parasitic “friendly flies” appeared, landing on everything and everyone, but also decimating the caterpillars’ pupae.
We also learned then that forest tent caterpillars explode cyclically every 10 to 15 years.
Out of sight, out of mind is how most of us live, so only a few people have since commented on their absence. Doing the math, they should have reappeared by now. However, so far, they’ve been a bust. In Minnesota (I’m unable to find Wisconsin data), significant numbers did occur in 2013, but their numbers crashed in 2014, while in 2015 they were barely noticeable. And this year they are being found only in isolated pockets. Perhaps we’ve dodged the forest tent caterpillar bullet, but let’s give it another year or two before we breathe a sigh of relief.

Sightings – Harrier Prey Exchange, Juvenile Eagle, Purple Finches, Migration
Mary, Callie, and I were walking one of the dikes at Powell Marsh when a male northern harrier flew in front of us dangling a mouse or vole from its talons. I kept him in my binoculars as he flew far beyond where we stood, and then noticed another harrier flying up from the ground towards him. The male dropped his prey before the other harrier got to him, and the one below caught it and flew back down to the ground. Harriers are known for their in-flight prey exchanges, and this was only the second time in my life I was able to watch an exchange occur.
Wil Conway was fishing a few weeks ago and observed a vocal juvenile eagle flying from shore-station to shore-station. Wil’s a fine photographer and was able to get many close-up shots of the eagle which he was kind enough to share with me.

photo by Will Conway

            At last count, we have at least 25 juvenile purple finches visiting our feeders, as well as young rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches, white-breasted nuthatches, and red-winged blackbirds. They are currently eating all of our ripening elderberries, so again, we’ll be out our elderberry jam. But it’s a small price to pay for the pleasure of so many birds in our yard.
            Warbler migration has begun. Sarah Krembs sent me a fine photo of a juvenile chestnut-sided warbler that may already have been on the move.

photo by Sarah Krembs

A Bevy of Bitterns
            Sarah Krembs observed six American bitterns at one time in her binoculars, which given the cryptic coloring and secretive behavior of bitterns, must be a record. She was birding on Powell Marsh and noted that in previous years, bitterns have been difficult to visually find, though she could often hear them.

photo by Sarah Krembs

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen more than two at a time in my binocs, so Sarah is way ahead of me. She was puzzled, however, by this abundance of bitterns and wondered if this was a particularly good year for some reason. Frankly, I have no idea. Cornell’s “The Birds of North America,” my Bible on such matters, has this to say in general about bitterns: Remarkably little is known about the biology of this species.” So, at least I’m in good company.
The few research studies that have been done relate that the average clutch size is 3 to 5 eggs, all incubated and raised by the female. Most nests are placed among dense emergent vegetation over very shallow water and are very well hidden. As for abundance, one study on a large marsh in Wisconsin found 40 calling males per 100 hectares (247 acres). The eggs are incubated for 24 to 28 days, and the young are altricial (born immobile, featherless, and generally helpless), covered with yellowish olive down. The chicks are given regurgitated, partly digested fish, frogs, snakes, crayfish, and mice, and supposedly are able to leave nest when one to two weeks old, but then linger near the nest for up to a month while being fed by the adults. Their age at fledging is unknown, and all association between family members is said to end after fledging.
So, Sarah’s six bitterns aren’t likely to have been family members, but rather six adults foraging in a relatively small area. They’ll migrate sometime in September or October, but that too is unknown about them.

Turtles Hatching
            In northern Wisconsin, snapping turtles, painted turtles, and state-threatened wood turtles emerge from lakes and rivers in mid-June to lay their eggs wherever they can find loose soil, sand, or gravel. The eggs incubate for anywhere from 55 to 120 days, if they aren’t dug up by the host of predators that voraciously await them. Earliest hatches occur in August if the summer has been hot and dry, while later hatches occur in September if it’s been cool and wet. A hatch in August usually means a much higher percentage of females, a hatch in September means far more males. If the summer has been particularly cool and wet, the hatchlings may even remain in the nest over the winter and emerge the following spring.  
Today’s snapping turtles have hardly changed from 215 million years ago when the most primitive turtles lived. Says one researcher, these are “creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads.
Snapping turtles can live a very long time. It’s possible to determine from the rings on the shell how old a snapping turtle is. The oldest observed age for snapping turtles so far is 75 years, though its believed they can live more than a century.
The semi-terrestrial wood turtle prefers clean rivers and streams with fast flows and healthy adjacent wetlands and upland deciduous forests.

Nighthawk Migration
Nighthawk migration peaks in later August when occasionally thousands can be seen in one evening. The largest flight ever recorded in the Upper Midwest was 43,690 nighthawks tallied in three hours on August 26, 1990, in Duluth, Minnesota!
Nighthawks leave northern Wisconsin early, because they require a constant supply of flying insects. They have little choice but to stay at least one step ahead of the first killing frost, which in the North often comes in August.
In migration, individuals follow no apparent leader, flying close to the ground, their wings often beating in unison. The great distance they travel to their winter range in southern South America makes their flight one of the longest migration routes traveled by any North American bird.
In many ways, the name “nighthawk” is inappropriate for this bird because it is most active at dawn and dusk, not night, and like other members of the nightjar family, it’s not related to the hawks.
Look for nighthawks close to evening, flying over open fields, near airports, and along highways. The fly erratically as they try to capture insects on the wing, twisting and turning in a bat-like flight pattern. Their pointed, angular wings, each with a broad white line, help to quickly identify them.

August Thoughts
“August is tomatoes ripening and the insistent note of the cicada punctuating the heat of midafternoon. August is . . . the stain of blackberry juice on the fingers. August is a languid river and a springhouse brook reduced to a trickle. August is . . . the first sprays of goldenrod in the uncut fencerow. August is baby rabbits almost grown, and pilfering in the garden; it is fledglings all feathered and on the wing. August is . . .  wild grapes festooned on the trees at the riverbank; it is the algae on the pond and the fat green thumbs of cattails in the swamp, and ironweed purpling, and vervain in full bloom. August is a hastening sun, earlier to bed and later to rise. August is Summer thinking of the cut and color of her Autumn costume.”  Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

Solar Eclipse
            A solar eclipse will occur on 8/21, reaching its maximum around 1:15 pm central time, but we’ll only see about 40% of it. Folks further south and out West will be able to see it in its totality.

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, or snail-mail at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Northwoods Almanac 8/5/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 8/5 – 8/18, 2016 

Sightings - Hummingbird Clearwing Moth
A hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) has been nectaring in our beebalm flowers over the last few weeks. This gorgeous little creature isn’t much bigger than a large bumblebee and dances rather rapidly from flower to flower, unraveling its proboscis to probe each flower for nectar. Most people either confuse this creature with a bumblebee or a hummingbird, but it’s a moth!

clearwing hummingbird moth photo by John Bates

The hummingbird clearwing is most abundant in the eastern U.S., but it also ranges throughout North America and well into Alaska. It’s a “good guy,” pollinating cultivated flowers, as well as being the primary pollinator for some species of orchid.
As a caterpillar, H. thysbe feeds commonly on cherry trees, hawthorns, and honeysuckle. This fall it will burrow into the soil to overwinter as a brown, hard-shelled pupae.
For all you Greek nerds (I’m mostly referring to our youngest daughter Callie), the species name is likely a reference to Thisbe, half of a pair of ill-fated lovers – Pyramus and Thisbe – in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They were lovers who died tragically – Pyramus found Thisbe's blood-stained scarf, assumed she had been killed, and committed suicide with his sword. It seems likely the story of Thisbe is a reference to the rusty, somewhat blood-like coloration of this moth.
But why Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish zoologist who named this species in 1775, thought this was the appropriate imagery from which to name the species, will forever be unclear. Fabricius was the Linnaeus of insects, naming 9,776 species of insects. Perhaps he was also an expert in Greek mythology and wanted to marry the two.

Other Sightings – Eagle Stories, Hermit Thrush, Gray Fox, Windstorm
Mary Melrose on Fishtrap Lake told me of a juvenile eagle that was injured and ultimately died after apparently being blown out of its nest during the windstorms on July 21. The bird’s right wing had two compound fractures and one of the legs also had a compound fracture. The nest was also blown out. The good folks at Wild Instincts near Rhinelander tried to save the eagle, but its injuries were too severe.

photo by Kathy Helge

Gail Fisher on Lake Katherine in Hazelhurst wrote, “We have had bald eagles nesting on one of the islands for many years now. They successfully bred this spring. Recently someone who helps me with my garden saw an immature land on a white pine tree limb in the garden, fall from that limb to another limb below it, and then fall from that limb . . . thus landing on the ground in front of her. It sat there for a while but later was able to fly away.” Gail’s story affirms the difficulties young eagles sometimes have learning to fly – it’s a big craft to control!
The windstorm on 7/21 also knocked a lot of trees down along Hwy. B. Debbie and Randy Augustinak in Land O Lakes sent me a few photos of the damage, and noted, “While we lost dozens of large trees, including maples that measured over 85 feet that were laid down root ball and all, many of our neighbors in the High Lake and Wildcat Lake areas suffered serious damage to their homes and cottages from falling trees. The drive down County B from our property west to County M near Natural Lakes is heart breaking. Huge white pines, hemlocks and maples have been toppled or snapped.”
Rod Sharka on Palmer Lake echoed their observations: We just had our power restored today after being out for over 54 hours. Lots and lots of damage around here. The intersection of Hwy B and Hwy M was like a war zone . . . the road was closed for several hours. I managed to get to Boulder Junction Thursday afternoon and was amazed at how quickly the county crews got the roads open through there. Many, many trees were blocking the roads. I've heard of many stories of major damage on the Cisco Chain and on North Twin in Phelps. Obviously, lots of trees down across power lines in this area, as WE Energies had 27 crews working around the clock clearing and re-stringing lines.”
On a happier note, Debbie and Randy sent me a photo on 7/28 of a hermit thrush nest with two newly hatched chicks. This is quite a late nesting for a hermit thrush, but hermits remain here into October before heading south for their wintering grounds. Since their incubation period is only 11 to 13 days, and then the chicks fledge on average 12 days after hatching, these tiny, naked little things will still have time to grow into independent adulthood well before they have to migrate.

photo by Debbie Augustinak

Hermit thrushes typically being nesting in late May, so this nest is almost certainly a second (or third?) clutch. Note that hermit thrushes nest on the ground and can be impacted by clearing out understory vegetation.
Will Conway sent me several beautiful photos of a gray fox. He noted, “This gray fox passes through our yard frequently as does the beautiful red fox. I don’t know why this one stopped tonight. They always check the flower bed where the bird feeder goes, but the feeder is down and in garage for the season. Passed through twice.”

photo by Will Conway

Celestial Events – Cross-Quarter Day, ISS, Perseid Meteor Shower!
8/6 marks the midway point between summer solstice and autumn equinox. Our days are growing shorter by 3 minutes every day. This past Thursday (8/1) was Lammas Day, whose name is derived from the Old English "loaf-mass," because it was once observed as a harvest festival. Lammas Day was traditionally regarded as the third of the four “cross-quarter” days of the year. In actuality, the midpoint between the summer solstice on June 21 and the Sept. 22 autumnal equinox does not occur until 8/6.
To see the International Space Station, look on Friday, 8/5, at 9:20 PM appearing at 26° above NNW – the ISS will glow bright for 3 minutes as it crosses part of the night sky. Or on Saturday, 8/6, look at 10:04 PM at 28° above NNW – the ISS will be visible again for 3 minutes. Go to to determine other dates and times.
Astronomers have predicted an outburst of Perseid meteors this year – perhaps 200 meteors per hour will be seen on the peak night, August 11-12 (evening of August 11, morning of August 12). That’s about double the usual rate. But keep an eye out the night before and the night after – there will be fewer, but still way more than a normal night.
Why so many meteors this year? Every time comet Swift-Tuttle goes around the sun, it deposits a trail of particles. This year, Jupiter’s gravitational influence has moved the meteor streams closer to Earth, so all forecasters are projecting a Perseid outburst.
To see the maximum number of meteors, you’ll need to be watching in the hours before dawn when the radiant point, in the constellation Perseus in the northeast, is overhead. The moon will be below the horizon during the predawn hours, so if the outburst occurs, you’ll see it!
For best results, recline in a lawn chair and find dark, open sky, because these meteors fly across the sky in many different directions, but they all come from a point in front of the constellation Perseus. Give yourself at least an hour of observing time. The meteors in meteor showers come in spurts interspersed with lulls. Remember, your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night. And bring along a thermos filled with a hot drink – it’s no fun getting cold.
And be patient. Good things come to those who wait. Find a good spot, watch, wait, and perhaps you’ll be have a night to remember.

Climate Statistics
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for June 2016 was the highest for the month of June in the NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880. This marks the 14th consecutive month the monthly global temperature record has been broken, the longest such streak in the 137-year record.”
The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for June was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) above the 20th century average of 59.9 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius). “June 2016 marks the 40th consecutive June with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average,” NOAA said.
The report, issued each month by NOAA, also said the global temperature for the first six months of 2016 was the hottest on record. Last year, 2015, marked the hottest on record, beating 2014, which previously held the title. Fourteen months in a row now have set records for heat.
NOAA also spoke about what it calls the “monthly temperature departure,” or record spikes in heat. It said 14 of 15 of these spikes have occurred since February 2015, signaling that global warming is accelerating.

Climate Change Thoughts
Given the above, we have no choice but to confront the realities of climate change. I understand fully that it’s difficult to wrap our heads around world weather patterns when what we experience in our local areas may be quite different. Several years ago, we had two consecutive very cold winters, but simultaneously Alaska was having some of its warmest winters since record keeping began there nearly a century ago.
            That’s just Alaska, of course. If you search databases, you’ll find some places cooler, but most places are warmer. I urge you to take the time to search the data for the rest of the world, utilizing websites that are apolitical. And that is the keyword –  apolitical. NOAA is apolitical, as are many other research-based science organizations.
As always, it’s the big picture and the long-term trends that matter. If you do take the time to look at the science, you’ll find the worldwide data clearly showing we are continuing down a road that deeply jeapordizes our children and grandchildren, something none of us would ever consciously do.
Yet we continue.
I see the problem as twofold: one, we politicize the issue rather than look the science squarely in the eye. Two, we have great difficulty as a species looking long-term.
The bottom line?  We must look at our children and grandchildren, realize how vulnerable they are and how dependent they are on us, and then do what we must to change this course. Not adapt to its inevitability, but change its course.

Further Thoughts of Others on the “Moral Ground” Surrounding Climate Change
Carl Safina writes in the book Moral Ground: “We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we are doing . . . We’re sacrificing what is big and permanent to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness.”
Kathleen Dean Moore adds in the same book, “Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, our money, and our strength to model behaviors we believe in, to say, ‘This is who I am.’”