Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/16/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/16 – 29, 2016  

Fall Colors
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”- Albert Camus

Rain Rain = Mushrooms Mushrooms
            We’ve had so much rain that the Manitowish River below our house is currently in full flood stage with water levels equal to the height of snowmelt in April. There’s nowhere for the water to go when the DNR begins lowering the Manitowish Chain of Lakes in October to protect people’s docks, so I don’t know what they’ll be able to do. Meanwhile, Ironwood, MI, has had 39” of rain as of early September, compared to the long-term average of 22”. All of this moisture, of course, adds up to mushroom heaven. It’s so wet that mold is growing on lots of mushrooms – see the photo by Rod Sharka.
The easiest way to learn the mushrooms in our area is to join the mushroom club in St. Germain headed by Cora Mollen and her daughter Anne Small (see If that isn’t possible, get Cora’s book Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods.
One mushroom we always look forward to finding, and which is easy to identify, is the hemlock varnish shelf (Ganoderma tsugae)
As the name implies, the mushroom appears polished as if someone had varnished it. It’s typically found on dead or dying hemlock trees and is quite large and usually maroon in color. I was surprised to learn that numerous studies have looked at the hemlock varnish shelf for its antioxidant properties, its ability to heal skin wounds, and its potential use in therapy for cervical cancer. A closely related species, lacquered polypore (Ganoderma lucidum) but also known as “Ling Chih” in China and “Reishi” in Japan), has been used extensively to treat a variety of conditions from insomnia and arthritis to hepatitis and cancer.
Turkey tails are another type of shelf fungi, but these form thin, leather-like or leaf-like structures in concentric circles. The upper surface of a turkey tail provides its name – the concentric rings of brown, orange, maroon, blue, and green look like the tail feathers on a wild turkey. Turkey tails also have been used to treat various maladies in Asia, Europe, and by indigenous peoples in North America.
photo  by Mary Burns

Hawk Migration!
            The annual hawk migration festival held at the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, MN, takes place this weekend, 9/16-18. Sharp-shinned hawks have already been moving in good numbers with 1,088 tallied on 9/8 and 1,353 counted on 9/10. The broad-winged hawk migration is just starting to heat up with 3,653 cruising over the ridge on 9/10.
September 10th was also a busy day for blue jays with 6,205 winging by. The counters also tallied 30 Tennessee warblers, an amazing number to me given that I can barely identify a fall plumage Tennessee warbler when it’s three feet away from me much less as it’s flying by. But that’s why the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory pays for truly expert birders to do its count and why I simply write about it.
If you’ve never visited Hawk Ridge to see the hawk migration, make a point of it. It’s one of the best spots in American to see hawks. Watch for a day soon when the winds are out of the west or north, and get up there! See for more information.
After reading my last column where I mentioned how uncommon red-headed woodpeckers are, Gale Fisher wrote last week, “We also have a red-headed woodpecker coming to our suet feeder this summer in Hazelhurst. Sometimes we hear his/her call before it arrives and sometimes we just happen to see it. We even had the pleasure of watching it feed an immature.”
Tony Waisbrot sent me a photo of a large albino buck he observed near St. Germain.

Bev Engstrom sent an exceptional photograph she took of a nighthawk as it was migrating through our area.

            Mark Westphal and Bev Engstrom shared beautiful photos of great egrets that have recently been seen in our area.
photo by Bev Engstrom
photo by Mark Westphal
            Jim Swartout emailed several fine photos of a young black bear in a field near his home in the Minocqua area.

How Do Birds Tell One Another Apart?
Have you ever wondered how birds know which gender is which when both genders look exactly alike? It turns out that many birds can see ultraviolet light and that’s the key. In one study, researchers analyzed 139 species of birds that we humans cannot identify as male or female by their colors. More than 90% of birds in the study had ultraviolet-reflecting feathers and were visually different from one another through avian eyes.
Black-capped chickadees are an example. Under ultraviolet light, the males are brighter white and deeper black than females. Females apparently prefer males with the sharpest contrast between white and black patches and those with bigger black bibs.

Celestial Events
The full moon, aka the “harvest” or “acorn” or “leaves changing color” moon, occurs tonight, 9/16.
Every full moon rises around sunset, and on average each successive moonrise comes daily about 50 minutes later. But because of the unusually narrow angle of the sun (the “ecliptic”) to the horizon in September and October, the moon rises much sooner than the average. So, at mid-northern latitudes, instead of rising 50 minutes later in the days after full moon, the waning moon will rise only 35 minutes later, or thereabouts, for several days in a row. At far northern latitudes, the moon rises about 15 minutes later for days on end.
This wasn’t lost on farmers bringing in the harvest before the days of tractor lights. With no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise for several days after full moon, farmers could continue working in the field by moonlight. Hence the name “Harvest Moon.”
The official autumn equinox takes place on 9/22, although our days and nights in the Northwoods won’t become equal until 9/25. The following day, 9/26, will mark the first time the night will be longer than the day since March 16.
            As of 9/13, we still haven’t had our first fall frost, as has become the norm. This is good for ripening tomatoes, but also a continuing indicator of a warming climate.

NWA 9/2/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/2 – 9/15/16 

Sightings – Great Egrets, Nighthawks, Loon Predation, Red-headed Woodpeckers
Sarah Krembs reported seeing eight great egrets at Powell Marsh on 8/28. She noted that they were “spending their time fishing a bit.” This is an excellent sighting because great egrets, the organizational symbol for the National Audubon Society, are quite unusual for our area. If you’re not familiar with these elegant birds, that’s likely because in recent years, there have typically been only 5 to 10 nesting colonies in the entire state, all well south of the Lakeland area.
Why would any be seen in our area at all? Following breeding, dispersing juveniles and perhaps some adults are known to wander far beyond their typical breeding range, often into Canada with peak numbers in August and September. Why they wander so far north isn’t clear, but they’ll reverse course and begin heading to their wintering grounds this month. Birds banded in Minnesota have been recovered in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Honduras, so they’ll be fishing this winter where it’s a whole lot warmer than up here.
Howard P. reported seeing many nighthawks migrating through the Minocqua area on 8/28. Ron Winter in Boulder Junction sent me a beautiful photograph the same day of a nighthawk that he said was “just resting and sleeping behind my house all day.”     Nighthawks migrate both day and night but are most commonly seen in migration relatively low to the ground near dusk and winging erratically while foraging for insects.
These birds are one of the last species to arrive in spring and one of the first to depart in August, flying one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. They winter in Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. As insect eaters, they have to leave our area early to ensure they stay well ahead of killing frosts.
            Zach Wilson, Iron County Land and Water Conservation Specialist, noted the following in an email on 8/23: “We pulled the last of the loon nest platforms from our Iron county loon and lake project. It took me three years of trying to find the culprit that was predating the loon eggs on the platform and finally we have some photo documentation. Eagle. We actually have photos of the eagle landing on the nest [on 6/02] and eating one of the eggs, then the loons returned and continued incubation for two more days when the eagle returned for the final egg. The good news of this story is that the loons re-nested and had one chick from a natural nest. This was on Hewitt Lake.”
Tyler Foster sent me several excellent photos of red-headed woodpeckers, a species that is relatively uncommon these days. What makes the photos particularly special is that Tyler is 10-years-old and noted in his email, “I love photographing birds. My grandparents spotted a red-headed woodpecker at their house in Woodruff in June of this year. When they told me I couldn't wait to go up there. Since then we've seen 3 adults and 2 juveniles.” 

Plasmodial Life
Slime molds bring out the junior high brains that still linger in Mary and me. Poking these slimy things always makes us laugh and chortle “ooohhh” and “Yuucchh”!
We led a hike last week on one of the trails maintained by the Madeline Island Wilderness Preserve, and there we found scrambled egg slime (Fuligo septica) (see the photo). Now this might not seem like too much to you (or like nothing at all), but this was a rare find for us. We enjoy these organisms because they are truly weird. Tom Clancy once wrote, “The difference between nonfiction and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” And nothing proves this point more than a good slime mold. These creatures live their lives as amoeba-like life forms called plasmodiums. They move around by oozing their way across the soil or wood debris on the forest floor, foraging on bacteria and other microscopic life as they go.
Here’s what one literature source says: “As long as food is abundant, these slime molds exist as single-celled organisms. When food is in short supply, many of these single-celled organisms will congregate and start moving as a single body. In this state they are sensitive to airborne chemicals and can detect food sources. They can readily change the shape and function of parts and may form stalks that produce fruiting bodies, releasing countless spores.”
This kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies, and thus would make fine Grade C horror movie material –“The Slime Mold That Ate New York City.”
But I find them fascinating, while not understanding them one whit. Another of our favorites is wolf’s milk slime; with these, you get to puncture little pink globes and make them ooze a Pepto-Bismol sort of fluid. Great stuff if you’re in Junior High, or if you just never fully grew out of that time.

Mercer Bike Trail Opening
            Mary and I biked in to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Mercer Bike Trail. The efforts of bike trail enthusiasts in our area have been just amazing. We can now bike on nearly all dedicated trails from Mercer to Manitowish Waters to Boulder Junction to Sayner to St. Germain. And there are more trails to come.
            What I love most about these trails is that they’re multi-use for every kind of non-motorized travel, from walking and pushing a baby carriage, to skate-boarding and roller skating, to biking on tricycles to recumbents. And they’re being used by people from little kids to some of our most elderly citizens. Most people see them as a blessing to our communities, and the extraordinary number of people utilizing these trails proves how true that is.

Mushroom Mania
            I led hikes and paddles over the last two weeks on Madeline Island, in the Guido Rahr Jr. Tenderfoot Preserve, and in the Franklin Lake State Natural Area, and hiked in Price County and in Iron County with friends. Everywhere I went, there were mushrooms galore. All the rain this summer has made for happy fungi. We’re still rank amateurs, but we are having a great time trying to learn them all.

Bird Migration Is On
            Our insectivorous birds – the insect-eaters – are streaming out of the Northwoods in anticipation of the first killing frost. Their ability to navigate their way to very specific wintering locations, and then to return to the same nesting sites next spring continues to astonish me. As an example of what I would consider the nearly impossible ability of birds to navigate, a researcher in Great Britain captured and banded two Manx shearwaters, a seafaring bird nesting off the coast of Wales that never crosses land, and took them by train in a closed box to London. He then flew them to Boston on a commercial TWA flight and released one of them in Boston Harbor (the other had died enroute). The bird was discovered back in its home burrow before dawn 12 days and 12 days later, almost 3,000 miles away. That’s an average flight across water of 240 miles per day.
            Other studies underscore their navigational gift. I bring this up not to try to explain it, but rather to share my amazement, and to encourage you to appreciate the skill involved in migration as you witness birds heading south over the next few months.

July 2016 Warmest Month On Record
Global mean temperatures in July 2016 were the warmest on record not just for July, but for any month dating back to the late 1800s, according to four separate newly-released analyses. A state of the climate report issued by NOAA said that July 2016 was Earth's warmest month in records dating to 1880. The average July 2016 temperature for the globe was 0.87°Celsius (1.5F) above the 20th century average. This beat the previous warmest month on record set in July 2015 which was 0.81°C above average.

Celestial Events
            Tonight and tomorrow night, look for Venus near the waxing crescent moon. By 9/6, we’re down to less than 13 hours of sunlight and heading rapidly for autumn equinox on 9/22.