Tuesday, October 25, 2016

NWA 10/28/16

A Northwoods Almanac for October 28 – November 10, 2016   by John Bates

            Mary and spent all last week hiking along Minnesota’s north shore on the rugged Superior Hiking Trail and in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. One of the plants that we noticed growing everywhere in the rocky terrain was bearberry, or Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. The genus name derives from the Greek arktos for “bear,” and staphule for a “bunch of grapes.” Uva-ursi comes from the Latin, meaning “grape of the bear.” Bearberry is also known to the Ojbiwe people as Makwa-miskomin, or “Bear’s Red Berry.” So, this small, prostrate, evergreen shrub, which is otherwise visually rather unremarkable, clearly has a connection to bears.                                                                 The plant is circumboreal, meaning it grows around the world primarily in boreal forests. Bearberry was used in the 13th century by the Welsh “Physicians of Myddfai,” and recommended for medicinal use in the London Pharmacopoeia in 1788, though it was probably in use long before (see A Modern Herbal, Volume 1). Medical uses of bearberry leaves were recognized by early Romans, Native Americans, and American settlers, and it’s still used medicinally in Poland and other countries, in particular for treating urinary tract disease. In Scandinavia, bearberry is even used commercially to tan leather because of its high tannin content.
For the Ojibwe, the black bear – Makwa – has always been associated with medicine and healing, “and is said to be the guardian of those who heal,” according to Mary Siisip Geniusz  in her wonderful new book Plants Have So Much to Give to Us, All We Have to Do is Ask.
Yet another name for bearberry is Kinnikinnick, from the Algonquin for “mixture.” Used as a smudge or smoked in a sacred pipe, bearberry combined with white cedar “is essential for the carrying of prayers into the Spirit World,” according to Geniusz. She notes that “the exact ingredients of kinnikinnick differ from one group to another, and even from one individual member of a group to another, but the two plants that are necessary to form the bases of the mixture are always cedar and bearberry.”
            The bright red berries which ripen in autumn are about the size of a small currant, smooth and glossy, with a tough skin enclosing an insipid mealy pulp, with five one-seeded stones – I tried one and spit it out. They’re edible, but in no way desirable.

            Black bears apparently do eat the fruits in the autumn, but they can be especially important to bears in the early spring when they emerge hungry from their winter dens. The fruits are also eaten by a few songbirds and five species of grouse and wild turkey, but are seldom a first choice, while deer are known to browse the leaves.
A Drab Autumn
            Lots of folks have commented that this fall’s leaf color was rather muted. In particular, reds seemed to be lacking. I agree, and I think it was because of three things – too much rainfall, too little sunshine, and too many warm nights. Here’s why:
As a tree dismantles itself in preparation for winter, it still has to produce enough energy to send nutrients down to its roots and into its tissues, so photosynthesis continues. But a tree’s light-capturing equipment no longer works as efficiently in the fall as chlorophyll decreases, so the tree’s leaf tissues can be damaged by too much sun. Red pigments called anthocyanins are then produced to protect the autumn leaves by blocking some of the sunlight. These pigments are not present in the leaf throughout the growing season, but are actively produced towards the end of summer.
            We usually get the deepest red colors in the fall after a good growing season with ample water, and we certainly had that this summer. But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Too many rainy and cloudy days diminish the color palette, resulting in muted autumn foliage. Without bright sunlight, the trees don't need the added protection that the red pigments provide, so they don't bother producing them.
            Also part of the recipe for maximum fall colors are warm, sunny days followed by cool but not freezing nights. The cool nights inhibit the movement of sugars from the leaves, trapping the sugars long enough that anthocyanins can be formed.
            Here again, too much of a good thing is a bad thing – the recipe sours if it’s too cold and we have early hard freezes. This fall, however, has been the opposite – remarkably warm with many areas just now experiencing a frost. Our nights just haven’t been cool enough overall for maximizing color.
            The bottom line? Colors production relies on lots of sunlight, near-freezing temperatures at night, and dry weather in the fall. These combine to increase the sugar concentration in tree sap, triggering the tree to release more anthocyanins in a last-ditch effort to gather up energy to get through the winter.
            One last factor also has to be added in: wind. Lack of wind in the autumn prolongs the display, while wind or heavy rain can cause the leaves to be lost before they develop their full color potential. I’m unsure if we had more or less wind this fall than usual, but we certainly saw a lot of leaves fall without first turning turning color.

On 10/24 and 10/25 in Manitowish, we had our second and third frosts of the autumn. In looking at temperature data, however, the Minocqua area had yet to have a frost. I wonder if this is a record for our area for the least number of frosts as well as the latest frosts.
Most leaves are now down except for red oaks which hold onto their leaves into the early spring. The last tamaracks are losing their needles, though there are still some bogs and lakeshores reflecting their beautiful smoky gold.

Howard Peitsch in Minocqua sent me a photo of a tufted titmouse at one of his feeders. While the tufted titmouse is a species that is gradually moving north with climate change, it’s still very uncommon in our area and a great find!
On the hikes Mary and I took in northern Minnesota, we came across many plants that interested us, but two in particular caught our eye. One was eyelash cup, a tiny, bright orange-red fungi that’s ringed with hairs “any fashion model would be so lucky to have” (Cora Mollen in her book Fascinating Fungi of the Northwoods). We saw clusters of these commonly on decaying wood.

The second was smooth rock tripe, a brown leaf-like lichen that grows on rock faces. Apparently rock tripes can survive up to 62 weeks of drought in some species, a handy adaptation for a species that lives on large boulders. Mary has been experimenting recently with natural dyes, and she’ll have to try smooth rock tripe – it’s said to make a natural purple dye.

Temperature Data
It’s been warm pretty much everywhere. September 2016 was the warmest September in 136 years of modern record-keeping, according to the monthly analysis of global temperatures by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). September 2016's temperature was only 0.004 degrees Celsius warmer than the previous warmest September in 2014; however, it was 0.91 degrees Celsius warmer than the mean September temperature from 1951-1980.
This means 11 of the past 12 consecutive months dating back to October 2015 have set new monthly high-temperature records. The monthly analysis by the GISS team is assembled from publicly available data acquired by nearly 6,300 meteorological stations around the world, ship- and buoy-based instruments measuring sea surface temperature, and Antarctic research stations.

Celestial Events
            On 10/30, look in the southwest at dusk for Saturn to be about 3 degrees north of Venus. On 10/31, the moon will be its furthest all year from the earth – 252,686 miles. For planet viewing in November, at dusk look for Venus brilliant but low in the southwest, as well as Saturn in the southwest, and Mars in the south-southwest. At dawn, look for Jupiter very bright and rising in the east-southeast. We fall below 10 hours of sunlight on 11/3. November 7 marks the mid-season point between autumn equinox and winter solstice.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

NWA 10/14/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/14 – 27, 2016 

Sightings – First Frost
Our first autumn frost in Manitowish occurred on 10/9, the latest date for frost that Mary or I can recall in our 34 years of living here. In looking back through some of our records, in 1993, we had frost on 8/12, while our last frost of spring occurred on 6/21 that year. So, we had a 52-day growing season. In 1994, we had a mild frost on 8/3. In 1997, our first frost was on 8/17. That same year, I wrote in my book A Northwoods Companion: Spring and Summer that “in the Northwoods, one can expect a hard frost between mid to late August.” That assertion was based on over a decade of consistently experiencing frosts within that timeframe. We never could get a ripe tomato and always had to bring in trays of green tomatoes to ripen because of mid-August frosts.
I wish I had long-term records that would give me first-frost dates for Manitowish over a century – I’m curious if this was a record late date for frost.

Chicken of the Woods (Sulphur Shelf – Laetiporus sulphureus)
            Mary and I hiked the Pinkerton Trail in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on 10/2, and both of us kept looking at one another and saying, “I’ve never seen so many mushrooms in my life!” We’re still novices at identifying mushrooms, which is a good thing, because we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if we stopped at every species along the way. One mushroom that we had no choice but to stop for was a brilliant orange outgrowth of “chicken of the woods” blanketing an old yellow birch. It was like a fluorescent flagman on a county road demanding that we stop.

chicken of the woods

            We’ve never eaten chicken of the woods, but it’s reputed to be a choice edible that resembles chicken both in taste and in texture.  I’m glad no one had cut off the large brackets on this one for their own use. This was a megaflora – like seeing one of our megafauna such as an eagle or a bear – and worthy of being seen by many people over time. 
            This fungus invades the heartwood of living trees, eventually hollowing out the trunk and hastening the death of the tree. On one hand, that’s certainly a loss. But on the other hand, it’s a gain for those species that den in tree cavities, like American martens, fishers, flying squirrels, raccoons, porcupines, and numerous bird species from barred owls to wood ducks.
            Other excellent mushroom discoveries along the trail included a large bear’s head tooth fungus and an extensive display of wolf’s milk slimemold.

bear's head tooth fungus

Giant Water Bug
Mary also photographed a giant water bug (Lethocerus americanus) that alighted on a rock near her along the shore of Lake Superior. A full two inches long, giant water bugs have very large foreleg pincers with which they ambush underwater prey by grabbing them, then piercing their bodies with their sharp beak, and finally secreting enzymes to dissolve the prey’s body tissues and sucking them dry. Lovely. They’re the top invertebrate predator especially in wetlands. They’re also known to bite when disturbed by people and have earned the nickname “toe-biter.”

giant water bug with leash for size reference

Esker or Crevasse Debris? Ice-block Depression of Slumpage?
            On 10/8, the Friends of Van Vliet Lake hosted a talk and hike led by J. Elmo Rawling from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. Of the many slides Dr. Rawling presented, our group was perhaps most intrigued by an animated video of the ice margin advances and retreats of the Wisconsin Glacier from 31,000 years ago to 11,000 years ago presented in 500-year periods. To see the dynamic nature of the glacier, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHpyJzywBn4. You can also download from the WGNHS website a set of 44 maps showing the position of ice in Wisconsin over that period (http://wgnhs.uwex.edu/pubs/es056/).

            We then hiked at the Van Vliet Hemlocks State Natural Area where Dr. Rawling stopped us on top of what I had always thought was an esker to explain that it was more likely formed by debris that had fallen through a crevasse in the glacier. This was a possibility that I’d never considered. An esker is a long, winding, often steep-sided ridge of stratified sand, gravel, and small cobblestones that was formed by a stream running through a glacier. If you want to build a gravel pit, look for an esker.
However, if a sinuous ridge in a woods is comprised of a wide array of types and sizes of rock, from gravel to very large stones, it more likely was formed by a crevasse on the top of a glacier. Here water carrying many types of soil and stones tumbled down to the base of the glacier and was deposited in a ridge.
A second “aha” that I had was regarding the formation of the lakes in our area. The Northern Highland is well known for having one of the highest concentrations of kettle lakes in the world, some of which are really large like Trout at 3,816 acres, Fence at 3,555 acres, and Tomahawk at 3,392 acres. I’d always thought that nearly all of our lakes were formed when ice blocks were left stranded at the edge of melting glacial ice, and as the ice blocks slowly melted, sands and gravels collapsed into the depressions, or “kettles,” creating kettle lakes and bogs. It turns out, however, that many of our lakes were also formed by the collapse of glacial material that was unevenly deposited. If the depression was deep enough, and the water table high enough, the hole filled with water, and voilá, we were given a lake. Another uncommon possibility is that a jumble of glacial moraines may have dammed up water on all sides, and if the water table again was high enough, a lake has remained.
A third “aha” was the explanation of why the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin was never glaciated when glacial lobes to the east extended well down into Illinois and Ohio and to the west extended far south into Iowa. The last glacial advance traveled generally in a southwesterly direction and had to fill up the Lake Superior basin first before it could arrive in present-day Wisconsin. That was a very, very large hole to fill, and thus the glacial lobes on either side which didn’t have to fill that hole, moved more rapidly southward, skirting southwestern Wisconsin.

Green Heron Using Bread as Bait to Catch Fish
Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk. No catch and release exhibited here! Now if a green heron is videoed baking the bread first, then we’ll really have something to consider.

The word mast comes from the old English word “maest,” for nuts of forest trees that accumulate on the ground. The word has long since been expanded in meaning to include all fruits and nuts of trees and shrubs.
Good mast years only come now and again in a boom and bust cycle that ecologists see as strategic. The thought is that trees and shrubs have “learned” over time to prodigiously swamp their environment with their mast, effectively satiating all the critters that predate upon their seeds, thus having enough seeds left over to germinate and grow the following season. Boom mast years are then typically followed by bust years, serving to starve out the abundance of predators that fed so well the previous year. It’s a sort of economic war, with mast used as the currency.
This fall I’ve noticed that beaked hazelnuts are having a bust year, while winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are booming. The woodbine around our home also have produced an abundance of fruits, as have our crabapple trees. Our highbush cranberries, on the other hand, seem to be doing just okay – not good or bad – so they’re biding their time between the boom and the bust.


I’m uncertain how other shrub species like staghorn sumac, hawthorn, the various dogwoods, and nannyberry are doing, but all the wildlife species that depend on them surely know. In good years, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, bears, jays, crows, woodpeckers, grouse, turkeys, et al, often get to the mast first and putting on fat that will help them get through the winter.

Celestial Events
            The full moon, often called the “Hunter’s Moon,” will light up the night on Saturday, 10/15.
Look for the peak Orionid meteor shower during the pre-dawn of 10/21 – 20 per hour is the average.
On 10/22, our average low temperature drops to 32°F for the first time since April 22. The Minocqua area averages 182 days with low temperatures at or below freezing – about half of the year.

            To see planets in October, look after dusk for Venus and Saturn very low in the southwest, and Mars also low in the south-southwest. Before dawn, look for Jupiter low in the east. On 10/27, look for Jupiter just below the waning crescent moon.