Monday, November 21, 2016

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/25/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/25 – 12/8, 2016   

First Snow
Our first snow of the year occurred on 11/19, enveloping the world in five inches of whiteness, and ending our otherwise very moderate November weather. If our seasons are a theater, this is the climax, the most dramatic of scenes. In no other time does the entire landscape instantly take on a different color.
Now’s the time to keep your bird feeders filled. The first snow covers seeds already on the ground and often bends other seed-bearing plants down below the snow. The “hunger games” start now for those birds hearty enough to challenge a northern winter, and you can help them make it to spring.

tree sparrow photo by John Bates 
Mary Thomas in Minocqua sent me this note last week: The last three weeks or so have been very interesting and exciting for us since I discovered flying squirrels in my backyard. I went out one evening around 7:00, and I noticed a furry little critter on the niger seed sock about four feet from me. Big reddish-orange eyes glowed back at me, and then he glided to the tree and once more to a tree further away where he met up with another flying squirrel. Ever since then I’ve watched them each evening and talked to them as well, so they become used to me and hopefully not fear me. I usually bring a flashlight out and can find them perched or scampering on a tree. They move on trees or the ground quickly and glide so quietly that they’ve probably been in our yard all along and we’ve only glimpsed a movement out of the corners of our eyes and thought nothing of it. Now I watch for them most every night.”

flying squirrels photo by Bob Kovar
Howard P. in Minocqua had 12 evening grosbeaks appear at his feeders on 11/9. He’s also had one red-bellied woodpecker and a cardinal coming off and on.
Mary Dreger in Arbor Vitae sent me a photo of a red-bellied woodpecker that has been coming to her feeders for a couple months now. She noted that this was the first they have ever seen at their home. 

photo by Mary Dreger

            Carne Andrews observed that trumpeter swans were gathering again in large numbers off Newcomb Road on the Whitney/Ristow Flowage. 

trumpeter swans photo by John Bates

Christmas Bird Counts
            Speaking of wintering birds, the Minocqua Christmas bird count takes place on Thursday, 12/15, while the Manitowish Waters Christmas bird count takes place on Sunday, 12/18. The National Audubon Society has been sponsoring Christmas Bird Counts across North America for more than 100 years, the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world. The Christmas Bird Count data helps to provide an understanding of bird population trends across North America in early winter. The count also provides an enjoyable social experience – tens of thousands of birdwatchers participate in this event each year.
More than 100 Christmas bird counts take place in Wisconsin. If you’re interested in participating either as a field counter or by counting birds at your feeder, please contact me ( for the Manitowish Waters count or Donna Roche ( for the Minocqua count.

Frog and Toad Survey Results from 2015
Results are in for Wisconsin’s 2015 frog and toad survey (results are always a year behind present). Of the 12 frog and toad species found in Wisconsin, three showed an increase in percent occurrence in 2015 from 2014 levels. These were the American bullfrog, Blanchard’s cricket frog, and northern leopard frog: Seven species were below the previous year’s occurrence levels and long-term mean; American toad, boreal chorus frog, Cope’s gray treefrog, green frog, mink frog, pickerel frog, and wood frog. Gray treefrog and spring peeper showed no significant change.
The Northwoods supports nine of the above species, with Blanchard’s cricket frog, Cope’s gray treefrog, and pickerel frog limited to more southern habitats.
The WDNR has coordinated this volunteer frog and toad survey since 1984. The survey arose from concerns about declines in populations of some frog species since anurans are considered to be good indicator species for the habitats where they are found.
Meanwhile, every frog and toad in their right mind has gone into hibernation for the winter. The treefrog (spring peeper, wood frog, gray treefrog, and chorus frog) and American toads dig into the forest duff where they literally freeze, while the others (green frog, bullfrog, leopard frog, and mink frog) descend onto lake or marsh sediments and while away the winter underwater.

Winter Finch Projection
Those of us who feed birds throughout the winter wait excitedly for the appearance of northern finches at our feeders.  Ron Pittaway, a field ornithologist from Ontario, releases a report every autumn that projects the likelihood of those species leaving their Canadian wintering grounds and coming our way based on the food availability in Canada. Here’s my paraphrasing of what he says for each species:
Pine grosbeak: Most should stay in the north because native mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper across the boreal forest (Mary and I noticed this when we spent a week in October on the north shore of Lake Superior). A few may wander south where they like European mountain-ash berries and small ornamental crabapples.
Purple finch: The poor seed crops on most coniferous and deciduous trees indicate that purple finches will leave northern breeding areas – we may see an influx of these.
Common redpoll: Birch seed crops are generally low across the Northeast, so some will likely move into southern Canada and the northern states.
Pine siskin: Some will irrupt south because cone crops in the Northeast are generally poor. However, some eastern siskins have likely relocated to abundant spruce crops in western Canada.
Evening grosbeak: Its breeding populations continue to increase in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick due to increasing outbreaks of spruce budworm, but will we see them in the upper Midwest? Pittaway doesn’t really say.
Red crossbill: A scattering of red crossbills will likely wander widely in the Northeast this winter.
White-winged crossbill: This crossbill irrupts south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. Crossbills wander anywhere where seeds are abundant, and many eastern crossbills have probably already moved to ample spruce cone crops in western Canada. However, expect some white-winged crossbills to be scattered across southern Canada and the northeastern USA.
A non-finch, bohemian waxwings, are one of the most beautiful songbirds that also occasionally move into our area for winter. Pittaway believes thatmost bohemians will likely stay in northern Ontario and western Canada because native mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper across the boreal forest.” Having said this, six bohemian waxwings visited one of our crabapple trees in Manitowish on 11/20, so as with all generalizations, there will be many exceptions.

bohemian waxwing photo by John Bates

Heart vs. Mind – Deer Hunt
            Wisconsin’s autumn deer hunt has been ongoing since the bow season opened on September 17 and continues in various forms into December. I am a strong advocate of the hunt based on the adverse impacts high deer populations have on plant life and the resultant cascade of issues that then impact other wildlife species. Called a “keystone” herbivore, deer, like humans, have the ability to restructure whole ecological communities. Thus, low deer numbers equate to a much healthier forest ecosystem, which makes me root for a high deer harvest.
            Conversely, and perhaps hypocritically to some, I’m a vegetarian – and have been for 40 years now. So, I don’t hunt. In my early twenties, I worked on a dairy farm and when it came to butchering our declining milk cows, I found I didn’t like the feeling of killing. I decided then that if I wasn’t comfortable with killing animals, it was hypocritical of me to eat animals. And as I’ve grown older and into my middle 60’s, life in all forms has become all the more precious to me. I’ve seen enough death, human and otherwise, to want life to flourish, not diminish.
So, I’ve got a problem – my mind, filled with biological data as it is, says we must kill deer, and in high numbers at that, to improve the overall health of our forests. Meanwhile, my heart turns its back.
            By the way, I claim no moral high ground for my beliefs or being a vegetarian. Absolutely not. It’s simply a choice I’ve made. When I eat a farm product, I understand that the farmland that produced the grain or vegetables eliminated wildlife habitat. So whatever one eats indirectly reduces wildlife populations, the results of which are little different from the directness of hunting.
            Is the conflict between my mind and heart hypocritical or simply part of the complexity of what it means to be human? I struggle with this major conundrum – we have to utilize other lives in order to sustain ours. It’s a puzzle we likely all struggle with in differing degrees and ways. The question I believe that we must always come back to is how are we to belong to, and to honor, a larger community of life. I don’t believe there is a singular truth or way. Anyone who says there is, I suggest running from.
I bring this up because of the various passions that the deer hunt inflames, and because of Thanksgiving. Whatever our politics and our beliefs, the one thing the vast majority of us have in common and that reaches across all the chasms is our love of the Northwoods. How each of us enacts this love is individual, but hopefully it’s founded in a deep gratitude and reverence for the gift of living here.
Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/10/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 11/11 – 24, 2016  

A Warm Beginning to November!

40" dbh hello birch
            Mary, Callie, my sister-in-law Nancy, and I hiked the 9-mile loop around Clark Lake in the Sylvania Wilderness Area on 11/6. Hikes in November are usually cold, blustery affairs, but this day reached 65° with calm winds, a perfect day for short-sleeve hiking in the old-growth forests of Sylvania. We measured the diameter of a number of trees and some of the largest we found were a 50-inch dbh (diameter at breast height) white pine and a 40” dbh yellow birch (see photos). We also discovered a 44” dbh white pine with an eagle nest in its crown.

50" dbh white pine 
eagle nest in white pine

            The ripe yellow spore cases, or strobili, of numerous species of clubmosses lit many areas with their tiny candles. By tapping the candles, we released a cloud of spores, all so tiny and elusive that botanists struggle to study them. It’s believed that the spores take seven or more years to develop into a microscopic and often underground structure called a gametophyte, and then another ten or more years to develop into a young plant above the ground.
The spores repel water and have been used as a powder on skin rashes and to treat wounds. In her wonderful book Plants Have So Much To Give Us, All We Have To Do Is Ask, Ojibwe author Mary Siisip Geniusz writes that “if a person was setting out on a very long journey, they would take these spores along in a bag to . . . put in their moccasins to prevent blisters. It was also used in diapering babies to keep the child’s skin dry.” The spores are also very flammable and were used in Indian cultures for ceremonial purposes, and in more recent times for flash photography, in stage productions, in fireworks, and in chemistry labs.
bristly clubmoss strobili

            Ed Marshall spotted the first northern shrike of the year on his bird feeder in Lac du Flambeau on 11/3. He noted that no other birds were around when the shrike was present, but as soon as it left, the birds returned to his feeder. Shrikes make a living by eating songbirds, so when seen, they act as a fire alarm to chickadees and other common birds.
            Diana Schuett on Lake of the Falls in Mercer sent me a photo of a white-headed goldfinch at her feeders on 10/28. Over the years we’ve seen occasional examples of birds with either partial albinism or leucism like this, both of which can result in a partial loss of melanin pigmentation.
            Migrating dark-eyed juncos are all along our roadsides these days, as are lesser numbers of migrating snow buntings.
            Nancy Burns sent me a photo of a dragonfly that landed on her jacket on 11/5. My dragonfly identification skills are still young, but this one appears to me to be a meadowhawk. The yellow-headed meadowhawk is reputed to have the latest flight period of any Northwoods dragonfly and are often seen in November, so perhaps that is what Nancy photographed. Most dragonflies have long-since laid their eggs and died, so the presence of any dragonfly in November is an unusual treat.

The Grand Portage
            A few weeks ago, Mary and I hiked a segment of the nine-mile-long Grand Portage in far northeastern Minnesota. We’d hiked a short stretch of it a few years back and were eager to try a longer reach, but the day we’d set aside was rainy and foggy resulting in a muddy, muddy experience.
The Grand Portage, or “great carrying place” as it was designated by the French, was used for centuries as the best natural highway between the Great Lakes and the northwestern section of the continent. The Pigeon River, which now forms the international boundary between Canada and northeastern Minnesota, could have been used for this purpose, but the last twenty miles of its course before it flows into Lake Superior is obstructed by falls and wild rapids making it impossible to navigate.
It’s unknown whether the native Indians also used the Grand Portage, but it’s almost a certainty, the only question being for how long. It’s also unknown who the first white man was to visit the little bay at the eastern end of the trail. Radisson and Groseilliers are believed to have reached the north shore of Lake Superior in 1660, but there’s no evidence they went as far east as Grand Portage. Sieur Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut paddled along the north shore in 1679 and established a fort/trading post likely near what is now Fort William  about thirty miles northeast of Grand Portage. It’s highly probable that Du Lhut and his men traversed the portage, but again there’s no evidence.
The first white man to leave a record of the use of the portage is Sieur Pierre Gaultier de La Verendrye, who crossed it in 1731. In his account, he calls it the Grand Portage and infers that it was already well known by that name.
            We only hiked about two miles of the trail, having experienced enough mud to last us for months, but perhaps in a drier time (a drought would be good) we’ll try it again. To walk a trail that was used for centuries by thousands of people is a chance to walk with the spirits of many remarkable men and women, and mud or no mud, that’s worth doing.

75% Rule
On 11/2, I attended a Northern Highland State Forest open house in Woodruff regarding Act 358, which in 2015 directed the DNR to vary the master plans of all northern state forests, except Governor Knowles State Forest, so that 75 percent of all the land is classified as a forest productions area.
What is a forest production area? Here is the statute language:
The department shall do all of the following with respect to managing a forest production area:
a. Establish the primary management objective of a forest production area to be the production of timber and other forest products.
b. Maximize timber production on forest production areas while using accepted silvicultural practices.”
All the northern state forests have had to amend their master plans to increase logging to meet the legislature’s requirement. Note that this language was placed into the state budget bill at the very last minute and voted on without any input from the public or from the DNR personnel who actually manage our northern forests.
I bring this up because this issue has been flying under most peoples’ radars, and the comment period ends on November 21. So, please read the documents (go to the DNR website and search for keywords “master planning” and then click on the link for “Northern State Forests”), get clarification from the DNR as needed, and then write your comments.          
I rarely write about legal/political issues in my column, but I’m addressing this one because the long-standing state statute for the management of our state forests, 28.04, conflicts with Act 358:
The department shall manage the state forests to benefit the present and future generations of residents of this state, recognizing that the state forests contribute to local and statewide economies and to a healthy natural environment. The department shall assure the practice of sustainable forestry and use it to assure that state forests can provide a full range of benefits for present and future generations. The department shall also assure that the management of state forests is consistent with the ecological capability of the state forest land and with the long-term maintenance of sustainable forest communities and ecosystems. These benefits include soil protection, public hunting, protection of water quality, production of recurring forest products, outdoor recreation, native biological diversity, aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, and aesthetics. The range of benefits provided by the department in each state forest shall reflect its unique character and position in the regional landscape.”
The statute further defines some of the terms in the above paragraph:
 (a) "Biological diversity" means the variety and abundance of species, their genetic composition, and the communities, ecosystems and landscapes in which they occur.
(b) "Community" means an assemblage of species living together in a particular area, time and habitat.
(c) "Ecological capability" means the potential of an area to support or develop one or more communities through management, with the potential being dependent on the area's abiotic attributes, its flora and fauna, its ecological processes and disturbances within and upon the area.
(e) "Sustainable forestry" means the practice of managing dynamic forest ecosystems to provide ecological, economic, social and cultural benefits for present and future generations.
            Note that the definition of “sustainable forestry” differs from the definition of a “forest production area.” Note also that I have no objection whatsoever to harvesting timber on our public forest lands – Mary and I burn wood for fuel, and we have butchered many boards over many years while remodeling houses. My concerns instead are these:
-                    We need more light in our legislative processes, not more darkness. A last-second, backroom legislative act reversing balanced state master plans that took six+ years and thousands of hours of agency and public input to create is simply wrong.
-                    An act that fundamentally negates the state statute requiring a full range of balanced forest benefits for present and future generations is wrong.
-                   Fixing an arbitrary percentage of forest lands to be harvested at their maximum without any reflection on the unique attributes of each state forest and how each could best be managed is wrong.
-                  And a failure to recognize that all of our recreational areas and landscapes add to our brand as a visitor destination is wrong. Tourism enhances property tax values. Visitors form at least 50% of our general economy in many areas of Northern Wisconsin, but especially in the lake counties. Two million people are estimated to visit the NHAL every year, and they count every bit as much as the forest industry.
This bad act, and the process in which it was made by decree, needs to be reversed. In the meantime, ask that the DNR foresters do everything within their power to maintain habitats for native biological diversity, including all species of wildlife, and to remember aesthetics are what bring people north.

Celestial Events
            The full moon occurs on 11/14, and while it is the year’s closest full moon and has been ballyhooed to be a giant moon, it will appear only 14% larger than this year’s most distant full moon. Still, it’s the closet moon in the last 30 years, and clouds permitting, it should be a gloriously bright night.
            The peak Leonid meteor shower occurs in the early morning hours of 11/17.
            On 11/25, look before dawn for Jupiter about two degrees south of the waning crescent moon.

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