Friday, February 26, 2016

NWA 2/19/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/19 – 3/3/2016 

            We submitted our yard count on 2/14 for the Great Backyard Bird Count ( We observed 20 species from our windows. Unusual species, at least for winter in Manitowish, included a northern cardinal, a tree sparrow, a white-throated sparrow, and eight bohemian waxwings. Redpolls have finally begun appearing, and we counted 10 that day, plus we had four pine grosbeaks, the first ones of the year in our yard. We’re still hoping to see some evening grosbeaks and purple finches, and if we’re particularly lucky, a few red crossbills and white-winged crossbills. This winter remains fairly quiet as regards winter finches dropping down from Canada, but we may yet have an uptick as natural food sources continue to deplete.
On 2/5, Debbie and Randy Augustinak in Land o' Lakes had two gray jays arrive at their feeders, which is unusual. Unlike blue jays, gray jays just don’t seem to care much for feeders, though they occasionally come to suet. In the 31 years we’ve been in Manitowish, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a gray jay come to one of our feeders.

photo by Debbie Augustinak

In northern Wisconsin, gray jays are at the southernmost edge of their breeding range, and they don’t migrate south. So, gray jay numbers are nominal in our area, and thus unusual to see whatever the season. It’s a good day when one comes into your feeders!
Gray jay breeding range map
Barbara McFarland in Manitowish Waters sent me this note: “Last winter we had a Canadian goose stay in the open water of the Trout River in front of our home. When spring arrived, he/she found a mate or his/her mate returned to raise a family. This winter both parents are in residence on the Trout River, and are very visible from the Alder Lake Road bridge which crosses the river. Rather a sweet love story for Valentine's Day.”
Howard in Minocqua sent me a photo of a northern shrike that appeared in his yard on 2/2. He commented, “My 27 turkeys were here eating and what a surprise viewing of the shrike!”
I’ve had very few folks say they’ve seen shrikes this winter. I don’t know if their numbers are down, they stayed north this winter, or we just haven’t been in the right place at the right time to see them. Given that their diet is songbirds, and most folks have had few birds at their feeders this winter, perhaps their absence is a blessing.
northern shrike range map

Northern shrikes, like owls, regurgitate pellets - here's an action shot!
photo by Jeff Koch 

Jim Sommerfeldt on Middle Sugarbush Lake in Lac du Flambeau wrote on 2/1:
“After the last inch or two of snow we received overnight, I was driving out my driveway, and on the freshly fallen snow I saw all these strange markings . . . I finally concluded, correctly I hope, that it was an otter that made these strange tracks. I've watched the otter slide on the snow at the Lake of the Falls, but all these sliding marks were on level ground. They were only 4 or 5 feet long slide marks, but there were a lot of them. These tracks came out of the woods on the south side of the road, went down my driveway for about two hundred yards, and then back into the woods. It's probably 3/4 of a mile between Pokegama Lake and Middle Sugarbush Lake as the crow flies, but I thought the otter was trying to find open water somewhere.”
            Jim brings up a good point – how do otters find open water in the winter? One method is by utilizing abandoned beaver lodges. But I recently learned of another method that had never occurred to me. In February 1988, three researchers at the University of Calgary, published “River Otters as Agents of Water Loss from Beaver Ponds,” in the Journal of Mammalogy. They investigated “the contention that, during winter, river otters lower water levels in ponds created by beavers.” For three winters, they radio tracked otters that had been trapped and tagged. They also identified a group of control beaver ponds in which otters were not observed.
What they found was that in the control ponds, there was a net loss of water in roughly half of those ponds. But in the 97 beaver ponds where otters were observed, only 9 did not have a net loss of water. They concluded that “ponds to which otters gained access lost water significantly more often than ponds not visited by otters.” The most dramatic loss in the otter-visited ponds was through trenches apparently dug into the dams by the otters, nearly all which were uniformly a foot wide. Additionally, during the study, one otter was observed digging a hole in a dam.
The authors speculated that the otters were able to move through the trenched dams under the ice, providing them access to more ponds during the winter. The otters also gained an increased area for effective foraging because of the more extensive air cavities under the ice caused by the lower water levels. Fish would also be concentrated in a smaller body of water under the ice and thus more easily caught.
This certainly makes sense, or at least “otter sense,” to do. And interestingly, the beavers made no attempt to repair their dams, unlike what they nearly always do in the summer if there’s a rift in their dam.
            The only other way I know of for otters to gain access to ice-locked lakes is by keeping early holes open by biting the ice. Of course, if there’s a spring hole, they can utilize that, but with a full ice cover on lakes, otters have to get creative.

photo by Nancy Burns on the Manitowish River

Back-Country Skiing in Sylvania
            Bernie Langreck and I back-country skied in the Sylvania Wilderness and Recreation Area on 2/11, with a high temperature of 7 degrees and plenty of snow. I’ve nicknamed Bernie, “the bulldozer,” for his strength and durability in breaking trail, and he again earned the tag. Width of skies matters in such conditions, and mine were a little skinny for providing the necessary flotation on top of the snow, or at least for not breaking through all the way. Without Bernie’s wider skies and his greater resilience, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did. What a workout!
            What did we see or hear? Darn little. It was truly quiet the further in we went. Only on two occasions did we hear chickadees and nuthatches. And while we saw numerous deer trails crossing our trail, we never caught sight of one.
What we heard was silence. And what we saw was the beauty of untouched snow punctuated by the large trunks of old-growth eastern hemlocks, sugar maples, basswoods, yellow birches, and occasional white pines. For wildlife watching, it was a bust. For contemplation and ease of conversation, it was perfect.   
“When you give yourself to places,” writes Rebecca Solnit, in Wanderlust, “they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

white pine tree in Sylvania
photo by John Bates

Celestial Events
            The full moon, called the “Hunger Moon” or the “Snow” moon, occurs on 2/22. The next night, 2/23, look for Jupiter throughout the night hovering about two degrees above the moon.
            We’re up to 11 hours of sunshine as of 2/27. And by 3/3, the average high temperature in Minocqua will finally be at or above freezing. Minocqua averages 95 days annually of high temperatures below freezing.

February Thoughts
February will probably be capricious - it usually is. [It’s] a whimsical month that can smother us in snow or set the sap to flowing, paralyze us with sleet or brim the brooks. Its days are as long as October's, but its nights can be colder than December's . . . and when it goes we usually bid it a glad goodbye.” Hal Borland, in Twelve Moons of the Year

Environmental Ethics and Civil Discourse
From Kathleen Dean Moore, co-editor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril: “When my colleagues and I host public events about environmental ethics, we gather people in small groups and ask, ‘What do you care about most? What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of? . . . Then we ask, ‘If you value this more than anything else, what should you do? How might you make that value evident in your life?’ It’s an invitation to a respectful dialogue in which both sides listen and might even change their minds. In civil discourse you test your beliefs against experience – your own and others’ – and revise and improve them. Think of the conversations the Founders had about basic principles of human rights. We can do that too. We can talk reasonably about ethics.”

Thursday, February 4, 2016

NWA 2/5/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/5 – 18, 2016 

Chickadee Winter Survival
            Chickadees employ numerous adaptations and strategies for surviving a northern winter, from utilizing a controlled hypothermia at night, to being a master at caching seeds, to utilizing tree cavities or birdhouses at night and then huddling with their compatriots to reduce their heat loss.             
But I hadn’t known that they also have exceptional eyesight. In his book The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell writes that “the retinas at the back of the chickadees’ eyes are lined with receptors that are two times more densely packed than are mine. The birds therefore have high visual acuity . . . Where I see a smooth twig, birds see a fractured, flaking contortion, pregnant with the possibility of hidden food. Many insects pass the winter ensconced inside tiny cracks on tree bark, and the chickadees’ discerning eyes uncover these insect hideaways.”
            Haskell also notes that “chickadees have an extra color receptor that detects ultraviolet light. This gives chickadees four primary colors [humans see three primary colors] and eleven main combinations, expanding the range of color vision beyond what humans can experience or even imagine . . . Chickadees live in a hyperreality of color that is inaccessible to our dull eyes.”
            Combined with their acrobatic capabilities of hanging upside down to look into bark crevices, chickadees are thus masters at finding wintering insects that have spent an evolutionary eternity trying to outwit their predators.
            Still, as skilled and adapted as they are, only about half of the chickadees that began the winter will see the spring. Natural selection ensures that only the hardiest chickadees will live to potentially pass on their genes to a clutch of chicks. That’s the way of it. Whether through winter starvation, disease, predation, or other natural causes, all animals that survive to breed this spring will have been profoundly challenged by the cumulative stressors of five months of winter. Through this fire, they will be the ones selected as the most fit for continued life in the Northwoods.

Michipicoten Island Wolves and Caribou
Over the last year I’ve written several times about the highly controversial decision that must be made by the National Park Service on whether to reintroduce wolves onto Isle Royale. Remarkably, while the declining wolves on Isle Royale are down to three closely related individuals, another unique predator-prey relationship has begun on Michipicoten Island, roughly 180 miles across the lake from Isle Royale, where two years ago, three mainland wolves crossed the ice to the island.
The three wolves have since colonized the forests of the 71-square-mile island (about 90,000 acres), the third-largest island on Lake Superior. The wolves left briefly last winter, but then returned and likely have bred. In February of 2015, all three wolves were GPS-collared for study.
The unique aspect to this story is that woodland caribou were reintroduced to Michipicoten in the 1980s, where they have been doing well, with an estimated very dense population of 250 to 300. These caribou, however, are “predator-naive” – they’ve had no experience with wolves.
To add to the intrigue here, there have been almost no humans present on the island since 1900, making the island pristine for wildlife.
Michipicoten is similar to Isle Royale in that both are protected islands in Lake Superior with a single ungulate prey and a single large predator. And both islands have three wolves at last count. But the similarity ends there given that the wolves on Isle Royale are expected to die out due to inbreeding in the next few years, while the wolves on Michipicoten are headed on a very different trajectory.
Preliminary findings since the discovery of the wolves on Michipicoten show that while they do kill caribou, they also take a fair number of the abundant native beaver, much like mainland wolves do.
Questions abound regarding the future for both the wolves and caribou. Will the limited genetic diversity of the wolves bring about the same long term decline that’s been seen on Isle Royale? And while caribou are formidable prey that can defend themselves reasonably well (woodland caribou are smaller than moose but bigger than deer), will the wolves still dramatically reduce the caribou population? Will beaver numbers impact how all of this transpires? And finally, what will occur that no one has really considered, since nature always bats last and is a notorious spray hitter?

Feeling Cold?
            It was cold in mid-January when our first “polar express” came through, but was it really cold?
No, not really.
Really cold for our area is -30 to -40 degrees or lower. That’s the criteria for being defined as Zone 3 in plant-hardiness as determined by the USDA. This area was considered Zone 3 until the latest iteration by the USDA in 2012, when this area was upgraded (downgraded?) to Zone 4.
The zones are based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones. While we hit -20 at our house on 1/11, that is still only the dividing line between Zone 4 and 5.
So, like all things, cold is relative. It would have been cold for Iowa, but not for here.

Finches are still hard to come by this winter. Jim and Marge Sauer are entertaining many pines siskins and purple finches at their feeders in Tomahawk, but the rest of us are seeing very few of them.
On 1/21, Kurt Justice observed a robin behind Kurt’s Sport Shop in Minocqua. A harbinger of spring to come? I sure hope not. We need winter to stay around, despite its long term effects on our psyches. Otherwise, we may as well live in Iowa, and I, for one, don’t want to have to live through the Iowa caucuses every four years.

Great Horned Owls Breeding and Nesting in February
The deep resonating notes of dueting great horned owls often punctuate cold winter nights in the Northwoods. Arthur Bent described their territorial song in his classic 1938 book Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey: Part 2 as being different from a barred owl: “It is on a lower key, deeper bass, and softer, but has great carrying power. I have likened it in my notes to the sound of a distant foghorn, the far-away whistle of a locomotive, or the barking of a large dog in the distance. At times, when near, it has seemed more like the cooing of a dove than the hooting of an owl. The ordinary note, when the owl is not excited, is a prolonged, soft, somewhat tremulous, and subdued hoot, with little or no accent.”
It’s possible to distinguish the female from the male by their calls – the females have a higher pitch because of their smaller syrinx, and they typically add an extra note at the beginning of their call.
In Wisconsin, territorial hooting ends generally by mid-February in keeping with the timing of first eggs being laid anywhere from late January in the southern counties to mid-March in the North Country.
 Great horned owls don’t build their own nests, but rather occupy a wider range of nest sites than any other bird in North America. They most commonly use tree nests of species like red-tailed hawks and other hawks, as well as nests of crows, ravens, herons, and squirrels in whatever tree is available.
They don’t maintain the nests – poor renters these. Often a tree nest deteriorates during a season’s use, and thus few are used more than one time. Still, a well-constructed nest in a firm tree crotch can last for two to ten years before it falls apart. We watched a great horned owl’s nest in a large aspen along Hwy. 182 for many years, but it has long since disappeared.

Celestial Events
            On 2/6, look for Venus 4 degrees south of the waning crescent moon.
            If you haven’t noticed, we’re receiving lots more daylight now. On 2/10, we’ll hit 10 hours of daylight, and on 2/17, 10½ hours. Recall that on winter solstice, we were down to 8 hours and 39 minutes.
            Pre-dawn in February gives us an opportunity to view a rare parade of five planets, at least until mid-February. Look for brilliant Venus low in the southeast, Mercury even lower (and to the left of Venus) in the southeast, Saturn in the south-southeast, Mars in the south, and Jupiter in the southwest. On 2/13, look in the early morning for Mercury and Venus to be within 4 degrees of one another, the closest they will be all month.
            How can you measure degree distances in the night sky? Hold one of your arms straight out in front of you with your index finger, middle finger, and ring finger extended – this equals about 5 degrees. Your little finger held up alone is about 1 degree, while your fist held up is about 10 degrees.

Photography Contest at Northwoods Wildlife Center

            The Northwoods Wildlife Center is sponsoring its annual amateur photography contest. Entries must be received by 2/12, so get a move on! For more information, see