A Northwoods Almanac for 2/19 – 3/3/2016
We submitted our yard count on 2/14 for the Great Backyard Bird Count (http://gbbc.birdcount.org). 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
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 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.”