A Northwoods Almanac for March 18 – 31, 2016
3/4: Redpolls are the only winter finch being seen locally in good numbers right now. Bruce Bacon, a master bird bander in Mercer, has had over 200 at his feeders. We have perhaps 30 or more in Manitowish, and many others are reporting significant numbers at their feeders. But as for the other Canadian birds that we always hope to see over the winter – purple finches, pine siskins, evening and pine grosbeaks – they appear for the most part to have skipped our area.
3/4: John Werth reported seeing several geese, the first of the year, on the open water of the Manitowish River.
3/4: Jeff Burke in Presque Isle wrote the following about two recent experiences with eagles. “As we left the house, we came upon a large dining event near Crab Lake Road attended by five eagles – four mature and one immature, plus several ravens. They were feasting on a fresh small deer kill. But even better was last Saturday (2/27) on Big Lake when a group of us witnessed both nest building activities followed by a no-foreplay mating activity, a five-minute break and a repeat. Any day I see an eagle close up is a good day. Yesterday and last Saturday were way above average.”
3/8: Speaking of eagles, Gary Ruesch on the Rainbow Flowage watched four immature eagles early in the morning sitting on the ice and eating something they were finding on top of the ice. The four took off, and soon after a number of eagles were circling around the same spot on the ice. Eventually 14 landed, a mix of adults and immatures, and all, too, were eating something that they were finding on the ice. Gary said that ice fishermen had been fishing near that spot all winter. He speculated that there was likely a bounty of fish guts free for the taking, and the eagles had found the treasure trove.
3/9: The first grackle returned to Manitowish.
3/12: A common loon was reported on a lake in Madison, the first of many to come, all of which will be scouting further north and looking for open water.
3/12: Thousands of tundra swans were being seen throughout southern and central Wisconsin.
3/13: Greg Holt on Benson Lake in Manitowish Waters observed several common mergansers on the open water.
3/13: The first flock of red-winged blackbirds filled the trees near our home in Manitowish.
3/14: The first junco returned to our feeders in Manitowish, as did our first robin, which was eating some very fermented crabapples. We also had our first snow bunting migrating back through, as well as a small flock of bohemian waxwings also eating the crabapples.
3/14: We had our first fresh maple syrup of the season thanks to the generosity of Bob Simeone – fabulous! The season is off to a shaky start with our overly warm weather, but there’s hope yet for the requisite below-freezing nights and warm days.
3/15: The first European starling arrived at our feeders in Manitowish.
3/15: Numerous people have reported seeing trumpeter swans on the open water in our area. Bev Engstrom took a marvelous photo of one on the Wisconsin River, which I’ve included.
|trumpeter swan photo by Bev Engstrom|
Coming Our Way Soon on a South Wind
Depending on your location in the Northwoods, these birds may or may not be back already, but they typically first appear in late March:
Mourning Cloak Butterflies
Not arriving on a south wind, but emerging from hibernation in a tree cavity or tucked under tree bark, mourning cloak butterflies are usually our first butterflies of the spring, often appearing while there’s still snow on the ground. Food is hard to come by this early in the year, but mourning cloaks can somehow find enough sustenance from tree sap and decaying fruit. In order to fly, they have to bask in the sun to raise their body temperature close to ours – their dark bodies and wings help in solar collection.
Mourning cloaks win the longevity award among butterflies, living for 10 to 11 months.
|mourning cloak butterfly photo by Mary Burns|
On 3/13, Carolyn Paduzzi reported the following: “I went up to both the Presque Isle and Black River Falls. Interestingly, I saw two brown bats flying very close by me, one at each river's entrance into Lake Superior. Mid-day, bright sunshine, and there they were buzzing about me like two hummingbirds. I wasn't aware of any bugs in the air, so am not sure what they were eating. Is this a normal time to come out of hibernation? By day?”
I called Licia Johnson, lead naturalist at the North Lakeland Discovery Center and a lover of all things “batty,” and she said that she had received a number of phone calls in the last week from others seeing bats. Apparently, some bats will go in and out of hibernation briefly if the weather is quite warm. They don’t remain active long, so they don’t need to feed extensively, which is good given that the insect hatch at this time of year is minimal.
However, another factor may be at work here – white-nose syndrome. Licia called a statewide expert on bats who said she had been receiving many reports of flying bats in southern Wisconsin since January. White-nose syndrome, a Eurasian fungal disease that has killed an estimated 6 million bats in North America, disrupts the hibernation cycle of bats, repeatedly awakening them and burning up their fat reserves. They then are forced to leave their hibernation site looking for food, which ultimately leads to their deaths. Some winter colonies have experienced 100% mortality.
White-nose syndrome is now in 26 states and 5 Canadian provinces, and appeared through much of the U.P in 2014-15. The disease has now been confirmed in Minnesota and may be affecting our area as well.
Manitowish River Ice-Out
The Manitowish River opened below our house on 3/9, eight days earlier than our 27-year average of 3/17. Over that time, the river has opened on an earlier date only five other times. I anticipate an early ice-out for our area lakes as well, unless, of course, March is really yanking our chain and winter returns with a vengeance.
The snow melt in the last week has been remarkable, and most open areas are now clear of snow, while the shaded woods will hold the snow much longer. The early snow melt bodes poorly for river and lake levels, though significant spring rains can change all of that. We were still skiing on 3/9, but at 50°, the conditions were a slog.
The first day of spring arrives this year at 11:30 p.m. on March 19, when theoretically we should experience equal periods of day and night. In northern Wisconsin, though, we’ll experience the equinox on March 17, which will be our first day longer than night since September 26.
But spring IS on its way. How soon will spring occur in the Northwoods compared to southern Wisconsin? We can accurately predict the date of the first bloom of our northern spring flowers based on Hopkins Law, which says that phenological events vary at the rate of one day for each 15 minutes of latitude and one day for each 100 feet of altitude. (Phenology is the study of the seasonal march of observable biological events – when the first robin returns, when the first trillium blooms, etc.) If we compare biological events in Madison to those in Minocqua, there should be a 20-day interval between the two areas, given their distance apart (about 220 miles) and their differences in elevation.
Note that variations do occur along the Great Lakes where the weather is moderated by the still icy waters. And Hopkins Law is considered valid only up to June 1, when other factors take control, like available sunlight, soil conditions, and rainfall.
Full Moon and Penumbrial Eclipse
Look at 6:47 a.m for the moon at maximum eclipse to be 78% shaded. The sun rises just 8 minutes later, so much of the effect will be washed out.
“Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush.” – Doug Larson