Tuesday, April 12, 2016

NWA 4/15/16

A Northwoods Almanac for Aril 15-28, 2016  by John Bates

Cold Feet
Watching ducks and geese standing on lake ice makes my feet feel very cold. A friend recently said that the feet of ducks and geese don’t freeze in the winter because no blood circulates through them. But that’s not the case.
The blood moving through the naked portions of a bird’s leg would lose enormous amounts of heat in the winter, which has forced birds to compensate by employing a countercurrent heat exchange mechanism. It works like this: the main artery that carries warm blood down the leg is positioned next to a large vein that brings cooler blood back from the foot to the heart. A shunt near the base of the toes allows most of the arterial blood to pass directly into the vein and return without going through the toes and webs, and thus losing even more heat.
The blood returning to the heart absorbs heat from the warmer arterial blood next to it. So, heat is exchanged all the way from the bottom to the top of the leg with the blood arriving back in the body only slightly cooler than what originally left to go to the legs.
            To get blood into the feet, some of the blood at the bottom of the leg bypasses the shunt and runs through a capillary network into the toes, which is just enough to keep the blood a few degrees above freezing. It makes for cold feet, but not frozen feet.

hooded mergansers - photo by Bev Engstrom

Become a Landlord
Now is the time to become a bird landlord and “rent out” homes to new tenants. Some 85 species nest in tree cavities in North America, of which about three dozen will nest in birdhouses. In our area, the most common tenants will be black-capped chickadees, eastern bluebirds, house wrens, purple martins, wood ducks, common and hooded mergansers, kestrels, and most of our woodpeckers.
Birds won’t rent your houses unless you fulfill their needs. The size of the entrance hole limits which species can enter – and which pest species such as starlings cannot – and the floor plan must accommodate the species' nest. For example, to attract chickadees, which typically nest in dense stands of small trees, put up birdhouses that have 1 1⁄4-inch diameter holes, centered 6 inches above the bottom of the nesting floors, in small tree thickets.
Bird renters would like a home security system on their digs, and you can offer this by putting a stovepipe baffle below the house to keep out raccoons, house cats and other predators that steal eggs and chicks. One writer says, “If you put a birdhouse up on a pole without a guard, you are basically serving lunch.”  
            Remember, too, that dying and fallen trees make excellent homes for cavity nesters. One unusual example is the brown creeper which nests between strips of loose bark and the trunk of a tree.

Prairie Chicken Dancing
I haven’t visited a prairie chicken lek for many years now, but I still vividly remember the experience. Sarah Krembs reminded me of this when she sent me some photos and a description of her recent visit to a lek near Wisconsin Rapids. She wrote, “We had to be in the blinds at 5:30 and wait for the chickens to show up. First one, and then about a dozen more all at once.  
“The sound is most unusual . . . like a mourning dove crossed with a morning barnyard hen. Only one female was there yet, so it was mostly the males who were defending their territory and fighting with each other . . . When they puff their neck sacks out and drum their feet, it is sure a sight to see. Sometimes when the males were puffed up they also did a kind of walk in the funniest way. It was like they were sliding in a straight line . . . as if they were gliding across the ground on ball bearings. It was such a “non-natural” motion that it truly fascinated me.”
If you’re interested in reserving a blind to watch these remarkable birds, go to: www.uwsp.edu/wildlife/pchicken/Pages/viewing.aspx

prairie chicken dancing - photo by Sarah Krembs

The Big Thaw
Five species of frogs in northern latitudes freeze during the winter: wood frog, chorus frog, spring peeper, gray tree frog, and Cope’s gray tree frog. In the next few weeks, they’ll all thaw out, and the first to begin singing will be the wood frog, followed almost immediately by spring peepers.
Wood frogs and peepers hibernate by hiding under the leaf litter on the forest floor. By hibernating on land, the frogs can become active as soon as the snow melts and breed in temporary ponds formed by meltwater.
But frogs can't dig underground like toads do. Their water-permeable skin is no barrier to ice, and so they freeze. Their eyes even turn white because the lenses freeze. Their blood stops flowing and as much as 65% of the frog's total body water is converted to ice. Breathing, heart beat, and muscle movements all stop, and the frog lives in a virtual state of suspended animation until it thaws.
They survive largely by building up high concentrations of sugars to keep the insides of their cells from freezing. Ice forms all around their internal organs, but not in the cells.
            So, when you hear the first wood frog or spring peeper in the next few weeks, consider that they have been frozen for nearly six months. The pandemonium of their calling makes all the more sense in that light.

Spring Break for Black Bears
Black bears should all be emerging from hibernation now. While some will undoubtedly smash a few bird feeders this spring, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, only about 36 human deaths from black bears occurred across North America in the 20th century. For every person killed by a black bear in North America in the same period, 60 were killed by domestic dogs, 180 by bees, 350 by lightning, and 90,000 were murdered. So, while always being wary and cautious, enjoy their awakening!

Salmonella Time
With the arrival of spring snow melt, this is the time of year when salmonella bacteria can affect birds at your feeders. The smaller songbirds, such as pine siskins, redpolls and goldfinches that weigh only a half ounce, are most at risk.
Salmonella presents itself via a bird at your feeder that appears constantly “fluffed up” and is lethargic and easily approached. While the bird may appear “fat,” it’s really starving and trying to stay warm, even on a warm day with food. Please take the time to clean your feeders with soapy water and then with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.
Birds can also become sick from leftover seeds and hulls that begin to ferment. Rake up excess seed or hulls from under the feeder, bag them, and put them in the trash.

Lead Poisoning
Mary Madsen in Presque Isle sent me a photo of a bald eagle that she captured in March on Twin Island Lake and took to the Raptor Education Group in Antigo. The eagle was suffering from lead poisoning. Mary noted, “Sadly, it did die. It was a l7-year-old eagle, banded in the U.P.”
Lead has no business being used for hunting and fishing. The Raptor Education Group’s website in Antigo says this: “Lead poisoning this time of the year usually comes from a bird eating from a discarded animal that was shot with lead ammunition and was either placed in the woods for predators to eat or died in the woods of its injury. Often those that want to feed animals with carcasses have no idea that they contain lead, or how lethal it is. Lead the size of a grain of sand causes lead poisoning in a human child. We hope all hunters make the switch to copper jacketed bullets when hunting. It is safer for wildlife, not to mention their own family.”

eagle with lead poisoning - photo by Mary Madsen

Sightings: First-of-the-year (FOY)
Mid-March: Patrick Kessenich sent an excellent photo of a bobcat seen in his yard on Clear Lake in Manitowish Waters.

bobcat - photo by Lori Kessenich

3/27: Sarah Krembs sent excellent photos of a red crossbill that stunned itself by smacking into one of her windows.

red crossbill - photo by Sarah Krembs

3/29: Mary and I spotted our FOY turkey vultures in Minocqua, and a FOY northern harrier in Manitowish.
3/30: FOY song sparrows, fox sparrows, purple finches, and phoebes all in Manitowish.
3/31 -  Carne Andrews observed 6 males and 1 female wood ducks foraging in the grass on the bank of the Manitowish River.
4/3 – Carne also spotted a FOY male yellow-bellied sapsucker.
4/6: FOY: Sue DeFrancisco observed a hooded merganser hen entering her wood duck box.
4/7: Pat Schmidt reported the FOY common loon for our area on Silver Lake west of Hazelhurst. Silver Lake, just 40 acres in size, is one of Walter Piper’s study lakes (see www.loonproject.org), and has had a breeding pair of loons for many years.
4/8: With our eight inches of snow this day, the birds were frantic around our feeders. A woodcock appeared under the feeder late in the day and spent many minutes probing through the snow for food. It was there the next day as well. Given that invertebrates constitute 80% of a woodcock’s diet, and they only occasionally eat seeds, I think this woodcock was very hungry.

woodcock probing for food through 8 inches of new snow - photo by John Bates through a window

4/10: John Randolph reported a FOY osprey on a telephone pole nest near McNaughton.

            According to 40 years of ice-out data collected by Woody Hagge, the average ice-out date for Foster Lake, a relatively deep, 39-acre seepage lake in Hazelhurst, is April 17. I expect this average date to hold true for many lakes in our area.

Celestial Events
            Look on 4/17 for Jupiter about two degrees above the waxing gibbous moon.
The “Grass Appearing,” “Awakening,” “Maple Sugar,” full moon occurs on 4/22. Unfortunately, the peak Lyrid meteor shower also occurs this night and will be washed out by the brilliance of the moon. This will be the most distant and thus smallest full moon of the year, some 14% smaller and 30% dimmer than the closest full moon for this year, which will occur on November 14.
            We’re up to 14 hours of daylight as of 4/23!
Look in the pre-dawn on 4/25 for Saturn and Mars to be just below the waning gibbous moon.

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

Thursday, April 7, 2016

NWA 4/1/16

A Northwoods Almanac for April 1 – 14, 2016 

Sightings – FOY (First of Year)
3/19: FOY chipmunk in Manitowish. FOY hooded merganser on Powell Marsh.
3/21: FOY merlin near our home and FOY sandhill cranes on Powell Marsh.
3/21: FOY saw-whet owl heard and seen by Bruce Bacon in Mercer.
3/24: FOY woodcock caught and banded by Bruce Bacon in Mercer.
3/26: FOY wood ducks observed by Nancy Burns in Manitowish Waters.

         Snowshoe hares are molting into their summer coats. Photo taken on 3/27 in Manitowish by John Bates.

More on Maple Syrup – Alzheimer’s Preventative?
University of Toronto professor Don Weaver announced at a recent American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego that maple syrup extract may prevent proteins in brain cells from folding the wrong way – as they do in Alzheimer’s disease. And professor Navindra Seeram of the University of Rhode Island says the maple syrup compounds he isolated fit into the category of anti-inflammatories that keep cells healthy. In particular, Seeram says some of these protect the brain cells of rodents in the lab against the type of damage that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease.
The effect hasn’t been tested in live animals or humans, so it’s still very preliminary. But for those of us looking for any excuse to imbibe more maple syrup, this is all the evidence we need. Drink up!

Saw-whet Owl
Bruce Bacon, master bird bander and retired DNR wildlife manager in Mercer, heard his first northern saw-whet owl on 3/21. He then set a mist net for it on the evening of 3/25, and caught it and banded it. I’m envious – holding one of these tiny owls in your hand would be a peak experience for anyone who loves birds.
So, it’s time to go out after dark and listen for the monotonous tooting of a saw-whet. While saw-whets produce a series of different calls, the most common is the “advertising call,” which is an endless-loop of whistled notes on a constant pitch. Even though saw-whets are one of the smallest owls in North America – standing just 6 inches high and weighing 2 1/2 to 4 ounces (about as much as a quarter to a half cup of water) – their robust calls can be heard up to 300 yards away through a forest and over a half-mile away across water. The call comes at a rate of about two per second and sounds like the dinging of a commercial truck backing up, or for the science fiction crowd, like your average Martian landing craft. The advertising call is given almost entirely by males and is thought to be territorial. And when I say it’s monotonous, I mean really monotonous – the song can literally go on for hours.
Saw-whets also give a “ksew” call which is described as a loud, staccato, high-pitched bark. I’ve never heard this call, but researchers describe it as resembling “the sounds produced by filing [whetting] a large mill saw,” hence the name “saw-whet.” If you’re like me, you’ve never heard anyone whetting a large mill saw, so I advise doing an internet search to hear this particular call. Saw-whets also give whines, guttural sounds, high tssst calls, and squeaks, so they’re creative communicators.
The males’ calling peaks at two hours after sunset, so listen around 10 p.m. The call tends to decrease until just before sunrise.
Most northern saw-whets migrate southward in winter, concentrating their migration routes along the Great Lakes, but range maps show that they can winter in the Northwoods. Tom Erdman, curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History in Green Bay and a long-time bird bander/researcher, wrote to me that saw-whet owls do winter over in our area, as evidenced by dead saw-whets that have been turned in to him during a winter from Minocqua and Lakewood. Male saw-whets migrate first, beginning at the end of February, while females follow beginning in mid-March.

saw-whet owl breeding and wintering range

Breeding Waterfowl
Waterfowl are slowly returning to northern Wisconsin as creeks, rivers, and marshes open. But when they arrive, have they already mated, or are they still dating around? Well, all waterfowl are essentially monogamous. Geese, loons, and swans are classic examples of species that form lifelong pair bonds (called perennial monogamy), though male geese are known to have a few affairs on the side. Most species of ducks, however, form pair bonds that last only four to eight months, usually with a new mate each year (called seasonal monogamy). As a result, most ducks undergo courtship and pair formation annually, while geese, loons, and swans usually seek a new mate only once or when a mate dies.
Courtship activity in ducks starts gradually in the fall and peaks during the winter and early spring. Thus, most ducks arrive in the Northwoods already paired. This pattern of early pairing is unique in the bird world – in contrast, most songbirds delay courtship and pairing until they arrive on their breeding territories in spring.
Dabbling ducks tend to pair earlier than diving ducks. Mallards, American black ducks, and gadwalls are among the earliest dabbling ducks to establish pair bonds, with approximately 75 to 80 percent of females paired by late November.
Divers are the last of the ducks to establish pair bonds. Ring-necked ducks, for instance, pair during their spring migration in March and April and remain as pairs until it’s time to incubate eggs, whereupon the wayward male departs.
Buffleheads, our smallest diving duck, are a bit different from other ducks. They often keep the same mate for several years. The females are faithful to their natal and breeding areas, often reusing the same nest site year after year.
Common mergansers form pair bonds eventually after an extended period of courtship display beginning in December. When they arrive at their breeding sites, the appear to be paired up.
So, it would seem that everything is more or less settled when the birds arrive in our area. But anyone who has watched waterfowl in spring knows that courtship displays and territorial disputes are still going on. The reason? There are far more males than females returning every spring – male diving ducks outnumber females often three to one. The unpaired males initiate a lot of posturing and displaying in hopes of driving off the paired males, with the females then mating with the usurper male should he win.
Why so many males in the duck world? Egg clutches are mostly half male and half female, but females experience far more mortality in sitting on nests and being the sole incubator of the eggs. They’re an easy target on a nest, and they pay a price, thus their population is lower.

Science on Tap
Join Janet Silbernagel, UW-Madison professor of landscape architecture, as she discusses Lands for the Public, Wednesday, April 6, at 6:30 PM at the Minocqua Brewing Company. Janet will review how the National Parks and National Forests systems have evolved over the past 160 years.
Wisconsin Conservation Congress Annual Spring County Hearings
The annual Conservation Congress hearings take place on 4/11 at 7 PM in every county in Wisconsin. These meetings typically focus on fine-tuning various hunting and trapping regulations, and thus are primarily attended by hunters and trappers.    Occasionally, however, they ask for votes on questions that pertain to nearly everyone in the state. This spring, I see four questions in particular that I’d encourage the general public to weigh in on.
Question #20 asks: “Are you in favor of repealing Act 1, the iron mining law from 2013?” The question is prefaced by this: “In 2013 Wisconsin Act 1 created a new regulatory framework applicable to ferrous (iron) mining activities . . . Major changes included imposing a specific review timeline on DNR, removing the mandatory contested case hearing held before issuance of permits, and changing review processes and decision-making criteria related to wetlands, navigable waters, mining waste facilities, groundwater quality and water withdrawals. Iron mining projects are typically large in scale and could affect several thousand acres of land and the water resources in the vicinity of the project . . .”
Question 21 asks: “Are you in favor of the legislature imposing a moratorium on new state permits for frac sand mining and processing until any recommendations that may be developed following the completion of the Strategic Analysis of Industrial Sand Mining can be implemented?”
Questions 22 asks: “Do you support the DNR requiring non-toxic shot on all department managed lands?” noting that “Lead has been removed by law from consumer products such as gasoline and paint to reduce the amount of lead being discharged to the environment and to protect human and animal health. Non-lead shot is required for waterfowl hunting. Lead in sporting ammunition and fishing tackle is a source of lead poisoning for wildlife. Venison from deer harvested by hunters using lead ammunition has been identified as containing lead fragments. Many other states have adopted lead restrictions on a wide variety of lands and waters.”  
Question 30 asks:Do you favor legislation that would require at least two of the three senior DNR managers (Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and Assistant Deputy Secretary) to have either an educational degree in natural resource management and five years of applied natural resource management or ten years of applied natural resource management before they are appointed?” The question is prefaced by this: “In 1928, sportsmen and women successfully fought to establish a citizen board to oversee natural resource management in Wisconsin and to authorize that board to appoint professional natural resource managers to oversee the natural resource agency. In 1995, the legislature, while retaining the Natural Resources Board as the decision-making body for the agency, made the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and the top managers for the DNR political appointees. In the past twenty years, under administrations of both parties, many senior managers have been appointed that do not have any significant education or applied experience in natural resource management.”