A Northwoods Almanac for 11/25 – 12/8, 2016
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) for the Manitowish Waters count or Donna Roche (email@example.com) 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 that “most 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.
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, snail-mail at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI