Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Northwoods Almanac 12/23/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/23/16 – 1/5/17  

Sightings – Sandhill Cranes, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Robins, Bohemian Waxwings
An estimated 30,000 sandhill cranes were seen migrating over Chicago on 12/7, sending birders and non-birders alike into great excitement. The cranes rarely land in Chicago, instead resting up at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana before winging their way to their winter homes in Georgia and Florida. On 12/14, the official count of sandhills still at Jasper-Pulaski reached 17,600. Cranes used to migrate earlier than this, but their migration has become later over many years now due to warming autumn weather.
Colleen Henrich in Lake Tomahawk sent me a photo of a red-bellied woodpecker that has been frequenting her feeders all winter.
Sarah Krembs in Manitowish Waters sent me a photo of a robin eating crabapples in her yard on 12/15. We spied a robin near our feeders in Manitowish on 12/18, which I suspect was feeding on our crabapple trees as well.

American robin photo by Sarah Krembs

A flock of perhaps 40 bohemian waxwings have been working on our crabapple trees in the last week. This has also been a particularly exceptional year for brilliant red winterberries (Ilex verticillata), which are common on wetland edges, and I wonder if the waxwings and robins might be eating those as well.

Christmas Bird Counts
            The Minocqua Christmas Bird Count took place on 12/17 on a lovely morning which began at -17°F and climbed ever so slowly to -2° by mid-afternoon. Whoever claimed that birders were sane? Not me. This is, however, just standard operating procedure for any Northwoods outdoor enthusiast, whether he/she be a skier, an ice angler, a snowshoer, or a birder. Over 20 years ago, I helped out on a Christmas bird count near Saxon when it was a similar temperature. I can’t say that I fondly remember the morning, what little I could see of it through the iced-up windows in the car. Stepping outside for a clear view was marvelous, for the minute or so we could tolerate it. We were all bundled up in our high-tech clothing trying to spot songbirds, some as tiny as a quarter ounce in weight who somehow had more resilience, by far – very far – than we did.
            I was unable to participate in the Minocqua count last week – a recent knee surgery put me on the sidelines. But by the time you read this, we’ll have completed the Manitowish Waters Count which we rescheduled for 12/21 when the temperatures are supposed to be in the mid-20’s, a veritable cakewalk for winter birding.
            Highlights from the Minocqua count supplied by intrepid organizer Donna Roche include cedar waxwings in Woodruff eating mountain ash berries (see Mark Westphal’s photo), a robin also eating mountain ash berries, and the inclusion of our four wintering woodpeckers (downy, hairy, pileated, red-bellied) by every counter in their assigned areas. Red-bellied woodpeckers, historically a southern Wisconsin woodpecker, remain quite uncommon, so their presence is notable.

cedar waxwing photo by Mark Westphal

            The Rhinelander Christmas Bird Count took place a day later on 12/18, which was only slightly warmer. Ace birder Vanessa Haese-Lehman wrote, “The highlight of the Rhinelander count has to be the seven robins we found feasting on small crabapples. Boy, did they look different . . . the most puffed up I've ever seen a robin. The crabapples were frozen solid, but the birds just downed them anyway. We also had two black ducks along with 44 mallards at the open water near the DNR station.” She further noted the complete lack of winter finches – no redpolls, grosbeaks, or crossbills, which is a common story so far this winter.

Isle Royale Wolves
On 12/16, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) announced a surprising change in its usual hands-off management for Isle Royale, proposing plans to introduce 20 to 30 new wolves over the next three years. Only two highly inbred wolves remain on the island, a father and his daughter, born two years apart to the same mother. The two wolves are more inbred than any known wild wolves, and have reached a genetic dead end, being more inbred than some infamous royal dynasties.
The plan to introduce new wolves was one of four alternatives considered for Isle Royale as part of an environmental impact statement. In 2014, NPS decided against new wolf introduction, but after an intense public commenting period, they’ve changed course, though the reintroduction likely won’t happen until the winter of 2018–19. Another 90-day required public comment period is currently underway.
Since 1958, researchers have tracked the fate of wolves and their moose prey on the island in the world’s longest running predator-prey study, one that many of us read about and debated in our college ecology classes.
One of the important reasons for re-establishing the wolf population is the likelihood of a runaway moose population with no predators to keep them in check. Isle Royale’s moose number has continued to grow at an average annual rate of 19% since 2012, when wolf predation essentially stopped. Individual moose browse some 50 to 60 lbs. of vegetation a day during the winter. Multiply that times the current population of 1300 moose, and their appetite will not only profoundly impact the overall Isle Royale ecosystem, but also result in their overpopulation, overbrowsing of their habitat, and ultimate starvation.

            While we recently experienced a number of below-average temperature days, this autumn and early winter have been warm overall. The Manitowish River froze over at our home in Manitowish on 12/16 – a late date. It typically ices up in late November.
            As for regional ice-up on our northern lakes, I always look to Woody Hagge’s data on Foster Lake in Hazelhurst to give me the best picture. Foster froze on December 10th, the 4th latest freeze in the last 41 years. Woody notes that the last two years have shifted the 41-year average ice-up date on Foster Lake to more than one full day later and nearly three full days since 1997.  
Looking at only the last 19 years (1998 through 2016), the average ice-up date for Foster Lake would be December 1st (1.3) or 8 days later than the 22-year average from 1976 through 1997 which was Nov. 23. The 41-year average ice-up date for Foster is now November 28.
At 39 acres with a maximum depth of 38 feet, Foster Lake is broadly representative of many of the modest-sized lakes in our area, though there are many other factors influencing ice-up beyond the size and depth of a lake.

Winter Solstice/Celestial Events
            Winter solstice officially occurred two days ago on 12/21, but it’s a long slog to where we see a whole lot more sunshine. Yesterday, 12/22, marked the last of our year’s shortest days – a mere 8 hours and 39 minutes. Today, we gain almost a minute, the first time since June 20, and we continue to gain nearly one minute every day until the New Year when we will be blessed with all of 8 hours and 44 minutes of daylight. In the meanwhile, our sunrises are stalled out at 7:40 a.m. until Jan. 8 when the sun will rise one minute earlier. It’s a slow change, but a welcome one.
The ringed planet Saturn sits very low in the southeastern sky before dawn. On Tuesday, December 27, the old crescent moon will rest 5 degrees above the planet. The best viewing times are between 6:15 and 7:15 am local time.

Bird Protection Fund Disburses $60,000 to Priority Projects
The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is distributing almost $60,000 from the Bird Protection Fund (BPF) to eight priority bird conservation projects for use in 2017. Funds come from program grants and contributions, fundraising field trips, and the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. Here’s a breakdown of where the money is going this year:
$7,500 to the Wisconsin Bird Monitoring Program, for personnel to monitor marsh birds, raptors, nightjars, and more.
$11,100 to Bird City Wisconsin for programs in its 99 communities.
$6,500 to the Wisconsin Stopover Initiative for programs supporting migratory bird stopover habitat protection.
$4,650 to the Wisconsin Kirtland's Warbler Project for personnel to monitor warbler nests.
$9,300 for interns in the Whooping Crane Reintroduction Program .
$6,000 for personnel in the Important Bird Areas-Southern Forests & Greater Prairie Chicken programs.
$4,650 for the education program "Aula Verde" in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica
$8,900 for personnel to conduct surveys for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II.
Two birding teams in this area did their part by participating in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. Our Northern Highlands team started our birdathon at 4 a.m. on 5/22 in the moonlit fog on Little Turtle Flowage and ended at 9:30 p.m., having counted a total of 117 species while driving from the Mercer area to Lake Tomahawk, about 40 miles. A few days later, the North Lakeland Discovery Center team counted a similar number of species as well. Between us, we raised over $5,000.

Thoughts for the New Year
“Reverence is an attitude of honoring Life . . . Whether a person is reverent depends essentially upon whether he or she accepts the principles of the sacredness of Life, any way that he or she defines sacred. Reverence is also simply the experience of accepting that all Life is, in and of itself, of value.” – Gary Zukav

“We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.” – Mary Oliver

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/9/16

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/9 – 22, 2016  

Swimming Eagle
            I recently saw a video of a bald eagle swimming to shore, rowing with its wings quite effortlessly while carrying a large fish in its talons. This is an uncommon but not rare sight in the Northwoods. And I’ve believed for years that the reason eagles occasionally swim is that they’re unable to release prey from their talons unless they can push against something solid. An eagle thus is resigned to swimming to shore if it latches onto too large a fish and it get can’t airborne.
Turns out I’ve been wrong.
I contacted Marge Gibson at the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, because if anyone would know the truth on this, it would be Marge. Marge has worked in the rehabilitation of injured eagles for over 30 years. She was the lead biologist called into the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska to rehab bald eagles impacted by the spill. Since then (and well before), she has rehabbed and released many hundreds of eagles brought to her in varying states of illness and/or injury.
This is what she said:
“The talons hold tightly, but they can let go. Often the eagle just does not want to and that can be a problem. Problems also occur when the talons get caught up in the fish spine or other bony parts of the fish, and the eagle’s foot is basically trapped/caught up in the fish, not just hanging onto it. 
“In both instances the eagle can drown and go down with the fish, but it does not happen often. In fact, I would say rarely. Usually the eagle swims to shore before it drowns.  
“There is a great deal of confusion about this.  Even rehabilitators and veterinarians sometimes think that if a raptor grabs onto something, including a human, it has to be killed in order for it to let go. That is wrong. 
“One thing that is poorly understood by the public is bald eagles can swim and swim well – very well. It would be kind of odd for a bird that fishes to be unable to swim, but people do believe that they cannot. Lots of poorly understood myth and legend.”

Raptor Education Group

            The Raptor Education Group does exceptional rehabilitation work on all birds. In checking their website recently, I noted that Marge had treated a critically ill female bald eagle suffering from severe lead poisoning on 10/19, and treated another adult bald eagle a week earlier that was also suffering from lead poisoning, as well as being hit by a car. Relative to the car injury, she noted, “Often birds suffering from a toxin that affects the brain and nervous system are exposed to other dangers before they come into our care.”
I contacted Marge for further information on lead poisoning. She wrote, “We have admitted seven bald eagles since the beginning of October with lead poisoning and some also had another type of poisoning, likely organophosphate, carbofuran pesticide type things. Many of the newer pesticides do not have biomarkers so we are unable to identify them. EPA stopped requiring a biomarker to be inserted so tests could be developed and we would be able to ‘find it’ in the environment or in an animal or in a human for that matter.” She added, “Another situation where big business won.” 
I recommend checking Marge’s blog at to understand the exceptional work that her group does, as well as to see what impacts we humans have via lead poisoning and rodent poisoning. I still find it unconscionable to not outlaw lead shot – how many more animals need to die before we do what is ethical?

Bald eagle with lead poisoning, photo by Mary Madsen
Don and Marge Gibson with rehabbed snowy owl

We were graced on Thanksgiving Day with a flock of 30 bohemian waxwings eating crabapples just outside our window, all of which were easily visible as we ate our dinner. We’re also inundated with American goldfinches, and we continue to have one female cardinal.
As for other northern finches like pine and evening grosbeaks or pine siskins and common redpolls, they’ve yet to appear.
This isn’t unusual for early winter. Most finches prefer to feed on natural seed and fruit sources first, and when those are depleted, they wend their way to our feeders. 
Some northern finches have made their way into our area. Ryan Brady, a natural resources research scientist for the WDNR in Ashland, and the coordinator of Wisconsin’s Bird Conservation Initiative, noted last week that “The Northeast U.S. is experiencing a good finch flight so far this year. Wisconsin is at the west end of this movement. Northwoods birders are finding good diversity but modest numbers of most species. White-winged Crossbills and Common Redpolls seem most prevalent right now, though Red Crossbills (mostly Type 10's) are widespread and small numbers of Bohemian Waxwings, as well as both Pine and Evening Grosbeaks have been seen in far northern counties.”
Interestingly, very few snowy owls have been reported so far in Wisconsin. Last winter by this time, roughly 87 snowies had been tallied across 40 counties in Wisconsin. And in the previous winter of 2014-15, the statewide tally for snowy owls stood at 174 by mid-December.
Howard Peitsch in Minocqua reports that he has 100 goldfinches, as well as a dozen purple finches working over his feeders. Howard also was visited by a flock of about 30 bohemian waxwings on 11/25.
David Foster in Natural Lakes photographed a lone fox sparrow on 11/23 foraging on sunflower seeds below his deck. Fox sparrows migrating through our area spend their winter in Illinois and south.

Fox sparrow photo by Bev Engstrom

Conserve School
I spent the two afternoons last week teaching winter ecology at the Conserve School in Land O'Lakes. If you're not familiar with the school, it provides: “A semester-long immersion in environmental studies and outdoor activities which deepens students’ love of nature, reinforces their commitment to conservation, and equips them to take meaningful action as environmental stewards.”
 I've taught a class there every semester now for 8 or so years, and I always come home absolutely pumped about the extraordinary quality of the students, both intellectually and emotionally. If you have doubts about young folks taking care of this world, you need to spend some time with these students. And if you have a son/daughter or grandson/granddaughter, seriously consider sending them there for a semester. Not only is it exceptional, it's free (see 

One of the Conserve School classes

A Place Is A Space With A Story
The story of our area starts with winter, the ultimate limiting factor and lead actor in the life and death of most northern species. But woven all together, the individual stories of each species creates the larger epic novel we refer to as the Northwoods. I encourage you to try to uncover each species’ winter story, because every one of them is remarkable.
Two quotes come to mind that summarize the breadth and power of winter’s hand: Winter is a predictable kind of Armageddon, a calamity calmly weathered, an end of the world that they (wildlife) understand and are preparing for – Diane Kappel-Smith.
And: Winter is life played out on the anvil of ice and under the hammer of deprivation – Bernd Heinrich.

Shoreline Regulations and Fish
A recently published study entitled “A Fish Habitat Conservation Framework for Minnesota Lakes” (Peter C. Jacobson, Timothy K. Cross, Donna L. Dustin & Michael Duval, 2016) summarizes the impacts of shoreline and watershed development on fish habitat. One of their conclusions was that dock (i.e. development) density in excess of 10 docks/km of shoreline resulted in significant negative impacts on fish populations. That correlates to a density of one dock every 328 feet. This flies in the face of the Wisconsin legislature’s 100-foot minimum lot size which ended local authority and is now required in every county’s shoreland zoning.

Recommended Reading for Long Winter Nights
I recently purchased John Pastor’s new book, What Should a Clever Moose Eat: Natural History, Ecology, and the North Woods, and it was an excellent read. Pastor, a distinguished University of Minnesota-Duluth research ecologist, brings clarity to often complex ecological questions. He also leaves quite a few questions explored but unanswered, acknowledging that we still have a great deal to learn. It’s a challenging book, but well worth its many insights.
Also consider reading for a different perspective on plants The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz.

Thought for the Week
“Each species, to put the matter succinctly, is a masterpiece. It deserves that rank in the fullest sense: a creation assembled with extreme care by genius.” – E. O. Wilson