A Northwoods Almanac for December 22 – January 4, 2018 by John Bates
Christmas Bird Counts
The 25th annual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird Count took place on 12/16. Eleven volunteers fanned out over the 15-mile-wide count circle which is centered at the intersection of Hwy. 51 and County W in Manitowish Waters. The temperature at 8 a.m. was 8°; chilly but relatively calm, which made birding a lot easier.
We totaled 30 species, well above our average of 24 species. Notable were a first ever snowy owl, wood duck, and boreal chickadee. And in the highly unusual category were two hooded mergansers, a mallard, a red-headed woodpecker, three dark-eyed juncos, a song sparrow, and a grackle.
Red crossbills have been reported regularly this winter throughout northern Wisconsin, and we did get one flock of 20 eating sand in the middle of County K. As is normal for crossbills, they stayed put as the counters approached in their car and would have easily been run over if the counters hadn’t stopped. So, a plea to drivers this winter: Please watch for flocks of birds in the middle of roads and slow down to give them a chance to scatter. Crossbills are often oblivious to cars, and many are being hit.
|red crossbills photo by Mark Westphal|
The 21st annual Minocqua Christmas Bird Count took place on 12/14 and was done by 19 volunteers from the North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Club traveling in 6 vehicles, and by 6 volunteers who counted at their home feeders and yards in the count area. There were a few open water areas and surprises with a common merganser and pied-billed grebe. Other surprises included a lone robin, five tree sparrows, and what I consider a surprisingly high number – 19 – of red-bellied woodpeckers. Red-bellieds living in the Northwoods continue to increase in number, and this is perfect evidence.
Wil Conway sent me a great photo on 12/10 of a male pileated woodpecker landing on his suet feeder.
|male pileated woodpecker photo by Wil Conway|
Jill Wilm sent a lovely photo of her bird feeder just loaded with common redpolls on 12/14. She captioned the photo: “Who needs a Christmas tree when you have these lovely ornaments? The redpolls abound in Presque Isle!”
|common redpolls photo by Jill Wilm|
On 12/13, Sarah Krembs reported seeing a veery or hermit thrush hopping around the entrance to the St. Germain community building. She noted: “He hopped right up to the doors a couple times. I'm hoping he was just getting some sand/gravel for his digestion (they'd thrown some down near the doors) . . . I tried to get closer but by the time I made it over to the door he'd disappeared. I'm hoping that means he was able to fly and he flew off, meaning he didn't have a broken wing or something.”
Along those same lines, a caller was concerned about a hen mallard that was swimming on a little creek on 12/15 near Boulder Junction. And Mary and I have been watching for a week a female hooded merganser who is keeping open a tiny circle of water on the otherwise iced-over Manitowish River near our house. The merganser can dive, and must be catching some fish or it would have starved by now. But why it’s still here, and obviously confined to that tiny hole on the river, is unknown. Usually, it’s one of two things: illness or injury. For waterfowl, a bullet wound from a waterfowl hunter is not uncommon, nor is lead poisoning. For predators like hawks, owls, and eagles, flying into an electric line, being hit by a car, or slowly dying from rodent poison are all common, too.
Hooded Merganser Failed Rescue, But Also Earlier Successful Rescues
I called Wild Instincts (715-362-9453) near Rhinelander regarding the hooded merganser mentioned above, hoping that a rescue might be possible. Mark Naniot, long-time Northwoods wildlife rehabber, answered and said he’d get someone up to us to try and capture it. Kevin and Linda Grenzer from Tomahawk arrived with a flat-bottomed, custom-made rescue boat in their truck and long-handled nets. Their concern was the merganser would jump out of the water and run away on the ice, and then they’d have a chase on their hands. It turned out to be even more difficult than that. As they approached the merganser from the shore, it flew a short distance downriver and landed on the ice. As Kevin and Linda, now aided by my wife Mary, tried to outflank it, it flew again, this time a little farther, but again landed on the ice. It appeared to all of us that while it could fly, it was struggling to stay airborne, and perhaps had an injury or was ill. It then flew a third time, this time over the shoreline shrubs and around a bend in the river.
Well, this was good news and bad news. It could fly better than we thought, but still appeared to be compromised.
We came inside to warm up, and 45 minutes later, the merganser had returned to the tiny opening in the ice. Kevin is an inventor and has devised a drone with a net attached that can be released and dropped on a bird from above. So, he got the drone up and headed downriver, but the wind caught the net and the drone crashed.
Long story short, we had to give up. The merganser was still there as of dusk on 12/18, and time will tell its fate.
The 45-minute interlude, however, gave me a chance to interview Kevin and Linda, who for the last three years have volunteered to capture an array of birds and mammals and bring them for rehabilitation to either Wild Instincts or to REGI (Raptor Education Group Inc. in Antigo – 715-623-4015), and occasionally to Northwoods Wildlife Center (715-356-7400) in Minocqua. They have stories galore, but the two most recent ones were particularly fascinating.
Sandhill Crane Capture
Over two weeks ago, a caller reported a sandhill crane walking along a road near the County A exit off Hwy. 51 in Tomahawk. Kevin and Linda traveled to the site, but despite its injured left wing, the bird was able to run away from them over marsh ice, and they had to give up the chase. The crane stayed in the area for a week, then was seen 5 miles south on Skanawan Road near the County S exit on Hwy. 51. The crane was coming to a woman’s feeder, and while Kevin and Linda could get somewhat close, the bird still would run away. Apparently the crane was migrating south by walking along or near Hwy. 51, but stopping along the way at feeders.
Kevin and Linda then set up a blind near the feeder and tried to use a net gun to capture it, but missed by inches. Finally, the next day, they set the blind up with several volunteers hunched within it, and this time when the crane appeared, they were able to run it down along a marshy creek because the deep snow and marsh grass made it stumble.
They drove the crane to REGI, where Marge Gibson examined the bird and found it to be very healthy. However, its wing had been broken a while back, perhaps from being hit by a car or from being shot, and had healed in a manner that prevented it from flying. Marge is known as a wonder woman in healing wildlife injuries, so perhaps she will find a way. If not, the crane will be released to a zoo or environmental center where it can be used for education.
|sandhill crane held by Kevin Grenzer and being examined by Marge Gibson|
Wood Duck Capture
Linda and Kevin received a call to capture a wood duck that appeared unable to fly and was swimming on a little creek that was icing-up on Coffee Creek Road in New Wood. As soon as they pulled up to the creek, the wood duck ran and hid in the grass, but they were able to surround it and capture it. What they found was startling – the wood duck’s beak was completely frozen over! It couldn’t open its mouth, one of its nostrils was frozen, and its tail feathers had chunks of ice hanging from them. The ice was one-quarter inch thick on the bill. The bird was starving and suffocating, and very likely would have died within an hour or two.
|wood duck with frozen bill photo by Linda Grenzer|
Linda held the wood duck in her lap and warmed its bill in her hands as they drove it to REGI. Marge examined it and found a wing injury which she is now trying to rehab.
Linda and Kevin speculate that the wood duck was dying, and its head was dipping into the icy water, whereupon it would startle and raise back up, only to dip back down again until its bill became an icicle.
One Way to Help Wildlife
Put the phone numbers of the three wildlife centers up on your refrigerator, so you know who to call if you see an animal that needs help. And consider donating and/or volunteering – all three run on private donations and receive no funding from federal or state agencies.
Linda and Kevin are trying to purchase a used hovercraft with their own money to make ice rescues less dangerous and more successful – a contribution to them through REGI would help make this possible.
The Manitowish River iced-up at our home in Manitowish on 12/12, though a tiny hole was being kept open by the lone female merganser discussed above through 12/18. Our average ice-up date for the Manitowish is 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. 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.
Last year, Foster Lake froze on 12/10, the 4th latest freeze in the last 42 years. This year, Foster iced-up a day earlier on 12/9. The average ice-up date for Foster is now 11/28.
Ice-up was certainly an on-again-off-again process this year with many lakes skimming over in mid-November, but then opening up with warmer weather. December has given us average winter weather, which is cold enough that all lakes should now be ice-covered.
West Nile Found in Michigan Ruffed Grouse
Five ruffed grouse collected in Michigan from August through October, including two found dead and three shot by hunters, were recently determined to have West Nile Virus. Three of the WNV-positive grouse were from the Upper Peninsula.
Although Michigan has had West Nile Virus since 2002, this is the first year it’s been seen it in grouse. This is important news because grouse numbers were up this spring in Wisconsin – drumming counts were up 17% and summer brood observations were up 18%. Nevertheless, relatively few grouse were seen this fall in Wisconsin.
Grouse were supposed to be up this year based on their traditional cycle, not down. Chick survival likely was hampered due to the heavy rains and cool temperatures we had in late spring and early summer, but whether there’s also a connection to WNV is unknown. At least now it’s on researchers’ radars, assuming there’s money allocated for the research.
See Paul Smith’s article in the 12/6 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online for more information.
Snowy Owl Update
From Ryan Brady, research scientist and bird monitoring coordinator for WDNR: “As of December 13, an estimated 173 Snowy Owls have been tallied across 57 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties . . . Harbors along the Great Lakes shorelines remain hotspots but many owls are widespread across interior grasslands, wetlands, agricultural fields, and even urban areas as well. The total of 173 owls compares to only 13 as of the same date in 2016-17, 102 in 2015-16, 161 in 2014-15, and 91 in 2013-14, although many birds arrived later during the big irruption year of 2013-14. This year’s flight continues to be dominated by juvenile birds hatched in the Arctic last summer. Unfortunately, their inexperience has led to small but significant numbers falling victim to vehicle collisions or starvation.”
Our days begin to grow longer on 12/23 for the first time since June 20. From 12/27 to 1/7, the sunrise stalls at its latest time in the morning – 7:40 a.m. On 1/8, the sun will rise one minute earlier at 7:39.
Thought for Christmas
No, it is not because I am filled with obscure guilt that I step gently over, and not upon, an autumn cricket. It is not because of guilt that I refuse to shoot the last osprey from her nest in the tide marsh. I possess empathy . . . I share that sympathy and compassion which extends beyond the barriers of class and race and form until it partakes of the universal whole. – Loren Eiseley