A Northwoods Almanac for 1/20 – 2/2/17
Sightings – Northern Pintail, Great Blue Heron, Evening Grosbeaks, Great Horned Owls
Vanessa Haese-Lehman sent me a photo of a northern pintail hanging out on the Wisconsin River in Rhinelander. Pintails most commonly winter far south of here in much of the southern U.S. interior, through Central America, and into Bermuda and Cuba. Their core nesting habitat is in Alaska and the Prairie Pothole Region of southern Canada and the northern Great Plains, well west of here. Wisconsin is on the southeastern fringe of the pintail’s North American breeding range. Like many ducks, most pintails pair up and mate prior to their return migration in the spring, so this isolated male will likely be a bachelor this coming year.
|photo by Bev Engstrom|
John Wilke reported seeing a great blue heron on 12/31 while cross country skiing east of Phillips. The heron was wading in the open water of a small stream flowing into Dardis Lake. John noted that the heron looked healthy but he rightfully wondered whether it would survive our northern winter.
I consulted the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Wisconsin which says: “In southern Wisconsin individuals are found nearly every winter on CBCs [Christmas Bird Counts], but the vast majority of Wisconsin's breeders are migratory.” Indeed, it’s very uncommon to see a great blue heron up here in the winter, although occasionally one has been reported in a northern Wisconsin Christmas Bird Count. Some individuals have even been recorded on Christmas Bird Counts in Canada each year – only in areas that remain ice free, of course – but many great blues fly as far south as the Caribbean. Why this one has remained north is a mystery.
Kim Dumask in Presque Isle reports that two dozen evening grosbeaks have been visiting their feeders every day since January 1.
Great horned owls are being heard more regularly now. Their peak egg laying period occurs during February. Remarkably, the females can maintain their eggs near 98 °F, the necessary incubating temperature, even when the ambient temperature is more than 70° colder.
A great horned owl’s typical “song” consists of a deep-toned hooting of 3 to 6 notes, likened by some to the sound of a distant foghorn. Paired birds often synchronize their territorial songs, which is known as duetting. The female sings six notes, or more often a 7-note song, lasting about three seconds. The male responds within a few seconds with a 5-note song also lasting about three seconds. Duetting most commonly begins one to two months before the first egg is laid, so January is often the best time to hear great horned owls.
Robins in Winter
We continue to see a robin or two eating crabapples from our trees, and several other birdwatchers in our area have said they, too, have robins currently in their yard. So, what gives? Don’t robins migrate south every winter? One way to answer the question is to consult national Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data that has been collected for over a century. The data shows that robins are quite uncommon from central to southern Wisconsin in most winters. The variable in where they will be any given winter is they follow the food, so they can’t be counted on to be a regular visitor in most areas. I’ve attached a graph showing the winter density of robins during the 2003 CBC which shows how few robins typically remain even in southern Wisconsin.
Scatter-hoarding Gray Jays
In the autumn, gray jays become “scatter-hoarders,” preserving food by mixing it with super sticky saliva and then tucking it in woodpecker holes, amongst spruce needles, in a crevice, a broken-off stump, or under loose bark within their territory. They cache insects, berries, mushrooms, and strips of flesh that they’ve pulled from carcasses, sometimes caching up to 50 pounds per bird. Gray jays create literally thousands of food caches, with one study estimating up to 8,000! Remarkably, they are later able to remember where they stashed all these morsels and retrieve some 80% of them.
The caches allow the jays to begin nesting as early as February in cold, snowy, and apparently foodless conditions, incubating eggs at temperatures as low as -22°F. Why gray jays nest so incredibly early is a mystery. They’re only able to do it because of all the food they cached. Most songbirds struggle mightily to survive the last months of winter, but the gray jay’s thrift in putting up a winter storehouse puts them in another league, and obviously pays enough dividends to raise a healthy clutch of four or five fluffy little jays.
Unfortunately, it appears the species is losing ground. A research study in Ontario found fewer young were being raised following warm falls and winters. The researchers theorize that warmer temperatures interfere with the bird’s niche as a winter hoarder, resulting in more food spoilage, fewer young, and a gradual retrenchment northward.
I snowshoed with friends this week into two different small stands of old-growth white pines. The largest pine we measured was 49 ½ inches in diameter at breast height, which is as large as any I’ve measured over many years of looking for big trees. This particular tree had no lower branches indicating it was not open grown, but rather had grown within a relatively tight group of other pines.
Estimating age for white pines is always a shot in the dark given how quickly they can grow if given adequate sunlight, moisture, and good soil. White pines can live 400 years or more, but the only way to know is to core the tree and count the rings, and I don’t have a corer big enough to do this! John Curtis in his book Vegetation of Wisconsin wrote that many of the big pines cut in the 1800's were about 400 years old.
My hope during this current January thaw is that weather forecasters adopt the term “equatorial vortex” and begin naming each warm spell as they do whenever we get a cold snap. Temperatures have been averaging 15-20° above average this week, sending them into the upper 30s if not 40s.
Of course, I’m kidding, but whenever temperatures go below zero, we now want to make a seeming crisis out of it, when in fact our area historically averages around 45 days of below zero temperatures. And from 1971 to 200, our average minimum lowest winter temperature has been -30°F, with -40° occurring on occasion.
So, a northern Wisconsin winter is supposed to be very cold, very snowy, and very long. I’m afraid that as we continue to have milder winters, we will see a “sliding baseline” of expectations, where we diminish what we have historically considered “normal.” And with that, we will see more hyperbolic newscasts about polar vortexes whenever it gets below zero. However, our average temperatures will really be no different than what our area has experienced since we began collecting temperature data over a century ago.
We reach 9 hours and 30 minutes of daylight on 1/26 – 40% of our day will now be sunlit. By the end of the month, our days will be growing longer by three minutes a day.
The new moon occurs on 1/26. Look after dusk on 1/31 for Venus to be four degrees north of the crescent moon and Mars to be halfway between it and the moon.
2016 Climate Summary
From NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The average annual temperature for the contiguous U.S. in 2016 was 54.9°F, which was 2.9°F above the 20th century average. This was the second warmest year of the 122 years on record, behind 2012 (55.3°F), and the 20th consecutive warmer-than-normal year for the U.S. (1997 through 2016).
During the year, the U.S. experienced 15 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion, causing a total of $46.0 billion in damages. This was the second highest number of billion-dollar events in the 37-year record (1980-2016), one less than the 16 that occurred in 2011. Four of these were inland flooding events not associated with named tropical storms, doubling the previous record for number of billion-dollar inland flood events in one year.
Persistent storm tracks led to the wettest year on record for the Upper Midwest. It was the second wettest year on record for Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Alaska had its warmest year ever on record.
Good news included: Above normal annual precipitation in the West contributed to the regional drought footprint being reduced from 45% at the beginning of the year to 22% at the end. And based on data that go back to 2000, the 65,575 fires in 2016 were the sixth fewest on record and burned more than 5.4 million acres, which is the seventh fewest.
Quote for the Week
“A place is not a place until people have both experienced it and shaped it, as individuals, as families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation. Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef . . . Neither the country nor the society we built out of it can be healthy until we stop raiding and running, and learn to be a quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.” – Wallace Stegner