Monday, February 20, 2017

Northwoods Almanac for 2/17/17

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/17 – 3/2/17  

Bev Engstrom in Crescent noted last week that she had as many as 28 wild turkeys scratching under her feeders at one time. I’ve featured Bev’s photographs a number of times in my column, and again, she’s taken some exceptional photos, this time of her turkeys.
On 2/3, Vanessa Haese-Lehman sent me a photo of an adult female Cooper’s hawk that has been frequenting her Rhinelander neighborhood. She wrote, “She flew by this afternoon scattering the mourning doves . . . she didn't get a meal this time, but feathers in the yard point to a previous successful hunt. The abrupt flight of the doves alerted me, and I looked out the window and she just sat there for about 30 seconds . . . very perturbed that she didn't get a meal before she flew off.”
I often struggle with differentiating a Cooper’s hawk from a sharp-shinned hawk. But Vanessa is an excellent birder and has worked on a number of research studies in our area, so I trust her ID skills. Here is her take: “I checked Sibley's and it looks to be an adult female Cooper's Hawk. The red eye and rusty barring across the breast points to an adult and the brownish cheek contrasting with the dark crown suggests a female. She also had a long rounded tail with a white edge – not seen in this picture.” 
Female Cooper's hawks are also about one-third larger than the males, which helps in IDing them in flight.
Cooper’s hawks capture a variety of prey, mainly medium-sized birds and mammals such as doves, jays, robins, chipmunks, and other rodents. Their short, powerful, rounded wings and relatively long tail give them superb maneuverability.
Vanessa also noted that a red-winged blackbird has been hanging around their area for the last week or so. Red-wings often winter as far north as southern Wisconsin, and typically don’t return to the Northwoods until mid-March at the earliest. This one may be particularly hardy, or courageous, or injured, or simply geographically challenged.
On 2/4, Jill Wilm captured a fine photo of a northern shrike that has been visiting her bird feeders in Presque Isle.  She noted, “They love to watch and swoop down on the rodent tunnels in the snow beneath my bird feeders. When I looked later in the day, there was blood on the snow indicating a successful hunt.”
On 2/13, Bruce Bacon, a long-time bird bander in Mercer, captured a shrike twice in his yard in one day. It turns out the shrike was the same one that Bruce banded two years ago in his yard, and which he captured last year as well, making it three years running that this shrike has navigated for part of the winter specifically to Bruce’s home north of Mercer. Northern shrikes nest in boreal and tundra regions of far northern Canada and Alaska, so to find Bruce’s place year after year is not a simple hop-step-and jump. The closest breeding area is the southern coastline of Hudson Bay, which is 1,000 miles away.
Bruce noted that all his songbirds, including blue jays, disappear instantly when the shrike appears, except for chickadees, which appear to ignore, and to be ignored, by the shrike. Often mistaken for gray jays, shrikes are known to take down birds larger then themselves, including robins, jays, and doves. Why the chickadees are fearless, at least at Bruce’s house, is a mystery to both Bruce and me.
And from the “never-say-never” file, a crested caracara has been photographed this week in the Upper Peninsula (Delta County) feasting on a deer carcass. Known as the “Mexican buzzard,” crested caracaras range from northern Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. But in the United States, they occur only along the southern border with Mexico, primarily in Texas and Arizona and occasionally in coastal areas of other Gulf states, and in Florida. What in the world possessed this bird to appear in the U.P. in February is one of those wonderful mysteries we’ll never solve.

Minocqua’s Winter Park Pines Nature Preserve
            Mary and I led a full moon snowshoe hike last week Thursday at Minocqua’s Winter Park, and then on Sunday, 21 members of the Northwoods Land Trust snowshoed or skied to the teahouse located on Minocqua’s Winter Park Pines Nature Preserve. The 3,195-acre Winter Park Pines Nature Preserve is the largest conservation easement donation ever to a Wisconsin land trust, and protects 43 kilometers of the core of Minocqua Winter Park's outstanding public cross-country ski and snowshoe trail system. The conservation agreement also protects over 13 miles of natural shorelines on the Squirrel River, Yukon Creek, Howards Creek, and other small, un-named streams and ponds. 
            The Winter Park Pines Nature Preserve was established in 2011 with the granting of a perpetual conservation easement by Ken and Carolyn Aldridge to the Northwoods Land Trust. If you’re not familiar with conservation easements, they are a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust which restricts future development of the property to protect its natural characteristics. The land remains in perpetuity in private hands, and the owners continue to pay its property taxes, a win-win for property rights proponents, town and county services supported by taxes, the passionate property owners who want to see their property kept intact forever, and for the land itself and the community of species it supports.
Carolyn Peduzzi (Aldridge) noted that on weekends she sometimes has up to 250 people stop in at her lovely little tea house to sit next to a fire and drink some warm tea or hot chocolate. Remarkably, and as a testament to how exceptional the ski trails are at Winter Park, a surprising number of the visitors are from out-of-town and even foreign countries, in particular Russia and Slovenia. If anyone ever wants to see for themselves the potential economic value to our communities of a winter sports facility that provides cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, ice-skating, and skijoring, just stop at Winter Park on a weekend.

            Despite the brilliance of the full moon during our snowshoe hike last week, we could still easily see the constellation Orion. No other winter constellation visible to we northerners contains more brilliant stars than Orion. Rigel, the seventh brightest star in the heavens and Orion’s forward foot, is 40,000 times brighter than our sun and nearly twice as hot – 19,000 degrees F at its surface. It’s 773 light years away, so the light you see tonight emanated in the year 1244.
The red supergiant Betelgeuse in the shoulder of Orion’s raised arm is so enormous that if it was our sun, the Earth would be inside it, as would Mars. At around 500 light years away, its light tonight was thrown into space in the early 1500s. If Betelgeuse were side by side with our sun, you’d find it 10,000 times brighter than the sun. But the surface temperature of Betelgeuse is only about 6,000 degrees F, in contrast to the sun’s 10,000 degrees F. It’s “low” temperature gives it a distinctive orange-red color.
            The three equally bright stars in Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka – are Arabic translations of Greek names. Many star names start with “Al” which is the Arabic prefix for the word “the.” So, Alnitak means “the belt.”

Arctic Sea Ice Hits Record Low
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice extent in the Arctic hit record lows for the months of November, December and January. The new figures for January showed sea ice extent averaged 5.17 million square miles for the month, which was the lowest January extent in the 38-year satellite record. This is 100,000 square miles, or about the size of the state of Oregon, below the previous lowest January extent in January 2016. 
To put it in a longer-term perspective, sea ice extent during January was 487,000 square miles below the January 1981 to 2010 long-term average. This means the Arctic was missing an area of sea ice about the size of South Africa. Keep in mind that this is still the middle of winter. Why so much melting? The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, causing changes to cascade throughout the eight Arctic nations and beyond.

Ice Road from Bayfield to Madeline Island
More locally, this year's mild winter has meant another record low year for ice cover on Lake Superior. For the second year in a row, the Madeline Island ferries will have to run all winter long – the first time that's ever happened. Prior to 1999, the region's four ferries never ran all the way through the winter. But in four out of the last 18 winters, the ice hasn't thickened enough to support an ice road. In two other years, the road was only open about a week. The ice cover on all of Lake Superior as of 2/13 was just 6.4%. Ice cover on Lake Superior has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1973, when federal researchers began keeping ice records.
In a review of ice records for Bayfield that have been kept since the 1850s, the average length of the ice season in the 1800s was closer to 120 days. By the end of the study in 2007, the average length of the season was about 75 days. So, a third of the ice season has gone away.

Celestial Events
            Feb. 20 marks the anniversary of John Glenn’s first orbital flight of earth in 1962. Look on 2/20 and 2/21 before dawn for Saturn near the waning crescent moon. We hit 11 hours of sunlight on 2/27. On 3/1, look after sunset for Mars 4° north of the waxing moon.

Quote for the Week
             “Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, we are feeling creatures that think.” – My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/3/17

A Northwoods Almanac for 2/3 – 2/16/17  

Blue Jay Gluttony
Julie Hillary sent this note: “Last fall I watched a blue jay swallowing seeds at the feeder. When he returned for another load, I counted how many he took before flying off again. Would you believe 93! I called Al and we counted the next load together. Around 90!”
Julie has me beat. The most seeds I ever counted a blue jay taking at one time was 53. However, in one study, a blue jay was observed packing over 100 sunflower seeds into its crop during just one visit to a feeder.
Blue jays don’t swallow the seeds – they store them in an expandable pouch, in their crop, that temporarily holds food. Research studies have recorded blue jays making over 1,000 trips per day when hiding food. In one study in Virginia, 50 blue jays were observed selecting and caching 150,000 acorns over a period of 28 days. Each bird cached a total of 3,000 acorns by selecting and hiding an average of 107 acorns per day harvested from 11 pin oak trees. The researchers found that the jays would carry about seven pin oak acorns per trip.
In another research study, blue jays were observed storing over 2,000 beach tree nuts in one month.
The distance typically traveled to a caching site may be relatively short – a few hundred yards – to a mile or more. One study found that blue jays will bury seeds up to 2.5 miles from their original source, which is a record for any bird. If the jays made ten round-trips per day at 5 miles each round trip (50 miles a day), each might fly 1,500 miles or more per month.
Upon arrival at a cache site, an individual bird places all its acorns in a pile, then buries them singly within a radius of three to ten yards, covering them with dead leaves or pebbles. As omnivores, blue jays may cache any number of items. One observer reported watching four jays cache dead mice in winter. Another observer watched jays cache egg shells, a calcium source, in the fall.
Surprisingly, no studies of cache recovery have been made in the wild, but one source says blue jays retrieve about 30% of the seeds they cache. With many hundreds of cache sites, the memory required to find what’s been stored is quite astonishing, particularly given that the food stored on the ground in fall will be under snow in the winter.
            Blue jays select mostly undamaged nuts to bury; research shows that only 10% of the acorns they cache are not viable seeds. Thus, blue jays are credited with greatly helping the range expansion of many oak species. In fact, the rapid northward dispersal of oaks after the ice age may have resulted from the transport of acorns by jays. Further, researchers now say that due to the blue jay’s habit of burying acorns over a wide area, 11 species of oak trees have become dependent on jays for the dispersal of their acorns.
            So, if you want to plant some oaks on your property, perhaps it would be wise to gather acorns, place them on your feeders, and let the blue jays do the work for you. I should note, though, that blue jays have been found to prefer pin oak (Quercus palustrus) acorns to red oak (Q. rubra) acorns, presumably because of the higher tannin content in the red oaks. It would be interesting to do a little study at one’s feeder, presenting both species of acorns to the jays, and then see what happens.

Wisconsin Climate Change Data
For those who want to explore the best data available on climate change within Wisconsin, please visit the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) webpage at
WICCI was formed in the fall of 2007 by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The Nelson Institute had been approached by several state legislators, who wanted to understand the impact of climate change on their constituents. DNR staff wanted to understand impacts on the state's natural resources, so they could make better management decisions.
Here’s an overview of the data from their website: “Wisconsin's climate has changed since 1950. The average temperature for the whole state has risen by roughly 1.0–1.5 degree F. The rise has been uneven: northwestern parts of Wisconsin have warmed by roughly 2.0 degrees F; southern and northeastern parts have not warmed much, if at all. Temperature changes also differ by season. Winter and spring have warmed more than summer and fall. Nighttime low temperatures have risen more than have daytime highs.
“These changes are reflected in Wisconsin's growing seasons. Since 1950, the growing season has become between one and four weeks longer in different parts of Wisconsin. North central and far northwestern regions have seen the greatest growing season increases. Winter has become correspondingly shorter. Lakes freeze later and thaw earlier on average now than they did in the past. These changes are reflected in plant and animal communities. Spring birds arrive earlier today than in the  past. Spring plants bloom earlier. Gardeners are seeing shifts in plant hardiness zones.”
The website provides many maps and graphs which help immensely to visualize the changes taking place in our state and to recognize the surprising variability across regions.

Please consider: “Objective reality exists. Facts are often determinable. Science and reason are no political conspiracy; they are how we discover objective reality. Civilization's survival depends on our ability, and willingness, to do this.” – Alan MacRobert

Sightings: Snowy Owl, Barred Owl
            Early this week, Ryan Brady, the Coordinator for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, provided the latest statewide snowy owl update. He reports that “only 51 individuals were tallied this year compared to 135 by the same date last year and nearly 240+ in the two years previous. [This is] a bit closer to an average year, if there is such a thing for snowy owls.” A snowy owl was reportedly seen on 1/16/17 near the Winter Park ski area nature shelter, but I’m unaware of any later sightings.
            Peggy Richmond sent me a photo of a barred owl that perched on her deck railing in the Natural Lakes area for the better part of an afternoon on 1/22/17.

photo by Peggy Richmond

While this is a marvelous experience for anyone looking out their window, a barred owl sighting near homes in broad daylight usually bodes poorly for the owl. Peggy’s sighting occurred during our long January thaw when the snow compressed and compacted into a dense crust. For owls that plunge into the snow to capture rodents in the snowpack, a crust snow creates problems. On the other hand, a crust snow often forces rodents to abandon their subnivean hideaways and forage for food above the snow, which exposes them to predation. Apparently, Peggy’s barred owl must have found its particular woodland bereft of rodents, so was forced to try hunting at Peggy’s feeders. The bird did fly away later that day and hasn’t returned, so hopefully that means it hasn’t starved, but is back hunting in its woodland habitat.
            Bev Engstrom sent excellent photos of a pine siskin and a male northern cardinal. Bev noted that the cardinal “was soaking up the sun on a frigid morning along the Wisconsin River in Oneida County.”

photo by Bev Engstrom

photo by Bev Engstrom

Upcoming Snowshoe/Dog-Sled Events
When we first moved here 34 years ago, organized snowshoe trips were unheard of. But today, it’s a very different scene for snowshoers. Three snowshoe events take place tomorrow, 2/4. I belong to ICORE (Iron County Outdoor Recreation Enthusiasts), so I am shamelessly promoting our free snowshoe hike on Saturday, 2/4, from 1-3 p.m at Schomberg County Park on Hwy. 51, about half-way between Mercer and Hurley. In addition, the 6th annual snowshoe celebration sponsored by Tara Lila takes place just south of Eagle River on Saturday, 2/4. The celebration features new snowshoe and fat bike trails at the grand opening of the Ripco Road unit. Lastly, the North Lakeland Discovery Center is also offering a snowshoe hike on 2/4 at the Van Vliet Hemlocks near Presque Isle. It’s a great weekend for snowshoeing!
Later in the week, Mary and I are leading a full-moon snowshoe hike for Nicolet College at Minocqua’s Winter Park on 2/9. And ICORE is also sponsoring a free sled-dog program at the Mercer library on Saturday, 2/11, from 1-3 p.m.

Celestial Events
            Today, 2/3, marks the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. The average midway point between ice-up and ice-out, using the 41-year average for Foster Lake in Hazelhurst, occurs on 2/5. We hit 10 hours of daylight as of 2/7.
            A penumbral eclipse will occur during the full moon on 2/10 with the maximum eclipse occurring about 6:45 p.m. This is a subtle eclipse. Astronomers describe it as a tease, with the moon only becoming shaded on its north side for about 45 minutes on either side of the maximum eclipse.
            For planet-viewing in February, look after sunset for Venus brilliant but very low in the southwest and setting by 9 p.m. Just to its upper left, Mars follows the same pattern – it’s also visible low in the southwest and setting around 9 p.m.
            Later in the evening, look for Jupiter rising in the east around 11 p.m, and shining high in the south before dawn. Saturn rises in the southeast at 4 a.m. and remains in the southeast until the rising sun outshines it.

Quote for the Week
“Without any stake in the places where we live, we walk through days in which there are trees but no tree in particular, we drive along roads that could be anywhere. Such casual familiarity is the opposite of intimacy and attentiveness.” – John Elder