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.
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