Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for March 31, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/31 – 4/13, 2017  

3/13: The bald eagle pair that nests across the Manitowish River from our house began incubating eggs today. The activity around the nest now involves an eagle flying in and settling down into the nest, while another one emerges from lower in the nest and flies off. Bald eagles share the incubation of their eggs, so this trading of tasks is regular throughout the day. Incubation typically lasts around 30 days, so we expect to see the activity around the nest change again around April 13 when they will then be tasked with feeding the chick or chicks. This is, by the way, an early date for nesting – the average date is closer to April 1. Bob Kovar in Manitowish Waters also reported that the eagle pair nesting on his property began incubating the same day.

3/17: Our FOY (First-Of-Year) red-winged blackbirds returned to our feeders in Manitowish, as did an American tree sparrow.
3/23: Our FOY white-throated sparrows returned to Manitowish.
3/24: Nancy Burns spotted the FOY hooded mergansers on the Manitowish River.
3/25: Sharon Lintereur in Lake Tomahawk saw movement in their owl nesting box, and it turns out that for the second consecutive year, a pair of barred owls are nesting there. Barred owls nest most often in deciduous trees, primarily in cavities formed by disease, broken branches, or cavities in the top of broken trees (snags). However, they will use open stick nests built by hawks, crows, ravens, or squirrels, too. They also readily take to nest boxes, as is the case at the Lintereur home. Incubation is done solely by the female and is usually about a month, with an average clutch size of 2 to 3 eggs. If more than 3 eggs are laid, each on successive days, the youngest of the brood often is underweight and weak, and may be eaten by its nestmates.

photo by Sharon Lintereur
3/25: Mary and I spotted our FOY common goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, and common mergansers in Marquette, MI, on Lake Superior.
3/27: Our FOY common grackles appeared at our feeders in Manitowish.

On the Horizon
            Numerous species of birds have migrated into southern Wisconsin and most are poised to continue their flights into the Northwoods as the weather warms. Keeping records on when various species return is all part of phenology, or the study of the orderly timing and progression of natural events. Others define it as the study of biological cycles and seasonal rhythms. It’s nature’s calendar. I encourage you to keep a calendar of your first sightings, from ice-off on your lake, to the first birds and flowers, to various temperature and rainfall recordings. Relying on our memories, at least for those of us without photographic memories, is a sure way to ruin otherwise. Then pass on your records to the next person who will own your home, so they know what to look for and when.

Five Drummers Drumming
            Woodpeckers are beginning to drum regularly on trees around our home, the males now establishing territories and beginning to woo a mate. If you pay attention to the duration, speed, and volume of the drumming, you can identify the species by the drum pattern. We only have five common woodpeckers in our area – pileated, hairy, downy, northern flicker, and yellow-bellied sapsucker – so it’s not too daunting. You may also hear red-bellied woodpeckers which continue to slowly move north into the Lakeland region, as well as red-headed woodpeckers which have become less common. And if you are particularly blessed, you could hear a black-backed woodpecker. But we are at the southern-most edge of their range, and they’re rare.
            The drumming for territories and mates is different from that of the arrhythmic tapping heard from woodpeckers as they excavate nests and search for insects. The drumming from yellow-bellied sapsuckers is an easy one to start with because it starts strong with several relatively fast taps, then slows down, and finally fades out at the end. It can be very irregular, often changing in successive drumrolls – you can think of it as a Morse code: Tap-Tap-Tap…tap-tap-tap . . . tap . . . tap . . . tap.
            The pileated is the power drummer of the crew, pounding out a crescendo that is deep and resonant, lasting for three seconds or more. Both genders drum, but the females less frequently. Famed ornithologist George Sutton described the sound as a repeated sequence of “an introductory, rapidly given ; then a pause, followed by three distinct blows; another pause; and two concluding blows.” It’s the volume that gives this one away without a doubt, and you can literally hear the hollowness of the tree.

pileated chicks in nesting cavity

            Things get a little dicier now in identifying the drumming patterns. The drumming of northern flickers has been described as “a miniature pneumatic drill,” produced by even, rapid blows. The drum roll only averages a little more than a second long, but contains 25 beats in a roll. Like many woodpeckers, flickers will often drum on a metal surface. One flicker in Wyoming beat on the cowling of an abandoned farm tractor and could be heard almost a half-mile away.
            The hairy woodpecker drums at a relatively steady rate, but more rapidly and with longer pauses than the downy woodpecker. Its drumroll lasts about a second and has 26 beats – it goes by so fast that you can’t pick out the individual taps – whereas a downy’s drumroll lasts three-quarters of a second and averages 13 beats. Here you can just pick out each tap.
The downy also loves to drum more, offering 9 to 16 drumrolls a minute versus the less enthusiastic hairy which only drums 4 to 9 times a minute.
Both sexes drum in all these species for a variety of reasons:
1.     To defend a territory
2.     As part of a courtship
3.     To solicit copulation
4.     To summon a mate from distance away
5.     To communicate their location to a mate or in response to a nest intruder
6.     Or for reasons no one will ever know
            Drumming does occur year-round in woodpeckers, but it’s much more intensive in spring. While species identification from drumming can be done with practice, if I had a nickel for every misidentification I’ve made of birds, I’d be a wealthy man.

Saw-whet Owls Calling
I’ve yet to hear a saw-whet owl “singing,” but now is the time to go out after dark and listen for their monotonous tooting. While saw-whets produce a series of different calls, the one most often heard is the “advertising call,” which is an endless loop of whistled “toots” on a constant pitch. The call comes at a rate of about two per second and sounds, and when researchers say it’s monotonous, they really mean monotonous – the song can literally go on for an hour or more.

saw-whet owl range map

Celestial Events
            Jupiter will be at its closest to the Earth on 4/7 and brighter than at any other time this year, and is also visible all night. You should be able to see Jupiter’s four moons with a good pair of binoculars. If you can’t, this is a good excuse to buy that spotting scope you’ve always wanted – see The moons are often called Galilean moons for Galileo who discovered them in 1610.
            Galileo was employed by Cosimo de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In seeking further patronage from this wealthy family, he used the discovery of the moons to name them the “Medician Stars” after the Medici Clan. He wrote a dedication letter to the Duke in which he said, “Scarcely have the immortal graces of your soul begun to shine forth on earth than bright stars offer themselves in the heaven which like tongues will speak of and celebrate your most excellent virtues for all time. Behold, therefore, four stars reserved for your illustrious name . . .” It occurs to me this practice continues in our time, but is used to gain money by naming stadiums after corporations, not moons after Dukes.
On 4/10, look for Jupiter in the southeast just two degrees below the nearly full moon. Full moon occurs the next day, 4/11.
For planet viewing in April, look after dusk for Mars very low in the western twilight – it’s lost by late-month. Jupiter is very bright in the southeast. Before dawn, look for Venus very low in the eastern twilight and climbing. Look also for Saturn in the south (Saturn rises after 1 a.m. in the ESE if you are wandering around at that hour). Saturn’s rings are tilted at nearly 27 degrees from edge-on.
            April 12 marks the anniversary of the first human in space – Yuri Gagarin in 1961 from Russia – when the race for space really heated up.

Thought for the Week
“Wisdom grows as a river grows, from the accumulation of many small things.” Kathleen Dean Moore     
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/17/17

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/17 – 30, 2017  by John Bates

            Definition: a fickle, capricious, conning, disloyal, mercurial, unfaithful, volatile, scamming, betraying, whimsical, double-crossing, two-timing, double-dealing, coquettish, arbitrary, deceiving yo-yo.

Seed Catalog Mania
It’s that time of year when winter drags you down like a waterlogged pair of coveralls, and seed catalogs become a source of nearly biblical inspiration. So, what to plant? Cathy Logan-Weber sent me a short list of native plants she is considering planting as part of a new pollinator garden at the community center in Presque Isle.
She writes, “For spring, I will plant nursery-purchased native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) instead of crocus. I have blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) to plant in place of non-native forget-me-not. For summer bloom, I love the beautiful Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and the lavender wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). One of the gardeners has started cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) by seed, and I will start anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) by seed. We will encourage nearby common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for the heavenly fragrance. For fall, I would consider false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoids) and native goldenrods (Solidago speciosa). Native grasses give shelter for insects, so I’ll try big and little bluestem (Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium) for fall and winter interest.
            She also recommends reading The Midwestern Native Garden: An Illustrated Guide by Adelman and Schwartz for its emphasis on regionally native Midwestern plants as alternatives to popular non-native flowers. The book offers additional notes on wildlife attracted to the particular native plants, and the flowers are grouped by seasons.
            For the many reasons why we all should be planting native species rather than non-natives, please also consider reading Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy.

Spring Migrations
            If you want to follow the progress of spring migration for species like ruby-throated hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, go to for maps showing up-to-date movements for each species.

            I traveled to Madison last weekend and saw many sandhill cranes in fields along Highway 51/39. Cranes come back early to the Northwoods, sometimes as early as late March, so keep an eye out for them in the coming weeks.
            Waterfowl are returning to whatever open water can be found, and often the first duck to return is the common goldeneye. Bev Engstrom shared a beautiful close-up of one from 3/3.

common goldeneye photo by Bev Engstrom
Trumpeter swans continue to return to our area. Sharon Lintereur sent a fine photograph on 3/4 of three trumpeters on the Wisconsin River off Hwy. D near Lake Tomahawk.

trumpeter swans photo by Sharon Lintereur
            On 3/11, Linda Johnson reported seeing the FOY (first-of-the-year) belted kingfisher on a little creek on Lower Kaubashine Road in Hazelhurst.

Sandhill Crane Hunt?
Once again, a state sandhill crane hunt is being put to a vote. On Monday, April 10, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress will hold hearings in each county to discuss a multitude of DNR-related conservation issues, one of which is whether to open a hunting season on sandhill cranes in Wisconsin.
The issues/concerns that I see are the following:
First, twenty-five percent of the world’s wild and federally endangered whooping cranes now summer in Wisconsin. Many people are concerned that whooping cranes could be accidentally mistaken for sandhill cranes during a legal hunt in poor light or bad weather conditions. In these conditions, or conversely in very bright light, the silhouette of a whooping crane is nearly identical to that of a sandhill crane. Whooping cranes also frequently associate in the same flocks with sandhill cranes, while young whooping cranes, which have some brown plumage, can also be mistaken for sandhill cranes.
             Second, while a total of 15 states have hunting seasons for sandhill cranes, all of these states except for two harvest from the most abundant regional populations – the Mid-Continent population and the Rocky Mountain population. Both of these populations are made up of lesser sandhill cranes, not greater sandhill cranes, which are the only cranes found in Wisconsin. The total Eastern Population of the greater sandhill crane, including the greater sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, is estimated to be between 60,000 and 70,000 individuals. The Mid-Continent Population of least sandhills has a population estimate between 500,000 and 600,000 individuals.
            Third, it’s true that sandhill cranes cause agricultural damage, primarily to field corn and potatoes, and it’s a legitimate problem. Currently, shooting of sandhill cranes is granted to farmers with demonstrated crop damage via agricultural damage shooting permits. These permits are typically issued in the spring and early summer, when crop damage is most likely. Although some proponents of a sandhill crane hunt have suggested that a fall harvest might provide a partial solution to the crop damage issue, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the International Crane Foundation have determined that even a carefully regulated autumn hunt would not be an effective deterrent to cranes causing spring crop damage.
Further, researchers have been investigating non-lethal methods to reduce agricultural damage by sandhill cranes and have found one method that works – a chemical repellant known as Avipel® which contains a naturally produced biochemical found in some plants. Corn seeds treated with this compound are unpalatable to cranes. When cranes first encounter Avipel-treated seeds, they learn that all germinating seeds have been treated. Cranes then move on to other food items, such as soil insects, earthworms, and waste grain, but remain in the corn field.
            So, as with most management issues, there’s a cost/benefit analysis that needs to be done. Wisconsin’s current population of 14,000 sandhill cranes has grown from an estimated 25 in the 1930s because of protections from hunting. And for me, while a closely monitored, low quota hunt could potentially be sustainable, the gain for the few hunters who would get permits doesn’t begin to equal the risks to the endangered whooping crane population. Nor, I would argue, is there any sport in shooting a crane standing in a field, or flying low and slow overhead , neck outstretched in all of its beauty. 

Early Spring for Us?
For the entire continental United States, February 2017 was the second warmest on record since climate tracking started in 1895, and mean temperatures were especially high east of the Rockies: as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Overall, the country recorded its 6th-warmest winter. Sixteen states experienced their warmest February ever recorded. The average U.S. temperature last month climbed 7.3 degrees above average (NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information). Cities and towns across the nation tallied 11,743 record highs compared to 418 record lows in February
More regionally, the ice went off Lake Mendota in Madison on March 7. This date is tied with the second earliest ice-off in recorded history which spans from 1855. It is nearly a month earlier than the median ice-off date of April 4th.
The first day of spring arrives March 20. But spring tree leaves arrived in mid-January in some parts of the South, and spring has since spread northward like a wave. The attached maps, one of January and one of February, plot the date of “first leaf,” a temperature-based calculation of when vegetation that has been dormant starts to show signs of life. This year, with the exception of a few small areas, spring has arrived much earlier than the 30-year average. The light green on the maps represents the 30-year average, and the dark green shows this year.
Whether spring will arrive early in our area is a question we’ll have to wait a month or
more to answer.

Celestial Events
            The official spring (vernal) equinox occurs on 3/20, but in the Lakeland area, we’ll achieve equal lengths of day and night today, 3/17. This will be the first day since 9/24 when the day was longer than the night.

Eliminate EPA?
            I avoid politics in this column, but clean air and clean water really aren’t political – they’re a fundamental right for all life. I was born in Gary, Indiana, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (I fell in love with a Wisconsin girl when I was 20 – a blessing!). My father worked for U.S. Steel, and we all knew, knew in every sensory way possible, what polluted rivers looked and smelled like, and what polluted air smelled and tasted like, even felt like when you could wipe black particulate matter off your windows. My father knew where to park his car near one of the steel mills based on which way the wind was blowing that day – park it in the wrong lot, and the paint on your car would be pitted by the end of the day. Drive into a tunnel in Pittsburgh and get caught in a traffic jam, and honest to God, you thought you might die from the fumes. Head up to Lake Erie to take a swim, or swim in the Allegheny River? You’d be literally out of your mind.
My father knew all of this as a child, too. He was raised in Cleveland not far from the Cuyahoga River, famed for catching on fire. A Federal Water Pollution Control Administration official told Time magazine in the 1960s, “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.”
So, when folks say let’s scuttle the EPA, I am literally stunned. I don’t have any “good old days” fantasy about an unregulated natural world. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act to control hazardous chemicals, the “Superfund” Act enacted after the events at Love Canal, on and on. These were moments of celebration, of wisdom, of moral elevation and justice.
Most folks don’t know what the EPA actually does, so here’s a very brief summary: Permit mines, industries, pipelines, chemical plants via environmental impact statements; monitor facilities that pose environmental risks like all of the above; clean-up the sites where corporations cut and run – as of 2014, there were 1322 Superfund sites with 53 additional proposed sites (55 Superfund sites are currently being cleaned up in Wisconsin); evaluate the safety of chemicals in food, cleaning compounds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, paints, et al – each year, 2,000 new chemicals come on the market; regulate, limit, and monitor air pollution from engines, coal-fired generating plants, chemical plants, et al; set minimum water quality standards and enforce them from point and non-point sources including industries, sewage treatment plants, CAFOs, mines, et al; develop standards for nuclear waste disposal and protect human health from exposure to harmful radiation at health facilities, military operations, industrial sites, et al.
And, importantly, it’s Congress that dictates EPA’s responsibility in all of these federal acts. They wrote them – not the EPA. If any of these acts are too burdensome in some egregious manner, Congress should amend them appropriately after full public review. But to throw this baby out with the bath water? We’d be turning back the clock to the 1950s, and there’s a whole lot of us who remember in our very blood what that was like.

Quote for the Week
            [Because spring is coming]: The earth laughs in flowers. Ralph Waldo Emerson

 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