Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/3/17

A Northwoods Almanac for March 3 – 16, 2017 

Chickadee Elders
            In my last column, I mentioned that Bruce Bacon, a veteran licensed bird bander in Mercer, had banded a shrike at his feeders. The upside of having a shrike at your feeders is that you get to see an uncommon predator visiting us from Canada. The downside is that the shrike scares away nearly all of the songbirds that had been visiting your feeders. So, Bruce, now bereft of birds to band around his feeders in the last two weeks due to the shrike’s presence, took the time to revisit some of his banding records. In looking at his chickadee records, he found that the oldest chickadee he ever banded was 11 years and 4 months old. He had banded the bird in early April of 2005, so the bird had to have been minimally one year old given that chickadees typically don’t hatch out until late April/early May (the bird banding lab in Patuxent assumes a June hatching date for all birds). He last recaptured the bird in October of 2015, making the bird at least 11 years and 4 months old, and perhaps older. In between those years, he recaptured the chickadee eight times, all on different years, proving that this bird remained territorial in the area around Bruce’s home. This is a truly old bird given that black-capped chickadees can expect to live only about three years. Only half even survive their first winter
            Bruce also found that he had captured and recaptured two other chickadees around his home that were at least 10 years old, and two others in the Three Lakes area that were also at least 10 years old.
            Now, these birds are a tiny percentage of all the chickadees Bruce has banded over the last few decades, but nevertheless, they provide insight into the potential lifespan of chickadees.
            The oldest black-capped chickadee that I’m able to find in the bird banding literature was banded in Minnesota and lived a minimum of 11 years and 6 months, so Bruce may have a record Methuselah on his hands if he can recapture his bird this spring.
Bruce notes that “if chickadees were the size of crows, it wouldn’t be safe to go into the woods. They’re fearless and never stop pecking your hand.”
Just out of curiosity, I checked to find the oldest known red-breasted nuthatch, a bird of similar size and relative commonality to a chickadee around our feeders – only 6 years and 9 months.                           
            To see the accepted longevity records of other birds utilizing Patuxent Wildlife Research Center bird banding data, go to
            Aldo Leopold wrote about banding chickadees in his December chapter of A Sand County Almanac, noting that in banding 97 chickadees during the 1930s, only one survived for five winters, 3 for 4 years, 7 for 3 years, 19 for 2 years, and 67 disappeared after their first winter. Of the one that survived 5 years (#65290), he wrote: “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.”
photo by Bev Engstrom

Sightings – Siskins, Redpolls, Starlings, Robins, Swans, Eagles
            Pine siskins appeared at our feeders on 2/15, and now number in the many dozens. A few common redpolls have joined them as of 2/25. The big news was the appearance of both a European starling and a red-winged blackbird at our feeders on 2/23. We also had a robin and several bohemian waxwings appear on 2/27.
            Numerous trumpeter swans have migrated back already. Ron and Pam Ahles reported seeing two swans on the open water at Thorofare Bridge on the Pike/Round Lake Chain on 2/20.  They noted that last year it was February 23rd when they first saw them. Bev Engstrom saw several trumpeters on the Wisconsin River south of Rhinelander on 2/22., while Mary and I saw trumpeters on the Wisconsin River at McNaughton on 2/21.
photo by Bev Engstrom

            Ron Eckstein sent me a remarkable story of three eagles – two males and one female – successfully sharing in all aspects of nesting and raising chicks. Their nest is located in the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Lock and Dam 13, Fulton IL. In 2016, the trio of eagles successfully fledged three young. Video was taken of all three copulating, building the nest and raising the young. This spring they are currently sharing in the incubation of three new eggs.  See
Across the Manitowish River from our home, a pair of eagles has returned and is now working on repairing their nest. Each year an adult eagle pair will add 1 to 2 feet of new material to their nest. “Our” eagle pair across is likely the same pair as previous years since eagles typically remain together for many years. Bald eagles will vigorously defend their territories from intrusion by other eagles, particularly during nesting season. However, if a mate dies or does not return to the nesting site for the breeding season, studies show that the surviving eagle will most often quickly find a new mate and use the existing nest because of eagles’ strong nest site fidelity.
About 50% of the eaglets die in their first year. Another 20 to 30% die before they reach adulthood at four to five years of age.

A Butterfly Spring Harbinger
As March wanders in, snowing one day and beaming warmth the next, harbingers of spring appear, from bursting pussy willow buds to the return of the first robin. But few have as remarkable a story as the first flitting butterfly of the season, the mourning cloak. Even with snow on the ground, mourning cloaks will emerge from hibernation, bringing beauty to an otherwise wintery day.
Their emergence seems miraculous on such cold days. They’ve just spent six months nearly frozen in tree cavities, or beneath loose tree bark, in wood piles, or in unheated buildings. The cold itself is not a direct hazard to the butterflies – rather, it’s the formation of ice crystals in their body tissue that can quickly be lethal. To keep from freezing, mourning cloaks reduce the amount of water in their blood by as much as 30 percent and then thicken it with a sugar solution of sorbitol. Their antifreeze outdoes anything we humans put in our cars. Using electrical conductivity, biologists found that mourning cloaks do not freeze until the temperature reaches minus 220°F.
To prevent being detected through the long winter, mourning cloaks have evolved a cryptic coloration pattern on the underside of their wings that blends beautifully with wood.
Once they emerge, they are short on fat and need to eat, so they often seek out running tree sap or rotten fruit.
Butterflies need body temperatures close to ours to fly. All of our spring-active butterflies have dark-colored bodies and wings to aid in solar heating their bodies. Watch for mourning cloaks basking, opening their wings and angling their bodies toward the sun, to increase their body temperature prior to flight.
Larry Weber, author of Butterflies of the North Woods, has kept a record over decades of the first emergence of mourning cloaks in the Duluth area. March 7 is the earliest he’s recorded, though April 8 is the average. With our temperature currently ping-ponging up into the 50s, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the record early date broken.
The mourning cloak is found throughout most of North America and Europe and in a broad band across central Asia. So, they don’t just announce spring in Wisconsin, but around much of the world.
photo by Mary Burns
River Opening
The Manitowish River opened below our house on 2/21, 24 days earlier than our 28-year average of 3/16. This is the second earliest date I have in my records – only a 2/16 ice-out in 1997 was earlier.
Celestial Events
In my last column, I wrote about Betelgeuse, the red supergiant star in Orion’s shoulder. Ron Winter emailed to note that Betelgeuse is the largest single object we can see in the night sky, though it should also be noted that the star is classified as a pulsating star and has no definable edge. Thus, its diameter changes over time.
Betelgeuse is also a variable star whose brightness ranges from an amplitude of 0.0 to 1.3, making it the sixth to the twentieth brightest star we see in our night sky. However, only about 13% of the star's radiant energy is emitted in the form of visible light. If human eyes were sensitive to radiation at all wavelengths, Betelgeuse would appear as the brightest star in the sky.
            During the first week of March, our Lakeland area average high temperature reaches 32° for the first time since November 27. Minocqua averages 265 days with high temperatures above freezing, or 72% of the year.
            By 3/8, we will be receiving 11 hours and 32 minutes of sunlight. The full moon, known variously as the “Sap,” “Crust on Snow,” or “Crow” moon, occurs on 3/12. On 3/14, look for Jupiter two degrees below the waning gibbous moon.

Thought for the Week
            “With a deepening of focus, keen preparation, attention to the path below our feet, and respect for the destination at hand, it is possible to transform even the most ordinary trip into a sacred journey, a pilgrimage.” Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

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   

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