Friday, May 26, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for May 26, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for May 26 – June 8, 2017  

Sightings: First of Year (FOY)
5/9: Jean Hall in Arbor Vitae had her FOY rose-breasted grosbeak.
5/10: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst saw his FOY palm warbler, ovenbird, and black-throated green warbler.
5/10: Bob Kovar observed the FOY Baltimore orioles in Manitowish Waters, and then reported the first ruby-throated hummingbirds to appear in our area the following day.
5/11: Cindy Carpenter reported seeing two whooping cranes on Wind Pudding Lake near McNaughton.
5/11: Pat Schmidt saw her FOY ruby-throated hummingbirds in Hazelhurst, and noted that this was the same day as in 2010, 2014, 2015.
5/12: Toads began loudly trilling along the Manitowish River below our home.
5/15: Debbie and Randy Augustinak in Land O’Lakes reported their FOY male scarlet tanager at their feeders despite a steady rainfall.

scarlet tanager photo by Mike Greedy

5/13: Dan Carney had chestnut-sided warblers, Cape May warblers, and American redstarts at his pond and feeders in Hazelhurst. He had 30+ species in his yard that day!
5/13: I walked outside at 4 a.m. and heard below our house a woodcock “peenting,” a snipe “winnowing,” and a bittern “pump-er-lunking.” The Manitowish River is in full flood, as are many area rivers, and the birds associated with water have a lot of habitat!
5/17: Colleen Hendricks in Lake Tomahawk had a tufted titmouse visiting her feeders, a rare bird in the Northwoods.
5/17: Larry Peterson in Park Falls has a juvenile gray jay coming to his feeder. Gary jays are our earliest nesting songbird, sometimes nesting as early as late February, so a full-grown juvenile in May is not unexpected or unusual, but coming in to a feeder is unusual.
5/17: Nancy Burns in Manitowish Waters snapped a fine picture of a doe with a fawn. This is early for fawns – I always think of Memorial Day as the average date. I suspect our mild winter and early spring has meant an easier pregnancy for does.

photo by Nancy Burns
5/18: Art Foulke in Manitowish Waters had a pair of brown thrashers eating from his suet feeders. He also had a red-headed woodpecker visiting his property.

brown thrasher photo by Cherie Smith
5/18: Pat Schmidt in Hazelhurst had her FOY scarlet tanager.
5/18: Jean Hall in Arbor Vitae reported her FOY pair of American redstarts.
5/19: Don Janssen on Squirrel Lake observed two brown thrashers building a nest on his property. He also noted that they have had a pair of cardinals for several years now, and he sent a picture of the female cardinal at one of his window feeders.
5/20: Rod Sharka on Palmer Lake near Land O’Lakes wrote: “Wow! What a morning at the bird feeders. Besides the usual fare, we've had a flock of rose-breasted grosbeaks, a couple of evening grosbeaks, a lone indigo bunting, and incredibly, a male scarlet tanager. This is the closest look I've ever had of one. I was within 5 feet of it. All in honor of Myrtle's [his wife’s] birthday.” Happy birthday Myrtle!
5/20: Ed Iphish in Minocqua had at his feeder this remarkable color combination: a scarlet tanager, Baltimore orioles, an indigo bunting, and American goldfinches.

Spring Wildflowers at Their Peak
            Last week, Mary and I taught a three-day workshop in Mercer on spring flora, and we were rained out of every field trip we had scheduled! Still, we collected numerous wildflowers for our participants to learn to identify using the plant key in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.
A few spring ephemerals had already gone-by. Bloodroot’s flowers only last two or three days, so only their leaves were still visible. On the other hand, quite a few spring ephemerals were just beginning to flower. In particular, trout lily, both white and yellow, had just come into bloom. Each blossom follows the sun, nearly closing at night, and then lasts only a few days. By the end of May, the flower has usually vanished.    

trout lily photo by Mary Burns
Trout lily has two smooth, shining, long and narrow leaves that are mottled purple, brown, and white – the mottling resembles the marking on a brook trout, hence the name. Usually a solitary light yellow or white flower with six reflexed petals nods from a single stem. A deeply buried smooth white bulb sends out numerous clonal shoots, each shoot soon producing its own new bulb. Thus, trout lily usually grows in extensive colonies often to the exclusion of other plants.
The seeds may take six or more years to produce flowering plants. Little shows above ground in the first two years of life, then only one sterile leaf appears for the next four years. Look for large patches of flowerless leaves still in their juvenile years and awaiting their adulthood. Once into adulthood, trout lilies may live 300 years! 

Munninghoff Marsh
On May 20, I, along with several other members of the Northwoods Land Trust Board of Directors, were privileged to paddle around in the Munninghoff Marsh, one of the most ecologically and biologically significant pieces of land in the state. Considered one of the premier wild rice wetlands in northern Wisconsin, the marsh provides both nesting and migratory stopover habitat for an exceptional array of waterfowl species, and includes extensive frontage on the Rhinelander Flowage of the Wisconsin River.
Wild rice provides valuable cover, food, and loafing sites for numerous bird species and ranks as one of the most important waterfowl foods in North America largely because the maturation of its seeds coincides with fall migration.
Last spring, Scott and Ann Eshelman signed a conservation easement with the Northwoods Land Trust protecting this 210-acre property in perpetuity. The marshlands remain open to the public but can’t be divided and developed, ensuring the wildness of the area.
We were treated to observations of trumpeter swans, great blue herons, bald eagles, and many, many species of waterfowl and songbirds.  
In the last fifteen years, the Northwoods Land Trust has protected more than 11,000 acres of land and 60 miles of lake and river shoreline.

Going to Lengths for Nest Protection
Rod Sharka in Land O’ Lakes sent me the following note: “We have a pair of white-breasted nuthatches nesting in a bird house just outside our office window. Poor things have been pestered by a yellow-bellied sapsucker that loves to "drum" on the house for a sounding board. I hope the nuthatches don't abandon the house. We've learned that nuthatches have a habit of smearing smelly insects or other objects on and around their nesting sites to deter predators. We have been observing this behavior. The nuthatches are smearing/brushing the smelly stuff on the bird house itself...mostly around the entrance hole.”
So, what are the nuthatches up to? Cornell’s Birds of North America says this: “Two forms of nest defense behavior [are] noted: bill-sweeping and distraction display. A nuthatch usually performs bill-sweeping with an object, such as a crushed insect, in its bill. It may be performed both outside and inside the nest for many minutes at a time. The behavior may employ the chemical defense secretions of insects to help keep tree squirrels from entering the nest cavity. Kilham described a case when a pair of nuthatches breeding in his aviary also used beetles to sweep the nest site. The beetles used were identified as Meloe angusticollus [short-winged blister beetle], a species that, when handled, exudes a copious, oily, vesicant [causes blistering] fluid. Likewise, strong-smelling material is occasionally used in nest construction, e.g., nicotine-laden filters from cigarette butts made up the bulk of the lining of one active nest.”

Window Strikes
            Over half a billion birds are estimated to be killed every year in North America after colliding with windows. Birds can’t see glass which means they usually hit windows at full speed. A friend recently brought over a female Cape May warbler that had struck her window, and while this provided a great opportunity to study this bird, we were both saddened by the loss of its life.
            Mary and I have a simple, low cost solution to preventing bird window collisions. We cut long lengths of Christmas wrapping ribbon and simply thumbtack the ribbons into the casing along the top of our windows. The ribbons and down and flutter in the slightest breeze, breaking up the reflection of the woods that a bird might see. While it makes it look like we’re always having a party, that’s better than hearing the sickening thud of a migrating songbird hitting our windows.
            Cost – a few pennies for the ribbon and the thumbtacks. Take the ribbons down after migration if you wish, but we leave them up year-round.

North Lakeland Discovery Center BirdFest
The North Lakeland Discovery Center BirdFest participants tallied 93 species on 5/13, a good number given that quite a few neotropical bird species were still on their way north. The weather was relatively warm with modest winds, an unusual occurrence for this event which has seen some really difficult weather over the years.
One of the highlights was a northern mockingbird that was briefly in our yard that morning while a group of birders were watching our feeders. Northern mockingbirds nest well south of here, so its presence was very unusual.

On May 21, a number of bird-loving friends and I joined forces with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, and Madison Audubon Society to raise support for bird conservation by counting as many birds as we could find in our area in a 24-hour period. 
We did this as part of the sixth annual Great Wisconsin Birdathon which aims to raise at least $70,000 for our state’s breeding, migrating, and wintering birds. Funds raised through this effort will support nine statewide programs that meet the year-round needs of Wisconsin’s birds.  You can view project descriptions at the Birdathon website.
Our Birdathon team, the Up North Hammerheads, fought some rain, wind, and chilly temperatures to count over 100 bird species! Help us help our birds by pledging or donating to the Up North Hammerheads, or to individual members of our team, at!

Celestial Events
            Look for these planets in June: after sunset, Mars is very low in the west, Jupiter is bright in the southwest, and Saturn is rising in the southeast. Before dawn, look for brilliant Venus low in the east.      
            On June 1, we’ll be the recipients of 15 hours and 30 minutes of sunlight (assuming the sun ever reappears after all this rain). On 6/3, look for Jupiter two degrees south of the waning gibbous moon.
            The full moon (the “Strawberry/Rose/Honey Moon”) occurs on 6/9. This is the year’s smallest and most distant full moon, 14% smaller than the closest full moon which will occur on 12/3. Saturn will be three degrees south of the moon all this night.

One of the Values of Winter
            While winter is finally over (we hope!), without experiencing the cold, snow, and ice, the spring would be nowhere near as joyous: In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. – Albert Camus

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for May 12, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for May 12 – 25, 2017  by John Bates

Sightings – First-Of-Year (FOY)
            Even though we lost our snow early in March and had a very early ice-out in April, it’s been a relatively chilly spring with lots of rain and northerly winds, so songbirds have been slow to return. Which means, they’ll be coming in droves as soon as the winds turn southerly – keep watching!
4/1: Mary Jenks on Mann Lake heard her FOY common loon and then saw it on April 3 while the lake still was about 75% covered by ice. She noted, “We did have an aerator in our lake for the first time this year so there was a small area that was open all winter. Last year it wasn't until around April 13 when the loon first arrived.” 
4/27: Mary Thomas in Minocqua had her first ever sighting of a pair of northern flickers.
4/27: Jean Hall in Arbor Vitae spotted a FOY eastern towhee as did Dan Carney in Hazelhurst.
5/2: We spotted our FOY white-crowned sparrows in Manitowish
5/3: Missy Drake has a red-bellied woodpecker coming to her feeders, the first time this more southern bird has found its way to her home.
5/3: Kent Dahlgren in Presque Isle sent a photo of a ruby-crowned kinglet and noted, “I attached a picture of a kinglet which was difficult to get because they seem to never stop moving long enough to take one.” Too true! These tiny birds rapidly flit around in pursuit of insects and are difficult to find in your binoculars, much less to focus-on with a camera. Ruby-crowns nest uncommonly here – we’re at the very southernmost edge of their range – so most are currently migrating through.

photo by Kent Dahlgren

5/4: FOY gadwall on Powell Marsh spotted by Sarah Krembs. FOY Caspian terns photographed by Sarah Krembs on Powell Marsh.

Caspian terns photo by Sarah Krembs
5/5: FOY spotted sandpipers on the Manitowish River. FOY at Powell Marsh for Callie and me: sedge wrens, green-winged teal, leopard frogs “singing.”
5/8: FOY rose-breasted grosbeak in Manitowish.

Trumpeter Swans
            On 5/4, Sarah Krembs sent me an email saying she had counted 26 trumpeter swans on the main pool on Powell Marsh. Callie and I went the next day, 5/5, to Powell and counted 27. Sarah then visited Powell on 5/7 and counted 30, again all on the same pool! What complicates the matter is that one swan appears to be sitting on a nest.
So, what’s going on here?
            Well, let’s look at their breeding phenology. Trumpeters may begin breeding at 2 or 3 years of age, but this is uncommon. More typically they breed at 4-to-7-years-old. Adults that are 2 to 4 years-old often pair up, but may inhabit wetlands for several years before eventually nesting there. Paired birds typically remain together year-round, though breeding swans that lose a mate will quickly re-pair. 
Egg laying occurs between late April and late May. Usually 4 to 6 eggs are in a clutch, but there may be as many as 9. The female lays her eggs with an interval of 39 to 48 hours between each egg. Incubation then lasts 32 to 37 days, most of which is done by the female while the male remains near the nest and is highly antagonistic toward just about anything that comes remotely close. Once hatched, the chicks are brooded by the female for a day or two, and then are capable of swimming and feeding themselves on aquatic vegetation and invertebrates found on the water surface. 
            Given the above timing of egg laying, my best guess is that the trumpeter’s nesting has been delayed this spring on Powell, despite the appearance of a female possibly incubating eggs on a nest. Perhaps there is still infighting going on within this large group to determine what pair gets the nesting territory. Or perhaps these are nearly all 2-to-4-year-old trumpeters who are too young for mating this spring, and are just “socializing.”
            I honestly don’t know, but it’s a mesmerizing sight to see so many swans in one location.

Wilson’s Snipe and the Origin of the Snipe Hunt
On May 1, we were surprised to see a Wilson’s snipe searching for food under our feeders in Manitowish along with white-throated sparrows, tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and an array of others. Two days later, it (or a different one) was under our feeders again. I posted a photo of the bird on Facebook, and many folks responded that they had never seen one, or that they always thought snipe were a myth, a practical joke to play on summer campers from the city.

photo by John Bates

But no, snipe are real birds, and are actually quite common in the Northwoods in wetland habitats. We see them regularly at Powell Marsh, and hear and see them around our house in Manitowish where we are bordered by extensive wetlands to our south.
Wikipedia says this about the prank snipe hunts:“A snipe hunt, a made-up hunt that is also known as a fool’s errand, is a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called the snipe as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises such as banging rocks together.”
How this practical joke came about appears to be connected to how snipe were hunted in some areas. Similar to hunting deer by doing a drive, a group of hunters would stretch across a marsh and make all kinds of noise by banging pots and pans as well as using spotlights or torches to push the snipe toward another group of hunters waiting for them at the other end of the marsh. Apparently, the birds often became so bewildered that some could be caught with a long-handled net or a burlap bag.
Snipe hunts are real – they’re a huntable migratory game bird species in Wisconsin. The daily bag limit is eight, and the season is concurrent with duck season.
My snipe hunting, however, is done with my ears and binoculars. Male, and occasionlly female, snipe “winnow” over wetlands in the spring, sailing high into the air and then diving and spreading their tail feathers in a manner that makes an eerie, haunting “hu-hu-hu” sound. With careful scanning with one’s binoculars, it’s not hard to follow the snipe in the air as it does this flight display to either impress a potential mate or defend a territory. Snipe winnow day or night, but most commonly just after sunset. Listen for them!
Spring Beauties
            Mary and I are teaching a spring flora class next week and have been out hunting for spring flowers. Given the sandy soils that dominate our area, spring ephemerals are quite uncommon locally. But when we find areas where the soil is richer, we often find a bonanza of spring flowers.
One we find every spring in enormous numbers is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica or caroliniana).  The flowers can be either pink or white, but both will be lined with darker pink veins that look like candy-striping and which strongly reflect ultraviolet light. The veins act as landing strip “lights” to guide insects into the flower nectaries for pollination.
            These tiny flowers are truly ephemeral, each lasting only about three days, and closing at night and during cold or cloudy weather. By the end of May, the leaves and stems will have died back, and the plant will live underground again until the following year. So, the window for seeing these little beauties is short – get out and enjoy them while you can.

Frog Count
            Mary and I conducted our first DNR frog count of the year in western Vilas County on April 24, and it was a general bedlam of spring peepers. We’re water-rich this spring, so our many wetlands are a happiness of frogs. The frogs are also singing earlier than on average – Callie and I heard leopard frogs on 5/6, which is a few weeks ahead of usual.
Conserve School
            Twice a year, fall and spring semester, I’m privileged to visit the Conserve School in Land O’Lakes. If you're not familiar with the school, it provides: “A semester-long immersion in environmental studies and outdoor activities which deepens students’ love of nature, reinforces their commitment to conservation, and equips them to take meaningful action as environmental stewards.”
 If you have doubts about young folks taking care of this world, you need to spend some time with these students. They’re currently out on various week-long camping trips ranging from paddling in the Sylvania Wilderness to hiking the North Country Trail. If you have a son/daughter or grandson/granddaughter who loves the natural world, consider sending them there for a semester (see And remarkably – I’d even say astonishingly – it’s free for nearly all students.

Celestial Events
            Planets in May: before dawn, look for brilliant Venus (-4.7 magnitude) low in the east. After dusk, Mars can be seen very low in the western twilight. Jupiter is bright in the southwest, and Saturn rises in the southeast after 11 p.m. and then transits south.
On 5/13, look for Saturn 3 degrees south of the waning gibbous moon. On 5/16, we reach 15 hours of daylight, and now we are only gaining 2 minutes of daylight per day as we streak toward summer solstice. On 5/22, look before dawn for Venus 2 degrees north of the waning crescent moon. The new moon occurs on 5/25 and is at its closest (perigee) to earth in 2017 – 221,959 miles away.

Thought for the Week
No matter where you look, the longer and closer you observe, the more complicated and mysterious the world gets. If you take the Hubble telescope and look 13 billion light-years into space, does the universe become simpler? No, it becomes infinitely complex – so much so that we can’t explain some of what we find. And then, if you look into the microcosm, do things break down into simple elemental units? No. The closer we look, the more complexity we see, until the ordinary laws of physics no longer apply.  Joe Hutto

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at