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 www.conserveschool.org). 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 manitowish@centurytel.net, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at www.manitowishriver.blogspot.com.

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