Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for June 23, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for June 23 – July 6, 2017  by John Bates

Bird Preachers: Phoebes, Whip-poor-wills, Red-eyed Vireos
            We all know folks that are chatterboxes. Well, there are a number of birds that fit into this noisy category as well. We have a pair of Eastern phoebes in our yard that begin calling well before dawn, and seem never to tire of hearing themselves repeat the same nasally phrase in a steady tempo – “Fee-bee, fee-bee, fee-bee” ad nauseam. They also offer a second version – a “fee-b-be-be” which is noticeable if you listen closely.
Donald Kroodsma, in his book The Singing Life of Birds, did an experiment to prove that Eastern phoebes are born knowing just these two songs. He took five nestlings from a single nest and raised the chicks where they never heard a phoebe song. In fact, they heard only marsh wren and willow flycatcher songs from birds that were also part of this experiment. But it didn’t matter what they heard. The three males in the group sang perfectly normal phoebe songs, as did the females, though less frequently. And all the songs were in perfect tempo and order, just as if they’d been taught to do so by their parents. Thus, phoebes don’t learn their songs – they’re born knowing them, and an Eastern phoebe in Texas sounds exactly like one in Maine or Alberta.
Whip-poor-wills repeat their “songs” at an astonishing rate, like an “avian metronome,” writes Kroodsma. In a half hour, they’ll already have sung at least 1,000 songs. They do pause on occasion, but not for long. Kroodsma counted the songs from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. in a Massachusetts woods, and totaled 20,898 songs. He writes, “Song after song, for almost nine hours, averaging about 2,300 songs an hour, 40 songs a minute; a song every second and a half in the 30-some thousand seconds from 13 minutes after sunset until 33 minutes before sunrise, each one just the same, they still reverberate within my skull, unable to escape . . . whoever thought of counting sheep never knew the whip-poor-will.”
He adds, “It’s a world record, as best I can tell, the fastest singing rate sustained over one entire waking period, eclipsing the old record of a song every two and a quarter seconds by a red-eyed vireo. The vireo has 20 to 50 different songs, too, successive ones always different – the whip-poor-will has only one song, successive songs always the same.”
Which brings us to the red-eyed vireo, who has been given the nickname “the preacher bird.” He holds the record for the most songs in a 24-hour period – 22,197 – but over a 14-hour day, unlike the 9-hour night utilized by a whip-poor-will. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence counted the vireo’s songs north of Toronto on May 27, 1952. The vireo began singing nine minutes before sunrise (some 20 other bird species had already begun singing well before this), and sang for 14 hours, though he paused to preen or forage at times, but “occasionally singing with his mouth full.” He was “always lovely and clear, simple and eloquent,” she wrote. Kroodsma notes that each song only lasts about one-third of a second, followed by a pause of a second, so the vireo averages about 30 songs per minute.
These three birds are clearly preachers with a sermon they feel should be told again and again. Whether the females in their territories would agree is unknown, but one can’t argue with their evolutionary success – they’re here, and they’re eager to let us know. 

Shrubs/Small Trees in Flower
            Nannyberry, high-bush cranberry, various dogwoods, blackberry, mountain ash, and black cherry are all in flower right now, all in hopes of rapid pollination and ultimately a bountiful fruit crop by which to distribute their seeds.

nannyberry flowers

mountain ash flowers

6/9: Julie and Al Hillary caught a picture on their wildlife trail camera of a mother bear with five cubs.
6/12: Bob Kovar was riding his bike down Powell Road at 3 p.m. when he came upon a family of two adult trumpeter swans strolling with their five young down the road. By the time he got his camera out, four babies had hidden in the grass. He noted, “The male got all big and started to snarl at me, so I just turned around and came home! But there was no water there . . . Never saw swans strolling down pavement before!” My note back to him, “Neither have I!”

6/16: Joe Mastalski sent me a photo of a huge chicken-of-the-woods mushroom on an old oak tree stump. He noted that it should be a great year for mushrooms given all the rain – too true!

6/14: Carrie Roberts sent me a photo her daughter Kayla took of a scarlet tanager in their backyard.
6/22: Beth Huizenga sent photos of a Blackburnian warbler at their cabin in Presque Isle. Blackburnians spend most of their time high up in older trees, so any pictures are thus hard to come by. But if there’s any warbler more beautiful, and thus more worthy of being photographed, I don’t know what it is.
6/15: We had Baltimore orioles visiting us for a month to feed on oranges we put out for them, but no longer. I suspect since they’re on nest incubating eggs or already raising chicks, insect protein is more important now than fruit. See Bev Engstrom’s excellent photo of a female oriole incubating eggs in a classic hanging basket nest.

            On 6/ 15, I helped Bruce Bacon, retired DNR wildlife manager and ace bird-bander, band birds on his breeding bird atlas block north of Mercer. What’s the breeding bird atlas? It’s a comprehensive field survey running from 2015-2019 documenting the distribution and abundance of birds breeding in Wisconsin. The Atlas is a volunteer effort, with birdwatchers, nature centers, nonprofit organizations and government agencies coming together in a project coordinated jointly by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.
            Bruce and I set up ten nets along the edges of an old logging road to help identify and confirm birds that are breeding in that area. It’s difficult to absolutely confirm that a bird species is breeding somewhere – a visual identification or hearing a male sing only tells you that a bird is present and hoping to breed, but not that it has succeeded in nesting. Capturing and banding birds allows a bander to see if the female has an incubating brood patch on her chest, or if a male has a “cloachial proturberance,” both of which confirm that breeding has taken place.
            Highlights of our banding effort included an indigo bunting, a chestnut-sided warbler, a magnolia warbler, and a white-throated sparrow that ate four deer flies while Bruce was handling it, a consumption we very much appreciated and which Bruce had never seen before in his 35 years of banding birds.
indigo bunting

chestnut-sided warbler

magnolia warbler

Canoeing the Manitowish with The Center for Conservation Leadership
I was privileged to be asked to lead a canoe trip down the Manitowish River for 15 students from the Chicago area who are part of The Center for Conservation Leadership, an educational initiative of Lake Forest Open Lands Association. The Center for Conservation Leadership (CCL) mission is to develop and empower high school students from diverse backgrounds who have a keen interest in the environment and a passion for the outdoors.
The students are all going into 9th or 10th grades, and few have any real experience in the Northwoods. I was impressed by their inquisitiveness, their sharp minds, and their big hearts!
The CCL provides them a three-week long field experience which includes stays at the North Lakeland Discovery Center, Camp Manitowish, Northland College, and UW Stevens Point, as well as camping in the Porcupine Mountains.
The natural history highlight of our canoe trip for me was the extraordinary number of dragonflies that were in the process of hatching – I’ve never seen so many! The aquatic larvae had climbed up onto the emergent stems of pickerelweed, grasses, and sedges and were in various stages of emergence. Nearly all were in the family of clubtail dragonflies, including the dragonhunter dragonfly, which is over three inches long.

dragonhunter emergence

Loons and Black Flies
Walter Piper, a long-time loon researcher in our area, posted this on his blog ( on 6/16: “The news from our study area is mixed. Seventeen of 120 loon pairs survived the black fly onslaught and have hatched chicks from their first nesting attempt. Another 54 pairs are incubating eggs – nearly all from re-nesting attempts after abandoned first attempts. A few more pairs will yet try to nest.”
Walter notes in an earlier post that “The rate of nest abandonment is strongly correlated with April temperatures. Specifically, cool Aprils seem to cause more nest abandonments.” You may recall that April this year was cool and wet. If after further analysis Walter’s correlation holds up, then we will be better able to predict loon nesting success in any given year.

photo by Bob Kovar

Light Trespass
            Don Sanford gave an excellent talk at the Manitowish Waters Koller Library on 6/6 about light pollution, or what he called “light trespass.” Like the neighbor who “sound trespasses” by playing his boombox music at ear reverberating volumes or who shoots off firecrackers endlessly, light that shines far beyond one’s property is the gift that keeps on giving.
Sanford gave the two major reasons why many people want to light up their property: to see in their driveway and to feel safer. But he explained that unshielded light actually causes so much glare that it makes it harder to see, not easier. He strongly advocated for homeowners (and business owners, towns, etc.) to find ways to shield their lights so that they light only what they want to light and not what they don’t want to light. He recommended a free guide: Sensible Shoreland Lighting (
I also recommend this guide be given out at every lake association meeting to help reduce conflicts between those who want to see the night sky and/or not have light shining in their windows, and those who wish to shine some light on their specific property. After all, we all want to see the real northern lights, not the artificial ones.

Cold to the Bone
            After nearly 30 years of writing non-fiction about the natural world, I finally published a book of poetry about life in the North Country. Called Cold to the Bone, I’ve tried to write accessible poems that celebrate the beauty of this area and depict my delight and gratitude in living here. Some local shops are now carrying the book; otherwise, contact me directly if you have an interest in seeing it.

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 6/9 - 23/2017

A Northwoods Almanac for June 9 – 23, 2017   

Wood Turtle Study
With turtles now beginning to lay their eggs, it’s time to shine a light on turtle biology. Most people in the Northwoods are very familiar with snapping and painted turtles, but our area also supports one other turtle species, the state threatened wood turtle. On May 5, I was privileged to join a DNR team paddling the Manitowish River in search of wood turtles. A semi-terrestrial species, wood turtles spend nearly half of their time away from water, thus earning the name “wood” turtle. So, to find them, we spent most of our time searching shrubby stands of alders near the river’s edge.
In the Upper Midwest, little field work has been done on wood turtles, so Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin are sharing grant money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to track the turtles and to find ways to improve their conservation. 
Headed by Carly Lapin, a conservation biologist for the DNR, the first phase of the study took place from 2013-15 with the intent to:
1.     increase turtle nesting success by reducing the effects of natural predation at a minimum of 12 nesting areas
2.     reduce mortality of adult turtles at a minimum of 10 road or bridge crossings by a variety of methods in a minimum of 5 river stretches
3.     restore a minimum of 100 total acres of habitat that could be used for foraging by wood turtle at 3 project sites
      But first they had to assess the life history of wood turtles, and so set about capturing and marking wood turtles on two stretches of the Squirrel and Tomahawk rivers in Oneida County (study area 1) and two stretches of the Totogatic and Namekagon rivers in Washburn and Burnett counties (study area 2). A survey crew consisting of 2 to 4 observers paddled canoes in search of the turtles within 30 feet of the water. Upon capturing a turtle, they took a series of measurements, and then marked each turtle with a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag and with a spot of brown paint on the rear carapace for easy field identification during future encounters.  
            In 2014, they marked 37 wood turtles in study area 1, and 14 in study area 2. In 2015, they marked another 36 wood turtles in area 1 and another 12 in area 2.
            The researchers also conducted telemetry studies on wood turtles each year by attaching ultra-high frequency radio transmitters about the size of a half roll of nickels to the right rear edge of the turtles’ carapaces. They monitored 22 and 30 adult wood turtles with radio-transmitters in 2014 and 2015, respectively. They also attached 10 GPS geolocating tags to mostly female turtles to collect GPS locations, and thus discover their nesting sites.
            Additionally, they installed predator exclusion devices on 30 wood turtle nests and added  cameras to document predator activity and nest hatching success.
Overall they documented 69 individual wood turtle nests during the two field seasons. Of these, 17% (6/36) of protected nests and 52% (17/33) of unprotected nests were depredated, all of which appeared to be caused by mammals.
            Interestingly, no turtle eggs were found to have hatched in study area 1 in 2014. The researchers attribute this complete nesting season failure to an unusually cool and prolonged spring, followed by the relatively cool summer in 2014. This weather likely delayed nesting and provided insufficient ground heat to fully develop the turtle embryos.
           From the geolocator data, the researcher found the average home range size for adult male wood turtles in Study Area 1 was 42 acres. The average home range for adult female wood turtles were 18 acres and50 acres for Study Areas 1 and 2, respectively.
It’s a tough life being a turtle. During surveys, they also observed that 28% of adult male wood turtles were missing whole or partial limb or limbs likely due to encounters with mammalian predators. However, the injuries were completely healed and the turtles did not appear limited.
The study is now in Phase 2, conducting wood turtle surveys this year and next year on the Wisconsin, Manitowish, Wolf, and Pine/Menominee Rivers. We all can help. The DNR is collecting information on turtle mortality through citizens reporting locations and dates they see dead turtles on roads. If photos are provided, biologists can determine the species. Dead turtle reports can be sent to: In previous years, roughly 400 reports of roadkill turtles were filed with the DNR.

Birding Class
            Last weekend, Mary and I taught a three-day birding skills class for Nicolet College, and one of the highlights was having Bruce Bacon, a master bird bander, demonstrate bird banding for our group. After Bruce banded the birds and discussed their life histories, individuals in the class were able to hold and release the birds. Interestingly, when Bruce would place the birds on their backs into someone’s hands, the birds would often calmly lay there, seemingly unaware they were now free to fly away. Only when the birds were gently rolled over onto their feet, would they fly away.

female black-throated green warbler

Jean Wiggins holding a red-eyed vireo

Our group was able to identify 51 bird species over the course of the three days, a number which would have been much larger if we didn’t have consistent rain on one of the mornings. But on that rainy morning, we also had the opportunity to meet with Vanessa Haese-Lehman, an excellent birder who has volunteered for many years to help on a study of golden-winged warblers. What’s most exciting about this study is the use of tiny geolocators that can be placed on the warblers in order to track their habitat needs, their migration routes, and where they are wintering. The project started in 2016 by capturing 28 male golden-wings on their breeding territories and fitting them with geolocators, essentially a small back-pack with leg-loop harnesses. This year, they are attempting to recapture the golden-wings and recover their geolocators to download the logged migratory route data. Using this data and aerial imagery, they will then be able to describe the broad-scale habitat used by these birds and help identify forests of greatest conservation need for golden-wings.

Lichen Class
            Last weekend, Mary and I took a lichen class through the Natural Resources Foundation. The class met in the Johnson Lake Barrens State Natural Area on Jute Lake Rd. near High Lake, and was led by two excellent lichenologists. Why did we meet in such a remote location? In a study of lichens in northern Wisconsin in 2002, they had identified 130 lichen species just at this one location! Wisconsin is home to over 700 species of lichens, so it was great fun to get an insight into the life history of these amazing organisms and just to begin to notice how many there really are and where they are!
            The most common lichen they described is called common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata), and it covers many, many trees of all species in our area. They called it “40 mile/per/hour lichen” because it’s the only lichen large enough to be identified as you’re driving along at 40 mph!
There’s a misconception of many people that lichens kill trees. Lichens don’t harm a tree in any way, shape, or form – they merely utilize the tree as a surface on which to grow.
The instructors began the class by showing us an herbarium sample of old man’s beard (Usnea longissima) collected in northern Iron County in 1896, now an extinct lichen in Wisconsin. Why did it go extinct here, I asked? Because it’s associated with old-growth forests, and we cut nearly every one of those down. When Mary and I spent a couple weeks in an old-growth douglas fir forest in Oregon, these long, draping lichens were common.
Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide. Under polluted conditions, they may grow no larger than a few millimetres, if they survive at all. Where the air is unpolluted, they can grow to 8 inches long. Usnea lichens can sometimes be used as a bioindicator, because they tend to only grow in those regions where the air is clean.
The Wisconsin State Herbarioum has just put out a new booklet called “Common Lichens of Wisconsin” – if you have any interest in lichens, I recommend getting it.

            The UpNorth Hammerheads Birdathon team ended up counting 112 bird species on May 21. Kudos to Sarah Besadny for leading the effort!

The "UpNorth Hammerheads"

Peggy Richmond in Natural Lakes sent me a photo of a beautiful copper-colored wood frog. Wood frogs are done calling already. The males only call for about two weeks in late April and early May during which they mate, the females lay their eggs, and then they depart the water.

wood frog photo by Peggy Richmond

Dragonflies are hatching! Nancy Burns in Manitowish Waters was able to photograph a dragonfly as it climbed up onto a wooden bench next to the water and slowly emerged from its larval case. This metamorphosis is every bit as amazing to watch as the emergence of a monarch butterfly from its chrysalis. Spend some time along any shoreline in the Northwoods and look closely at emergent vegetation, or on any vertical object (pier posts, etc.), to see this remarkable event.

photo by Nancy Burns

Celestial Events
            The full moon (the “Strawberry/Rose/Honey Moon”) occurs tonight, June 9. The year’s earliest sunrises (5:08 a.m.) take place from June 10 to June 20. These sunrises are 3 hours and 32 minutes earlier than our latest sunrises at winter solstice.
            June 16, 1963 marks the date of the first woman astronaut in space – Russian Valentina Tereshkova. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, her journey occurring on June 18, 1983.
            Summer solstice takes place on June 20, giving us the year’s northernmost sunrise and our longest day – 15 hours and 45 minutes. This also means our shortest night – just 8 hours and 15 minutes.
            Look before dawn for Venus on 6/20 and 6/21 near the waning crescent moon.

Thought for the Week
Making a profit is no more the purpose of a corporation than getting enough to eat is the purpose of life. – Kenneth Mason, former President of Quaker Oats

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