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

No comments:

Post a Comment