Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/17/17

A Northwoods Almanac for 3/17 – 30, 2017  by John Bates

            Definition: a fickle, capricious, conning, disloyal, mercurial, unfaithful, volatile, scamming, betraying, whimsical, double-crossing, two-timing, double-dealing, coquettish, arbitrary, deceiving yo-yo.

Seed Catalog Mania
It’s that time of year when winter drags you down like a waterlogged pair of coveralls, and seed catalogs become a source of nearly biblical inspiration. So, what to plant? Cathy Logan-Weber sent me a short list of native plants she is considering planting as part of a new pollinator garden at the community center in Presque Isle.
She writes, “For spring, I will plant nursery-purchased native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) instead of crocus. I have blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) to plant in place of non-native forget-me-not. For summer bloom, I love the beautiful Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and the lavender wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). One of the gardeners has started cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) by seed, and I will start anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) by seed. We will encourage nearby common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for the heavenly fragrance. For fall, I would consider false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoids) and native goldenrods (Solidago speciosa). Native grasses give shelter for insects, so I’ll try big and little bluestem (Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium) for fall and winter interest.
            She also recommends reading The Midwestern Native Garden: An Illustrated Guide by Adelman and Schwartz for its emphasis on regionally native Midwestern plants as alternatives to popular non-native flowers. The book offers additional notes on wildlife attracted to the particular native plants, and the flowers are grouped by seasons.
            For the many reasons why we all should be planting native species rather than non-natives, please also consider reading Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy.

Spring Migrations
            If you want to follow the progress of spring migration for species like ruby-throated hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, go to for maps showing up-to-date movements for each species.

            I traveled to Madison last weekend and saw many sandhill cranes in fields along Highway 51/39. Cranes come back early to the Northwoods, sometimes as early as late March, so keep an eye out for them in the coming weeks.
            Waterfowl are returning to whatever open water can be found, and often the first duck to return is the common goldeneye. Bev Engstrom shared a beautiful close-up of one from 3/3.

common goldeneye photo by Bev Engstrom
Trumpeter swans continue to return to our area. Sharon Lintereur sent a fine photograph on 3/4 of three trumpeters on the Wisconsin River off Hwy. D near Lake Tomahawk.

trumpeter swans photo by Sharon Lintereur
            On 3/11, Linda Johnson reported seeing the FOY (first-of-the-year) belted kingfisher on a little creek on Lower Kaubashine Road in Hazelhurst.

Sandhill Crane Hunt?
Once again, a state sandhill crane hunt is being put to a vote. On Monday, April 10, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress will hold hearings in each county to discuss a multitude of DNR-related conservation issues, one of which is whether to open a hunting season on sandhill cranes in Wisconsin.
The issues/concerns that I see are the following:
First, twenty-five percent of the world’s wild and federally endangered whooping cranes now summer in Wisconsin. Many people are concerned that whooping cranes could be accidentally mistaken for sandhill cranes during a legal hunt in poor light or bad weather conditions. In these conditions, or conversely in very bright light, the silhouette of a whooping crane is nearly identical to that of a sandhill crane. Whooping cranes also frequently associate in the same flocks with sandhill cranes, while young whooping cranes, which have some brown plumage, can also be mistaken for sandhill cranes.
             Second, while a total of 15 states have hunting seasons for sandhill cranes, all of these states except for two harvest from the most abundant regional populations – the Mid-Continent population and the Rocky Mountain population. Both of these populations are made up of lesser sandhill cranes, not greater sandhill cranes, which are the only cranes found in Wisconsin. The total Eastern Population of the greater sandhill crane, including the greater sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, is estimated to be between 60,000 and 70,000 individuals. The Mid-Continent Population of least sandhills has a population estimate between 500,000 and 600,000 individuals.
            Third, it’s true that sandhill cranes cause agricultural damage, primarily to field corn and potatoes, and it’s a legitimate problem. Currently, shooting of sandhill cranes is granted to farmers with demonstrated crop damage via agricultural damage shooting permits. These permits are typically issued in the spring and early summer, when crop damage is most likely. Although some proponents of a sandhill crane hunt have suggested that a fall harvest might provide a partial solution to the crop damage issue, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the International Crane Foundation have determined that even a carefully regulated autumn hunt would not be an effective deterrent to cranes causing spring crop damage.
Further, researchers have been investigating non-lethal methods to reduce agricultural damage by sandhill cranes and have found one method that works – a chemical repellant known as Avipel® which contains a naturally produced biochemical found in some plants. Corn seeds treated with this compound are unpalatable to cranes. When cranes first encounter Avipel-treated seeds, they learn that all germinating seeds have been treated. Cranes then move on to other food items, such as soil insects, earthworms, and waste grain, but remain in the corn field.
            So, as with most management issues, there’s a cost/benefit analysis that needs to be done. Wisconsin’s current population of 14,000 sandhill cranes has grown from an estimated 25 in the 1930s because of protections from hunting. And for me, while a closely monitored, low quota hunt could potentially be sustainable, the gain for the few hunters who would get permits doesn’t begin to equal the risks to the endangered whooping crane population. Nor, I would argue, is there any sport in shooting a crane standing in a field, or flying low and slow overhead , neck outstretched in all of its beauty. 

Early Spring for Us?
For the entire continental United States, February 2017 was the second warmest on record since climate tracking started in 1895, and mean temperatures were especially high east of the Rockies: as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Overall, the country recorded its 6th-warmest winter. Sixteen states experienced their warmest February ever recorded. The average U.S. temperature last month climbed 7.3 degrees above average (NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information). Cities and towns across the nation tallied 11,743 record highs compared to 418 record lows in February
More regionally, the ice went off Lake Mendota in Madison on March 7. This date is tied with the second earliest ice-off in recorded history which spans from 1855. It is nearly a month earlier than the median ice-off date of April 4th.
The first day of spring arrives March 20. But spring tree leaves arrived in mid-January in some parts of the South, and spring has since spread northward like a wave. The attached maps, one of January and one of February, plot the date of “first leaf,” a temperature-based calculation of when vegetation that has been dormant starts to show signs of life. This year, with the exception of a few small areas, spring has arrived much earlier than the 30-year average. The light green on the maps represents the 30-year average, and the dark green shows this year.
Whether spring will arrive early in our area is a question we’ll have to wait a month or
more to answer.

Celestial Events
            The official spring (vernal) equinox occurs on 3/20, but in the Lakeland area, we’ll achieve equal lengths of day and night today, 3/17. This will be the first day since 9/24 when the day was longer than the night.

Eliminate EPA?
            I avoid politics in this column, but clean air and clean water really aren’t political – they’re a fundamental right for all life. I was born in Gary, Indiana, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (I fell in love with a Wisconsin girl when I was 20 – a blessing!). My father worked for U.S. Steel, and we all knew, knew in every sensory way possible, what polluted rivers looked and smelled like, and what polluted air smelled and tasted like, even felt like when you could wipe black particulate matter off your windows. My father knew where to park his car near one of the steel mills based on which way the wind was blowing that day – park it in the wrong lot, and the paint on your car would be pitted by the end of the day. Drive into a tunnel in Pittsburgh and get caught in a traffic jam, and honest to God, you thought you might die from the fumes. Head up to Lake Erie to take a swim, or swim in the Allegheny River? You’d be literally out of your mind.
My father knew all of this as a child, too. He was raised in Cleveland not far from the Cuyahoga River, famed for catching on fire. A Federal Water Pollution Control Administration official told Time magazine in the 1960s, “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.”
So, when folks say let’s scuttle the EPA, I am literally stunned. I don’t have any “good old days” fantasy about an unregulated natural world. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act to control hazardous chemicals, the “Superfund” Act enacted after the events at Love Canal, on and on. These were moments of celebration, of wisdom, of moral elevation and justice.
Most folks don’t know what the EPA actually does, so here’s a very brief summary: Permit mines, industries, pipelines, chemical plants via environmental impact statements; monitor facilities that pose environmental risks like all of the above; clean-up the sites where corporations cut and run – as of 2014, there were 1322 Superfund sites with 53 additional proposed sites (55 Superfund sites are currently being cleaned up in Wisconsin); evaluate the safety of chemicals in food, cleaning compounds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, paints, et al – each year, 2,000 new chemicals come on the market; regulate, limit, and monitor air pollution from engines, coal-fired generating plants, chemical plants, et al; set minimum water quality standards and enforce them from point and non-point sources including industries, sewage treatment plants, CAFOs, mines, et al; develop standards for nuclear waste disposal and protect human health from exposure to harmful radiation at health facilities, military operations, industrial sites, et al.
And, importantly, it’s Congress that dictates EPA’s responsibility in all of these federal acts. They wrote them – not the EPA. If any of these acts are too burdensome in some egregious manner, Congress should amend them appropriately after full public review. But to throw this baby out with the bath water? We’d be turning back the clock to the 1950s, and there’s a whole lot of us who remember in our very blood what that was like.

Quote for the Week
            [Because spring is coming]: The earth laughs in flowers. Ralph Waldo Emerson

 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  

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