Nature Blog

Ripples 11/8/18

photo of a Rusty-patched bumble bee

Rusty-patched bumblebee

Woodland Dunes was founded in the 1970’s by a handful of people who recognized that the Lakeshore is a special place for nature, something that has been known since Native Americans were the only people who lived here.  There are three preserves under the care of the organization, which strives to preserve biological diversity as much as possible for the benefit of both wildlife and people in our community. We would like to see everything prosper – birds and people, wildflowers and businesses – we believe there is room for all.

Even though our preserves have been surveyed and studied for decades, every once in a while we find something we haven’t seen before. Often, those things underscore the importance of our place in the world.  A few years ago we began bat surveys, which showed that at a time when disease threatens to decimate their populations, almost all the species of bats of Wisconsin are found here in summer, including the endangered northern long-eared bat. Many birds are declining, but there are still about 100 species which call our preserves home during the nesting season.

Lately we have become aware of the importance of pollinating insects (certain flies, butterflies, and bees) and how their populations have suffered in the last few years.  Although there is a lot of attention paid to non-native honeybees we brought from Europe, their struggles probably only mirror what is happening to our native insects, which have pollinated plants here for tens of thousands of years. Because of limitations on methods of surveying native pollinators (not all are as flashy and visible as butterflies), a lot is yet to be discovered. One native bee; however, was listed as endangered last year, the first native bee in North America to receive that unfortunate distinction – Bombus affinis, the rusty patched bumblebee.  This insect was common years ago, but is mysteriously disappearing from many places in which it used to live.

Last summer we were visited by a colleague from the Wisconsin DNR who was surveying invasive plant species in preparation to help manage them in our preserve. Although we are not a State agency, we voluntarily participate in the State Natural Areas program and are grateful for assistance we sometimes receive from the DNR.  While in our preserve, this biologist discovered a rusty patched bumblebee in one of the prairie patches we have established within our main preserve.  This discovery reinforces what we have always known- that our preserves, and other natural areas along the Lake, are or can be exceptional wildlife areas if we take care of them. This tiny insect which forages in the wildflower meadows is particularly special and would probably not survive here if we did not manage the preserves the way we do.

When you visit Woodland Dunes, you’ll see that in addition to the exceptional forested wetlands there are hundreds of acres of land which are being planted with wildflowers and grasses which contribute their own special wildlife benefit. You may not notice a rusty patched bumblebee, as they are neither particularly noticeable and certainly not aggressive. But just knowing that they can still survive here can give one a feeling  of hope that if living things are given a chance they can persist. And that, more than anything else, is why Woodland Dunes exists.

photo- Rusty patched bumblebee by Kim Mitchell, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Ripples 11/1/18

On Sundays, we visit my mom who is in a wonderful apartment in an assisted living facility.  Truth be told, after raising my siblings and me she certainly has earned the right to a little extra TLC. However, on Sundays we pick her up for lunch and a little shopping.  The complex in which she lives has some lovely gardens which include many crabapple trees, and a few bird feeders.  The plantings are in a sheltered spot and present a very nice place in which birds can hang out. I’m sure it wasn’t intended as a bird place, and perhaps most people don’t even notice, but there are always birds there.

photo of fruit of hawthorn tree

fruit of hawthorn tree

This past weekend was exceptional in that way, the flowering crabs are now full of fruit and the gardens were full of birds.  I would guess there were at least 50 robins along with starlings and house sparrows – hundreds of birds altogether in the space of less than half an acre.  And although they weren’t rare species, or even that desirable in terms of the last two, the abundance of birds was a good thing overall, and there were undoubtedly other species like cedar waxwings that I wasn’t detecting during my brief visit.

The crabapples that the birds were feeding on come from a large family of fruit-bearing trees that are native to temperate regions around the world.  Because they bear abundant flowers in the spring we’ve chosen to hybridize them and invite them into our yards.  The flowering crabs that we tend to plant aren’t strictly native, but they may be close enough in relation to their wild cousins that wildlife uses them- pollinators in the spring when they are in bloom, birds and other animals in the fall when their fruit is ripe, and insects in between during the growing season.  They don’t always provide as much benefit as native species, but they do provide some and at important times of the year. 

Recent research indicates that during migration periods, birds which have access to good nutrition and habitat build up their energy reserves more than those living in poorer conditions, and thus are able to travel farther when they migrate. By traveling farther, they have to make fewer stops, which means they are less exposed to dangers encountered in unfamiliar stopover areas. Birds that have better habitat and nutrition survive their migrations better than those which do not. This may be especially important because migration is the most dangerous time in the life of an animal. Other recent research indicates that populations of wildlife species have decreased about 60% since I was in high school.  

Of course there are stories about birds eating fermented crabapples and other berries and suffering the consequences. There was such an instance out of Minnesota a few weeks ago. Under the right conditions, fermentation can occur resulting in high ethanol concentrations in fruit, which can even result in the death of birds. I can’t say that I’ve really ever seen this myself but I know people who have, and there is research to support that this happens. Being that we don’t find large numbers of dead birds under fruit trees typically, this must not be a common occurrence.  

So if you’ve planted crabapples or hawthorns in your yard, the birds and I thank you. I hope they make you happy with their flowers, shade, and fruit, and all the wildlife that gathers there. In planting them you have done a small but very positive thing, and have made the world a little bit better. And those little things add up.  

 Photo of the fruit of a hawthorn tree via Pixabay

Ripples 10/26/18

The year in nature is like a long and complicated musical composition in four major parts.  It starts out quietly and thoughtfully in winter, reaches a frenzy of notes in spring and summer, and then gradually subsides in the fall.
photo of Woodland Dunes Preserve with many clouds in the sky

View of Woodland Dunes Preserve in Fall

Even though things quiet down as fall progresses, life has a way of surprising us.  Even though we don’t always see what we like to call “Indian summer,” there is a little, final, burst of spring in the midst of autumn.  One has to look for it, but it shows itself in a hundred different ways to those who go outside to look for it.
 
Lately, even though the high temperatures have only been in the 40’s and 50’s, robins and red-winged blackbirds have been singing, just like they do in March and early April when they return to the area.  Song and white-throated sparrows, golden-crowned kinglets, and others sing too.  Even our winter birds, like chickadees, house finches, and juncos can suddenly burst into their spring songs.
 
Plants, too, sometimes surprise you in the fall.  Its not uncommon to see forsythia bloom again, although not as enthusiastically as in spring.  Friends have reported marsh marigolds and skunk cabbage flowering also. A plant-ecologist friend told me it may be in response to the flush of extra nutrients available to them after leaves fall in combination with day length which is similar to spring.  
 
And in looking for optimistic wildflowers our downward gaze makes us aware of all the fungi, spiders, and millions of other small things that make the forest whole.  Maybe that’s the best thing about fall – the awareness of the cryptic, quiet, ceaseless activity that makes everything work.
 
We think in terms of Halloween this time of year, but ancient Celts celebrated Samhain – the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter.  They felt that at the change of season the door to the spirit world would open briefly.  They embraced the time of year with bonfires and parties (I suppose we have Packers games and costume parties).  They held such festivals at each season, celebrating the change.
 
So even though we think of things winding down for the year, its still possible to find beauty and wonder outdoors.  One may have to get out of the wind to be able to enjoy the day, but every venture outside can reveal something special, something we should celebrate too.
 
photo- view from the tower at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 10/18/18

photo of frost on leaf

frost on leaf

This morning, for the first time this fall, the ground is covered with frost.  It is a perfect fall morning – blue sky, calm wind, and freezing temperatures.  All around, trees finish the growing season in a burst of color as if they’ve saved their best for last.  On sunny days, their colors make the world seem warmer than it is, and I wish this season could go on for many months.

In the mornings, more and more juncos are showing up at the feeders.  A couple of weeks ago there seemed to be mostly the brownish-gray variety. Lately, the really dark gray juncos, which I presume are from farther north, seem to be more abundant.  The white-throats and white-crowned sparrows are still here, along with kinglets, robins, towhees, and flickers, and still an occasional warbler.  They feast on the wild seeds and berries, which are slowly disappearing.  At night, many of them take flight moving further southward and one can hear their little flight notes as they call to each other from high in the dark night sky.  The national weather service posted a radar loop from Key West, FL, which showed millions of birds making the amazing journey across the southern Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean and South America (warblers, orioles, tanagers, and thrushes that adorn our springs and summers).  Out on Lake Michigan, waterfowl of the far north, scaups, long-tails, mergansers, loons- can be seen far out from shore- the first of the birds which keep us company throughout the winter.

The frost itself seems to be a miracle – the sudden transformation of liquid dew to delicate crystals is well described in science in terms of phase change and release of latent heat, but those facts seem to give little insight to the beauty of frost coating a newly fallen leaf.  And all that is happening when that first frost is seen.

Some people see the frost as a portent of nasty weather to come, and some mourn for the warmer weather that is now past for this year.  I think it is true that we are happier when we appreciate the moment as it is now, and enjoy the beauty of the frost and the wildlife around us rather than dwell on what was or what will be.  In doing so we are reminded of the value of nature and perhaps care for it a little better so that we can continue to enjoy all the miracles of fall.

photo courtesy Associated Press

Ripples 10/11/18

Article and photo by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator for Woodland Dunes

photo of red sugar maple leaves

Autumn Blaze Maple with fall changes

In Wisconsin there are 4 seasons: winter, spring, summer and Nat King Cole. It is impossible to live here and not think of Nat King Cole when autumn arives. In my house, the orange colored candle gets lit and the vinyl comes out.

Nat, in his silky voice, croons the sentimental lyrics to Autumn Leaves, “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold. I see your lips, the summer kisses, the sun-burned hands I used to hold.” This classic song has been performed many times and by many great artists such as Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton and the beautiful jazz vocalist, Eva Cassidy, but none bring home the honest romantic feeling of love lost and missed like Nat.

Autumn is the season of smoke curls wafting from chimneys, apple picking in the orchard, and the crowning of the high school Homecoming King and Queen. But none of these would be as compelling without a backdrop of the vividly changing autumn leaves.

Right now, Mother Nature’s paintbrush is displaying some of her finest work. Daylight is getting shorter and the temperatures are changing, causing the leaves to stop their food making process. (For science geeks reading this, photoperiodism is the technical term for change in daylight length.) When chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears and the yellow (xanthophylls) and orange (carotenoids) pigments become visible, creating these splendid displays.

Some of my favorite deciduous tree pallets are birch, sugar maples and staghorn sumac. Their brilliant colors are what make photographers change their f-stops, focus their lens from wildlife to leaves, and create color-filled calendars for doctor and business offices around the country.

Birches like to splash a bright, luminescent yellow, sugar maples will offer golds, oranges and reds in a perfect trio blend, and the staghorn sumac offers a bold show of systematic changes. When sumac first starts to change, you’ll notice an almost Christmas-like blend of red and greens. As they lose more chlorophyll, the reds become more obvious until they light up our roadsides and highways like a burning bush.

These wondrous colors only last for a short while so if you haven’t gotten out for a leaf-peeping day trip, get out there now. Mother Nature is strutting her stuff on the red carpet of fall colors. And all too soon, just as Nat sang, these beautiful autumn leaves will start to fall.