With the exception of those who enjoy skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing, I’m guessing than most of us are enjoying the unseasonably mild weather this winter. Ice fishermen may soon join the ranks of disappointed. I was talking to a conservation biologist the other day, and he mentioned that in over 3,000 February days for which we have temperature data, there were only 21 that had high temperatures over 50 degrees. That would be 7/10ths of 1 percent.
So how does weather like this affect wildlife? Certainly, the effects can be profound, both good and bad depending on the species. For our winter resident birds, things are probably looking pretty good. They’ve had to spend less calories just to keep warm so they are probably under less pressure to find food. If songs are any indication of happiness, they must be in great moods as chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, house finches, and woodpeckers are all singing and drumming away as if it were April. Great horned owls and bald eagles are nesting and may have eggs to incubate already. Horned larks are showing up on country roadsides, and they too, probably have an easy time finding food on the almost bare ground now, as do turkeys. I wouldn’t be surprised if red-winged blackbirds and more robins start showing up soon. Our abundant deer are probably not under a lot of stress either, a combination of warm temps and little snow makes life easier for them too, and there may be a lot of fawns come spring.
The warm weather can have a downside for some as well. Winter isn’t over, and some migrants might be tempted to move north before it’s really safe to do so. I remember not too many years ago many killdeer migrated north in February, only to be killed by a subsequent snowstorm. The prolonged freezing and thawing of the soil can damage plant roots – farmers certainly know this, but I’m sure native plants are affected as well. Lack of really cold temperatures also allows plant diseases found farther south to survive here as well, causing unexpected problems. And although it’s hard to think about, real cold probably hastens a merciful end to the lives of some diseased wildlife, preventing the spread of pathogens to others.
Snow, or the lack of it, probably affects a lot of mammals in significant ways. Snowshoe hares in winter coats stick out like a sore thumb against brown, bare earth and are much more vulnerable as prey, the same for weasels. Voles, which are comfortably active beneath the snow, must find other shelter during a melt lest they become a meal for raptors surveying the open landscape…
Some animals which don’t really hibernate, like squirrels, skunks, and raccoons are more active during warm weather, but I don’t know if that’s a problem for them. I do wonder about the animals that sleep more deeply, like chipmunks and especially ground squirrels and woodchucks. The latter typically emerge from their burrows in March or April and appear very thin. If they emerge too early, they may have a hard time finding anything growing, and a meal might be scarce. The same might happen if winter is longer and colder than normal, so I think their lives can be hard ones. Except maybe for the chipmunks, because they store a lot of food underground for midwinter snacking purposes.
Watching the change of seasons is endlessly fascinating. Trying to predict the effects of unusual seasons like this one, is difficult, but at the same time stimulates the imagination and leads to further study. For an imaginative and much more eloquent writing about the milder side of winter, treat yourself to the essay “January Thaw” from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.
photo- mark in the snow left by a hawk or owl attempting to catch a rodent, from US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Just a couple of weeks more now, and we’ll be into spring. As the Earth’s tilt gradually places us more toward the Sun, we’re receiving a lot more solar energy than we did six weeks ago. The birds know it, and the hardy species that remain year round have been singing their spring songs for a while now. On nice days- chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, house finches are all singing- I’m sure they all sense the light at the end of the tunnel.
Geese and ducks seem to move back and forth as the landscape freezes, then thaws, then freezes again during the last month or so. Owls and eagles are already eyeing up nesting sites, and horned larks, one of our first migrant songbirds, have already advanced north into our area and have been seen as north as Wausau. This wonderful flow of life, whose movements have been choreographed over hundreds of thousands of years, is just getting rolling again.
The first movement starts with birds which may cover hundreds or even thousands of miles. The second movement involves mammals, but their movement may be more vertical – up to the surface from winter dens, or down into the ground to produce litters of young, then up again to spread across the land. The same goes for plants, which transfer their energy from the ground, either sap or seeds, skyward to hoard the sun’s energy. Then it seems the insects get going when plant resources are available to sustain them.
Plants are the key. Even though we love colorful birds and cute furry mammals and beautiful butterflies, the health or even the presence of those is dependent on healthy plant communities. What’s happening among those boring old green plants, which seem to be everywhere, really determines what kind of animals will be present or absent. So people who care about nature tend to become gardeners, or farmers if you will, of the habitat on their property. Tending the habitat on your land, even if a small patch, will make a world of difference to some kind of wildlife.
Like all gardeners, this is the time of year to plan. Like every year, we hope you will consider planting something that helps native wildlife. Here are some plants that are easy to grow, yet benefit birds and butterflies.
Trees: oaks are ultimately the best, not for their acorns only, but also for insects attracted to them which feed songbirds. Red for dry areas, swamp-white for wet. Burr oak and white oak are also great, and the squirrels and turkeys will thank you no matter what species you plant. White cedar is great but deer eat them so they must be caged.White (including Black Hills) spruce and juniper provide cover and seeds and deer don’t like them. Birches provide seeds in winter, while apples and crabapples provide flowers for bees and fruit.
Shrubs: the spreading junipers provide berries and cover for birds. Red-osier dogwood is pretty and provides flowers and white berries that birds love. Various viburnums provide fruit, although European cranberry can be invasive. Please don’t plant Japanese barberry (Berberis), which is alien and very invasive on sandy soils. Chokeberry and serviceberry are also good fruit choices.
Wildflowers- Bees and butterflies need our help. Easy to grow natives include: common and gray-headed sunflower, coneflowers, blazing-star, wild bergamot (or bee balm), cup-plant (can be aggressive and large), penstemon, and of course milkweeds like common milkweed and butterflyweed. Some native grasses are bunch-forming and can be very attractive, like little blue-stem. One must limit weed competition when planting native wildflowers, especially at first, so some preparation over the summer might be needed before fall planting. There are many resources on how this can be done.
As I write, millions of seeds that were planted last fall lay dormant at Woodland Dunes, waiting to germinate in the coming seasons. Many were planted specifically to help pollinators and to help preserve the diversity of insect and bird life in our area. Thousands more trees and shrubs planted in the last three years also await the return of the growing season to help restore areas that were once filled with invasives. This kind of gardening, while it doesn’t put food on the table, nourishes the soul and helps the life that shares our world.
photo- tiger swallowtail feeding on cup-plant flower at Woodland Dunes, by Nancy Nabak
When the weather is mild, it’s nice to sleep with a window open just a crack. Letting in some fresh, cool air seems like a healthy thing to do after being cooped up so much in the winter. With that come some risks, especially if one is a light sleeper, because even in winter nature is busy at night.
At our house, there is always a background hum of human activity, I-43 is not far away and it seems the traffic is constant. The same is true for Rapids Road. Each night a train enters and later exits the city, blowing it’s horn at every intersection, it seems. I typically hear the pleasant sound of the wind chimes that friends gave me when my dad passed away. They remind me whether the night is calm or blustery. During the latter, the sound of wind in the spruces at the edge of the yard is noticeable, and I’m thankful to have a warm home.
On one such night recently during our extended January thaw, I was happily asleep when at 3 am a blood-curdling, high pitched but descending shriek made me jump (even though it is a familiar sound). It was a screech owl- a small bird not much larger than the saw-whets we band in the fall. On that night, the screech must have been in the spruces right near the house, judging by it’s volume. After a few screeches it sang another song, a soft mellow trilling much more pleasant to the ear. It continued calling in that way for quite a while, although probably not as long as it seems when one is awakened and trying to fall back asleep. The screech is a year-round resident, and in warmer months when outside at dusk, we hear these birds almost every evening. A neighbor told me that they have been nesting in wood duck houses he places along the river, and for the owl’s sake, I’m grateful that he does.
Of course, after being awakened by the screech owl, sleep does not come again immediately and it’s a while before I’m happily unconscious again. Than, at about 4:30 am a series of deep, booming hoots erupt just outside- the local great-horned owls are back. They are courting, and call back and forth to each other. The male’s hoot is deeper, and the female’s higher pitched. Perhaps they were attracted to the yard by the screech owl’s earlier calls, or perhaps by the rabbits that feed on the leavings of bird seed beneath the feeders. Great-horneds are opportunists and will eat anything smaller than they are. Actually, sometimes, larger. Opportunity aside, this night they are about pair bonding, calling back and forth before moving on to look for a meal elsewhere.
I’m glad they’re neighbors, just as I appreciate my fellow humans nearby. The sound of the owls makes the place feel just a little wild and uncivilized, even if they cause me to lose another hour of sleep.
Owls aren’t the only midnight distractions – one night someone’s car alarm went off far away, causing the local pack of coyotes to feel obligated to sing along. And on another night recently a red fox sang his “bark-bark” courtship song. And in spring, if I’m especially lucky, I’ll hear the song of a whip-poor-will among the toad chorus, a song that used to keep my dad awake at night, but one that is now heard less and less frequently. I’ll find out in a couple of months.
Removed from the distractions that might obscure them in daytime, the sounds of night are distinct and fascinating, even in winter. And that’s a wonderful thing given we have so much of it this time of year.
photo- eastern screech owl by Wolfgang Wander
Each year at the nature center, one pair of European starlings makes a nest within the masonry wall of the milk-house attached to the barn. Over time, the walls have shifted, and there is an opening alongside the door frame which leads to the hollow interior. The starlings raise at least two broods of young there and often perch atop the barn to survey the Nature Center’s goings on. They call almost constantly, seeming to enjoy hearing themselves sing. In the last year, one in particular is very noticeable- calling with an almost wolf-whistle, “Whew!”
Our staff first noticed the bird with this distinct song on our site, but gradually became aware of hearing the same song at the harbor in Two Rivers, and on the north side of town by the Pick N Save. Clearly this bird gets around, and while we don’t know exactly what the local range of a starling is, this one seems to be comfortable anywhere in Two Rivers.
Starlings are cavity-nesting birds found throughout the US, southern Canada (where they are migratory), Europe, Western Asia (including parts of Russia and China), northern Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Australia and some Pacific islands. They are very successful birds, able to adapt to a number of habitat types including structures made by people. In fact, people brought them here- people who loved Shakespeare’s plays and wanted to introduce every bird he mentioned into Central Park. This worked very well for starlings, which proceeded to nest and increase their numbers and expand across all 50 states. In doing so; however, they out-competed native birds (such as bluebirds), learned that on farms they could find and consume tons of grain, and in a short period of time became a rather despised species as a result.
Still, you have to give them credit- they are bold and brash and quick to adapt. Judging by their complicated songs they have an affinity for music. Many people, including Mozart, have kept them as caged birds just to hear them sing. I have heard them imitate barking dogs, circular saws, flocks of geese- for no apparent reason. This wolf-whistle bird, lets call him “Don Juan of Two Rivers” is a first for me. It will be interesting to see how long it remains in town (starlings have been known to live for up to 22 years) and how many heads he causes to turn at the sound of his suggestive songs.
photo- European starling by Tim Felce
After the recent ice storm, a couple of mild weather days afforded us the first opportunity to do habitat work in reasonable comfort. With the help of volunteer Ray and intern Mikayla, we took to the forest to continue where we left off along Columbus St. last fall- where the honeysuckle and buckthorn thrive. Or try to thrive. Even though our task was to cut, pile, and treat the stumps of these invasives, not glamorous work by any means, it felt so good to get out in the preserve again to try to improve the land.
The work reminds me of days long ago when mild winter days included making firewood. The slushy wet snow meant wet feet unless one’s boots were properly oiled, and wet hands, regardless, because work gloves always were soaked. The air has a damp, earthy smell of wet leaves and bark, but at least there is an odor, unlike the dry sterile air of the really cold days. Working along, cutting away at the stems, there is so much to see: last fall’s deer rubs and last night’s tracks, drip marks beneath the trees, green woodfern and tan bracket fungi, woodpecker holes, a red squirrel’s imprints, wild cucumber husks- all familiar forest features and yet seeming different in the winter season.
Chickadees follow unafraid to see what we are doing, examining the leftover berries of European cranberry and buckthorn-leftover because they are neither as nutritious or palatable as native fruit. It is somehow so rewarding to find in a tangle of honeysuckle the stem of a native tree or shrub, a black cherry or speckled alder, or even a lowly red-twig dogwood, that can be liberated from the onslaught of the invasive. Carefully we trim the invaders from around the native plant in the hopes that we are turning the tables, allowing the native to someday reclaim the territory.
Earlier in the fall we had seeded the area with a variety of shade-tolerant wildflowers meant to enhance the habitat for pollinating insects. We also hope to reduce the heavy shade of the honeysuckle/buckthorn canopy so that the bumblebees can thrive here. One such bumblebee, the rusty-patch, has just been designated as endangered. The species has been documented near here and we hope that we can provide a place for them, too, among our native plants and birds.
We have a sign on Conifer Trail that states that invasive plants are the bullies of the forest. I enjoy that comparison- the invaders do seem to indiscriminately overwhelm all of the native plants save those which are already taller than the invasives. Bullies are no better in a forest than they are in the human world, and they shouldn’t be tolerated in either. So on we go, slogging in the slush, cutting and treating. When the time is right, we’ll re-plant to promote a more diverse and stronger forest community, all the while thinking about how lucky we are to live here on the Lakeshore in such a wonderful area. Sometimes the task seems overwhelming, but after a while one can see bits of progress that add up in the long run. Although it is hard work, we realize what we’re doing is good for nature. Our work also enhances places to visit, and that activity on the whole is good for us as well.
Happy 2017. Onward and upward. And pass the ibuprofen.
Photo- red squirrel tracks in the forest