I can’t help but think of Andy Williams singing, “Its the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” even though the song was written for the Christmas season. For the next several weeks, nature will reveal something new every day. At this moment, (a soft rainy morning), sitting at the window one notices that there was a significant movement of birds over night. White-throated and white-crowned sparrows are abundant, purple finches are at the feeders, and a broad-winged hawk, probably the one which awakened me this morning with his piercing call, is looking vainly for a thermal to carry him to his nest in the northwoods. The grass is green again, trees are budding, and wildflowers are blooming.
It’s probably the most distracting time of the year also. In addition to the vibrant colors and movement of the birds, the songs of many more unseen avian neighbors are also constant. It’s been a good year for birdsong- the mild winter enticed cardinals, chickadees, and house finches to sing on all but the coldest mornings. Now, the abundant sparrows, redwings, jays, kinglets, and many others are singing throughout the day. Like teenagers with smartphones, birds constantly communicate with one another.
Some of the most communicative birds are the wrens and they have definitely returned en force. Locally, there are five species seen – one common, three not so common, and one rare but becoming more usual. All are similar in appearance, but have distinct songs and habitat preferences.
I think most people are familiar with the house wren. They seem to thrive in places touched by people, especially where we have cleared forests and replaced the trees with shrubs. They live their lives in the tangles, including invasive plants like the Eurasian honeysuckles, building their messy nests of sticks crammed into closed spaces like the birdhouses we put up for them. Males start multiple nests, and females choose the best one and finish it before depositing eggs. The songs of house wrens are almost constant, bubbly, and enthusiastic. One can find them all around Woodland Dunes in the brush.
Marsh and sedge wrens, two different species, live in open wetlands. Like their names suggest, sedge wrens prefer slightly drier sedge meadow habitat while marsh wrens are found in cattails near open water. The songs of each are wren-like, but the sedge wren is higher and more electric sounding while the marsh wren is slower and more rattling. Both of these species are found along Cattail Trail, although you’re more likely to hear them than see them.
Winter wrens also like wetlands, but their world is deep, dark swamps filled with alders and fallen trees. They like to nest in the exposed root masses of large downed trees, and their nests are very difficult to find. The birds themselves, small and brown, can be also, but their song rings out like bells in the forest – sung with as much enthusiasm as that of their upland cousins. Finding winter wrens is a special treat, even for those who have encountered them before. Look and listen for them along any of the trails that start at the end of Goodwin Road or along the Ice Age Trail.
Lastly we occasionally see a southern visitor, the Carolina wren. For those who visit the south, the Carolina wren is a common bird and the only wren found in many areas. Like house wrens, they prefer brushy tangles but they are a larger bird with a slower and louder song. They are a delightful bird that is being seen in Wisconsin more frequently, probably because our warming climate makes our area more tolerable for them. Unlike other wrens, they will sometimes take food from feeders and stay the winter. One never knows where they will show up, but they have been found in many parts of the county, and we expect to see more of this species.
Little brown birds like wrens may not seem important, but they spend their lives eating insects, which often helps people, but more importantly distributes energy and nutrients throughout the natural world. They are connected to everything else, and as a bonus, add an extra spark of interest to our lives.
photo- Carolina wren, from Wikipedia
Earlier this week, the forest was alive with chattering sixth graders from Mishicot Middle School who were participating in a morning of community service. Nineteen students, one schoolteacher and three Woodland Dunes staff members, armed with loppers, handsaws and muscle power, marched from the Nature Center to the woods along Conifer Trail. The mission was to spend two hours removing invasive honeysuckle that was outcompeting native plants and taking over large areas of the forest.
After a short introduction about how to identify honeysuckle and how to remove this shrub, the students quietly spread out in small groups to begin their work. At first, they seemed shy and many were unsure of their ability to use a handsaw or identify the plant. However, after fifteen or twenty minutes, the groups were confidently snipping, sawing and hauling the branches into large brush piles. They were excited to do this physical, outdoor work and even had fun. One student with a huge grin on his face exclaimed to me, “It’s not everyday I get to use tools like this!”
As an environmental educator, I greatly enjoyed watching the kids interact with the forest. A few students wearing rain boots waded into large puddles of standing water to look for frogs. Their search wasn’t fruitful, but they did pick up some litter that we disposed of. Later, two students inquired about a “spiky purplish plant” sticking up through the wet muck. They were looking at skunk cabbage and thought it was “cool” that this plant gives off a stinky odor to attract pollinators. Even the teacher was making discoveries and investigated the dried seed stalk of the mullein plant.
The students worked diligently for the first hour, so we paused for a short cookie break. Before the staff even had a chance to ask them to start working again, they traipsed back down the trail, ready to get back at it! At this point, the students felt confident in their skills and decided it was time to tackle some of the larger honeysuckle bushes. Several students teamed up to slowly chop away at some sizable trunks. Students shouted with delight when they would take one down. Others enjoyed dragging the large braches and launching them into the brush pile. A few sixth graders noted the dark color of the heartwood, which is the dead, center wood of the tree. One girl commented, “It looks like the inside of an avocado!”
This type of meaningful experience is important for kids in the middle childhood years. Children this age desire independence and enjoy pushing their physical limits. They like to learn new skills (like using a handsaw) and applying these skills in a team setting with their peers. The experience of removing invasive honeysuckle in the preserve connected the students to nature, helped them notice it and sparked their curiosity. I definitely think they gained much, even more than the satisfaction of making a difference in their community.
“New” is flowing both northward and upward at a steady pace now. During the cold season, many living things retreated to the safety of the South and the soil, but they’re now rushing back. Wood frogs and peepers have thawed and are migrating to the water to begin their year with an explosion of romance – if they manage to reach the ponds alive. Birds of all sorts are looking for the best locations for their summer homes. In the past week, thousands of tundra swans passed over, golden and now ruby-crowned kinglets hang from the trees, phoebes and winter wrens are singing as new species are showing up every day. As if to welcome them back, plants are sending their stored energy to their stems, swelling the buds, and causing eruptions of flowers on the willows and maples. As I write this, two young eagles are working back and forth over the river, buoyed by strong winds almost playfully. Then, two peregrine falcons, smaller but perhaps meaner, show up harassing and showing the eagles who’s more maneuverable. Suddenly, a pair of sandhills fly by, far above the singing cardinals and song sparrows. One really doesn’t need television on mornings like these, if willing to look up and around.
When the ospreys return, the first thing they do is look over last year’s nest and begin tidying and improving it for this year – just like we do if we’re fortunate enough to have summer homes. They carefully add just the right sticks, pieces of turf or moss, especially attractive pieces of plastic, or found work gloves. (One wonders what they are thinking sometimes.) We, of course, rake our lawns and prune trees and shrubs and make things look good to our eyes. Our nature preserve is bounded on the east by Columbus Street and bisected by Highway 310. We spend some time picking up trash along these roadways. I don’t know that doing so is ecologically significant, but I think that trash lying around gives the impression that people don’t care about the land or their neighborhoods. We’re grateful for the volunteers who give their time to clean things up, and for municipal workers who do the same.
During this year’s snowmelt, one area in particular was really unsightly – the bus stop on the south end of Columbus Street. Somehow, a lot of unsightly stuff had been strewn about between the pavement and the woods – it looked like hundreds of plastic bottles, etc. As I drove by on my way to work, I would make a mental note that we should clean it up. Suddenly, it was all gone. I don’t know who did it, but they picked up every piece, which must have taken some time. Then, one of our volunteers told me that she had met someone who was walking along, picking up trash as he went, just to help keep the area looking nice. He wasn’t looking for credit, just wanted to take some positive action.
Both nature and people need a lot of help right now. Both need to be cared for and treated with kindness. Just like the land restores itself each spring, we need to help restore places where nature is broken – and ourselves, too. Even a little positive action is so much better than criticism or endless debate. We can learn a lot from people like our friend on Columbus Street.
photo- skunk cabbage flower taken by Nancy Nabak
Written by Mikayla Opichka, education intern
It is finally spring, which is a magical time of the year at Woodland Dunes. Birds are migrating back to our preserve as the days get warmer. During this time of year, the birds are not the only thing making great movement. Something deep within the trees in our forests has started its journey from the roots of the tree, all the way to its branches. What is this treasured substance that is active as the winter months’ transition to spring? Sap from maple trees!
It is in these few short months of early spring that it is prime time for sap to be collected from trees to make a delicacy. This natural treat, maple syrup, has been made for thousands of years and is still done by many people in our area. School groups have been able to attend a field trip to our preserve to learn about and collect sap from our maple trees during this vital time of year.
What is it about this time of the year that is so crucial to the process of collecting sap from maple trees? In preparation for the brutal cold months of winter, deciduous trees create excess sugar from water, carbon dioxide and sunlight through the process of photosynthesis. This occurs within their leaves before they fall to the ground during autumn. This sugar is deposited in the roots and sapwood so it can be used during spring to wake the tree back up with branch growth, buds, and leaves. As the weather outside gets warmer, the snow around the tree melts, providing water for the tree to start the sugar’s journey to the branches as sap.
The movement of sap is enhanced when temperatures are above freezing during the day, and below freezing at night. Under these conditions, cells within the inner bark expand and contract, helping to pump the sap upward. This occurs to a greater extent in maples than in other trees.
To collect the sap from the tree, a hole is drilled into the sapwood, and a spile, which resembles a spout, is placed into the hole to help the sap run out of the tree, then into a bucket or holding reservoir. The sap that comes out of maple trees tastes strikingly like water because it contains nearly 97.5% water, and only about 2% sugar. Maple sap is used to make syrup because this tree’s sap has one of the highest sugar concentrations compared to other kinds of trees.
There are a number of species of maples in our area- sugar, red, silver, mountain, and ash-leaved (more commonly known as boxelder), all of them have varying concentrations of sugar in their sap- sugar maple has the highest. At Woodland Dunes we have few sugar maples so tap red maples instead.
To turn the sap into maple syrup, it must be boiled to remove water and increase the sugar concentration. About forty-three gallons of sap must be boiled to make just one gallon of syrup! The next time you enjoy natural maple syrup, appreciate the incredible processes of nature that made this wonderful treat!
There is a lot of “buzz” about pollinators again lately and they certainly deserve some attention. Last week, the rusty-patched bumblebee became the first species of its kind to be officially listed as endangered. Cheerios is giving away free wildflower seeds for planting to help bees. Monarch butterflies are leaving Mexico to begin their awesome and perilous journey northward, to begin laying eggs as milkweeds emerge in spring.
Pollinators are animals which help plants reproduce by physically transferring pollen between the reproductive organs of plants. Pollinators include many insects, but also mammals like bats and others such as hummingbirds. We often think of honeybees because they are our insect livestock, the only one I can think of offhand save maybe silkworms. People developed a relationship with honeybees overseas and brought the insects here to produce honey and help pollinate crops. People enjoy keeping bees as a hobby and the economic value associated with their effort and honey. I’m afraid that we vastly overlook the contributions of pollinators: the many species of native bees, flies, butterflies and others which pollinate and go unnoticed by people. Many pollinators are small, non-aggressive or bothersome, and live completely outside of our awareness.
The rusty-patched bumblebee is an insect that used to be found here, literally in our own backyards, and were quite common in their range 30 years ago. It pollinates 65 species of plants, including some that produce food for us. Scientists think that they are declining because people have brought diseases and parasites from Europe which affect these bees. We also use pesticides such as neonicotinoids to which bees are especially vulnerable, and much of its native habitat and plant life has been lost. The fact that it’s now endangered and no longer here, is amazing and concerning.
Insects as a group are highly successful and have been on Earth a lot longer than people. They have adapted to incredible changes over immense spans of time. Considering an insect species should decline during the short span of our lives to the point of becoming endangered, should give us cause to think. And do something.
Last year, Woodland Dunes established plantings of native wildflowers on about 80 acres of land, specifically planting wildflowers that help pollinating insects. This was done with various partners including: USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever (these plantings help pheasants), and others. This spring we will work on an additional 50 acres of our property. We’re also working on similar projects along the Lake Michigan shoreline where butterflies migrate. Establishing habitat on the containment at Manitowoc Harbor is another priority, with the approval of both cities of Two Rivers and Manitowoc. Even small patches of wildflowers can help pollinators, birds, and other animals – the more patches the better.
Perhaps there is still time to help animals like the rusty-patched bumblebee. There certainly doesn’t appear to be any harm in trying.
photo is a rusty-patched bumblebee by Joanna James-Heinz, Xerces Society.