Nature Blog

Ripples 9/20/18

As is for many of us, fall is my favorite season 0f the year.  The relief from summer heat and humidity is refreshing and I feel like being outdoors and getting things done, by gosh.  Besides, there are so many migrant birds to be seen along with fall wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies- a bountiful harvest for the eyes.

Things were going along just as planned this year.  The hot weather broke and the sleeping was good. It was a pleasure to be out working on the trails and finishing the planting of this year’s trees.  Even the mosquitoes and deerflies, which were so abundant during the summer, finally began to subside to the point where repellent wasn’t needed.

And then, we had three days of heavy storms and 10 inches of rain, and the return of warm weather.  After the rain stopped, we happily prepared our main trail for the coming herds of first graders to come for fall field trips.  You would think with all the time I’ve spent outdoors in the last 60 years, I would have seen it coming, but I was oblivious.  As we worked on the trail, a few mosquitoes popped up a week or so after the rains.  Then, a day later they were far worse, and by the next day, about 10 days after the storms, their numbers were incredible.  It was the same at home, on the lakeshore, at the harbor, and everyone I talked to had the same experience.  We have blundered into the trifecta of mosquito reproduction, and our lovely fall world has been rendered less enjoyable.

I am not an entomologist, but I did spend some time working in the public health field.  It appears that we are experiencing an outbreak of inland floodwater mosquitoes, probably a number of which are Aedes vexans, a mosquito species found around the world.  Their ferocity is a product of their numbers, small size, and tenacity, and their potency as a nuisance is matched by their brilliant reproductive strategy.  They lay eggs not necessarily in the water, but in leaves just above the waterline, in anticipation of future flooding.  Vegetation helps keep the eggs a little moist and helps them survive sometimes for years. Cold winters kill off some of the eggs, but last year’s winter was warmer than normal.   If they are flooded when the water is cold, as in spring, they hatch and develop slowly.  Now, however, floodwater from our recent rains was nice and warm.  The eggs hatch and larvae swim for about a week, then pupate for just a couple of days, and then the adults take flight- so the 10 or so day delay between our storms and the swarms that followed indicates that conditions were just about perfect, mosquito-wise.

So what now?  Well, adults live for 3-6 weeks, so if we don’t get ridiculous amounts of rain again things should slowly get better.  Both male and female mosquitoes feed on flower nectar to survive, and there are a lot of flowers blooming yet.  Females need blood to produce eggs.  Those females can lay multiple batches of eggs, poised above wet places in anticipation of flooding to come, so there will be plenty of potential future mosquitoes out there after things dry up.  Those eggs can survive without hatching for years, waiting…

In the meantime, we can take a little comfort in that migrating birds, bats, and dragonflies must be eating untold millions of the little pests.  And spider populations peak now and their webs sit ready to strain mosquitoes from the air.  Of course, the blood of animals helps feed the little bloodsuckers also, so that may be a wash.

I recently watched a doe and two fawns come to apple trees, as they do frequently, to feed on the windfalls.  Rather than feeding in a normal way, some part of them was constantly in motion- ears twitching, tails flicking- until after a few minutes in the open and presumably being continuously bitten they suddenly jumped up one by one to first hop, then run into the taller vegetation, looking like they were trying to escape among the dense stems.  As much as I enjoy camping, I shudder to imagine what it’s like to live outdoors right now, pursued by mosquitoes 24 hours a day.  And at populations reported at Madison to be 10 times higher than normal.

photo of a mosquito

aedes vexans – Mosquito

So, if we dry out I won’t complain about having to water the flowers, and if the winter is cold I’ll try to remember that there’s an upside to even that scenario.  However, until things improve (for people, not mosquitoes) you’ll know me by my DEET scented cologne and irritated disposition!

photo- Aedes vexans, the inland floodwater mosquito, by University of Kentucky extension

Ripples 9/13/18

by Jennifer Klein, Woodland Dunes Land Management Coordinator

I do not know when my love for water began.  I certainly did not like getting my face wet or putting my face underwater during swim lessons as a kid.  Those swim lessons were important though because I was born on a peninsula that is basically an island.  I grew up a block away from Lake Michigan.  Many summer days were spent on the beach. 

photo of swale

Woodland Dunes swale

In middle school, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was a marine biologist.  I was fortunate enough to go on a marine ecology trip to Florida in high school.  Unfortunately, there isn’t any salt in Lake Michigan and I didn’t have a desire to leave my family to move near the ocean.  Instead I pursued a college degree and freshwater opportunities closer to home.

My first water-related jobs included supervising aquatic plant treatments on lakes and surveying cool water trout streams. I surveyed lakes for aquatic invasive species, which included getting paid to snorkel! Eventually I was led back to my home town and the rare opportunity to be the land manager for a now 1,500 acre nature preserve.

Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve includes both terrestrial habitats such as prairies and upland forests and aquatic habitats such as wetlands and creeks.  While there is no salt water, there is globally significant habitat and many rare plant and animal species.  What a dream come true to be able to get paid to learn more about this unique area and take care of these ecosystems.

A lot of focus this summer has been on our forested swales.  These coastal wetlands are rare habitat and face many challenges.  Over the years, invasive species such as honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, and buckthorn have encroached into the heart of the Preserve.  We are just starting to understand the full impact these invasive shrubs and trees have not only on our vegetation, but also on our animals, such as frogs, and insects which inhabit the water.  Invasive species are not just large things such as trees; invasive insects also threaten our swales.

The emerald ash borer is slowly making its way closer to our preserve.  After the loss of elm trees to Dutch elm disease, ash trees took their place in the canopy.  Approximately 80% of our forested swales are occupied by ash trees.  When these ash trees are eventually killed by the emerald ash borer we don’t want an opening for invasive species to further degrade the ecosystem.  This summer, with funding from the United States Forest Service (USFS), Wisconsin Public Service, and The Natural Resources Foundation, Woodland Dunes staff, interns, and volunteers removed invasive honeysuckle, buckthorn and barberry. In addition, they planted approximately 3,000 trees in our forested swales. Next year we will finish out the USFS grant by planting an additional 2,500 trees.  This effort will continue as resources allow. 

We are fortunate to live near such a gem, and we feel strongly that we need to do to preserve it.  I encourage you to go out and explore our trails, and have a swale time!

Ripples 9/6/18

photo of Forget Me Not Creek

Forget-Me-Not Creek

One of this year’s projects for Woodland Dunes has been to improve the mouth of a basically unknown little stream which long ago was known as Forget-Me-Not Creek. This site also happens to outfall to Lake Michigan at the location of the Spirit of the Rivers sculpture along Memorial Drive.  The creek was supposedly named for the forget-me-not flowers which were planted along it’s banks by an early German settler.  Over the years the creek had become partially blocked by rock and shrubs, some of which were non-native invasives, making the passage of migratory spawning fish more difficult.  Much of the creek’s watershed lies within the Woodland Dunes preserve, and native fish are an important part of both our local terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, so we want to do what we can to encourage free movement of fish in the spring when many move inland to spawn.

So, if you’ve visited the wayside next to the amazing Spirit of the Rivers sculpture, you’ve seen that the mouth of the creek has been changed.  The existing stone and brush was removed, the creek widened and a small floodway created, and then stone was again placed to form riffles and pools and to stabilize the banks.  Now the banks are being replanted with native shrubs and trees only, and the floodplain seeded with native wetland plants.  After the dedication, some of the upland areas will be seeded with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, as will the top of the bluff where we will preserve the abundant milkweed for monarch butterflies.  As is always the case, the site was severely disrupted by our excavation but it will heal again and we will make sure to stock it with beneficial plants.  Like the sculpture next door, it will be a creative endeavor, and a work in progress for years.

It is interesting to re-plant an area like this, to come up with some kind of vision or goal as to what a site should be.  Along the Lake we are fortunate to have nearby Woodland Dunes, Point Beach State Forest, and the Rahr School Forest, each having remnants of the native vegetation of our lakeshore.  It’s impossible to duplicate the degree of diversity of plantlife in these places- we would need to install more than 400 species of plants.  Like with so many things we will begin with species which are easy to obtain and grow, and add diversity from there.  After plants go in the ground, they need tending to – in this case involving my less than graceful attempts to clamber over the rocks to water and mulch the plants.  I am counting on the preoccupation of visitors to the site with the nearby sculpture rather than my profound lack of grace and balance.  Fortunately our recent rain has made watering unnecessary for the near term.

Then there is the placement of stones in the creek bed.  The riffles, or shallow rocky areas are subject to adjustment, which reminds me of playing in the river when I was a kid.  The water flow varies from day to day, as does the way water moves through our little stream system.  The beauty of being down in the stream itself is that you become aware of the creatures which so quickly expand their territories into new areas- in just a day or two green frogs began to appear, and water striders.  It will be interesting to sample the bottoms of the pools for invertebrates as time passes.  

Perhaps the most interesting so far was a mink which showed up one morning as I happened to be checking things.  Mink and other weasels always seem to me to be particularly graceful, and this beautiful dark brown animal flowed over and under the rocks along the bank.  Eventually it reached the large concrete culvert which guides the stream under Memorial Drive.  The mink stopped for a few seconds, then dove into the water at the pool next to the culvert, swam up to and over the culvert’s edge just like a sucker during the spring run.  Then it swam up into the culvert and under the road, I assume headed to the woods behind Aurora’s hospital.  I’ve seen several mink that had been unfortunately flattened on Memorial Drive this year, and I’m glad that this one has figured out a safe way to cross the road.  In fact, that culvert is large and flat enough at the bottom to allow for a lot of animals, not only fish, to pass.  Roads are one of the greatest hazards to wildlife, and at least here there is a safe connection between our stream mouth and the woods to the west.

Like most habitat restoration projects, this will be ongoing and change over time.  We’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and tweak things a number of times.  We are glad that the Spirit of the Rivers steering committee asked us to be a part of this, especially because the sculpture honors the native people who lived here longer than we have.  And, we’re impressed that Mr. Wallen has such a thorough understanding of the nature of this area and wanted it be a part of the project overall.  We are also grateful to the Fund for Lake Michigan and US Fish and Wildlife Service for funding towards the stream project and native plantings around it. 

We’re sure this project will help wildlife, and also be an enhancement to Manitowoc and Two Rivers as an attraction for visitors.  We can’t wait to see what happens as the site matures over time, but it certainly looks like a win for both the community and wildlife.

Ripples 8/31/18

photo of charred tree, splintered, by lightning

tree struck by lightning

Although my memory is famously suspect, i don’t remember the last time we had three consecutive days with severe storms, and so late in the year. I associate such weather with May and June when the warmth is building into our area.  Anyway, the last week was sometimes too exciting for comfort.

I am drawn to approaching thunderstorms, probably because I have not experienced significant damage from one personally.  I can understand how living through a really bad storm or tornado would change one’s perspective completely.  Having one’s house or crops destroyed would be a terrible experience.  The most significant I’ve seen personally was a Great Plains storm in North Dakota with golf ball sized hail. I was amazed at how the hailstones careened around after hitting the ground, and how in just a minute or two took out windows and windshields and siding and left vehicles looking like golf balls instead.

It is hard to imagine that the rain we received was transported more than 1000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and held as vapor in the air until the right kind of disturbance, or instability, came along to cause it to suddenly and violently erupt into a storm, and then flow across the landscape.  

One night last week the storms came in late.  Like dogs, I too, seem to get restless before storms and so got up and went outside to watch the approach.  The air was soft and moist and warm and smelled of rain.  All around there were thousands of insects singing- tree crickets, field crickets, mole crickets, and others which are now at their greatest numbers of the year. Their music seems to blend into one huge lustful chorus, although if you listen very carefully you can distinguish different tones and cadences among them.  To me, their songs seem peaceful – the way things should sound on a summer night.

After a few minutes, the neighborhood screech owl calls – first a high pitched but descending whinny, and then a monotone trill.  I don’t understand why, as it’s beyond the time of their mating, but they seem to call more now than earlier in the summer.  Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.  After a while the unseen little owl moves a hundred yards away and calls some more.  Apparently he or she is not concerned about being heard by larger owls.

In the background there are flashes and faint rumbles of thunder.  Even though it is nighttime, one can see low clouds moving quickly and swirling.  Then to the west a line of dense cloud appears and advances rapidly.  As it passes over, a vigorous, cooler breeze develops.  And then the world becomes quieter, crickets dominating the soundscape.  Except that thunder is becoming louder and lightning brighter.  It rains a bit, and I think that the brunt of the storm has missed us.  But gradually the rain increases in intensity, as does the lightning.  Some appears to strike the ground, and others cross the sky like rivers of intense, blue-white light.  Then the rain and wind suddenly increase, wetting the inside of the garage into which I took shelter.  A close lightning strike reminds me that a few feet away is a metal flagpole, so perhaps even the garage is not a wise place to be.  More than two inches of rain fall that night, to be added to four the night before and two the day after.  I think of how good it is that the soil was pretty dry beforehand, and how, if it’s not paved over, it has the capacity to absorb and filter thousands of gallons per acre.  And how the wetlands at Woodland Dunes, along our lakes and rivers, and across the land store and treat billions of gallons of what was once salt water from the ocean pushed up here by unseen rivers of air.

And then the reality of the toll that storms take on the forest creeps in, and the realization that there will be seven miles of trails to check and clear and how I hope a tree didn’t come down on one of our boardwalks!

Summer storms wash the land, refill lakes and rivers and groundwater reserves, prune trees in the forest, and topple some to make room for new ones to grow.  They can be dangerous and inconvenient, but their blessings are mixed to be sure. They are also exciting, and give us an excuse to venture outdoors at night and be reminded about the interesting world in which we live.  They are worth the experience, despite the sleep deprivation.

photo by Ray Pollen- a pine tree along the Ice Age Trail at Woodland Dunes which was struck by lightning

Ripples 8/23/18

One of the most common birds in urban areas is the house sparrow, which is not technically a sparrow in the ornithological sense, but a weaver finch.  They are a bird which originated in Eurasia. There are still local “wild” populations which don’t associate with people, and migrate north and south with the seasons.  Other house sparrows, however, have become closely associated with people to benefit their kind.

photo of House sparrow

House sparrow

As it turns out, unlike most other birds, house sparrows carry two interesting genes.  One allows them to adapt their skulls and the shapes of their bills so they are able to utilize different kinds of seeds.  The second allows them to more efficiently digest starchy grains, making up a large portion of their diet.  The ability to adapt their populations made it possible for some house sparrows to feed on the grain that people raised (and spilled).  As people became better at farming and migrated to different parts of the world (Middle East, Europe, North and South America) some house sparrows went with them.  In the last 200 years on the heels of people, house sparrows have successfully colonized six continents- all except Antarctica.  They also adapted their nesting behavior to take advantage of the structures people made, building messy, bulky nests in whatever openings they could find.  I think it’s interesting that some nest behind lighted signs on buildings which probably helps keep them warm in the winter.  They are so associated with people that they have been given the scientific name of Passer domesticus- in Latin meaning a small bird belonging to the house.

They are rather drab birds, brown and gray; the males sporting a black “bib” on the throat and chest.  Unlike many native sparrows, house sparrows are pretty much unstreaked on their front.  Another foreign bird, the Eurasian tree sparrow, is similar in appearance and has become established in a few places in this country, but has not nearly the range of the house sparrow, which has the greatest range of any bird in the world.

There is a downside to these interesting birds- where they go they replace native species.  At the Nature Center, they compete for birdhouses with bluebirds and tree swallows.  House sparrows are very aggressive and native birds have a hard time fending them off.  Still, years ago people became fond of these little birds that traveled with them and shared their buildings, singing their familiar “cheep” song.

A friend recently sent an article from the Kewaunee paper which was printed 140 years ago, in 1878.  That year, a Judge Stransky imported 25 sparrows from Bohemia at a cost of $10 each for release because of their value in controlling insects in the garden.  I’m guessing that those were house sparrows and that must have amounted to a small fortune to bring them here.  Perhaps the sparrows we see now are descendants from those birds.  

House sparrows still benefit from their human companions – not only have we moved them to new places and feed them our waste grain, but we also put out bird feeders to make sure they have enough to eat.  My grandfather used to talk about how there used to be more “English” sparrows around here when there were more horses. Apparently the birds picked seeds from the manure.  On the other hand, I also had a great uncle who devised a way to catch sparrows and use them to make a sort of sparrow pot-pie when times were hard.  I was told he was particularly proud of his sparrow-catching ability.

Wild animals are under constant pressure to survive and are often adept at taking advantage of every opportunity offered them.  In the case of house sparrows, be they common and perhaps undesirable, they have the genetic ability to take advantage of what people offer them and as a result have become one of the most numerous birds on Earth.