The weeks following Valnetine’s Day can be agonizing. In a broad sense time moves along steadily and rapidly, but not quickly enough to satisfy those longing for spring. A walk outside will confirm the coming change of seasons, which is just beginning to build like a tidal wave that in a month’s time will begin to wash over us once again.
Here in eastern Wisconsin, the world sounds different than it did a month ago. Chickadees, house finches, cardinals – all singing their courtship songs with greater regularity, even on cold days. The sun’s effect is becoming much more intense, and even when it’s frigid, south facing snowbanks melt on sunny days. The surface of the ground heaves as it freezes and thaws, helping to plant the seeds we scattered last fall. Winter birds still linger- snowy owls are still around in greater numbers than usual, and the harbors give shelter to many goldeneyes. A northern shrike visits the feeder looking for a smaller bird to pursue, and rough-legged hawks patrol the grasslands. Pine siskins and redpolls still visit the feeders, but perhaps not as regularly, spending more time foraging elsewhere.
The foxes and coyotes are denning, preparing a home for their forthcoming pups. Fox and gray squirrels are more active, spending less time in their nests. A few horned larks are migrating north, showing up on road shoulders next to farm fields. Great horned owls are already nesting, and bald eagles are thinking about it. And as snow melts in the forest, weird skunk cabbage flowers and emerald pincushion mosses emerge.
A few “flying days” south of here, red-winged blackbirds are slowly pushing north – there are quite a few being reported from Chicago southward. Some years, if many mild days prevail, they show up here in late February. If the spring is cold, it might not be until mid-March. The same is true for robins, grackles, song sparrows, and killdeer. They seem to literally watch the weather and move when they feel they have a chance of surviving the last of winter a bit farther north. Its a risky time of year for them.
Even farther south, where spring bulbs are beginning to emerge, tree swallows are becoming restless, as are ducks, cranes, herons, and others. In the tropics, the beautiful warblers, orioles, tanagers, and hummingbirds which must avoid the real cold, will start to feel that way in a month or two.
And in Mexico, west of Mexico City where all the remaining monarch butterflies cluster on perhaps 6 acres of forest preserve, they too will give in to the urge to move north in a couple of weeks. Unlike the others, theirs is a suicide mission on which their species depends. Unlike seval other generations in the past year, these monarchs will have lived nine months or so, surviving off fat reserves and moving around occasionally to find water. In March, they will decide its the right time to move, and leave the safety of their winter fir trees. They will fly until they find newly growing milkweed plants, lay some eggs, and then die. Theirs would seem to be such a tenuous existence, such a burden placed on a fragile little creature. But perhaps, if a butterfly can do so much, we can find the strength to take better care of each other as we journey ourselves. And take better care of the world around us so that all of our journeys can continue.
photo- a late winter frosty morning at Woodland Dunes
This community is full of potential. To be sure, there is already much to be appreciated and enjoyed: outstanding natural attributes, wonderful people, and many effective businesses. A solid groundwork has been laid, even though it is not always appreciated.
It seems that a new or perhaps re-energized vision for Manitowoc and Two Rivers is starting to emerge, along with a reinforced sense of cooperation in attaining it. It is exciting to hear talk about a renewed appreciation for the natural aspects of our Lakeshore. The lakeshore is an important part of that vision, and the acknowledgement that nature contributes to our quality of life is gratifying. And, perhaps most importantly, the emphasis that being inclusive and cooperative in our efforts will allow us to accomplish much more than being divisive.
There is a renewed interest in our lakefront and our parks, and how improving them will compliment efforts to improve our businesses. Both cities have obtained funding to improve parks and other public natural spaces in the coming year, including enhancing other areas adjacent to them. We, of course, encourage such efforts and are happy to help if and when we can.
One such project involves the Manitowoc lakefront near the harbor. The City has been working to improve the beach at the Blue Rail trail by taking measures to improve water quality in that area, while at the same time supporting the project we and several partners are undertaking to improve the containment facility as wildlife habitat for migrating birds and butterflies. So far, we’ve been mostly working on removing harmful invasive plants while beginning the process of planting native species, something that will continue this year. The area is still a very rough work in progress, but the appearance will now start to improve as the native plants begin to take hold. We will also be establishing a purple martin colony out there; installing several martin condominiums this spring to supplement the one that was installed last year as a trial.
A new project also emerged, involving the steep slope along Maritime Drive across from the marina. The City has concerns about large trees, some of them invasive, non-native species, potentially toppling over, landing on the roadway and taking part of the hillside with them. This apparently happened a few decades ago. City representatives asked if it were possible to replace those trees with other species that would benefit birds while not growing so large. Of course, we were very happy to be asked, and to have the opportunity to partner on such a project. So, as it turns out, we helped prepare a management plan for the hillside, and were able to obtain funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase native shrubs. As a result the City will have existing trees and non-native shrubs removed later this year, after which we, with the help of volunteers, will re-plant the slope with native species. Although at first the area will be very much disturbed, over time it will regrow in a way that not only protects motorists, saves the City maintenance costs, but it provides a more natural area that benefits migrating birds and other wildlife. Property owners won’t have to worry about trees taking out parts of the bluff, and they’ll still have habitat for birds adjacent to their yards. It will be a rough start, but in the long run the area should be improved overall.
The hillside on Maritime Drive is an example of an unused and unbuildable area that can be improved as an oasis for wild birds. We appreciate the City’s forethought and consideration for birds on this project, and also appreciate being asked to help. We’ll certainly do what we can to help make this area another beautiful little piece of the Lakeshore.
Recently, a neighbor of our preserve sent a photo of a footprint in the mud. The print was about 3 1/2 by 4 inches in size, and showed no marks of claws. It appears that the bobcat that was photographed at the north part of the preserve recently is also exploring the south part, not surprising because bobcats – especially males, have a range of many square miles. A volunteer also sent trail cam photos of coyotes and foxes from the central part of the preserve, and a mink was found dead on the road in front of our main building. A northern shrike has been seen hanging around our headquarters also, looking for mice and small birds on which to feed. There appear to be a wealth of animals that people often refer to as “predators” around Woodland Dunes.
There seem to be two mindsets on viewing “predators.” One is rather self-centered, that they are competitors that deplete resources we want for ourselves. I remember being young and watching the men in our family shoot a red-tailed hawk that had been found in a large tree near our house. In those days, it was considered the right thing to do because hawks and foxes (and the like) competed for rabbits and other small game that our family liked to hunt. For many years there were bounties put up by government, paid for the killing of certain predators. And of course their numbers declined.
The other way to view predators is from the standpoint of the ecology of the land. Predators have evolved over time along with their prey, and they feed on other animals in order to survive. They are more likely to catch the slower, weaker, and less clever prey animals first. In doing that they are likely to remove animals that are ill from the population, and improve it’s overall health. Also, the role in controlling the populations of other animals can have significant positive effects on ecosystems. Aldo Leopold wrote of his realization of this as a young man in his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Leopold was ahead of his time, and it’s a shame he didn’t live to see some of the remarkable transformations that are happening in places like Yellowstone, where predators were reintroduced.
At Woodland Dunes, native predators are considered a necessary part of our ecosystem. We know that they’ve evolved alongside other animals that have lived here over millions of years. This interaction is usually beneficial to the whole, often in ways that we are only beginning to understand. Predators are not evil, they fulfill a role in nature. When we think of predators we tend to focus on animals that are large and scary, but in truth almost every animal- mice, songbirds, squirrels, ladybugs, and deer included- at some point eat other animals. It has always been that way, and we need to allow it. In fact, we need to allow as many parts of our ecosystems, plants, predators, and prey to continue to exist for our own good. While we might think that removing animals that compete with us is a good thing, in the long run I’m pretty sure that would actually turn out to be just the opposite.
So, at least in our preserves, the predators, as long as they are native to our ecosystem, are welcome and will be a source of study and wonder just like any other component of nature.
photo- bobcat track
With February around the corner, there are now definite indications of the coming spring season. Although wildlife are still prepared for the cold, there are subtle differences all around us compared to the state of things a month ago.
- Field station in winter
There are no doubt, many changes in the forest that are completely unseen. Although trees appear dormant, researchers are finding that they lead complex lives underground, their roots growing and intertwining. It appears that trees move nutrients back and forth, exchanging them with one another, even those of different species. And, with the help of soil fungi, they communicate with each other- indicating stress or well-being, and who knows what else. They live in families, caring for their offspring and even their elders in ways that we are just beginning to understand. As I walk in the forest, I wonder what they are talking about and planning for the coming season.
Birds still struggle to stay warm this time of year, but a bit of their energy now is being devoted to the upcoming reproductive season. Around our feeders now chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches are starting to sing, several weeks later than they did last year, probably due to our recent cold snap. Great-horned owls are thinking about nesting now, and screech owls are calling at night. Its no wonder that we celebrate love in the form of Valentine’s Day this time of year. The shoreline is busy with many winter diving ducks and an unusual number of snowy owls now, but soon they will begin to move around as the weather moderates. Inland, hawks abound, and many red-tails and rough-legs perch along highways looking for a rodent meal.
Wild canines are on the same page as the birds- foxes and coyotes can be heard singing their own songs, even during daylight hours, voicing their enthusiasm for the coming spring and their own mating rituals. Unlike some, in our preserve we welcome the sounds of these predators, because they bring balance to the forest. They’ll soon be preparing their family dens, and in a couple of months their pups will be old enough to peek out at the world around them.
We are immersed in a great sea of life that changes with the seasons and as a result of our actions. Our ability to appreciate that depends on our willingness to forego some of the distractions we create for ourselves, and open our eyes and thoughts to the realities around us. There is perhaps no better time for that than the transition from winter to spring, and no better place than this beautiful Lakeshore.
Recently, several families visited the nature center to participate in a session in our series “Raising a Wild Child”. The day was a bit ugly- rain melting the snow on the ground, but the group went outside anyway. As they explored, the interests of the children ultimately determined what the group did, and splashing in puddles proved irresistible. Especially with young children, we consider these “teaching moments” that are often of more value than planned activities. For the very young, these are opportunities for experiencing and experimenting with the basic aspects of our environment- in this case how does the water feel, look, sound etc. when you splosh around in your mud boots. Having the opportunity and the time to experience those basic things adds to appreciation of and familiarity with the outside world, and gives children the confidence to ask questions and further explore not only puddles but the grasslands and forests and rivers and lakes and all the wonderful natural features around them. At least we feel it does.
I’m going to date myself, but the landscape after the recent snowfall reminded me of a part of my own childhood. In winter, we kids were allowed to go outside and play after supper and homework, in the dark, in the snow. There was a bright yardlight of course, and this was during an era when space exploration was really getting started with the Gemini and Apollo programs at NASA. I remember thinking that the snow-covered yard under the harsh light looked like the surface of the moon. We piled the snow into mountains, made craters, and crafted elaborate astronaut scenarios. Interestingly, a burned-out floodlight bulb looked to me like a Gemini space capsule and was quickly woven into our stories.
I don’t know how long we lasted, but I remember finally having to come in because we were cold and wet, or because Mom reminded us about bedtime. When my own children, now grown, were young, we also used to go outside under the yardlight on the barn for what they called “moonwalks”, and they created their own adventures in the cold and dark.
I’m sure many of us did these sorts of things. I don’t think we learned anything profound in doing them, but perhaps a greater value was in being comfortable outside in the cold at night. When we ventured away from the yardlight, we realized that the dark was not so scary, and the cold could be dressed for. We were comfortable being outside, and when one is comfortable it is much easier to learn.
I realize that people view the world differently now, and we don’t allow children to wander around exploring in the dark in winter by themselves. But I think there is still value in the experience, and perhaps we should find a way to make it happen- maybe sharing the experience with them. It might be good for us, too.
Photo- Woodland Dunes snowscape by Nancy Nabak