I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the City of Manitowoc for having planted flowering crabapple trees on the median strip of Waldo Boulevard near the Little Manitowoc River years ago. I usually drive that street on my way to and from work, and almost every morning this winter I have seen robins picking at the shriveled fruit. When I was young, a robin in winter was a rare thing. Ten years ago they were uncommon but regularly seen in the winter. This winter, many of them are around. I’m pretty sure it’s because both the winter has been unusually warm, and because a lot of people like to plant crabapples and other flowering trees that produce fruit. In some cases, the birds don’t like the fruit initially in the fall, but freezing over winter apparently sweetens it, making it more tasty.
Robins are common birds here and I think they represent an example of the kind of ecological reorganization that’s happening around us. We’re forcing changes on the natural world to the good of some species and the detriment of others. Robins are obviously one species that is very capable of adapting to change.
I remember looking at a bird book my mom had when I was very young, a book of photographs. One featured a robin in the northwoods and described it as a shy species of deep forest, unlike it’s city-dwelling cousins. Indeed, in places like the Boundary Waters there are robins, but they act like the other thrushes in the thick bush – gleaning fruit and insects, and nesting in dense foliage. The edge of the forest on lakeshores is always a good place to see them. They are much more scattered than city-dwelling robins across the landscape.
Imagine those as the original robin stock of North America, very successful in their forest habitat, then Europeans came. No big deal at first, but then, even with relatively primitive equipment, they harvested timber from immense areas of forest- clearing the land which became farms and leaving only fragments of forest. That forest had lots of edge habitat, where the farmland and forest met – a lot like those lakeshore edges. Robins had little problem adapting to that change, even though it was a tremendous alteration of the land.
The Europeans brought something else with them- earthworms. Our native earthworms were wiped out by continental glaciers- they’ve been gone for many thousands of years. Europeans brought worms with their eggs in plant materials where they multiplied successfully and established themselves, aided by lack of native competition. Wagon wheels moved their eggs from one place to another, as did tractor wheels later. Fishermen used them for bait, and dumped unused worms where they fished. Robins, resourceful and ever-aware of food sources in their habitats, apparently found them to be a wonderful meal.
Then, the landscape changed further as folks multiplied and urbanized parts of the land. We liked things neat and tidy, and fell in love with lawns. Earthworms did too, and the nice short grass made worms easy to get at. Robins, which for generations foraged among a tangle of shrubs and the leaf-covered forest floor, took to lawns and the food items within and beneath the grass, again adapting to a new world. We planted non-native trees and shrubs, and the robins found a way to nest in them. Even buildings with their shelves and light fixtures were found to be workable to these birds.
Now, perhaps we’re changing the climate and many robins don’t need to migrate – or at least not as far as they used to. Already here in March, they’re singing their full courtship songs and sound like they’re ready to start the nesting season. Beneath the lingering snow the ground is mostly thawed and food is waiting for them, along with our crabapples. It is no wonder that robins are common birds given their amazing ability to adapt and the favors we’ve done for them. This isn’t the case though for birds that depend on a colder climate or less disturbance- those species are the big losers in the world today. The robins are doing great, but as for snowy owls, I don’t know what will happen.
As I write, several robins are outside, one singing, more chasing each other, mostly males. They are completely ignoring the cranberries I put out for them- I’ll try raisins next. Sure they’re common, but I admire their ability to cope with change, and their song is part of the score that compliments the beauty of a sunny spring day.
This article was written by Mikayla Optichka, Woodland Dunes education intern and student at Silver Lake College.
When I feel upset or overwhelmed, I love going for a nature walk, listening to the birds singing and the sounds of crunching leaves underneath my feet. I feel the sun on my face, and the wind gently sweeping my hair. It always amazes me when I look at plant and animal life, knowing there is a definite and beautiful pattern to each. All of these things instantly bring me to a state of awe and relaxation, changing my mood right on the spot. I am sure many of you have had similar experiences.
Scientists have been studying this innate sense, called biophilia, where humans are soothed and exhilarated by nature, wanting to become connected with this natural world. Working in a daycare and with many schools I see this obvious change in demeanor in children once we step foot out the doors. Curiosity sparks as children, and adults, step outside and see the natural world. This appears to be a widespread reaction- there are now hundreds of research articles about the positive effects of exposure to the outdoors on health and wellness.
In this age of technology and indoor entertainment, many humans have been spending more time on electronics and less time outside. Although the advancement of technology has many benefits for our society, even some helping save nature, it is important to maintain a balance and explore our natural instincts and return to the wild.
At Woodland Dunes, we make it our responsibility to help others fall back in love with nature. We have programs that inspire adults to notice their surroundings and take care of nature. The program that inspires me the most is called “Raising a Wild Child” where we sync into young children’s natural curiosity and build a foundation for biophilia. In this program we mentor young children and their caregivers to be playful scientists as they learn to use their science tools, which are their ears, eyes, nose, and hands to explore their world outside. It is amazing to see curiosity and wonder through these young children’s eyes when they watch birds swooping in the sky, or when they examine animal tracks in the snow and realize, “Wow! We live in the same place as these animals!”
These children have inspired me to use my curiosity to explore the amazement of wildlife. Because of this, I believe the first step to becoming a nature-loving society is starting with this young generation. Embrace your inner wild child, and enjoy nature!
A couple of weeks ago Dr. Kerry Trask gave a wonderful program at the Lester Library about the native people of our area. He spoke about how indigenous people were drawn to this area by the resources it offered, especially in terms of food and transportation. He spoke about how these places were considered sacred and that in such areas the veil between the physical and spiritual world was considered thin. I heard another Native speaker last fall talk about how First People looked at the world in terms of what was being offered and not in terms of forcing nature to give up its gifts. I think there is immeasurable wisdom in that approach to life.
I am blessed to both live and work in areas where life is abundant. Native people lived in both of these places in large numbers. I think their spirits still remain. (Coincidentally, bald eagles also nest in each place).
When Europeans came here, they realized how rich our lakeshore was in terms of resources. In reading early accounts of our area, there was much appreciation for the land and wildlife of our county. The European attitude toward using our natural resources was different, but I don’t know that it was wrong for people of that era to think resources and wildlife were infinite. They had no prior knowledge of how long it would take for ecosystems to develop or recover, for that matter, after being disrupted. Now, we know a lot more about that.
The natural goodness of the Lakeshore is what drew and continues to draw people here. It is the foundation of what we like to do – walk on the beach or lay in the sun, swim, bike on the Mariner’s Trail, hike in the forest, boat on the rivers and lakes, fly kites, fish and hunt – having the opportunity to do any of them constitutes a good day. Why on earth would we ever want to degrade such things? Fortunately, many people here, including leaders, are aware and are willing to sustain what we all need so badly.
As I write, the sun on new snow is blinding, and the wind is soft. Finches are singing everywhere and mobbing the feeders with their cousins. Somehow it’s March already and we’re on the doorstep of spring. On days like this it’s easy to see what we have and why we live here. And with a little thought and effort we can make things even nicer for the entire community to enjoy.
Written by Jeni Klein and Jim Knickelbine
The higher than normal temperatures we’ve experienced in the last week have advanced our season significantly. Even if we go back to more normal temperatures now, we’ll still be at the end of winter with normal high temperatures near freezing. As suspected, animals and plants are responding to their warm surroundings. Weeks early the ice has gone out on the river in my neighborhood, and redwings, grackles, cowbirds, bluebirds, killdeer, and cranes have all returned. Buds are swelling, skunk cabbages are emerging, and the onset of spring is temporarily in high gear.
On our Black Cherry and Cattail trail, a pussy willow is budding. The little snow cover we had insulating those seeds and sleeping plants is melting. Birds are singing their mating calls. This morning a robin was heard in full song. Maple sap is running- it will be an unusual year for syrup production around here.
Some spring processes may start then stop if the weather turns cold again. This isn’t the first time this has happened and nature overall has the capacity to adapt. That sounds benign, but imagine being a red bat which hibernates in the forest at the base of a tree rather than in a cozy cave. Red bats become active when temperatures reach the 50’s, and they’ve been observed flying already this year. From the bat’s point of view, after surviving the winter, finding food is critical. Are there enough insects on the wing yet? I haven’t seen many. Perhaps that’s why the red bat I found was dead – beneath lights that in the summer would attract insects. As nature adapts and ecosystems are reorganized, some species will prosper and others will decline.
Overall, there has been less snow cover on the ground even though our snowfall has been close to normal, with more rain and freezing rain than normal. The ground also took longer to freeze this year. Here at Woodland Dunes, we took advantage of the seasonably warm fall to spread many acres of wildflower and grass seeds. This is called dormant seeding and allows the seeds to go through a cold stratification as if they naturally dropped from plants. Many native seeds require this cold period before they germinate- if you plant in spring, some of the seeds will stay dormant until they can chill out for an adequate time. Last fall, we were unable to conduct a controlled burn in preparation for wildflower seeding due to wetness and the field staying green right up to snowfall. Green vegetation won’t burn.
On the flip side, with the warmer winter we have been able to continue working on invasive species control throughout the winter. We may also be able to conduct a spring burn in March and seed those remaining fields. It will be interesting to see how the change of seasons progresses. It is not always the tidy, gradual change we think of but rather a series of starts and stops as nature plays out complex interactions. Just like the animals in our ecosystems, we have to adapt too.
Weather patterns such as this year and last remind us that the seasonal activity of plants and animals is not only linked to length of daylight but also to temperature change cues. While we observe the trends in weather patterns and temperatures throughout our lifetimes, we would be wise to also compare them to a bigger picture of long term data and assess what is an anomaly and what may be part of a larger natural cycle. Guessing, or what we like to selfishly call “common sense,” won’t really help us understand. In the meantime, we will practice adaptive management, planning our restoration activities around the ever-changing conditions, and hopefully restoring those habitats to where they are able to adapt as well.
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.