Ripples 5/4/17

photo of virginia waterleaf and trout lilly

virginia waterleaf and trout lilly

Simply put, I think there are hidden treasures in the natural world just waiting to be found.  And I don’t use the term symbolically- I think there are many things often overlooked that should literally be treasured.

This time of year in central Wisconsin, much of our vegetation is again growing – emerging from the earth or from months-dormant- stems.  Early spring wildflowers, the spring ephemerals, jump to life again so that they can harvest the sunlight before being drowned in the shade of taller plants.  They are speedsters of the botanical world, emerging sometimes flower first so that their blooms grab the spotlight, so to speak, and the attention of the early pollinating insects.  In just a few weeks they bloom, grow leaves, set seed, and go back to sleep.  That they can accomplish all this in such a short time must reflect amazing efficiency, and I wonder what we can learn from them.

Many of our forests have been invaded by a whole host of exotic plants, which are in the process of becoming naturalized.  They overwhelm our landscapes, especially at first glance.  But often there are native plants buried beneath the invasive mass, which sometimes begin growing a little earlier than some of the invasives. 

photo of a wild leek

wild leek

In one woodlot recently, among the dame’s rocket, garlic mustard, and reed-canary grass there were trout lilies, wood violets, Virginia waterleaf, wild leeks, toothwort, and more.  In a few weeks, the invasives will quickly grow and dominate the forest floor, leading one to believe that they are the only plants present. Despite the invasion, the natives stubbornly hang on.  One may think of the botanical world as a benign collection of plants happily coexisting, but in truth the competition is fierce and ruthless.  In order to survive and reproduce, plants crowd, out-climb, shade, and poison each other if they can.  If the defenses of one match the offenses of another, they in time find ways to co-exist.  That they compete doesn’t make them any less wonderful- one has to admire the many survival strategies that have evolved over time.

People have introduced the invasive plants, and will continue to do so. Even though those invasives will become part of the “normal” flora of a region in time, I think it’s worthwhile to make sure the natives have a chance.  I like to encourage at least small patches of sanctuary for native plants, first removing the non-natives, and then moving natives from areas on my property where they are struggling.

Plants, such as the ones mentioned above, can be carefully transplanted this time of year. Many natives can also be purchased from local nurseries. Some natives make excellent groundcover for shady places where grass and other plants don’t like to grow- plants like waterleaf, Canada anemone, and wild ginger for example.  Jack-in-the- pulpit, columbine, Solomon’s seal, and even trilliums can be purchased and grown in wildflower beds.  Please, never remove wildflowers from preserves like State parks, forests, or State Natural Areas like Woodland Dunes, or from private property without permission.  There are fortunately enough vendors of native plants now that they are easily obtained either locally or by mail.

Many of us have a shady patch under our trees and shrubs where lawn plants just won’t grow.  This spring, consider taking that patch and creating a place where these hidden treasures can prosper.

Ripples 4/27/17

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.

photo of Carolina wren

Carolina wren

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

Ripples 4/14/17

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.




Ripples 4/6/17

photo of skunk cabbage flowering

skunk cabbage

“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

Ripples 3/30/17

Written by Mikayla Opichka, education intern

photo of tapping tree for sap to make maple syrup

Tapping tree for sap

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!