Ripples 7/2017

-Written by Julia Adams, summer intern for Woodland Dunes Nature Center 

photo of painted turtles sun bathing

Painted turtles sunbathing

It is always fascinating to learn about how other animals reproduce and raise their young. Recently while on vacation in Mexico, I observed sea turtles nesting on the beach. The process seemed to be long and tedious. Although there are no sea turtles, there are eleven different species of turtles that live in Wisconsin. 

Painted Turtles are common turtles at the Woodland Dunes Nature Preserve. Female Painted Turtles nest between late May and mid-July. Similar to sea turtles, they lay their eggs in the sand in fairly close proximity to the water. When the female comes out of the water and finds a location that she feels may be a fit place for her nest, she presses her throat on the ground. This unusual behavior does not have a known purpose, however, she most likely does this to sense moisture, warmth, texture, or smell. Once she has picked her ideal location, she uses her back legs to dig her nest. She may build up mud and sand on her legs limiting her mobility and making her vulnerable to predators. To minimize this, she releases bladder water to lubricate the area.  After the nest has been dug the female lays her eggs which appear white, elliptical, porous, and flexible. This entire process can take up to four hours to complete.

Each batch of eggs that the turtle lays is called a clutch. Painted turtles can lay up to five clutches per year, but the average is two. To protect their nest, painted turtles will sometimes dig false nests as diversions for predators. The eggs incubate for 72-80 days in the wild. During this time, the mother turtle goes back to the water. When it is time for the baby turtles to hatch, they use their front “egg tooth” to break the shell so they can emerge. Although they may hatch, not all baby turtles leave the nest immediately after they hatch. Hatchlings in the northern part of the US, including Wisconsin, hatch in the fall and arrange themselves in a symmetrical formation for the winter to emerge in the spring. At first hatchlings grow at a rapid rate and can even double their size in their first year. The females always grow larger than the males and in order to reach sexual maturity, they must be larger than the males. In Wisconsin and other northern regions males reach sexual maturity between the ages of seven and nine years while females are between eleven and sixteen years. Once this has happened, the turtles are ready to mate and lay more eggs and the cycle continues.

Painted turtles are one of the most widespread species in Wisconsin because of their ability to withstand the cold temperatures as new hatchlings. These turtles hatch in August and September so keep an eye out for some new hatchlings the next time you’re at the beach later this summer!

Ripples 7/13/17

I’m sure the key to happiness is in learning to find joy in small things.  One is never guaranteed wealth, and attaching one’s happiness to costly possessions, while fun, can be a great source of disappointment if circumstances change.  People know this deep down, and have always known- its not some new-age concept.  The notion of being “down to earth” certainly has a lot more meaning to me now than when I was younger.

At the moment, I’m contemplating the entertainment value of a small dish of grape jam.  In front of me, as I write, are three bird feeders: one with sunflower seeds, one with nyger seeds, and one with jam.  The first two are being visited by the usual suspects – chickadees and finches, grosbeaks and woodpeckers, and cardinals.  One never knows what will show up to dine at the latter, however. At our previous place I never had much luck putting out jelly- the orioles would stop briefly on their way north, gorge for a couple of days, and then either move on or ignore sweets after that.  Now, I live where there are more mature trees in the area plus the river and this year the orioles (both Baltimore and Orchard) are nesting with multiple families, and continue to visit.  I’ve gotten used to the unusual, indigo-bunting-like song of the orchards as two males sing back and forth, challenging each other since May.  Now, families of both species are visiting, with young birds squawking and vibrating their wings to entice their parents to share mouth-fulls of sweet goo.  The adults don’t seem too enthusiastic at this point and the youngsters quickly learn the source of the treat and get their own.  Of course, lots of ants are attracted to the jelly dish as well, and sometimes they are the target of the birds rather than the jam itself.

It’s not only orioles that crave the sweet: house finches, gray catbirds, cardinals, chickadees- they all visit the jam.  Catbirds enjoy it as much as orioles.  Even the rose-breasted grosbeaks take a sip now and then, but they go back to sunflower eventually.

I feed jam because I think it contains more of the whole grape.  Both jam and jelly have a lot more sugar in them than the original fruit does, leading to some concern about how this might affect the health of the birds.  That’s a reasonable concern, so I limit the amount of jam I put out- one spoon in the morning, and some days another after work.  With all the birds that visit, the jam is gone in an hour or two, so the rest of the day the birds have to find their own food (or at least find someone else’s jam).  Orioles and other birds naturally seek out a variety of foods- fruit, nectar, insects, and seeds. Most, I’m sure, have a varied and healthy diet as long as they have good habitat around them.  Just now, one oriole decided to visit the other feeder and try a sunflower seed, which I’ve not seen before.  Wait-there’s an adult and begging young bird- I’ll try to get a photo with my phone…

photo of Baltimore orioles at jam feeder

Baltimore orioles at jam feeder

I think the fact that when I visit the grocery store this time of year, there is often an empty shelf where the bargain brand jelly used to be, reflects at least in part how many people feed jelly to birds.  I wonder how much money the sale of jelly and oranges generates for farmers, manufacturers, and retailers -all because people like to see colorful birds in their yards.  With little thought, and following our natural tendency to like birds, a relationship has developed which results in benefit not only to nature, but a lot of people as well.  Lets hope we keep looking for those opportunities.


Ripples 7/6/17

Ripples from the Dunes, by Jennifer Klein, Woodland Dunes’ Land Management Coordinator

photo of a Wolf spider with babies on its back

Wolf spider with babies on its back

It is amazing the wildlife we encounter in the smallest and simplest of places.  Recently while out tending to the butterfly garden at Woodland Dunes Nature Center, a couple of our interns and I noticed a “lumpy-backed” spider.  There were other smaller spiders crawling off of it.  Upon further inspection, the spider was carrying its babies on its back.  This experience inspired me to find out more about this nurturing spider.

Wolf spiders belong to the family Lycosidae.  There are over 2,000 species of wolf spiders and they live all over the world.  This particular spider was found under a rock near a pond feature.  While wolf spiders do have spinnerets (the structures that produce silk) they do not form webs.  Instead, they hunt for their food mainly at night.  The spinnerets are used to form a silk egg sac, which the female uses to carry around her young.  When the eggs hatch, the young, known as spiderlings, crawl on their mother’s back.  She will carry them around for several days or even weeks.

Wolf spiders are solitary and once the spiderlings are old enough they will disperse to find their own food.  Male wolf spiders live approximately one year and females can live for several years.  Wolf spiders display sexual dimorphism, which is a difference in size or appearance between the sexes of an animal.   In the case of the wolf spider, females are larger.

While wolf spiders are considered great hunters, they are also prey. Other spiders, wasps, ants, birds, small reptiles, toads and other amphibians, and even some rodents are predators of wolf spiders.  The wolf spider can try to escape predators using their speed and camouflage.  They will also bite if necessary.  We didn’t wait around to see if this particular spider viewed us as a threat.

After a quick examination of this interesting family, we gently replaced the rock and returned to our tasks.  Every trip in nature provides an opportunity for a new experience.  Even something as simple as weeding a garden and rearranging some landscaping allows a peek at a world different than our own.

photo- wolf spider with babies by Jennifer Klein


Ripples 6/29/17

Written by Jake Gostisha, Woodland Dunes summer intern 

A recent trip to the Manitowoc Lakefront Birding Area, also known as the containment facility, brought forth the beauty of summer. Jim Knickelbine, the Woodland Dunes director, and myself made a trip to the birding area to put up a purple martin house. The “house” however looks more like a purple martin hotel. Purple Martins usually live and nest in colonies, which is why this large birdhouse is an ideal size for them.

We placed the house just outside a group of trees and shrubs that were planted a few weeks earlier. Madison Elementary teachers and students helped plant dogwood, viburnums, chokeberries, and birch trees. The martins like to nest around trees, but not too close. Being away from the trees gives them enough room for flight, and the trees are great for insects, which provide an excellence food source for the birds. Not to mention, the purple martins eat mosquitoes, which helps all of us. Although it is a little late for the birds to be looking for nesting spots, Dr. Charles Sontag told us that he saw about a dozen purple martins checking out the house. They probably will not be nesting here this year, but it is a good sign that they will come back to nest there next year.

While we were making our way to the worksite, birds packed themselves tight on the artificial island.  American white pelicans and various gulls and terns were the most notable visitors. It’s an amazing sight to see the pelicans demonstrate group foraging. They will either be swimming in a straight line and trap fish between them and the shore, or they can be found in two groups. Both groups will form parallel lines, then swim towards one another, driving fish to each other then coming together to enjoy a feast. This display really shows the mental capability of animals. The behavior that some people believe is “just an animal,”  shows the great cognitive ability of pelicans and other animals.

While we glassed the landscape, Jim noticed the SS Badger headed back into the Manitowoc harbor. This was an event that I’ve never experienced before. Coming all the way from Ludington, MI, this 410-foot barge carrying up to 600 passengers and 180 cars was headed to dock just across the harbor. This is the only coal-fired steamship running in the US. Watching it come in was a tremendous sight, as the Captain maneuvered the heavy ship with ease.

After my trip to the containment facility, I was reminded what summer is all about. Getting outside, learning, and trying new activities are the excitements of summer. The Manitowoc Lakefront Birding Area is a great place to achieve this. Whether observing all of the wildlife, taking a walk, or doing both, there is always a new experience awaiting.

photo- Jake Gostisha and Charles Sontag with the new purple martin house

Ripples 6/22/17

 Written by Julia Adams, summer education intern

Summer is a great time to see many beautiful, colorful plants and flowers beginning to grow. It’s always  refreshing to see the bright colors after the dreary winter passes. Seeing the bright purple color of the flowers on the dame’s rocket plants lately, was a great reminder that spring and summer were finally here. Little did I know, dame’s rocket is an invasive species that I would soon help to remove from the Woodland Dunes Nature Preserve.

photo of dames rocket

dame’s rocket

The first day I was removing dame’s rocket with some fellow interns, I saw only a few and thought that there was not much of a problem, or, the other workers and volunteers from the preserve were very good at removing it. After picking for a little while, I noticed through some trees where there were more. As I walked closer, the area was not as small as I had originally thought. There were spots in the preserve that were almost completely covered in dame’s rocket. That’s when I knew this was an important problem to solve.

Invasive species are non-native that can harm the environment. Dame’s rocket grows very rapidly and grows tall enough to block the sun from getting to native species. Because of this, the native species can’t get enough sunlight and eventually end up being overtaken by the dame’s rocket. Since these species are native, it is important to keep them in the preserve to help native wildlife that may use these plants. Dame’s rocket makes this more difficult to achieve.

Dame’s rocket is very easy to identify. It is part of the mustard family and came to the U.S. in the 1600s. It was planted and used as an ornamental species. However, because of it’s high seed production, it quickly escaped cultivation and grew in the wild. Dame’s rocket thrives in areas such as prairies, roadsides, ditches, open woodlands, and other disturbed areas. The plant can grow up to four feet tall and has leaves that alternate – going up and down the fuzzy, rough stem. At the top of the plant there are flowers that have four petals that make a cross. The flowers can be purple, pink, and white and usually bloom in the late spring. The first year of growth tends to be just foliage, and in the second year, the flowers start to bloom.

When you encounter dame’s rocket, it can commonly be confused with phlox, which also has purple flowers but has five petals instead of four. Once properly identified, dame’s rocket can easily be removed by pulling out the root by hand, if the soil is soft, or by digging the root out with a small spade. Because it is an invasive species, dame’s rocket is not to be purchased or planted in Wisconsin. Although the flowers are beautiful and the colors are pretty, this invasive species can harm the environment and ecosystems around us and should be removed when possible.