Ripples 1/11/18

Written by Jennifer Klein, Woodland Dunes Land Manager

With the recent cold spell, the lakes and rivers have been busy making ice.  For many people, this is a blessing within what might otherwise be a dreary time of year.  Ice fishing shanties, both the pop up tent variety and more permanent structures, can be seen lining rivers and lakes as people work to fill their freezers with fish, or simply enjoy each other’s company.  I like to eat wild caught and locally grown food whenever possible, and know as much as I can about where my food comes from and what went into growing it.  This is also a great excuse to get outside and just enjoy not being cooped up in a house. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to try my luck at catching trout and salmon under the ice on the Sheboygan River.  The fishing had been slow in the days leading up to my trip, possibly due to lack of current in the river and the slushiness of the water below the ice.  On the first day of a warming spell, we were slightly optimistic that we would see a pickup in action.  After being out for just a couple hours, we were lucky enough to have a fish on the line.  After an incredible moment spent reeling in our catch, we discovered that we had a nice steelhead.

This particular steelhead was a male.  He had a nice hooked jaw, silver belly, pink-red horizontal stripe, and above the lateral line he had green skin with black spots.  Steelhead can be distinguished from salmon by their white mouth, distinct rows of spots on their caudal (tail) fin, and by the shape of their anal fin.  Steelheads also have two dorsal fins, including one adipose fin, as well as pectoral and ventral fins.

It is interesting to note that steelhead and rainbow trout are genetically the same species, Oncorhynchus mykiss.  However, historically, they led different lives and that is what led to the distinction.  While rainbow trout are resident fish, steelhead trout are anadromous, meaning they migrate.  Steelhead trout in our area spend most of their time in Lake Michigan and reproduce in the tributary rivers.  Rainbow trout and steelhead are not native to Wisconsin, and have to be reared and stocked.  In their native range, steelhead trout migrate to salt water oceans.  In the case of the local population, Lake Michigan is substituted for the ocean.  What causes a species to have two different life styles?   Scientists are still studying this species and current research suggests a complex interaction between genetics, the state of the individual, and the environment.  Whatever the reason, it is another example of the wonder of nature.   John McMillian, the science director for Trout Unlimited, stated in 2015, “There is no ‘normal’ population of O. mykiss. They literally are the fish of a thousand faces.”

As we fish through the ice we can only imagine (unless we have an underwater video cam) the amazing world beneath the surface of our rivers and lakes.  Steelhead are interesting, colorful, and energetic creatures that make the underwater world even more exciting.  And, they help us enjoy the season that perhaps defines our State and the hardy wildlife and people who live here.  

Ripples 1/17/19

photo of a red phase screech owlI don’t know that we are so much creatures of habit as much as people just trying to manage busy schedules.  I am always amazed at what people can accomplish in a day, although somehow I only manage to complete a fraction of my daily to-do list.  Usually because I’m sidetracked by other things.  Getting enough sleep seems to become more and more important with age, and from what I’ve read its important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.  Like many things, that can be easier said than done, and sometimes one ends up ruminating about the day’s problems rather than allowing ourselves to restore our brains as we should.  I wonder if animals face that issue. Our pets seem to sleep 20 hours per day regardless – unless there is something important like a thunderstorm to worry about.  Their lives seem to be more efficient than ours.
For me, coolness makes it easier to sleep so often the window is open a crack. Being able to hear the outside is interesting, with each season revealing different aspects by the sounds that accompany it.  Coyotes howl occasionally and foxes bark.  In spring, young fawns sound like sheep, and certain birds will sing at times all night.  In summer and early fall the others fall silent and insects take over until frost puts an end to them.  Then, in fall and winter when others are quiet, the calls of owls become more apparent.  Great horned owls court each other beginning in late fall, and are common even in our cities.  And if one is lucky, they may hear a high-pitched descending whinny or a monotone trembling note, the song of the eastern screech owl.
We have been lucky to have screech owls in our neighborhood for more than two years, thanks to a neighbor who doesn’t mind them nesting in his wood duck houses.  They are found in many locations in our area, both country and city. They’re tiny owls which often pass unnoticed unless they call.  They’re just slightly larger than the saw-whet owl at nine inches tall, and like us have more than one race. They can either be rusty or gray in color – rusty more common in the east with more grays to the west of their range. We are at the northern extent of that, although with a warming climate they seem to be moving north and were found for the first time near Ashland a couple of years ago. They seem to tolerate many of the changes we humans have made to the world, but prefer a forest with an open understory, not too many shrubs.  Perhaps that makes it easier to catch mice upon which they depend.  They also prey on small birds, who in turn will mob the wonderfully camouflaged owls, revealing its location.
Unlike other owls the screechs will nest in man-made boxes and even visit bird baths to drink and wash.  They seem to have more young in suburban locations, possibly because there are fewer predators (other owls, mainly) than in the forest.  The females are larger than their mates as in most raptors, but while she is on the nest the male does the hunting, which must keep him very busy.  And although they appear cute and cuddly, there can be life-or-death competition for food among baby birds in the nest, with the smallest sometimes losing out.
Screech owls appear to mate for life, which can be up to 14 years.  It sounds romantic, doesn’t it?  Well, even though they do, the male might have a second mate on the side, but they are certainly not the only species to exhibit that sort of wanderlust.  
Screech owls are another example of wildlife which is common but often unknown to us unless we know where to look.  Compared to many creatures they are obvious, and the more we study them the more we learn how they interact with us.  They impact the world in ways we don’t fully understand, and I always wonder how many other important animals and plants we take for granted without thinking.  Nevertheless, I consider myself lucky to hear screech owls in the middle of the night, and to know that they still call from hidden perches along our Lakeshore.  May it always be that way. 

photo- red-phase screech owl from Wikipedia


Ripples 1/4/18

Written by Nancy Nabak, Communication & Development Coordinator

New Year’s resolutions always seem to be the same: eat less, work out more, and get in touch with friends that you haven’t talked to in years. This year I’m considering something different and hope you’ll do the same. I’m imagining my back yard as reaching all the way to South America. My second resolution is not to give up coffee, but to purchase more family owned, shade-grown java. The two resolutions go together.

I figure that if I can see my backyard as including Central and South America, then I have beautiful neo-tropical songbirds to call my “own” year ‘round. Why does this changing view matter? Because we as humans, tend to care for what’s literally within our reach.

Recently, I attended a presentation on family owned, shade-grown coffee. Like the coffee I start my day with, it was eye opening. I didn’t realize this, but coffee is the second largest trade commodity in the world. Something with this big of an economic impact can have a significant influence on an ecosystem’s sustainability, and the needs of our songbirds. 

Wood thrush, photo credit: Wikipedia

Songbirds have experienced major decline since the 1960s, including the Wood thrush, with a 60% species loss. Have you ever heard the beautiful “ee-oh-lay…” of the Wood thrush? It lifts your heart and carries your soul to the spirit of the woods. This thrush forages in leaf litter, so it does well in shade-grown coffee farms. Where there is no leaf litter… you get it. In general, coffee farms that have more canopy and surrounding forests, even fragmented, sustain more migratory and resident bird species.

How your backyard resolution makes a difference: You can feed birds (and protect habitat) in Central and South America by buying bird-friendly coffee. Your small purchase supports their food sources. This is just as relevant as you putting seeds in your feeders here.

“Bird Friendly” coffee can come in many varieties. There are certification guides that can be found on line to get an idea of what “shade grown” means and what brands you may choose to support. If you are familiar with LEED certification for architecture, it’s similar with coffee certification. The top certification, “Bird-Friendly (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)” is the only true shade-grown certification. However, there are many small shade coffee farms that are not certified at this level (expense), but are very bird friendly. Ask your Roaster about their coffee supplier and how their coffee is grown. Read labels in the grocery store. Great news: because of our purchase choices, the demand for smaller, shade focused coffee farms is on the rise.

In this new year, I ask you to join me. Let’s extend our backyards and do a little more for our birds. I know I can make a difference through a simple cup of coffee, and so can you.

Ripples 12/28/17

The recent snow has revealed a lot of activity at Woodland Dunes involving animals which live here but are seldom seen.  There are many fox tracks, mice, weasels, coyotes, and off the end of cattail trail – otters.  Like so much of nature, all of these things often pass unnoticed while we busy ourselves with other matters. 

People who study wildlife have developed tools which eventually filter down from the hands of experts to those with a casual interest.  Some activities, out of necessity, have to be restricted to researchers because they involve catching live animals, and may risk injury to the animal. Certain tools, like location transmitters or even markers such as bird bands can cause problems.  Some technologies, like digital photography can be benign or intrusive depending on the user. Even though taking a photograph won’t hurt an animal, it is possible to harass wildlife beyond reason in trying to obtain the perfect shot.  This can be true whether the photographer is on foot or using a drone to pursue animals.

But photography certainly doesn’t have to be intrusive, and this is well illustrated by the use of trail cameras. Trail cameras are positioned in a location where wildlife is likely to be seen, but not when people are present – triggered by motion.  Cameras have come down in price to the point where almost anyone can afford to purchase and employ one on their land and the results are remarkable.  At Woodland Dunes, our staff and volunteers set out trail cameras in a number of locations to track movements of deer and other animals.  We have recorded the usual suspects- fox, coyote, owl, skunk, raccoon, mice, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, chickadee – everything we’d expect.  And then there have been some really interesting finds- a fisher, an occasional bear, otters far from the water, a badger, and most recently, a bobcat.  

Bobcats have been reported several times by visitors over the years, but our staff hasn’t been able to verify the presence of the animals.  A couple of weeks ago, a neighboring landowner texted a photo wondering if it was indeed a bobcat image.  There was no doubt, and the photo was taken very near where one of the reported sightings took place a year or so ago.  That same day a bobcat was reported in Two Creeks. This week another trail cam photo was taken across the river from our preserve, and yet another from the original location off our Willow Trail.  In researching the status of bobcats in Wisconsin, I found an interesting article written by Paul Smith from the Milwaukee Jounrnal-Sentinel from September of this year.

Bobcats are found in every state among the lower 48, and it is estimated that there are about 3.5 million of them in the U.S.  In Wisconsin, like many predators, they were almost wiped out with bounties placed on them as late as the 1960’s.  Recognizing that they are important parts of the ecosystem, the DNR wisely regulated the harvest of the animals and began to study them scientifically so that a realistic management plan could be developed.  As a result, the population of bobcats is now stable and increasing, and they are again being seen in places that have been lacking them for many years.

Being seen is a relative term; however, because they are so secretive.  They are often loners and are most active at dawn and dusk.  They usually prey on small animals like mice and rabbits, along with the occasional bird or even a small deer.  Most are about three feet long and from 20-35 pounds, although a large one may be 50 pounds.  In my many years outdoors, I’ve only seen one. 

Bobcats are the 41st. mammal species recorded at Woodland Dunes.  They are meant to be here, and we welcome them.  Predators like bobcats are critically important to the health of wildlife populations by maintaining a balance among prey species, and actually improve the health of their prey by removing sick and weak animals and preventing overpopulation.  Predators aren’t competing with us- they fit seamlessly into the ecosystems that we depend on for our health and enjoyment.  It is difficult to second-guess nature as to how that balance should work.  Rather than trying to bend the fabric of nature to suit us, we will be more successful if we work hard to understand nature before we alter ecosystems too much.

So, welcome back, Bob.  Its been a long time, and we’re happy you’re here.

photo- from trail cam of bobcat sent by Justin Powalicz, taken adjacent to Woodland Dunes

Ripples 12/21/17

I don’t know about you, but this year’s autumn, as wonderful as the season was, seemed to pass as swiftly as the migrating nighthawks and then just vanished.  I am left with nothing more than a memory of a warm, golden sunshine and evenings by the river, trees dripping with warblers, and the ground full of sparrow sounds as they anticipate another night’s flight. Reality sets in and is followed by a sudden transition from a tan to white landscape.  

We all need a break, I think, and winter is a gift if we take advantage of it. Like the wildlife around us, I think we tend to gear up in the fall, but we don’t always take time to recover in the cold.  Of course, taking a break doesn’t mean one’s imagination will go dormant.

The first walks across the land in winter are so revealing.  Tracks reveal mammalian neighbors that we’ve forgotten during warm times- fox tracks cross the yard, but I haven’t actually seen a fox in months.  The crimson and gray remains of what was once a cottontail are starkly evident in the snow, coyote tracks all around.  A muddy patch reminds me that there is a spring on the hillside- a great place for a trail camera to be placed.  Pine siskins scold each other harshly as they fly over.  The river hasn’t completely frozen in the shallows yet, and a few ducks pass by to take a look.  Perhaps a great blue heron lingers?  No, not today.

A couple of chickadees follow along for a while.  Despite their cute appearance they are probably wondering if I’ll scare up a meal for them – or do the dirty work and leave them a carcass.  Or maybe its my carcass they’re wondering about?  Mine could feed a whole flock of chickadees for the winter.  I decide that perhaps their intentions aren’t quite so gruesome, and concentrate on other wonderings. 

As I cross a small field that a month ago launched hundreds of tufted milkweed seeds into the air I think about all the things beneath the snow- meadow voles that are tunneling just above the soil, springtails and spiders picking their way among the crystals, and the thousands of wildflower seeds sown late in the year, now  sleeping beneath a safe, icy blanket.  With each freeze and thaw they settle into the topsoil a little more completely. I hope their pollen feeds lots of little bees and their seeds will be feeding the goldfinches in a few years.  

As I walk I think more and more about how the birds need the bugs, and how the bugs need the native plants, and how alarming it is that there seems to be more and more evidence that it’s getting to be harder for bugs to survive.  We’ve long talked about how cockroaches will supposedly outlive human beings, mistakenly missing the importance of the survival of the roach’s cousins.  We’ve failed, with the exception of a few exceptional folks, to fully appreciate what we’re still doing to the bees, beetles, and flies of the world in removing their native food and poisoning them beyond the borders of our crops.  Perhaps the bugs need to be my livestock of choice, and the crops I plant should be those that sustain them in all their diversity.  

All of these things: the plants, bugs, and birds are gifts of nature.  We can’t possess these gifts, they all have lives of their own.  The best thing we can do is to cherish what is given and to nurture, so that these gifts can be enjoyed forever by others.

My walk is done and I’m back in the warmth. I pull up the native nursery websites.  Lets see, how many oaks should I plant for the warblers this coming year?  

photo taken at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak