Ripples 10/4/18

white-crowned sparrow

While the spring bird migration seems to explode across the landscape bringing birds that are brightly colored and singing loudly,  the movement of birds in fall seems to me to be more of a creeping thing.  Certainly radar indicates that millions of birds take flight most nights, but here at ground level they just seem to appear in the bushes, often hiding and foraging among the leaves.  They still talk to each other, but instead of their full songs they often emit call notes.  Little Yellow-rumped warblers chip to each other, and kinglets utter little seeeee notes.  Robins still chirp, catbirds mew, and wrens chatter, making their whereabouts known, but without nearly the enthusiasm for song they have in the spring. As in May, different birds might appear each day as they move south.  Juncos are back from the North, and geese, swans, and ducks stop by. Our bird feeders are visited by faithful chickadees and lots of cardinals with their young in various shades of tan and reddish, still begging for food.  Goldfinches also bring their young after their late nesting- it’s nice to see them back.  

Two sparrows have slipped back into the mix of yardbirds after four months of absence- the white-crowned and white-throated sparrows.  Both are generally dull-colored sparrows with unstreaked chests, and both sport crowns of black and white, or black and tan stripes.  Not surprisingly, the white- throated sparrows also have white or tan throats.  They are slightly smaller than the white-crowns and perhaps not as bold, but in spring and summer they sing beautifully in my biased opinion, formed during trout fishing trips to the North.  They often prefer to be close to the ground and near dense shrubs.  There are two races which compliment each other- brighter birds with distinct black and white stripes and throats, and duller birds with tan and white instead.  The two forms seek each other out for mating, and both sing as well.  The white-crowns look clean and crisp and are large, bold birds which seem to be at home either on the ground or up on the feeders.  Adults have black and white striped heads, while only young birds are tan and white.  

White-crowns nest farther north, from Hudson’s Bay to the high arctic, while white-throats nest in coniferous forests just south of that, down to our area (we usually have a couple nesting here in summer).  To hear them sing from far back in the swamp forests at Woodland Dunes is a special treat.

Just like spring, every walk outdoors or peek at a bird feeder can yield a new bird find for the season.  Our position on the coast of Lake Michigan concentrates migrating birds along the shore and brings variety to each day, even if the fall birds creep along in stealth mode.  We are very fortunate to live where we do – with a front row seat to this subtle spectacle.

photos from Wikipedia

Ripples 9/27/18

photo of 3 chimney swifts in courtship chase

Chimney swifts in courtship chase

I’ve been thinking about space exploration lately. I have no desire to visit the moon, nor be the first human to orbit Pluto, the off- again /on – again planet. No, it’s that recently I learned of a new type of space exploration called, “aero-ecology.” This is the study of the earth’s lower atmosphere as living space for billions of animals and how we as humans are influencing it.

I’m turned on to this topic because I’m a bird lover. I love watching and listening to birds, identifying birds, photographing birds, and sometimes even wearing bird-print clothing. I think the bird I’m most fascinated with is the Chimney swift, which nests and roosts in chimneys during the months when we’re not using them. Swifts belong to a group of birds called “aerial insectivores.”

Aerial insectivores eat insects (including the mosquito we’re all too familiar with this year) while in flight. Other insectivores that you may be familiar with are Common nighthawks, flycatchers, Purple martins, and swallows.

Science-y stuff: For reasons that haven’t yet been pinpointed exactly, aerial insectivores, including my bird-crush Chimney swift, are experiencing population declines. By looking at what’s happening in the aerosphere, habitat where innumerable insects thrive, we may be able to find the answers we need to turn this downward trend around.

Unfortunately, aerosphere organisms are being impacted by an increase in human-related factors: skyscrapers, aircraft, air pollution, radio & television towers, communication towers and wind turbines. Climate change and differing weather patterns have also had and are predicted to have continuing influence on the dispersal, foraging and migratory behavior of our beneficial insects, birds and bats.

It’s disturbing to think of the numerous “space mines” that my beloved Swift encounters in order to be a chittery, chattering, and entertaining wonder of the skies.

Poet, Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers…” and I firmly believe that collectively we can make some good things happen for both our insects and insectivores. Woodland Dunes is helping by putting native plants in creek restoration areas, such as Forget-Me-Not Creek. Native plants host great amounts and varieties of insects, which in turn feed our aerial insectivores. You can do the same thing if you have creeks or ponds on your property. You can also create a friendly “pollinator island” in your yard with native plants that will help increase the biodiversity in your own little aerosphere.

Each spring Chimney swifts nest in our Nature Center chimney. It’s my goal to keep it that way. Listening to their chatter as they nest build, seeing them in “chase” during courtship, watching them dive into the chimney at night, and hearing the young food-beg is what makes their world so magical and my spirit so rich with awe.

Please learn more about aero-ecology. Support the concept. There are always feathers of hope as long as we believe in them, and act with invested hearts.

Photo of Chimney swifts by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 9/20/18

As is for many of us, fall is my favorite season 0f the year.  The relief from summer heat and humidity is refreshing and I feel like being outdoors and getting things done, by gosh.  Besides, there are so many migrant birds to be seen along with fall wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies- a bountiful harvest for the eyes.

Things were going along just as planned this year.  The hot weather broke and the sleeping was good. It was a pleasure to be out working on the trails and finishing the planting of this year’s trees.  Even the mosquitoes and deerflies, which were so abundant during the summer, finally began to subside to the point where repellent wasn’t needed.

And then, we had three days of heavy storms and 10 inches of rain, and the return of warm weather.  After the rain stopped, we happily prepared our main trail for the coming herds of first graders to come for fall field trips.  You would think with all the time I’ve spent outdoors in the last 60 years, I would have seen it coming, but I was oblivious.  As we worked on the trail, a few mosquitoes popped up a week or so after the rains.  Then, a day later they were far worse, and by the next day, about 10 days after the storms, their numbers were incredible.  It was the same at home, on the lakeshore, at the harbor, and everyone I talked to had the same experience.  We have blundered into the trifecta of mosquito reproduction, and our lovely fall world has been rendered less enjoyable.

I am not an entomologist, but I did spend some time working in the public health field.  It appears that we are experiencing an outbreak of inland floodwater mosquitoes, probably a number of which are Aedes vexans, a mosquito species found around the world.  Their ferocity is a product of their numbers, small size, and tenacity, and their potency as a nuisance is matched by their brilliant reproductive strategy.  They lay eggs not necessarily in the water, but in leaves just above the waterline, in anticipation of future flooding.  Vegetation helps keep the eggs a little moist and helps them survive sometimes for years. Cold winters kill off some of the eggs, but last year’s winter was warmer than normal.   If they are flooded when the water is cold, as in spring, they hatch and develop slowly.  Now, however, floodwater from our recent rains was nice and warm.  The eggs hatch and larvae swim for about a week, then pupate for just a couple of days, and then the adults take flight- so the 10 or so day delay between our storms and the swarms that followed indicates that conditions were just about perfect, mosquito-wise.

So what now?  Well, adults live for 3-6 weeks, so if we don’t get ridiculous amounts of rain again things should slowly get better.  Both male and female mosquitoes feed on flower nectar to survive, and there are a lot of flowers blooming yet.  Females need blood to produce eggs.  Those females can lay multiple batches of eggs, poised above wet places in anticipation of flooding to come, so there will be plenty of potential future mosquitoes out there after things dry up.  Those eggs can survive without hatching for years, waiting…

In the meantime, we can take a little comfort in that migrating birds, bats, and dragonflies must be eating untold millions of the little pests.  And spider populations peak now and their webs sit ready to strain mosquitoes from the air.  Of course, the blood of animals helps feed the little bloodsuckers also, so that may be a wash.

I recently watched a doe and two fawns come to apple trees, as they do frequently, to feed on the windfalls.  Rather than feeding in a normal way, some part of them was constantly in motion- ears twitching, tails flicking- until after a few minutes in the open and presumably being continuously bitten they suddenly jumped up one by one to first hop, then run into the taller vegetation, looking like they were trying to escape among the dense stems.  As much as I enjoy camping, I shudder to imagine what it’s like to live outdoors right now, pursued by mosquitoes 24 hours a day.  And at populations reported at Madison to be 10 times higher than normal.

photo of a mosquito

aedes vexans – Mosquito

So, if we dry out I won’t complain about having to water the flowers, and if the winter is cold I’ll try to remember that there’s an upside to even that scenario.  However, until things improve (for people, not mosquitoes) you’ll know me by my DEET scented cologne and irritated disposition!

photo- Aedes vexans, the inland floodwater mosquito, by University of Kentucky extension

Ripples 9/13/18

by Jennifer Klein, Woodland Dunes Land Management Coordinator

I do not know when my love for water began.  I certainly did not like getting my face wet or putting my face underwater during swim lessons as a kid.  Those swim lessons were important though because I was born on a peninsula that is basically an island.  I grew up a block away from Lake Michigan.  Many summer days were spent on the beach. 

photo of swale

Woodland Dunes swale

In middle school, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was a marine biologist.  I was fortunate enough to go on a marine ecology trip to Florida in high school.  Unfortunately, there isn’t any salt in Lake Michigan and I didn’t have a desire to leave my family to move near the ocean.  Instead I pursued a college degree and freshwater opportunities closer to home.

My first water-related jobs included supervising aquatic plant treatments on lakes and surveying cool water trout streams. I surveyed lakes for aquatic invasive species, which included getting paid to snorkel! Eventually I was led back to my home town and the rare opportunity to be the land manager for a now 1,500 acre nature preserve.

Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve includes both terrestrial habitats such as prairies and upland forests and aquatic habitats such as wetlands and creeks.  While there is no salt water, there is globally significant habitat and many rare plant and animal species.  What a dream come true to be able to get paid to learn more about this unique area and take care of these ecosystems.

A lot of focus this summer has been on our forested swales.  These coastal wetlands are rare habitat and face many challenges.  Over the years, invasive species such as honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, and buckthorn have encroached into the heart of the Preserve.  We are just starting to understand the full impact these invasive shrubs and trees have not only on our vegetation, but also on our animals, such as frogs, and insects which inhabit the water.  Invasive species are not just large things such as trees; invasive insects also threaten our swales.

The emerald ash borer is slowly making its way closer to our preserve.  After the loss of elm trees to Dutch elm disease, ash trees took their place in the canopy.  Approximately 80% of our forested swales are occupied by ash trees.  When these ash trees are eventually killed by the emerald ash borer we don’t want an opening for invasive species to further degrade the ecosystem.  This summer, with funding from the United States Forest Service (USFS), Wisconsin Public Service, and The Natural Resources Foundation, Woodland Dunes staff, interns, and volunteers removed invasive honeysuckle, buckthorn and barberry. In addition, they planted approximately 3,000 trees in our forested swales. Next year we will finish out the USFS grant by planting an additional 2,500 trees.  This effort will continue as resources allow. 

We are fortunate to live near such a gem, and we feel strongly that we need to do to preserve it.  I encourage you to go out and explore our trails, and have a swale time!

Ripples 9/6/18

photo of Forget Me Not Creek

Forget-Me-Not Creek

One of this year’s projects for Woodland Dunes has been to improve the mouth of a basically unknown little stream which long ago was known as Forget-Me-Not Creek. This site also happens to outfall to Lake Michigan at the location of the Spirit of the Rivers sculpture along Memorial Drive.  The creek was supposedly named for the forget-me-not flowers which were planted along it’s banks by an early German settler.  Over the years the creek had become partially blocked by rock and shrubs, some of which were non-native invasives, making the passage of migratory spawning fish more difficult.  Much of the creek’s watershed lies within the Woodland Dunes preserve, and native fish are an important part of both our local terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, so we want to do what we can to encourage free movement of fish in the spring when many move inland to spawn.

So, if you’ve visited the wayside next to the amazing Spirit of the Rivers sculpture, you’ve seen that the mouth of the creek has been changed.  The existing stone and brush was removed, the creek widened and a small floodway created, and then stone was again placed to form riffles and pools and to stabilize the banks.  Now the banks are being replanted with native shrubs and trees only, and the floodplain seeded with native wetland plants.  After the dedication, some of the upland areas will be seeded with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, as will the top of the bluff where we will preserve the abundant milkweed for monarch butterflies.  As is always the case, the site was severely disrupted by our excavation but it will heal again and we will make sure to stock it with beneficial plants.  Like the sculpture next door, it will be a creative endeavor, and a work in progress for years.

It is interesting to re-plant an area like this, to come up with some kind of vision or goal as to what a site should be.  Along the Lake we are fortunate to have nearby Woodland Dunes, Point Beach State Forest, and the Rahr School Forest, each having remnants of the native vegetation of our lakeshore.  It’s impossible to duplicate the degree of diversity of plantlife in these places- we would need to install more than 400 species of plants.  Like with so many things we will begin with species which are easy to obtain and grow, and add diversity from there.  After plants go in the ground, they need tending to – in this case involving my less than graceful attempts to clamber over the rocks to water and mulch the plants.  I am counting on the preoccupation of visitors to the site with the nearby sculpture rather than my profound lack of grace and balance.  Fortunately our recent rain has made watering unnecessary for the near term.

Then there is the placement of stones in the creek bed.  The riffles, or shallow rocky areas are subject to adjustment, which reminds me of playing in the river when I was a kid.  The water flow varies from day to day, as does the way water moves through our little stream system.  The beauty of being down in the stream itself is that you become aware of the creatures which so quickly expand their territories into new areas- in just a day or two green frogs began to appear, and water striders.  It will be interesting to sample the bottoms of the pools for invertebrates as time passes.  

Perhaps the most interesting so far was a mink which showed up one morning as I happened to be checking things.  Mink and other weasels always seem to me to be particularly graceful, and this beautiful dark brown animal flowed over and under the rocks along the bank.  Eventually it reached the large concrete culvert which guides the stream under Memorial Drive.  The mink stopped for a few seconds, then dove into the water at the pool next to the culvert, swam up to and over the culvert’s edge just like a sucker during the spring run.  Then it swam up into the culvert and under the road, I assume headed to the woods behind Aurora’s hospital.  I’ve seen several mink that had been unfortunately flattened on Memorial Drive this year, and I’m glad that this one has figured out a safe way to cross the road.  In fact, that culvert is large and flat enough at the bottom to allow for a lot of animals, not only fish, to pass.  Roads are one of the greatest hazards to wildlife, and at least here there is a safe connection between our stream mouth and the woods to the west.

Like most habitat restoration projects, this will be ongoing and change over time.  We’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and tweak things a number of times.  We are glad that the Spirit of the Rivers steering committee asked us to be a part of this, especially because the sculpture honors the native people who lived here longer than we have.  And, we’re impressed that Mr. Wallen has such a thorough understanding of the nature of this area and wanted it be a part of the project overall.  We are also grateful to the Fund for Lake Michigan and US Fish and Wildlife Service for funding towards the stream project and native plantings around it. 

We’re sure this project will help wildlife, and also be an enhancement to Manitowoc and Two Rivers as an attraction for visitors.  We can’t wait to see what happens as the site matures over time, but it certainly looks like a win for both the community and wildlife.