Ripples 3/8/18

This was written by Anna Hall, a Woodland Dunes intern from Silver Lake College

photo of snowfleas in the snow


Spring is fast approaching, and as the weather warms, snow and ice are beginning to melt. These new patches of water draw one of the very smallest of creatures: springtails. Springtails, also known as snow fleas, thrive in wet or damp areas, where they gather in large clusters. From far away, they can look like little specks of dirt or particles of pepper in the snow.

When I first encountered springtails, I didn’t even see them until they were inches from my face! I was hiking in the woods with another staff member, and she picked up a branch from the forest floor and said, “Ooh, look!” I couldn’t see what she was talking about, so I leaned in, and sure enough, right before my eyes, a mass of tiny black bugs completely covered the branch. At first, I thought they were just regular fleas because of the way they were jumping, but I soon learned that these were snow fleas, a very different creature.

Springtails get their name from the way they spring a few inches into the air when disturbed. They have a little forked appendage called a furcula that releases in order to launch the bug. Springtails are not considered to be true insects because they do not have an external chewing mechanism; their’s is internal. One characteristic that varies is their coloring; they can be any shade of brown, gray, black, or white.

photos of springtails next to penny for scale comparison


Springtails are often considered to be no more than a pest, especially since they may take up residence in a home with patches of high moisture, such as plumbing leaks or a damp basement. Fear not, these little creatures are harmless; inside the home they’re merely a nuisance. We really do need springtails in the ecosystem, as they greatly aid in plant nutrition. One way they help plants is by eating some of the bacteria and fungi that gather around plants’ roots. In doing this, they keep those materials from increasing to toxic levels that would harm the plant. Springtails also help speed up decay by ingesting organic matter from their environment and releasing it back through their nutrient-dense feces.

Remarkably, these little creatures don’t freeze due to a special protein housed in their tiny bodies. This protein contains glycine, which is an amino acid. And, as I’m sure you remember from school, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins! In the case of springtails, the glycine binds to little ice particles and keeps them from growing, saving the springtails from becoming bugsicles.

If you’re curious about springtails and want to go searching for some, pull on your boots, venture into the woods on a sunny day, and look for puddles or damp-looking patches. More than likely, there will be some springtails clustered on the odd branch or log, or under some leaf litter. Happy adventuring!

Ripples 3/1/17

Written by Jessica Johnsrud, Education Coordinator

At Woodland Dunes, we often talk about the importance of spending time outdoors. Taking time to notice nature is healthy for everyone and especially important for young children. Many parents and caregivers express a lack of confidence in knowing enough about the natural world or claim they aren’t “outdoorsy” enough to engage their child in nature. I understand this concern, but assure you that you do not need to be a nature expert to spend time outside with the children in your life. A recent Raising a Wild Child program, a program that meets monthly and is designed for children ages 2-5 years old and their caregivers, is a great example of this concept.
A group of nine youngsters and their caregivers explored a topic of great interest to preschoolers: scat. Scat is the science word for animal droppings. Anyone who has spent any length of time with young children knows this is a fascinating topic for this age group! We started by reading a children’s book about scat, then headed outside for a nature wander.  
Before each nature wander here, we review the tools the kids always have with them to explore when curiosity strikes: their eyes, ears, nose and hands. Then the kids and their adults set off looking for animal scat. Recently, after a short time, I heard a small voice exclaim, “Scat! We found scat!” Everyone gathered together to investigate a large pile of dark, jellybean-shaped droppings. I asked a simple series of questions to get everyone thinking. I explained to the parents that they could use this kind of questioning anytime their child shows interest in nature (even if it’s something they are unfamiliar with). These questions should ask the kids to make observations about what they see, then use that information to create an idea or draw a conclusion.
I asked the group to describe the color, shape and if they thought a big or small animal left it. Could they see any clues in the scat about what the animal ate such as fur, seeds or grass? Finally, I asked what animal they thought left this pile. The kids had a couple of ideas including a rabbit or a deer. I encouraged them to look for tracks close to the scat. Sure enough, there were tracks next to the pile! Again, I asked some questions, “Did this animal have toes or hooves?” Could they see claw marks?” The kids noted the animal had hooves and declared it was a deer that left the scat. They were correct and very proud of figuring this out. Even if I hadn’t known the answer, that is okay. The ideas the kids came up with were great and they were using investigation skills. We could have looked in a field guide or online to solve the mystery later.
The morning concluded with a project inside the Nature Center. Each child was given a photo of scat and used play dough and “add-ins” to make a realistic replica. Red candies represented berries, broken pieces of pasta were bones, cotton balls were fur and more. The “wild” children enjoyed this project and there were a few giggles about making “poop.”
I hope this example demonstrates how easy it can be to spend time outside with children. As the adult, you don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to be there as a guide. 

Ripples 2/22/18

There are some birds that only the most ardent birders appreciate, like an early swamp sparrow, or a crow, or maybe a double-crested cormorant.  They are no less worthy than other birds, and each has its own remarkable qualities, but to many people they lack the charisma of those species that are more colorful, or sing a beautiful song, or are in some ways intriguing to us.  People are delighted when cardinals or indigo buntings visit their feeders, but dread grackles or other blackbirds consuming the food they put out.  It’s an interesting sort of stereotyping we seem to be prone to do.

Although they aren’t colorful, owls seem to be intriguing to us- people are certainly interested in the little saw-whet owls that we band, and barn owls and others with particularly distinct features attract a lot of attention.  Even though they are common, great-horned owls are still interesting birds that are more often seen than heard.  Screech owls are my favorites, because they sing such an eerie un-owl like song and frequent the neighborhood where I live.  Some years, we see winter invasions by owls from the north, like northern hawk-owls, great gray owls, and of course snowy owls from the arctic.  This year the snowys showed up in exceptional numbers in our part of the State, and a couple have been seen all winter along the Lake.

The reason we see so many on certain years can be complicated.  Snowy owls prey on small rodents and hares in the north.  Their population is tied to the number of lemmings, a type of vole similar to our very common meadow vole.  When lemmings are at typical populations, snowy owls might produce 3-5 young when they nest on the tundra, but if the lemming population is high the owls might have 7-11 nestlings because food is plentiful.  Its a myth that lemmings commit suicide if their population is too high- predators take care of any surplus.  The owls, however, might find themselves in a difficult position if they produce so many young and the lemming population falls.  That means that the owls must move to places where there are more prey animals, sometimes migrating hundreds of miles or more to the south.  To places like Wisconsin, or even farther south, where meadow voles serve as a good lemming substitute.  Owls aren’t designed for long-distance flying, like some other birds, so by the time they reach us they might be in a very hungry state.  Also, they may encounter man-made hazards with which they are unfamiliar.  Traveling so far from home is not easy for them.  And when they arrive here they may be chased by people wanting to get those once-in-a-lifetime photos, which tires them even further.

This year there have been snowy owls seen both along the Lake and inland near large open areas.  They’ve been seen regularly at both Manitowoc and Two Rivers, and a number of people have called to say they’ve seen them nearby on Memorial and Mirro Drives.  I’ve never seen one within the limits of the Woodland Dunes preserve, although I found a reference that they had been seen here in the years between 1965 and 1978.  For three months we’ve waited, tantalized by the many reports all around us.

Then, finally, in the middle of the day, one day last week, Jess from our staff exclaimed “There’s a snowy on the pavilion!”  And sure enough, a young female stood on the roof next to our office, looking in at us.  A number of volunteers were there to help with invasive species work, and we all pulled out our phones and snapped photos.  One of them went to his home nearby and returned with his excellent camera and obtained the photos seen here.  The bird stayed on the roof for at least a half hour, dodging a pass by a Cooper’s hawk in the meantime.  When we went outside to work by the barn, the owl just moved over and away from us on the roof, watching our every move.  And then it was gone.
photo of snowy owl peeking over pavilion roof
There have been hundreds of snowys seen in Wisconsin this winter, the most ever recorded.  They aren’t rare birds this year, but to us this one was special.  Its always our hope to provide a place where wildlife like this bird can find a home, or at least a safe place to rest.  In giving this to nature we and our visitors often find something special in turn, even if the encounter is for only a few minutes.  Our days are certainly the better for each one.

Snowy owl photos by Mike Reese

Ripples 2/15/18

The weeks following Valnetine’s Day can be agonizing.  In a broad sense time moves along steadily and rapidly, but not quickly enough to satisfy those longing for spring.  A walk outside will confirm the coming change of seasons, which is just beginning to build like a tidal wave that in a month’s time will begin to wash over us once again.

photo of frost over plants and shrubs

Frosted Dunes

Here in eastern Wisconsin, the world sounds different than it did a month ago.  Chickadees, house finches, cardinals – all singing their courtship songs with greater regularity, even on cold days.  The sun’s effect is becoming much more intense, and even when it’s frigid, south facing snowbanks melt on sunny days.  The surface of the ground heaves as it freezes and thaws, helping to plant the seeds we scattered last fall.  Winter birds still linger- snowy owls are still around in greater numbers than usual, and the harbors give shelter to many goldeneyes.  A northern shrike visits the feeder looking for a smaller bird to pursue, and rough-legged hawks patrol the grasslands.  Pine siskins and redpolls still visit the feeders, but perhaps not as regularly, spending more time foraging elsewhere.

The foxes and coyotes are denning, preparing a home for their forthcoming pups.  Fox and gray squirrels are more active, spending less time in their nests.  A few horned larks are migrating north, showing up on road shoulders next to farm fields.  Great horned owls are already nesting, and bald eagles are thinking about it.  And as snow melts in the forest, weird skunk cabbage flowers and emerald pincushion mosses emerge.

A few “flying days” south of here, red-winged blackbirds are slowly pushing north – there are quite a few being reported from Chicago southward.  Some years, if many mild days prevail, they show up here in late February.  If the spring is cold, it might not be until mid-March.  The same is true for robins, grackles, song sparrows, and killdeer.  They seem to literally watch the weather and move when they feel they have a chance of surviving the last of winter a bit farther north.  Its a risky time of year for them.

Even farther south, where spring bulbs are beginning to emerge, tree swallows are becoming restless, as are ducks, cranes, herons, and others.  In the tropics, the beautiful warblers, orioles, tanagers, and hummingbirds which must avoid the real cold, will start to feel that way in a month or two.

And in Mexico, west of Mexico City where all the remaining monarch butterflies cluster on perhaps 6 acres of forest preserve, they too will give in to the urge to move north in a couple of weeks.  Unlike the others, theirs is a suicide mission on which their species depends.  Unlike seval other generations in the past year, these monarchs will have lived nine months or so, surviving off fat reserves and moving around occasionally to find water.  In March, they will decide its the right time to move, and leave the safety of their winter fir trees.  They will fly until they find newly growing milkweed plants, lay some eggs, and then die.  Theirs would seem to be such a tenuous existence, such a burden placed on a fragile little creature.  But perhaps, if a butterfly can do so much, we can find the strength to take better care of each other as we journey ourselves.  And take better care of the world around us so that all of our journeys can continue. 

photo- a late winter frosty morning at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 2/8/18

This community is full of potential.  To be sure, there is already much to be appreciated and enjoyed: outstanding natural attributes, wonderful people, and many effective businesses.  A solid groundwork has been laid, even though it is not always appreciated. 

photo of Maritime Drive from overhead

Maritime Drive project

It seems that a new or perhaps re-energized vision for Manitowoc and Two Rivers is starting to emerge, along with a reinforced sense of cooperation in attaining it.  It is exciting to hear talk about a renewed appreciation for the natural aspects of our Lakeshore. The lakeshore is an important part of that vision, and the acknowledgement that nature contributes to our quality of life is gratifying.  And, perhaps most importantly, the emphasis that being inclusive and cooperative in our efforts will allow us to accomplish much more than being divisive.

There is a renewed interest in our lakefront and our parks, and how improving them will compliment efforts to improve our businesses.  Both cities have obtained funding to improve parks and other public natural spaces in the coming year, including enhancing other areas adjacent to them.  We, of course, encourage such efforts and are happy to help if and when we can.

One such project involves the Manitowoc lakefront near the harbor.  The City has been working to improve the beach at the Blue Rail trail by taking measures to improve water quality in that area, while at the same time supporting the project we and several partners are undertaking to improve the containment facility as wildlife habitat for migrating birds and butterflies.  So far, we’ve been mostly working on removing harmful invasive plants while beginning the process of planting native species, something that will continue this year.  The area is still a very rough work in progress, but the appearance will now start to improve as the native plants begin to take hold.  We will also be establishing a purple martin colony out there; installing several martin condominiums this spring to supplement the one that was installed last year as a trial.

A new project also emerged, involving the steep slope along Maritime Drive across from the marina.  The City has concerns about large trees, some of them invasive, non-native species, potentially toppling over, landing on the roadway and taking part of the hillside with them. This apparently happened a few decades ago.  City representatives asked if it were possible to replace those trees with other species that would benefit birds while not growing so large.  Of course, we were very happy to be asked, and to have the opportunity to partner on such a project.  So, as it turns out, we helped prepare a management plan for the hillside, and were able to obtain funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase native shrubs.  As a result the City will have existing trees and non-native shrubs removed later this year, after which we, with the help of volunteers, will re-plant the slope with native species.  Although at first the area will be very much disturbed, over time it will regrow in a way that not only protects motorists, saves the City maintenance costs, but it provides a more natural area that benefits migrating birds and other wildlife.  Property owners won’t have to worry about trees taking out parts of the bluff, and they’ll still have habitat for birds adjacent to their yards.  It will be a rough start, but in the long run the area should be improved overall.

The hillside on Maritime Drive is an example of an unused and unbuildable area that can be improved as an oasis for wild birds.  We appreciate the City’s forethought and consideration for birds on this project, and also appreciate being asked to help.  We’ll certainly do what we can to help make this area another beautiful little piece of the Lakeshore.