Ripples 8/2/18

Ripples from the Dunes written by Jay MacKenzie, summer intern for Woodland Dunes Nature Center & Preserve.

Most people have learned to be wary of strangers approaching them with a clipboard in hand. Often, such strangers have an agenda, whether it be to sell you something or get you to sign a petition. One of my jobs as an intern at Woodland Dunes Nature Center is to be that clipboard-toting stranger, although my agenda does not involve extracting your money or signature. Rather, it involves education and awareness surrounding an important yet sometimes overlooked ecological issue – that of aquatic invasive species. My job is to talk to boaters frequenting local boat launches to ensure that they are aware of the laws put in place to prevent the spread of these harmful invasives, and furthermore, that they understand why these laws are important.

photo of Clean Boat inspectors

Clean Boat inspectors

I am participating in a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources program called Clean Boats, Clean Waters (CBCW). Since 2004, volunteers and affiliates of various environmental organizations have assisted with the program, educating boaters as well as performing inspections on watercraft entering and leaving docks, marinas, and launches.

Invasive species are non-native species that can disrupt the ecosystem they’re introduced into. In general, they are fast-growing and fast-reproducing, with an ability to disperse quickly and adapt readily to their new environment. Successful invasives may out-compete native species for food and other resources, or affect natural cycles and patterns in a way that harms native species indirectly. For example, Eurasian watermilfoil, an aquatic invasive of local concern, can form dense mats on the surface of water bodies and prevent sunlight from reaching native plants growing below the surface. From a more practical point of view, aquatic invasives can negatively impact some of our favorite water-based activities, such as fishing and kayaking. Nobody wants to cast a line where local fish populations have been crowded out by an invasive, or kayak through an endless morass of Eurasian watermilfoil.

Thankfully, the laws that address this issue are very straightforward. Before launching your watercraft or leaving the launch site, you must: inspect your craft (and trailer), remove all attached plants and animals, drain all water from motors, livewells, and anywhere else it has collected.

Live fish may not be moved from a water body, and once bait has been used at a particular water body, it may not be used at a different site. That’s essentially all there is to it! By following these simple rules, you are preventing “hitchhikers” from spreading to new habitats and wreaking havoc on the aquatic environments that we cherish.

Most of the boaters I speak with are already familiar with these laws. Educational initiatives, including CBCW, seem to be effective in this regard (some boaters I talked to had already been approached by a CBCW participant this season). However, the ongoing efforts of CBCW are still important because it only takes one uneducated boater to introduce an aquatic invasive to a new waterbody.

Photo: Abby Adams and Jay MaKenzie, summer interns for Woodland Dunes. Taken by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 7/26/18

Written by Nancy Nabak, Communication & Development Coordinator

photo of spider web with pearls of dew on it in the sunlight

Spider web pearled with dew

You can’t force me to kill it. I don’t even care if there’s one over my bed at night. Inside my home, outdoor spiders belong to my “catch and release” program. There’s a reason why they’re here geographically – benefitting the ecosystem in many ways, hence the reason for my “No Squashing” policy.

It’s really too bad we’ve adopted a mindset that spiders are bad or scary. In fact, we have a popular nursery rhyme that singsongs, “…along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.” As it turns out, Miss Muffet was real. Her name was Patience. Her stepfather, Dr. Thomas Muffet (1553-1604), was a famous entomologist who wrote the first scientific catalogue of British Insects. I guess it just goes to show you, as much as we want our children to be like us, they may flee in the other direction from our interests.

It took nearly 400 years since “Miss Muffet” for someone to spin a brilliant and glamorous light on spiders. I’m talking about the 1952 children’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White. This delightful story tells of how a pig’s life was spared from the butcher block through writings on the gossamer of Charlotte’s web. Charlotte stitches, “Some Pig” and other positive messages, but in fact, the something amazing wasn’t really the pig – it was Charlotte. The spider. In the end, she saved its life. A true hero. And then came Spiderman…

Spiders are heroes. They eat pests, help prevent the spread of disease, and their venom can be used in medicines. The study of their silk has also helped science develop such important things as parachutes and bullet proof vests.

And if you’re a bird lover like me, you’ll appreciate the following tidbits. Spiders are like an energy bar for birds, packed with protein. Smaller birds, such as hummingbirds “steal” captured insects out of webs. There’s also a great variety of bird species that use spider silk when constructing their nests due to its strength and flexibility. As the nestlings grow, the nest can stretch with them. And if that’s not enough to win you over, House wrens have figured out if they place spider egg sacs in their nest, once the baby spiders hatch, they’ll give the place a thorough cleaning by eating the parasites.

Yesterday, Woodland Dunes put on a summer camp, “Spiders and Other Crazy Crawlies.” Young children (4-7 years) went out with insect nets and caught all kinds of neat things – no Miss Muffets here! Five- year old James took one swing with his net and captured the gem of the day, a crab spider with prey still in its fangs. The “crab-like” showcase spider was all white in color with red stripes along its sides. A very cool specimen indeed! The spider was put in a bug jar for all of the kiddos to examine safely and then released.

Just imagine if there were a “Spider Camp” in Miss Muffet’s day. Or time for her to watch the magic of a magnificent web being spun. This I do know, the more we teach our children about the fascinations of nature, the more likely they are to become inspired problem solvers (think parachute design), and possibly create a new spider hero for future generations.

photo of web by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 7/19/18

Written by Jeni Klein, land management coordinator 

Last week, my co-worker Nancy and I went for a hike on Willow Trail early in the morning to see what flowers were in bloom in the Steffen Prairie. On our way out we walked through “Woodcock Way,” an open area of the trail which leads to a thick arch of red-osier dogwoods.

photo of deer in prairie

Deer in prairie

While we didn’t hear any woodcocks calling, we did hear the “free beer” of the Alder flycatcher along with the “wichity wichity” of the Common yellowthroat. Veerys, redstarts, and catbirds also serenaded us on our hike. Near the end of the shrub tunnel we spotted a deer, which also spotted us – and checked us out with much curiosity before continuing on into the prairie and further into the woods for her breakfast.

Not wanting to feed the mosquitoes too much, we didn’t linger long before entering into the colorful world of the prairie. To our delight, spiderwort, St. John’s wort, blazing star, and brown eyed Susan’s were all in bloom. Many insects were also attracted to the flowers.

Prairie habitats are very important to many wildlife species, not only birds and insects but also mammals, reptiles, and even a snail was found enjoying the native grasses. Here at Woodland Dunes we have been increasing our prairie habitat by hundreds of acres every year.

photo of blooming prairie flowers

Blooming prairie flowers

Prairies start out in many different forms. Some areas were old prairies which needed to be revitalized. Others were farm fieldscoming out of production and returning to a more natural state. Some are what people call “old fields,” farm fields left to turn wild on their own. Often times these fields fill in with less desirable weed species. These fields were transitioned over to more high quality wildlife areas. The end result of all of these is the same; after three to five years of patience and nurturing they become wonders for both animals and people to enjoy.

As a matter of fact, later that same day a photo club from out of the area came with high end lenses to capture the beauty of the prairie. The prairie offered up various textures, colors, shadows, and other interesting features to its welcome guests. Only the deer witnessed what they ended up capturing on their cameras.

photo of deer: Nancy Nabak
photo of prairie: Jim Knickelbine

Ripples 7/12/18

During the course of summer one notices the waves of different insects that are present at different times.  One might assume that they are present throughout the season, but really their populations ebb and flow during distinct periods, at least for many of them.

photo of monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

Like dragonflies, butterflies in all their colors bring another layer of interest to the land.  In early summer a few are around: mourning cloaks, red admirals, American ladies, and eventually some monarchs.  Both of the latter are migratory and recolonize in our area from the south.  The earliest butterflies mate and are then unseen for a while, unless you are lucky enough to find and recognize their caterpillars.  

In mid- summer there are blues, skippers, crescents, swallowtails, sulphurs, wood nymphs, and sometimes unexpected visitors from the south.  The monarchs which arrived in late May immediately began laying eggs on the milkweed they found, and now the next generation of butterflies is appearing and continuing to do the same.

Woodland Dunes has hundreds of acres of what is considered old field- farmland that is no longer cultivated.  Before glyphosate was used in agriculture, common milkweed was considered the most common weed in fields. When the farm fields of our preserves were no longer cultivated, milkweed that was already present expanded it’s coverage.  We have many acres, more than 100 acres today, where milkweed is proving to be a refuge for monarch butterflies. 

Currently, they are seen feeding and mating over almost all the open land in the preserve (during mating the males and females are attached, and the males fly with the females hanging below with wings folded).  There are a number of vantage points where dozens of monarchs can be seen at a time – one is at the overlook for the wetland restoration we did in cooperation with Wisconsin Public Service Corporation a few years ago.  There are a lot of milkweed plants close to the platform and parking area.

There are more monarchs to come. Our area is especially important to them and their reproduction.  In the next six weeks they will allow us to see one of nature’s miracles.  They will continue to reproduce, but the last generation of the year (born in latter August) will begin to migrate to Mexico to a place they’ve never been.  Around Labor Day, when we are enjoying the Kite Festival, monarchs will be streaming southward, following the shoreline of Lake Michigan.  Actually, they start a bit earlier- you’ll notice when all the monarchs seem to be flying to the southwest and this spectacle will continue into October.  I’m sure that just a small fraction of the monarchs make it to their winter refuge, and even those that do face an uncertain future depending on weather and people disturbing their habitat (which is only a few acres in size).  Those that survive will begin their northward flight in late winter and some will reach Texas to start next years generations.  If all goes well, we’ll again see monarchs here next summer.

When you see a monarch, I hope you appreciate all of this, and the value of weeds like milkweed and land left to heal after many years of working for us.  Monarchs, and milkweed, have declined significantly in numbers over the last few decades- not through any bad intentions, but more through lack of understanding of how interrelated the parts of nature are, and how powerful our actions can be.  

I hope as the summer continues, you find a bit of joy and wonder in every monarch you see.

photo- monarch butterfly at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Jim Knickelbine
Executive Director
Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve

Ripples 7/5/18

photo of ebony jewelwing

ebony jewelwing

The progression of the summer season is very much evident now.  Although birds are still singing with as much enthusiasm as a month ago, many are already tending to young that have left the nest, or are raising a second brood.  At the feeders, young cardinals and house finches beg for food from their parents while young robins dot the landscape of lawns and shrubs.  Early blooming shrubs are already setting fruit, just in time for birds to help them distribute their seeds to new places.  At our headquarters, many birds are eyeing-up the big mulberry tree, the most effective bird feeder we have.  The young ospreys are growing by leaps and bounds, keeping their father busy catching and hauling fish to the nest.  Two of the three eggs they tended hatched, which is fine for the pair of young.  They will receive plenty of attention and fishy meals.

Coreopsis and spiderwort and mints are blooming in the meadows, along with milkweed.  Along with the wildflowers, insects are starting to come into their own now.  Among those milkweeds we are seeing many monarch butterflies, and finding many eggs and caterpillars.  I wish they had more protected places like ours.  Other butterflies are evident now- blues and skippers, swallowtails and sulphurs, all adding their color to the summer landscape.  Even more numerous are the moths and beetles of all sorts shiney like tiny jewels.  Except for the rose chafers and Japanese beetles perhaps, as they are alien jewels we’d rather not see.

A couple of weeks ago one only saw the large bumblebee queens, but now the smaller workers, looking like miniature versions of their royal mothers, dot the flowers in our gardens – their pollen baskets, or corbicula, on their back legs overflowing with protein-packed granules to be brought back to their nests.  One can’t survive on nectar alone, it turns out, and the bees have developed a wonderful way to convey what they need back to their families.

Especially noticeable around water, are the dragonflies.  I use the term meaning to include all those in that group – damselflies, clubtails, and all forms of these beautiful and impressive insects.  Right now, just a few feet from the beginning of Cattail Trail, there are many different species, including bluets (little blue damselflies of some sort), whitetails, twelve-spotted skimmers, pondhawks, and black, and red saddlebags (which might be a Carolina saddlebag). In the algae growing in the pond are many dragonfly larvae or nymphs, and new species are constantly emerging.  In younger days I didn’t pay much attention to dragonflies save the bluets and the common green darner, a migratory species.  Over the years, although I am just barely familiar with them, I have become more aware of the many different species that we are blessed with.

The dragonflies are predators, and seem to spend their adult lives mainly eating or reproducing.  They will fly right up to you and snatch a mosquito or deerfly buzzing around your head with amazing speed.  They locate a mate and attach themselves, reproducing on the fly, often laying eggs on vegetation in the water.  Their nymphs hatch and grow, spending most of their lives below surface until emerging next year at just the right time to find a mate of their kind.

There are more and more people becoming interested in the dragonflies- there is a Wisconsin Dragonfly Society whose members help each other with tricky identifications of species, the sorting of which can be amazingly subtle and complex.  And although I’m afraid I will never be an expert on dragonflies, their presence, along with the birds and mammals, insects and wildflowers of our Lakeshore, seems to make our world more complete.

photo- an ebony jewelwing damselfly, the author’s favorite species

Jim Knickelbine
Executive Director
Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve