Ripples 8/10/17

A while back our education coordinator and I were in the forest at Woodland Dunes, and I encountered a large tree that didn’t look familiar.  It was late fall, all the leaves were off, and the trunk was just a bit different from what I had been used to seeing here. Well, it turned out to be a large elm, a tree that in the past was an important part of our forests and which were all around when I was growing up.  There were two very large elms in the yard at my grandparent’s old farmhouse, and their large, umbrella-shaped crowns shaded much of the yard.  Protruding from one of them was the blade of an old scythe, which no doubt had been left hanging in a crotch and around which the tree had grown as if to prevent the implement from harming any other plants.

photo of healthy white ash tree

Healthy ash tree

We all know what happened to the elms- unfortunately people brought wood pallets laced with a fungus from Europe that caused Dutch Elm disease in the 1930’s.  Our elms weren’t resistant, so they died by the millions, and continue to do so when they reach a certain size. This happened before, when chestnut trees from the Far East brought a fungus which killed virtually all American chestnut trees here.  In my grandparent’s yard, sure enough, the old elms died.  To replace one, my grandfather went to the woods and hitched his tractor to a green ash tree with a chain, pulled it out of the ground, and dragged it to the yard where it was planted and still grows.  Ash were desirable trees- disease resistant, hard wooded, and straight grained unlike the twisty-grained elm (which helped heat many houses after the trees died despite their resistance to decent splitting).

Grandpa’s choice to replace the old elm with an ash tree made sense at the time, but not so much anymore. In the 1990’s, people once again brought a significant foreign species to North America, the emerald ash borer.  It appears to have been brought to the central Great Lakes region and was first identified in Canton, Michigan in 2002.  Like so many other invasives, when this insect was taken to a place where it was free from its usual predators, its population exploded.  In six short years it had reached Wisconsin and now has reached our county. Last week it was announced that it’s been found in the City of Manitowoc.  On its own the insect spreads relatively slowly, but people have spread infested wood products across the region.  Hundreds of millions of ash trees have died already, and millions more will soon perish. Many thousands of those will be in the preserve at Woodland Dunes.

photo of ash tree decimated by emerald ash borer

Ash tree decimated by emerald ash borer

It is difficult to comprehend the changes that such mass die-offs can inflict on ecosystems.  To say that trees are important in our forests is rather foolish, but really the concept deserves a little thought. The trees, or overstory plants, convert sunlight to stored energy (food for themselves and others), intercept falling rain, shade the forest floor, and provide habitat for other species- they are ecosystems in themselves.  Ash trees are hosts for many species of caterpillars of butterflies and moths, and many species of birds visit to find those caterpillars.  All of these will be affected by the introduction of one alien insect brought here on wood pallets.

A few species will benefit- especially woodpeckers and some parasitic wasps.  So far, those animals have had no significant effect in slowing the spread of the emerald ash borer.  We’ll do our best to manage our forest. For several years we’ve been planting other appropriate native species in ash-dominated areas to get a head start on replacing trees we anticipate losing.  We’ll have to greatly increase our efforts in coming years to prevent invasive shrubs and trees from filling the void left by dying ashes.

On a small scale, people can save individual trees by treating them with insecticides.  Treatments can be done once per year, and the cost is modest, considering the value of a nice shade tree.  This would not be practical on a large scale, or in a place like a nature preserve.

Personally, I will consider saving the tree my grandfather planted, and one that I put in the ground some 45 years ago. To see our near future one need only drive an hour or so south.  There are a few dead trees near Sheboygan, and many more as you approach Milwaukee- entire woodlots it appears in some cases.  Although nature is good for us, and healthy, diverse ecosystems can withstand normal threats from pests and disease, one wonders about what these things indicate, that perhaps we are making our forests more fragile and unstable than before.  We have taken a lot from nature, and it has benefited us greatly.  Perhaps now we should give a lot back, or at a minimum, be more thoughtful about what we do.

photos- healthy white ash tree, and tree infested with emerald ash borer

Ripples 8/3/17

photo of chimney swift clinging to inner chimney wall

Chimney swift

I’ve been listening to chimney swifts chittering and “rattling” in our Nature Center chimney from my desk since the beginning of May. They’ve successfully nested in the chimney and raised babies in their tiny, stick nests. This chitter (food begging) has become a constant companion, and like hearing the din of your kids at home, I’ll miss them when they go – migrating to South America for the winter season.

This is the time of year when swifts start communally roosting at night, sometimes gathering in large groups numbering in the hundreds or thousands. At dusk, they will dive into the chimney and stay until morning. In cases where there are immense numbers, it’s like watching a funnel of birds pouring into the chimney. Once you’ve experienced this natural phenomenon, you’ll never forget it. Examples of this can bee seen online by visiting the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group site: http://www.wiswifts.org/

Unfortunately, this unique bird is on the decline. We’re not sure why, but some possible reasons are due to the loss of habitat (chimneys are being torn down and no longer being built with changes in technology), and the widespread use of pesticides. More research is needed.

In light of this, there is a national movement called “Swift Night Out” where people can watch chimneys where swifts roost for the night. They count the number of swifts that go in and report their findings to eBird or their local coordinator. Green Bay has been doing this for six years now and they’ve even gotten Titletown Brewing to create a Swifts’ Night Ale in honor of the swift.

Kim Grveles, Department of Natural Resources assistant ornithologist and a member of the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group says, “Chimney swifts are an important species in Wisconsin because they help keep flying insect populations in check. We need citizens’ help in counting the birds near them. In reporting that information to us, we can better understand and take steps to hopefully reverse the decline of chimney swifts.”  

Tips on how and where to look for chimney swifts

I’ve heard many Chimney swifts flying over Washington Street in Two Rivers, feeding on insects during the day. This is a good place to look for old brick chimneys with easy viewing. They fly rapidly, often twisting from side to side, and have a high chittering call when in flight.

How to count swifts roosting: Pick a night in mid to late August when they are out of the nesting phase. Look for tall brick chimneys that are uncapped. Watch to see where swifts are feeding and congregating. Observe the roost starting about 30 minutes before sunset until 10 minutes after the last swift enters the chimney. Count (or estimate) the number of swifts as they enter the chimney. It’s useful to count in groups of five or 10 when they pour in to the chimney in a short period of time. Contact Nabak at Woodland Dunes Nature Center for a monitoring form and to turn in results: nancyn@woodlanddunes.org or 920-793-4007. It’s easy and you’ll help make a difference for this remarkable bird.

  • Article and photos by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator, Woodland Dunes Nature Center
photo of chimney swifts swarming before entering the chimney for the night

Chimney swifts swarming before entering chimney for night

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Ripples 7/27/17

Perhaps a special attribute of humanity is our ability  to continuously learn throughout our lives.  In addition to that, we have the ability to learn from those who came before us.  Creatures of the natural world seem to have mastered the tools and behaviors needed to succeed in their roles (unless disaster or people disrupt things too much).  As time goes on, and we get better at understanding the natural world, we appreciate things that we dismissed before. 

photo of a native butterfly garden

Butterfly Garden

This is a remarkable time, although what we learn may be surprising to us. The importance of insects in the grand scheme of things is an area that might seem counter-intuitive to us.  I love Aldo Leopold’s quote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good…” 

This certainly applies to insects, which for most of us elicit an automatic unfavorable response.  We first think in terms of those that either bite us or want to share the shelter of our homes.  Next we think of those that want a share of the food or flowers that we grow.  After that, perhaps we think of those that are beautiful or just interesting to watch.  In all cases we probably miss the point – without insects to eat plants and transfer solar energy, the natural world would collapse quickly.  Eliminating just one of the hundreds of thousands of species of insects in the natural world would cause ecosystems to undergo major adjustments to try to compensate.  Adding invasive, non-native ones does the same thing.  We are experiencing both right now, in the decline of native bees and butterflies, and the introduction of things like the emerald ash borer and Japanese beetle.  We are ignorantly rocking the ecological boat, but seem to be surprised when that boat starts to swamp.  And we compound our ignorance in the way we try to address the problems we create, thinking we can poison our way out of trouble.

As Douglas Tallamy points out in his book “Bringing Nature Home,” one mostly encounters minor disease and pest problems in healthy, diverse natural places.  That’s because native plants and animals have developed ways to control each other.  Where we don’t tip the scales out of balance, natural areas have plenty of plants, and lots of insects, plus lots of other creatures which feed on insects and are fed on by them in return.  There are millions of automatic checks and balances which keep things from getting out of control, and on their own, they work very well. 

So the best thing we can do is encourage more native wildlife in our world- in our yards, gardens, and parks.  It doesn’t have to be drastic or happen all at once, adding a few more native plants each year will help.

Most people are aware that monarch butterflies are having a hard time. Our immediate area is an important breeding ground for them, as many other parts of the country lack the climate and native plants that are necessary.  Their winter home in Mexico is tiny, and shrinking. If they are to survive, it’s places like Manitowoc and Two Rivers that will make a difference.  We are a monarch butterfly factory.  We need to recognize that and maybe do a little bit more to help.  Even a tiny butterfly garden that includes native plants can be an important stopping place for migratory butterflies.  Planting just a few square feet with a few dollars worth of the right flowers can make a difference to these pollinators. It’ll also make your yard more pleasant and you’ll feel good about yourself and what you’ve done. There’s still time to start a butterfly garden this year – certainly the rain and warm temperatures are helping flowers grow.

There are many places to find information about gardening for butterflies and other insects.  In the photo is a five-foot diameter bed with a variety of native and a few non-native plants- butterfly milkweed, blazing star, bidens, bee balm, coneflowers, blanket flower, butterfly bush, and zinnias.  With a little mulch they hardly need watering or weeding, and butterflies and bees visit constantly.  Gardening for them not only helps nature in general,  but makes our yards more beautiful and helps us as well – perhaps more than we know.

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.