Ripples 10/18/18

photo of frost on leaf

frost on leaf

This morning, for the first time this fall, the ground is covered with frost.  It is a perfect fall morning – blue sky, calm wind, and freezing temperatures.  All around, trees finish the growing season in a burst of color as if they’ve saved their best for last.  On sunny days, their colors make the world seem warmer than it is, and I wish this season could go on for many months.

In the mornings, more and more juncos are showing up at the feeders.  A couple of weeks ago there seemed to be mostly the brownish-gray variety. Lately, the really dark gray juncos, which I presume are from farther north, seem to be more abundant.  The white-throats and white-crowned sparrows are still here, along with kinglets, robins, towhees, and flickers, and still an occasional warbler.  They feast on the wild seeds and berries, which are slowly disappearing.  At night, many of them take flight moving further southward and one can hear their little flight notes as they call to each other from high in the dark night sky.  The national weather service posted a radar loop from Key West, FL, which showed millions of birds making the amazing journey across the southern Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean and South America (warblers, orioles, tanagers, and thrushes that adorn our springs and summers).  Out on Lake Michigan, waterfowl of the far north, scaups, long-tails, mergansers, loons- can be seen far out from shore- the first of the birds which keep us company throughout the winter.

The frost itself seems to be a miracle – the sudden transformation of liquid dew to delicate crystals is well described in science in terms of phase change and release of latent heat, but those facts seem to give little insight to the beauty of frost coating a newly fallen leaf.  And all that is happening when that first frost is seen.

Some people see the frost as a portent of nasty weather to come, and some mourn for the warmer weather that is now past for this year.  I think it is true that we are happier when we appreciate the moment as it is now, and enjoy the beauty of the frost and the wildlife around us rather than dwell on what was or what will be.  In doing so we are reminded of the value of nature and perhaps care for it a little better so that we can continue to enjoy all the miracles of fall.

photo courtesy Associated Press

Ripples 10/11/18

Article and photo by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator for Woodland Dunes

photo of red sugar maple leaves

Autumn Blaze Maple with fall changes

In Wisconsin there are 4 seasons: winter, spring, summer and Nat King Cole. It is impossible to live here and not think of Nat King Cole when autumn arives. In my house, the orange colored candle gets lit and the vinyl comes out.

Nat, in his silky voice, croons the sentimental lyrics to Autumn Leaves, “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold. I see your lips, the summer kisses, the sun-burned hands I used to hold.” This classic song has been performed many times and by many great artists such as Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton and the beautiful jazz vocalist, Eva Cassidy, but none bring home the honest romantic feeling of love lost and missed like Nat.

Autumn is the season of smoke curls wafting from chimneys, apple picking in the orchard, and the crowning of the high school Homecoming King and Queen. But none of these would be as compelling without a backdrop of the vividly changing autumn leaves.

Right now, Mother Nature’s paintbrush is displaying some of her finest work. Daylight is getting shorter and the temperatures are changing, causing the leaves to stop their food making process. (For science geeks reading this, photoperiodism is the technical term for change in daylight length.) When chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears and the yellow (xanthophylls) and orange (carotenoids) pigments become visible, creating these splendid displays.

Some of my favorite deciduous tree pallets are birch, sugar maples and staghorn sumac. Their brilliant colors are what make photographers change their f-stops, focus their lens from wildlife to leaves, and create color-filled calendars for doctor and business offices around the country.

Birches like to splash a bright, luminescent yellow, sugar maples will offer golds, oranges and reds in a perfect trio blend, and the staghorn sumac offers a bold show of systematic changes. When sumac first starts to change, you’ll notice an almost Christmas-like blend of red and greens. As they lose more chlorophyll, the reds become more obvious until they light up our roadsides and highways like a burning bush.

These wondrous colors only last for a short while so if you haven’t gotten out for a leaf-peeping day trip, get out there now. Mother Nature is strutting her stuff on the red carpet of fall colors. And all too soon, just as Nat sang, these beautiful autumn leaves will start to fall.

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