Ripples 10/26/17

As the reality of the fall season sets in, there is much to be enjoyed.  At the Nature Center, groups of children visit daily, being taught by our naturalists, staff and volunteers.  Sometimes they are little angels, sometimes they are distracted and antsy, but they add life to our center, which would be too quiet without them.  They learn about trees, deer, owls, and how birds use their beaks to do amazing things. They do this outside where each day they encounter things which are unplanned.  They do so on nice sunny days, and cloudy cool ones, and learn that it’s good to be outdoors even when the weather isn’t perfect.  They see the last of the wildflowers bloom, the last of the butterflies, and perhaps they notice drab little birds in the bushes.  They probably don’t, which is fine with the birds- they don’t want to be noticed this time of year.

photo of saw-whet owl banded at Woodland Dunes Nature Center

Saw-whet owl

For most species, the big push of fall migration is past now.  There are still a few warblers and kinglets, flocks of robins and blackbirds, but more and more we see the late migrants – juncos, pine siskins, and purple finches, and soon – tree sparrows.  The northern waterfowl have yet to make big movements into our area or perhaps are just starting.  Sandhill cranes are still around, picking at the fields for whatever food they can find, but I think they have one eye on the weather now and are ready to move when needed, just like the geese.  If the weather is above freezing without snow cover they are fine, but they are poised to fly south just enough to stay in their comfort zone.  Great blue herons and kingfishers are the same- as long as water is liquid and fish can be caught, they are fine, but they will head out at the first sign of icing… if they are smart.  

This fall’s weather wasn’t the best in terms of saw-whet owl movements here.  There were a few good days, and many that were less than ideal.  Although we haven’t caught as many as we’d hoped, we did recover three that were banded by others: one which was banded last year at Stevens Point, and two sporting new bands for which the original data has not yet been submitted.  All three appear to have been banded at different locations based on the band numbers, and we’re looking forward to finding out where there journeys have taken them.  Of the well over 5,000 owls caught and banded at Woodland Dunes,  birds have been re-caught in many places, from Quebec and Ontario in Canada, Minnesota and Michigan, and south to Ohio and even North Carolina. 

Trees weren’t colorful this fall, and now strong winds quickly strip them of their leaves.  The transition from an October landscape to that of November seems sudden each year.  I’m grateful for the red of the dogwoods at the marsh edge, and the green and gold of the conifers as they display this year’s new growth while at the same time ejecting their old needles, which will rain down and help acidify the soil.  Cued by these changes, we meow mix the last preparations for pollinator and grassland plantings.  Final weed treatments followed by seeding are being done now, the start of a five year practice in patience as the wildflowers and grasses slowly adjust to the soil, growing their huge root systems and finally blooming.  They will fly under the radar as we wait and fret, wondering if we did something wrong.  Then, with the help of some mowing or burning they’ll suddenly appear.  Trees and shrubs seem to require less understanding because they are more visible and easier to understand.  Still, they too, pause to grow a strong foundation before they can reach upward.

Autumn is a busy time in the natural world as wildlife of all kinds prepares for winter.  So much can be learned from the life around us, especially here on the Lakeshore.  We are fortunate for the opportunity.

photo – Saw-whet owl banded at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 10/19/17

photo of a hoverfly on a dandelion


We associate harvest with autumn.  Traditionally, harvesting was primarily focused on food- bringing in crops, hunting game, and that is still true today at least to some extent.  Now, our markets are full of seemingly unlimited supplies of food year round. It’s always harvest time somewhere.  We are so fortunate that farmers are skilled at what they do.

Thinking about it, autumn is also a time for gathering, if you’ll allow me the notion, our health and well-being.  Autumn is the favorite time of year for most of the people I know, and this fall has been outstanding.  Cooler temperatures incite us to go outdoors and be more active.  Trails, our Lakeshore, even city streets are at their most attractive for those who walk or bike.  We immediately think of the colors of leaves, but there is much more.  Late-blooming flowers are beautiful, and greatly appreciated.  Birds we haven’t seen since spring are back, either passing through on their way south, or returning to stay for winter.  Even better, the day length and intensity of sunlight are similar to that experienced in spring, and I think that triggers some of the birds to sing even though they’ve been quiet for the last couple of months.

I associate the sounds of autumn with the goodness of the season, and hearing them triggers positive associations.  The calls of geese overhead, even though we can hear them during the summer, seem sweeter now.  The chips of yellow-rumped warblers and the kissing sounds the juncos evoke a warm familiarity.  The chirps of purple finches and the zips of pine siskins are back again.  In the evening, as the birds prepare to take flight on another leg of their migration south, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows call excitedly in the dusk.  Robins patrol lawns and bushes everywhere, sometimes by the hundreds, communicating with their distinct call notes.  Tiny kinglets utter their tiny songs- a high-pitched dee dee dee.  On sunny days a few grasshoppers rasp away, calling for mates.  And in the evening a cricket or two still calls out, along with the whinnies of screech owls and the low hoots of the great-horneds.

We all know these last pleasant days of fall are numbered, and that they are gifts.  One should take advantage of the gifts offered by nature- it’s foolish not to.  These gifts of nature can be harvested actively, or passively.  If one can’t get out for a ride or a hike, one can gather in the goodness by just sitting quietly- listening and experiencing without thinking too much.  One may not get the benefits of exercise that way, but bathing in the warmth and the sounds of a late autumn day counteract the tension we accumulate in our stressed-out world.  And perhaps help us focus on what is really important in life.     

photo- a hoverfly enjoys a late-blooming dandelion

Ripples 10/12/17

Autumn is probably the busiest time in our preserve.  One might think that with the growing season behind us, things would settle down.  In truth, September through November brings hundreds of children visiting for field trips, and hundreds of acres of habitat needing attention in preparation for next year’s growing season.  We are teachers and wildlife farmers.  We plant crops of trees and wildflowers, and raise livestock of songbirds, bugs, and frogs and deer mice. We are happy to do what we do, and to share it with others. 

photo of primrose blooming on the prairie

Primrose blooming

Like farmers, we are dependent on the soil and weather.  We try to match what we plant with appropriate places on the land, and then we pray for a little help from the weather to help things along.  Its been a good year, and inspired by that good fortune, we are ambitiously planning for next year.  In our forests, we’ve been pleased with the growth of the trees and shrubs planted the last several years. At this stage, we tend to them mostly to protect them from deer.  Now, we’re preparing to order more than 2,000 trees and shrubs to be planted next year in areas susceptible to the dreaded emerald ash borer.  This winter and spring, we’ll be removing invasive shrubs to make room for the plantings, which is made possible by a grant from the US Forest Service- new partners in our efforts to best manage our special place in the world.  We are very grateful for the help.

Along the East and West Twin Rivers, with the help of the Wisconsin DNR, we will be sowing seeds of native wetland plants- sedges, rushes, and wildflowers, in areas where invasive Phragmites grass was removed.  Like other habitats, wetlands thrive on a diversity of plants, so the more we can enhance that diversity with native species, the more wildlife, including waterfowl and fisheries, will benefit.

In several large fields we are tending to thousands of milkweed plants for the butterflies, and sowing the seeds of many other native wildflowers that they and other pollinators will benefit from.  Other fields large and small are being prepared for planting next year. In the last couple of weeks we’ve also planted 1,300 potted wildflowers around our headquarters, in our butterfly garden, and along Mariner’s Trail, with the help of many high school students and volunteers.

Fall is an excellent time for such work.  It is the time when many plants shed their seeds which naturally fall to the soil where freezing and thawing buries them over the winter.  They need a period of cold in order to mature and set their biological alarm clocks for germination in the spring.  The cool weather also reinvigorates our own physiology, making this a much more pleasant and effective time to get work done.  

There are so many opportunities to make things better in this world.  I suppose its a matter of comparison- certainly at one time our area was covered with native plants and abundant wildlife.  Then that was altered – the “cutover” of Wisconsin is a great example where forests were nearly removed one section at a time.  Thankfully, everything wasn’t cut, and nature has a capacity to rebound – aided by us. 

I saw an old photograph of my neighborhood a few days ago- the landscape was stark and barren, nearly treeless, bisected by dirt roads and dotted with a few houses.  Now there are more houses, but there are also significantly more trees and shrubs than there were 100 years ago.  A lot of the shrubs are non-native invasives, but over time those can be removed and replaced with better ones.  The same goes for Woodland Dunes- there is actually more forest within the bounds of the preserve than there was in 1938, and there is more than we can do to improve it.  

Everyone, even if they only own a flower pot, can be a wildlife farmer.  But you have to be comfortable with doing the work of sowing while the wild things do the reaping- which is just fine with us.

photo- a field at Woodland Dunes planted with wildflowers, evening primrose and tall coneflowers  

Ripples 10/5/17

We’re now firmly in the midst of another seasonal tug-of-war.  On one hand summer hangs on meteorologically, but at the same time, biologically fall is moving forward relentlessly.  Birds, bats, and insects are all streaming to places where in the coming months will be much more friendly toward them.  On clear, calm nights birds cross the skies like unseen meteors, revealed only by their brief call notes and radar images.  During the day, dragonflies and butterflies make a more leisurely but equally difficult journey.

Right now, common green darners are passing through by the thousands.  They are the large dragonflies we often see around here- males are green and blue, and females and juveniles are green and brownish.  They migrate along the shore southward in the fall, eating smaller insects as they do and being eaten by birds such as American kestrels which migrate at the same time.  At times, the dragonflies seem only intent on traveling, all of them moving southwestward in unison.  At other times, they must really need to refuel, and they are seen criss-crossing meadows in search of smaller, more vulnerable members of their insect relations to be snatched from the air and eaten.  As a human, I always appreciate dragonflies pursuing and consuming the deer flies and mosquitoes which hover around me.  At the same time, I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to be caught by one of those remarkable predators and crushed in their huge sideways jaws.  

photo of many monarchs on plants

Monarchs at Lester Library

The highlight in terms of insect migration is that of the monarchs.  One wonders how this species developed such an ambitious means of surviving winter – traveling all the way to central Mexico while other species instead cope with winter in their chrysalis, in the leaf litter, or at the end of a much shorter migratory journey.  I’m sure that in the end it’s a good thing that all butterflies, or animals of all sorts, don’t behave in the same way so that too many aren’t at risk as the result of the same catastrophic event, such as a storm or fire.  

Whatever the cause, monarchs have become dependent on the success of a very long fall journey, just as they have become dependent on the common milkweed as a host plant over the last million years or so.  People have changed the world, and virtually all of the eastern monarchs winter on just a few acres of habitat in Mexico, habitat that is shrinking because of logging and converting it to farmland.  At the same time, there are fewer milkweed plants here in the midwest. Milkweed was once considered the most important agricultural weed.  As a result, the population of monarchs is only 10% of what it used to be.  And this happened in my lifetime.

Its important to recognize this and cherish every monarch you see passing along our Lakeshore.  Plant a few milkweeds if you have any room for a patch.  A wonderful example is at the Lester Public Library in Two Rivers, where they have just established plantings for butterflies and saw almost immediately how important and attractive those plantings were.  

A couple of years ago, we restored a wetland at Woodland Dunes, and volunteers saved about 1,500 monarch caterpillars before we excavated the site (which was again planted with milkweed and other native plants).  They were raised to butterflies, and some were tagged before they were released at the end of summer.  A few weeks ago we received word that one of them, UEJ 963, made it all the way to El Rosario, Mexico, a distance of 2,254 miles, where it was found.  We marvel at the ability of small birds to travel distances like that, let alone an insect that is as fragile as if it were made of paper.  The simultaneous simplicity and power of this is miraculous ( and a large part of what makes nature study so compelling).

The monarchs began migrating in early August, and large numbers have still been seen moving recently.  It’s been a good growing season, and I think a good summer for monarchs around here.  As they leave us on their incredible travels, we can only hope that enough will survive to keep the species going so that our children and grandchildren and all of the other lives monarchs touch can benefit from them.

photo of monarch butterflies gathered at the Lester Public Library in Two Rivers

Ripples 9/28/17

As I think about it, the land seems to first wake up in springtime in the forest, starting with the wildflowers that erupt from the ground in shades of white, lavender, pink, and yellow.  Their life and color seem to flow outward as spring and summer progress to the meadows and roadsides which slowly green up then bloom with even greater intensity.  The hot days of summer can be hard on them, but these cooler times with moist mornings seem to urge plants to flower with enthusiasm before the cold sets in.

photo of blooming goldenrod


Three groups are particularly showy this time of year: sunflowers, goldenrods, and asters.  All of them produce many hundreds or thousands of flowers on a single plant, sometimes grouping many into what appears to be a single bloom.  There are hundreds of species of these plants and they are noticeable by intent. They are also vitally important to many animals.

All of them belong to the order of plants called Asterales, within which there are nearly a dozen families of plants.  It is fascinating to follow how scientists are trying to determine how living things evolved based on common genetic traits. In this case, it’s interesting to note that the flowers of the Asterales seem to have a common ancestor which was a woody tree or shrub, even though few of the existing members of the order are as such now.

The familiar goldenrods here belong to the genus Solidago and include the aggressive Canada goldenrod of fields, the grass-leaved goldenrod, and stiff goldenrod, a favorite for wildflower restoration projects.  All are native plants, and if you look closely you will find many bees, wasps, and soldier beetles seeking pollen on the flower heads. You may also notice bumps (galls) on the stems where fly or moth larvae have made a home. Sometimes a lovely goldenrod crab spider waiting to ambush prey, or a large black and yellow garden spider in an orb web between stems can be seen.

The sunflowers, yellow and familiar, sometimes interbreed and can be hard to tell apart.  They are smaller cousins to the giant domestic sunflowers we have engineered for cultivation.  The woodland sunflower, downy sunflower, and tall sunflower are a few of the many species that are blooming now, along with a number of related coneflowers and others.  They too, are very attractive to bees and butterflies. Goldfinches are often present to feed on the insects, and later the sunflower seeds when they first ripen.

photo of blooming sunflower


The white, blue, and purple asters recently appearing add variety to all the yellow in the native landscape created by the goldenrods and sunflowers.  In sunflowers and asters, what appears to be a single flower is actually many small flowers arranged in a disc-shaped spiral, surrounded by sepals which look like they should be petals.  New England asters produce the lovely purple bouquets we see now in meadows.  Sky blue asters and smooth asters are instead a light blue color, and there are many species of little white asters which can be hard to identify.  One, the panicled aster, fills some of the swales at Woodland Dunes with tiny which blooms that can be covered with bumblebees and other beneficial insects.  One hardly notices the plants until they suddenly bloom in September, but when they do, the insects are waiting to feed on some of the last pollen and nectar of the growing season.

photo of blooming aster


These common wildflowers fuel the last activities of insects in the fall- insects which feed the migrating birds and dragonflies struggling to reach their winter homes.  At the same time they color the world around us, something that for some reason people seem to appreciate.  Perhaps we unconsciously realize the importance of their blooming to the natural world and our well-being.

photos-Canada goldenrod, woodland sunflower, New England aster