Ripples 9/6/18

photo of Forget Me Not Creek

Forget-Me-Not Creek

One of this year’s projects for Woodland Dunes has been to improve the mouth of a basically unknown little stream which long ago was known as Forget-Me-Not Creek. This site also happens to outfall to Lake Michigan at the location of the Spirit of the Rivers sculpture along Memorial Drive.  The creek was supposedly named for the forget-me-not flowers which were planted along it’s banks by an early German settler.  Over the years the creek had become partially blocked by rock and shrubs, some of which were non-native invasives, making the passage of migratory spawning fish more difficult.  Much of the creek’s watershed lies within the Woodland Dunes preserve, and native fish are an important part of both our local terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, so we want to do what we can to encourage free movement of fish in the spring when many move inland to spawn.

So, if you’ve visited the wayside next to the amazing Spirit of the Rivers sculpture, you’ve seen that the mouth of the creek has been changed.  The existing stone and brush was removed, the creek widened and a small floodway created, and then stone was again placed to form riffles and pools and to stabilize the banks.  Now the banks are being replanted with native shrubs and trees only, and the floodplain seeded with native wetland plants.  After the dedication, some of the upland areas will be seeded with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, as will the top of the bluff where we will preserve the abundant milkweed for monarch butterflies.  As is always the case, the site was severely disrupted by our excavation but it will heal again and we will make sure to stock it with beneficial plants.  Like the sculpture next door, it will be a creative endeavor, and a work in progress for years.

It is interesting to re-plant an area like this, to come up with some kind of vision or goal as to what a site should be.  Along the Lake we are fortunate to have nearby Woodland Dunes, Point Beach State Forest, and the Rahr School Forest, each having remnants of the native vegetation of our lakeshore.  It’s impossible to duplicate the degree of diversity of plantlife in these places- we would need to install more than 400 species of plants.  Like with so many things we will begin with species which are easy to obtain and grow, and add diversity from there.  After plants go in the ground, they need tending to – in this case involving my less than graceful attempts to clamber over the rocks to water and mulch the plants.  I am counting on the preoccupation of visitors to the site with the nearby sculpture rather than my profound lack of grace and balance.  Fortunately our recent rain has made watering unnecessary for the near term.

Then there is the placement of stones in the creek bed.  The riffles, or shallow rocky areas are subject to adjustment, which reminds me of playing in the river when I was a kid.  The water flow varies from day to day, as does the way water moves through our little stream system.  The beauty of being down in the stream itself is that you become aware of the creatures which so quickly expand their territories into new areas- in just a day or two green frogs began to appear, and water striders.  It will be interesting to sample the bottoms of the pools for invertebrates as time passes.  

Perhaps the most interesting so far was a mink which showed up one morning as I happened to be checking things.  Mink and other weasels always seem to me to be particularly graceful, and this beautiful dark brown animal flowed over and under the rocks along the bank.  Eventually it reached the large concrete culvert which guides the stream under Memorial Drive.  The mink stopped for a few seconds, then dove into the water at the pool next to the culvert, swam up to and over the culvert’s edge just like a sucker during the spring run.  Then it swam up into the culvert and under the road, I assume headed to the woods behind Aurora’s hospital.  I’ve seen several mink that had been unfortunately flattened on Memorial Drive this year, and I’m glad that this one has figured out a safe way to cross the road.  In fact, that culvert is large and flat enough at the bottom to allow for a lot of animals, not only fish, to pass.  Roads are one of the greatest hazards to wildlife, and at least here there is a safe connection between our stream mouth and the woods to the west.

Like most habitat restoration projects, this will be ongoing and change over time.  We’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and tweak things a number of times.  We are glad that the Spirit of the Rivers steering committee asked us to be a part of this, especially because the sculpture honors the native people who lived here longer than we have.  And, we’re impressed that Mr. Wallen has such a thorough understanding of the nature of this area and wanted it be a part of the project overall.  We are also grateful to the Fund for Lake Michigan and US Fish and Wildlife Service for funding towards the stream project and native plantings around it. 

We’re sure this project will help wildlife, and also be an enhancement to Manitowoc and Two Rivers as an attraction for visitors.  We can’t wait to see what happens as the site matures over time, but it certainly looks like a win for both the community and wildlife.

Ripples 8/31/18

photo of charred tree, splintered, by lightning

tree struck by lightning

Although my memory is famously suspect, i don’t remember the last time we had three consecutive days with severe storms, and so late in the year. I associate such weather with May and June when the warmth is building into our area.  Anyway, the last week was sometimes too exciting for comfort.

I am drawn to approaching thunderstorms, probably because I have not experienced significant damage from one personally.  I can understand how living through a really bad storm or tornado would change one’s perspective completely.  Having one’s house or crops destroyed would be a terrible experience.  The most significant I’ve seen personally was a Great Plains storm in North Dakota with golf ball sized hail. I was amazed at how the hailstones careened around after hitting the ground, and how in just a minute or two took out windows and windshields and siding and left vehicles looking like golf balls instead.

It is hard to imagine that the rain we received was transported more than 1000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and held as vapor in the air until the right kind of disturbance, or instability, came along to cause it to suddenly and violently erupt into a storm, and then flow across the landscape.  

One night last week the storms came in late.  Like dogs, I too, seem to get restless before storms and so got up and went outside to watch the approach.  The air was soft and moist and warm and smelled of rain.  All around there were thousands of insects singing- tree crickets, field crickets, mole crickets, and others which are now at their greatest numbers of the year. Their music seems to blend into one huge lustful chorus, although if you listen very carefully you can distinguish different tones and cadences among them.  To me, their songs seem peaceful – the way things should sound on a summer night.

After a few minutes, the neighborhood screech owl calls – first a high pitched but descending whinny, and then a monotone trill.  I don’t understand why, as it’s beyond the time of their mating, but they seem to call more now than earlier in the summer.  Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.  After a while the unseen little owl moves a hundred yards away and calls some more.  Apparently he or she is not concerned about being heard by larger owls.

In the background there are flashes and faint rumbles of thunder.  Even though it is nighttime, one can see low clouds moving quickly and swirling.  Then to the west a line of dense cloud appears and advances rapidly.  As it passes over, a vigorous, cooler breeze develops.  And then the world becomes quieter, crickets dominating the soundscape.  Except that thunder is becoming louder and lightning brighter.  It rains a bit, and I think that the brunt of the storm has missed us.  But gradually the rain increases in intensity, as does the lightning.  Some appears to strike the ground, and others cross the sky like rivers of intense, blue-white light.  Then the rain and wind suddenly increase, wetting the inside of the garage into which I took shelter.  A close lightning strike reminds me that a few feet away is a metal flagpole, so perhaps even the garage is not a wise place to be.  More than two inches of rain fall that night, to be added to four the night before and two the day after.  I think of how good it is that the soil was pretty dry beforehand, and how, if it’s not paved over, it has the capacity to absorb and filter thousands of gallons per acre.  And how the wetlands at Woodland Dunes, along our lakes and rivers, and across the land store and treat billions of gallons of what was once salt water from the ocean pushed up here by unseen rivers of air.

And then the reality of the toll that storms take on the forest creeps in, and the realization that there will be seven miles of trails to check and clear and how I hope a tree didn’t come down on one of our boardwalks!

Summer storms wash the land, refill lakes and rivers and groundwater reserves, prune trees in the forest, and topple some to make room for new ones to grow.  They can be dangerous and inconvenient, but their blessings are mixed to be sure. They are also exciting, and give us an excuse to venture outdoors at night and be reminded about the interesting world in which we live.  They are worth the experience, despite the sleep deprivation.

photo by Ray Pollen- a pine tree along the Ice Age Trail at Woodland Dunes which was struck by lightning

Ripples 8/23/18

One of the most common birds in urban areas is the house sparrow, which is not technically a sparrow in the ornithological sense, but a weaver finch.  They are a bird which originated in Eurasia. There are still local “wild” populations which don’t associate with people, and migrate north and south with the seasons.  Other house sparrows, however, have become closely associated with people to benefit their kind.

photo of House sparrow

House sparrow

As it turns out, unlike most other birds, house sparrows carry two interesting genes.  One allows them to adapt their skulls and the shapes of their bills so they are able to utilize different kinds of seeds.  The second allows them to more efficiently digest starchy grains, making up a large portion of their diet.  The ability to adapt their populations made it possible for some house sparrows to feed on the grain that people raised (and spilled).  As people became better at farming and migrated to different parts of the world (Middle East, Europe, North and South America) some house sparrows went with them.  In the last 200 years on the heels of people, house sparrows have successfully colonized six continents- all except Antarctica.  They also adapted their nesting behavior to take advantage of the structures people made, building messy, bulky nests in whatever openings they could find.  I think it’s interesting that some nest behind lighted signs on buildings which probably helps keep them warm in the winter.  They are so associated with people that they have been given the scientific name of Passer domesticus- in Latin meaning a small bird belonging to the house.

They are rather drab birds, brown and gray; the males sporting a black “bib” on the throat and chest.  Unlike many native sparrows, house sparrows are pretty much unstreaked on their front.  Another foreign bird, the Eurasian tree sparrow, is similar in appearance and has become established in a few places in this country, but has not nearly the range of the house sparrow, which has the greatest range of any bird in the world.

There is a downside to these interesting birds- where they go they replace native species.  At the Nature Center, they compete for birdhouses with bluebirds and tree swallows.  House sparrows are very aggressive and native birds have a hard time fending them off.  Still, years ago people became fond of these little birds that traveled with them and shared their buildings, singing their familiar “cheep” song.

A friend recently sent an article from the Kewaunee paper which was printed 140 years ago, in 1878.  That year, a Judge Stransky imported 25 sparrows from Bohemia at a cost of $10 each for release because of their value in controlling insects in the garden.  I’m guessing that those were house sparrows and that must have amounted to a small fortune to bring them here.  Perhaps the sparrows we see now are descendants from those birds.  

House sparrows still benefit from their human companions – not only have we moved them to new places and feed them our waste grain, but we also put out bird feeders to make sure they have enough to eat.  My grandfather used to talk about how there used to be more “English” sparrows around here when there were more horses. Apparently the birds picked seeds from the manure.  On the other hand, I also had a great uncle who devised a way to catch sparrows and use them to make a sort of sparrow pot-pie when times were hard.  I was told he was particularly proud of his sparrow-catching ability.

Wild animals are under constant pressure to survive and are often adept at taking advantage of every opportunity offered them.  In the case of house sparrows, be they common and perhaps undesirable, they have the genetic ability to take advantage of what people offer them and as a result have become one of the most numerous birds on Earth.

Ripples 8/16/18

photo of adult ospreys with eggs in the nest

Ospreys with eggs on nest













It may not feel like it, but fall is well underway.  Unlike day-to-day shifts in the weather, the overall change in season is subtle and prolonged.  We see fall as magically beginning on Sept. 21, but nature begins the change of season in mid-August.  Large numbers of songbirds, like hummingbirds and warblers, are quietly moving southward in huge numbers.  Now is a great time to hang a hummingbird feeder or restock the oranges and jelly for orioles as they pass through.

Trees, if they are in a favorable spot, are putting out a few new leaves- a late season growth spurt.  Many have already stored all the energy they need to make it through winter.  In fields, wildflowers are abundant, and so are the insects that use them.  This seems to have been a good year for butterflies, and soon millions of monarchs will make their way down the Lakeshore intent on spending a Mexican winter.

As it has been for a number of years, ospreys are again nesting at Woodland Dunes- two nest sites actually.  One near our headquarters has a webcam, which allows us to view the birds up close and stream the images through our website.  As is the case most years, these birds arrived here during the first week of April- the 8th of the month this year.  Usually they begin nesting right away, but a blizzard a few days after their arrival caused them to seek shelter away from the exposed nest for a while.  As it turned out nesting actually began a couple of weeks late.

The first egg was laid on May 8, exactly a month after the birds returned.  The second was laid May 10, and one more on May 16.  We had some cold and stormy weather back then, but the female was diligent in her incubation duties.  The male hunted and brought back fish for his mate (although he ate first and brought half a fish back to the nest.  Mrs. Osprey would take her portion and fly off to eat, and Mr. Osprey would take over incubation until she returned- their exchange was like clockwork.  The first chick hatched on June 17, and the second on June 19.  The third egg didn’t hatch, which isn’t unusual.  Caring for two young is a reasonable task for ospreys- more than that can be difficult, although three is not uncommon.  

The two hatchlings received a lot of attention from their parents, and were treated to diet of many different species of fish- whitefish, northern pike, bluegill, and lots of bullheads.  Sometimes the fish were so freshly caught they had to be chased around the nest and caught again.  One pike came with a lure attached, which was a worry to us, but the birds have avoided getting snagged on it so far.  One of the young is larger than the other, probably the first one that was hatched.  Older chicks have a big advantage over their younger siblings and often get more food from mom and dad.

On June 10 the larger chick flew from the nest for the first time.  It first flew to another unused nest platform a couple of hundred feet away, then farther to nearby power poles.  It is still coming back for a meal when the parents bring fish back to the nest.  At this writing, the smaller bird hasn’t flown yet, but it is practicing by spreading its wings and jumping on the nest, so it will fledge soon, we hope.  It’s still the middle of August so there’s time for that.

In a few weeks the osprey family will part ways and be caught up in the southward tide of migrating birds, maybe to the Gulf of Mexico, or farther south.  We will miss them when they go, but we are grateful that ospreys choose to spend their summers here.  There are at least six osprey nests active in Two Rivers, Shoto, Mishicot, Manitowoc, and Collins, allowing us to appreciate these large raptors which were never seen here a few decade ago.  We are grateful for people like Steve Lankton, Two Rivers Water and Light, N-Tech, and others who have helped with our webcam project.  The birds are still using the nest and you can see them on our website.

It seems I’m often at odds with technology, but in this case we’ve been able to closely monitor a wonderful and interesting  bird species in ways that we couldn’t just a few years ago.  The welfare of ospreys is tied closely to the health of our wetlands, rivers, and lakes, and these birds remind us of the wisdom of taking good care of our world.

photo– ospreys with their eggs on the nest at Woodland Dunes on the osprey webcam, June 2018

Ripples 8/9/18

Written by Abby Adams, Woodland Dunes summer intern

Two weekends ago I stumbled upon the most intriguing caterpillar I’ve ever seen – that of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. I briefly mistook the emerald green caterpillar for a leaf, but only for a second as I then noticed two almost cartoon-like eyes staring blankly back at me. My fascination with this creature captivated me so much that I had to drop everything I

photo of Tiger swallowtail caterpillar

Eastern Tiger swallowtail caterpillar

was doing in order to take what I’d guess was a thousand pictures of it. However, my camera was being finicky, so I gently adjusted the stem it was resting on to get better lighting – only to have him raise his body and display what looked like an orange forked tongue.

As I continued to observe and take photos, admiring his green velvet-textured skin, blue dots on neck and back, yellow and black striped “collar,” yellow “eyes” with a solid black outline and black pupils (even adorned with a little white sun glare mark in the center), it continued to raise its body, positioning itself. All the while, its little eyes were staring back at me with its “tongue” sticking out. I had to tear myself away from this gorgeous creature, but that wasn’t the end–I had to know more.

Luckily, it only takes the quickest Google search of “caterpillar with eyes” to find what this little guy was, and once I got that far, I was able to learn a lot more about his life and how evolution turned it into a mimicry king.

Apparently, this caterpillar comes from a whole family of deceptive geniuses with multiple species exhibiting eyespots and the orange tongue (osmeterium). While the osmeterium looks like it’s near its mouth, it’s actually located above the head, and releases a stinky substance to deter predators (which smells sweet and/or spicy to us). On top of this, its false eyespots and raised posture make it look much larger than it is, scaring predators such as: birds, hornets, and other creatures. Although I didn’t get to see it myself, the young caterpillars disguise themselves by looking like bird droppings!

 After learning all of this, I wanted to know how to find more of these caterpillars. They’re fairly common east of the Mississippi River but I’ve never seen one before and neither had anyone in my family. Now, I think I’ve got some good ideas on how to find them in the wild. A big help is knowing their habitat: wooded areas along forest edges, swamps, rivers, and parks. They’re big fans of woody plants such as ash, cherry, birch, cottonwood, and willow trees that grow in such places.

So whenever you’re out, be it in the park, woods, or along a babbling stream, I hope that you all can find this wondrous little creature nibbling on a leaf while staring back at you.

Photo by Abby Adams