Ripples 3/29/18

Written by Jeni Klein, Land Management Coordinator

photo of tree with holes made by Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker holes

The other day Nancy Nabak and I were walking the Ice Age Trail in preparation for the upcoming Dash at the Dunes 5k trail run/walk on April 21. While we were measuring the trail, assessing areas that may need to blocked off due to spring melt, and taking notes on areas that may need course guidance, we came across a cedar tree with fresh holes in the trunk and wood shavings on the ground below. Upon further inspection, there were six more fresh holes on the other side of the tree, and three more trees in the immediate area with fresh holes.  All of these holes were quite large. Some holes were round and some were more oval or rectangular. We were excited to find this treat: Pileated woodpecker holes.

Pileated woodpeckers are large in size, 16-19 inches long with a wingspan of 26-30 inches. For comparison, they are roughly the size of a crow. They have a red crest on their heads and black and white striping on their face. Males have a red stripe on their cheek. These birds hold large territories, mate for life, and do not migrate.

photo of Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers drill large, rectangular-shaped holes in trees to get to ants and other insects. These are not live, healthy trees; rather, they are trees which are either already dead, or are dying or have internal decay. These woodpeckers make their holesdeep into the trees as they follow tunnels made by opportunistic insects. They will then use their long tongues to reach these insects. They will also eat wild fruit and nuts such as hackberry, blackberry, sumac berries, dogwood, and elderberry. We have been planting many of these shrubs in our preserve over the past few years. Hopefully the woodpeckers and other birds appreciate the food we provide them as much as we appreciate the birds.

Pileated woodpeckers make large nest cavities which are occasionally shared with bats and swifts. Wood ducks, European starlings, and other woodpeckers also use dead trees for nest sites. It takes pileated woodpeckers 3-6 weeks to complete a nest cavity. They raise one set, or brood, of young a year, laying between 3-5 eggs. The incubation period is 15-18 days and the nesting period is 24-31 days, with young born naked and helpless.

Often we hear woodpeckers drumming on trees, creating these holes, but it is less often that we actually see them. The weather is warming up and spring in the air. Now is a great time to get out in the woods, and if you can sign up for our Dash on April 21, you can support Woodland Dunes at the same time. The spring ephemerals are starting to awaken on the forest floor, and you may just catch a glimpse of the Pileated woodpeckers.

photos by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 3/22/18

Years ago ospreys weren’t seen in our area.  They, like other birds of prey, were susceptible to the insecticide DDT, whichphoto of osprey nesting platform going up caused their eggs to become brittle and easily broken.  When I was young, ospreys and bald eagles were rare in Wisconsin.  Fortunately, people cared enough about these animals to require that alternatives to DDT be used, and over the years the birds increased in population.  Now, it’s not uncommon to see eagles here year round, and ospreys in the summer.

Ospreys seem to do well around Two Rivers, and have nested at Woodland Dunes for perhaps 20 years now.  Last year there were two nests at the Dunes, plus others at Shoto, Mishicot, Manitowoc, Collins marsh, Kewaunee, and probably other places.  One additional and particularly interesting spot was at Vietnam Veterans Park in Two Rivers- a popular place for baseball and softball games.  At that park, which lacked a nest platform (ospreys had never nested there before) the birds several years ago decided to build a nest on light fixtures over the ballfields.  While this is not an ideal situation, as there could be problems with heat from the lights as well as the possibility that the birds could drop branches onto the field below,  the ospreys found a way to make things work and raised broods of young birds.

Baseball and softball are popular sports in Two Rivers and the facilities in the park needed to be updated, including the lighting for the fields.  The Parks Dept. contacted Woodland Dunes last year to ask when the ospreys would migrate south so that they could plan for replacing lighting without disrupting the nesting birds, and indeed the lights were replaced in fall long after all the birds had left.  However, their old nest had to come down with the old lights, and there was concern about what would happen when the birds return this spring.  Neighborhood residents who had watched the birds in past years were also concerned that they would be displaced.  Fortunately, the Two Rivers Parks Dept. was open to discussing the possibility of placing a separate nesting platform for the birds, and Steve Lankton, who is very interested in raptors, offered to donate the funds needed for the project.  Moreover, Two Rivers Water and Light was willing to put up the pole and platform, which was built at Woodland Dunes.

Last week, on a sunny, cold morning, the pole and nest platform were installed.  At this point, ospreys on their spring migration have already been seen as far north as Chicago, so this is being done just in time.  Most importantly, I think this is a wonderful example of four different interests coming together to do something positive for wildlife with minimal effort or public expense.  This reflects well on our community, and shows that we are willing to find ways to think beyond the ordinary, and give nature, in this case a formerly threatened bird, a chance to share our space.  

That willingness is one of the reasons that this a great place to live.

Ripples 3/15/18

photo of a hawthorn in bloom

hawthorn in bloom

During the season of St. Patrick’s Day, one is reminded that Ireland is represented by the color green, and that the nickname the “Emerald Isle” is derived from the plant life of the island.  Of course the clover leaf, with it’s three leaflets that St. Patrick supposedly used to illustrate the Holy Trinity is most associated with all things Irish, but there is another plant that is very important to Irish folklore and is native to our area as well.

The hawthorn is a small, thorny tree that is found growing wild in both Wisconsin and Ireland, which has been modified through cultivation to become a landscaping favorite.  It is especially beneficial to have native plants in our yards, and hawthorns, or thornapples as I was raised to call them, provide flowers for pollinators and fruit for birds and other animals. Tiny little apples appear similar to the fruit of the crabapples.  Hawthorns aren’t usually abundant, but they can be numerous on certain parcels of land.  They like lots of sun, so are often found out in the open, at the edge of a woods, or just within areas that used to be fields but are becoming forests again.  They’re also found in old pastures- most likely cattle wouldn’t want to graze on the thorny branches and so left them alone.  Nevertheless, they remind us of past human presence on the land.

photo of hawthorn berry

hawthorn berry

Wild hawthorns contain long thorns on their limbs- often two or more inches in length.  Fortunately for homeowners, breeders have developed thornless varieties which aren’t quite so dangerous.  Wild hawthorns are also notoriously hard to identify as to species- they readily interbreed with each other, and there are perhaps a thousand different species, or subspecies, in North America.  Most botanists and naturalists are content with knowing that a tree is one of the hawthorns, or Crategus species, and leave it at that.

In Ireland however, the hawthorns have another, more mystical dimension.  To early people and those who still subscribe to such lore, they were/are considered sacred trees and are called Sceach Gheal  in the Gaelic language.  The Celtic people also have a tree alphabet or horoscope for which the hawthorn, or Huath is the sixth symbol.  They are considered homes for the fairies or Sidhe, because they bloom at the time of the festival of Bealtaine in spring.  According to folklore, one does not dare kill or injure a hawthorn lest they risk the wrath of the fairies.  There have been bitter disputes in Ireland over re-routing roads to avoid the removal of a hawthorn tree.  Conversely, some people hang ornaments, cards, pieces of clothing, and the like on a hawthorn to gain the favor of the fairies, hoping their wishes might be granted.

I have a distinct recollection from my childhood of an incident in which my grandfather, out mowing on his Farmall Cub tractor, came too close to a thornapple tree, resulting in his hand being impaled clear through by one of its thorns.  Recently, another member of the family, also on a tractor, accidentally injured a hawthorn after which a limb fell and grazed his head.  Of course I am not the least bit superstitious, despite what may appear to be clear warnings for disturbing the trees, but just in case, I think I might add a St. Patrick’s Day adornment to the hawthorn near my house to keep the fairies happy. And we’ll plant a few extra hawthorns in the preserve this year.  These days one needs all the help one can get.

Ripples 3/8/18

This was written by Anna Hall, a Woodland Dunes intern from Silver Lake College

photo of snowfleas in the snow

snowfleas

Spring is fast approaching, and as the weather warms, snow and ice are beginning to melt. These new patches of water draw one of the very smallest of creatures: springtails. Springtails, also known as snow fleas, thrive in wet or damp areas, where they gather in large clusters. From far away, they can look like little specks of dirt or particles of pepper in the snow.

When I first encountered springtails, I didn’t even see them until they were inches from my face! I was hiking in the woods with another staff member, and she picked up a branch from the forest floor and said, “Ooh, look!” I couldn’t see what she was talking about, so I leaned in, and sure enough, right before my eyes, a mass of tiny black bugs completely covered the branch. At first, I thought they were just regular fleas because of the way they were jumping, but I soon learned that these were snow fleas, a very different creature.

Springtails get their name from the way they spring a few inches into the air when disturbed. They have a little forked appendage called a furcula that releases in order to launch the bug. Springtails are not considered to be true insects because they do not have an external chewing mechanism; their’s is internal. One characteristic that varies is their coloring; they can be any shade of brown, gray, black, or white.

photos of springtails next to penny for scale comparison

Springtails

Springtails are often considered to be no more than a pest, especially since they may take up residence in a home with patches of high moisture, such as plumbing leaks or a damp basement. Fear not, these little creatures are harmless; inside the home they’re merely a nuisance. We really do need springtails in the ecosystem, as they greatly aid in plant nutrition. One way they help plants is by eating some of the bacteria and fungi that gather around plants’ roots. In doing this, they keep those materials from increasing to toxic levels that would harm the plant. Springtails also help speed up decay by ingesting organic matter from their environment and releasing it back through their nutrient-dense feces.

Remarkably, these little creatures don’t freeze due to a special protein housed in their tiny bodies. This protein contains glycine, which is an amino acid. And, as I’m sure you remember from school, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins! In the case of springtails, the glycine binds to little ice particles and keeps them from growing, saving the springtails from becoming bugsicles.

If you’re curious about springtails and want to go searching for some, pull on your boots, venture into the woods on a sunny day, and look for puddles or damp-looking patches. More than likely, there will be some springtails clustered on the odd branch or log, or under some leaf litter. Happy adventuring!

Ripples 3/1/17

Written by Jessica Johnsrud, Education Coordinator

At Woodland Dunes, we often talk about the importance of spending time outdoors. Taking time to notice nature is healthy for everyone and especially important for young children. Many parents and caregivers express a lack of confidence in knowing enough about the natural world or claim they aren’t “outdoorsy” enough to engage their child in nature. I understand this concern, but assure you that you do not need to be a nature expert to spend time outside with the children in your life. A recent Raising a Wild Child program, a program that meets monthly and is designed for children ages 2-5 years old and their caregivers, is a great example of this concept.
 
A group of nine youngsters and their caregivers explored a topic of great interest to preschoolers: scat. Scat is the science word for animal droppings. Anyone who has spent any length of time with young children knows this is a fascinating topic for this age group! We started by reading a children’s book about scat, then headed outside for a nature wander.  
 
Before each nature wander here, we review the tools the kids always have with them to explore when curiosity strikes: their eyes, ears, nose and hands. Then the kids and their adults set off looking for animal scat. Recently, after a short time, I heard a small voice exclaim, “Scat! We found scat!” Everyone gathered together to investigate a large pile of dark, jellybean-shaped droppings. I asked a simple series of questions to get everyone thinking. I explained to the parents that they could use this kind of questioning anytime their child shows interest in nature (even if it’s something they are unfamiliar with). These questions should ask the kids to make observations about what they see, then use that information to create an idea or draw a conclusion.
 
I asked the group to describe the color, shape and if they thought a big or small animal left it. Could they see any clues in the scat about what the animal ate such as fur, seeds or grass? Finally, I asked what animal they thought left this pile. The kids had a couple of ideas including a rabbit or a deer. I encouraged them to look for tracks close to the scat. Sure enough, there were tracks next to the pile! Again, I asked some questions, “Did this animal have toes or hooves?” Could they see claw marks?” The kids noted the animal had hooves and declared it was a deer that left the scat. They were correct and very proud of figuring this out. Even if I hadn’t known the answer, that is okay. The ideas the kids came up with were great and they were using investigation skills. We could have looked in a field guide or online to solve the mystery later.
 
The morning concluded with a project inside the Nature Center. Each child was given a photo of scat and used play dough and “add-ins” to make a realistic replica. Red candies represented berries, broken pieces of pasta were bones, cotton balls were fur and more. The “wild” children enjoyed this project and there were a few giggles about making “poop.”
 
I hope this example demonstrates how easy it can be to spend time outside with children. As the adult, you don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to be there as a guide.