Ripples 5/3/18

photo of a hummingbird in flight in the butterfly garden

Ruby-throated hummingbird in the Woodland Dunes Dorothy Star Butterfly Garden

I probably speak for many in saying that I don’t remember such a drastic change in weather in spring over such a short time before. I do remember the opposite during a November of long ago when we went from 70 degrees one day to a blizzard the next, but at that time of year the impact on wildlife was not as great.

I don’t know if birds are hopeful as they make their way north in spring, or are just driven by instinct.  Some move earlier than others, and for those the weather 3 weeks ago was really hard.  A lot of people found robins that perished, others found woodcock, which I assume like robins were unable to to reach the soil and its larder of worms and bugs.  At home we had a small yellow-rumped warbler looking under our eaves for spiders during the storm.  Like many, I put out dried mealworms and raisins for birds, which most seemed to ignore.  I was surprised that cardinals seemed to relish the insects, while robins just looked at them briefly.  Later in the storm I found a yellow-rump sheltered in the garage, and a couple of days later my brother next door had one eating suet at his feeder.  But a few days later, despite the warm-up, he also found one dead in his yard.  Fortunately there were other yellow-rumps foraging in the trees, woodcock in the fields, and robins on our lawns.  Just as with people, life is hard, and those who survive are the strongest and most adaptable.

The silver lining associated with this cloud has been the rapid warm up and south winds that now bring different birds each day.  While we were so recently buried in snow, we’re now putting up oranges and nectar feeders for the orioles and hummingbirds – they are already showing up.  White-throated and white-crowned sparrows are everywhere, along with towhees and thrushes and kinglets and the tropical-wintering warblers and grosbeaks.  Along the lakeshore and other waterways, amazing species of shorebirds are present now and the first pelicans are returning.  Many of our mammals have already borne young, others will soon.

In many ways the ebb and flow of the natural world is like our own.  Even though we dominate nature, our lives are not easy.  Nature; however, is relentless, and the forces that drive the seasons are powerful, and the responses of living things are amazing.  Our recent blizzard seemed catastrophic, but wildlife doesn’t seem to dwell on such things – rather, it seems to pick up the pieces as quickly as possible and continue on.  Watching this gives one the optimistic sense that even huge problems can be overcome. Especially in spring.

photo- Ruby-throated hummingbird taken at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 4/26/18

By Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator for Woodland Dunes

photo of skunk cabbage in wetland

Skunk cabbage

It looks like an alien or possibly something that would have been featured in the “Little Shop of Horrors” movie, but it’s not alien. In fact, it’s quite native and great fodder for the curious mind. Skunk cabbage is on the bloom and lighting up my imagination.

I took a stroll on Yellow Birch trail off of Goodwin Road a few days ago and was overjoyed to see skunk cabbage springing up in ephemeral ponds surrounding the boardwalk. This purple-mottled, funky shaped plant is one of our first native flowering plants of spring. The snow-covered cobwebs in my mind shed immediately to realize that winter is done. Spring is breaking through!

And breaking through is exactly what skunk cabbage does. It’s a thermogenic plant, which means it can melt its way through frozen ground via cellular respiration. (It can actually generate temperatures from 27-63 degrees Fahrenheit above the air temperature.) Even though the ground is still frozen, the flower of the skunk cabbage can be successfully pollinated by insects that emerge at the same time.
The early pollinators: stone flies, scavenging flies and bees are attracted to the foul odor of the plant; hence its name. The skunk-like smell is noticeable when the leaf is broken or torn, or when in bloom. Its pungent scent may also serve to discourage animals from disturbing the plant.
Some animals, such as humans, may have a curiosity that overrides any such odiferous warning. I have one of those animal friends. We’ll call him Mike. When Mike was 17, he was on a mission to eat things that Euell Gibbons was advocating. He read both of his books, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and “Stalking the Healthful Herbs.” Mike had tried raw cattail, had made acorn flour, and was ready for skunk cabbage.
According to Mike, he cooked the plant as Gibbons recommended. “It smelled like cabbage while it was cooking, yet extremely stinky.” But the horrible smell didn’t deter Mike from giving it a go. After all, he had already experienced more than 30 of Gibbon’s edibles and needed one more. He tried to consume it, but said it was “awful!” (I think Gibbons said the same thing.) He also related that he had a weird prickly sensation in his mouth. (Skunk cabbage is not considered edible raw.) The horrible smell lasted in his house for two days, which did not make his mother happy, Mike remembers with a nostalgic look.
As we get out there, start exploring, and seeing what nature has to show us, it’s fun to let curiosity spark our minds. Skunk cabbage is an excellent example of that. This weird looking plant, although warning us not to mess with it, begs some of us to test it. This is a test I don’t need to take and prefer not to be graded on, so I’ll just enjoy taking photos of it from the boardwalk.

Photo- skunk cabbage flower by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 4/20/2018

This week’s Ripples was written by Anna Hall, Woodland Dunes Intern from Silver Lake College

Early this morning, I had the privilege of witnessing an American Woodcock searching for food in the front yard of the nature center. This is an uncommon sighting simply because woodcocks tend to spend the majority of their time hidden deep within fields and forests; they very seldom are seen out in the open. This woodcock was drawn out of his typical environment because of the large snowfall our area recently experienced, and he had to get creative about finding food. 

photo of woodcock in the snow

American woodcock in snow

In order to feed, woodcocks require soft, exposed soil. They have a long bill which they use to probe into the ground in their search for little critters to eat. By far, this bird’s favorite meal is a healthy helping of earthworms.

​W​orms are high in both protein and fat, and comprise about three-quarters of the woodcock’s diet. One difficulty these birds may experience in their quest to find food is if after they have returned north in the spring, the area experiences late snow or the ground freezes solid. 

When it comes time for the woodcock to breed, the males establish singing grounds. Their courtship dance is truly beautiful to see. The male will begin by emitting a buzzing sort of sound called peenting while he is on the ground. After a minute or so, he flies up into the air and hovers in a circle high above the ground. His descent pattern is quite interesting; after he is finished hovering, he will swoop down in a spiral as he sings a warbling call. When he comes to rest on the ground, he begins this dance all over again. 

The female woodcock nests close to the singing ground where she mated. She is quite the independent lady, as the male plays no role in the nesting or rearing of the young woodcocks. The females favor nesting sites with plenty of ground cover and opportunities for camouflage. If the female woodcock is disturbed during the incubation period of the eggs, she may abandon the nest. However, the longer she stays on the eggs, the less likely she is to leave her unhatched babies. 

All hatched birds can be categorized as either precocial or altricial. Precocial means they are relatively independent soon after hatching, and altricial means they require more extended care from their parents. Woodcocks are precocial; the young birds leave the nest just a few hours after hatching, and can successfully leave their mother after just six weeks. 

As I continued to watch this woodcock prod the cold soil, I was struck by the beauty and intelligence of this deep forest creature. Its ingenuity and perseverance had me rooting for him to find some form of sustenance in the snow-covered ground. When he finally tugged an earthworm free, my hope that he would live to sky-dance and sing was renewed. 

If you’re interested in seeing the woodcock’s courtship dance, join us for our Spring Twilight Trek at Woodland Dunes on April 27th (call for more info)​, or keep an eye out for this bird’s evening twirling at a forest edge or field near you.

 photo taken by Nancy Nabak, Communication and Development Coordinator 

Ripples 4/12/18

Sandhill Cranes are among the largest birds in Wisconsin, but imagine just how enormous they must appear through the eyes of a young child. Cranes are intriguing to watch and even though they don’t speak English, we can learn a lot about their communication by observing them.
  photo of children preening like cranesPreschoolers preening like cranes

This month’s Raising a Wild Child preschool group learned all about Sandhill Crane behavior. The topic was a natural fit for April because the cranes are back from their wintering grounds and are easily spotted in open fields and wetlands.
Each child, aged two up to five years old, sat on a carpet square, which served as their “nest.” Next, thanks to YouTube, the kids watched short video clips of Sandhill Cranes displaying common behaviors. We briefly discussed each behavior and then acted them out.
We started by talking about how cranes move from place to place. They fly of course! The kids were enthralled with a video of two cranes soaring in the sky and singing their loud, rattling call. The call is so loud, it can be hard up to 2.5 miles away! We “cranes” stretched our wings and our necks and flew around the room for a bit, until we were ready to go back to our nests.
Next we learned about what Sandhills eat and how they groom their feathers. Cranes are omnivorous and use their long bill to probe the ground for seeds, tubers and fruits as well as small mammals, amphibians, insects and worms. The kids flew over to the field (open area in the room) and used their hand as a crane head. We walked around the field, eating mice, seeds and one girl exclaimed, “I just ate a salamander!” Once our bellies were full, we preened our feathers, using our hand as a beak to pick parasites off our backs and wings.
I think the kids most enjoyed learning about how cranes dance. They giggled when they watched a video of two cranes jumping, twirling and bobbing their heads. This display is part of the cranes’ courtship ritual, perhaps similar to human courtship! The kids flew to the field and wiggled, twirled and jumped up and down.
Many of the preschoolers also liked acting out how cranes defend their territory. They watched a clip showing a crane ruffling its feathers to an intruder, then the crane jumped up high and kicked its legs forward in powerful moved called a jump-rake. We flew over to the field and spread out so everyone had enough space. One of the parents pretended to be fox trying to steal eggs from our nests. We ruffled our wings at the fox as a warning, but she didn’t go away. Finally, we all jumped and kicked our legs out and the fox scurried off. Hooray!
By imitating the behavior of wild birds we hope to help children imagine what they are thinking, and in doing so learn to appreciate just how interesting they really are.

 Photo by Brianna Trainor, showimg kids’ “preening” their imaginary feathers

Ripples 4/5/18

For a week or so it actually looked like spring was coming, until the snow and ice descended once again.  The robins and song sparrows and redwings are still out in the snowy yard, looking a bit forlorn but singing away nonetheless.  And then there are the signs of spring from inside the building – scores of ladybugs crawling on the windows on sunny days.  And the walls, the floor, all over the place.  Good grief.  Although they are members of the genus Harmonia, their abundant presence brings about anything but harmony.  Rather, they usually result in the emergence of the vacuum cleaner.

Most old buildings serve as winter refuges for what are technically the multicolored Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis,

photo of Asian ladybeetle

Asian lady beetle

which are considered perhaps the most invasive insect on Earth.  They are not one of our native lady beetles, of which there are many species that have lived harmlessly here for eons and are important components of our local ecosystems.  The native lady beetles are smaller and are adapted to a particular ecological niche in the world.  They tend to be predators of smaller insects, and are quite specialized in their roles in our forests and fields.

The multicolored Asian lady beetles, however, are large and apparently vary adaptable.  They are indeed native to eastern Asia but have a large natural range from southern China north to Siberia and west to Mongolia.  People have extended their range greatly either intentionally or unintentionally, and they are now found on at least four continents and across all of North America, where they were brought and released to control aphids in the South years ago.  It was thought that they wouldn’t be able to tolerate the cold of our region, but as they say in Jurassic Park, “nature finds a way”.

The multicolored Asian lady beetles are active, aggressive, and seem to prefer meadow habitats in which to hunt their prey.  They are good fliers, moving from plant to plant to look for all sorts of small insects to consume.  They reproduce continuously, each female laying about 25 eggs per day during the warm months.  The eggs hatch larvae which look like spiky dark caterpillars which also predate small insects, including eggs and other larvae of their own kind.  Adults live about 30 to 60 days, except for those which hatch when the days become shorter – 10 to 13 hours of daylight, which induces diapause or a hold on their reproduction plus the urge to seek a sheltered place in which to spend the cold months.  Old houses and buildings with cracks and openings offer perfect refuge, unfortunately.

Asian ladybugs have some other interesting traits that we notice when they enter our houses – they stink and they can bite.  One of their defenses is to exude fluid from joints in their legs when they are alarmed.  The fluid contains nasty smelling and tasting substances that deter predators.  This odor is imparted into one’s vacuum when cleaning up the insects and becomes a permanent reminder of their seasonal visits to our houses.  They also like to hang around vineyards, and if harvested with grapes can impart a bad taste to wine. Thankfully, most of them don’t bite, although their large mandibles can produce a surprising pinch.  Rather, one occasionally seems to decide to taste us- one theory is that they have a taste for salt on our skin.  Out of the hundreds I’ve encountered at the nature center and at home this winter, only one has decided to see how salty I taste, fortunately.  

These insects have a lot of common names – including the harlequin beetle and Halloween beetle because they like to come indoors in late fall.  They are extremely variable in appearance- sporting a wide variety of colors and color patterns from orange spotted with black to no spots to black spotted with orange.  Almost all have white cheeks, patches on the sides of their thorax, or, second body segment.  And although they are just a nuisance to us, they may be devastating to our native lady beetles, outcompeting and driving them out of existence.  It is hard to imagine a ladybug as a bully, but like most invasive species that’s how they behave.  And like many of the invasives, there will be no putting this genie back in it’s bottle- they are most likely here to stay unless a more potent bully comes along.  

So do your best to caulk the openings in your house, and keep the vacuum handy.  And, get used to the fact that you will always have lots of company at your windowsill on these first sunny days of spring.

photo- lady beetle from USDA