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

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

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

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

Ripples 9/21/17

Written by Nancy Nabak, Communications Coordinator

photo of bee on a native aster

Bee on aster

Before food becomes food, what does it sound like? This may sound like an odd question, but in actuality, much of the time it sounds like a buzz. According to the US Department of Agriculture, one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of pollinators, such as bees, flies, and even butterflies.

Unfortunately, there is a major global decline in the pollinator population that started at the end of the twentieth century and continues today. A list of possible reasons for the decline range from agricultural practices where native wildflowers are removed, pesticide exposure, to parasites, pathogens, and climate change. Our need to have a nicely groomed, solid green lawn instead of native wildflowers also adds to this equation. We all desire nice lawns, but this may be the time where we redefine what “nice” means.

Photo of man planting native wildflowers

Volunteer planting native wildflowers

A group of five of us decided to take on this large issue in our own little corner of the world yesterday. Two Woodland Dunes staff members and 3 volunteers went into a secluded area on the preserve with over 100 native plants that are known to be good for pollinators and started planting. On Monday, students from the Two Rivers High School will be planting hundreds more. Eventually, 1,200 native wildflowers will be in the ground, thanks to a grant from the Bayer, Feed A Bee program. The new plots are being established specifically to offer increased habitat and nutrition sources for local pollinators.

Creating more bee food on Woodland Dunes property is important in taking steps to reverse the pollinator decline, but also because historically, it’s been home to a variety of bee species. One such bee is the rusty-patched bumblebee, a pollinator that has been found in Manitowoc County and was considered common 30 years ago. The rusty-patched is known to pollinate at least 65 varieties of plant species. It is now listed as endangered.

Fortunately, pollinator corridors, plots and “stepping stones” are increasing in popularity. Woodland Dunes is collaborating with Still Bend, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Two Rivers, to develop a native landscaping plan in order for it to become a “pollinator showcase.” The idea, according to Michael Dittmer, Still Bend owner, is to inspire other homeowners in the area to add pollinator-friendly plants to their landscaping. We will also be donating and planting wildflowers in the corridor along Mariner’s Trail.  This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one worth spreading. Seattle Washington has responded to the decline creatively. A local artist, Sarah Bergmann, designed a “Pollinator Pathway” on a mile-long, city-owned grass strip between the street and sidewalk. Citizens living along this street adopt portions of it, planting native wildflowers and committing to takecare of their areas. Their goal is to attract pollinators in an urban setting and eventually connecting them to a larger green space.

Looking at the pollinator decline as a whole can be overwhelming, but if we realize that many small corners of the world are being taken care of by collaborating partnerships, it gives us a chance to feel hope. So let’s put our garden gloves on, some native wildflowers in the soil, and feed some bees!

photos by Nancy Nabak: volunteer Bob Turnbull helping plant wildflowers; bee on a native aster flower at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 9/15/17

Most people that I know enjoy being outdoors, and feel that it is good for them to do so.  Like other aspects of nature, it is interesting to study the interaction of people and the world around them and examine how we feel about the outdoors, and each other.  For those of us who work as environmental teachers, it motivates us to find new ways to get people outside.

Photo of young girl and ladies dressed in flower crowns

Nature Princesses

In January of this year, a national study was conducted to better understand women’s relationship and attitude towards the outdoors. The results showed three-fourths of women felt they are under more pressure to conform to socials norms than men. However, they view spending time outdoors as a way to escape these pressures and the majority of women want to spend more time outside. The women surveyed also felt liberated when they were in nature and eighty-five percent also felt being outdoors positively impacted their overall well-being.

Six in ten women surveyed felt that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously that women’s. Role models are hard to come by, as sixty-three percent of women were unable to name a female outdoor role model. At first, I found this surprising, but once I took a look around me, I have to agree. The media is full of images of men rock climbing, canoeing and camping.

The study also concluded something we’ve known for years: appreciation for the outdoors starts young. Young children who spend ample time in nature are more likely to be active and care about the outdoors when they are adults. Girls that spend time outside are also more likely to place value on adventure. Beyond ample time in nature, young girls (and all children) need a mentor to guide them and share in their outdoor experiences. In the study specific to women, the majority named their mother as their top female role model and those encouraged to spend time outside as young girls were twice as likely to report their mother was the one encouraging them.

Nature should be a level playing field that everyone can explore and enjoy. Woodland Dunes and the Ice Age Trail Alliance have partnered to bring the community a fun program to encourage women and girls to spend time outside. This program is called “Be a Nature Princess….at Any Age!” and will take place the morning of Saturday, November 4th. Grandmothers, aunts, mothers and friends are encouraged to bring the young girls in their lives for a royally good time! The majority of the program will take place outdoors on a portion of the Ice Age Trail. We’ll be breaking stereotypes and getting dirty while we explore the natural kingdom. Go girl power! For more information about this program, contact Woodland Dunes Nature Center.

This program is part of a series of programs organized by the Ice Age Trail Alliance called “Force of Nature: Trailtessa Retreats.” The series offers a variety of programs encouraging women to experience adventure, freedom and nature on the Ice Age Trail. Topics include outdoor yoga and mindfulness, art, trail running and even invasive species removal.

Spending time in nature with all children is important, however there needs to be more effort to engage girls and women in the outdoors. I urge you to be a role model and spend time outside with your daughters and granddaughters. Invite her to hike, bike, jump in puddles or catch bugs. Show her how to dig into the soil, climb a tree or kayak. The Lakeshore is a playground for all ages.

-Written by Jessica Johnsrud, Education Coordinator

Ripples 9/7/17

The life around us flows like tides in the ocean.  In spring, the tide of migrant birds and insects flows north, finding places which support their families.  After a successful summer, even more animals flow south again to places where food is available in the winter.  In spring, these movements are obvious as the birds are dressed in their finest colors, but now they quietly flit among the leaves filling their bellies with insects, spiders, and fruit between long flights southward.

Places covered in good habitat, meaning lots of native plants, are also covered in birds right now.  A recent 10-minute, stream-side stop on a quiet evening revealed that the trees and shrubs were anything but quiet, instead populated by many warblers like the Tennessee, and yellow-rumped, American redstart, and northern waterthrush, along with Swainson’s thrush, wrens, catbirds, grosbeaks, song sparrows, cardinals, and robins.  Down by the water, a spotted sandpiper looked for different bugs, and a hummingbird, instead of it’s usual search among the jewelweed and other flowers for nectar, was delicately plucking insects from a dead tree branch.  None were singing, save the squeak-toy sounds of a nuthatch, and if one didn’t listen for the soft call notes, one wouldn’t know the birds were there.  The foraging of the birds coincided with the emergence of many winged queen and drone ants that evening- an unfortunate ending to the ant’s wedding night, I suppose.

photo of a Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch

These fall flights are all made possible by the presence of native plants.  The insects here, the overwhelming majority of which are beneficial or at least not noxious, have no interest in foreign plants.   Their lives depend on the natives, and the lives of birds depend on them.  We have removed a lot of native plants from our world and substituted non-natives, and it is estimated that there are now far fewer birds as a result.  Fortunately, northern Wisconsin has a lot of native forest, and there are enough scattered patches around here that we can still experience these wonderful migrations, even if they are diminished.  Fortunately, we are coming to realize that even landscape plantings of natives around our homes can provide some habitat for wildlife.

Wetlands, too, are especially good for wildlife.  The combination of water and native plants can produce many insects and other food for wildlife.  More than half of the wetlands which once existed are gone now, the land having been put to other uses.  Of course from time to time we are reminded that wetlands also serve to store floodwater and even after we alter and drain them, water still seeks those areas out. Each fall we find out what happens when homes are placed in areas that used to be wetlands and now subject to tropical storms.  Like many of us, I will gladly deal with winter rather than be flattened and flooded by such weather, and I feel badly for those who are.

All the native plants, and wetlands, which are preserved or planted contribute to the welfare of wildlife in the fall, when migrants need help the most.  Many of them are in their first year, and on their first major journey, and it is the most dangerous time of their lives. Know that the things you’ve planted in this and previous years, may make the difference between survival and death for them. Know too, that with your help they will again return next spring in a brighter and louder form to once again improve your yard and make for you a better day.

photo: a red-breasted nuthatch from Wikipedia