Ripples 6/8/17

Ripples from the Dunes, written by Mikayla Opichka and Anna Hall, summer interns at Woodland Dunes

Over the past few decades, much anxiety has been associated with the term “mussel” in the Great Lakes region. Many of us connect it with the invasive zebra mussels, which have been invading our water ecosystems and changing the lake environment drastically. However, not all mussels in the Great Lakes region are invasive. On the contrary, they are an essential aspect of a healthy aquatic landscape. They serve many purposes including, but not limited to, filtering water, being a food source for many animals, excreting readily used nutrients into the ecosystem, and provide an aquatic substrate for algae and insect larvae to attach to.

photo of people searching for freshwater mussels in the river

Searching for freshwater mussels

Last week, Woodland Dunes was very fortunate to have a mussel expert from the Department of Natural Resources(DNR) present information pertaining to the mussels of our region, and then followed up by guiding participants on a mussel survey of the East Twin River in Mishicot. The DNR has begun the Mussel Monitoring Program of Wisconsin, which has been studying all 51 native species of mussels in the area. All of these species have distinct environment preferences. Some of the species within Wisconsin include the Spike, Plain Pocketbook, Threeridge, Monkeyface, and the Creeper.

The mussel’s complex life cycle fascinated participants. The female mussel sits downstream waiting to catch its male counterpart’s gametes. The female must transfer the juvenile mussels to a host fish, where they will mature in the fish’s gills. She then uses an appendage called a lure that realistically imitates a small fish that bait larger fish. Once the host fish takes the bait, the sac explodes, bringing the juvenile mussels in contact with their host. When they are mature, they leave the host fish and begin their own adult mussel life within the substrate of the aquatic ecosystem. This process is an incredible example of evolution that has helped further the lives of successful mussels!

Everyone left with a new passion for freshwater mussels and the knowledge that these mussels are in our own backyards. The Wisconsin DNR is looking for volunteers who are interested in exploring the mussels of our region. Anyone can easily participate in this effort by stepping into the nearest body of water and searching for these freshwater critters. (It is helpful to have an aquascope to help view the underwater substrate, but if you do not have an aquascope, don’t fret! One can easily be created using household materials such as a milk jug, saran wrap, and rubber bands, or by using PVC pipe and plexiglass.) Once you have located a mussel, all you need to do is upload an image of the creature to the wildlife-centered social media platform called iNaturalist, which can be found on the web at and also on the App Store. This wonderful site will help identify the mussels as well as keep track of what species are located in each body of water.

photo of people on riverbank identifying freshwater mussels

Identifying freshwater mussels

A day spent outdoors is never wasted, and we encourage you to take some time to encounter these underwater wonders!

photos- Woodland Dunes staff and volunteers looking for freshwater mussels with Jesse Weinzinger of the Wisconsin DNR  in the East Twin River, Mishicot; six different species of mussels found during program.

Ripples 6/1/17

Suddenly it’s summer.  The spring migration is coming to an end, and the nesting season is well under way.  Early spring wildflowers have bloomed, but mid-season plants are ready to vie for our attention. Plants in general seem to be putting on remarkable growth- especially in lawns it seems!

In the preserve, the nodding trilliums are now blooming, although much more demure than their grand cousins of drier, warmer woodlots.  Violets, starflower, bunchberry, blue-bead lily, and Canada mayflower are blooming at the Dunes and Point Beach, similarly as in the far north woods.  In the meadows, many of the native prairie plants are still just waking up (they don’t call them warm season species for nothing).  On sandy fields, common milkweeds are bolting upward, as if to welcome the monarch butterflies migrating from the south, females eager to deposit the next generation’s eggs.  Monarchs were seen very early this year, weeks ago already, apparently borne northward on strong south winds.  This is good, they will have ample time to build their population before the fall migration, which will occur all too soon.

photo of wood violet

wood violet

All this – birds, wildflowers, and spring plant growth are so positive that it’s difficult to face the realities of land management.  Our staff and volunteers know all too well that in the midst of the sea of green, exist plants that don’t belong. Plants that threaten to change the face and function of our forests, marshes, and fields, and have done so already.  In the fall, winter, and spring seasons we work to remove invasive shrubs.  In late spring, the shrub treatments become less effective so we switch to replanting formerly invaded areas and removing alien wildflowers that would crush our natives.

The beautiful purple and white flowers of dame’s rocket, a native of Eurasia, is an obvious target as the plant suddenly erupts into bloom. We pull out as many as we can and have had success in clearing some areas, but it is a very hardy plant with few natural enemies. Pull we must, encouraged by every native wildflower and fern we uncover.

We couldn’t do all of this without our wonderful volunteers, and one of the most helpful is Don DeBruyn of Two Rivers.  He spends many hours helping us in our never-ending land management battles and is truly a blessing, not only to Woodland Dunes, but to the community in general.  Last week, while helping to pull dame’s rocket along Columbus St., he did something that I have been dreading for many years- he discovered the first patch of garlic mustard in our preserve.  By now, many of us are familiar with garlic mustard, an invasive plant that was unknown here 30 years ago.  Now it seems that it is found in more places than not, and is especially threatening because it will grow well in shade and readily invades woodlands.  It crowds out native plants, injects chemicals into the soil that disrupt native fungi (on which plants depend), and prevents tree seedlings from growing.  Last year, our staff found a small patch across the street and it’s likely that deer or raccoons transported the tiny seeds to our woods.

photo of garlic mustard

garlic mustard

Don immediately pulled any flowering mustard plants to prevent them seeding, but there are hundreds of young plants among the wood violets, oak ferns, and other wildflowers in a small area.  We recorded the location with a GPS unit and will monitor weekly for any more flowers this year.  After the wildflowers die back later on, we’ll look at removing those young plants before they get a chance to flower next year. We’ll also check along other animal trails in the area. We’ll also need to take precautions so that we don’t spread the seeds ourselves.

There will be no easy fix for this.  Wildlife moves around, as it should, and there can be consequences that we don’t like as a result. We can’t build a wall to keep these aliens out- we have to deal with problems that arise thoughtfully and rationally.  Perhaps in doing so we’ll discover new ways to keep our forest healthy and preserve the diversity of its makeup.  We know that doing so will always be a challenge, and although it won’t be easy, we should never stop trying.

Photos-  native wood violet and young garlic mustard plant, similar in appearance.

Ripples 5/26/17

I had never heard the secrets of the West Twin river until I kayaked it Monday, May 23rd. Sumner Matteson, an avian ecologist from the Wisconsin DNR, and I kayaked the West Twin as part of the Great Wisconsin Birdathon (a fundraiser for the Natural Resources Foundation), and to create awareness around the developing canoe/kayak trail between the West and East Twin Rivers.

As I said, I’d never heard the secrets of the West Twin before, and I don’t think anyone fully has unless they’ve experience the river first-hand. But if you pay attention, she will share.

Matteson and I launched at 6:45 am (temperature – 49 degrees and a westerly wind of 18 miles per hour), but we dressed for the weather and paddled with anticipation for what was in store. Our trip began at the Shoto boat launch and ended at Vets Park, our goal – to find at least 40 different bird species by river.

My boss, Jim Knickelbine, wisely advised me to go upstream a bit and then head back down. He was right on the money. As we paddled north, we came upon a shrubby little cove that was filled with singing and buzzing migrating warblers. Wilson’s, Canada, Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided and more were flitting and bouncing on branches as we sat with binoculars focused. We also heard the beautiful upward-spiraling, flutelike song of the Swainson’s thrush. True to its nature, it stayed out of sight, but it was nice listening to the “flute” as we watched other birds move about.

Prior to reaching the cove, we spotted a dark mink galloping alongside the riverbank. I’m not sure what it was in search of or where it was going, but the sight of the bounding critter was a treat as we witnessed nature waking up on the waterfront. The West would end up revealing two minks that day.

On the International Scale of River Difficulty, the West is slower than a “class 1 – easy” river. So if extreme kayaking is your thing, give this scenic, meandering river a try just for a switch-up. There are no rapids, no obstructions or difficult maneuverings that need to be made. She’s built for a smooth ride.

We criss-crossed our way to explore the marsh, grass cover, then forest habitats and were successful in finding Great Blue Heron, three of the four terns in Wisconsin (Common, Foresters and Caspian), spotted sandpipers, and a beautiful juvenile Bald Eagle who was nearly invisible until our kayaks were under the tree where it perched. We also discovered blue-winged teal, ruddy duck, green-winged teal, five types of sparrows and three types of wrens. And who could forget the two spotted fawns lying in the grass on the riverbank?

After five hours of kayaking on the West Twin, we had discovered 97 different bird species, well surpassing our goal. My partner feels the juvenile black-crowned night heron was the “bird of the day.” I argue that the yellow-bellied flycatcher was. But we both agree that the Eastern Meadowlark (a bird that is normally found in prairie areas), singing about a block east of Woodland Dunes in an urban area was a complete surprise, proving once again, nature is excitingly unpredictable. We also agree that the West Twin River has many more secrets to share and we can’t wait to get out there again to discover them.

Nancy Nabak
Communication & Development Coordinator

Ripples 5/18/17

photo of four-toed salamander in a human hand, very tiny

four-toed salamander

Like the students who visit Woodland Dunes, our staff and volunteers enjoy experiencing nature in a hands-on manner.  One of the best parts of our jobs is to occasionally go out into the wild and look for animals and plants in their world.  Sometimes it involves walking on a nice dry boardwalk with binoculars looking for birds. Other times it might mean wading into a wetland to sieve out tiny invertebrates (involving a lot of odorous water and mud).  Or, sometimes it’s digging into the soil and perhaps teasing apart the decaying fibers of a rotting log.  All of these worlds are homes for unique communities of creatures, even though they may not meet our standards for sanitation. These dirty, smelly places are bursting with life, and often surprises.

Twice in the last few weeks, while sharing these wonderful places with visiting children, we’ve accidentally found some very interesting and mysterious creatures which are especially well-suited to live in our preserve.  Salamanders are very interesting amphibians which are quiet (unlike their froggy cousins), and mostly spend their lives hidden from view.  Like frogs and toads, salamanders are very sensitive to pollutants in their environment which can be absorbed through their skins, as well as changes to their habitat, meaning the composition of plants – both alive and dead – in their world.

The most common salamander at Woodland Dunes is the blue-spotted salamander, a black creature with light blue spots.  Like frogs, they emerge from their winter dormancy early in spring and migrate to ponds to breed and lay eggs.  Their eggs develop into larvae (which in frogs we call tadpoles), which have gills and exchange oxygen directly from water.  They change over time, growing larger and eventually absorbing their gills and becoming air-breathers.  After breeding, the adults leave the water to roam the forest floor as tiny predators in the leaf litter.  Their skin lacks scales and is moist (but not slimy), so they must in turn find moist places to live when the air is dry. Fortunately, a forest floor is covered with leaves, moss, and rotting wood, all of which can remain moist for a long time.

Another less common salamander here is the red-backed salamander. True to their name, they sport a reddish stripe on their back.  These amphibians don’t need water to reproduce – they mate and lay eggs in moist areas beneath rocks and logs.  The larvae have all the water they need within their eggs and complete their development there, hatching out in late summer as fully formed salamanders.  From there, they forage the forest in the same manner as many amphibians do.

Still less common is the four-toed salamander.  These tiny salamanders have, you guessed it, four toes on their hind legs instead of the five toes typical of other salamanders.  They look a lot like small red-backed salamanders, but the four toes is a giveaway.  They are considered a special concern species in Wisconsin, meaning that their populations could easily become threatened.  They have an even more interesting reproductive cycle with females laying eggs in moss, and the larvae mostly developing within the egg but hatching and traveling to nearby water to complete their larval development before leaving the water again for a terrestrial life.  The females may nest communally but may eat each other’s eggs. During the winter, they may retreat to burrows in the soil in the company of red-backed salamanders.  They require a forest floor with generous amounts of moss, but forage like other salamanders in higher areas.

There are other salamanders in our area- spotted and tiger salamanders (the latter seems to be decreasing in population), and also the eastern newt which is aquatic along with the mudpuppy, but the three species mentioned above have all been confirmed at Woodland Dunes.

Because they are so sensitive to environmental contamination, we are always glad to observe them, and if we encounter them with students as mentioned above, we are careful to put them back where we found them.  If you visit Woodland Dunes, please don’t dig around on the forest floor looking for them – they are too important to the forest and too precious to risk damage to them or to their homes.  Appreciate the fact that there are still places in which they can live if those places are protected and cared for.

Photo- a four-toed salamander found at Woodland Dunes by Jess Johnsrud

Ripples 5/11/17

As I write, there are many people out looking for birds in our country during this peak of spring migration.  Finally, birds that have wintered in the tropics are moving north to nest in places that have plenty of room and food to support one or two nestfuls of hungry offspring.  Because they intend to attract a mate and breed now, the birds wear their finest colors and sing the loudest and are thus easier to find.  And luckily for us here in east-central Wisconsin, the trees are not fully leafed-out yet, so birds are easier to see. Birders by the millions turn out to get what is often a once-a-year glimpse of birds unseen during other months.

photo of school students planting trees

Madison Elementary School students planting trees at the Manitowoc Containment Facility

We celebrate the return of the migrants with programs and festivals corresponding to the birds’ movements, often done in conjunction with International Migratory Bird Day.  In the South, they hold festivals in late winter or early spring, in the mid-latitudes, early to mid-May, and in the far north, late spring to early summer.  Our birding festival was begun more than 75 years ago, long before there was a Woodland Dunes.  Since the mid- 1940’s, people here have gathered in mid-May on a Saturday morning to see how many birds they can find and share breakfast and compare their observations. 

photo of Dr. Charles Sontag planting a tree

Dr. Charles Sontag

The annual Bird Breakfast and Migration Celebration became a part of Woodland Dunes in the 1970’s, and is happily celebrated yet today, this year on May 20th.  The essential elements, guided birdwatching and a pancake breakfast, are supplemented with special activities for children, and demonstrations of the techniques used to study birds through banding. A special addition this year will be a trip to the harbor at Manitowoc.  That area, including the containment facility out on the blue rail trail and the area north to the marsh of the Little Manitowoc River, is being recognized as one of the best birdwatching areas in Wisconsin – officially the Manitowoc Lakefront Birding Area. The area is being designated in honor of Dr. Charles Sontag, Emeritus Professor of Biology at UW-Manitowoc whose 50 years of daily observations revealed that more than 300 species of birds have been found at that single location.  The area is now being managed and planted to make it even better for those birds, and for people who enjoy strolling the Manitowoc Lakefront.  In fact, several classes of students from Madison Elementary school recently helped plant 100 trees and shrubs in the area on a beautiful sunny morning.

More information on Bird Breakfast can be found at

Whether you join us or not, take time to appreciate this special part of the year, and the wonderful place in which we live.  Birds certainly do.