Nature Blog

Ripples 3/21/19

photo of flooded Manitowoc River

Flooded Manitowoc River

And then suddenly it was spring.  The season we longed for seemed to leap upon us, turning our sea of frozen white to acres of mud and water.  Not that we should be surprised, but the change was certainly dramatic.

The snow we had on the ground held quite a bit of water.  It had been partially melted and rained on- concentrated for lack of a better term.  The soil below was frozen at the surface, preventing water from soaking in, and the soil below that was still full of water from last year’s wet fall and early winter rains.  So when our recent warm temperatures and rain came along, water was forced to run off rather than soak in.  Eventually, rivers took the brunt of the runoff, especially where they’ve been altered.  People like to live near the water. We also like to try to make water go where we want it. Our rivers, however, have been here for tens of thousands of years and have developed their own management systems.  A lot of that involves the floodplains which lie adjacent to their banks.  

Floodplains or floodways are inundated by water a couple of times during the year, typically.  It can be during snowmelt, as we see now, or during really heavy rain events like we experienced last August.  Where river water is constricted, its level rises until it finds a place to escape it’s banks, often man-made. This time of year, bridges can also cause problems as ice piles up against them, damming up the water and causing flooding.  My dad had a blasting license, and I remember going with him near Manitou park to dynamite an ice jam for the City. (I think they have safer means of doing that now, but it was memorable.)  And of course, we have to build elaborate systems of storm drains to direct water back to the river as levels subside.

In nature, floodplains allow the water to spread out adjacent to the river, then gradually return as the water level drops.  If the floodplain is permanently vegetated, the plants might also filter the water before it gets back to the river, holding on to sediment and nutrients which in turn feed the plants.  Its a pretty nice system, saving a lot of money in damage to property, providing cleaner water, and creating wildlife habitat at the same time.  It just means you won’t be able to build there, but that’s not a good idea in the first place, unless you have a house on stilts and a boat for access.  Unfortunately, about half of these wetlands have been converted to something else, or were contained by levees and such, leaving people living behind them vulnerable.

Wildlife is vulnerable too this time of year if they choose to live in a floodplain. Where I live, a herd of deer suddenly appeared in the yard when our bottomland forest was flooded, looking a little lost. I wonder about the meadow mice (voles) and shrews, which live in the grass, and how they cope with flooding.  I imagine they have a hard time, and must either move or drown. One study from Canada indicated that they re-colonize a floodplain more quickly if there is a variety of vegetation types present, and that more of them survive if there are not steep banks that must be climbed. Eventually though, these little animals make their way back into their dangerous habitat to start over, only to be displaced or drowned by the next flood. Life is not easy, I’m afraid.  

Still, other animals are adapted to high water like fish which migrate upstream in the spring.  Without snowmelt, a lot of small streams would be impassable, and these fish, like suckers and northern pike, would be cut off from their spawning areas.  

Most of the Woodland Dunes preserve is a mosaic of wetlands covered by forest. Trees cut the wind and the snow settles deep.  The trees, even without leaves, shade the snowpack just a bit, allowing it to melt gradually. A lot of that water seeps into the soil and some runs off- a clear, deep brown brew enhanced by dead leaves and downed branches. The whole preserve is like a giant sponge, storing and treating the water. The Dunes has always been wet, and it always will be, but we all benefit from the water having some place to go. Fortunately, in a couple of weeks the water will have gone where it needs to, and we’ll all be able to live a drier life. In the meantime, we hope for the best for everyone affected.

photo- Manitowoc River from today’s HTR

Ripples 3/15/19

Earlier this week we saw below zero temperatures and the world was crispy. Now we’re above freezing and the world is soggy.  March has something for everyone and something new almost every day in the world of nature.

Now begins the magical time of year when maple trees pump their sweet sap upward and people harvest it – as they have for thousands of years around here.  Few trees have the ability to do that, or sap that has a high enough sugar content to make such harvest worthwhile, and we’re lucky to be able to take part in this activity. Maple sugaring affords an excuse to get out to the woods at a time of year when not a lot of other activity is taking place for people. And, it is an exercise in patience, giving one time to contemplate basic physics and world issues in general, as the forest slowly awakens back to life.

photo of a red-winged blackbird

red-winged blackbird

At the nature center, school children come out and learn about syruping, and also about the early spring ecology of the forest. They hike, looking for distinctive signs of life – the tracks and trees, lichens and mosses, that sometimes go unnoticed during the warm months. Where the surface of the snow a week ago was peppered only with seeds and plant debris, now skinny little orb-weaver spiders crawl across the surface seeking what I assume are greener pastures or thickets. A caterpillar does the same. How do these tiny cold-blooded animals function in the cold and snow?  Now that the world has softened up, foxes dig for their prey.

And at the bird feeders, the ultimate sign of spring has returned.  Several red-winged blackbirds visit to taste both sunflower and suet, then occasionally fly out to the marsh and sing. For me, theirs is the most welcome of bird songs in spring. They are followed in a day by song sparrows and a grackle, but those don’t seem to have the same psychological impact. Redwings don’t migrate too far – a few spend the winter around here, and most are found from Illinois southward, so they are poised to return as soon as conditions permit. The males come first, and females several weeks later.  They are one of the most numerous birds in North America, about 150 million of them. They are very adaptable, but like habitat with or near water consisting of thick vegetation. Males establish territories and try to gather a number- often up to 15- females into their harem which the males spend the rest of summer defending. Their lives are a bit like soap operas – males trying to keep their harems together, while females enjoying the company of other males if the opportunity arises. The marsh is a bit of a sordid place and it’s not easy to follow a particular genetic bloodline. How boring is our perspective – all we see are males perched singing on the tops of cattails and shrubs in the marsh, while females dive down into the vegetation. They give us little indication of the drama in their lives.

Unfortunately, the population of this very common bird is declining.  For all their adaptability, their numbers are slowly falling. Why? Researchers aren’t sure, but the population of insects, a food source for them, is declining everywhere, and habitat is still being lost.  Its that way for many living things and for our own sake we need pay attention to that.  

But for now, the floodgates have again opened, and wildlife streams north as well as up from beneath the snow.  Every day there will be new things to see in and around our beloved Lakeshore- one need never be bored around here.  

photo- red-winged blackbird by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 3/7/19

It’s funny how we struggle against nature sometimes: winter weather, summer heat, time itself (I am not a fan of daylight savings).  Then again, after another week of struggling to stay warm how do we not develop a bit of adversarial posture? During a recent walk on Willow Trail I found myself clenched against the cold despite my down jacket and space-age material hat and gloves.  Even though the wind was light and the early morning was sunny, it was just cold.  Obviously I should have been working harder to generate more of my own heat.

photo of a weasel track in the snow

weasel track

Around me, I was being taunted by tiny creatures weighing only a few grams who were much more at home than I was.  As is usual lately, chickadees and cardinals were singing away, and for the first time this year I heard juncos twittering away, practicing the songs they would eventually use to lure a mate up north where they nest.  The songs of cardinals, along with juncos and nuthatches, seem to be a chorus of laughter, obviously not a reflection of my aversion to the cold.  They know the sun is brighter and days longer, and spring is already here.  And they are not ashamed to sing about it.

That we live in a region where the seasonal change is dramatic is really interesting.  As the year goes by parts of nature are alternately covered and uncovered, and it helps to focus our attention.  During these cold spells, tracks have been preserved in snow for extended periods and each morning the stories that are written there are added to.  Willow Trail is brushy and excellent cover for a lot of animals.  Birds peck at fallen fruit; deer and rabbits travel back and forth among the dogwoods.  Mice and foxes are on the lookout for each other, while preparing this year’s dens and nests for this year’s litters.  No raccoons or opossums this time, although the musky scent of a fox almost smells skunk-like as they mark their territories.  And among them other tracks that cause one to stop and think- little pairs of tracks with belly rubs left by weasels and such.

I realize that even though I’m braced for unpleasant temperatures, I’m going to miss these winter stories.  Soon the snow will change and will no longer reveal the nighttime goings on so clearly and I’ll be left to wonder about them.  Of course these wonders will be replaced by new ones- flowing sap and singing frogs and dancing woodcock and everything that comes after them.  And those will be replaced by the sights and sounds of subsequent seasons.  

It takes something special to appreciate the late stages of winter, but there is so much good to experience.  Before we know it, we will be experiencing, and appreciating, the next phase of the year in nature.

Ripples 2/21/19

All too often we are confined to our workspaces, eyes fixed on computer monitors until we can hardly see anything else.  And when we’re not, we’ve got our eyes glued to phone screens subjecting ourselves to depressing news and meaningless gossip.  Boy, it sounds like I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning!  

photo of opossum track in the snow

Opossum track in the snow

One would think that those who work at a nature center live a more organic sort of life, but in truth we are just as dependent on our internet connections as anyone else, especially this time of year.  But I think we also suffer cabin fever to a greater extent because the urge to get outside is sometimes irresistible.  Such was the case this week, when on a couple of sunny days we had occasion to prepare our field station for the coming maple syrup run and the school groups that will visit then.  We were smart enough to prepare before the snow was on the ground, and not too much needed to be done – save some final preparations to an evaporator donated by Gary Drohman and the shack that surrounds it built by volunteers, and the periodic filling of a special bird feeder placed to entice chickadees near to visiting children.

And as long as we were out, a trail camera was placed near another bird feeder at the head of Yellow Birch Trail in hopes of snapping a photo of a flying squirrel- a mammal we haven’t recorded at Woodland Dunes yet.  Beneath the feeder there were many tracks – deer, raccoon, and a squirrel, probably a red.  Lots of chickadees inspected us along with both white and red-breasted nuthatches, and a red-bellied woodpecker.  One didn’t realize at first, but there were birds all around, and if we took just a moment in silence to appreciate all the life around us in that cold woods, how much more we could see.  Those little birds didn’t need our attention- they were curious but at the same time sort of oblivious to our presence, although I’m sure they were more than aware of us. I think as some sort of benign part of the background that bears watching just in case.  

Against the beautiful backdrop of hemlock, yellow birch, and red maple trees, with both young pine trees and clubmosses carpeting the ground in the bright sunshine and with little wind, Yellow Birch trail was a wonderful place to be at that moment.  From the onset it shows off the pronounced difference between the tops of the ancient dry beach ridges, and the adjacent wet swales, both formed by Lake Michigan as its waters fell over thousands of years.  Yellow Birch is a boardwalk- not because it entirely traverses wet ground, but more to protect the vegetation beneath and is located at the east end of East Goodwin Road.  It’s an easy walk, although the trail itself requires constant maintenance.  If you visit during the summer, you’ll see the same trees leafed out, along with an understory of starflower, and Clintonia lily, and probably be serenaded by a northern water thrush.  It a magical place no matter the season.

For now, it’s a relatively quiet place, populated with curious chickadees.  Its not a surprise that this was the first trail at Woodland Dunes, begun nearly 45 years ago.  No surprise because it’s been a beautiful place for thousands of years.

photo- opossum track in the snow   

Ripples 2/28/19

photo of red -eyed vireo nest

Red-eyed vireo nest

I’m sure many of us are happy to have February behind us with its abundant cold, snow and ice.  It’s hard to remember the mild, rainy first half of the season. It seems like we’ve had an entire winter in the last five weeks!  Have you noticed, though, that we’re finally hardening up to winter?  At least to me, cold days don’t seem quite so cold as they did early in February, and the sunny days are much brighter than a few weeks ago.  And, too, there are now longer days both in morning and evening.  In a few more weeks, the maple sap will run and snow will be melting as the sun imparts a greater share of it’s radiation upon us.

Now that we are more used to cold, it’s an excellent time to go to the forest.  The strong winds we experienced earlier deposited so many interesting things on the surface of the snow, which along with tracks and other treasures revealed in the leafless woods make for walks which are filled with the unusual. Plus, wooded trails lack at least some of the ice present out in the open and make for safer walking or snowshoeing.

I admit to being reluctant to go out much during the worst of our February weather, but last last week our Education Coordinator, Jessica, and I had the good fortune to be able to do some outside work which included checking Black Cherry Trail off the end of East Goodwin Road at the south part of Woodland Dunes.  In a few weeks school children will be using the trail and we need to check for fallen or falling trees.  We didn’t find any of those but there were, as usual, so many interesting things to see.

photo of yellow birch catkins

yellow birch catkins

Recent winds caused the snow to be sprinkled with items from the tree tops, mingled with tracks of grounded animals.  We started by following the track of mink bounding along the top of the ridge, criss-crossed with tracks of red squirrels.  A turkey had emerged from a wet area and crossed the ridge, not needing to follow the trail, and several deer let their presence be known.  Above us, several woodpeckers worked at diseased trees in the swamp.  Just above the trail, at a height of 6 or 7 feet, was a beautiful cup-shaped nest made of woven strips of bark and lined with white pine needles.  The nest was only a couple of inches across, hanging from two small branches arranged at right angles to one another.  Fortunately one can now snap a photo with a cellphone to be examined more thoroughly back in the office, and also compare to birds heard singing near the trail during our summer surveys.  The result was that this appeared to be the summer home of a red-eyed vireo, one of the most common but also least seen birds in the forest.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t heard, because they sing almost constantly as they forage for insects high up in the trees.  They are tiny but loud, and live in forests across our continent.  That this one built it’s nest so close to the ground was interesting, and we imagine both parents and their young enjoying the warmth of Central America right now.

As if to mimic the real birds, among the needles and twigs on the ground were little bracts (modified leaves) which looked like bird effigies or fleur de lis- remnants of the flowers of yellow birch trees.  Nearby, though, there were some large trees whose bark didn’t quite look like yellow birch, and whose branches were adorned with spiny catkins- I had not paid much attention to them before but now they really stood out on both the trees and the surface of the snow.  Sure enough, they also belonged to yellow birch, and in teasing them apart they revealed both round and bird-shaped bracts that we saw on the snow as well.

As we crossed the bridges and headed north to Yellow Birch trail we found coyote tracks in the swamp, and thought about how much easier it must be for them and other animals to make their way through the swamp in winter.  Although they were all browsed within 6 feet of the ground, the white cedars still provided chickadee cover in spite of the deer damage and looked lovely in the woods in contrast to the snow.  As we approached a larger ridge, hemlocks and beech became part of the forest population.  Then suddenly we were out on the icy road again, thankful for the hour we had to spend in a wonderful forest, tucked away within the community we call home.

photos- red-eyed vireo nest, and yellow birch catkins