Nature Blog

Ripples 8/4/22

Written by Kennedy Zittel, Asst. Naturalist

I had a trail camera out at the end of our Cattail Trail for just a week, around a week or so ago. It captured some amazing things in just that short timeframe, and I would like to share with all of you what I got to see, as it really sums up how diverse and amazing just one trail can be.

A great blue heron flew in and landed with the grace that one expects from a bird with a 6-foot wingspan on our kayak launch. The heron stood perched on the launch for around half an hour, searching the water for a tasty meal. When a visitor walked down the boardwalk, the heron flew off (again with very little grace) into the marsh to find a new spot to eat.

What I thought at first was just the cattails blowing in the wind was actually videos of marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds flying around the cattails of the marsh – singing their songs and calling out when someone got too close. 

Later in the night, a fox trots into the frame holding his dinner. He glanced directly at the camera and stood there for a few seconds, as if showing off his hunting skills before disappearing out of frame to eat. 

The next day a family of otters shows up! A mom with three pups. The kids are so excited to play on this new playground. As mom sniffs around the area the pups roll and slide all across the boardwalk. They wrestle and jump over one another, splashing water from their fur across the deck boards. The pups use the kayak launch as an otter launch, sliding off into the water. Mom follows soon after. 

A young green heron struts across the boardwalk. With feathers ruffled, looking like it had quite the bad hair day, the young heron looks at the camera (maybe hoping no one saw how disheveled it looked?) before shaking its feathers back in place. Flying off into the marsh before a group of visitors arrive at the end of the boardwalk. 

A day later the otter family is back, this time at night. The pups seem quite energized given that they are up so late, and the poor mom sits off to the side as they play. Probably looking for something to tire out the wild kiddos. The pups wrestle and roll all over the boardwalk, even bumping directly into the trail camera as they play. After an hour of playtime, the kids jump off the side of the boardwalk into the water, leaving mom to race after them before they wander too far. 

A raccoon walked across the boardwalk, sniffing around, looking for a snack. Not too long after, it disappears into the marsh.

A red-winged blackbird lands on the boardwalk, singing away before flying off into the cattails. Maybe it needed a stage for its song this morning?

The otter family returned another night, this time the kids sniffed around the camera, not as wild as they were the past few nights. They practice their sliding skills on the wet boardwalk, as mom watches from the safety of the kayak launch. They play for a while before sliding off the kayak launch into the river once more. 

Though I could go on and on about the cool animals that use our boardwalk, we also have people that use it too! From just this one camera check (just a week’s worth of time) we had around 112 people make it to the end of the boardwalk. 

Almost a dozen people carried kayaks, off to explore the water around Woodland Dunes. Some people even came here from the water! How neat is that? People can visit us right from the river with our kayak launch. 

Adults and kids alike carried binoculars, ready to scan the marsh for the wildlife that lives there. 

People carried cameras, go-pros, and cellphones ready to take photos of the wildlife and scenery around them. Maybe they even got some photos of some of the things I saw on my camera too. 

Someone carried a guitar, offering a new marsh song instead of the usual red-winged blackbird calls. 

Some pushed strollers, some ran past on their morning jog, some just simply walked down for the sake of going for a walk.

Kids raced by holding nets borrowed from the Nature Center, ready to search for whatever aquatic animals they could find. 

People of all ages walked to the end of the boardwalk. Exploring and enjoying nature. It brings me just as much happiness as seeing the baby otters slide across the boardwalk, to know that people come out here to see the amazing wildlife and scenery that our local community has to offer.

Photo from trail camera video

Ripples 7/28/22

By Nancy Nabak, Communications Coordinator

photo of monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed

Monarch caterpillar

And this year, the “Upstanding Pillar in the Community” award goes to… the Monarch cater-pillar. I’m telling you, this six-legged pillar has been working very hard in the milkweed for decades to earn this distinction. Fighting storms. Fighting climate change. Fighting farm chemicals. Unfortunately, the Monarch butterfly, the caterpillar’s adult form, was recently put on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered list. This is not the distinction the caterpillar was looking for.

This iconic yet now endangered black and orange symbol of nature is something that most children in North America learned about while studying life-cycles stages. I remember my hard- cover Golden Book about Monarchs. I read it and re-read it as a child, fascinated by how one animal could take on so many different forms.

It’s estimated that there are roughly 8.7 million animal species on the planet. The IUCN lists over 16,000 of them as endangered and threatened with extinction. So why do we care about one species going extinct if there are 8 million of them and more?

Although the United States has not yet declared the Monarch endangered, in 1973 Congress recognized that endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” In other words, every one of them is valuable.

Each species offers benefits of natural diversity. They contribute to medical research. They support biodiversity and agriculture. They serve as environmental monitors – temperature takers. And then there are the intangibles. Songs, smells, sights… these are the things that make us happy.

So how in the world can we save 16,000 species right now? We can’t. And it’s overwhelming to think about, right? But collectively, we can start to take care of one species, and when we do, we may find that we’ve helped another along.

We can do something.  We can create butterfly gardens, even small ones, that offer nectar as the butterfly’s food. We can plant native milkweed – the leaves serve as food for the caterpillar and host for egg-laying. Common Milkweed is native to Wisconsin – easy to remember and incredibly important. Get active and tell others. Join a monarch monitoring blitz – observing and counting milkweed plants found, number of monarchs, number of eggs, etc… This year’s blitz goes from July 29-August 7. For more information, http://www.cec.org/international-monarch-monitoring-blitz/. Financially support an organization that can take bigger steps.

Believe in the intangibles. Give the caterpillar wings, and set it into flight.

Photo: Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed by Nancy Nabak

Ripples July 21, 2022

photo of Bernie Brouchoud with saw-whet owl

Bernie Brouchoud


Owls have always fascinated people.  Native people sometimes feared them and told scary stories about them to their children.  After all, they are mysterious, wide-eyed, and have a curious, all-knowing expression.  I think their incorporation to the world of Harry Potter increased the public’s interest in owls, and that interest has certainly engaged the public.
 
The very first activity at Woodland Dunes, before the organization officially existed, was bird banding- dating back to the mid-1960’s.  Tens of thousands of songbirds were caught and banded by founder Bernie Brouchoud, assisted by naturalists Jim Steffen, John Woodcock, and others.  Most birds were songbirds.  But one evening while Bernie was trying to catch woodcock during fall migration, he caught a northern saw-whet owl. 
 
At that time, saw-whets were considered rare- encountered by people only a few times a year in Wisconsin.  Bernie decided to open his nets other nights. Sure enough, he caught more owls.  Then, he learned that the owls can be attracted to playing a recording of their song, and when he started doing that, he caught dozens of owls on some nights, hundreds over the course of the fall! 
 
The State bird checklist was changed to reflect the fact that the owls were not rare, just very secretive.  Bernie became better and better at finding and banding them and tracking their movements after release as other banding stations were established. 
 
Our banded owls were re-caught by other banders in a number of locations- in fall at Cedar Grove Ornithological Station south of Sheboygan, southern Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana- even as far away as North Carolina.  In spring he found they traveled north to Duluth, Whitefish Point in the UP, Thunder Bay, and other locations.  Like other birds, they travel along the shorelines of the Great Lakes, making Woodland Dunes a good place to encounter them.
 
Bernie continued for the next forty years each October and recruited a number of volunteers to help.  Only licensed banders can actually do the banding, but volunteers could help check nets and remove birds that were caught. During that time, Bernie started an event called Owlfest, to mark the time each fall when the little owls migrate.  People were able to see the owls up close and learn about them and watch their release.  It was a very popular event, but we realized there were also some problems.  The birds are nocturnal, and holding them for a daytime event and exposing them to large numbers of people was stressful for them.  Our primary interest is the welfare of the birds, and we realized that things needed to change. Owlfest then became a nighttime event, but the migration varies from night to night, and it was difficult to predict on which nights we would catch owls.  During one, we waited for hours, and finally dismissed our visitors without catching an owl, very disappointing.  After they left, a few minutes later we caught one and banded it.  We still certainly educated people about owls, but it was still a frustrating experience.
 
Then we teamed up with another organization, Wildlife of Wisconsin (W.O.W.), who help injured wild animals.  They have several owls and other birds that have been injured and wouldn’t survive in the wild.  They keep those birds for education purposes, and the birds are well cared for.  Instead of catching owls ourselves for the event, we partnered with WOW, who brought their birds to show and educate the public.  The event could again be done during the day or evening, and people could see the birds up close without harming them in the process.   
 
Recently, Owlfest was changed to Owl Week, this spreads the Owlfest activities over several days.  Owl week this year is next week, starting on Monday the 25th.  There will be owl-related activity kits for people to pick up and do as a family, Nature-time Tuesday with more owl activities for children, a program by Wildlife of Wisconsin, a talk about the history of owl banding at Woodland Dunes, and more.  The schedule is here: https://www.woodlanddunes.org/owl-fest/
 
Over 5,000 owls have been caught and banded at Woodland Dunes: saw-whets, screech owls, and long-eared owls.  Saw-whets are especially interesting, the smallest owls in Wisconsin. They are spirits of the wilderness- always present by being invisible.  Their seasonal movements are still not completely understood, and the information we gather is shared through the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory with researchers studying the birds.  Owl week is our annual opportunity to tell their story at Woodland Dunes, in hopes that people will become interested in and care about them, and all of the natural world.
 
photo- Bernie Brouchoud with a saw-whet owl he banded

Ripples 7/14/22

In summer we think of prairie wildflowers, birds scurrying to feed their young, Cicadas singing in the trees, fishing for crappies, biking along the Lake, and more wonderful aspects and activities suited to warm weather.  Fireflies dot the nighttime fields, and mosquitoes feast on us while we chase them.  The big mulberry tree at Woodland Dunes bears tons of fruit which the cedar waxwings wait for and eat, and then deposit purple calling cards all over the deck.  I really enjoy paddling in the summer, lazily exploring familiar streams until I’m well-backed.  My dad bought a canoe for the family 50 years ago, and I still use it.
 
Out on the water, one finds kingfishers, now teaching their young to fish, spotted sandpipers, herons, ducks and geese, and photo of ebony jewelwing many insects.  Mosquitoes hide from the strong sun during the day, but there are other insects darting over the water such as dragonflies.  I have always enjoyed watching dragonflies and the smaller damselflies, I enjoy them, but I can’t claim to be good at identifying them- they don’t often sit still long enough.  It takes a lot of skill and the right equipment to photograph them clearly- mine are usually a blurr.  But they are another of the beautiful and beneficial insects that cohabit this place with us.
 
According to the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society (a wonderful organization with a great Facebook page), Fifty-two species of dragonflies, damselflies, and others have been recorded in Manitowoc County thus far.  There are certainly more, but there are limited numbers of people with the expertise to identify them accurately.
 
There are a number of families- darners, skimmers, clubtails, spreadwings, pond damsels, broad-winged damsels, emeralds, baskettails, meadowhawks- so much variety.  Some are common, like the familiar common green darner, and some are rare like the Hine’s emerald.  Some are moving north as the climate warms, like the southern spreadwing.  Some are migratory, and others are annual.
 
Common green darners are large and robust.  They are migratory, heading to the southern US in the fall.  They, like birds, follow the lake when they migrate. In a month or so, we will see thousands at a time cruising over meadows near the shore in the same direction or hunting smaller insects in a zig-zag pattern.  They lay eggs in water down south, and their offspring return here in spring, even though no one showed them the way.  Others spend the winter underwater as nymphs, ready to hatch next spring or summer.  They are not as active when it is cloudy, but when the sun shines they are suddenly everywhere over water, ready to mate and lay eggs.  They are very competitive, and males guard females after mating, to prevent another male from coming in, removing the sperm from the first male, and depositing their own.  Eggs are laid in the water, hatching into nymphs.  They don’t undergo complete metamorphosis like many other insects- their cycle is egg, nymph (which grows), and adult.  The nymphs are fierce predators underwater, feeding on anything smaller than they are.  Large dragonfly nymphs can even catch and consume minnows, which is ironic because fish also eat the nymphs, and we use them for fish bait.  
 
Adults on the wing are just as fierce- continually eating other insects during the day, and resting at night.  They probably eat more mosquitoes than birds and bats combined, as they are adept at catching small flying insects.  Even though it wanders through a marsh, you will seldom encounter mosquitoes on Cattail Trail at Woodland Dunes- I choose to believe this is because there are so many dragon and damselflies.
 
One morning several years ago, I went out into our preserve with a dragonfly expert.  In about an hour we had found 18 species, including that rare Southern Spreadwing.  The diversity was wonderful.
 
After green darners migrate, there are fewer and fewer dragonflies here.  One of my favorites is the autumn meadowhawk, a small red dragonfly that prefers fields- I have seen them into November some years, hardy little souls.  The rest are beneath the waves living a nymphy winter.  Right now is an excellent time to look for dragonflies. At the ponds near our headquarters we’ve recently seen darners, marsh bluets, twelve-spotted skimmers, common whitetails, widow skimmers, red saddlebags, Halloween pennants, widow skimmers, and others.  
 
My all time favorite is a delicate damselfly called the ebony jewelwing.  They live near small streams, have black wings and emerald green iridescent bodies.  Their wings are large, and they fly like a butterfly.  I am very grateful every time I see one, just to have the opportunity.
 
I hope the rest of your summer is filled with many dragonflies and other natural beauties.
 
Photo- ebony jewelwing By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15751897
 
 

Ripples 7/7/2022

For thousands of years, people have lived here.  Native people thrived in this area because the land provided everything they needed.  Natural resources were abundant, and they knew how to use them without destroying the land.  I often wish that I could know what they know, or knew, about nature.  I know that it is a far deeper knowledge than I have.  Fortunately there are wonderful Indigenous authors out there, like Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor from New York State who learned not only from her culture, but also from the University of Wisconsin.  She talks about a relationship with plants that I appreciate, but can only dream about.  I admire such people immensely.
 
Back to this area.  As I said the land provided what people needed, and for thousands of years people took everything they needed, given by the land, without degrading nature.  A number of resources made that possible in this area- abundant game is often the first thing we think of, but microbes and plants are where everything starts.  There are certainly accounts of abundant wildlife in colonists journals- deer, bear, wolves, all around Two Rivers.  Many fish, including whitefish were present in the rivers, maple trees were present in the forests along the shores, and in the rivers themselves no doubt there was wild rice.  Maples and wild rice were critical resources, as were birch trees, sometimes referred by native people as the “tree of life” because their bark especially had so many uses.  Mushrooms were edible and medicinal.  Everything had a use.
 
Wild rice is a grass that was once abundant in this area.  At one time there were wild rice beds continuously from Green Bay to Escanaba, for example, and it was certainly present in the estuaries of rivers adjoining our lakes.  Over the years, those extensive beds disappeared due to human activity- logging, shoreline development, waves from boat traffic, and invasive plants and animals, and soil and fertilizer causing algae growth in the water.  Wild rice prefers fairly clear, soft bottom conditions without too much disturbance.  Wild rice is very important to the Ojibwe people, who came from the east seeking manoomin or “food that grows on water”.  Wild rice was harvested extensively in late summer for food- an intensive process of paddling or poling canoes out to the rice beds, bending the stalks over the boat with one stick, and tapping the stalks with another, causing rice to fall into the canoe.  It seems simple, but it is laborious, and takes a lot of practice.  It is not too efficient- people have developed much more effective ways of harvesting rice mechanically.  However, the traditional way of harvest allows some of the rice to fall back into the water to reseed the beds, ensuring that wild rice crops will be sustained in the future.  People were aware of this, and knew that they were helping to feed future generations.  Too much efficiency is not always good.
 
After harvest, the rice was parched over a fire, trampled to remove husks, and winnowed by throwing it into the air, allowing husks to blow away.  It was then stored and used as food throughout the winter, to supplement wild game and fish.  The quality and abundance of the harvest determined how difficult winter would be for the people.  Today, wild rice is still a sacred and important food to the Ojibwe, and is also sold by some to supplement their income.  Fortunately, some of that rice is harvested for seed, some of which was purchased for restoration purposes last year.
 
Working with Dr. Titus Seilheimer of UW SeaGrant, we are trying to restore wild rice to the marsh at Woodland Dunes, now primarily dominated by cattails.  The high water the last few years has drowned some of the cattails, leaving areas of shallow water in the marsh adjacent to the nature center on the West Twin River.  Last fall Titus and I took wild rice seed he obtained from Minnesota, and brought it out by canoe to the river in November, on one of the last warm days.  The rice was soaked in water, and was simply tossed out over a variety of sites with shallow water over several acres.  We only had about 20 pounds of rice I believe, so we spread it on several small areas.  The rice then needs months of cold under water before germination is possible.
 
This spring, Dr. Seilheimer visited the West Twin with restoration folks from UW- Green Bay, who are working on an extensive project on the Bay itself.  Wonderfully, they found that some of the rice we planted had indeed germinated and had grown to the surface.  At this stage the plants lay flat at the surface of the water, what is called the floating stage of development.  I visited the site this week by boat, and I found plants that had now emerged from the water and had grown 8 inches or so above the surface.  It was a sight I had only dreamed of seeing in my lifetime.  This fall, we will do more planting- it often takes five years or so to really get beds established.  The rice will not be harvested by humans- what the ducks don’t eat will fall to the bottom to re-seed next year’s crop and supplement our work.
 
Wild rice is not only an important wildlife food source, it is important culturally to this area.  Having the opportunity to bring it back to our property is a gift that we great appreciate.  We hope that someday there will be acres of this important plant on our property, and along the nearby Twins.
 
photo- northern wild rice plants from Wikipedia