Nature Blog

Ripples 10/17/19

At Woodland Dunes we receive visitors from all over the world.  They often have a similar purpose for stopping by – they enjoy photo of a scissor-tailed flycatcher on a postnature, look for new places to experience its variety and find kindred souls with whom they can share what they’ve seen. We meet some very nice people, and some outstanding observers with a wealth of knowledge. We also experience wildlife, especially birds, from all over the Western Hemisphere.  Our 1,500 acres is preserved and managed for them, and once in a while something really special turns up.

Recently, Jessica, who runs our education programs, texted me about an unusual bird she saw on her way in to work, a scissor-tailed flycatcher.  Those of us who have visited the South-Central part of the country are familiar with these showy, long-tailed birds in pastel colors which perch on fences along the road from which they swoop out to catch grasshoppers and other insects. North and east of Kansas, it is unusual to see these birds, although a few do seem to wander each fall. This is not the first time one has been seen in our area – the last I recall was near a meadow right in the City of Manitowoc.

Nowadays, there are some wonderful tools for birders, one of them being a website run by Cornell University called eBird ( <> ). Anyone can register and report bird observations, which are stored in an enormous database.  Millions of people contribute to eBird, submitting their observations which can be viewed by others – from casual birders to scientists. With so many contributors and observations, we can develop a more complete picture of what happens when birds migrate, and where rare birds are turning up. For very sensitive species, exact locations are often withheld for the safety of the bird.

In this case, we reported the scissor-tailed observation, along with a photo to show we weren’t making things up, which must have set off a bell somewhere because an alert went out shortly thereafter through other means and by the end of the day others were showing up to look for the bird. This continued for several more days until the bird presumably headed to a different location, perhaps one a bit warmer and more typical of it’s range. We have not seen reports of the bird since then.

How nice it is when we are treated to a surprise, in this case a beautiful bird not usually seen here. In this case we were lucky to have the bird visit us in the first place, have a staff member who recognized it, and means to let others know within a few minutes of its sighting. Like so many things, there is beauty around us if we have the interest and the motivation to look for it.  In this case, that beauty came complete with an extra-long tail.

photo: scissor-tailed flycatcher at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 10/10/19

We’re in what I think of as a golden time of year.  Trees are possibly the most sensible of living things as they have now stored enough energy for the year and so give up on photosynthesis and take a nice long rest.  At least the deciduous trees.  And with the sun a bit lower in the sky, and so many trees now yellow in color, the nice days are now bathed in gold.  Even the insides of buildings with windows overlooking natural areas take on the golden hue and it makes the world seem a little more pleasant.
spider in web

spider in web

I was looking at a large walnut tree recently on a sunny afternoon, the sun beginning to sink to the south-west. The tree was lit up, but also adorned with strands of spider silk trailing away, sometimes for many feet. This is the time of year when many little spiderlings take flight, dispersing themselves from their place of birth to new habitats in search of a home of their own.

Spiders and some caterpillars produce and use silk in a number of ways.  It seems the caterpillars use silk to move vertically, from higher branches to the ground- presumably to walk to new trees.  And of course to spin cocoons in which to pupate. There are a great variety of kinds of spider webs- some just loose collections of strands, others highly organized funnels or orbs. Some use silk to line their dens in the soil and bind materials together to make trap doors. Some carefully wrap their eggs in a ball of silk and carry the bundle with them.
We are fortunate to have thousands of species of spiders- according to one source there are 3,400 species in North America.  We seem to have an inherent fear of them and I admit to being as susceptible to being startled by an unexpected spider encounter as anyone. In reality, their lives are inextricably woven into the workings of the ecosystem around us- consuming vast quantities of insects which have the potential to annoy and harm us far more than spiders themselves ever will.  
Most of the time they are able to go where they wish on their eight jointed legs. Sometimes, however, they are compelled to fly, and have evolved a very sophisticated process to do that- ballooning. It turns out the process is more complicated than I had previously thought and involves both wind and electricity. A spider, either a youngster or an adult, first gauges the wind using it’s front legs, sticking them up in the air as we do a wet finger. If the wind is right- breezy but not too strong- the spider anchors itself with a silk strand, then lifts up its abdomen. Its legs can also detect electrostatic fields in the atmosphere and the spider can manipulate the electric charge in it’s silk, making the silk more attractive to the forces in the air and at the same time repelling strands of silk from each other so they don’t become tangled.
At the right moment, the spider shoots one or more strands of silk from it’s abdomen and releases it’s anchor line.  Between electrostatic charges and the force of the wind, the spider is lifted up, sometimes thousands of feet into the air. Once airborne, the spider may also use those charges to change it’s altitude.  Spiders can travel anywhere from short distances to thousands of miles using this method. Ballooning is not without danger, as spiders are snatched from the air by birds or may land far out in water. However, the incentive must be high and numbers great to justify so many taking flight.
So as we enjoy these last golden days, remember that birds and insects are not the only creatures in the air above. Even though they have no wings, spiders have found a way to share the friendly skies with all the other creatures above.

photo- spider in web from USA Today


Ripples 10/3/19

By Jessica Johnsrud, Woodland Dunes’ Education Coordinator

photo of fall leaf tree topsOne of the greatest pleasures of my job is sharing nature with young children. For many of the kids attending field trips at Woodland Dunes, this is their first experience spending time in the forest or in a wetland. I’ve made it a habit at the beginning of programs, to ask the kids if they’ve walked in the forest before, and many shake their heads no.

I consider it a bit of an honor to show a child the wonders of nature. For many of the fall programs, we use Willow Trail and part of Goldenrod Loop as our outdoor classroom. When we walk down the trail, I ask the kids to notice nature using their “nature eyes.” I emphasize that while we are noticing nature, we want to make sure we use quieter voices and we don’t pick, squish (except mosquitoes) or throw anything. Since many of the kids haven’t spent time in nature, they aren’t sure how to behave. It takes a little time to walk down the trail to get to the areas where we do activities. I relish this time, listening to the kids’ chatter about their observations. 

This fall, I’ve been keeping a list of some of the things they say. Young children are photo of trail from Goodwin Rd, Two Riversnaturally curious and are fascinated by simple things that we, as adults, take for granted. Here are a few of the highlights from the last couple of weeks. All of these comments are from children ages 3-7 years old. “I didn’t know Woodland Dunes was going to be this beautiful!” “This is the best day ever!” When asked why trees are our friends, a young child answered, “because they make the world beautiful.”

As we walked down the trail, I heard squeals of delight. “Look! Look! The leaves are falling!” I turned around and the children were watching the breeze carry leaves away from the surrounding trees. The leaves gently twirled down to the ground and some even landed near our group, which caused more squeals of delight.
I was reviewing the parts of a tree with first graders and there was an old tree stump next to us. Suddenly one of the kids exclaimed, “Wow! A slug! I’ve never seen a slug before!” Then all the kids proceeded to encircle the wood and quietly watched the slug, mystified as it left behind a trail of slime.

It truly is a joy to hear their comments and witness how they engage with nature. It also reminds me to try to see the natural world through their eyes and with a renewed appreciation for the simple things.

Photos – Jessica Johnsrud. Autumn trees and the Goodwin Road trails at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 9/26/19

photo of bottle gentian and goldenrodAs I write this the world is preparing for another Packers game.  As I look outside around our headquarters it seems that the football team chose very appropriate colors for their season.

Right now, goldenrods are in their glory, or a little past. Their green foliage and yellow blooms are very attractive to a number of insects. There are a dozen or so species of goldenrods, three of which we find commonly at Woodland Dunes (Canada, lance-leaved, and giant) plus stiff goldenrod, which we plant specifically for the benefit of pollinating insects. Canada goldenrod is a species well-known to gardeners, because even though it’s a native plant which doesn’t cause hay fever (ragweeds cause that), it’s very aggressive and invades gardens. As much as I appreciate native plants, I have pulled my share of Canada goldenrod lest it take over flower beds. Interestingly, goldenrods seem to use chemical warfare to discourage competition, exuding plant-toxic substances from their roots. Many insects feed on the flowers of goldenrods, particularly native bees and beetles. Stiff goldenrod seems to be attractive to monarch butterflies along the Lakeshore. Not surprisingly, in other parts of the world our native goldenrods have become invasive species. In addition to goldenrods, there are a number of coneflowers and sunflowers all dressed in green and gold, blooming now.

At the same time there are a number of wildflowers which reflect the colors of the team from Minnesota and are beautiful despite that resemblance. Fall is the only time you’ll find both bottle gentians and fringed gentians on the preserve, along with New England asters. These flowers range from pale to deep purple. The gentians tend to grow in wet areas with rather poor soils. The fringed gentians looking like miniature purple tulips with ragged edges. The bottle gentians are rather unique- the flowers are closed tight which excludes smaller insects but can be pried open by bumble bees. Last week a group of pre-school children visiting for a field trip witnessed just such an event and were able to watch a bumble bee enter and leave a bottle gentian flower. They experienced something most adults never see.

While New England asters don’t reflect the team colors of the Patriots, their contrasting purple sepals and yellow center are particularly lovely and attractive to the surviving late season bees and butterflies. There are many other species of asters, including those that are blue like the sky-blue and smooth asters, and white such as the panicled, calico, and heath asters. In forests, we see the large-leaved aster.  They add to the variety of fall wildflowers. They help make fall our perhaps most colorful season, even before the leaves begin to change.

photo- bottle gentian and goldenrod at Woodland Dunes, taken by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 9/19/19

Birds were feeding quietly at the feeder this morning- house finches, gold finches, cardinals, and a brown thrasher that has been coming in for snacks for the last couple of weeks.  Suddenly they startled and disappeared into the shrubs surrounding the feeding station.  A few seconds later, a large female Cooper’s hawk came through like a missle.  Her efforts were wasted, though, and she came up empty-handed, or perhaps empty-taloned, and lighted on the branch of a large tree to plan for the next attempt.

Red-shouldered hawk in flight photo

Red-shouldered hawk

A few days ago while out on the West Twin we saw a large bird on one of the osprey nest platforms.  I didn’t look closely at it, just assuming it was the osprey that nested there and that it hadn’t migrated yet.  Instead, the bird dove off the platform and began chasing nearby gulls, and I noticed the typical pointed wings and sleek torso of a peregrine falcon.

Along with millions of songbirds migrating south this fall come millions of hawks, and its not uncommon to see new birds daily.  Their methods and patterns of migration is quite different than their smaller cousins, however.  While many songbirds migrate at night when the air is calmer, hawks migrate primarily by day.  Many depend on wind patterns to aid them on their journey.  Some, like peregrine falcons, actually seem to migrate when the wind is from the southwest.  These birds do not soar like some hawks, and the wind in their face helps give them lift as they power southward.  Many, however, depend on thermal air currents to lift them high into the sky after which they point in the desired direction and glide for miles until they need to find another thermal.  Many other birds do the same, like sandhill cranes and pelicans, and it is a very efficient way to cover long distances.  Conditions are right for thermals to form when its a sunny day, and it’s best when the wind is from the north to further aid their gliding journeys.  Often they orient themselves to fly parallel to north-south ridges or in our area the shore of Lake Michigan, where winds are lifted by bluffs and other features.  Woodland Dunes is a good location to view migrating hawks on suitable days and often high in the sky.  

Other notable places for hawk migration include Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth MN, which hosts a celebration of hawk migration this time each fall.  Hawk Ridge, at the tip of Lake Superior, is a place where hundreds of thousands of birds are counted, and some banded for research.  They have a team of hawk counters, and naturalists who point out the different species as they fly by.  The ridge is so high that sometimes one looks down on the birds as they pass by.  The Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station just south of Sheboygan is another hawk banding site which captures and releases many birds each fall for research.  They are not open to the public due to their small staff and large workload, but they contribute much to the understanding of raptor migration in Wisconsin.  Woodland Dunes does not band hawks at this time, rather our focus is to manage our preserve to be an excellent migratory stopover area for both hawks and songbirds.

We are already at the peak of songbird migration this fall.  Hawks are moving too on good days.  Looking at Hawk Ridge’s observations- a lot of bald eagles have already been heading south along with peregrine falcons, and lately, sharp-shinned hawks.  When the broad-winged hawks of the northern forests begin to move on their non-stop migration to Central America, counters will record hundreds of thousands of birds.

The seasonal movement of birds is a complex and wonderful highlight of the natural year, and like so many natural events often goes unnoticed now.  On a sunny day with a north wind between about 10am and 3pm, look up, and you may be rewarded with an amazing spectacle unfolding right before your eyes. 

photo- a red-shouldered hawk soaring over Woodland Dunes