Nature Blog

Ripples 12/20/18

Its hard to find much of an upside to November and early December sometimes, unless you’re given over to the holidays, or birding.  Or deer hunting.  Even though its a damp, cold, gray day the feeders are busier than usual with little birds constantly snatching sunflower to be carried away in all directions.  The feeder birds are constant companions, and definitely brighten the day.

The Christmas season has for many years had a connection to birds for me, partly because of a failed family experiment.  My dad at some point decided that we should grow Christmas trees for sale.  We planted an acre’s worth of spruces and balsams, and it was my job in the summer to shear them.  I was not very good at it, and didn’t really enjoy clipping trees in the heat of the summer but it was something to do outside. After a few years, birds found the patch and nested in there, making it a more interesting place to be.  Our tree marketing was less than enthusiastic, and instead of a source of income the patch became more a source of birds which visited the feeders at our house: song sparrows, cardinals, chipping sparrows, and such.  Other birds used the patch for shelter when a Cooper’s hawk visited the area, and there were always rabbits and squirrels around.

Eventually, the once potential Christmas trees became far too large for that use, although I remember cutting off the tops of trees a few times.  Now, 50 or so years later, the trees are that many feet tall, and still used by many birds – hosting the nests of everything from sparrows to great-horned owls.  And they still fly back and forth from the tree patch to our bird feeders.  Any forester would say the patch needs to be thinned, which it does, but the birds sure don’t mind its wild, unmanaged look.

In high school at Roncalli, we had a nature club led by Sister Verna, our biology teacher.  She loved birds and took a group of us birdwatching many times after school.  For our December outings, because it was dark by late afternoon, we would make edible Christmas ornaments and hang them on a spruce tree for birds. We used simple things like unsalted crackers spread with lard.  We saw it as a way to give something back to the wildlife that made life more enjoyable. I’m not sure if birds liked crackers with lard- I think some chickadees tried it- but it was fun and something special to do around the holidays.

Later, after I became acquainted with Woodland Dunes, I was introduced to the annual Christmas Bird Count, which began out east 119 years ago.  It’s the oldest and one of the largest citizen-science projects in the world. There are four count areas in Manitowoc County.  I have fond memories of roaming far and wide in the snow with Bernie Brouchoud, who always knew where to find the best birds on count days.  We’d start before dawn and listen for owls, check every patch of open water for ducks or a later heron or kingfisher, and open fields for snow buntings and gray partridge.      
So for me, birds and Christmas go hand-in-hand, or wing perhaps.  Birds, and other wildlife, are gifts more valuable than gadgets.  The concept is not obvious to all, it requires some thought.  Judging by the number of people who call or stop by with questions about birds, there is a lot of interest in them and their welfare.  It is our challenge to find ways that people and wildlife can exist so that both can prosper. In the meantime, enjoy birds for the gifts they are, and care for them as we should each other.  

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

photo- snowy owl at Woodland Dunes taken by Mike Reese

Ripples 12/6/18

People are very good at doing things- when we put our minds to it, we are able to accomplish remarkable tasks, both good and bad.  Sometimes I think that we are better at doing than understanding.  

Recently I saw a story on the news about Christmas trees, and how we should watch out lest they be “infested” with insects that might then invade our homes.  The news release originated from a pest control company.  I certainly think that there can be positive aspects to using live Christmas trees- they store carbon as they grow, they provide habitat for wildlife, including insects during their lives, and the land on which they grow can be replanted so in that way they are renewable.  I grew up near a Christmas tree patch, which will be a subject for another time, and witnessed many species of wildlife living there.  Although being a Manitowoc native, I have to admit a little soft spot for the shiny aluminum variety.

That insects are found in trees is not a surprise.  Insects are supposed to live in trees.  There are a million species of insects in the world, and just a small portion of them give us problems. In more than 60 years of having real trees in the house at Christmas, I can’t remember an instance of an infestation that resulted.  According to some accounts, the tinsel we hang mimics the silk of a spider in the tree, in eastern European tradition- someone thought that was beautiful, although the fact that we have to hang tinsel indicates that there aren’t enough spiders to decorate adequately.  I cannot account for the presence of pickles, however, although they are fun.
Perhaps I am sensitive about this because according to an increasing body of research, insects are in trouble.  We’ve noticed first a decline in animals which feed on insects, like swifts, swallows, and bats, and now there is credible research from places which have preserve habitat, nature reserves in both the tropics and Europe, which are seeing steady declines in both the number of species of insects and their populations, even where habitat is intact.  Not know the reason for the declines is perhaps the most concerning aspect- if not habitat is it pesticide use, climate, or a combination of several factors?  At Woodland Dunes, we don’t really know what insects are present in the preserve aside from the most visible like butterflies and a few others.  We are grateful that there are a few volunteers which exceptional knowledge who are helping to document these animals.

Insects are present all around us.  They are vital to the ecology of the landscape, and are the most important way that solar energy captured by plants is distributed throughout the rest of the world by eating those plants and in turn being eaten by other animals.  They also pollinate many of those plants, and so we rely on them for our food, the beauty of flowers, and so much more.  Like so much of nature, so much is unappreciated because we are limited by our understanding.  We dearly hope that people will continue to study them so that we can better understand their place in the real world.
Photo- a young scientist studies an insect using a bug jar at Woodland Dunes 

Ripples 11/29/18

Woodland Dunes was founded by Bernie Brouchoud, who was incredibly curious and interested in birds.  When he was young, a local teacher, Winnie Smith, taught him how to catch and band birds so that their movements and lifespans could be studied. In doing that, Bernie realized the value of Woodland Dunes and the Lakeshore in general, for wildlife.  He banded and released tens of thousands of birds and taught many folks about them.  More than 5,000 saw-whet owls alone have been banded at our nature preserve, and out of those more than 100 were recaptured at other locations, giving us insights into where those mysterious birds go during migration.  Compared to other species, we have more recoveries of saw-whets than others. They appear to be susceptible to capture and very consistent as to their migratory routes. But there are hundreds of other species of birds which call Wisconsin home for at least part of the year, which are much less likely to be captured and recaptured.  
photo of a yellow-billed cuckoo with monitoring device

Yellow-billed cuckoo with monitoring tag

In traditional bird banding, an aluminum band is placed on the leg of a captured bird, which is measured and released. The bander is hopeful that the bird will be re-caught by another researcher, but that doesn’t often happen for most species. We are lucky if we collect one additional bit of data about each banded bird.
As for many things, technology is changing for wildlife biologists. Years ago radio collars were developed which emit a signal that allowed for the tracking of animals, usually large species like bear, elk or wolves, with the researcher walking with an antenna hoping to find the signal from an animal’s transmitter. Equipment was expensive and these studies took a lot of time to collect and interpret data.
Now, small, lightweight transmitters have been developed, small enough to even be placed on songbirds or large insects. Researchers are using them for a number of studies and biologists at Bird Studies Canada came up with and implemented a cooperative system to have receivers networking with each other. Their goal is to promote a network of receivers that can record animals like birds as they travel near stations over a large area. The system is called Motus, and many receivers have been deployed in Canada and the eastern US – each of them sending information back to a data center. To date there are no Motus receivers in Wisconsin, although we know migratory birds are being tagged in Canada and are probably migrating through our area.  Thanks to a generous donation from one of our members, Woodland Dunes will be one of the first Motus stations in the State. Several Motus are planned along Lake Michigan and across to the Mississippi river in the hope of recording tagged birds as they move through or over our area.
Unlike banding, where one would be lucky to recover a bird, a system like Motus will give researchers multiple location readings from as far as 15 km (9 miles) away with no need to catch or handle the bird.  We will also have the capability to tag birds ourselves, to study their movements within the preserve, for example, and follow birds that hatched here as they migrate to other places.  Not only will this improve our ability to study wildlife, but the increased data will allow us to better educate people about wildlife movements.
We hope to have our receiver up and running in a few weeks, and look forward to learning more about the wildlife we value so much.
photo by David Bell- yellow-billed cuckoo with a nanotag, a small transmitter

Ripples 11/22/18

This is being written just before Thanksgiving, which lends itself to sentimental reflection of the state of our lives.  Despite the perception of some regarding those who work to preserve the environment, at Woodland Dunes we feel there is much to be thankful for.  
I am most thankful for the beautiful preserve which Bernie Brouchoud and others set out to protect. Decades ago, it was viewed as a swamp of little value, a place to dump trash. Now, we realize that it is an important piece of a much bigger puzzle, and a place where life of all kinds can find refuge and learning. A place worthy of respect.
photo of volunteers seeding in November for Pollinators

Seeding for pollinators

I am also grateful for the knowledge of the tremendous power of people.  People have the capacity to do almost anything they set their minds to. In the case of Woodland Dunes, people decided to save this wild place rather than destroy it. There were times of tremendous struggle as it was debated whether it should be used for the profit of some or the benefit of all. The decision to pursue the latter was at first tenuous, but more and more the value was realized. There was a realization that common sense is not restricted only to dollars earned, although wise management and profit can now be seen to go hand-in-hand.
So it seems odd to think that with all the natural wonders of the Dunes and our Lakeshore, that possibly it’s people who deserve the most appreciation – but I think that may be the case.  Let me tell a little story:
Woodland Dunes is a farm for wildlife. We learn about it, plant it, and tend it. The harvest (the wildlife and experiences that are grown), harvest and disperse themselves. The wildlife are all parts of a large ecological system that can sustain itself with a little help from us. We can harvest: a sense of peace and wonder, learning experiences for our children, exercise, and enjoyment without destroying the system. We apply science to try to make things even better, identifying where things aren’t as good as they could be, and fixing them, to the best of our ability.  On a traditional farm, many of the crops are planted in the spring, but in nature plants develop their seeds over the growing season and sow them in the fall.
Recently, we decided to try to enhance some of our grassland acres, enrolling them in the Conservation Reserve or CRP program.  We looked at 70 acres of grassland which already had native grassland species planted and growing, but sought to change the balance to include more plants which benefit pollinators- bees and butterflies and other insects.  Like any farming operation, preparation and planting are tricky things, weather dependent and all.  This year, the cold wet fall presented challenges, but there were windows where preparation of the fields could occur.  Then comes planting, which is a challenge given the amount of thick cover still on the fields. A date was set, and a request sent out for volunteers to help with wildflower seeding. We had hoped for a dozen, maybe two, to help our staff with the task. Sure enough, people responded, and when the date came, a nearly perfect late fall day with sun and little wind, nearly 40 people showed up to scatter hundreds of pounds of wildflower seed on the site. These people gave of their time on a weekday in November to cheerfully help us make part of the preserve a better place. So out we went, volunteers and three of our staff plus an intern, and in two hours were able to complete the seeding, just in time for snow in following days to help settle the seeds and begin the process of incorporating them into the soil. These seeds need a period of rest and cold before they will germinate and conditions were ideal to start that process.  When we were finished, all we could do was humbly thank our helpers, and marvel at what had just happened.
So now we will wait, thinking about all that new life bathing itself in the needed cold and snow before sprouting next year, and the several following years of development of the plants.  And ultimately how this growth will help not only Woodland Dunes but surrounding landowners by provided habitat crucial for the survival of the little insects that pollinate our crops.
This experience reminds us of the generosity within our community and the good people who are willing to help.  Like the prairie, the seeds of this community are sown in the fall and early winter when we celebrate the holidays- they are the examples that we put forth for others to see. And like the wildflower seeds they will take time to mature. So perhaps this year we should direct our thoughts a little bit more toward how we can sow the seeds of helpfulness. Just like wildlife needs our help to sustain itself, we also need to find better ways to sustain each other.

And thank you to all who help us… and others.   

photo- volunteers seeding wildflowers at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 11/15/18

Last week I glanced at some bird feeders hoping to spot a fox sparrow or northern flicker that had been hanging around.  Instead, beneath some nearby apple trees there were two does and a large buck (about a 12-pointer as they say) grazing on the lawn.  The does were intent on finding the last fallen, mushy apples but occasionally glanced back at the buck, as if wanting to know where he was and what he was up to.  The buck seemed not as interested in the apples as one would expect this time of year.  They were interesting to watch, even for someone who at present is not among the blaze orange legion.

White-tailed deer and their ancestors have been a part of the wildlife landscape for millions of years- about four million according to some researchers.  Their range extends from southern Canada south through Mexico and Central America to northern South America.  Although they tolerate cold conditions, they are also able to withstand very warm temperatures, and are able to adapt to a variety of conditions.  They are ruminants, and have four-chambered stomachs which provide sanctuary for the bacteria which help them digest the cellulose in the plants they consume.  They feed on legumes and grasses, and in this climate browse on leaves and twigs, the latter helping them survive the winter.  Over the course of a year, a deer consumes about a ton of vegetation.  At Woodland Dunes, a lot of that is twigs of red-osier dogwood, about 8 pounds per day in the winter.  Their adaptability is apparent if one watches them in summer, as they stroll along sampling all sorts of different leaves – from tulips to vegetables from the garden to leaves of black walnut trees, oaks and maples, even poison ivy.

A lot of the vegetation they prefer grows at the edges of forests, where shrubs and small trees find a lot of light and produce leaves down to the ground.  Mature forests in large tracts don’t have as many edges, but people have fragmented forests around here and have created far more edge habitat than existed before.  We’ve also planted nutritious crops that help them.  And we tend not to tolerate predators of deer like wolves or coyotes, wanting deer for ourselves instead.  The result is that hunters are the major source of deer mortality at about 320,000 animals, with vehicles responsible for another 20,000 (Wisconsin ranks 4th in the US in car-deer collisions, and your odds of hitting one are about 1 in 72).  There are still estimated to be another million additional deer in the State.  In comparison, there are about 5.8 million people, and 3.3 million cows in Wisconsin. 

Even with a mortality of 340,000 deer, they are considered a species of least concern as far as overall population goes. Where you find more than 20 deer per square mile they can cause serious problems for native plants.  For that reason Woodland Dunes has a managed deer hunt each fall, and if you visit you will find that some of the trails, those away from our headquarters, are closed for a while.  These trails are posted. Please do not use them while in gun season for your own safety.  This deer management is the only hunting that is allowed on our preserve, and a permit from Woodland Dunes is required.  All permits have already been issued for this year.  Those hunting without a permit are considered to be trespassing.  We are not a hunting club, and we are neither for or against hunting. It is a management tool for us when deer are more numerous than they should be for the health of the ecosystem and all the other plants and animals.  While we try to manage our deer herd intelligently, the Wisconsin DNR has the enormous task of not only trying to determine appropriate herd sizes across many different areas and trying to keep people of many different interests happy in the process.  Woodland Dunes participates in the DMAP program and works with DNR biologists and foresters to gauge the status of our deer. A deer’s ability to adapt to changes in their environment is amazing, and they will probably always be a part of our local ecosystem.  Right now deer are mating and if the winter is again mild, many does will have two and sometimes three fawns at their side come early summer.  And mild winters seem to be normal now.

Deer are plentiful and add enjoyment to our outdoor experience whether we hunt or just like to watch them.  The fall deer hunt is an old and important tradition in Wisconsin that brings families together, builds awareness of the outdoors and provides opportunities for education about nature.  It is also a way to manage one animal species that can affect many others.  Plus, they certainly make looking out the window more interesting.