Nature Blog

Ripples 9/29/22

photo of mature bald eagleThe onset of autumn is both sobering and joyful. Although the change in season reminds us of challenging times to come, the delight of cool weather energizes us and, for me, makes being outdoors more enjoyable. Rather than tolerating heat, humidity, and mosquitoes, we again become aware of the beautiful things around us as we work or recreate outdoors. Sometimes I think I am perhaps too aware, as I am perhaps the slowest walker in the group, wanting to look at all the birds, plants, fungi etc. around me. I often don’t know what they are, but their infinite forms are fascinating.
Fall also sounds different than other seasons. Instead of prominent mating calls of birds of spring and summer, now there are subtle songs and call notes as migrants scour the bushes for berries and bugs. Tiny peeps of golden-crowned kinglets in constant motion in the bushes. Swainson’s thrushes, unseen in the foliage, but uttering their “Quick, Quick” call notes.  Constant “Tato chip” notes from goldfinches.  “Yank, Yank” from the red-breasted nuthatches. Almost continuous honks from Canada geese as they either migrate or move back and forth from farm fields to the Lake. The last crickets and grasshoppers, chirping and rasping, unless it’s too cold to do so.  Outside we are bathed in these soothing sounds, which compliment the beautiful colors soon to come.
Where I live, aside from night migrating birds, the first calls I hear in the morning, sometimes before dawn, are the chirps of a bald eagle.  The same is true in the evening- an eagle calls late each day, often after dark.  A pair nests nearby, and I am very fortunate to see them daily.  There is also an eagle nest near Woodland Dunes, so it’s not unusual to see them there also. They often perch with a view of rivers or the Lake, watching for signs of fish and other prey.  
Since the 1960’s when their population was decimated by DDT in the environment, the removal of that chemical from use has allowed eagles and other raptors to restore their population. This year, for the first time in many years, bald eagle nests were found in every county in Wisconsin. There are several in Manitowoc County. Habitat is suitable for them here- lots of water with fish, road-killed animals to scavenge, some large trees in which to nest.  There are limits, however- lots of people so the possibility of nest disturbance, disturbed land not suitable for them, road traffic, etc.  However, things are good enough for some nesting to take place.
This year, however, there was another factor- avian influenza.  While we don’t see the flu as a major threat, to wild animals without access to modern medicine, a virus like that can be deadly and often is.  Bald eagles don’t flock for most of the year so don’t transmit disease like some birds do, but they can pick up things like influenza from infected animals they consume.  Avian influenza took a heavy toll on some water birds like terns, shorebirds, and waterfowl. As those birds weakened, they were more easily taken by raptors such as eagles, who during nesting season bring food items back to their young. Although the adults might survive influenza, young birds may be more susceptible. As a result, many eagle nests failed this year, according to observers who monitor eagle nests each year. I help monitor a couple of eagle nests in the county, and it appeared that both failed, meaning the young did not survive.  In the case of the nest near my home, it appeared that eggs were laid, young hatched and were being fed, but after a few weeks the adults stopped feeding and the young were no longer seen in the nest.  Adults still hung around the nest, usually perched on a nearby branch, but they just sat looking toward the nest and I imagine its grim contents. It was a heartbreaking scene. As a parent, it was hard to imagine how that felt to those birds.  
However, life is hard, and eagles seem to know that.  They live a long time and raise many young, few of which survive to become parents themselves.  The eagles at the nests I watch continue to be there, soaring, fishing, calling each day as the seasons change, and I anticipate come February they will give it another try, hopefully in the absence of so much disease. It would be good to see young eagles again as next summer progresses. I don’t know if eagles are hopeful, or if their behaviors are just programmed by instinct. But I choose to be hopeful, and I look forward to watching my eagle neighbors as the seasons change.

photo: adult Bald eagle

Ripples 9/22/22

photo of veeryIn the past, I’ve talked about how our bodies are in fact ecosystems, inhabited by all sorts of other species, mostly microscopic, in addition to our own cells.  Some find the idea to be disgusting, but its the way it is- we are constantly interacting with other organisms around, and in us.  Usually it’s not a problem, in fact many are beneficial to us.  Recently, however, I’ve been occupied by a virus that shall not be named (thinking of Harry Potter), but that you all know.  As I do not wish to share this with my lovely wife, I am at present in the dog house- literally, the dog and I are living in our pop-up camper in the back yard.  
I love camping.  What I enjoy most is being immersed in nature 24 hours a day.  Even if I’m not feeling well, nature is endlessly fascinating.  And I am reminded that even in my back yard, there is more to nature than I realize on a normal day.
I’m used to seeing what goes on during the day- birds at the feeder, squirrels, butterflies on the flowers, the sounds of grasshoppers, etc.  But it’s easy to forget what happens at night until you experience it again.
First, I am fortunate that I live in the country and have just a few neighbors nearby and lots of wild land around.  And the Manitowoc River is nearby.  A good place for wildlife and opportunities to experience it.  As I settle in at dusk, I hear little peeps from high in the sky- migrating songbirds starting their nightly journey south.  Unlike their territorial songs in spring and summer, or even their usual call notes, all these birds sound the same to me- simply uttering peeps as they fly.  I know there are many birds up there, flying at night when the winds are calm.  One night a couple of weeks ago it was estimated that 48 million passed over Wisconsin.  I am not aware of that many, but I hear a bird every few seconds flying over.  At about 6 am they begin to descend to rest and feed.  I listened to one bird peeping from high up, gradually coming down to the bushes next to me.  Then it began calling the typical notes of a veery.  I wonder from how far north it came- Michigan, Canada?  I admire their amazing abilities.
Every night we hear owls around our house.  Screech owls, and great horned owls.  Never at the same time- I assumed that the little screech were wary of the great horneds, as the larger owls prey on the smaller.  However, on one night I first heard an unidentified bird, which then changed its call to a great horned (I assume it was young).  That was joined by a second great horned in the same place.  Then I heard first one, then two screech owls calling, moving around.  Eventually they came to the area where the great horneds were, and all four owls were calling at the same time.  I don’t think the large owls paid any attention, and after a while the screech owls moved off.  
A bit later that night, a train came into town, and as soon as it’s horn sounded a pack of coyotes responded with a variety of yips and howls.  While many people are coyote-haters, I will never be.  I enjoy hearing and seeing them, and understand that they are important parts of our ecosystems.  I also admire their ability to survive in the face of constant hunting.  I consider myself lucky to hear them, and enjoy sharing the land with them.

As dawn comes the usual birds return to the feeders, and the world appears ‘normal’ again.  Maybe I was not lucky in my illness, but as a result have been blessed with experiencing wildlife again in a different way.

photo- veery, from wikipedia

Ripples 9/15/22

Written by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator

As our birds are getting ready to head south for the winter, this is also the time that fungus starts popping up in brilliant forms and colors everywhere.

photo of Amethyst Deceiver mushroomI’m a birder at heart, but when it turns to mushroom season, it’s like a new species migration for me. The neat thing is, these little fellas don’t have to travel thousands of miles to show up. They’re right here, waiting for the perfect mix of temperature, moisture, sun, and seasonal calendar to let you know they’ve arrived.

Fungus is one of the coolest concepts in the living world. Both below the ground and above. Above ground, you see the sporing fruit, the mushroom. Below ground exists a root network called mycelium. Some mycelium “roots” can be up to thousands of acres in length. Furthermore, this fascinating miniature world has also learned to communicate through electrical impulses.

There is so much to learn and know about fungi and especially mushrooms, but as a visual person, I enjoy the variety of colors and textures. When taking hikes at this time of year, it’s easy to spot yellow, orange, violet, brown, and white mushrooms. You can also find ones that look like coral, gummy candy, cottage cheese, and fingers of a dead man reaching out from the ground – so perfect for Halloween time.

Many people want to know which mushrooms are edible and which aren’t. The general rule is assume they’re all deadly. Never eat any of them raw. Find an expert or consult guides to prepare yourself before foraging.

The more I learn about mushrooms and identification, the more fascinated I am. Some caps may be concave, pointed, smooth, scaly or slimy. Some stems or stipes may have a veil. Some caps may have an underside that is gilled, porous, or “toothed.” And in all of it, I love the fact that I have to slow down, lay down at eye level, and try to learn as much as I can. Some mushrooms have certain smells that help identify them – including a fresh cherry smell or cinnamon. However, in many cases, identification can only be done by chemical testing or spore prints.

Back to being a bird nerd, while on my mushroom hikes, I’m now on a quest to find Nidulariaceae, or bird’s nest fungus. This fungus closely resembles a tiny egg-filled birds’ nest. What a winning combination.

After all of the rain we’ve had lately followed by sunshine, give yourself a treat and go look for some fascinating fungi. Walk slowly. Please, if you find the bird’s nest, give me a call at Woodland Dunes so we can share in the joy.

Photo: Amethyst Deceiver by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 9/8/22

by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist

If you have been out near the observation tower at Woodland Dunes recently you may have noticed some small holes nearby in the ground. And, if you had hung around for a bit you might have even seen the creator of those little holes running around. That little burrow belongs to a thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus). These ground squirrels are found all over the state of Wisconsin and are found across grasslands and prairies of North America. 

photo of 13-lined ground squirrelYou may have guessed based on its name, that the thirteen-lined ground squirrel has brownish-yellow fur with 13 alternating brown and white longitudinal lines down its back and sides (sometimes broken up into spots). This color pattern helps them camouflage in tall grass. 

They are diurnal (awake during the day) and are most active on warm and sunny days. If the weather is poor they are likely to stay inside their burrows. Can’t really blame them for that, I would prefer to stay in bed if it’s rainy too!

They keep their burrow entrances very tidy, so if you see dirt thrown out near the entrance of their burrow they just got done “sweeping” the loose dirt out with their back feet! After they go past their tidy entrance, their burrow forms into an L shape, this is to try and minimize burrowing predators from digging down after them, because it tricks the predators into thinking there is a dead end just beyond the entrance. After the L turn their burrow can be 15-20 feet long and can consist of several side passageways. Most of their burrow is within 1-2 feet of the surface. 

The safety-conscious little critters also stand at attention (called picket pin posture) on their hind legs to watch for any nearby danger. They also tend to dart quickly through tall grass along the same path from burrow to burrow, as if they have their own little roads! The ground squirrels also dig shorter burrows that they use as hiding places along their route… how smart! They make little whistle-like noises and “churr” calls, but will give off a very loud “trill” alarm call to warn nearby ground squirrels of any danger. It seems to be quite common for them to give their warning call as we walk by the tower, it’s nice of them to think we would be fast enough to catch them.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels feed on mainly grass and plant seeds, but will also eat insects (especially grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas), and they can even catch and eat mice and shrews.

Around October, they will go into their burrow, seal off the entrance, and hibernate in the deepest part of the burrow. During this time they use up their stored fat to get through the chilly winter. Their heartbeat will change from 350 beats per minute to only 5! They also decrease their breaths from 100-200 breaths per minute to only one breath every 5 minutes! When they wake up in March or early April, they will eat the food that they stored during the fall. 

Ground squirrels play an important role in the ecosystem. Their burrowing helps recycle nutrients into the soil and they are an important food source for predators like raptors and snakes. I enjoy seeing them run around near the barn, and I hope you can come out here before October (when they go to sleep) to see them race around too!

photo by US Fish & Wildlife Service

Ripples 9/1/22

September 1 is the start of biological autumn in our region.  It is already fall as far as many animals and plants are concerned, and they are wrapping up their growing season activities and preparing to either reproduce, migrate, or sleep before and during the challenging times ahead.
Insects are abundant now, and many are displaying or singing to attract a mate.  Upon mating, many will lay eggs, then die.  The eggs will either hatch soon with the young overwintering in a dormant state, or remain as they are, waiting to hatch in spring.  Others actually migrate, and if you pay attention you may see thousands of dragonflies zip-zagging above our area, snatching mosquito snacks along the way.  Green darners can migrate hundreds of miles southward- their sons and daughters returning in spring.  Some, however, stay here as larvae lurking below the surface to catch more mosquitoes at a younger age.  Monarch butterflies often migrate through our area as well- thousands of them follow the shore of Lake Michigan as they journey to Mexico for the winter.
photo of palm warblerBut of course we are most interested in birds, and now they are migrating by the millions each night.  Shorebirds like sandpipers go first, followed by songbirds and later raptors, then more songbirds.  Unlike spring, they move quietly through the bushes, uttering little peeps instead of raucous songs.  They take their time, picking through the branches for bugs or berries, an abundance of which are offered by plants in the fall.  Not only are they quiet, they are also camouflaged, often not sporting the bright colors of spring and summer.  In spring birders look forward to brightly colored warblers, such a joy to see.  In fall, warblers are confusing and intimidating, often hard to identify.  A barrage of little olive-colored birds uttering only peeps as they move through the bushes, or flying high above at night.
Woodland Dunes has always been a bird banding station, where wild birds are caught, measured, banded, and released.  We gather data on the birds during migration, and hope that another bander will catch the bird later.  Dozens of species of birds have been banded here.  Many people know about the saw-whet owls that we catch in fall.  But in fall, winter, and spring we also band songbirds when time allows.  We don’t spend as much time as we would like in that pursuit- funny how other work gets in the way.  But we do catch and band some, and fall has always been an important time to do that.
The last few nights have been very good for bird migration, and its often apparent especially first thing in the morning.  A few days ago there were catbirds everywhere, seemingly complaining from hidden perches among the leaves with harsh “meows”.  Overhead swallows, chimney swifts, and nighthawks are moving, especially in the evening.  At dusk, geese and ducks move back and forth from their local hangouts.
Recently, we opened our nets to see what birds we might band, on a morning following a good migration night.  Birds were everywhere in the bushes, gobbling up the last of the dogwood berries and small insects, constantly on the go.  Out of the hundreds, three allowed themselves to be caught, all warblers, and all young birds.  The first was plain olive on the back, and yellowish on the belly.  A tiny bird, only weighing about 10 grams.  It had a slightly lighter ring of color around its eye, and a slight bit of gray on the top of its head.  All of those characteristics added up to identify the bird as a Nashville warbler, a fairly common migrant here, and a bird which nests in the north in conifer trees.  After weighing the bird, measuring its wing length, and estimating the fat on its belly and throat, the banded bird was released to continue its migration.  It will probably hang around for a few days to feed and build up fat- it was very skinny.
The second warbler was streakier, with slight wing bars (lighter lines on the wings), and the bottom of the feet were yellow.  It was very yellow beneath the tail, which had white patches on either side.  This was a Palm warbler, another common species during migration, another young bird, hatched this year.  It went through the same measurement procedure, and was also released.
The third warbler was again dark on the upper sides, yellowish on the underside, with faint gray streaks on the chest.  It had some streaks around the eye, and bottom of the beak was bright yellow-orange.  This also appeared to be a young bird, in its first year.  In fact, only a couple of months old at most.  It was a pine warbler, a bird usually found high in large pine trees.  Same procedure, and release.
All of these birds nested to the north, they were not local birds.  On good nights with quiet winds and clear skies, these little songbirds manage to fly 150 miles or so, and must be exhausted by dawn.  It is critical that they have places like ours in which to feed and rest as they travel thousands of miles.
It’s a privilege to be able to catch and study these birds, adding information to their story.  We are careful not to harm them, and are licensed to do this work.  We hope to learn enough about them to ensure their continued existence in the face of all the changes that we people create in the world.  As we release them, we wish each one a safe journey, and hope that we meet them again.
Photo- Nashville warbler banded at Woodland Dunes by Kennedy Zittel