Nature Blog

Ripples 2/29/24

by Max Kornetzke, land manager

Growing up, I used to look down at the fractures in the sidewalk as I walked home from school.  As I looked down, I projected a map onto the pavement. Each crack was a river, an archipelago, a series of peaceful nation states. As an adult I find myself still staring at the ground, but what catches my eye now are the plants and terrestrial life forms growing around us.

One of my favorite things to gaze upon are the fallen trees and woody debris that you can find across our preserve and any healthy, mature forest. Each fallen log is a sculpture, a microcosm, a place where death offers more life. Fallen trees and large branches offer a host of lifeforms space to thrive and reproduce. Fungi, lichen, insects, mosses, herbs, shrubs, trees, and many other animals all find these places food and home.

Dead fallen trees are an integral component to the life cycle of a healthy forest. As the wood decays from fungal action it becomes a sponge, absorbing and retaining moisture, proffering the next generation of trees a perfect substrate to germinate and grow. On our preserve these dead trees, or nurse logs, are a great place to find young white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis).

Fallen trees and woody debris also create habitat by the creation of complex forest topography. When the tree falls over, the root mass is often uplifted, leaving behind a pit and mound structure. Pits often offer the chance for ephemeral ponds to form, creating spawning grounds for various animals. Mounds act similarly to nurse logs, offering places for trees to germinate and critters to live. Areas with many converging fallen branches are also wonderful places for trees to regenerate. They create obstacles that prevent herbivores from over-browsing young seedlings, a problem we often face today with an over-abundant population of white-tailed deer. 

As these new trees grow, they intake carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and create sugars that store this carbon within their roots, branches, and woody structures. When they die and fall to the forest floor, this carbon is very slowly released back into both the soil and the atmosphere.  This process of trees capturing carbon through photosynthesis and slowly releasing carbon through decomposition is a natural carbon cycle. The dead tree decays slowly, releasing carbon slowly, enriching soil slowly, all while providing new habitat for successive generations to grow, thrive, and repeat the life and death cycle again. 

Photo credit: MICHAEL P. GADOMSKI / SCIENCE SOURCE / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Ripples 2/22/24

By Kennedy Zittel, naturalist

Here at Woodland Dunes, we have two education turtles: a three-toed box turtle (Sheldon) and an ornate box turtle (Sergio). During winter, the two turtles like to spend their time snoozing under their substrate. This is called brumation – when a reptile or amphibian enters a state of inactivity during the winter. 

This isn’t true hibernation, as they will wake up every so often to get a drink or a bite to eat. Recently, Sheldon (the three-toed box turtle) has been waking up more and more. Sheldon often can be seen peering out from behind one of their log hideouts, keeping a watchful eye over the education room. 

Last week, we placed a strawberry in their food dish for a mid-day treat. With lightning-fast speed (well… for a turtle at least) the race was on to reach the berry. That had me wondering, how did they know so quickly that there was a delicious berry awaiting them?

It turns out that not all of their senses are very good, for example, they do not have a good sense of hearing. Box turtles do not have external ears, they have a layer of skin on either side of their head behind their eyes that covers their middle and inner ear. They are not deaf but do not hear nearly as well as other animals can. 

Box turtles do have an excellent sense of smell and sight though, both of which likely alerted them to one of their favorite snacks! A box turtle’s sense of smell can help them find food, mates, territories, and help them avoid predators out in the wild. 

Box turtles also have good eyesight.  Previously people thought that they were colorblind, but they can actually see more colors than humans can! This is because turtles have tetrachromatic vision (meaning they see color through 4 types of cones compared to our 3). Turtles have a special gene called the CYP2J19 Gene, also called the Red Gene. Animals with the Red Gene can see more shades of red than we and a lot of other mammals can see. As you can imagine, that bright red strawberry probably stood out like a flashing “come and get it!” sign. Yum!

Though the turtles are likely unable to hear the families in the education room’s laughter and nature discoveries, they can watch as kids put on nature puppet shows, learn how to use binoculars and microscopes, and play with other nature-related items. The next time you visit, stop by the turtle enclosure and see if you can spot one of them gazing out over the room – give a little wave because though they likely will not wave back – they can see you saying hello! 

photo by Kennedy Zittel

 

Ripples 2/15/24

by Jessica Johnsrud, education coordinator

February is a time of year when some people offer chocolates, candlelit dinners, flowers, and other gifts to woo their love interest. This is a time of year when love is also in the air for several of our wild neighbors.

The earliest nesting bird in Wisconsin is the great horned owl. An unpaired male will hoot vigorously, waiting for a female to respond. Once he attracts a willing partner, or if a pair of great horned owls are already established, they will perform hooting duets. Perched high atop a tree or building, the pair will bob their heads and call back and forth to each other. To keep their bond strong, the pair will rub bills and preen (clean) each other. Throughout their courtship, the male will offer the female a fine meal of squirrel, rabbit, mouse or even skunk. Great horned owls do not have a sense of smell, so they are not picky eaters.

Speaking of skunks, male skunks leave their winter dens in January and February. They travel one or two miles, but sometimes roam up to five miles in search of mates. Males fight over females, spraying each other in the process. If a female is not interested in a male, she will spray her stinky musk to ward off the hopeful suitor. 

Bald eagles may have one of the most dramatic rituals that can be observed in winter. Early in their courtship, the female and male will fly high into the sky, lock talons and then dramatically cartwheel spin as they drop toward the ground, breaking away from each other at the very last minute. They may also chase each other and lock talons to perform aerial rolls. If you’ve been fortunate enough to witness this, it’s quite an acrobatic show!

Rabbits also start looking for mates in February and participate in a practice called cavorting. This often happens under the soft light of dusk and dawn, but occasionally during the day. The male makes the first move, running fast towards the female. She jumps into the air and the male passes underneath. They also chase each other and alternate hopping in a sort of dance. This may continue for up to a half hour and this behavior is thought to help judge the health of prospective mates.

With spring around the corner, other animals will start putting on the charm to attract mates. The frogs will sing, the birds will build nests, and the butterflies will whir around each other. Let the drama unfold!

photo care of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Ripples 2/8/24

When I was small, and not too young, because I could read, I used to love to choose books from the library that had anthropomorphized mice as the main characters.  These cute little furry creatures just seemed to have a charming life. The setting was usually a nice little wood, with a quaint log and beautiful foliage of giant plants. They spent their days and nights in this wood collecting food, going on adventures, and learning about life.  After a quick search it appears that mice in literature have not waned. Plenty of exciting and adventurous tales await any mice loving reader.

The mice at Woodland Dunes, both in the old Rahmlow farmhouse office and out in the woods and prairies, may also lead a charmed life. We have documented several species over the years. We have the house mouse, the white-footed mouse, the deer mouse, the meadow jumping mouse and the woodland jumping mouse. Of course, these creatures, especially the house mice, may turn into pests when they set up shop in territory deemed by humans as theirs. And yes, mice, such as deer mice, can wreak havoc with a virus deadly to us and we should be weary. 

However, the woodland jumping mouse, Napaeozpus insignis, is quite an amazing and beneficial critter. This mouse, as the name suggests, may jump up to NINE feet. They have kangaroo-like back legs and feet that make this possible. Combine those feet with a tail that can be just over six inches long–it enables balance and expert climbing.  Their tail is white tipped, which is one of the traits that distinguishes them from most meadow jumping mice. In Wisconsin woodland jumping mice are listed as a special concern species as habitat loss may be reducing their number. These mice like coniferous forests or hemlock-hardwood forest cover with thick herbaceous cover and coarse woody debris (downed decaying logs). The other interesting observation is that this mouse is not tolerant of prolonged high heat. It seems that this mouse does not occur where the summer heat exceeds about 70 degrees for prolonged periods.

Another interesting note about the mice is their diet. They enjoy seeds, vegetation such as ferns, raspberries, blackberries, insects, and larvae of insects. However, it has been discovered that they also eat fungi! They will eat some fruiting bodies, think mushrooms, but they also consume underground fungi, think mycelia. This practice helps to distribute mycorrhizae that is beneficial for trees. They are not prone to stashing food. These mice are primarily nocturnal and can be somewhat crepuscular. They hibernate for the winter and usually wake up sometime in May with the males getting up first.

Mice are subject to predators such as screech owls, minks, skunks, and foxes. Luckily, they have a tricolor coat that camouflages them much of the time.

photo of woodland jumping mouse by Wikipedia

 

 

Ripples 2/1/24

Submitted from the archives by Nancy Nabak, communication coordinator

We start this month with another look back at our beginnings. Today, we harken back to September, 1976, when the following was included in our 5th Dunesletter.

“Friends and Nature Lovers,

We gather here today, August 12, 1976, for a few moments to dedicate and forever name a beautiful place in Woodland Dunes.

We honor a wonderful and beautiful person and friend. Our great and nature-loving friend, Sister Teresita Kitel, whom we all love and whose great knowledge of natural things and unselfishly dedicated work over the many years for human beings and their environment has been most remarkable. 

Sister Teresita is one a kind who has shared her wisdom with thousands. A great teacher, a great environmentalist, a great leader and ‘our great friend.’

Sister Teresita, you have surely met God’s challenge and directive with your teaching and educating man to understand, appreciate, preserve and conserve his environment.

Therefore, in recognition and honor of your great work – from this day on here at Woodland Dunes this spot on which we now stand shall be known as “Teresita Knoll” and in the name of the membership and officials of Woodland Dunes I have officially named and dedicated it.” – Herbert Vander Bloemen, retired Conservation Warden.

Photo: Left: Herbert Vander Bloemen, Sister Teresita, naturalist Winnifred Smith, and Sister Julia Van Denack, Conservation Education, Inc. president. Teresita Knoll is adjacent and to the east of the “Bicentennial 40” on Black Cherry Trail. Copy and photo circa 1976.