Nature Blog

Ripples 3/23/23

photo of spring ice melt on pondWe’re now in the third full week of March. This has always been a significant time for me, one who grew up along the banks of the Manitowoc River. My grandparents purchased an old farmstead and 40 acres near Rapids, and I had the luxury of occupying my childhood with walking, swimming, fishing, fort-building, and all the other things kids do, or used to do, on a daily basis. 
My grandfather loved to journal, mostly about weather, and hunting and fishing.  He fished area rivers and lakes, trout streams up north, and hunted small game far and wide.  He camped frequently in his early years, but that was always accompanied by hunting and fishing. In fall, he trapped muskrats to earn money for Christmas presents for the family. His journals are filled with narratives of such trips. But one of the most important aspects of his seasonal notations was ice-out on the river.  
To our family, ice-out was truly a sign of spring. It was preceded by the ice, which we had skated on just a few weeks before, rotting as it thawed.  It was accompanied by general snow melt and subsequent rising of the water, which pushed ice up in the middle, but it still clung to the banks. There, along shore the brown water rose above the mantel, which prevented curious young people from venturing out past the point where it was safe. Chunks would break off and thump their way downstream beneath the ice, and later, finally, the whole mass, or most of it, would slough off and move downstream. As it did, it made a hissing or scraping sound, with occasional thumps as pieces bumped on rocks or shore.  Sometimes, it became jammed, especially at Rapids not far downstream. Then, the water would rise even more, sometimes carrying floes up onto our lawn and up to the house. Then, suddenly, it was gone, the river flowing wildly in its wake. Even though it was open now, it was far too high and fast for fishing- we’d have to wait weeks for that.
The average for ice-out, after compiling decades of those dates, was the third week in March. I remember walking along the river after ice out, hearing red-winged blackbirds and seeing mallards, goldeneyes (whistlers), mergansers (fish ducks), and buffleheads. There weren’t as many geese as now, nor bald eagles which we now see daily cruising the open river.  
At the same time the land along the river, seemingly wakened by the change in the river, also burst into new life. Buds or soft maples and lilacs swelling, woodcock dancing in the evening, song sparrows singing in the morning, followed by frogs in a few weeks, about the time the smelt and suckers ran in the river.
This year, the river was fickle.  I still live in the same place, but the river is now un-dammed and back to its original level, faster flowing and never good for skating even in the coldest weather. This year it froze and thawed at intervals, and never seemed safe to walk on.  Ice began to leave at the beginning of March, and the first half of the month it was only partially frozen. Then the ice was completely gone during the second full week, around St. Patrick’s day. This year was definitely earlier than my grandpa’s average, but it is hard to say when ice-out actually occurred. But, it’s a different world now, with our winter temps barely dipping below zero at all.  It still lasts as long, though.
Winter is a wonderful time of year, but this early, muddy season is still special to me. When I walk along the West Twin at Woodland Dunes, the feeling is the same- with the addition of lots of geese and some sandhill cranes. The swamp is flooded, but skunk cabbage blooms are peeking above the water and snow. Each day reveals something new for the year. It’s still a great time to explore.   

photo- melting ice on David’s pond at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak  


Ripples 3/16/23

By Kennedy Zittel, Naturalist

Now that it is almost spring, I have begun to dream about all of the plants I want to add to my flowerbeds. I have only been in my house for a year or so now, so the first spring/summer I spent working on mostly indoor projects, leaving my garden areas with a lot to be desired. I did add some native shrubs, elderberry, ninebark, creeping juniper (one of my favorites), common juniper, and high-bush cranberry. This year, I want to focus on adding more pollinator friendly flowers, both to help them out but also because they look so beautiful! But which ones to pick? 

While I still have a lot of deciding to do, one plant I know for sure I will add, because it is one of my favorites to see out here at the Dunes… and pollinators like it too!

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a very unique looking plant that can be found growing across most of the eastern part of the United States. This plant has a really interesting look, with large sword-like leaves that can grow up to 3 feet long! The blue-green leaves are covered in a waxy coating, have parallel-veining (most dicots have net-veined leaves), and they have spiny margins that make their leaves look like they are yucca leaves (hence the latin name). 

However, this plant is not a member of the yucca family, or the thistle family like some people may think given it’s flower shape. It is actually a member of the carrot family! If you crush a leaf the smell will give that away. 

Rattlesnake master has really neat looking flowerheads, they look like spiky golfballs! One flower stalk usually has around 10 flowerheads, with each flowerhead having around 106 individual flowers… meaning that just one plant can have over 1,060 individual flowers! Flowering mid-late summer, their greenish-white flowers are a favorite to a lot of different pollinator species. Monarchs, skippers, soldier beetles, etc. all enjoy visiting this plant. Though pollinators love it, deer and rabbits don’t! 

One place that this plant can be seen here at the Dunes is along Willow Trail in the Steffen Prairie over by Todd’s Pond. I love walking along Willow Trail and looking for the white golfball shaped flowers standing out amongst the other flowers growing out there later in the summer, because there are usually a ton of pollinators near the plant! 

Now, what’s up with that name? Well, early settlers named it that after believing that Native Americans used the plant for an antidote for rattlesnake venom. Which is not true. This plant was used medicinally, but not for that. The leaves of this plant were also used for weaving purposes, like making sandals and baskets. 

This plant prefers sandy soils and sunny conditions, something to bear in mind if you would like to plant it in your garden too. If not, come on out mid-late summer and try to spot some of them growing naturally in our prairie areas!

Ripples 3/9/23

We are used to seeing crows locally – they are intelligent and adaptable birds which have prospered in the landscape we’ve forged. They’re at home in farmland and city, living alongside people but at the same time keeping their distance.  They aren’t the only birds in the family Corvidae, which also includes in our neck of the woods, ravens and jays.  Jays, too, have developed the ability to cohabit the landscape of people as long as there’s a patch of woods nearby. But around here, ravens are a special treat. We might not notice them at first sight- if you don’t look closely you might not distinguish them from crows. But ravens are larger and are found usually singly or in pairs.
photo of ravens & crows depicting differenceMostly, ravens are found in northern Wisconsin, nesting on rocky cliffs or in tall pine trees. Their rough, croaking call is much different from the caws of American crows, and hearing them reminds me of my favorite times in places like the Boundary Waters or the UP of Michigan.  They are significantly larger than crows, although if the two are not seen together it’s not always obvious.  The ends of both their bodies give them away, however.  Their beaks are massive, much larger and heavier than a crow’s and their tails are diamond-shaped at the trailing end, unlike the square tails of crows. 
Despite the general similarity in appearance- large, all-black birds- the two species do not get along well with each other.  Both are very intelligent, and are measurably among the smartest of animals. Researchers are constantly coming up with new ways to test this with very interesting results.  Recently I read that ravens were able to recognize certain patterns in lines of written characters, something few animals aside from people can do.  There are many accounts of the interesting behaviors of both crows and ravens, such as bringing gifts in return for being fed.  But, they can use those abilities for mischief as well, sometimes to harass other animals and even each other.
Their intelligence also gives rise to our suspicions about ravens.  In places where they have become used to people, they are often thieves, stealing food and other items which catch their fancy.  Their blackness prevents us from discerning any expression, and it’s hard to know what they are thinking or to predict what they will do. They are highly regarded by Native people as both spirits and tricksters, deservedly so.  As ravens are found almost all across the world, from here across Europe, Asia, even Siberia and over to Alaska, there are many stories from many cultures about them. People who have observed nature recognize their intelligence, and they often have high status. For example, in some stories ravens created the world. In others, they advised leaders like the Norse god Odin, who had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory). Being such interesting birds, there must be countless stories.
Recently some of our staff were driving and spotted a raven in a location they’ve been seen before, near a silo in a field near a wetland.  One raven flew from the silo to a small woodlot, but was immediately spotted by two crows which flew to and began to harass their larger cousin. Another raven flew out from the silo, circled around and flew back, to be joined there by the first one.  As we have no cliffs around here, we wonder if the silo is close enough to serve as a nesting place.  It is no longer used for agricultural storage, and has been used for nesting by pigeons and starlings. But perhaps it is enough like a high, steep cliff to entice the raven pair to make it their home.  Much to the disappointment of the pigeons and others (perhaps to their peril).   We’ll continue to watch the site, hoping to see the pair during courtship (which can be quite an aerial display), nest building, and rearing of young. We’ve found ravens at Woodland Dunes almost every year, but have never documented a nesting. They have been known to nest in silos in other locations, and it seems logical that they would do so. 

We see them nearly every year at Woodland Dunes, and consider ourselves lucky to do so.  And I’m certain at the same time they are observing us, watching and wondering what we are up to.  

Image- Raven vs. Crow, Audubon Photography awards

Ripples 3/2/23

photo of swamp white oak So, one of my greatest joys is tree planting.  At least, when successful. There is no guarantee.  If I have chosen a place with suitable soil, moisture, and sunshine for the tree species I’ve selected, and I protect it from browsing animals, the tree may have a chance.  There are no guarantees, and I’ve planted enough trees in what I thought were suitable spots which failed to thrive or just plain died for reasons I didn’t know.  In that case persistence, or stubbornness is the only option. You try again until you get it right.
And what trees to plant?  It depends on your goals.  Appearance, food, and wildlife value are all good reasons to plant trees, and there are hundreds of species to choose from.  My interest is in wildlife, so first I look for trees native to this area.  The number of species isn’t limiting to that, but availability of native species is.  As with many things, we are drawn to the novel and flashy.  Foreign trees are often that, and we generally latch onto them- blue spruce, Norway maple, and many others are purchased and planted in large numbers.  Some become invasive pests like common and glossy buckthorn.  Why?  because they aren’t from here, and there is nothing in our natural world to interact with or control them.  Deer and other animals don’t browse on them, but birds do eat their fruit and spread their seeds throughout the forest.  There, their seedlings grow unmolested and eventually crowd out the native plants.  What’s left is a very undesirable woods overcrowded with dense stands of thorny trees, not good for most wildlife.
It is possible to determine which are the best, however.  If one wants to help birds, well, they all need insects to feed on.  If one wants to help game, nuts are an excellent food item for many.  Which trees best provide a combination of both?  Oaks.  White oaks in particular.  This has been pointed out by Prof. Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware.  He is an entomologist and studies the relationships between insects and plants, and points out that more than 500 insects, many of them caterpillars, feed on oaks.  Not that they kill the trees- oaks are tough and have ways to tolerate the insect feasting.  Also, many if not most songbirds eat caterpillars and feed them to their young.  They are a preferred food because they are very nutritious and so ideal for baby birds.  And in turn, the birds help the oak trees by removing caterpillars so the trees aren’t munched to death.  Its a relationship that has developed over millions of years.  At the same time, oaks produce nuts which feed many other wildlife species from birds to many mammals.  White oak acorns are the most preferred, more than those of red oaks.  Considering that it takes 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to feed a nest of chickadee chicks, trees like oaks are extremely important.  
In second place are willow, which support more than 300 different insects, including some of our most beautiful butterflies like the tiger swallowtail.  Although they don’t have pretty flowers, willow catkins provide an early pollen source for many bees and other important pollinators, which help pollinate the willows also.  Willows also produce ample leaves for browsing animals, and tiny, fluffy seeds which can be used to line a bird’s nest.  The trees are not as strong as oaks, so may not be suitable for home yard use, but if growing on wild land should be left to help wildlife.
If we can provide a landscape where we live that is 70% native plants, wildlife and ultimately our own lives can be sustained.  We can have 30% non-native plants around if we like, as long as they are not ones that escape and become invasive. It’s easy to tell which ones those are.
So if you have space or need to replace a tree, consider planting an oak.  For much of our area, even in wetter spots, white oak, swamp white oak, and bur oak are excellent, strong trees which beautify our yards and make them friendly for birds and other wildlife.  If on dry ground, red oak will grow. Even the smallest planting effort helps.
photo- a 20 year old swamp white oak in the butterfly garden at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 2/23/23

As I write we have passed through another false spring and are back to winter, at least it seems that way on the surface. Roads are bad, but the house is warm and the birds are fed.  A typical February day, but if you look closely things are shifting to spring one aspect at a time.  

The first flowers of spring are waking.  In swamps, the alien-looking blooms of skunk cabbage- spotted purple horns with yellow spikes inside are beginning to poke themselves up through leaf litter and even melt through snow, emitting a wonderful stink to attract pollinating flies, which also wake up on warm days.  The cabbage blooms are surrounded by springtails, or snow fleas (not really fleas) on the forest floor, sometimes gathering en masse on the edge of flooded areas, driven out of their homes by meltwater.  Nearby, the buds of willows are getting ready to open- some already are, providing additional pollen for early insects.  If you look closely at the snow, you can often find spiders too- how cold-blooded creatures can be active in the cold amazes me.
Sap is already flowing in maple trees, a miracle of spring.  Sap moves up all tree trunks in spring, but not always with the vigor it does in the maples.  People who make syrup are already busy tapping as the flow starts and stops, depending on weather.  A more reliable flow should be happening soon.
photo of eagle's nest in the snowEven though its snowing, cardinals and chickadees are singing their spring songs- we can hear them from inside the house.  Such optimists!  Perhaps that’s influenced by never having to shovel show.  Other birds are already nesting.  In Manitowoc County, at least two of the bald eagle nests that volunteers are monitoring have birds sitting steadfastly inside, presumably incubating eggs.  Not always as visible, great horned owls are doing the same.  They begin their reproductive year in February because it takes a long time for their large young to develop.  They will be ready to leave the nest in May or June when prey will be more abundant than it is now.  Females do most of the incubation, while males hunt and bring food back to the nest.  Last year, bald eagles nested in every county in Wisconsin, for the first time in a long time. However, avian influenza took a toll on them, and many young birds and some adults were lost.  Both nests I monitored last year failed- all the young died.  But this year, the adults are back on eggs once again, continuing a life cycle millions of years in the making.
When I’m outside at night and am lucky,  I hear coyotes singing, as this is their mating time too.  Same for foxes.  i know some people are fearful of such “predators”, but I don’t thiink such fears are justified.  After mating, females will use a den to birth and raise their pups.  This is the only time of year they typically use such dens.  The rest of the time they are able to live outside just fine.
Even under the ice, spring-spawning fish are moving upstream.  In a few weeks, suckers will move up from Lake Michigan to spawn, and other fish like smelt.  These runs were a cause for excitement when I was young, growing up at Manitowoc Rapids.  The old dam would bottle up the fish and make netting them more fruitful.  Of course, then there was the cleaning of them in the middle of the night.
Next week is March, the real beginning of biological spring here.  Soon, every single day brings something new for the year, for those of us who appreciate the dynamics of nature in this part of the world.
Photo- bald eagle in snowy nest, by Pennsylvania Game Commission