Nature Blog

Ripples 5/19/22

photo of red-shouldered hawk with transmitterAs I write I am looking out a large window at home.  Outside the apple tree is in bloom, the ground is covered with green new growth, including my lawn which will be knee-high if I make it through “No Mow May”!  Trees I’ve planted in the last five years are now 8-10 feet tall and sporting new leaves.  A robin is already feeding nestlings in the juniper tree.  And the black flies have returned.
Birds are everywhere.  Each morning is an adventure, with some time spent before work identifying last night migrants, now singing, feeding, and resting before they continue their seasonal journey.  Orioles, grosbeaks, and warblers dance in the trees.  It reminds me of a quote from a Garrison Keillor book “Thank you Lord for this good life, and forgive us if we don’t love it enough.”
At Woodland Dunes, a very special visitor returned from winter vacation.  A red-shouldered hawk, a threatened species.  For many years I heard red-shouldereds at the preserve, and suspected they nest there, but I did not know where back in the hundreds of acres of swamp forest.  Last year. while planting trees, our interns found the nest.  We contacted an expert on those hawks, who came up, caught, and banded the female.  He also place a UHF recorder/transmitter in a tiny, solar powered backpack that was placed on the bird.  Then she was release to raise her three youngsters.  She is a strong, aggressive female very capable of defending her nest.
The next month the researcher returned and recorded hundreds of points within our preserve that our hawk had visited, probably feeding herself and the young.  Then, in fall, she left and was not heard from.
This spring, a pair of hawks came back to the nest, but when we listened we found it was not the same female- she was an untagged youngster.  She used the same nest, and presumably laid eggs, as we saw her sitting quitely, probably incubating them.  A month later, however, the nest was checked again, and the original female was back!  Data was downloaded, and we found that she made her way to Alabama where she spent three months in winter, then journeyed back north, using a route west of her southward trip.  She went to central Wisconsin, over to Green Bay, then back down to Woodland Dunes.  She apparently evicted the young female, and now site on the nest herself.
Because a fisher was seen in the area, and they are know to predate hawk nests among other things, we went back and installed a smooth predator guard around the tree, which another hawk expert donated.  We will put up a trail camera to find out what tries to climb the tree.

In another few weeks our expert friend will visit again to download more data and check condition of the nest.  Feathers fallen to the ground will be collected, as they were last year, for DNA analysis.  From year to year we should be able track the birds and tell if they are the same or descendents of the original pair.  We hope they are successful, as there are relatively few of these birds in the State.  And managing our preserve to benefit wildlife, and the community, is our mission.  Events like this are especially rewarding for our staff, and underline the importance of our preserve. They are what keep us motivated!

photo- Red-shouldered hawk with backpack transmitter, by Carter Freymiller, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin

Ripples 5/12/22

We have always celebrated the return of migratory birds.  We miss them so in the winter, and when they return, just as trees and the first wildflowers start to bloom, it seems the natural world is reborn again. While our winter resident birds are dressed in somber tones- gray, black, white, brown, with the exception of the handsome cardinals, the return of colorful birds which winter in the tropics is a cause of wonder and excitement.
Even though there aren’t as many birds as there were in the past, we appreciate them as much as people did long ago.  At newspaper photo of Bird Breakfast celebration in the 1950s Woodland Dunes, we gather for our Migration Celebration and Bird Breakfast each 2nd or 3rd Saturday in May, at the peak of migration.  We didn’t come up with the event on our own, however.  That was done by our birdwatching ancestors.
This year is the 80th anniversary of the first Bird Breakfast.  That was invented by legendary Manitowoc birdwatcher and librarian, Merle Pickett.  Merle would challenge her birding friends to a friendly competition to see who could find the most species of birds in one morning in May. Dozens of birders would head out and comb the county, looking for common and uncommon species to add to their lists. Afterward, they would convene at Merle’s home and enjoy a pancake breakfast and share their finds. Dave Crehore recounts one such event he and his father participated in during the 1940’s in his book “Sweet and Sour Pie,” an excellent telling of local history in the eyes of a local youngster.
After a while the breakfast moved to First Presbyterian Church where it was celebrated for a number of years.  The format remained the same- birdwatching followed by a tasty pancake breakfast. Hundreds if not thousands of people continued to attend over the years.
And then, it was our turn.  In the 1970’s, Bird Breakfast became an annual event at Woodland Dunes, where it has remained to the present. At first, when Woodland Dunes consisted of a farmhouse without a kitchen, breakfast was made by participants themselves- pancakes, eggs, bacon, cooked over charcoal grills. In the 1990’s, when facilities were improved to include a small kitchen, the breakfast expanded and became a bit more comfortable. Large charts were hung on the walls to record the birds that were seen that morning, and experienced birders led hikes for the public. Later, children’s activities were added, all centered on migratory birds. Bird Breakfast became a family event, not one just for birders.
Of course, Covid cancelled our breakfast a couple of years ago, but last year the event returned as a drive-thru, take- out meal. This year, however, with our new facilities plus expanded indoor and outdoor dining areas, the event will be back to its previous format- guided bird walks, and a sit-down breakfast. The birds are arriving just in time, and we look forward to an active, friendly, joyful morning spent appreciating our traveling feathered friends and their long and difficult journeys.
Our Bird Breakfast is perhaps the oldest birdwatching festival in the State.  We are so glad to be able to host it, and to do so as we did for years.  If the weather cooperates, we’ll have a wonderful morning.  If interested in joining us, the breakfast is on May 21 from 8-11 am, the cost is $6, and we ask that people pre-register by contacting the Nature Center, 920-793-4007.  All are welcome to help us keep the tradition alive.

Ripples 5/5/22

At last.  The migratory floodgates have opened, and every morning reveals birds new to our yards this year. For those who love wild birds, this season is a feast.  And, with south winds in the forecast for days to come, it is bound to continue.
This has been an unusual spring so far, much of the season temperatures have been below normal. However, at certain times there have been very strong south winds, coinciding with the irresistible urge birds have to migrate north.  The result has been many species of birds arriving here earlier than normal, despite the cold. Warblers, orioles, hummingbirds, tanagers, all showed up in late April, a couple of weeks before we typically expect them, and much prior to the usual peak in mid-May. I’m sure they preceded the typical insect hatches that provide much-needed food for them as they travel, and there must have been some long, cold nights for many migrants. Still, they keep coming, and my first steps outside in the morning are like traveling to a new world with new voices to greet me. White-throated sparrows, house wrens, a towhee, the first swamp sparrow for our yard- all are exciting finds this time of year. In a few weeks their songs will become just a part of the normal background noise.
Some are nesting.  Ospreys are on the nest, Canada geese are herding their chicks around, great horned owl chicks are starting to venture out of the nest onto neighboring branches, and bald eagles have been feeding young for some time.  On Cattail Trail at Woodland Dunes, a pair of chickadees is excavating a nest in a broken alder shrub.  Woodcock are energetically courting, and turkeys are tending nests with eggs soon to hatch. Recently, a visitor to our trails observed a fisher carrying a turkey egg, bounding over logs in the swamp.
Last year, red-shouldered hawks successfully nested in our State Natural Area.  Researchers were able to catch and band the female, who was also fitted with a location transmitter. That bird made many trips crossing the preserve, hunting and feeding her young. This year, a pair of red-shoulders returned to the same nest, but not the same female. So far, the nesting is successful, and the new, younger female is incubating eggs. With fishers in the area, we installed a smooth metal predator guard on the nest tree. The female sat on her eggs the whole time the guard was installed.
The bald eagles on the West Twin used the same nest as before, but have been off the nest the last several times we checked.  Bald eagles are susceptible to avian influenza, which they contract by feeding on infected waterfowl.  We hope that our neighborhood nestlings haven’t suffered such a fate. In that case, we can only watch and hope. To be safe, we are limiting bird feeding right now at the Nature Center, using only tube feeders which can be wiped down with a sanitizing wipe frequently.  However, feeding oranges and jelly to orioles would seem to be reasonable, or putting up hummingbird feeders, as fewer species gather at those. We’re hoping that influenza subsides in the next few weeks- early spring is commonly a time for bird disease concerns.
With warmer weather promised, take some time to treat yourself to walks outdoors. Even five minutes can restore your spirit and improve your well-being.  Shin ri roku, the Japanese term for “forest bathing”, can cleanse your mind in ways few other things can, and put you in touch with the many fellow creatures which are so busy bringing life to our long-awaited spring. 
photo of Yellow-rumped warbler by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 4/28/22

by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator 

photo of prothonotary warbler

Prothonotary warbler

When we crave the sound of a leaf blower over the sound of kinglets and kingfishers, we might be in trouble. I don’t know how far we are from that, but I refused to let the machine get me last weekend.

Saturday was the perfect day – sunny, warm, no mosquitos, and lots of new bird activity. So, I designed my whole day around being anywhere that was wild and free.

Nature is normally a place that I can easily slide into as a party of one, compared to many social functions where an escort on the arm is preferred. But, I knew from weather forecasts that this day was predicted to be glorious and should be shared, so I asked a friend to spend an entire day doing geeky nature things.

We started with a plan to find the Spotted Towhee in Green Bay that has been seen for over 130 days. (Their range is much further west, so this bird is a stranger in town, but welcome.) After glancing with our binoculars for a little more than 10 minutes we found “Spot” scratching and kicking in the dried leaves on a bankside, dabbled in between some White- crowned and White- throated sparrows.

Before we spotted Spot; however, we noticed two other people birding in the same general area. Something very different immediately grabbed my attention… something so un-natural. Instead of camouflage, the man of the two was wearing a short-sleeved, blue and white striped button-down shirt with a PBR logo on the back. Yes, a Pabst Blue Ribbon logo on the back. When he turned to say hi, I noticed a beer convention lanyard around his neck intertwined with his binocular strap.

Now I’ve seen all kinds of things while out birding, many that shouldn’t be mentioned here, but this was a tickle and a treat. Like us, “Mr. PBR” was also getting away from the noise. He was dressed and ready for the convention, but first, he wanted to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Gotta’ respect that.

My friend and I scored some great finds that morning, including a Prothonotary warbler (another bird out of its range) that hadn’t been reported as seen by anyone yet. Around 4:00 we were ready for a break so we headed back home and pointed our feet to my back deck. We weren’t there for more than five minutes, tallying up our bird checklist, before man-made noises got the best of us. After discussing what Leopold would do, we loaded up my car with essentials to get us through the evening and headed back out.

photo of screech owl in wood duck box

Screech owl in Wood Duck box











Co-worker, Wendy Lutzke, and I skywrite on the same page. A few weeks ago, she wrote about crepuscular activities (sunrise and sunset) and how much she enjoys them. I love being active during these times as well. My friend and I found a new spot and birded until we could no longer see. We also discovered a monstrous snapping turtle with dragon-like spikes on its tail, semi-stranded in a pathetic attempt of a waterway. Then, we birded some more. We positioned ourselves in a flat, open field and listened to the woodcock courtship, the winnowing of the snipe, a towhee “whipping,” and the low trill of a screech owl. It was the type of magic that only spring can convey.

My friend has lost certain ranges in his hearing due to his job as security for rock concerts in his younger age (kinda’ cool, right?), so he couldn’t hear the peenting of the woodcock while on the ground. However, he could hear it once it was “dancing” in the air and as it was performing its “sky- kiss” on the way back down. His joy was measurable. We stayed out that night until all things of man were quiet – until the day was ready to sleep.

So, bring on the kinglets and kingfishers. Let the organic value of nature take you to the magical land of Wonder. And when noises threaten your serenity, go look for the Yellow-headed Blackbird, a spiky turtle, or just a flat field where you can take in its calming effect.

Photos of Prothonotary warbler and screech owl by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 4/21/22

Happy New Year!  Indigenous people of the north consider the onset of spring and the maple syrup season as the start of the year, which makes more sense to me than designating the coldest, darkest part of winter as such. However, spring on the lakeshore is an exercise in character building. In recent years it seems to progress excruciatingly slowly, while fall seems to be extending later into the year.  Still, spring comes and it brings welcome advances of migrating songbirds. 
Birders become irrational this time of year as they tick off new species every day – adding to their list.  What a joy to hear bird song in the morning and to have an excuse to get out and roam natural areas in search of them and the first wildflowers.  As one of my favorite songs says- “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’re got til its gone”!
I live and work in large natural areas full of birds and other wildlife. I am lucky and thankful for that, but I didn’t realize how much until I experienced life in a bird ‘desert’.
Recently, I had some medical issues that required an extended stay in the middle of Milwaukee for a couple of months.  The issues were resolved thanks to incredible medical workers to whom I will always be grateful.  However, I wasn’t prepared for the drastic change in environment- I haven’t lived in a large urban setting for more than 40 years. 
I was in intensive care for a couple of weeks, in the center of a large hospital complex.  My room had a small window looking out at another part of the building, kind of like a canyon with an opening far above.  For 10 days I saw no birds or other living things at all, aside from people. Then I moved to another hospital floor for another week and a half. From that room I could see some trees about 1/4 mile away, but no birds except for the occasional crow or gull flying high overhead. From there I moved to a small house across the street from the hospital on a very busy street. Ambulances came roaring by every few minutes, along with helicopters and thousands of other vehicles.  Again, the only living things I could see were dormant street trees and people rushing by.  I put up two bird feeders in the small yard and after two weeks I finally attracted six house sparrows! 
As March progressed I began to hear robins singing and when I was walking around the block I heard a few cardinals, house finches, and saw geese flying overhead. But that was all. I didn’t even go through a pound of seed for the bird feeders.  After a couple more weeks I was able to walk in a nearby park that had a small forest and lake.  The weather was in the 50’s, and both people and birds flocked to that location. There were a couple of species of gulls, lots of geese and mallards, juncos, chickadees, and one red-winged blackbird.  It seemed like heaven, and it was nice to see so many people with children and pets walking and enjoying the little slice of nature.  It was a very happy place.
Finally, I could return to my home outside of Manitowoc and return to work in Two Rivers. At home I filled bird feeders that had been empty for two months and the next day the usual assortment of birds were back – looking none the worse for wear.  At Woodland Dunes, the marsh was full of geese and ducks and songbirds mobbed the many feeders. Ospreys were again on the nest platforms and tree and fox sparrows were singing from the bush.  Sandhill cranes were in the meadows and flew majestically over the center. It seemed like life was whole again.
My spring experience has been remarkable and humbling.  I am grateful to be alive and to be able to experience spring on our Lakeshore.  I always knew this was a special place, but I’m aware of that now more than ever.  I am also happy to be able to continue to help care for a part of it. I hope that enough people around here also care enough to care for what natural areas we have left. Together, we can do that.  As Red Green always says “we’re all in this together”.
Photo of Brown Creeper by Nancy Nabak