Nature Blog

1/16/20 Ripples

photo of birders with binoculars looking out

This morning, despite wind and 13 degree temperatures, an optimistic house finch sang his courtship song. Yesterday, out on the prairie on Woodland Drive, a rough-legged hawk sat perched in an ash tree.  Where birds are concerned, it seems that there is something new happening every day, even if it just involves the birds we see at our bird feeders.

A lot of people realize this.  A 2016 study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service indicated that 45 million people watch birds in this country, and spend 41 billion dollars on related activities, generating 660,000 jobs.  In Wisconsin, there are many local bird clubs, and a Statewide organization, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO).  In addition to the birdwatching people do on their own, there are many guided field trips around the State, along with programs and other events.

Birdwatchers usually record their observations and participate in bird counts year round.  They are, as far as I know, the first and largest groups of citizen-scientists, and their millions of observations contribute to a better understanding of not only birds but biology in general.  These kinds of observations have documented some big changes in how birds migrate and where they live, probably influenced by a warming world.  

Our Lakeshore is an outstanding place to see birds.  Our combination of shoreline, forest, and grassland habitats makes it possible to see hundreds of species over the course of the year.  At the lakefront alone, more than 300 species have been seen- as many as you would expect to see in the entire state in a given year.  So sooner or later, birdwatchers find their way here to discover what we have had all along.  And it’s the mission of Woodland Dunes to not only manage our preserve, but teach about nature, birds included.

Next May, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology  will hold their annual convention here May 14-17.  Birdwatchers will come to experience the birds that live or migrate here through a number of programs: hikes, field trips by car, kayak, and bicycle, and more.  Awards will be given and a banquet will be held over the course of four days.  Concurrently, Woodland Dunes will hold it’s annual Migration Celebration and Bird Breakfast, which will include bird walks and activities for people of all ages and is open to the public.  

If you are interested in learning more about birds from some of the most knowledgeable people in the State and the upcoming convention, you can find more information at wsobirds.org <http://wsobirds.org>

We look forward to being a part of the WSO convention, and sharing our wonderful birds with birdwatchers from throughout the region.

Photo: Birdwatchers at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 1/9/20

As I write this it is another gray, windy day with waves pounding the shore along Memorial Drive and lakeshore flood warnings are in effect. With lake levels so high, it doesn’t take much for such warnings to be issued. The wind seems to be stronger than it used to be, but I can never be sure my memory is accurate.
photo of male red-breasted merganser
The average wind speed in Wisconsin is 12 mph. It can vary considerably across the state – today it ranges from 3 mph in the west-central part of the state, to 23 mph in our own back yard.  That we are close to Lake Michigan, where wind can flow unimpeded, I’m sure contributes to velocities we see here.

What causes wind? Basically, the sun.  Or the sun’s heating of the atmosphere, and water vapor that is evaporated and becomes a part of the air column. As a result of that, high and low pressure systems develop. Air flows from high to low pressure areas.  The greater the difference between the pressures determines how fast the air moves, or how much wind is generated between the two. Lately, we’ve had some big storms in terms of that air pressure change – deep low pressure systems with a lot of wind every few days, sometimes developing in a very short time. We like to give those dramatic names like Polar Vortex or Bomb Cyclone- I don’t remember hearing those terms years ago.

Whatever the name, the wind affects many aspects of the outdoors.  Birds migrate according to the wind direction and speed, sometimes riding the wind to very unusual places. Water on the ground evaporates faster. Lakeshore sand, cobbles, and even rocks are moved around, as is algae in shallow water. Trees in the forest come down, or are pruned by the wind.  At the Nature Center, we avoid taking groups into the woods when the wind is greater than 20 mph for safety reasons. For the voyageurs who traveled along the shore by canoe, strong winds meant a layover until wind subsided – probably a much needed rest. Strong west winds still cause freighters on the Lake to seek shelter of the broad bay between Two Rivers and Manitowoc.

Among the most exposed wildlife are the diving ducks in the harbors and out on the Lake. I am amazed at their ability to withstand the cold and waves during winter storms. They move outward to avoid the breaking surf but are still subjected to wind, cold air and water, and large waves. They are well adapted to this part of their lives, with oiled feathers to shed water, extra down feathers to stay warm, and reduced blood flow to their legs and feet to avoid too much heat loss to the water. They have millions of years of adaptation to this life, and if they are able to stay in good condition can handle some really challenging conditions, as long as the water is open. Ice presents a different, and more severe problem for them, but that’s not the subject here.

Sometimes we experience wind without the rain or snow that storms bring – the precipitation is often not far away but not right on top of us. And sometimes the wind precedes the storm by several days. Our former Director, Bernie Brouchoud, used to say that storms would persist for the same length as the east winds that came before them. Whatever the duration, when I step out and experience the chill of the wind, I’m happy not to be one of those little ducks experiencing it full force out on the icy water.

photo- red-breasted merganser, a Lakeshore diving duck, from Wikipedia

Ripples 1/2/20

Each year for the past 120 years birdwatchers around North America have gone out around this time to count what birds live here in the winter. Previously there was a tradition on Christmas Day to do what was know as a “side hunt” where birds and many other animals were shot for sport. That was done at a time when people considered our wildlife to be limitless in numbers, but some who paid careful attention to birds noticed that some were declining rapidly – herons and egrets for example. They instead formed an organization named the National Audubon Society and encouraged people to count birds at Christmas rather than shoot them. As a result, people became more aware of declines in bird numbers and created protections for migratory birds.  The Christmas Bird Counts, or CBCs, have continued to this day and have amassed a huge amount of information and is now the largest citizen-science project in existence.  

I have participated in these counts for more than 25 years and have counted in all kinds of weather – good and bad.  I remember attempting to count as a blizzard descended on the area, looking in vain for birds which were much smarter than I, already hidden in sheltered habitat.  I remember hearing a robin calling in the fog when I could hardly see a few yards around me. There have been many years with bitter cold and wind. And now, more and more, mild years like December 2019.

Typically each county has a count circle, which measures 15 miles in diameter.  Manitowoc county; however, has had four count circles that cover almost the entire county.  They are centered on Collins, Manitowoc, Two Rivers, and Menchalville.  A county coordinator sets dates for the counts, which must take place between about Dec. 15 and January 5, and lines up volunteers to go afield to find and count birds. This year was no exception, and all of the counts were completed in December.  The counts take place no matter the weather, but this year weather was generally good. Perhaps too good on some of the days.

Each counter is assigned an area within the count circle for that day – often people count together in groups – the more eyes looking, usually the more birds spotted. One needn’t begin at the crack of dawn, although some like to begin in the dark listening for owls. Then, counting is just a matter of walking or driving to areas to note what birds are there. For the Manitowoc Count, it was a warm and calm day with almost no snow.  As a result, birds were spread out over the landscape and not always easy to find. Personal highlights included a robin sitting in a crabapple tree and hundreds of ducks and geese at a stormwater pond with open water right in the City, four red-tailed hawks and an American kestrel. Others found interesting birds like golden-crowned kinglets, as well as a phoebe, winter wren, song and white-throated sparrows, with a record 11 bald eagles.  Overall, though, despite a high number of counters, the species totals were low – 45 species altogether.

The Two Rivers count encompasses Woodland Dunes so that’s where I counted. That day was again mild, in the upper 20’s, gray, and calm.  Again, the total number of species was low – 41 seen, but there were just 10 parties of counters.  Highlights were seen at the Lake – a surf scoter and a long-tailed duck, along with goldeneyes, mergansers, buffleheads, and some uncommon gulls.  One robin was found, and 120 cedar waxwings, but few finches of any kind.  A lone sandhill crane was spotted- usually they have all moved south early in December.  

Our county coordinator, Bob Domagalski of St. Nazianz, does a wonderful job rounding up counters and meticulously compiling all the records. Those are then kept at the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and also sent to the National Audubon Society.  The fact that records have now been kept for so many years, and because the methods for the count have been standardized across the country, the results that are noted are becoming more and more relevant.  So far this year, about 375 species have been recorded, and about 5 million individual birds counted.  Audubon has an interesting tool where you can see which birds of a species are increasing or declining in number. It’s pretty obvious using that tool, that many birds are declining in southern areas, and increasing in northern areas. This appears to fit well with a climate that is warming. Some birds, like the robin, don’t need to spend as much time down south as they used to, and we see them more here and farther north. That’s ok for robins, but it could be a problem for more northern birds such as the winter finches such as evening grosbeaks or crossbills that already live in the north. These species aren’t wintering here as often as they used to.

We’re all busy, so it’s good to know that the birds we count matter and that the information we collect helps people understand wildlife better. It’s always good to go for a walk in the wild, but participating in citizen-science at the same time makes the walk much more meaningful, and no more difficult.

photo- golden-crowned kinglet at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 12/19/19

photo of snowy wooden boardwalk with snow filled branches over it

I hope you are enjoying the Holiday season, your families and friends, music, food, and meaningful reflection.  These are gifts that we sometimes take for granted. As I’ve written before, I view nature as a gift also. The beauty of birds, the majesty of trees, and the fascinating way they all interact with each other to function as one enormous whole with so many parts.  Here in Wisconsin we can experience so much of the good that nature provides.

There are many challenges in nature; however, as there are in our own individual lives. In mine, I strive for optimism, and a greater appreciation of the nature around us. I need that in my life, but I don’t always succeed in maintaining that attitude. For those who are paying attention, there is a wake-up call that is increasing in volume each year. Clearly, we don’t always appreciate the gifts that are given us. Three things stand out for me:

* One million species of living beings are at risk of extinction (United Nations report)

* There are about 1 billion fewer birds in North America that there used to be (Cornell University research, based on breeding bird and Christmas Bird Counts, and radar studies of birds in the air)

* A lot of people are under stress- according to The American Institute of Stress, 77 percent of us experience physical effects from stress in our lives. I would imagine that such conditions lead to a lot of other personal and social problems.

I don’t think these things happen overnight. Rather, they began some time ago in a minor way only to snowball over time.  And the longer we ignore them, the harder they are to fix.  They are huge problems, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do have an opinion about one possibility, and that would be to take better care of nature. A major part of loss of species in general and birds in particular is loss of habitat, either by outright elimination, or degradation by things like non-native invasive species. Preserving natural areas, and then taking care of them, will help wildlife recover… and it can recover if given a chance.  Plus, doing such things can result in cleaner water and air, sustainable forest products, recreation, and a host of practical benefits.

And then, there are the effects on people. Where do we tend to go if given a choice to relax? The Lakeshore? “Up North?”  The nearest park? Beginning 10 years or so ago, researchers began to measure the effects of being exposed to natural areas.  Now, one can find study after study indicating benefits of being near nature and creative ways to restore and manage natural areas.  Even planting more trees on a city street improves how people feel.  And each natural area, which we have always known were special, becomes in fact more valuable.

So we have been given incredible gifts – birds and other living things.  Like anyone who is so gifted, we should appreciate the value of those gifts and take care of them.  And it turns out that they in turn may take care of us as well.

photo- a snowy Cattail Trail at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 12/12/19

view of Woodland Dunes in winter from tower

November is a cold month- I associate that time with cloudy days with high temperatures in the 30s and 40s.  It’s cold but not frozen until later in the month. There are some beautiful 50 degree days that are well suited to working outdoors, and the last migrant birds are still hanging around: robins and white-throated sparrows, sandhill cranes, and blackbirds.  This year there was snow, but it was as if the grass was surprised by it and remained green beneath the icing only – to have it melt and subject the plants to real ice.

Then, it seems usually around the first of December we start getting a taste of real cold. I know there are many places to the north that are colder than we are, but to me, the serious cold starts when the temperature is about 10 degrees F.  At that temp and below, the forest, and I suppose our surroundings in general, seem different.

First, the air seems to lose it’s scent, and seems dry and sterile.  Although we don’t have the fine sense of smell that many other animals have, there seems to be at least a vague awareness of different odors in the air when it’s warmer.  Leaves, a distant skunk, even rain or snow all impart their own smells to the air. I envy dogs and their relatives, who have the ability to gather what appears to be a lot of information about their world in that way. There are limits, though- I’m fine with identifying deer and other animals based on the appearance of their scats rather than needing to smell them. In that regard I suppose I’m more like birds, most of which have a less developed sense of smell, rather depending on seeing and hearing to gather information about their world. When the wind is off the Lake, or just before a snowfall, usually when it’s a bit warmer, there is a distinct but indescribable pleasant odor of water and perhaps far-away places (at least in my imagination).

Second, the world sounds different when it’s really cold- snow crunches or squeaks underfoot, trees in the forest seem to stiffen and crack audibly in the cold wind.  The evergreen clubmosses and woodferns seem to be trying to deceive us into thinking that its warmer than it is or that spring is coming, but really they are biding their time like the rest of us, and trying to make the most of their photosynthetic advantage over plants which lose their leaves.

Perhaps most important to our well being is our perception of the cold and winter in general.  In their wonderful book “Winter, An Ecological Handbook” James Halfpenny and local resident Dr. Roy Ozanne talk about three types of people: chionophiles, or those who like the cold, chioneuphores who tolerate the cold, and chionophobes who abhor cold.  It seems that our optimum skin temperature relative to comfort, is about 91 degrees F, but we still perceive comfort differently. They also point out that humans actually appear to be more susceptible to cold-related injuries than many other species. Another exception would be the opossum, which like us is another species that originated in the subtropics. Poor opossums must rely on their instincts and natural adaptations to prevent frostbite to their naked feet, ears, and tails.  We humans, however, have a much greater range of behavioral advantages – the ability to make fires, build homes with heating systems, and produce extra layers of warm, loose fitting, moisture-wicking clothing.  That we suffer cold-related injuries is probably a matter of inexperience or poor planning, but it is unfortunate.

I think for many of us we move from the chioneuphore to chionophobe stages as time wears on. I don’t dread the cold, but rather manage it, and usually find that it is more tolerable – even pleasant, outside than I had expected.  If I’m not moving around much – that’s when I feel cold.  So perhaps I need to move more?  Definitely.

In terms of coping with winter cold, three images come to mind.  One is of a wood frog, burrowed into fallen leaves and frozen solid. This is an image of tolerating or surviving winter, but it seems perilous and unenjoyable. The second is of goldeneye ducks in the harbors, which swim and preen and dive in the cold water and seem to not mind at all. The third is of the chipmunk who raided my birdfeeders all summer and fall, who now sleeps peacefully underground in his den on top of a pile of sunflower seeds I supplied unintentionally.

The thought of being a chipmunk seems a whole lot nicer all of a sudden…

photo- winter view from observation tower at Woodland Dunes, by Nancy Nabak