Ripples 6/13/19

photo of a Swainson's thrush

Swainson’s thrush

With the onset of summer and all that goes with it, it’s good to remind ourselves of the life around us and be grateful for it. Even if it includes mosquitoes.  Here are my top 10 reasons that summer on the Lakeshore is wonderful, in no particular order:

1) Cooler by the Lake.  When the really hot days happen this summer, I will be grateful to live in Manitowoc and work in Two Rivers. The cooling effect of the Lake makes possible the presence of wonderful northern plants that need the cool, moist air that is moderated by the giant sink of cold water next to us. Those plants make northern species of wildlife feel at home – warblers and thrushes and a hundred other species of birds along with other animals of all kinds. If you want to be warm, you can always drive a half-hour inland, but our cool maritime climate makes us special.

2) Migratory highways- along the Lakeshore all sorts of animals migrate: birds and butterflies, even mammals.  We are poised right in their path and if we provide a little habitat for them some will stay all summer.

3) A string of pearls- decades ago people around here set aside areas along the Lake where people could go to experience wildlife, not knowing about the importance of migratory stopover sites and such. Now we are able to enjoy the wildlife of such places as the Rahr School Forest, Point Beach, Woodland Dunes, the Mariner’s Trail shoreline, Little Manitowoc, the Manitowoc Harbor area, Silver Creek park, Point Creek preserve, and Fischer Creek park. These places also provide important rest stops for migratory wildlife.

4)  The growing forest- there is actually more forested land in Manitowoc County than there was years ago.  When I look at old photographs of my grandfather’s land and the area around it, I am amazed at how desolate the area appeared. A lot of the forest here was harvested and converted to farmland years ago and  has been growing back, although probably with different tree species than were found originally.  As my brother and I try to restore the land my grandfather acquired almost 75 years ago, we take out a lot of non-native species and plant native trees and shrubs.  This time of year it’s gratifying to see the new growth on those trees- and challenging to keep  ahead of the deer that try to snack on them.  We do the same at Woodland Dunes, and some of the trees planted just a few years ago are now 20 feet tall thanks to the cool, wet weather we’ve had.

5) Ever-changing wildflowers- starting with the unearthly blooms of skunk cabbage in late winter and early spring, there is a constant progression of wild blooms first in the forest and then out to the grasslands.  A lot of the woodland species are at the end of their blooming, but soon coreopsis, mints, and goldenrods will burst into flower.  As summer wanes there will be orchids, gentians, and asters to feed the ever-growing seasonal insect population.

6) Fireflies- if anything is magical about summer I think fireflies take the cake. Their larvae need wet areas, so lowlands are a great place to see them.  This year they will probably be late because it’s so cool- maybe around the 4th of July?

7) Bumblebees- there are only about 20 species of bumblebees here so it’s not too hard to learn them. Unlike yellowjacket wasps that hang around garbage cans in late summer and fall, bumblebees are mostly gentle and not interested in stinging unless threatened, so you can get close to them.  Some of the other types of native bees don’t even have stingers, because they don’t nest in hives which they would have to defend.  Honeybees are European, not from North America.

8) Dragonflies- there are so many different kinds of dragonflies and their kin. They are a challenge to identify but not to appreciate- they eat many mosquitoes and provide a lot of interest to the waters above which they cruise in flight. There are some good field guides to help people get started in learning them.

9) Butterflies- like dragonflies there are so many different species which emerge at different times of the summer that there are always new ones to see. Monarch butterflies have been returning to this area in good numbers and are busy laying eggs, and there are already caterpillars out there on the milkweeds, the first of a couple of generations they will produce here between now and Labor Day.

10) Birds nesting- all over our preserve and throughout the area birds are already busy producing their next generations.  Large birds like eagles, falcons, and sandhill cranes are already caring for young. The warblers and small songbirds that traveled so far to reach us and our nesting habitat have built nests and are incubating eggs, and in a week or two young birds will already be seen. This is especially gratifying for us- it’s the main reason Woodland Dunes was founded.

I read an account of a celebrity who said she starts each day thinking of what she is grateful for.  I think that’s a very healthy attitude, and one which applies to the wildlife of our Lakeshore and how we interact with it.

photo- a Swainson’s thrush, a migratory songbird.  Taken at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 6/6/19

photo of jack-in-the-pulpit


As the Education Coordinator, I often ask younger children to use their “tools” when we are exploring the trails in the preserve.  As adults, we take these tools for granted, but our eyes, ears, nose and hands can help us notice what is around us. It is easy to walk through the forest and only watch our footing, so we do not trip on a root. However, if we slow down, we can take the time to use our senses and enjoy nature’s wonders. 

A recent walk on Trillium Trail revealed many interesting flowers. Nodding Trillium is currently in bloom, but you have to look closely to see the flower. The white flower hangs below the large leaves, giving it the appearance that it is nodding.  

Another plant with a hidden, nodding flower is the Mayapple. If you are using your “tools,” you’ll notice patches of the large, umbrella-like leaves of this perennial. The plant has a single white flower that grows under the leaves. As their name suggests, Mayapples bear fruit. The fruit is bright yellow when ripe and is eaten by raccoons, opossums, skunks and other mammals.

Jack-in-the-pulpit can also be spotted along the trail. The flowers of this plant are not showy, but more archaic-looking. The “jack” is the flower structure, known as the spadix, located inside the “pulpit,” a modified, curved leaf called a spathe. The spathe is green with purple and greenish white stripes and is rolled into a deep cup with an overhanging roof. This may give the appearance of a preacher giving a sermon in the pulpit. The overhanging roof prevents rain from collecting inside, which would wash away the pollen. The flower emits a slight fungal smell, which attracts gnats and other insects for pollination.

Along Trillium Trail, you may notice the damp, earthy smell of the spring forest. Perhaps you will catch a whiff of the slightly sweet fragrance from the flowers of the Black Cherry trees.

In the late spring, you’re ears will treated to a full symphony in the forest. You may hear the emphatic, “Teacher! Teacher!” call of the Ovenbird, the long, cascading song of the Winter Wren or the slurred, questioning call of the Red-eyed Vireo. Birds aren’t the only animals making their presence known. The Gray Treefrogs loudly trill and the Green Frogs occasionally chime in with a “dunk, dunk.”

Late spring is an exciting time to be immersed in the forest. Even on the coolest and dampest of days, a short stroll can offer many delights – if you just take the time to notice. Next time you are in the forest, use your “tools” and you many be surprised at what you find.

Ripples 5/30/19

Coastal wetland monitoring

Many people associate Woodland Dunes with it’s birdlife and we encourage that.  Birds are colorful, announce themselves with their songs, and are in general easy to find.  There are more than 100 species that are found here each year, from bald eagles to hummingbirds and they are found in every different habitat in our preserve.  They impress and delight both our staff and visitors and are important aspects of this place.
Woodland Dunes is so much more than just birds, however.  It is a rich and complex mosaic of habitats, centered around the ancient ridges and swales which are considered globally important.  Each of those habitats have thousands of components- species- that keep them functioning as they should.  Unlike birds, many of those species are hidden from us, or at least not noticed.
Much of Woodland Dunes is wetland.  If it were drier it probably would have been developed for human use long ago.  Wetlands are special places.  They store and clean surface water and provide homes for many species of wildlife, more than upland areas do.  The marshes, streams, and swales are nurseries for many insects, amphibians, turtles, and even fish.
We are so fortunate to have at UW-Green Bay, Manitowoc Campus, Dr. Titus Seilheimer, a fisheries specialist who works with the UW Sea Grant program.  He is an excellent resource for people in this region and presents many public programs in the area in addition to his research projects.  In addition to his knowledge of fisheries, he has also researched coastal wetlands and his knowledge is especially helpful to those of us who are interested in the East and West Twin and their estuaries, the Little Manitowoc, and the like.
Recently, Dr. Seilheimer presented a program about the importance of coastal wetlands in our area, focusing on those we have within our preserve- ridges and swales, marsh, and associated areas.  With the help of our summer interns, he placed nets in waters near our Cattail Trail boardwalk to determine what fish species are using that habitat.   Now, I have been at Woodland Dunes a long time, and over the years we have caught a number of fish while doing salamander surveys in early spring.  I was not prepared, however, for what we encountered when the first net was lifted- hundreds of central mudminnows, sticklebacks, fathead minnows, a brown bullhead, along with other interesting creatures such as virile crayfish, leeches, and a predaceous diving beetle.  The crayfish were females, and each clutched hundreds of eggs beneath their curved tails.  The net had been set near a stream which flowed from the forested swales in the preserve, providing a path for these animals to move back and forth between the river and marsh and the forest.
The second net was set further downstream in the marsh, in what was a sedge meadow before the current high water levels.  That net did not hold as many fish, but those it did were still interesting- a pumpkinseed sunfish, a couple of minnow species, and a dace in addition to bullhead and mudminnows. There were also two painted turtles which made their way into the net, which was decorated with bladderwort, a particularly interesting plant.  Along it’s stem are little pouches (bladders) which are able to suck in and hold tiny insects and other animals, which it then digests.  
The opportunity to explore a natural area with an expert always yields new and interesting things.  In this case, Dr. Seilheimer helped uncover some of the many species within our preserve which are usually unseen and unimagined.  He, and UW- Sea Grant are a tremendous asset in understanding the nature of our Lakeshore.
Photo: Dr. Seilheimer (center) with interns Kelly Herfendal (top) and Ebyn Shambeau (bottom) sample fish in the Woodland Dunes marsh.

Ripples 5/23/19

Late May is a wondrous time in Wisconsin.  Deciduous trees and shrubs are cloaked in newly emerging leaves, and conifer branches are tipped with light green new growth.  Wildflowers burst from the ground and the first of the spring ephemerals are already fading away.  Likewise, the damp weather has helped mushrooms prosper, and thanks to cool temperatures there are still spring peepers calling among the chorus of toads. Insects are also emerging to pollinate what they can and mate near the water. Deer are birthing their fawns. Early morning strolls aren’t long enough, there is so much to see.  
photo of American redstart warbler
Every morning there are new (for the year) birds in the woods and at the feeders.  Orioles and grosbeaks are everywhere, with indigo buntings, catbirds, and a host of warblers and little brown things. Many have flown northward all night, and now must recover with food and rest, before moving on again. The migrants we see have traveled over a thousand miles on their own power, almost unbelievable for creatures weighing just a few grams. In the past, there were many large expanses of unbroken habitat for birds to use as they traveled. Their journey is more dangerous now as the landscape includes tall buildings, transmission lines, smaller habitat patches, cars and trucks, and new predators like cats. Migratory birds have over the years staked their existence on the ability to move long distances with the seasons, but those journeys are becoming more difficult all the time. Every year, some don’t make it.

Recently, we received a call at our nature center about a small bird that was found dead near here.  The wonderful caller found the bird in his yard and described it as a tiny version of an oriole.  Such a description fits that of an American Redstart, one of the warblers which not only migrates through our area, but also nests here. The bird had an aluminum band on its leg, meaning it had been caught, banded, and released by a licensed bird bander. The band number was 2790-60620, a number unique to that bird.  No bird before or since will ever have that band number. This makes it possible to contact the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland to inquire as to the banding information for that bird. Here is what we learned: an American Redstart, male, was banded in Thunder Bay, Ontario on September 4, 2017. It was estimated to be at least a year old at that time.  

This remarkable little bird traveled from Canada to Central America or vice versa at least six times. If it spent the winter in, say Costa Rica, the trip would be about 3,800 miles. Six trips is about 22,800 miles- nearly the circumference of the Earth, and all made possible by only wings and muscles powered by a diet of insects. I’m not aware of how the bird died, but I find it incredibly sad when these hardy and athletic creatures travel so far only to be killed by man-made hazards thoughtlessly placed in their way. They bring so much joy to our lives- yet we take their safety for granted. Perhaps we should do a little more to help them. I know I am going to take a second look at the windows in my house, and try to make them a little safer.  It’s the least I can do.

photo- America Redstart by Dennis Jarvis

Ripples 5/16/19

photo of northern waterthrush

northern waterthrush

Now we stand at the peak of spring. For birdwatchers, the weather has presented a challenge and east and north winds have not helped bring migrating birds to our area. I suspect that insects are less active near the cold Lakeshore, and birds may be moving inland where it’s warmer during this migration season.  Still, some really “good birds” have been showing up – orioles, hummingbirds, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and interesting sandpipers like whimbrels. At the same, time trees are leafing out or blooming and toads are singing by the thousands. Life is bursting at the seams.

A magical moment occurred a few evenings ago.  I happened to be near the edge of a river right at sunset. The wind had died, the sky was fair, and tiny insects were hatching. They flew, and rested on trees along the shore. There they encountered many warblers searching for their evening meal.  I didn’t have binoculars with me, of course, but I  could easily recognize a number of species- palm, chestnut-sided, and yellow warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and others. Mostly silent except for little call notes, the warblers carefully and thoroughly inspected the tree branches, consuming bugs I couldn’t even see. In the misty twilight the scene was otherworldly, reminding me of a scene from the Amazon or perhaps some other forested planet. It made me appreciate that these little migrants had navigated up from the tropics, past large cities like Chicago, and were thus through the most dangerous part of this spring’s migration. Many songbirds migrate at night and I’m pretty sure the batch I was watching were feeding prior to taking flight. After a night of flying at 3,000 feet or so, it takes them a few days to refuel before attempting another segment of their journey. It’s an amazing feat for animals which weigh only a few grams.

Later that night, after dark, I was back outside. The toads were still singing and overhead were the faint peeps of songbirds flying. These little flight notes help birds communicate with each other as they fly in the dark. In the morning they will land perhaps 150 miles from where they started, to feed and rest up before attempting the next leg of their journey.  

It’s easy to like and appreciate cute songbirds and lovely wildflowers. It’s important to understand just how important they are as well to making the natural world function as it’s supposed to.  Also, to be aware of the incredible challenges they face as we contribute to an ever-changing world. They, and our other native species are precious living things from which we can learn much. They need to be able to co-exist with us, especially during this migration season.  And we need to care for them and for the land on which we all live.

photo- a northern waterthrush, a warbler that nests at Woodland Dunes, by Nancy Nabak