Ripples 2/14/19

photo of red-breasted nut hatchI am well on my way to becoming an “old timer,” although I’ve only been called that once by a student when I was visiting my daughter at UW-Madison. Once, so far, anyway.  That’s not a label that causes any discomfort for me at this point. There are many advantages to having survived many Wisconsin winters.  Mostly, one gets used to patterns of snow and cold and many of the mishaps associated with them.The fact that one lives through those gives perspective and heads off unnecessary drama. Yes, it gets cold but in a few weeks it will be better.  Yes, one gets stuck in the snow, but with patience one can usually get unstuck without too much embarrassment.
 
Looking for the upside is not all fluff and rainbows.  The best of life is real and is all around us, and to be content and effective one need not try to be joyously happy as much as aware.  Examples of this abound in nature, and right now, even though the weather has been especially challenging lately, there are a lot of signs of good things to come.
 
This year’s January was very quiet, even though the weather wasn’t that bad – except in terms of rain.  Birds are the most obvious wildlife we see, and they pretty much went about their business, except for bald eagles which visited in good numbers.  A lot of geese and ducks hung around, and bird feeders were busy with the usual suspects. This changed in February when real cold visited along with alternating days of snow and ice. A lot of the geese and ducks left for lack of open water, and the shore of Lake Michigan froze for the first time in years.  One would think this would present a sad situation for birds and indeed, some couldn’t take the extreme cold.  For others, the signs of spring were beginning, probably mostly triggered by lengthening days.  During the coldest weather some began to sing their courtship songs – chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and house finches.  On days when temps were in the 20’s it really sounded like spring outside. It’s still cold for them and life is still tough right now, but they seem to have the ability to anticipate better times to come.  My favorite are the tiny red-breasted nuthatches, which weigh just a few grams but tirelessly search the tree trunks for whatever dormant insect or egg mass they can find, alternating with trips to the feeders for sunflower seeds.  How such a small bird can retain enough warmth to survive January and February is amazing to me, and I can’t help but think that if they can survive the winter, what should we  complain about?
 
On warm days, the robins make themselves known, along with flickers and sapsuckers and redwings. They all seem to find protected spots during real cold but then emerge on milder days.  They are there, ready to take their place with the other singers when spring comes.  And down in the mid-south, sandhill cranes and others are already gathering to start their journey north. In a month real spring will have already begun.
 

We can hang on at least that long, right?

 

Photo- red-breasted nuthatch by Cephas

Ripples 1/31/19

photo of Lake ice on Lake Michigan

Lake ice on Lake Michigan

I think there is an increasing appreciation for our local stretch of the shore of Lake Michigan.  Perhaps it’s out of necessity as we rightly shift our economic focus from past ways of making a living to those which also incorporate quality of life issues.  Old photographs show the area in and around Woodland Dunes as having almost lunar qualities where many trees were cut and used for manufacturing.  And then there is the almost Dickensian quality of the cities, which seem gray and smoke filled. Of course I think that’s influenced by the fact the the photos are black and white.  Even farms seem to have that stark appearance.

That industrial period was perhaps necessary economically. It was hard on the land, though. The area that is now Woodland Dunes, even the forest, was used to pasture cattle, which according to old-timers were driven out to the area after milking in the morning to feed and water themselves. They deposited a lot of waste into the wetlands and tore up the sod. Aerial photos from the 1930’s show some of those impacts. It was not done out of any intent to disturb the forest – I think forests were considered to be vast and endless, and that’s how things were done.

People’s attitudes seem to be different now.  The shores of rivers and Lake Michigan are valued for their inherent nature more than they used to be.  We are fortunate that people decades ago set aside places like Point Beach State Forest and the strip of land along Memorial Drive.  There were businesses located along the drive to be sure, but in addition to the road there was a commuter train, hundreds of elm trees planted, and beaches.  The composition and proportion of these changed over the years with the addition of an amazing biking/walking trail and public art- all of which draw attention to the lakeshore.

Mornings and evenings, on my way to and from Woodland Dunes, I am drawn to follow the shoreline. Every day the Lake has a different appearance.  In summer, the water is often blue and dotted with gulls, cormorants, and pelicans.  In spring and fall there are many gray days and rough seas, and in winter there is the added interest created by shoreline ice – small bergs, ice volcanoes and shoves – all of which are shrouded by mist during the coldest weather.  Last week during the cold snap the shoreline appeared absolutely arctic, dominated by ice and frosty fog, with a few hardy mergansers in the water.  It was a very forbidding scene, but fascinating.

Each day the ice looks different, and soon different birds will be meandering along the shoreline  diving ducks, loons, and others.  I don’t know how many automotive mishaps occur as a result of people watching the shoreline as they drive, but that beautiful shoreline is both the favorite part of my commute and one of the primary reasons I choose to live here.

photo- the shoreline ice along the Lake at 20 degrees below zero, 1/30/19

Ripples 12/13/18

There are several things associated with birds which make winter special.  Among them are the appearance of snowy owls and finches from the far north during certain years, and concentrations of bald eagles along our waterways.  Recently I saw three flying together along the shore at Memorial Drive on my way to work.     Two of them even did some of the aerial acrobatics that they do in spring, rolling over in flight and touching talons.  I thought that was pretty special, until I found out that 15 were seen together at the harbor on the same day.  
 
To many Native Americans, both bald and golden eagles are powerful spirit animals.  They symbolize power and bravery, and also balance.  Having an eagle appear is considered a good sign, although it is sometimes thought that the message may be to re-examine one’s situation from a different perspective so as to find a better balance.  Many other cultures have adopted the eagle, especially golden eagles, as symbols of power and bravery in battle.  Golden eagles are also found in Europe and their image has decorated many country flags.
 
When I was in high school we had a nature club which met frequently to go bird watching after school.  We visited different areas around the county- the harbor in Manitowoc, Collins Marsh, Silver Creek Park, even Woodland Dunes.  Back in those days in the early 70’s, it was very uncommon to see bald eagles, their numbers were so low compared to now.  The DDT that ruined so many of their eggs took decades to work itself out of our ecosystems, but when it did we found that the eagles, given a chance, were able to do pretty well.  We also unknowingly helped them by encouraging new food sources, such as fish we raise and plant in Lake Michigan, and carcasses of road-killed deer as their numbers increased.  Their were still places to nest without too much disturbance, and so eagle numbers increased too.  Now there are several nests in Manitowoc County, a couple of which are near our preserve, so it is not uncommon to see bald eagles year round.  Lately we see them perched on muskrat lodges in the marsh- I’m not sure if those are resident eagles who nest across the river, or migrant birds from the north.  This time of year our osprey webcam becomes a winter wildlife cam (ospreys have migrated away a couple of months ago), and we can pan around to look for eagles and other wildlife.  The video from this camera is accessible from our website.
 
It is interesting that people assign particular attributes to animals.  As far as being warlike, I think the little chickadees that visit our feeders are as fierce, ounce for ounce, as an eagle.  Like all wildlife, eagles focus their attention toward finding food and nesting.  Like us, they seem to do just fine with carcasses of dead animals although they are capable of more active hunting, or fishing, when need be.  They certainly raise a reaction from gulls down by the lakeshore, who spot and become agitated at the sight of eagles long before I spot the raptors.  And even though probably 3,000 eagles nest again in Wisconsin, they still face challenges, especially from lead in the environment.  Even a small amount in the form of lead shot in a carcass or lead sinkers on fishing line, can kill an eagle if ingested.
 
Not only are eagles interesting to watch, they can be very vocal.  The same day I saw the eagles in the morning, I finished the day listening to a different pair at their nest calling in the fog and deep twilight.  I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to encounter these birds both at sunrise and sunset on the same day- and hope that I will continue to have that opportunity always.


photo- bald eagle from wikipedia

Jim Knickelbine

There are several things associated with birds which make winter special.  Among them are the appearance of snowy owls and finches from the far north during certain years, and concentrations of bald eagles along our waterways.  Recently I saw three flying together along the shore at Memorial Drive on my way to work.     Two of them even did some of the aerial acrobatics that they do in spring, rolling over in flight and touching talons.  I thought that was pretty special, until I found out that 15 were seen together at the harbor on the same day.
 
To many Native Americans, both bald and golden eagles are powerful spirit animals.  They symbolize power and bravery, and also balance.  Having an eagle appear is considered a good sign, although it is sometimes thought that the message may be to re-examine one’s situation from a different perspective so as to find a better balance.  Many other cultures have adopted the eagle, especially golden eagles, as symbols of power and bravery in battle.  Golden eagles are also found in Europe and their image has decorated many country flags.

When I was in high school we had a nature club which met frequently to go bird watching after school. We visited different areas around the county- the harbor in Manitowoc, Collins Marsh, Silver Creek Park, even Woodland Dunes.  Back in those days in the early 70’s, it was very uncommon to see bald eagles, their numbers were so low compared to now.  The DDT that ruined so many of their eggs took decades to work itself out of our ecosystems, but when it did we found that the eagles, given a chance, were able to do pretty well. 

We also unknowingly helped them by encouraging new food sources, such as fish we raise and plant in Lake Michigan, and carcasses of road-killed deer as their numbers increased.  There were still places to nest without too much disturbance, and so eagle numbers increased too.  Now there are several nests in Manitowoc County, a couple of which are near our preserve, so it is not uncommon to see bald eagles year round.  Lately we see them perched on muskrat lodges in the marsh. I’m not sure if they are resident eagles who nest across the river, or migrant birds from the north.  This time of year our osprey webcam becomes a winter wildlife cam (ospreys have migrated away a couple of months ago), and we can pan around to look for eagles and other wildlife.  The video from this camera is accessible from our website.

It is interesting that people assign particular attributes to animals.  As far as being warlike, I think the little chickadees that visit our feeders are as fierce, ounce for ounce, as an eagle.  Like all wildlife, eagles focus their attention toward finding food and nesting.  Like us, they seem to do just fine with carcasses of dead animals although they are capable of more active hunting, or fishing, when need be.  They certainly raise a reaction from gulls down by the lakeshore, who spot and become agitated at the sight of eagles long before I spot the raptors.  And even though probably 3,000 eagles nest again in Wisconsin, they still face challenges, especially from lead in the environment.  Even a small amount in the form of lead shot in a carcass or lead sinkers on fishing line, can kill an eagle if ingested.

Not only are eagles interesting to watch, they can be very vocal.  The same day I saw the eagles in the morning, I finished the day listening to a different pair at their nest calling in the fog and deep twilight.  I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to encounter these birds both at sunrise and sunset on the same day- and hope that I will continue to have that opportunity always.

photo- bald eagle from wikipedia

Ripples 2/7/19

Written by Jennifer Klein, Land Management Coordinator

photo of frost on window pane

Frost on window pane by Nancy Nabak

Even though I’ve spent most of my life in Wisconsin, I am not a fan of cold weather. I take a long time to acclimate when putting on extra layers and venturing out in ice, snow, and cold winds. I welcomed the late arrival of winter this year, at the same time knowing it would come eventually and that our wildlife and plants needed it to come. Seeds we laid down in the fall need to be cold-stratified (they need to spend some time being cold in order to germinate in the spring). They also need periods of freezing and thawing in order to work their way down into the soil. Wildlife need to hibernate or go into torpor at this time of year when food is scarce. Snow cover helps insulate the ground from frost. Wildlife and plants in our area have been surviving our winters for many generations and are pretty good at it.

There is another benefit to the extreme cold we recently experienced. While we scrambled to stock our food shelves, arranged care for children staying home from school, kept domesticated animals warm, and made sure our cars would start, wildlife also needed to figure out how to survive. Native mammals, insects, and other creatures didn’t have to change too much to accomplish this. Fortunately, non-native species are not suited for this harsh climate.

U.S. Forest Service research biologist Rob Venette and other researchers have found that temperatures of -20oF and colder can have a devastating effect on the local emerald ash borer population.  According to their research, these temperatures can reduce the population by half or more.  This is good news for anyone trying to save an ash tree.  For Woodland Dunes, it may mean we have a little more time for trees and shrubs we are planting now to establish themselves in the forests before we lose our ash trees to this devastating insect.  According to the Wisconsin DNR, however, the surviving ash borer larvae may be those that are more cold tolerant, and their offspring may be that way also.  It will be interesting to watch this interaction over time.

So, while I took some time to adjust and come to the realization that I need the cold of winter to truly appreciate the warmth of summer, I will embrace whatever winter throws at us.  I will go out and enjoy the beauty of the snowflakes, the artwork in the frost, and the marvel of animals able to live outside in it.  Knowing that it may also be helping us battle invasive species makes all the more special.    

photo of frost on window pane by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 1/24/19

photo of Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal


Nothing changes the appearance of our world as quickly as snow.  The gray and brown highlights of just a week ago are buried in white and the frozen surface of the soil is softened.  That the world is blanketed is a good way to describe it- now the ground is insulated and protected from freezing deeper.  Untold millions of gallons of water are stored, to be released in spring or at least the next thaw.  We tend to be petty, thinking mainly about our own convenience and not wanting to shovel or slow down when we drive, but from my perspective snow opens a world of animal tracks and snowshoes and a snow hanging on the boughs of trees, decorating them in celebration of a new season.
 
Birds look different against the white background too.  Some are cryptically colored, like sparrow and juncos and chickadees, which blend in among the white and gray.  Others seem become even more colorful- cardinals being an example of that.  The seem to be a favorite of people who feed birds, and indeed their colors seem to pop when snow is on the ground.
 
Often people ask what has happened to the cardinals – that they aren’t been seen lately, especially when the winter is mild and ground bare.  They are still around, but don’t need to gather at feeders as much as other wild food is often abundant.  Add six inches of snow and there they are, back at the feeders.  Like most birds they are good at either remembering where feeders are, or recognizing them. 
 
If one looks at old records, one won’t find mention of cardinals around here before the 1940’s – they didn’t live in this region.  They are a southern bird which has slowly been making its way north, and are now a familiar part of our permanent birdlife.  They are continuing to extend their range northward, as are other southern species like the tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee, which are almost certainly responding to a warming climate.  Their range is now from northern Wisconsin to Central America.
 
In addition to warming climate, northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) also benefit from the ways people have changed the land.  They prefer open woodlands and shrubby areas rather than mature forests, and are very much at home in suburban areas.  They build a nest of twigs not far off the ground, and aggressively defend their territories.  It is not uncommon for both male and female cardinals to challenge their own reflections in windows, probably thinking they are rivals.  This can last for several weeks, until levels of reproductive hormones subside.  Also, both male and female cardinals sing, one of the few species to do that.  
 
Young cardinals look like females, although they lack the black mask.  Eventually young males begin to molt and are a blotchy red in fall, but by winter are all red.  Females remain an olive-tan color year round.  I believe the adult males molt in fall also, so they are at the reddest in the winter.  Their are subtle variations in hue, however, with some males being  deeper red than other.  This may be due to a combination of age (mature adults being deeper red) and diet (the berries of some plants, especially invasive honeysuckle, has been known to influence the color of feathers).  In the last couple of years, yellow cardinals have been found in a couple of locations.  
 
Cardinals are place in the same family as the also brightly colored tanagers.  There are a couple of differences, the cardinals sporting their distinctive crests, and also their massive beaks which make opening large, hard seeds easier.  They can use those with considerable force, applying that to either seeds or the hands of unwary bird banders!
 
It is not uncommon to see six or more cardinals at the feeders at Woodland Dunes at a time when there is snow on the ground.  They do well in the brush habitat around our headquarters, and in late summer and fall just as many fledglings as adults visit.  Even though they are a common bird, they add much to the winter landscape and give us something to look forward to seeing during the coldest of days.