Ripples 8/25/22

Written by Emma Campbell, summer education intern 

In the short time I have been the education intern at Woodland Dunes, I have learned so many new and exciting things. My favorite thing has been learning to identify the many different bird calls I hear outside of my window and along the trails. Working with so many different age groups of children really made it clear how important environmental instruction is, and an easy way to do that is by teaching children bird calls. 

photo of a robinYou may be asking, why bird calls specifically? That’s a simple question to answer. While the cacophony of high pitched sounds may seem intimidating, learning just a few calls can turn that chaotic noise into something comprehensible. For example, just learning the “cheer-up, cherilee” song of the American Robin helped me distinguish from a lot of the songs I hear at my house in the morning. I also discovered that there really aren’t so many different kinds of birds – the sounds are mostly robins! Knowing this, I’m able to listen more closely for different birds by tuning out the robins. 

Not only is it easy to learn some bird calls, but it is also super simple to find them. Birds are almost everywhere, in your backyard, at the park, sitting on power lines, and flying all around town. You rarely have to look or listen hard to find them.

Learning bird calls is also a great way to get kids excited about nature. Since it’s readily available, it’s something kids can master and even show their friends. It’s a great way to get kids outside and curious about the environment, it also indirectly teaches them to pay attention and be mindful of it.  

But where to start? There are many different ways you can teach yourself and others bird calls. Finding someone who is already knowledgeable about birds and going birding with them is a great start. This helps to learn not just the bird calls, but also lots of fun facts about the birds. Another way you can learn is by using field guides. These are helpful for learning to identify the birds by how they look (some will also help with calls). Finally, like most things now, there’s an app for it. Or apps, since there are many different technological resources you can use to help identify a bird call in real time.  Apps like “Merlin Bird ID” can identify birds by using a recording of their call or a clear picture of the bird. 

In the end, learning to identify bird calls is something for everyone. It’s a wonderful and easy way to get people involved with the outdoors and on track to an environmentally curious perspective.

photo from Wikipedia

Ripples 8/18/22

photo of rusty patched bumblebee on blazing starAs we creep into late summer, insects become more and more an important part of the landscape.  On warm days cicadas now sing from the trees, and at night more and more crickets sing as well. Color and sound are powerful attractants for potential mates in both the human and natural worlds. It’s hard to equate the harsh electric whine of a cicada with whispered sweet nothings to a potential mate.
Populations of butterflies also increase, although our cold spring may have been hard on their populations.  Still, when the meadow wildflowers begin to bloom, they immediately attract dozens of species large and small, conspicuous and subtle.
But among the butterflies are the bees. They too come in all sizes and colors, from green metallic sweat bees to jet-black carpenter bees, to amber honeybees, to fuzzy bumblebees.  Just at the time of maximum wildflower blooms, armies of worker bumblebees are present to take advantage of abundant pollen and nectar suddenly available in the fields.
There are about twenty or so species of bumblebees in Wisconsin.  Some are abundant, like the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), a medium sized bumblebee which is yellow on the thorax with a black dot, and only one yellow segment on and otherwise black abdomen.  Like all insects, bees have three main body parts- head, thorax, and abdomen.  You find eastern bumblebees all over around here, starting with queens early in spring and more and more small workers throughout the summer until now, when you see small workers, and large queens and drones.  The new queens, called gynes, are very large and brightly colored now.  They will mate with drones, then later find an abandoned rodent burrow in which to spend the winter and begin a nest which they will develop fully next spring.  The new queens are the only bees which survive the winter, all the workers, drones, and old queens will die.  This is different from European honey bees, which can all survive the winter if they are lucky and conditions are good.
The eastern is the most common, and probably least colorful of our local bumblebees.  They are just as important as others in terms of pollination, but like birdwatchers, bee watchers are always searching for interesting and rare species.  One species is endangered, the rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis).  This year we have found five or so at Woodland Dunes so far.  Others include the threatened yellow bumblebee (Bombus fervidous), the redbelted and tricolored bumblebees (B. rufocinctus and ternarius), brownbelted (B. griseocolis), northern amber (B. borealis), and the half-black bumblebee (B. vagans).  
One of our volunteers found a very rare bee in her yard- the American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus), of which hers is the only one found in our county so far.  And we found an unusual species, the lemon cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus citrinus) which is a parasite of other bumblebee species’ colonies.  A queen lemon cuckoo enters another species colony, kills the queen, and gets the other colonies’ workers to care for her eggs and young.  Sounds like a story worth of a TV miniseries.  But in the big picture, they don’t take over all the bee colonies and so don’t really hurt the overall population.
Bumblebees are a challenge to identify, even though there are only a couple of dozen species. Males look different from females, workers are different from queens and drones, and hairs wear off of old bees, changing their appearance.  The challenge makes for fun in trying to identify them, and builds humility for the aspiring bee observer.  Fortunately, Wisconsin has a Bumble Bee Brigade of citizen scientists run by the DNR, where help can be found for identification.  There is also an excellent Wisconsin bumblebee observers Facebook page.
There is never a lack of interesting subjects to study in nature. Bumblebees tend to be gentle and fixated on flowers, so you can stand in a field of wildflowers surrounded by bees, which is a wonderful experience.  But only for a couple of months- then we will have fall and winter to remember them only.
Photo- rusty-patched bumblebee found by Kennedy Zittel at Woodland Dunes

Ripples 8/11/22

by Frances Meyer, Woodland Dunes Summer Intern

Recently, visitors exploring the nature center may have noticed an unpleasant smell coming from under the deck. A mother skunk had decided to make the deck her new home, along with her five babies. These striped mammals could be seen roaming around the nature center, especially in the Little Wings play area, which sounds like a great place to grow up as a baby skunk, also known as a kit!

There are two native skunks in Wisconsin; the striped skunk which is more common, and the spotted skunk. There have only been several sightings of a spotted skunk since they are rarer than their striped relatives. Until recently, skunks were members of the weasel family, but now have their own family, Mephitidae. They grow to be a size of a large house cat. Striped skunks have a white stripe starting as a triangle shape at the nose that travels down the middle of the back. These animals live in a variety of habitats such as farmland, the edges of woodlands, and shrubby areas along streams and ditches. They may also choose more urban areas to live-for example wood piles, or in Woodland Dunes’ case, a house porch. Skunks do not hibernate but still tend to stay in their dens most of the winter, and eventually, a litter of six to seven kits is born between the time of May to mid-June. 

Skunks eat a wide variety of foods. These animals eat crickets, grasshoppers, and several other insects. They also eat small mammals such as mice, ground squirrels, rats, shrews, and moles. Since skunks are omnivores, they also eat various fruits and vegetables. Evidence that shows that a skunk is in the area may be diggings, which are shallow holes made by their claws and nose from searching for food. 

Despite looking friendly and approachable, skunks will release a smelly surprise when they feel threatened. If they are encountered by a predator and feel threatened enough, they will release a musk under their tail that can spray 5 or 6 times and a distance up to 15 feet. The smell is so strong that one can smell it from a mile away. The only species that can tolerate this musk is the great horned owl, making it a highly dangerous predator to the skunk. People, unfortunately, cannot tolerate this pungent spray. It is important to give these animals the space they need since the smell of the musk is very difficult to wash out of hair, clothes, and fur. The musk can also burn eyes and cause temporary loss of vision. Signs that a skunk is about to spray are arching its back, lifting its tail into the air, turning its back to its predator, and stomping  the front feet. Skunks can make their scent at birth, so it is important to give the kits space as well! If you or a pet happen to be sprayed, the best mix to use is a quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, a fourth cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of liquid soap. Hydrogen peroxide can bleach, so you can substitute it for vinegar if that is a concern.

The skunk family at the nature center has now happily dispersed into the fields around, and we no longer see them around the building. We still appreciate them for the interesting characters they are, and wish them well.

Photo- young skunks at Woodland Dunes by Ben Booth


Ripples 8/4/22

Written by Kennedy Zittel, Asst. Naturalist

I had a trail camera out at the end of our Cattail Trail for just a week, around a week or so ago. It captured some amazing things in just that short timeframe, and I would like to share with all of you what I got to see, as it really sums up how diverse and amazing just one trail can be.

A great blue heron flew in and landed with the grace that one expects from a bird with a 6-foot wingspan on our kayak launch. The heron stood perched on the launch for around half an hour, searching the water for a tasty meal. When a visitor walked down the boardwalk, the heron flew off (again with very little grace) into the marsh to find a new spot to eat.

What I thought at first was just the cattails blowing in the wind was actually videos of marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds flying around the cattails of the marsh – singing their songs and calling out when someone got too close. 

Later in the night, a fox trots into the frame holding his dinner. He glanced directly at the camera and stood there for a few seconds, as if showing off his hunting skills before disappearing out of frame to eat. 

The next day a family of otters shows up! A mom with three pups. The kids are so excited to play on this new playground. As mom sniffs around the area the pups roll and slide all across the boardwalk. They wrestle and jump over one another, splashing water from their fur across the deck boards. The pups use the kayak launch as an otter launch, sliding off into the water. Mom follows soon after. 

A young green heron struts across the boardwalk. With feathers ruffled, looking like it had quite the bad hair day, the young heron looks at the camera (maybe hoping no one saw how disheveled it looked?) before shaking its feathers back in place. Flying off into the marsh before a group of visitors arrive at the end of the boardwalk. 

A day later the otter family is back, this time at night. The pups seem quite energized given that they are up so late, and the poor mom sits off to the side as they play. Probably looking for something to tire out the wild kiddos. The pups wrestle and roll all over the boardwalk, even bumping directly into the trail camera as they play. After an hour of playtime, the kids jump off the side of the boardwalk into the water, leaving mom to race after them before they wander too far. 

A raccoon walked across the boardwalk, sniffing around, looking for a snack. Not too long after, it disappears into the marsh.

A red-winged blackbird lands on the boardwalk, singing away before flying off into the cattails. Maybe it needed a stage for its song this morning?

The otter family returned another night, this time the kids sniffed around the camera, not as wild as they were the past few nights. They practice their sliding skills on the wet boardwalk, as mom watches from the safety of the kayak launch. They play for a while before sliding off the kayak launch into the river once more. 

Though I could go on and on about the cool animals that use our boardwalk, we also have people that use it too! From just this one camera check (just a week’s worth of time) we had around 112 people make it to the end of the boardwalk. 

Almost a dozen people carried kayaks, off to explore the water around Woodland Dunes. Some people even came here from the water! How neat is that? People can visit us right from the river with our kayak launch. 

Adults and kids alike carried binoculars, ready to scan the marsh for the wildlife that lives there. 

People carried cameras, go-pros, and cellphones ready to take photos of the wildlife and scenery around them. Maybe they even got some photos of some of the things I saw on my camera too. 

Someone carried a guitar, offering a new marsh song instead of the usual red-winged blackbird calls. 

Some pushed strollers, some ran past on their morning jog, some just simply walked down for the sake of going for a walk.

Kids raced by holding nets borrowed from the Nature Center, ready to search for whatever aquatic animals they could find. 

People of all ages walked to the end of the boardwalk. Exploring and enjoying nature. It brings me just as much happiness as seeing the baby otters slide across the boardwalk, to know that people come out here to see the amazing wildlife and scenery that our local community has to offer.

Photo from trail camera video

Ripples 7/28/22

By Nancy Nabak, Communications Coordinator

photo of monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed

Monarch caterpillar

And this year, the “Upstanding Pillar in the Community” award goes to… the Monarch cater-pillar. I’m telling you, this six-legged pillar has been working very hard in the milkweed for decades to earn this distinction. Fighting storms. Fighting climate change. Fighting farm chemicals. Unfortunately, the Monarch butterfly, the caterpillar’s adult form, was recently put on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered list. This is not the distinction the caterpillar was looking for.

This iconic yet now endangered black and orange symbol of nature is something that most children in North America learned about while studying life-cycles stages. I remember my hard- cover Golden Book about Monarchs. I read it and re-read it as a child, fascinated by how one animal could take on so many different forms.

It’s estimated that there are roughly 8.7 million animal species on the planet. The IUCN lists over 16,000 of them as endangered and threatened with extinction. So why do we care about one species going extinct if there are 8 million of them and more?

Although the United States has not yet declared the Monarch endangered, in 1973 Congress recognized that endangered and threatened species of wildlife and plants “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” In other words, every one of them is valuable.

Each species offers benefits of natural diversity. They contribute to medical research. They support biodiversity and agriculture. They serve as environmental monitors – temperature takers. And then there are the intangibles. Songs, smells, sights… these are the things that make us happy.

So how in the world can we save 16,000 species right now? We can’t. And it’s overwhelming to think about, right? But collectively, we can start to take care of one species, and when we do, we may find that we’ve helped another along.

We can do something.  We can create butterfly gardens, even small ones, that offer nectar as the butterfly’s food. We can plant native milkweed – the leaves serve as food for the caterpillar and host for egg-laying. Common Milkweed is native to Wisconsin – easy to remember and incredibly important. Get active and tell others. Join a monarch monitoring blitz – observing and counting milkweed plants found, number of monarchs, number of eggs, etc… This year’s blitz goes from July 29-August 7. For more information, Financially support an organization that can take bigger steps.

Believe in the intangibles. Give the caterpillar wings, and set it into flight.

Photo: Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed by Nancy Nabak