Ripples 12/15/22

Written by guest, Joel Trick

One of the most fascinating and unusual members of the Wisconsin fauna is the Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata). Though seldom seen by humans, this animal is widespread on Woodland Dunes properties, and can be active both day and night, year-round. A unique feature of this species is the star-shaped structure of 22 tentacles which surround the snout. As in all mole species, the animal has very poor eyesight, but uses these tentacles for navigating and finding food such as worms, insects and crustaceans.

The Star-nosed Mole is found throughout much of the northeastern United States and Canada, including most of Wisconsin. The animal is dark brown to black in color, approximately 7 to 8 inches in length, including the 2 1/2 to 3 inch long tail. The front paws are wide and adapted for digging with long, stout claws.

The species inhabits a wide range of moist soil habitats including swamp forest, wet meadow, streams, ponds and lakes. It lives mostly within a network of underground tunnels, pushing up excess earth into mounds that give away its presence. An accomplished swimmer, the species is active year-round and will even forage beneath the ice for its prey during frozen-soil periods.

The tentacles on the snout are the most sensitive touch organ of any mammal, containing over 100,000 nerve fibers in an area smaller than your fingertip. Using this sensitive organ, they can identify and eat food faster than any mammal on earth. They even have the ability to smell underwater, by blowing bubbles of air into the water and re-inhaling them to sniff for prey.

This species is also known to be above-ground more than most moles, and can fall prey to hawks, owls and snakes. Although I have never seen one alive, I have found a number of dead animals through the years. Some believe that certain mammalian predators kill them but leave them uneaten because of a foul smell or taste. At Woodland Dunes, I have seen their tell-tale earth work on Willow Trail, Conifer Trail, Goodwin Road, and on the lawn near the observation tower at the Nature Center.

Photos by Joel Trick

Ripples 12/8/22

The many dark days of November and December, the result of both cloud cover and shorter day length, are a challenge for people. Personally, I feel much more inclined to move in the morning if there is at least a hint of sunrise, and even cold days are more tolerable if the sun is shining. Birds at the feeders don’t really seem to care however. Their visits are perhaps more concentrated, with about five hours less time between sunrise and sunset to fill their little bellies. Fortunately, they don’t have additional nestlings to feed this time of year, but that energy savings may be offset by constant shivering to stay warm. Some will benefit from the large chunks of beef suet a friend gave me, a calorie-filled treat for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees.
Raptors are very active this time of year- those which don’t migrate must hunt whenever possible to sustain themselves. When snow is scarce, small mammals can move about easily but have little cover and are susceptible to becoming prey for hawks and owls. Red-tailed hawks migrate, but some remain year round patrolling familiar fields for meadow voles and other creatures.  Later on they are joined by rough-legged hawks from the arctic, which are equally large and use similar habitats. Recently, short-eared owls have been seen here, cruising over grassland at dusk, acting more like a harrier than a typical owl.
But even though winter is just getting started, some large raptors are already thinking about spring. While some hawks like ospreys and red-shouldered might be enjoying the warmth of the south, others are already preparing for spring in a romantic sense.
Some bald eagles migrate into Wisconsin and spend the winter near open water where they congregate and fish. This happens in places along Lake Michigan, but even more so along the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, where a hundred or more may be seen together. For those which nest in this area, there are already reports of nest-building happening, and here at Woodland Dunes a pair is being seen daily seemingly eyeing the nest across the river, which has been in use for years. Eagles can be seen this time of year breaking off and hauling large branches for nest construction, which they can do for a couple of months before seriously nesting in February and March. It takes a long time to raise young as large as an eagle chick, so they lay eggs early. Their young leave the nest in late spring and early summer and have plenty of time to learn how to survive before winter comes around again. Not all eagles begin this early, but don’t be surprised to see some nest building or fancy flying among eagle pairs.
Most evenings at my house, great horned owls can be heard hooting in the darkness. Sometimes they are close enough that we hear them when we are inside with the television on. They hoot like that pretty much year round, but it becomes even more noticeable in late fall and early winter as they reaffirm to each other their desire to be partners, calling back and forth to one another. They, too, are looking at an early nesting season, like the eagles.  And they, too, are large raptors which raise large young which take a long time to mature.  They also lay eggs in February and March, and their young leave the nest in May and June.  Unlike the eagles which spend a lot of time nest building and improving, Great horned owls find someone else’s nest, often a hawk’s, and take it over after the other species has left, improving it to their liking.
We think in terms of distinct seasons, but in nature there is a continuum which proceeds slowly and deliberately, constantly changing in small ways. Even in what we perceive is the onset of winter, the seeds of spring are already sown, and they will continue to grow until the world is green once again.

Photo of mature Bald eagle


Ripples 12/1/22

Written by Kennedy Zittell, Assistant Naturalist

The other day I heard quite a commotion coming from my backyard. I opened up the door with enough time to witness my nearly 100 pound puppy racing away from a grey squirrel that was chattering at him from the top of our fence. As Gus raced towards the safety of the house, the squirrel flicked its tail at him, angry that a dog was ruining his dinner time at the bird feeder. Like dogs, squirrels use their tails to communicate. Unlike my dog that only uses his tail to knock things off of my coffee table, squirrels use their tails for a variety of really useful things in addition to helping them to communicate. 

Squirrels use their tail to help them communicate with other squirrels. What they are trying to say can sometimes be determined by what motion their tail is making. 

Warning to other squirrels: squirrels will rapidly flick their tails to warn other squirrels about various threats or bad situations. The threat could be that a predator is nearby, or perhaps the squirrel is warning the others to stay away from the food it found. In fact, a squirrel will even flick their tail in the direction of the predator, to let other squirrels know where the predator is. They are more likely to flick their tails at ground predators because those predators are less likely to be able to catch them while the squirrels are up high. If there was an aerial predator the squirrel is more likely to hide to avoid being seen but will still give off a high-pitched warning call (the high pitch calls are harder for aerial predators to locate) so if you hear a high-pitched call but cannot see the squirrel it could be a sign that they saw an aerial predator (like an owl or hawk) nearby.

Startled: a squirrel may flick their tail if they are alarmed or startled by something, even if another squirrel is not around. This is a warning to the predator (or whatever they deem as a threat) that they see it and will gladly run away if they get too close. 

Mating season: during mating season a squirrel will tremble its tail to try and attract a mate.

In addition to communication, squirrels will use their tail for a variety of other things such as: 

Balance: Their tails help them balance as they race across tree branches or power lines. As they walk across the narrow surfaces they will continuously move their tail to counterbalance them as they go.

Falling: Perhaps they didn’t balance all that well (which happens) and the squirrel falls from up high… well they are likely to be perfectly fine as their tails act as a parachute to slow their fall. The tail can even be used as a soft crash pad for when they land. 

Warmth: Squirrels don’t hibernate, so they are up and about during even the very cold winter months so their tail is used to help keep them warm. When they are in their nest, they wrap their tail around their body like a fluffy blanket. If a squirrel is laying on a tree branch (where it can’t curl into a ball), it will lay flat and put its tails over its back like covering up with a blanket (how cute is that?). 

Cooling: Their tail can also be used to help cool them down in the summer. Their bodies are designed to divert blood to their tails which then causes their body to cool down. Because squirrels are constantly on the move, they do not want to overheat, so this feature is critical in helping them avoid capture by predators. 

Swimming: Though it is not their ideal situation, squirrels can actually swim! They use their tails to help them steer and stay afloat.

Besides just looking cute and fluffy, the squirrel’s tail helps them survive by helping them warn each other of threats, find love, warm and cool down, balance, and even swim. 

photo by Pixabay


Ripples 11/23/22

 by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator

It snowed a week ago. It’s probably going to be melted by time Thanksgiving dinner is over. I guess that’s ok, but I love when our sky-sprinkling, earth-decorating snow arrives.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of the 30 mile per hour winds on the lakeshore when it’s 10 degrees below zero, but I love my flakes, I love my frost, and I love snow angels.

photo of snow on landscapeAlthough shoveling isn’t considered a good time, snow still has a funny way of creeping in and making us enjoy it. Snow is entertaining – we make angels (my favorite), we catch snowflakes on our tongue, and we write all kinds of songs about snow. Irving Berlin hit the big money when he wrote, “White Christmas” – a dreamy song of yesteryear, reminiscing of glistening tree tops and hand-written Christmas cards. It’s nostalgic and cozy… and all because of snow. (I have yet to find a beach song that makes me feel this way.)

Snow is an element that gets us out there. We cross country ski in the powder. We snowshoe when there is a good base. We snowboard when we’re youthful and have what it takes. Hopeful children and sledding hills beg for this crystal element by the inches. Barring severe storms, such as the six- foot one in Buffalo last week, usually the more snow the better.

photo of snow bunting in the snowWe even celebrate birds whose names include the word “snow.” There is a Snowy owl who comes down from the northern parts of Canada during the winter months – appropriately named after its brilliant white feathers. There’s also the Snow bunting, an adorable, white and black, medium-sized bird that sometimes looks like it has caramel drizzled over it. The Snow goose breeds in the Arctic regions of North America and eastern Sibera, but can be found in our area during migration. There are also such birds as the Snowy egret, Snowy Plover, and the Himalayan Snowcock. The Snowy egret has a healthy population and shows up from southern states and Mexico every now and then. The other two; however, are not in our region and have much less of a population to go astray.

A small gift came to me in the mail the other day. It was a field guide to snowflakes. A grade school friend of mine sent it from California. He said he figured I already had it, but wanted me to enjoy it or pay it forward. I’m tickled with this nerdy gift and can’t wait to study the crystal structures.

I heard on the news we’re predicted to have a “normal” snowfall this winter – meaning more than the last couple of years. When it does come, please go out and catch a flake on your tongue. Make an angel. Or hum a bit of “White Christmas.” Whatever you choose to do, let yourself go. Be free. Just like a snowflake.

Photo of bird: Snow bunting by Nancy Nabak



Ripples 11/17/22

Written by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist

We recently moved Coneflower Trail across Woodland Drive to its new location at our Henry’s Wetland property. The parking space right off Woodland Drive (straight across from Goodwin Road) connects to a trail that takes you directly to the observation platform. As you walk towards the observation platform, take a look up at the osprey tower. Though no osprey has nested there yet, a red-tailed hawk likes to perch up there and survey the property. Speaking of looking up, during the cooler months northern harriers and rough-legged hawks also like to soar above this property, so don’t forget to keep an eye on the sky to see some really awesome raptors!

photo of prairie and November skyOnce you reach the observation platform, you can climb up to get a hawk-eye view of the new property! From ground level, it is a bit difficult to see the various wet pockets due to the tall wildflowers and grasses, but once you’re up on the platform it is easier to see the full expanse of the property. In warmer months, the view would be full of colorful native wildflower species and grasses, and prairie-loving birds singing away too. Though it is colder now, the view is still amazing, snow clinging to the old flower stalks glistening in the sun.

After enjoying the view from above, you can head out on the trail that forms a loop through some of the property. Going right past the tower, and heading through the prairie will be a beautiful walk regardless of what season we are in. The educational signs that were out on Coneflower Trail’s previous location have already been moved to this new one, so as you walk you can read about different aspects of prairies and the creatures that enjoy them. 

Speaking of, on the day that we created this new trail I put up one of our trail cameras facing down the newly constructed trail to see what other nonhuman creatures are hanging out over there. The camera was only up for a little under two weeks, but it got some pretty neat stuff!

On the trail camera we saw a herd of deer stop by almost every day, flocks of geese and ducks, what look to be two owls flying over the grasses at dusk, huge groups of sandhill cranes flying by (pictured), various songbirds, and in addition to the animals out there, the camera picked up amazing videos of the open sky filled with clouds drifting on by. 

If all of that was captured by a camera just facing a singular direction, imagine how much more you can see if you are out there yourself! I hope you stop on by and check out the new trail, and hope you see some awesome things too!