Ripples 4/11/19

Osprey on Dunes’ platform

Written by Jeni Klein, Land Management Coordinator

There is a certain excitement in the return of wildlife every spring. Humans are longing for warm weather and more color on the landscape. Although I am not as enthusiastic as the robins, red-wing blackbirds, and grackles in the morning, their morning songs are welcomed as a sign of better things to come. Every day during this time of year we witness the rebirth of the earth. Frogs and snakes are waking up, a mouse can be seen scurrying under beaten down brown grass, and bird species return, sometimes slowly, sometimes in waves when conditions are right. 

I am fortunate to be at the nature center during some “off” hours when I get to witness nature in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. Last week after our Girl Scout meeting, we exited to the parking lot to be greeted by about a half dozen woodcocks.  They were tucked away in open areas surrounding the parking lot, and making their presence known.  Occasionally they would shoot way up in the sky, and slowly spiral down while making a fluttering sound.  Once on the ground, they would make a raspy “peent” while starting this process all over again.  We were fortunate to be able to witness this secret dance due to the timing of our meeting. What a wonderful opportunity for teaching our youth! The woodcock, or timberdoodle, use this display to attract a mate. On April 18, Woodland Dunes welcomes you to join us to witness this event for yourself. You can contact the Nature Center at 920-793-4007 to register. 

Later in the week, I pulled into the nature center to see a welcome sight way up high.  One osprey has returned to our nesting platform right next to the nature center!  We have been seeing a pair of herring gulls hanging out on the platform.  They seemed to really enjoy this nesting site, and would likely nest here if the osprey weren’t around. In fact, they were circling the platform while the osprey was there and landed as soon as the osprey left. I am excited to watch how this turf battle plays out. 

Fortunately, we have a very nice camera which always us to have a “bird’s eye” view of the platform. We were gifted funds from a generous donor and fellow bird enthusiast, Steve Lankton, to improve the live stream of our osprey camera and to store video footage on the “cloud” where we can pull off clips for educational purposes.  Our live feed now streams through YouTube Live, saving our internet bandwidth here at the nature center.  In the past, the camera would use up all of our bandwidth during popular viewing times. We also have cloud storage and the ability to pull video clips, such as hatching, feeding, and fledging, to be able to show during education programs. 

I hope everyone has a chance to witness nature’s transition from winter to spring, with the promise of summer just around the corner!

Ripples 4/4/19

I think people who live along the Lake have to be just a little more patient than those in the rest of the State.  Now that Spring has arrived, there will be a period of a couple months where we hear over and over on weather forecasts that it will be “cooler along the Lake.”  We are constantly tantalized and taunted by forecasts from Green Bay promising nice 50 and 60 degree days only to face the reality of yet another day in the low 40’s here.  It should make us better people, but I’m not sure that is actually the case.

Even the seemingly cool weather of early spring is enough to bring about a great awakening in the forest.  Each trip out to the preserve this time of year yields something new.  Even though the snow has just melted there are birds, absent in winter, arriving to take their places- red-shouldered hawks are back where we suspect they’ve nested the last few years, brown creepers prowl the tree trunks and phoebes perch looking for bugs.  Sandhill cranes are paired up and strolling the prairie, and tundra swans fly overhead in giant “V”s.  A Coopers hawk snatches a cardinal at the bird feeders, and a merlin zooms past at high speed, heading for the marsh.  Birds are moving constantly now, with returning migrants showing up almost every morning.Photo of spring in the woods

Even though it’s just above freezing, wood frogs are thawing out and moving from the winter shelter in the leaves slowly toward ponds and swales where they’ll soon start singing.  More and more garter snakes are emerging from underground dens to sluggishly find warm places.  Many of them are food for other animals despite their foul odor defense.  

Foxes and coyotes have or will be having their young now in dens, along with squirrels in the trees and rabbits in their warrens, in anticipation of warmer and greener times to soon come.  In another month their young will experience spring for themselves above ground.  Turkeys are calling now, the toms trying to look especially impressive for the hens, and their rivals.  The swales in the swamp are home to many mallards and wood ducks and a few woodsy Canada geese.  

And although they don’t look any different than a month ago, the trees are preparing for spring as well.  Although they still appear dormant, one has only to tap a maple tree to observe the sap moving from root to branch.  Our maple syrup program for school children is coming to an end for the year, but the trees have been lately producing sap in abundance, on its way up to feed the new leaves that in six weeks will erupt from the branches.  So much of the life in the forest depends on the trees, but sometimes we barely pay attention to them.  What an exciting time this must have been for Native people and early settlers, who would have been busy making the sugar they needed after a long winter.

A visit to the forest to witness this natural awakening can awaken something in us also.  Stepping out of our normal lives to experience the reality of the natural world is refreshing, uplifting, and interesting.  Except when that reality is filled with mosquitoes and they will awaken soon enough!

Ripples 3/28/19

Weren’t we in the grip of winter just a couple of weeks ago?  Now the snow is almost gone and birds are migrating in huge numbers, striving to reach vacant nesting territories. The birds are an obvious sign of spring, but there are other, less observed migrations going on as well.

photo of creek in spring

creek in snowmelt

I grew up along the Manitowoc River when there was a dam at Rapids. We lived upstream from the dam, a remnant of the old mill operation, and the dam prevented migrating fish from passing. Fish would congregate below the dam and made it a great place to go for smelt and suckers. Sometimes, after supper on one of the first warm days, my grandfather would fire up his little Farmall Cub tractor and hitch up the stone boat to carry waders, nets, and buckets and perhaps a couple of excited grandchildren and go down to the dam. Spring peepers called along the way and woodcock danced. There were a number of people on the banks below the dam already fishing, and more arrived as it became dark. It took some doing to find a good spot to enter and exit the water. Soon there were campfires and the sounds of laughter in the dark. Each dip of the net was a mystery- usually for us yielding just a few smelt. We didn’t keep suckers, although we knew that people canned or pickled them, and we didn’t catch that many. It was fun, though to watch the suckers pretend to be salmon and try to jump at the dam.  

We didn’t stay out late and by the time we had our little smelt harvest cleaned, I was more than ready for bed. But it was a great experience and about all the excitement we needed.  I don’t remember feeling any loss at not watching TV for an evening.

Nowadays, the smelt run is not what it used to be. For one thing, the dam has been removed and fish can now migrate wherever they wish. There were also more smelt back then – smelt are not native to the Great Lakes, but were stocked intentionally. They spread around the Lakes, with the population peaking in about 1980, then declining thereafter. There are a lot of reasons for that, fewer sea lampreys killing off larger predatory fish, plankton-filtering mussels, and other reasons.

Suckers, of which there are something like 15 species, remain an important forage fish in the Lake and affect not only the ecology of that water body but also the streams into which they migrate. Among the migratory species are longnose and white suckers. They still make spawning runs up those tributaries, although we don’t understand their life histories completely. They move upstream to areas with gravel bottoms to spawn and their fry remain in the stream for a while before moving out into the Lake. The trip can be hard on them, and some of the suckers die, but their bodies then contribute nutrients that feed other animals in the stream, so they take nutrients out of the Lake and distribute them up into neighboring watersheds. This can be an important way of recycling those nutrients.  

Dr. Karen Murchie of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is studying the migration of suckers along the west shore of Lake Michigan. One of our partners, Dr. Titus Seilheimer of UW SeaGrant suggested that Forget Me Not Creek might be an interesting site at which to document sucker migration since it was improved for fish passage last year. We met with Dr. Murchie, and as a result, four volunteers will be visiting the creek to document sucker migration every day starting April 1. Not only will this give us a chance to look for fish using the creek, but it will give us a reason to visit for a few minutes each day to observe water levels, clarity, and other wildlife that may be using the stream. Dr. Seilheimer and another volunteer will also be monitoring Silver Creek.

Spring is a magical time around here. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the many aspects of nature that we don’t fully understand.  We welcome the chance to participate in studies like this one which help us appreciate those things which we are still learning. For some of us, it reminds us of childhood experiences in the outdoors and the magic we felt back then.  

photo- Forget Me Not Creek during snowmelt

Ripples 3/21/19

photo of flooded Manitowoc River

Flooded Manitowoc River

And then suddenly it was spring.  The season we longed for seemed to leap upon us, turning our sea of frozen white to acres of mud and water.  Not that we should be surprised, but the change was certainly dramatic.

The snow we had on the ground held quite a bit of water.  It had been partially melted and rained on- concentrated for lack of a better term.  The soil below was frozen at the surface, preventing water from soaking in, and the soil below that was still full of water from last year’s wet fall and early winter rains.  So when our recent warm temperatures and rain came along, water was forced to run off rather than soak in.  Eventually, rivers took the brunt of the runoff, especially where they’ve been altered.  People like to live near the water. We also like to try to make water go where we want it. Our rivers, however, have been here for tens of thousands of years and have developed their own management systems.  A lot of that involves the floodplains which lie adjacent to their banks.  

Floodplains or floodways are inundated by water a couple of times during the year, typically.  It can be during snowmelt, as we see now, or during really heavy rain events like we experienced last August.  Where river water is constricted, its level rises until it finds a place to escape it’s banks, often man-made. This time of year, bridges can also cause problems as ice piles up against them, damming up the water and causing flooding.  My dad had a blasting license, and I remember going with him near Manitou park to dynamite an ice jam for the City. (I think they have safer means of doing that now, but it was memorable.)  And of course, we have to build elaborate systems of storm drains to direct water back to the river as levels subside.

In nature, floodplains allow the water to spread out adjacent to the river, then gradually return as the water level drops.  If the floodplain is permanently vegetated, the plants might also filter the water before it gets back to the river, holding on to sediment and nutrients which in turn feed the plants.  Its a pretty nice system, saving a lot of money in damage to property, providing cleaner water, and creating wildlife habitat at the same time.  It just means you won’t be able to build there, but that’s not a good idea in the first place, unless you have a house on stilts and a boat for access.  Unfortunately, about half of these wetlands have been converted to something else, or were contained by levees and such, leaving people living behind them vulnerable.

Wildlife is vulnerable too this time of year if they choose to live in a floodplain. Where I live, a herd of deer suddenly appeared in the yard when our bottomland forest was flooded, looking a little lost. I wonder about the meadow mice (voles) and shrews, which live in the grass, and how they cope with flooding.  I imagine they have a hard time, and must either move or drown. One study from Canada indicated that they re-colonize a floodplain more quickly if there is a variety of vegetation types present, and that more of them survive if there are not steep banks that must be climbed. Eventually though, these little animals make their way back into their dangerous habitat to start over, only to be displaced or drowned by the next flood. Life is not easy, I’m afraid.  

Still, other animals are adapted to high water like fish which migrate upstream in the spring.  Without snowmelt, a lot of small streams would be impassable, and these fish, like suckers and northern pike, would be cut off from their spawning areas.  

Most of the Woodland Dunes preserve is a mosaic of wetlands covered by forest. Trees cut the wind and the snow settles deep.  The trees, even without leaves, shade the snowpack just a bit, allowing it to melt gradually. A lot of that water seeps into the soil and some runs off- a clear, deep brown brew enhanced by dead leaves and downed branches. The whole preserve is like a giant sponge, storing and treating the water. The Dunes has always been wet, and it always will be, but we all benefit from the water having some place to go. Fortunately, in a couple of weeks the water will have gone where it needs to, and we’ll all be able to live a drier life. In the meantime, we hope for the best for everyone affected.

photo- Manitowoc River from today’s HTR

Ripples 3/15/19

Earlier this week we saw below zero temperatures and the world was crispy. Now we’re above freezing and the world is soggy.  March has something for everyone and something new almost every day in the world of nature.

Now begins the magical time of year when maple trees pump their sweet sap upward and people harvest it – as they have for thousands of years around here.  Few trees have the ability to do that, or sap that has a high enough sugar content to make such harvest worthwhile, and we’re lucky to be able to take part in this activity. Maple sugaring affords an excuse to get out to the woods at a time of year when not a lot of other activity is taking place for people. And, it is an exercise in patience, giving one time to contemplate basic physics and world issues in general, as the forest slowly awakens back to life.

photo of a red-winged blackbird

red-winged blackbird

At the nature center, school children come out and learn about syruping, and also about the early spring ecology of the forest. They hike, looking for distinctive signs of life – the tracks and trees, lichens and mosses, that sometimes go unnoticed during the warm months. Where the surface of the snow a week ago was peppered only with seeds and plant debris, now skinny little orb-weaver spiders crawl across the surface seeking what I assume are greener pastures or thickets. A caterpillar does the same. How do these tiny cold-blooded animals function in the cold and snow?  Now that the world has softened up, foxes dig for their prey.

And at the bird feeders, the ultimate sign of spring has returned.  Several red-winged blackbirds visit to taste both sunflower and suet, then occasionally fly out to the marsh and sing. For me, theirs is the most welcome of bird songs in spring. They are followed in a day by song sparrows and a grackle, but those don’t seem to have the same psychological impact. Redwings don’t migrate too far – a few spend the winter around here, and most are found from Illinois southward, so they are poised to return as soon as conditions permit. The males come first, and females several weeks later.  They are one of the most numerous birds in North America, about 150 million of them. They are very adaptable, but like habitat with or near water consisting of thick vegetation. Males establish territories and try to gather a number- often up to 15- females into their harem which the males spend the rest of summer defending. Their lives are a bit like soap operas – males trying to keep their harems together, while females enjoying the company of other males if the opportunity arises. The marsh is a bit of a sordid place and it’s not easy to follow a particular genetic bloodline. How boring is our perspective – all we see are males perched singing on the tops of cattails and shrubs in the marsh, while females dive down into the vegetation. They give us little indication of the drama in their lives.

Unfortunately, the population of this very common bird is declining.  For all their adaptability, their numbers are slowly falling. Why? Researchers aren’t sure, but the population of insects, a food source for them, is declining everywhere, and habitat is still being lost.  Its that way for many living things and for our own sake we need pay attention to that.  

But for now, the floodgates have again opened, and wildlife streams north as well as up from beneath the snow.  Every day there will be new things to see in and around our beloved Lakeshore- one need never be bored around here.  

photo- red-winged blackbird by Nancy Nabak