Ripples 4/14/22

Ripples by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist

photo of dogwood flowerIt is finally spring, and that means that it is almost time to start all of those yard work projects that we have been thinking about all winter long. I recently bought my first house, and I have been beyond excited to get to plant a garden and plant native flowers/shrubs in the yard.

Looking at the current landscaping certainly makes that seem quite daunting though. Invasive shrubs line the house, and though it pains me to see, I can’t overly blame the past owner. Not many people know when they put in those plants how bad they truly are. In fact, even though European barberry/common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is listed as prohibited in the state of Wisconsin, you can still buy it at many greenhouses and landscaping companies.
Many invasive plants become a problem due to how pretty they look. Plants like barberry, buckthorn, and honeysuckle were all brought here and used in landscaping, and now, are listed as invasive. What started out innocently enough, just bringing them here because they are pretty, goes downhill quite quickly. First, birds will eat the berries off of the plants and spread those seeds whenever they go to the bathroom. Because no local wildlife is used to these new plants, there will be little to no predators to eat the young plants. Since there are no predators, those plants will all grow to be full-sized. Then, because the native plants aren’t used to the competition from those new plants, the native ones end up dying because they don’t get enough sunlight or space to grow. Now that the native plants are all gone, the new plants will spread and spread, taking over huge areas of land and killing and crowding out more native plants as they go. This is why they are then deemed invasive.
We at Woodland Dunes spend a lot of time removing invasive plants like barberry, buckthorn, and honeysuckle from our preserve to help the native plants and wildlife. Luckily, as more people learn about the issues of planting invasive plants in their landscaping, fewer will end up escaping and getting into the forests. Also, as more people hear about the issues of invasives, more and more people have been removing those plants from their yards, which helps stop the spread of new invasives.
But this doesn’t mean that your yard has to look ugly. We have plenty of beautiful native plants in Wisconsin that could take the place of the bad ones. In fact, some of these native ones are even prettier than the invasive ones and have a ton of awesome wildlife benefits too! For example, common ninebark, elderberry, and the native dogwood species all have beautiful flowers in the spring, nice full leaves in the summer, berries that the birds will love, and leaves that turn colors in the fall! And, some even have colorful branches in the winter like the red-osier dogwood! These plants look nice and birds love to nest, shelter in, and eat the berries too. Pollinators will also be super happy with those choices, as they love the flowers!
We also have a ton of native wildflowers that could add a ton of color to your yard! Reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks, whatever color you want, there is a native wildflower that fits it! Cardinal flowers, scarlet beebalm, and royal catchfly add some red, butterfly weed adds a bright pop of orange, black-eyed Susans, lance-leaf coreopsis, yellow coneflower, add happy yellow colors, many plants come in green like the leaves of mountain mint, great blue lobelia adds an unusual pop of blue, purple coneflower, blazing star, and wild bergamot all add purple that is a welcomed sight to both people and pollinators alike!
Pollinators will all love those plants too, and some of those plants attract birds with their seeds in the fall. Planting native plants in your yard can not only make your yard pleasing to look at, but can also help the wildlife and environment too!
photo from US Fish & Wildlife Digital Library 

Ripples 4/7/22

By Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator

The sunflower – nature’s ultimate happy accessory and a symbol of loyalty and adoration. When sunflowers hit the farmer’s photo of sunflower face market in July, I have bouquets of their bright yellow manes in my arms. This brilliant, tall, and strong flower is currently getting worldwide attention because it is also a national symbol and major crop for the Ukraine.

Not until recently did I learn that Russia and the Ukraine together produce about 60% of the world’s sunflower oil. According to the trade group Fediol, the European Union buys around 200,000 tons of sunflower oil from the Ukraine every month. That’s a big market with big economic implications. Because of the continuing conflict in the Ukraine, some stores in Spain are already putting limits on how many bottles of oil can be purchased daily. If the conflict continues, it’s very conceivable that more sunflower crop concerns will follow.

We, the United States, are the world’s 10th largest producer of sunflowers, with most being grown in South and North Dakota. In contrast to the EU, in 2020, our country consumed about 229 metrics tons of sunflower seed oil. This is decidedly a smaller consumption, but certainly more than a drop in the bucket.

It’s true that we enjoy the sunflower for its cooking oil, but we also enjoy the flower because of the bird species it attracts. And just like people, they enjoy eating the tasty and nutritious seeds. Finches, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, cardinals, jays and even some species of woodpeckers dine on them.

Backyard birding has grown as a hobby in the last couple of years because of larger numbers of people working from home due to the pandemic. As the pandemic has progressed, so has bird feeding and sunflower demand. In fact, according to Packaged Facts, the annual US sales in wild bird food and feeders in 2021 was estimated at a whopping $2.2 billion dollars.

It’s hard to imagine topping a statistic like that, but there’s even more to this economically powerful and bird-friendly flower. There’s something so magnetic, something so special about sunflowers – they’ve been captivating us for centuries. And as a storyteller species, we like to explain our behaviors, questions, and curiosities through, well, stories.

The sunflower, as told in Greek mythology, relates to the water nymph, Clytie, who fell in love with the Sun God, Apollo. At first, Apollo loved her back, but then he fell in love with Leucothoe. Clytie became jealous and told Leucothoe’s father of their relationship. In true mythology form, he punished his daughter by burying her alive. This angered Apollo whom then turned Clytie into a flower, one that resembled the sun. Even as a flower; however, Clytie still loved Apollo and spent all of her days watching him move the sun across the sky in his chariot. This broken love story explained why sunflowers move to face the sun.

Or do they? Myth busting alert – in reality, sunflowers do follow the sun, but it’s only the buds and leaves of the sunflower which display sun- turning behavior throughout the day (called heliotropism).  Once a head of the plant has flowered though, it’s no longer heliotropic. It then remains fixed facing the east where the sun rises. 

The sunflower gives us many gifts to be grateful for, but there’s one more gift that I haven’t touched on yet. The sunflower makes you feel like a hippie – a free spirit and full of joy. I was born generationally too late to be part of the original hippie culture, but I say we’re never too late to feel free and joyful.

To our friends in the Ukraine, continue to embrace your sunflower.  Stand tall, stay strong, and channel your inner freedom. Just as the sunflower, you shine brightly in our hearts.

photo of sunflower by Nancy Nabak




Ripples 3/31/22

By Wendy Lutzke, Environmental Educator & Butterfly Garden Coordinator 

photo of sunrise over lakeWith lots of talk about the change to Daylight Savings Time recently, my mind has focused on the joys of sunlight and specifically, its “coming up” and “going down.” You see, I’m crepuscular, and after reading this, you may realize that you are as well.

Crepuscular (derived from the Latin word for “twilight”) creatures are most active at sunrise and sunset. Those that prefer dawn are matutinal. Dusk lovers are vespertine. I am bimodal, enjoying both times of twilight equally. I share my crepuscularity with many wonderful creatures including deer, skunks, wild rabbits, ferrets, squirrels, possums, moose, and some bats.  Moths and beetles like activity at twilight, and don’t forget the flies that join you on your crepuscular bike ride along Lake Michigan! Those of you with house cats or pet hamsters may even notice that they are crepuscular, too.

In other parts of the world you may spend your twilight hours with spotted hyenas, wombats, wallabies, and gliders. But let’s get back to our home turf. At Woodland Dunes, find a quiet spot for observation at dawn or dusk. You may be fortunate enough to see an American woodcock in spring along a woodland trail or chimney swifts in late summer by the nature center.

 Why are some animals most active at twilight? One main reason is to avoid predators. Many creatures are nocturnal or diurnal, being most active at night or in daytime. Crepuscular creatures don’t have to compete for food with those animals and are also less likely to be preyed upon as food for something else, since they are harder to see in the waxing and waning hours of the day. For animals in warmer climates, the cooler temperatures at dawn and dusk also allow for comfortable movement.

And then there are the aesthetic reasons for being crepuscular. On countless mornings I’ve taken advantage of a beautiful sunrise over the calm, quiet waters of Lake Michigan or sat in the woods to allow my eyes the experience of naturally adjusting from dark to light. During a walk at dusk, have you ever been awed by crepuscular rays of sunlight beaming from behind a low cloud as the sun sets in the west? If you’ve never experienced moments like this, I highly recommend it. Join us, the crepuscular creatures, for the best time of the day. Like the rabbits, the deer, the squirrels, and many more animals, you will reap the benefits of life at twilight. 

Photo by Wendy Lutzke

Ripples 3/24/22

By Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator 

photo of sandhill flyingIt’s a prehistoric look accompanied by a prehistoric trumpeting sound. This interesting beast is our current pterodactyl of the sky, the Sandhill Crane.

Sandhill Cranes are making their way home and their arrival numbers are ever increasing. On Saturday, April 9th, bird enthusiasts from six states in the Midwest will be awake in the dark, coffee in hand, and counting sandhill cranes as the sun rises.

What began in just one Wisconsin county in 1976, has grown into a Midwest program with over 1,600 volunteers in six states signed up to count how many species they see and hear, including those in courtship.

Why are people counting these mammoths of the sky? Because in the 1800s they were hunted to near extinction. In 1916, the federal Migratory Bird Bird Treaty Act was signed, protecting the rest of them in our Midwest region. The count now includes the endangered Whooping Crane, all to get an idea of population trends and habitat management.

In 2001, the Midwest Birding Symposium took place near here, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Conservationists and bird enthusiasts from the Midwest gathered to learn more about what can be done to protect and enjoy our birds. During the symposium, there was a focus on raising funds for Whooping Crane reintroduction in the eastern part of the United States. The National Fish & Wildlife Foundation awarded challenge grants to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help fund the reintroduction.

“Every $1 you contribute will be matched by the Foundation, bringing us ever closer to the day when Whooping Cranes will again grace our landscape. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is also supporting the crane reintroduction through the Pathways to Nature Conservation Fund, an exciting partnership with Wild Birds Unlimited.”  Though this program, $25,000 went into reintroduction efforts at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

As our state continues the debate on Sandhill Crane hunting, so do current headlines that go something like this, “4 endangered whooping cranes killed in Oklahoma during hunting season being considered in Wisconsin,” Jan. 3, 2022. Following these headlines are these poignant facts: The cranes are endangered, with a few more than 800 in the world, both wild and captive. About 80 are nesting in Wisconsin.

I’m not sure how much money was raised at the symposium 21 years ago, but there will never be enough to bring back these endangered and majestic birds. Caring for our feathered brethren will always be.  Continue we must, to face into the wind so we can learn and they can fly.

-If interested in participating in this year’s crane count, please contact Jessica Johnsrud at

Photo by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 3/17/22

 by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist

While out walking through the woods, a familiar song was heard in the surrounding trees… “Cheeseburger!” Guess what that means…spring is near! What does a cheeseburger have to do with spring you may ask? Well, my favorite little bird, the chickadee, calls out its “Cheeseburger!” or “Hey Sweetie!” song more frequently in the springtime. Males begin singing that song in mid-January, becoming more frequent as the winter progresses, and is then heard much more often in spring. Since we are on the topic of those neat little birds, you may know their famous “chickadee-dee-dee” call, but did you know that they use that call to tell an entire story to one another?

Chickadees are one of the best alarms of the bird world. They warn each other and other birds when danger is near. How do they do that? Well, recent studies done on chickadee calls have discovered that they can not only share information within their alarm call about a nearby threat,  but also the size, relative threat level, and location of that danger. How neat is that? All by slightly adjusting their “chickadee-dee-dee” call. 

A study done by the University of Washington reported that after listening to over 5,000 alarm calls, there is indeed a pattern to what the chickadees are saying! The number of “dees” at the end of their call corresponds to the size and threat level of the danger nearby. The more “dees” at the end of the call, the more dangerous the threat is. Now we humans may think that a large predator like a hawk would be the most dangerous threat in the chickadee’s eyes, but that isn’t the case. Chickadees actually see smaller-sized threats as being more dangerous, given that smaller predators are more agile and more likely to catch the chickadees. This means that the number of “dees” added on to their song is much higher for smaller predators than it is for larger ones. For example, a large cat on the ground may only elicit five to ten “dees” whereas a smaller hawk perched nearby may elicit two dozen “dees.” So, just by changing the number of “dees” in their call, they can tell others about the size of danger (and that there is danger nearby).

But what if they want to say where that danger is? Well, they can. Chickadees will use their “chickadee-dee-dee” call for predators that are on the ground, stationary, or perched. If the danger is flying above them, they will use a different call, their “seet!” call, to tell other birds that there is an aerial threat. 

Now, just because you hear the “chickadee-dee-dee” call does not mean there is always danger around. They also use that call for other social conversations, such as announcing where food is, which is why you may hear that call around bird feeders. But, the general rule is that if you hear 5 or more “dees” then it is more likely to be a warning call instead of just a social call. 

Another call they make is called their gargle call. This call is said to sound like “a garbled mixture of calls all mashed together” and even though to us it may not sound like a song, it acts like their other songs in that it is linked with courtship and establishing territories. This call is also heard when lower-ranking chickadees are too close to higher-ranking chickadees. 

For being such a small bird, they sure do have a lot to say! How they are able to communicate so well with one another about the specifics of danger is already really neat, but it gets even cooler when you think of how they are making those calls to tell other chickadees about what they will be up against. Chickadees will often mob together and fly at the threat in an attempt at driving it away. Those little birds seem to have no fear.

Next time you hear a chickadee, try to listen and figure out what they may be communicating with the birds nearby. That might help you spot and understand what they are seeing.

Photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service digital library