Sad Woodcock Is Sad

I’d been convinced for a while that even though we hadn’t seen or heard them yet, our woodcocks must be here somewhere, hunkered down and waiting for the weather to change so they could start their spring displays. Well, now I have proof – one of the teachers at the school where I work snapped this photo on campus earlier this week.

photo by Robert Eady

photo by Robert Eady

Poor sad, confused, hungry woodcock. Hang in there, little buddy.

Snowshoe Adventure (Part 1)

My feet on the left in modern-style snowshoes, Leanna's on the right in traditional snowshoes she wove and lacquered herself.

My feet on the left in modern-style snowshoes, Leanna’s on the right in traditional snowshoes she wove and lacquered herself.

This afternoon I talked my friend Leanna into snowshoeing back out to Inkpot Lake with me – some students had told me they’d seen signs of Black-backed Woodpecker activity out there, and I was skeptical but I wanted to check it out. We took snowshoes instead of skis this time to make bushwhacking around on the boggy lakeshore easier.

Being a pair of naturalist nerds, we spent the whole hike out stopping to examine the tracks and scat we found along the trail. (Click any image to bring up a slideshow with captions.)

Did we find any signs of Black-backed Woodpeckers? Did we have any other interesting wildlife encounters at the lake? Come back Friday to find out. (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.)

Why Does Snow Melt Around the Bases of Trees?

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I’m sure you’ve all noticed this if you’ve been in the woods in winter: as the season goes on (and on and on, if you live where I do), the first place snow starts to retreat a little is often around the bases of the trees. Why?

The answer is actually not all that exciting. A few plants, such as skunk cabbage, actually do generate their own heat early in the spring, but as far as I know that’s not the case for the sugar maples and other common trees here. The most likely explanation is just that the relatively dark color of the tree bark absorbs more heat and, as a result, melts the surrounding snow. Still, any sign of spring is cause for celebration at this point!

Four Ways to Enjoy Nature in Winter

February is in full-swing now. February is generally my least favorite month of the year – it’s always a busy time in school or work, and it’s usually when I start to get tired of winter. I always feel like it’s harder to find interesting things to blog about in winter, when there’s just not much going on with plants or insects, only a few birds hanging around, etc. So both as a reminder to myself and as ideas for anyone else feeling the same way, here are four ways to pay attention to nature even in the cold and snow.

  1. Learn to identify animal tracks. Seriously, it only takes a few minutes to teach yourself the basics of different track patterns (for example, how to tell squirrel tracks from weasel tracks), and it opens up a whole new world of observation in the snow. You can read my past posts about animal tracks here, and find a good primer to basic track patterns here.
  2. Learn to identify trees without their leaves. Winter tree ID can be tricky but fun. Key things to look for include the branching pattern (alternate vs. opposite) and the size, shape, and color of the buds. I recently did a post with some photos of winter maple buds.
  3. Pay attention to the night sky. Yes, it’s cold, but that cold air can also mean crisp, clear views of the stars at night. Last fall I compiled a list of some great online resources that will get you started with night sky observation without the need for a telescope.
  4. Don’t take your winter birds for granted. Okay, yeah, a lot of the beautiful songbirds that breed here disappear in the winter, and it’s easy to not give a second look to the chickadees, nuthatches, and others that stick around. However, this is a great opportunity to get to know a few species in-depth without distractions. The Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up this week – why not get started with that?

Bundle up (I recommend wool socks and long underwear), brave the cold, and let me know what you find in your winter woods. I’m going on a winter birding adventure in Minnesota this coming weekend – can’t wait!

Otter Tunnels on Inkpot Lake

Image from Google Maps

Image from Google Maps

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Click to see panorama full size

One of the lakes on our campus has the evocative name of Inkpot. Unlike the rest of them, which are clear, pristine, eutrophic kettle lakes, take a canoe out on Inkpot in the summer and you’ll discover that it’s surprisingly murky and full of aquatic vegetation. Part of the reason for this, according to one of the science teachers here, is that it’s at a slightly lower elevation than the other lakes; another reason is that a sluggish stream flows through it from a nearby spring, meaning it’s the only lake on campus with any current. There’s even an old beaver dam at the outflow, although it doesn’t appear to be actively maintained by beavers anymore.

The current means the ice is thinner on Inkpot than on the true kettle lakes, and I’d heard that last weekend someone saw otters there, coming and going through a small patch of open water. Today a friend and I skied out that way, and while we didn’t see otters or any open water, we did see otter tracks of varying ages criss-crossing the surface of the ice. At one point an older set of tracks appeared to vanish at the lake’s edge, and I managed to push my skis through a snowdrift to get a closer look.

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So yeah, today I learned that otters make snow tunnels just like mice and squirrels do!

One other small point of interest: getting out to this lake, at the far western end of the property, required skiing a much longer, hillier trail than I’d done before, and actually getting to the edge of the lake required leaving the groomed trail and going down a slope through a couple feet of fluffy, unpacked snow. And then back up it when we were done. On skis. There was a lot of screaming and falling. Leanna, the friend who went with me (and the person in the panorama above), composed a haiku about the experience that she wanted me to share with you.

On an adventure
Otter tunnels in the snow
Sp-lat on my back

She is adamant that “sp-lat” should be pronounced as two syllables.

“Heyyy, Sweetie”

The woods this morning may have looked (and felt – more sub-zero temperatures) like the depths of winter…

Frost on fir needles.

Frost on fir needles.

Entrance to a squirrel's cache under the snow.

Entrance to a squirrel’s cache under the snow.

Looking out across the snowy lake.

Looking out across the snowy lake.

But they sounded like the very first stirrings of spring: for the first time this year, I heard chickadees practicing their whistle songs and woodpeckers drumming in the trees.

Listen to these sounds yourself at the Macaulay Library website by clicking on the links below:

A Different Snow Fly

Today I finally made it out on the ski trails. (I’ve reached a point where if I have a relatively flat, groomed trail to ski on and I don’t have to go too fast, I can manage to avoid embarrassing myself too badly.) We got about four fresh inches of now last night and the woods were beautiful. It was also a lot warmer than it was last week, with an air temperature right around the freezing point.

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While I was huffing and puffing along I spotted several wingless Chionea snow flies of the same type that I wrote about at length last winter, walking over the surface of the snow.

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When I was almost back, though, a different insect caught my eye – another tiny fly in the snow, but with one crucial difference from the Chionea ones.

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This one has wings! After doing a little digging, I think this critter is from a different branch of crane flies, family Trichoceridae. I couldn’t find a lot of information about them beyond the fact that they’re a type of crane fly that’s active in cold weather, but I’m still amazed by how many small insects and other arthropods are actually active in the middle of winter here if you keep your eyes open for them.

Otters at Play

Okay, I didn’t actually see the otters themselves, but this is almost as cool. This week I’ve been teaching my students the basics of identifying animal tracks. (I’m hardly an expert on the subject myself, but I know enough about it to teach a short lesson, anyway.) In the woods near one of the lakes we found this odd groove in the snow, as though something had been dragged.

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Can you see it? I’ve been having trouble getting tracks in the snow to show up well in photos.

It was a bit of a mystery until we followed the trail down to the edge of the lake.

003 (768x1024)An otter had been playing in the ice and snow, running around and doing belly slides. What looked like a trail left by something being dragged through the snow was actually from an otter pushing itself along on its belly. I love that otters seem to enjoy playing in the snow every bit as much as people do!

Speaking of people playing in the snow, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a group of teenagers play snowshoe kickball. Snowshoe kickball is just like regular kickball, except it’s played in the snow while wearing snowshoes, and there’s generally a lot of falling down.

Have a good weekend!

Blame It on the Lake

There’s a reason why we have snow on the ground when most of Wisconsin still doesn’t–we’re far enough north to catch lake effect snow from Lake Superior. Most of the Great Lakes are too big and deep to completely freeze over in the winter (Lake Erie is the only exception). As a mass of cold air moves across the surface of the lake, it picks up moisture, which it then dumps as snow when it reaches land. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is one of the snowiest parts of the country, and as a lot of you know, I live right on the Wisconsin/UP border.

The Great Lakes snowbelts. In French, but you get the idea.

I’m not complaining. Nothing quite compares with the quiet of woods in snow.