Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ice Returns

The ice has returned over the last few weeks.  Lurking under a pile of grass at the water’s edge of some slough or bay are some slivers of ice.  There they will hold out until the weather turns cold again.  First they will spread their cold fingers throughout the ditches, sloughs.  Next will be the bays and the leeward shores of the lakes.  Then on some cold, clear, calm night Lake Winnebago will be encased in a thin black prison that will thicken, gather snow, and then the well-insulated feet of ice fisherman and finally their Suburbans, Explorers, and F150s.  The marshes are lonely and quiet, the ice of the lakes is lonely too, but the ice grumbles and booms as the temperature changes and the wind blows.  On an angry night in late winter, the ice, weakened by the coming spring, will team up with the wind to invade the land, crushing docks, trees, sheds and everything in its path.  The ice will sit stacked up in shame at the water’s edge watching the sun overhead end its reign over lake and slough.  The ice will not be thought of again until those first frosts end summer, and in October and November, little slivers of ice hide under marsh grass and advance and retreat, advance and retreat...

Duck weeds and water meal locked in ice

Monday, October 31, 2011

Winnebago Pool Lakes Conference

The Winnebago Lakes Council will host the second annual Winnebago Pool Lakes Conference on Saturday, November 5th.  The event will take place 8:45 am to noon at the Fin n’ Feather in Winneconne

The annual meeting of the Council will be held at 9:30 am.  The speakers program will start at 10 am.  Entitled “New Views of Our Lakes and Rivers” the program includes: Diane Schauer on Aquatic Invasive Species Education and Regional Planning; Andrew Sabai on Conservation with a Camera; and Tom Barron on interpreting the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway.

A breakfast buffet is available.  Reservations are not required, but an email to with the number of people planning to attend is appreciated.

The Winnebago Lakes Council promotes the long-term sustainability of Lakes Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Winneconne, and Poygan and their connecting rivers. Learn more at

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Page's Slough Plant Survey

Dense vegetation in Page's Slough

Page’s Slough is a backwater of the Wolf River, just upstream on Lake Poygan, but at first glance it looks like it drains directly into the lake.  Like most things on the Winnebago System, Page’s Slough is big, about 139 acres.  Essentially it is a shallow water lake.  This big backwater is managed for fish and wildlife habitat.  In the past the slough has had an abundant population of curly-leaf pond weed, an invasive species, and early this summer it was observed to be abundant.  It was feared native plants would be hurt.  Curly-leaf pondweed is different than our native vegetation in that it begins to grow in fall, comes on strong in the spring and early summer, and begins to die back in late June, or early July.  If it came on strong then it might have strangled the native vegetation. 

The Demented Gardener
On a nice day in late August I’m there with Art Techlow, DNR, and my wife and note taker Rebecca.  I stand at the bow with a modified garden rake in hand, looking like some kind of demented gardener.  The rake  is metal, with two sets of teeth back to back, and has an eight foot metal pole.  Art pilots the boat from one predetermined GPS point to another, and I drop the rake down, spin it around and 93% of the time I pull up a green spaghetti of aquatic plants in muck sauce.  Most of the plants are coontail and Canadian waterweed (Elodea); these aren't particularly good plants for waterfowl in themselves, but they feed and hide millions of insects, crustaceans, and small fish relished by the birds.  Page’s Slough is packed with vegetation, the vast majority of it native.  Since this is only an observational study and not an experiment I can’t say much for sure.  All I know is that this year’s abundant curly-leaf pondweed seems to have had little negative impact, no impact, or an undetermined positive impact on the abundance of native vegetation.  In any case it is good for this lake…I mean slough.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Summer is Winding Down

Red-tailed Hawk
I took a walk through Poygan State Wildlife Area yesterday morning.  A red-tailed hawk greeted me at the gate, and tolerated my presence probably because the hunting was good.  The sedges are beginning to change colors and many of the other plants have tinges of brown or yellow on the tips of their leaves.  Even though many are shutting down, a few are just getting started blooming.  The bumble bees seem less vigorous than they used to, these workers are burning out.  They have worked hard and none will survive the winter.  The water in the marsh's ditches is low, but filled with wood ducks, a few mallards and at least one blue-wing teal.  But there are some other interesting birds that catch my eye.
Wild Rice information

At first sight they look like birds that left the nest too soon.  They have the ungainly bodies of plucked chickens and flap their short wings in an almost hopeless flight.  These are not babies though, they are Sora--a little member of the rail family.  Like many rails, they are seldom seen.  They would rather run through the grass and sedge than take flight to escape danger.  Their flight muscles are weak, it is amazing that they will be able to migrate anywhere.  These sora are most abundant among the wild rice stems where I flush one and hear perhaps a dozen others, some only 15 feet away.  They look more like chickens than anything else, and love the wild rice grains.  Soon these little guys will be flapping those unlikely wings across the US Gulf Coast all the way to the Northern coast of South America.  Good luck guy, I'll see you--no, hear you--next year.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Plant of the Week: Spotted Joe-Pye-Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)

Joe-Pye Weeds are among our most attractive wetland plants.  They bloom in late summer and fall,  adding a touch of color in an increasingly drab landscape.  The plant is said to be named after Joe-Pye a Native American Herbalist on the East Coast of the United States.

More about Spotted Joe-Pye Weed

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Plant of the Week: Blue Vervain (Verbana hastate)

Wild Hyssop
Blue Vervain (Verbana hastae) 
Blue Vervain is another one of those wetland plants that makes a nice addition to a shoreland restoration, rain garden, or other wet spot on your property.  The stems rise out of the snow as if in defiance of winter, and a reminder that summer will come again.  

Also known as common vervain and wild hyssop

More on Blue Vervain

Wild Hyssop closeup
Blue Vervain Closeup 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What is the difference: emergent, submergent floating leaf, and free-floating plants?

Simply, these terms refer to the growth habit of aquatic and wetland plants.  Some plants will have more than one habit.  Updated page on emergent, submergent, aquatic vegetation

Emergents emerge or have a large portion of their shoots, leaves or flowering structures out of the water.  These include the familiar cattails, and also bulrushes, wild rice, sedges, bur-reed and many others.

Emergent Plants: Blue Flag Iris, Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta.), Bluejoint Grass
Submergent plants have most of their structures below water.  Common examples of these would be coontail, milfoils, and many pondweeds.
Submergent Plants: Coontail, Elodea (Canadian Waterweed),
Wild Celery, Water  Strar-grass, Chara

Floating-leaf plants have large floating leaves.  They include the water-lilies, some pondweeds, and American lotus, although the latter often protrude from the water.
Floating-leaf plant - White waterlily (Nymphaea odorata)
Free-floating plants include the duckweeds, common bladderwort and often coontail.  Coontail is sometimes rooted, but it is dislodged easily by wave action and will continue growing in a floating mass, or tangled in with other plants.
Free-floating plant: Least Duckweed (Lemna minor)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Plant of the Week: Common or Giant Bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum)

Common Bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum)
Common bur-reed is an emergent plant of shallow water with sword shaped leaves and mace shaped seed heads.  The corn kernel sized seeds (achenes) are often eaten by waterfowl, and shore birds. Muskrats eat the entire plant, and the tubers are eatable by humans.

More about Bur reed

Common Bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum)
Common Bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum)
Seeds (achenes)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Boom Bay (Loch Ness) Goose

Here is a mysterious barnyard goose swimming with some of its cousins in Boom Bay, Lake Poygan.  The blurry photo is reminiscent of the famous Scottish monster.  Well, maybe it isn't a goose after all.  I bet it really is a immature plesiosaur.  Yes it certainly is, no doubt about it.  I'm starting a new guiding service called "It Came From the Shallows Expeditions."  Space is filling up fast, so book your expedition now and you're guaranteed to be on some terrible cable show.  

Enhanced photo just received from NASA's Jet Repulsion Laboratories 


Friday, July 29, 2011

Shoreland Restoration Tour

Come join us on Wednesday, Aug. 17, for a tour of a variety of conservation projects designed to help improve wildlife habitats and the water quality of Lake Butte des Morts. 
All three properties are in the Omro area along the southwestern shore of the lake. The first presentation will be at 4 p.m. at 4780 Rivermoor Road. The other scheduled times are: 5 p.m., 5823 Springbrook Road, and 6 p.m., 5430 E. Reighmoor Road.
The public is invited to join the tour free of charge and talk with the property owners and members of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association who have been involved in creating and maintaining the conservation efforts. It will be conducted rain or shine.
The projects have been undertaken with the advice and assistance of Winnebago County Land and Water Conservation staff, who arranged the tour. The event is co-sponsored by the Winnebago Lakes Council, the League of Women Voters of Winnebago County and the Fox Valley Area Chapter-Wild Ones.

Click for Map

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Little Trudge Through the Marsh

Marsh or Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

I have been staying away.  I've been there for quick visits many times this summer, but I’ve been away too long.  Before I step from the car the welcome committee arrives:  first deer flies swarm around the car, and then the mosquitoes land on the glass and prepare to pounce.  I take a deep breath, tuck my nose under my shirt and spray my arms and neck with OFF.  I step out of the car and gasp for air and rub a little of the insect repellent on my face.  The deer flies have formed a cyclone over my head.  I spray my hair.  I am now good and tacky and ready for adventure.  The deer flies land periodically, but take flight as soon as they touch down.  For the rest of this trudge my defenses will be constantly tested and the chinks in my armor found and exploited.  For now I can largely ignore the swarm of female insects that want to call me dinner. 

I strap on my back pack weighed down with camera gear.  It is a movement of hope, much like buying a lottery ticket.  I don’t know if I’ll have a dry place to set it down when I’m out there, and so I don’t know if the 40 lbs is worth the effort.  I grab my walking stick for balance.  I head out and walk through a thick stand of reed canary-grass.  It is an invasive species and a plague on our wetlands.  I push back the tall grass to look and see if there are any species growing down there.  There are none.  Mosquito in my armpit, I push through another 100 feet and I’m in those grass-like sedges, a few grasses, flowers and shrubs.  This isn’t the diversity of the Amazon, but it is amazing in its own way and much better than the one species of grass just a few paces behind me.  If I should fall asleep for a year I would wake up surrounded by reed canary-grass as it advances and smothers this marsh.  I try to focus on the positive, sedges are at my feet and the sweet-smelling marsh milkweed is under my nose and a deer fly is up my sleeve.  Oh…positive thoughts.  There are short, fat, pale-green grasshoppers with comical expressions looking up from the sedges. 

Wool-grass (Scirpus cyprinus)
The sun is low on the horizon, there is no place to set down the camera bag, so I head west back to the car to maybe catch the sunset over there.  The return walk is like walking up rapids of a trout stream.  The prevailing winds have bent the sedges and grass toward me and now they provide stiff resistance.  Soon I the sweat beads on my face, the beads run together, and steady drip into and out of my eyes flow.  I huff and puff my way along, my back is soaked and the mosquitoes are watching the DEET drip off my body.  They rejoice when I take the back pack off and expose my unsprayed t-shirt, which they drill through immediately.  I set up the big camera and take some photos of the sun going down.  The sunset is pretty, but it doesn’t knock my socks off.  I turn around 180 degrees and see the cloud formations behind me are quite striking.  I set up and take their picture, pack up and drive home trough a rain of insects pelting the windshield.  As I approach Oshkosh, the fields and marshes have been decorated by thousands of flashing lightning bugs.  I pull off the road to listen to the tree frogs and watch the show.  There are no mosquitoes.  I think they are watching the show too.   

Plant of the Week: Meadowsweet (Spirea alb)

Meadowsweet looks similar to its close relative steeple bush, which is often found in Wisconsin wetlands.  Other spirea species can be found in garden centers.

More on White Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Plant of the Week: Spatterdock (Nuphar advena)

Spatterdock (Nuphar avenda)
West Bay Cane Beds -Lake Poygan
In bloom right now is one of the two species of water-lily that are present in the Winnebago Pool.  Spatterdock, sometimes referred to yellow water-lily (which is actually a different species), can be differentiated between our other species-- white water-lily-- by its heart-shaped leaves.  White water-lily leaves are more circular.  All water-lily leaves have a cleft.   Water lilies are some of those pretty “weeds” that most people don’t mind.  The other reason people tolerate and even love water lilies is because they often hold largemouth bass and northern pike.  Lily pads are home to many species of insects, and later in the summer you can see holes were they have been feeding. Water-lilies are sometimes confused with American lotus which often emerges out of the water on its stalk, and its leaves have no cleft.  Water-lilies are not related to true lilies.

More information on Spatterdock

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Plant of the Week: Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

Blue Flag (Iris versicolor)

Blue flag is one of the most attractive wetland plants in our area.  The beauty of this plant seems understated in comparison to cultivars of the European Iris germanica.  I much prefer our native blue flag to the gaudy cultivars.  Blue flag is toxic to humans, but made its way into Native American and pioneer medicine. 

For those looking to grow these flowers and lucky enough to live on the lake, blue flag will grow well along the shore.  For those of us who are not, blue flag will do well in garden ponds.  Currently, I’m working on establishing a rain garden and will plant the blue flag that has been growing in my yard for six years but was in too dry of a location to bloom. 

More on Northern Blue Flag

Blue Flag clones, Poygan State Wildlife Area

New Blog: Lake Puckaway

I work for the Lake Puckaway Protection and Rehabilitation District.  Lake Puckaway is a natural widening of the Fox River upstream of the Winnebago System.  Lake Puckaway shares a similar history and faces similar problems as the Upper Pool Lakes.  I promote education, conservation of the lake, and I report on progress made towards completion of their lake protection grant.  To complete some of those tasks I have created the Lake Puckaway blog.  Those interested in Lake Puckaway and conservation of the Upper Pool Lakes should check it out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Becoming a Professional Conservation Biologist: My Path

How did a kid who was intrigued by nature grow into an adult whose life’s work is now devoted to protecting and restoring nature?  I’ve decided it’s mostly my dad’s fault; that and the weather.  My mom and dad took me camping, showed me the flowers they knew by name and explained what they knew of nature.  They are more nature literate than most, but I would not call them amateur naturalists.  They had bird and wildflower field guides, but took no notes, made no detailed observations and certainly did no experiments.  It is no surprise as early as I can remember I had a fascination with bugs, amphibians and reptiles.  
Many kids have that fascination with bugs etc., but something happened to me in 1988 that started me down the path to the underpaid conservation biologist. The most severe drought in my memory occurred when I was twelve.  I soon discovered that the idea of the balance and harmony of nature promoted in grade school and PBS nature programs was an exaggeration.  Our lawn turned into a yellow dust, the sunsets were reddish from the faraway forest fires of Yellowstone National Park, and storm clouds that formed brought lightning but not rain.   I watched the pond near my house shrink to half its size, and the surrounding marsh and pools dry up and concentrate all the turtles for miles around.  When I approached the pond at the height of the drought twenty turtles scattered into the water into the pond, now only 60 feet across.  Worse yet, the pond was ringed with the shells of 8 dead painted turtles.  Nature had no mercy on my favorite animals.  I already understood nature was fragile, but now I knew it was. 

What put me over the edge was just the innocent little words in a couple of cheap paperbacks, and those printed in leather bound volumes with gold trim.  The first was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.  It spoke of a landscape I knew well, or thought I knew well.  The second was Edward Abbey’s A Desert Solitaire that described the desert landscape of the American Southwest I knew nothing about, and so began a thirst not yet quenched. I learned how the very landscape I hiked and camped was degraded, threatened, and our connection to it warped.  The leather bound volumes were John James Audubon’s Birds of America, Quadrupeds of America.  With these I learned I was robbed.  The elk, moose, cougar, prairie, oak openings, and everywhere the “living wind” of passenger pigeons, the most abundant bird the world has ever known, were missing from my Waupaca County home.   Most bizarre was the description of a common bird, the Carolina parakeet, that lived in the Eastern US from Illinois east to the Atlantic and probably even wandered into Wisconsin now and again.  Where we camped in Wisconsin’s Northwoods there were no forests of giant white pines, and no woodland caribou, Canada lynx, or wolves.  I was robbed, we all were.

My dad bought other books for me that widened my appreciation for nature:  The Amateur Naturalist, Island Within, One Man’s Owl, Of Wolves and Men, and I added a few dozen more volumes before I was out of high school.  It took me a while to finally work out a career in this field, but it was always going to work out that way.  It was my calling, but only because of the path laid out for me by a natural disaster, and my father’s soft encouragement of a few yellowing and disintegrating paperbacks still sitting on my bookshelf.  Happy Father’s Day and thanks, Dad. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Common Terns - Endangered

Looking for Great Egrets - 120 nests on this island
On June 1st, 2011 I assisted biologists Sumner Matteson and Art Techlow conduct bird surveys on Lake Winnebago and Butte des Morts.  The Lake Winnebago survey had been postponed several times because of high winds.  High winds, Lake Winnebago and John boats are not a good mix.  Even this day we had strong winds were.  White caps were forming 50 yards from shore, but this time the direction was out of the west, and so the conditions were not too bad.  Today we were looking specifically for common terns, but also American white pelicans, great egrets and other birds.   
Common terns look similar to gulls, but they are smaller, have knife-shaped wings, and they’re most easily identified by the black caps on their heads.  If you see one of these birds, keep an eye on it.  Likely you’ll see it flying along and pause and hover in mid air.  Suddenly it will drop from the sky as if had a heart attack and plunge into the water.  A moment later it will reappear and head skyward, minnow in beak.  This minnow may be a snack, a gift for a mate, or food for its brood.   

On Lake Winnebago there were no common terns nesting on an island where they had in previous years, because trees had grown up.  Common terns are not common in Wisconsin, in fact they are on the state’s endangered species list.  The main reason is they require nesting sites that are on beaches, or islands far from land predators.  They like a nice view of the horizon and if a site does not have one, they will not nest.  Common terns nest in colonies.  In Wisconsin there are only four, two on Lake Superior and two in Winnebago County.  This island on Lake Winnebago would have been the fifth.  The habitat of common terns has become increasingly scarce as beaches are developed and the sand bars of rivers disappear under reservoirs.  Because of this, the DNR and local partners have constructed two nesting islands, one in Lake Butte des Morts and the other in a large pond between Oshkosh and Winneconne.

Common Tern Nest and Eggs
After checking Winnebago, the two DNR biologists and I brave the wind and waves of Lake Butte des Morts to check on the man-made island.  A few terns are in the air, and we can make out a few white dots on the island.  As we come, a small cloud of terns rises into the air simultaneously.  I hear a whoop out of a delighted Sumner, and look to Art who has a big grin.  This project works.  On the island I am careful not to crush the camouflaged eggs with my size 13 boots. We count 33 little scrapes in the sand with eggs.  This year it is Wisconsin’s entire breeding population south of Lake Superior, as the island in the pond has been abandoned this season.  Even though these islands are maintained for the terns, the small birds are still under threat from the big feet of pelicans and Canada geese, predatory gulls, and human disturbance.     
Common Tern Nesting Island
Note:  Please stay clear from these islands.  Too much human disturbance can cause the entire colony to abandon the site. 

The endangered Forster’s tern also nests on Lake Poygan, but unlike the common tern it nests on floating mats of vegetation.  The two species look very similar and are most easily differentiated by their calls.  High water and winds blew all the Lake Poygan birds’ nesting material away and they are not nesting here this season.  Much larger Caspian terns also visit the area, but do not breed. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Impacts of Farm Runoff on Our Lakes

How might the runoff from local farms be affecting our lakes and what can farmers do to help protect the Winnebago system?
Eric Cooley, a University of Wisconsin-Extension expert on rural runoff, will address these questions at the next program of the Winnebago Lakes Council Speakers Series. It will be held Wednesday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the Fond du Lac Yacht Club, 705 Mohawk Ave.

Cooley is the research coordinator of Discovery Farms, a UW- Extension program that explores the environmental and economic effects of agricultural practices of participating farms and helps improve communication about these issues.

DIRECTIONS:  Exit 99 of Highway 41 (Route 23 / Johnson Street), east on Highway 23, left onto North Park Avenue, right onto Winnebago Drive, left onto Mohawk Avenue.

Spring Waterways Newsletter

The spring newsletter of the Winnebago Lakes Council is now available here

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Plant of the Week: American Basswood (Tilia americana)

American Basswood (Tilia americana) Leaves

Basswood (sometimes called Linden) is a tree found in our swamps, but it's also happy on our uplands.  The seeds are dispersed on a unique structure that catches the wind. 
The tree is also a valued street tree, as is its European cousins and hybrids.  The honey made from the flowers of basswood is considered excellent.  Native Americans and pioneers used the inner bark to make rope.  Basswood is prized for its soft clear wood by wood carvers and almost no one else, therefore it ends up in pallets, excelsior, interior furniture parts, etc.

More on American Basswood 

Young American Basswood Bark

Old Basswood Bark

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is a Marsh and what is a Swamp?

Marshes and swamps are two different things. A marsh is a place with standing water or soils saturated with water throughout most of the year, and grass-like vegetation:  cattails, sedges and grasses.  Swamps have the same moisture requirements, but are dominated by trees and shrubs.  They are more often flooded or saturated for shorter time periods.  In coming posts I will discuss the unique characteristics that define specific plant communities.  To help identify these plant communities I recommend a book published by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE):  Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin by Eggers and Reed.  You can view the entire book here, or purchase it here.  You can also learn more on my new website by clicking Wetland Plant Communities

An older addition

Shallow, Open Water Communities
Deep Marsh
Shallow Marsh

Local Swamps

Shallow Water Marsh : Poygan State Wildlife Area

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Myth and Magic

The Beginning: Purchase Photo
Every now and then nature takes my breath away, burns an image in my mind and leaves me standing with very few words in my vocabulary worthy of the moment.  I had many such moments growing up in the countryside of Waupaca County.  We were up on a hill and could see the woods up close to the north and five miles of farmland and forests to the south.  After I moved out I still visited often.  One weekend I watched a large cloud building in the afternoon.  Now most clouds move on, but this one stayed.  I can’t remember how long, perhaps five hours.  It started before dinner, and billowed like a giant smokestack until after dark.  When darkness came, the cloud that was already a mysterious life form over the landscape revealed itself as a tortured entity.  It began to glow inside with steady flashes of lightning, boiling light that occasionally lashed out at the ground beneath, while the stars minded their own business above.  I’ve never seen anything like this since and I hope I never do, because some things should only be experienced once, so they can turn to myth and magic. 

Thunderstorm Boils - Purchase Photo

Zoomed In -Purchase Photo

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nest Count 2011

Sumner Mattson (WDNR) counts doiuble-crested cormorant nests,
while adults fly overhead.
I remember wildlife specials on TV from of Florida and other tropical places, where slender white birds with long plumes perched in flimsy nests.  There were strange looking black birds, and others had white long bills and yellow pouches they dipped in the water to scoop up fish.  Now those far places are here, they are on the islands of our lakes, and even within our cities.  It isn’t some new strange phenomenon, but the return of fish-eating birds after the banning of DDT and unregulated hunting.  Pelicans are experiencing a natural expansion of their range, and may have been present here pre-settlement.  These water birds are back and in some areas more numerous than they were 200 years ago, so it is a good idea to keep tabs on them.  With current staff there are too many sites to survey, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources surveys some.  I helped with a survey on May 12, 2011 on Lake Butte des Morts.

American white pelican on Lake Butte des Morts,
Winnebago County nest made of gravel. 
The nesting colonies are truly fascinating places.  I saw all those “Florida birds” from TV:  white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, great egrets, black-crowned night herons, great-blue herons, and cattle egrets.  I walked among hundreds of nests, thousands of eggs, and was surrounded by birds taller than my seven year-old anxiously waiting for me to leave.  There is a certain awe being surrounded by so much life, so many eggs about to hatch, in such a foreign landscape.  However, most sane people would stay far from here.  Our nesting colonies are like those anywhere else that seabirds have nested for tens of millions of years, and there is much that makes all nesting colonies unpleasant.  American White Pelicans are very large and weigh about 16 lbs. and their big feet trample everything.  They even flatten cattails to make an area suitable for nesting.  Then there is the obvious:  a few thousand birds defecating in the same place day after day along with rotting fish and birds, producing an awful stench and polluting the surrounding water.  Many of these birds nest in trees, but eventually they produce so much nutrient-rich guano that they kill all the vegetation on these islands including the trees they nest in.   After spending several hours the fetid air began to make me weak and I could start to feel a burning sensation in my lungs. 

Cormorant chicks and eggs
It paints a nasty scene, both beautiful and revolting, but that’s nature.   Our lakes are as pretty as a postcard and the mosquitoes are as ruthless as the Russian mafia.  I don’t know how many cormorants or pelicans are too many, but it seems we have enough.  I don’t want too many of our islands, points and secluded areas to be polluted by species that congregate in numbers too many and produce so much pollution that they destroy their own habitat.  Species just like the one with the clipboard counting the nests. 

Nesting Colony
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Friday, May 6, 2011

No going back.

Fall Colors By Moonlight

I started this project in the winter, which can be a difficult time to come up with stunning landscape photos in flat marshes made more featureless with snow.  To get the project going on this blog and Flickr I searched through my archive of slides and digital photos.  One thing I realized was that there were many photos that I have taken over the years that I could not possibly retake in different light, or season.  Why?  Development has altered the landscape.  A house pops up here and there.  Some of the night photos I once took could no longer be done because of the spread of light pollution.  Although it seems I notice a new wrinkle every time I smile in the mirror, these photos are not old.  Most go back only ten to fifteen years.  I haven’t returned to these areas to photograph because sometimes it’s too aggravating or sad.

Slough Creek Sunrise

“Sunrise at Slough Creek” could not be taken again.  The barn is gone.  The big red barns are out dated for the modern farm, expensive to maintain and many are located at farms that are no longer operational.  So they fall much like the hay they used to store did to the sickle bar.  Behind where the barn used to be, two-lane Hwy 110 has been replaced by four lanes of Hwy 45 and 2 lanes of County Hwy S.  Highway 41 will soon loom even larger as construction of the 41/45 interchange continues.  The six lanes barely visible in the far horizon in 1998 will have turned into 12 in 2013.

Alfalfa No More

In the fields I used to frequent as a child there seems to have been some terrible mistake in crop rotation of corn, alfalfa, and soybeans.  Some crazy farmers have planted plastic beige and grey houses.  The first question every architect must ask a future home owner is what shade of beige or gray would you like your house to be.  No offense to those in beige houses--someone dropped my house and two dozen others on my street (most of them white and I’m sure made of old-growth white pine) in a farmer’s field a hundred years ago.  Same stuff different century.

Although not in one of our wetlands, this photo of a church is one of my favorites.  I’m about as religious as a moss covered rock, but I love the simple architecture of old rural churches.  This one sits all alone at the top of a hill.  I like the photo partially because it was taken in a -30 degree wind chill.  I guess I feel I earned it.  The spot where I took this photo is now home to an electrical substation.  I don’t think even a digital camera can photograph through a transformer. 
Development continues at a rapid pace.  When I surveyed plants and shorelines for the DNR in 2008 one marsh and two shorelines were destroyed within three months of my first visit.  So one of the things I’m trying to do with this project is to document changes in the landscape, natural and manmade.  When time and conditions allow I am using the GPS to geotag my photographs and get a compass heading.  Perhaps someone will come along years from now and wonder what’s changed, and be able to duplicate my photos.  Conservationists often use air photos to track changes in the landscape, but you can’t feel textures of hummocks dotting a sedge meadow from a satellite photo.  You can’t lament the loss of that meadow seen as a green spec from space that in a few years might break off as a floating mat and disintegrated in Lake Winnebago.  The same goes for the alfalfa field on a quiet foggy morning, or the wind playing with cattails in October.  
Country Church

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Saturday May 7, Oshkosh Gallery Walk

The city of Oshkosh has a great event called the Gallery walk, which happens the first Saturday of every month.  The business, galleries, and studios of downtown host artists and their works.  I was lucky enough to be invited by Apple Blossom Books to display my work Saturday May 7th 6-9 pm. Mariette Nowak, author of Birdscaping in the Midwest” will also be there to sign her book. It is still rather early in this project, so I don’t have prints made up yet, but I will be looping a slide show of my photos from around the Winnebago System and perhaps some of my other work from around Wisconsin.  I’ll be there for the duration so you’ll have a chance to talk with me if you wish, and check out my funky camera. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Plant of the Week: Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Jack-in-the-pulpit Wuakau Creek, WI

This common spring wildflower is easy to overlook in the moist woods and swamps where it is found.  However, once located it is an interesting if not beautiful wildflower.  The flower is formed in a special way called a spathe, reminiscent of carnivorous pitcher plants.  This is the flower of the plant and not a modified insect-eating leaf like that of the pitcher plant, although it often traps insects.  The plants produce flowers of different sexes depending on how much reserves are stored in an underground stem called a corm.  The fertilized female flowers produce a cluster of bright red berries in fall (Eastman 1992).

More about Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Friday, April 29, 2011

Spring Update #4: Sturgeon Spawning

Sturgeon fans can get up close to their favorite fish.
Wolf River Sturgeon Trail, New London, today (April 29, 2011)
fish were also active at Bamboo Bend, Shiocton 
Despite the cold spring the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) have been spawning this week on the Wolf River and its tributaries.  The DNR has daily updates on its website.  If you can't make the trip upriver to see them in person you can always check the sturgeon cams.  Click on the locations to see if there are fish.  Sometimes you'll have to wait awhile, and as the water warms up during the day you should be able to see more fish.
Hauling sturgeon out of the Wolf River in April 12, 2010 for tagging
Left to right: Andrew Sabai, Ely Felts DNR
Photo: Dan Powers, Post-Crescent
more photos

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Spring Update 3: Everybody Hates Me

At the parking lot today (4/21/2011) there is a flock of tree swallows darting about low over the gravel, picking bugs out of the air and the ground.  They pay me little attention, but other things have changed in the marsh since my last visit.  There are still many migrants stopping over on their journey north, but there are also many animals that have set up firm territories where I am an unwelcome guest.  I spend my time in the marsh walking the dredge bank along a long narrow ditch.  It is not like a lake or pond where disturbed waterfowl can just swim away and maintain a comfortable distance.  As I walk I drive the animals forward until they have no place to go. 

Lethargic Wood Chuck
As I walk and listen to the calling leopard frogs I flush a mallard hen who I’m sure is sitting on a nest.  I look for the nest for a minute and am unable to find it.  While I walk I am also pushing a pair of mallards in front of me, until they finally take flight.  They circle and quack at me, and shortly they are joined by a Canada goose who circles and honks.  Up ahead are a half dozen blue-wing teal.  They are much quieter, but as I push them to where they can no longer swim they begin to peep-whistle to each other excitedly while spinning around in circles.  Then one decides he’s had enough, erupts from the water, and the rest instantly join him.   The goose and mallards have returned to their territories, but another goose is in the ditch and begins to signal a warning to the others in the marsh.  A pair of sandhill cranes flying overhead does the same.  With all these warning calls I barely notice the shabby looking woodchuck six feet in front of me.  It stands there on its hind legs before walking away.  The poor guy looks gaunt after a long hibernation and I have no doubt I could have caught him with my bare hands. 

DON'T LOOK AT ME! - Canada goose on nest
This chasing of wildlife repeats itself over and over.  I notice three goose nests on muskrat lodges with their dutiful parent spread completely flat, looking like a teenage girl sitting as low as possible in the backseat of her dad’s car as she gets dropped off at the mall.  These nests are in easy range of any predator, and if I spot them, any fox, raccoon, or opossum will surely find them.  Geese don’t give up their nests easily, though, and any of these predators and opportunists will have a fight on their hands should they have a hankering for goose eggs.

Eventually the ditch and bank dead end and I turn back the way I came.  I meet the same woodchuck and all the other birds who exclaim the warning “there is a stranger in our midst.”  I meet someone new just before I get to my car, a mink swimming ahead of me as fast as it can before launching out of the water and scurrying into the safety of a burrow.  The tree swallows still swoop around me.  They appreciate my scaring the midges into taking flight, but everyone else hates me.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Plant of the Week??? Lichens

Lichen growing on willow bark

Lichens are not truly plants, they’re not even a single organism.  These crusty, sometimes mossy looking things growing on trees and rocks are actually an algae and a fungus living together.  The fungus (mycobiont) gets nutrients from its substrate and gives it to the algae (photobiont), and the algae makes food (carbohydrates) through photosynthesis and gives it to the fungus.  I use the word “gives” liberally, some would argue the organisms are stealing from each other. 

Lichens live in some harsh places on earth, surviving intense ultraviolet radiation and temperatures in excess of 130°F, and eat bark and rocks.  That’s pretty hardcore.  That makes it ironic that they are good indicators of pollution.  Lichens are susceptible to pollution found in rain and the air.  They have no true roots and must take in all their moisture from the air.  They don’t have the luxury of the filtering effects of soil.  I don’t really think of Oshkosh as a big dirty city, but its lack of lichen diversity indicates that there is more pollution than the countryside.  Today, pollution is less visible.  We might not notice any sources if it were not for the water vapor visible from our tail pipes and furnace exhaust on cold days, but it is there and does have an effect on everything and everyone including the toughest organisms on earth.  

Lichen growing on living ash bark