Thursday, February 24, 2011

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Virginia Creeper
Virginia creeper-- also called woodbine--are vines that are not restricted to wetlands.  They are found in our forests, thickets, backyards, and swamps.  There are two species in Wisconsin.  One (P. quinquefolia) secretes an adhesive from its disks on its tendrils and can climb brick walls like Boston ivy, the other (P. vitacea) has regular wrapping tendrils only.
The photo shown here illustrates Virginia creeper’s amazing fall colors, thought to attract birds to their nutritious fruit.  I use it in my yard to provide a screen, cover up my rusty wire fence and provide cover and food for wildlife such that there is in Oshkosh.  You’ll notice mixed in with my backyard Virginia creeper’s leaves are those of its cousin, domestic grapes (Vitus vinifera).  The grapes don’t do as well in the mixed shade so I planted the creepers, and they are doing amazingly well.  Unlike grapes, Virginia creeper berries are inedible for humans, and toxic in large quantities.    

Saturday, February 19, 2011


This morning with my big clumsy camera mounted on its tripod I stood in the cold with a huge full moon setting over my shoulder and the camera pointed to the glow in the east.  I waited for the perfect light, by the shore of Willow Creek, listening to occasional booms of the shifting ice.  Suddenly, to the north across the creek I heard some animals coming out of the cattails and preparing to cross the creek.  Almost as soon as the two coyotes came out of the cattails, we saw one another.  While the second coyote immediately turned and headed back into the cattails, the first looked at me and kept trotting across the ice.  It paused momentarily to get another look at me and disappeared into the marsh.  Although most of my encounters with coyotes have been brief glimpses in the headlights, one morning as a kid waiting for the bus at the end of our 500 ft driveway in thick fog, three shadows emerged a hundred feet away, making a quick circle on the road and disappearing without having ever made a sound.  Crossing a section of marsh along the Rat River this winter, I came upon a place where many coyotes’ trails converged.  In this spot the snow was so covered with coyote tracks that there was no space within an eight foot circle without a footprint in the fresh snow.  I stood in the center imagining the night before when the pack greeted each other with sniffs and licks, and perhaps yipping and howling before heading off on a hunt.   
Sightings of coyotes in the country are often followed by a hasty trip to the gun cabinet.  That is why they disappear into the brush almost as soon as they appear.  Perhaps that is the reason almost every time I heard the coyotes howling in my childhood was when their calls were masked by the passing freight trains.  That is why this blurry photo I hastily took with my point and shoot camera is very fitting.  Coyotes are phantoms of the marsh, forest, and field.

Red Osier-Dogwood, Cornus stolonifera

Several of our native shrubs have subtle beauty, but none have the year-round color of  Red Osier-Dogwood.  It is commonly found coloring Shrub-Carr wetlands, which are essentially natural communities made up of shrubs on wet/saturated soils.  It can form thick stands with few other shrubs or trees present.  Unfortunately this shrub, although native, can invade and replace sedge and wet meadows, because of fire suppression and water table changes caused by drainage.
Although an invasive in disturbed wetlands, you shouldn’t hesitate to plant it in your yard.  They grow well on drier soils, have attractive red bark, provide good hiding and nesting places for birds and the berries are a great food for them as well.  Red dogwood is the first shrub I remember as a kid.  We had some growing along the road by our mailbox.  Each summer the county would cut it down and it rebounded happier than ever.  These new shoots are much redder than the old ones, and so regular trimming of the red dogwoods in your landscape will give a more pleasing look, especially in monotone winter. 

More about Red Dogwood


Sunday, February 13, 2011

2011 Sturgeon Spearing Season Begins

168 lb sturgeon caught in 2005 on Lake Poygan 
It is hard to mention Lake Winnebago without talking about sturgeon spearing.  The Winnebago System has the largest population of Lake Sturgeon anywhere and the spearing season has become a tradition.  The system's fish weren’t always in the clear.  Unregulated fishing, loss of spawning habitat and rampant poaching forced the species into decline.  Now after decades of improved regulation, creation of spawning habitat, and greatly reduced poaching, the sturgeon population is not only secure, but it is thriving.  With regularity the size of record fish increases.  While helping tag sturgeon on the Wolf River fisheries, biologists who have been at this for decades were routinely baffled by how large the male fish, usually the smaller of the sexes, were getting.  My only complaint (and I couldn’t be a fisherman without complaining about at least one regulation) with sturgeon spearing is that it excludes a hook and line season.  There is no other place for hundreds of miles to catch a fish over two hundred pounds, and it seems like a thriving guide businesses could develop around these monsters. 
The program that has probably been most successful to curb poaching, is Sturgeon Guard run by Sturgeon for Tomorrow and the DNR.  Anyone can volunteer to be a sturgeon guard.  All you need to do is sit by one of the spawning rivers and report suspicious activities, all while watching the giant fish spawn.  Depending on where you get stationed, you may also see many other fish and wildlife.  You get a free hat, you will be fed at sturgeon camp before and after your shift, and you get to meet some great people!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Counting Bird Nests

Black-crowned Night Heron Nest and Eggs
Last May I was lucky enough to help two of my colleagues with the DNR, Sumner Matteson and Art Techlow counting White Pelican nests on Lake Winnebago and Lake Butte des Morts.  Along with the Pelicans we found the nests of: Great Egrets, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, Double Crested Cormorants, Mallard Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls.  I guess I was also luck enough to only get hit three times by “bird bombs.” 
Great Egrets and Nests

Monday, February 7, 2011

Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

Every plant book begins by telling you that this really isn’t a true cedar like those of Lebanon, it is closely related to cypress.  I feel better now that’s out of the way, but the next thing they’ll mention is the plant is sometimes called Arborvitae, which means “tree of life.”  It is believed to be given this name because a tea brewed from its leaves contains vitamin C and can prevent and cure scurvy.   Arborvitae can be found in all shapes and sizes at garden centers.  In our local wetlands white cedar is a minor player, but in other parts of Wisconsin it is the dominant tree in many swamps.
White Cedar often forms dense stands that are important winter areas for white-tailed deer.  Deer will browse all the foliage they can reach leaving a distinctive browse line in the swamp, or in your garden.   When deer population are too high no cedar seedling will ever grow into a mature tree.  It has been said that without recruitment the cedar swamps in the North Woods may die out.  Maybe the current dip in the deer population will allow for a period of cedar recruitment.     
Cedar Cones
For many Native Americans the white cedar was and is a sacred tree with many uses.  The Chippewa used the wood for sturgeon spears , so if you’re looking to make a traditional spear go with cedar.  Cedar is still used for arrow shafts. Its wood is rot resistant and is used in fence posts, bird houses, and over my head 110 year old cedar shakes are keeping the snow out with the help of three or four layers of asphalt shingles.  Anybody want to help put on a new roof? 

More on White Cedar

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Plant of the week: Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Because there might be some time between photo expeditions and film processing I’ll be posting a photo and a little information on one of our wetland or aquatic plants, although I’ll occasionally add fish and wildlife. Our plant this week is Marsh Milkweed, one of the prettiest plants you can find at the water’s edge, or deep in the marsh. Because it isn’t fussy it makes a great candidate for native shoreland restorations. Not only are its magenta blooms gorgeous, they attract butterflies and like common milkweed the foliage is fed upon by Monarch caterpillars. If you leave the stem up through the winter, in spring you may watch birds tearing off the fibrous outer strips of the stems. It makes great nesting material and great cordage. I once made some twine from a single common milkweed stem and found it impossible to break with my hands.

Some of the information discussed in Plant of the Week will be taken from The Book of Swamp and Bog by John Eastman. I highly recommend this book if you want to go beyond simply identifying the local flora. He also has two other books: The Book of Field and Roadside, and The Book of Forest and Thicket. I highly recommend them all.

More on Marsh Milkweed

Welcome to Winnebago Conservation Photography

One of the biggest obstacles to conservation on the Winnebago System is understanding what we have lost, and what we still have to protect and restore.   On the Winnebago Pool and its surrounding marshes we have lost much.  Over 10,000 acres of marsh have been lost to high water levels and thousands more to agriculture and other development.  Lakes Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts have lost most of their aquatic vegetation so now only 6% of the lakes’ surfaces are covered by this critically important habitat for fish and wildlife and their human admirers. 
Although we have lost much, we still have much to celebrate.  This blog chronicles a project by the Winnebago Lakes Council and myself.  Through photographs we will be taken to the many habitat types that make up our Winnebago System.
Many of these photos will be taken with large format 4x5 inch camera.  Photos taken with this type of equipment will allow the printing of large posters with little loss in quality.  As the project develops the Winnebago Lakes Council is planning to have traveling displays and talks throughout the Fox Valley to promote conservation on the system.   


Visit my new, easy to navigate page: Lake and Wetland Ecosystems for more information on wetland and aquatic environments.

Purchase Photos at - Winnebago Photography

Visit my - YouTube Page

Waukau Creek Snow Island - Purchase Photo