Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Waiting for Frogs

An American toad, the gardeners’ friend.

I’ve always liked frogs and toads.  They are completely unique creatures.  Salamanders look like lizards, fish look like whales, but nothing looks like a frog except a frog.  Even though populations of frogs are in retreat, they are found almost everywhere.  They are a challenge to catch with bare hands because they are slippery and fast. I can’t count how many hours I have spent searching and catching frogs, both as a kid and an adult, but it was always time well spent.

A full grown spring peeper, in the 
pretty hands of my proofreader.
Last week Mother Nature cruelly reminded us who is in charge as she always does this time of year by dumping ice and snow on us followed by an unusual cold snap that is barely breaking today.  Naturally, I’m thinking of frogs.  Our local frogs are still in hiding, but not for much longer.  Northern leopard frogs are lying on the bottom of the lake, wedged in boulders, and hiding under turtles.  Soon they’ll come out of hiding and start looking for love.  Wood frogs, spring peepers, chorus frogs, and tree frogs are toughing it out; they don’t hide below the frost line.  They are content to have much of their bodies literally turn to ice.  Soon they’ll thaw out and the wood frogs will be croaking, the spring peepers peeping, and the wester chorus frogs  chorusing before all the ice has left the ponds.  They’ll quickly breed and then head into the woods and fields for the rest of the warm months. 

The last thing many tadpoles see; a giant water bug.  They eat fish, insects, tadpoles, frogs and have even been 
known to attack ducklings. This one flew into the patio doors of my parents’ house and resides my collection.  
It measures 2 3/16 inches. 
When most frogs’ eggs hatch there is a race to metamorphose into their jumping forms as quickly as possible, but the tadpoles of our largest frogs--the bullfrog and the green frog-- are swimming under the ice munching algae and doing their best to avoid capture by giant water bugs and many other predators.  They take two frightening seasons to transform into frogs.  

For American Toads tadpoles it is a race to
transform into a toad.  These were found 
living in and on the shoulder of a 
gravel road in the Nicolet National Forest!

Frogs and Toads of the Winnebago Pool and Wetlands:

American Toad (Bufo americanus)
Cope' Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis)
Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor)
Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata)
Bull Frog (Rana catesbeiana)
Green Frog (Rana clamitans)
Pickerel Frog (Rana palustris)
Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)
Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring is still here.

Despite yesterday's terrible weather today is bright and sunny.  Robins were bouncing around in my driveway and the ducks did not head back south.  Go take a look at the ducks at the mouth of the Fox River in Oshkosh, there are hundreds of them.  I didn't bring my spotting scope, but from what I could see they were mainly scaup (bluebills) with some coots, mallards, cormorants, and Canada geese. I suppose it would have been nice to bring the camera and take some photos.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Thinking of Springs

Updated blog post on springs on my new blog

Springs have always been special places in many parts of the world.  While hiking with my family my dad would point out the mud bubbling up just below the surface of lakes we used to frequent.  He explained that it was water coming up from below the ground and it was always cold.  I remember watching it as if in a trance.  Springs have been a place where my mind became quiet, without thought.  I don’t know why but I sense some power there that deserves reverence. 

It was no surprise when I learned that the local Native Americans believed there were spirits inhabiting springs and they gave them offerings.  There were several springs around the Winnebago system that were “discovered” in the 1800’s and looted for the treasure of offerings and human remains.  These sacred places were flooded after the construction of dams in Neenah and Menasha, and are now lost.  According to Historic Lake Poygan by Charles H. Velte, many relics were taken from the Freer Spring on the North Shore of Lake Poygan, the spring was taken from us by the dams.  Many specimens were lost but one collection contains: “Large bone fish spear with three barbs, bone celt, 24 bone daggers, 40 three-bone awls, one flaker, 50 bear tusks, several bear skulls, many deer horns, 1 copper fish spear and 2 broken gorgets:  125 perfect pieces” One spring that yielded human remains and many artifacts was only big enough to dip a pail in.

While snowshoeing I came upon this little creek running through a swamp clear and warm enough to burn through snow and ice as the temperature stayed below zero for days, another special trait of springs.  I followed the creek to its source, a little spring welling up at the base of a hill.  There the tracks of red squirrel, cotton tail rabbit and white-tailed deer converge to drink.   I’m guessing by its shape and the rock wall holding back the earth on one side that its basin was widened to provide fresh water for cattle that have been absent from this hillside for decades.  Water gushes out from a space between the rocks.  It might be a creation of a farmer for all I know, but I am quiet as I set up the tripod, compose a photo and take a picture.  I make no offering, but leave quietly.

Plant of the Week: Skunk Cabbage (Symplocasrpus foetidus)

Skunk Cabbage flowers and emerging leaf

During those first spring hikes the family took each year along muddy lake shores and creek bottoms, my parents pointed out skunk cabbage.  Related to neither skunks nor cabbage, this strange plant was one of the first wildflowers I recognized as a kid, although I don’t think I knew at the time that it was actually the flowering part I was looking at. 

The plant is a mimic.  Many flowers we are familiar with are brightly colored, and aromatic.  These are advertisements to bees, butterflies and a host of other insects that there is a source of pollen and nectar to drink.  These insects visit other plants of the same species, carrying pollen and ensuring cross-pollination.  The skunk cabbage takes a different strategy.  The freezer that is winter stores up the carcasses of animals that died of disease, starvation, accidents, hunting, and old age.  The not-so-pretty side of nature is revealed as the snow melts.  When the carcasses emerge, so do flies and other insects that feed and lay eggs on carrion.  The skunk cabbage emerges at the same time, producing its own heat and melting the surrounding snow.  It takes on the look of flesh and produces a fetid smell, attracting insects that will then transfer pollen from one plant to another.  The poor flies fall for the false advertising millennium after millennium, ensuring another generation of skunk cabbage.  

More on Skunk Cabbage

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It is all Happening so Fast (Part 1)

In my previous post I said I would try to update my readers on the rapid advance of spring.  Once again it is happening so fast, so here’s a quick update.  This morning I took a trip out to the marsh.  The parking lot I pull into was all aflutter with American robins those heralders of spring.  I actually arrived well in advance of the rising sun.  A quick scan of the overcast skies and the heavy breeze indicates I don’t need to bring all the heavy camera equipment, so I leave it in the car and traveled lightly.  Immediately  a pair of mallards buss me, and for the rest of the three hour trip every time I look up there are ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes. 

A blah day for for photography,
but a great one for wildlife watching
I take much the same route as I snowshoed in “Leaving a Trail” only 16 days earlier.  Today only a few snow drifts remain and the ditch I walked over 16 days ago is now open in parts.  Then, only a crow called out and the only other bird I saw was a northern harrier.  In today’s predawn I watch a group of 25 red-wing black birds rise from the cattails.  They are soon joined by another, then another flock from the same roust until several hundred birds are swirling in a living tornado over a ½ acre clump of cattails.  They rise and head west.  Most of the birds were heading west, including the little ducks (teal?) that are flying low and full throttle over me like a squadron of Messerschmitts intercepting B-17’s over Germany.  Spring is not a time for patience. 

As I walked the spoil bank there are the constant calls of cranes.  They spent the night in the marsh and are mustering the troops to head out to the fields to feed.  Eventually they depart, the constant honks of Canada geese replace them.  Some flocks numbered 30 or more, but many fly in pairs.  A pair of geese land in the frozen marsh within shotgun range, and pay me little attention.  No doubt they were deciding upon which of the many muskrat houses to build a nest.  Like the geese, there were a few stubborn pairs of sandhill cranes that give me a wide birth, but do not fly.  They too have claimed their territory.  They bow to each other and begin their strangely beautiful dance. 

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
I plan to walk all the way to the lake today, 2 miles, but something stops me in my tracks.  It looks like a headless witch, perhaps a dragon flying over the marsh.  My eyes adjust, and my mind begins to decipher.  It is a bald eagle, its head nearly invisible in the overcast skies.  In its talons is a mass of long grass trailing three feet behind.  I watch it fly until it lands in its nest directly in my path.  My route is blocked, I turn back.  Along the ditch at the parking lot is our first flower:  skunk cabbage, in full bloom (more on that in a future post).  I get in the car with wet boots and pants.  

On the way home a mile outside of Oshkosh another bald eagle crosses Hwy 45 with a larger mass of grass.  Its flight is labored.  He works hard against the wind and clears some power lines by a couple of feet.  Catch a couple of walleyes for me, guys…I never can.    

Sunday, March 13, 2011

“It all happened so fast”

I find myself saying this each spring and think I will catch more of it next year.  Spring is a time when everything happens at once in the natural world.  By comparison, summer is a lazy time; fall is sleepy and winter, comatose.  The stage is already set in early March for the coming two months.  By the time the ice melts, the cold lakes and brown wetlands are in high gear.  As I type this, many of the mammals we know are pregnant, and some are even giving birth under the snow.  Otters, for instance have been pregnant for 9 to perhaps 12 months, and may already be nursing their young.  Otters and other weasels have delayed implantation; the fertilized egg is in suspended animation for months.  If otters had a three month prenatal visit the doctor would say something like “Mrs. Otter, everything is just fine.  Your babies aren’t growing at all.”

Canvasbacks and other ducks on Lake Winnebago, Oshkosh, Wisconsin March 31, 2009

The birds are getting anxious.  The migrants are starting to return, the redwing blackbirds are back and the sandhill cranes too, and a dozen others will soon follow. Diving ducks will congregate in the first patches of open water on Lake Winnebago.  Some birds are staking out nesting territories, but great-horned owls are already sitting on eggs in mid-March.  No doubt in our swamps there was a snow-covered owl earlier this week protecting her eggs from the cold.  In my own backyard the crows have reclaimed last year’s nest, but probably won’t lay for several more weeks. 

Even more is happening under the ice.  Lake sturgeon are swimming up the Fox and Wolf Rivers to prepare for their spawning runs.  Walleye will soon abandon Lake Winnebago for their ancestral marshes of the Fox and Wolf Rivers.  A lazy and unique population of walleye will stay behind and spawn on the rocks and cobble of Lake Winnebago.   It is the northern pike which are most ready to get underway.  The moment the ice goes out they will be cruising flooded marshes and emergent vegetation within the lakes to spawn. They must attach their eggs to vertical vegetation.  Without our marshes, there would not be a good walleye or northern fishery.  Yellow perch will also lay their eggs as soon as the ice goes out.  All this happens before the fair weather fisherman even contemplates drowning a worm. 
Bob Olynyk of the WI DNR with a female Northern Pike caught via fyke net as
part of 2009 population survey. Yes, I used a wide angle lens technique to exagerate size, like any good fish magazine photographer. This was a good fish however at 38 1/2 inches.
This year I will once again make an attempt to get out more, see more, hear more and photograph more.  I’ll do my best to keep you informed through this blog, and facebook, so that you might be able to get out and see some of these events too. No matter how well I do this spring, there is no doubt that sometime in May I’ll be muttering “It all happened so fast” in my sleep.  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Plant of the Week: Swamp-White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Two Oaks - Purchase Photo
Swamp White Oak is a common component of our Northern Hardwood Swamps.  Like all oaks it produces acorns, which are relished by squirrels, chipmunks, deer, blue jays and crows.  Squirrels and blue jays often cache the extra bounty of acorns by burying them, and inadvertently planting the next generation of oaks.  Squirrels don’t remember where they bury the acorns, and rely on their sense of smell to find them at anytime of the year.  Oaks fall into two categories:  red oaks and white oaks.  Red oaks have pointy leaves and bitter acorns that take two years to mature.  Contrastingly, the leaves of white oaks have rounded leaf tips, and sweeter acorns that mature their first year.  Because they are sweeter they are preferred by wildlife and the few humans that still like to make flour out of acorns after leaching them of tannins.  Many white oak species are resistant to rot--swamp white is no exception-- and many of the ancient tilted wooden fence posts in Wisconsin are made from different species of white oaks.

A great resource on the trees of Wisconsin is actually Michigan Trees by Burton V. Barnes and Warren H. Wagner Jr., from which some of the above information is obtained.  

Monday, March 7, 2011

Owl's Impact

Imprint of an owl's wings.  Adjusted so feather marks can be seen.
In a swamp of the Rat River State Wildlife Area, in the silence of the night there is the soft muffle of wings landing on snow.  Deep in the snow crawls some furry little animal in its icy tunnel.  It hears the snow above penetrated by outstretched talons.  It runs down the tunnel to escape, but soon goes about its business searching for seeds and dormant insects.  It must keep its high metabolism fueled in this weather.  On top of the snow, the owl pauses and then rises from the snow in one mighty wing beat, and leaves with two talons full of snow.  In the snow it leaves the imprint of that one wing beat, and two little holes deep in the snow where the owl failed to get dinner.  I find them the next day while snowshoeing, proof of a little drama that plays out every night.
I imagine the little screech owl, or perhaps a saw-whet owl sitting in a silver maple above me, scanning the snow with his ears, listening for the pitter patter of tiny feet.   I’ve seen screech owls a few times before; one took up a winter residence in my mother-in-law’s wood duck house on the Yahara River.  It would peek out several times a day.  I heard screech owls in my Oshkosh backyard two weeks ago, and one, or the same one last fall.  They are there in the shadows of the night and sleeping the day away in the rotting silver maple in your front yard, perhaps as you read this.  The amazing scenes televised on PBS and Discovery Chanel shows play out every hour of every day in the swamp and even outside our urban homes.  Just look for the image frozen in snow. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

For All You Camera and Photo Buffs

I've gone through most of the photos on Flickr from my archives and added camera, lens and film data if I can remember it.  For my old 35mm slides I'd have to tear through the cardboard or plastic to confirm what type of film I used, so I won't do that.  However it is safe to say they are probably all shot on Fuji Velvia 50 (RVP) transparency film.  I shot hundreds of rolls of it because of its sharpness and color saturation.  They still make it.  I shot mostly with Nikon film cameras in the past; N50, N6006, N80 and a variety of Nikon, Sigma and Tamron lenses.  I will make an effort to add the technical data from future photos.  Photos taken with digital cameras have all that encoded in the files and are available by clicking on the name of the camera in the upper right.  For scanning I'm primarily using a Epson V750 with very good results. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Leaving a Trail

Snow Show Trail - Purchase Photo
I rise early to the cell phone belting out some little ringtone.  I head downstairs and do the usual things:  eat, let the dog out, check email, then I pack a snack, water, camera gear, and try to find my snowshoes among the garbage pile that is my garage.  Ah, there they are, right by the door.  My dog is very excited; she sees me lace my boots and thinks it’s time to go.  She looks at me as if I kicked her in the throat as I close the door, leaving her behind.  Sorry, I’ve got the camera bag, not the gun case this morning.  I’m greeting the sun today, or at least that is my intention when I start up the car later than I planned at 5:55.  I remind myself that come June I’ll have to be turning the key of my Honda at 3:00 am to greet the sun at my destination. The thought sends chills down my spine, the cold does not. 
I travel down the road without the aid of coffee.  I am alert, sort of.  Most traffic is leaving the countryside, heading off to work.  I’m headed to the marsh and I’m thankful.  As I ramble down County Hwy D, an owl flies low over the road.  I have never seen so many owls as I have since I started the project.  I’d better watch where am going.  Crap! Did I just drive through Borth?  I check the speedometer, then the rearview mirror:  no flashing lights.  Good.

Snowy Sedge Meadow Sunrise

I arrive at Poygan State Wildlife Area at 6:32, sunrise was at 6:31 but there is no danger of missing anything today, the overcast skies have taken care of that.  Time to strap on my snowshoes.  They are wooden, bound together with rawhide.  They are out of date, just like the film camera in my backpack, unlike the digital camera around my neck and the GPS now turned on.  I take off over the marsh sedges, grasses, and flowers buried under snow, their empty seed pods and heads sticking out of the snow.  I try to recognize them:  blue-vervain, marsh milkweed, asters, mints, wool grass, tussock sedge, etc.  I see way too much reed canarygrass.  “Go away and stop consuming this sedge meadow!”   I cross one of the many drainage ditches.  For a time I follow another snowshoer’s trail.  This trail visits one rat house after another.  I guess it won’t be long before a bundle of Muskrat pelts are on their way to Russia, or maybe China.  The fur trade never ended.  
Mink Feet
The wind has kicked up.  I set up the big camera on its tripod.  The cold bites at my fingers and the metal camera sucks the heat from them.  Ten minutes later the picture is taken, I’ll see if it turns out in a month or so.   I turn around to see the clouds breaking up and snap a quick photo with the digital camera.  It will be the only camera I use for the rest of the day.  I trudge through the marsh for an hour, listening to ravens and the wind before taking the ridge of spoils (dredge material) along the drainage ditch.   All along and in the ditch were tracks from the night before alongside the tracks from many days ago.  Coyote tracks crisscrossed every which way while the tracks of mink and muskrat stay within several feet of the ditch.  I like mink.  Like many weasels they are curious and energetic.  They've often stopped to watch me as I stopped to watch them. I find a hole then several more where they entered the water.  Each hole is linked by the foot prints and belly slides of another weasel, the River Otter.  One otter trail breaks from the ditch to the bank where the otter slid repeatedly down the spoil bank for no other reason than fun.  There must be enough fish, frogs, etc. in this ditch to keep the otter fueled all winter.  I’m somewhat surprised.   
Then it’s back to the car.  At the car there is the smell of skunk in the air and their tracks on the ground.  I lower my backpack into the car, my back is relieved to have the pack off, and my stomach glad for a granola bar.  I take off my now sweaty jacket, scan the horizon one last time and head home.   

River otter trail: line moving from center to right.  Wildlife biologists use these distinctive trails to conduct otter population surveys from the air.