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