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North Woods Naturalist

Sunrise west harbor  from the Sunrise Series by Stephan Hoglund

Chel Anderson
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. She lives in the Hovland area and keeps close tabs on daily changes happening in the great outdoors. She shares her insights with WTIP listeners every Tuesday during North Shore Morning and North Shore Digest.  Subscribe to our North Woods Naturalist podcast.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.




What's On:
Photo by Jerry Oldenettel on Flickr

It’s summer and the dragonflies are back!

Dragonflies_062011.mp310.16 MB

The first day of summer is here and so are the dragonflies. WTIPs Jay Andersen spoke to local naturalist Chel Anderson about one of those dragonflies – the chalk-fronted corpora.

Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist living in Cook County.

Photo by Nouspique on Flickr

Pumping the swamps with the “sloughpumper"

American bittern_060611.mp35.86 MB

A master of camouflage and singer of a most unusual song. The American bittern is also commonly known as a “sloughpumper” In this edition of North Woods Phenology, Jay Andersen, with WTIP North Shore Community Radio, speaks with local naturalist Chel Anderson about this reclusive resident of our swamps and reedy shorelines.

Photo by Ariari on Flickr

How ants and plants help one another

Ants_and_Plants_060611.mp34.89 MB

Some kinds of ants and some plants have a relationship called mutualism. In other words the one contributes to the welfare of the other. In this edition of North Woods Phenology, Jay Andersen, with WTIP North Shore Community Radio, speaks with local naturalist Chel Anderson about ants and plants.

Spring azure butterflies are some of the first butterflies to emerge from their chrysalis in spring

It’s Spring along the North Shore

Spring_on_the_Shore.mp36.19 MB

We are in the full flush of spring. Baby animals, insects on the move, plants blooming -- and the big green-up is upon us. In this edition of North Woods Phenology, Jay Andersen, with WTIP North Shore Community Radio, speaks with local naturalist Chel Anderson about spring on the north shore.

Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist living in Cook County, Minnesota.

Photo courtesy of andrew mace-- via Flickr.

Earthworms can be beneficial in agricultural soils, but they can be destructive in the glaciated portion of our continent

Digging beneath the surface on earthworms

We use them for fishing and we use them for composting, but that doesn’t mean earthworms are all that nice to have around. In this edition of North Woods Phenology, Jay Andersen, with WTIP North Shore Community Radio, speaks with local naturalist Chel Anderson about why worms are bad for the ecosystem.

Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist living in Cook County, Minnesota.

Photo courtesy of pfly via Flickr.

The thermo cline an important barrier that regulates how nutrients cycle in the lake

Another look at Lake Superior turnover

A good share of the health of Lake Superior is dependent upon water at 39 degrees. In this edition of North Woods Phenology, Jay Andersen speaks with local naturalist Chel Anderson about life before the summer thermo cline.

Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist living in Cook County, Minnesota.

Photo courtesy of Leogirly4life via Flickr.

Blue Spotted Salamander

Time for the spring awakening

Salamanders.mp313.29 MB

Birds, frogs and salamanders are all active as spring slowly moves into the northland. WTIPs Jay Andersen spoke to local naturalist Chel Anderson about returning birds and amphibians.

Photo courtesy of Greg Schechter via Flickr.

Bird Migration

Looking at bird migration on the North Shore

SpringMigration_042711.mp313.63 MB

Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome back, Chel.

Anderson: Hello!

The spring bird migration is in full swing, and everyday there seems to be a new bunch moving in, but there is also a bunch moving out, and then another bunch comes in. So, why is this such a popular breeding ground?

Anderson: Yeah, why do we have this privilege of all of these beautiful, colored and song-filled creatures among us? What an amazing thing to be a part of. So—why? Good question. Minnesota, as it happens, is part of kind of an east-to-west-oriented swath of the North American continent that has the highest bird diversity of any region north of Mexico. So, it’s not just our imaginations. We really are right in the heart of the richest bird diversity around. That is pretty much because of the wide, amazing array of wetland and forest and open habitats. This incredible mosaic that we live in supports all these different habitats for birds. And, birds are incredibly diverse as a group in terms of the kinds of habitats that they can take advantage of. Even within what, to us, might look like the same kind of habitat, so dense conifer forest, can be occupied by many different types of birds, because they individually as a species focus on one aspect of that, even one level of the forest. So, in the case of warblers, there was a very famous study done by a researcher named MacArthur, showed that there are up to seven species of warblers that are using different levels of the canopy of a single conifer. So, in that way, they don’t interfere with each other. So, one is using just the outer tips of the branches for feeding. Another is just feeding right in close to the trunk of the tree. Some are down low in the branches closer to the understory. Others are way up high. So, this was a landmark study that showed how birds capitalize on habitat.

We have this diversity, and this is starting to make sense to me now, but also these various habitats, you know, are up against each other. And, if I’m not mistaken, edge is a big deal for birds. Can you talk a little bit about edge?

Anderson: Sure. Edge is a big deal. And how edge affects birds is really species-dependent. So, within this vast and marvelous family that we label birds, there are birds that are strictly interior forest birds. So, they are birds that really, they feed, they nest, they—even when they’re migrating, you know, when they stop and rest for the day—they want to be in, deep in the forest. And, then there are other birds that utilize resources that are more available at the margin. It might be a soft margin, so some place where instead of big, tall dense tree canopy; it’s more thick with shrubs and not much for shady tree canopy. Other birds might really like that place where there’s an abrupt change, where the forest comes right down to the water and there’s just a nice little edge of shrubs right at the shore edge. Other birds really use those edges of riparian areas strictly for feeding, but they nest in more interior conditions. And then, other birds really want to be on open ground. We don’t have a lot of birds like that, because that’s not a common feature typically on our landscape, but we do have, some people would likely be familiar with the woodcock. Well, woodcocks like more open conditions, and if they need to move around over time from one place that has an open kind of situation and then to another that is created by some kind of natural disturbance, than that works for them. The other way that edge has an impact on birds, and particularly on interior forest birds, is that where there’s edge, that tends to be a place where they can be more impacted by, for instance, non-native bird species, like cowbirds, which are actually nest parasites on other birds. They are also impacted by differences in climate at the edge of something, versus in the interior forest, and on their prey in the edge versus the interiors.

So, what I’m taking from this by inference is that if we enjoy birds and want to keep our bird populations coming in that diversity of our environment is an important thing, that we need to keep forests and open areas and marshes and all the kinds of things that we have around here. And, if we keep those in good shape, then we should have pretty good bird population during migration time.

Anderson: That’s exactly right. It’s essential. Without these things, we wouldn’t have these birds. These birds are basically coming here—the birds that don’t stay here all year—are basically coming through here or passing through here, because, in a very simple way, because there is great food resources here. And the migration, the “why” of migration, still has a lot of mystery attached to it, but it’s very certain that migration as a habit, as a behavior, predates the big glacial epochs, like of the Quaternary and the Pleistocene, and that migration as a habit developed in response to a need during a period of time when the climate was very different than it is now. One theory that birds were mostly living south, but as climate improved in the north, they moved themselves north to take advantage of improving conditions, more habitat. Another theory says that it’s just the opposite. Birds were more widespread into the north, but that with changes in climate that made the winters unsurvivable, that birds were pushed to the south. Then, as things improved, they came back to the north, because in the north we have this incredible explosion of vegetation and insects accompanied by very long days, and most birds feed during the day. So, both as individuals for survival this is a huge benefit, and as importantly, a much better shot at being successful with nesting. We never know what really was the fundamental to migration becoming a habit of so many birds, but it’s clear that that’s why they are here.

You’re absolutely right. We do have an explosion of vegetation, and particularly insects.

Anderson: Yeah!

As we get further into the summer, Chel, I know we’re going to talk about bugs. Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist, thanks for helping us understand spring migration.

Anderson: You’re welcome!

Photo courtesy of tjsalo via Flickr.


Spring is the time to observe otters

Otters_042511.mp313.42 MB

Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.

Anderson: Hello!

Well, otters are just plain fun. Everybody enjoys watching their antics. So, what are they doing this time of year?

Anderson: Yeah, otters, what could be a better topic for spring than otters? They are amazingly playful and curious and intelligent, as it turns out. I mean, people actually study these things. They are one of those animals that we may not think of with respect to migration. But, let’s talk a little bit about how that operates with otters.

They actually migrate?

Anderson: Well, I believe that some do on a small scale. You know, we’ve talked about how some groups of animals have major migrations and we’re all really aware of that at this time of year, but there are other kind of smaller-scale, more local migrations that happen. And, this is something that I wasn’t aware of at all until we moved to where we live now which is near the Flute Reed River, so we have this great privilege of being able to view lots of animals interacting with their habitat. Since we’ve lived there, it became very apparent that in the fall, as the winter sort of starts to set in—you maybe get some skim ice forming on the river and on the ponds along the river—that the otters disappear. Over time, watching, observing not just them or evidence of them, but also just thinking about how the habitat changes, I believe that the reason they move is that the Flute Reed in the upper portion is very apt to have parts of it that freeze right now, freeze down to the bottom, because the water gets progressively lower during the winter, the ice gets thicker and even some of the ponds, especially if the beaver dams aren’t functioning as they might have at one time, even the ponds can freeze out or become impassable kind of underwater. So, if you’re an otter who wants to make it through the winter, you have to stay some place where there’ll be a reliable food supply and a reliable place for you to move around in your favorite medium, which is water. So, the otters move out in the fall, and then this time of year, starting in usually the latter part of March, mid- to end of March, we begin to see their tracks returning, and then their tracks become very fresh and regularly moving along the river and around the ponds, but also in getting underneath the ice, you know, using whatever is available underwater, but also roaming through the woods. They’re big explorers; they really travel around kind of ceaselessly whether in the water or on the ground. But, they move around quite a bit and this winter we happened to see where an otter who was touring through the woods encountered a ski trail that was coming at the top of a hill that goes eventually down to the river. We didn’t get to observe it directly, but saw the evidence of how it just slipped right in to one of the firm ski tracks and went like a luge run right down to the river.

Somebody made the otter run for him, right?

Anderson: [Laughs] Yeah, right, I wonder what it thought about all that.

Now do these guys go downstream to the big lake, or where do they spend their winter? Do you know?

Anderson: Well, I don’t know for sure, but again, based on tracks, following tracks, especially now in the spring when they come back, then you can really follow their tracks around. And, it appears that our otters at least start out by going to the Brule, which is just a mile, as the bird flies, away or so. And, so they head out and follow various routes over to the Brule, and whether they stay on the Brule, then, which is a very large river and has very reliable water all winter and probably very reliable fish over the course of the winter. Where exactly in the river or whether some of them go down to the lake, you know, that we don’t really have any idea about, but they clearly do not stay. We definitely know that at least some of them go to the Brule, but where they go from there, I don’t know.

Now, if they are in lakes, I mean regular lakes, they’d stay in the lake?

Anderson: I presume so. At some point, young otters that spend the winter with their parents, their first winter with their parents, have to leave their parents and disperse. So, there are times when otters are moving around. They’re making some kind of migration, maybe not seasonal in the same regard as I just described, but they’re moving around, looking for where their home is going to be that won’t be in competition with something else. You know, otters really have made a great comeback in other parts of Minnesota where they disappeared from in the early 21st century. In southern Minnesota the otters pretty much disappeared, because of habitat destruction and water quality degradation. They’re making a comeback in that part of Minnesota, but we are really blessed with the habitat that supports a very vibrant population of otters, because we have excellent water quality for the most part, we have a surrounding landscape within our watersheds that support that. And otters eat a lot of fish, but they also eat other things, clams, etc.

You know, a number of years ago we were canoeing on Lake Kabetogama and we heard this mulling and hissing and we were fairly close to shore, and then, all of the sudden, two or three of these guys popped up and spit at us and then went back down again and then popped up and hissed. So, we figured right away that we must have come in to a family of otters, and the young ones were still young enough that the parents were concerned about us.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s very, very likely, because they’re going to stick together and learning the ropes, those young otters, and having the chance to play around with each other. Which, like in all mammals, including us, play is a way that we develop as our physical selves as well as our social selves. And, so that’s a big part of what they’ll be doing and they do that with their siblings and with their parents. Otter families might consist of typically more like two to three to four but as many as six young otters in a family, so it’s a lot to take care for the adults, you know, to manage all these youngsters and to keep them busy learning what they need to learn and getting them to places where they can work on their skills at catching their prey. So, parents will catch something and bring it close and let it go and they repeatedly do that to give them a better shot at catching something and get their techniques down. So, there’s a lot of training that will go on over the course of the summer and hopefully they’ll be successful.

Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand otters!

Anderson: You’re very welcome!

Airdate: April 27, 2011

Photo courtesy of orkomedix via Flickr.

Quaking Aspen Bud

Learn to keep track of what’s going on outside

KeepingTrack_040511.MP312.51 MB

Chel Anderson is a North Shore naturalist. She lives here in Cook County. She joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome back, Chel.

Anderson: Hi!

Well, all these many weeks we’ve been talking about phenology. Now, let’s talk about how other people besides you and me can record their observations, and how do we do that?

Anderson: Yeah, well, I think it is a good thing to spend a little time talking about, even though it’s maybe a little drier subject than some of the great natural events we get to talk about, but as we always say, phenology is a study, it’s a science, and it’s really about paying close attention to the lives of plants and animals and natural phenomena of all kinds. And, to be useful as a study, one really needs to record those observations. We can all enjoy making them, and I’m not going to diminish the importance of that at all, because I’m an inveterate observer and I don’t want to feel an obligation to do something that I enjoy. But, I have found in my own life as an observer that recording, making a habit of recording, really has helped me focus my attention and has helped me discover things on my own, not that they’re new to science or anything, but just new to me, that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, because I wouldn’t have been watching closely enough. So, in terms of a way to kind of experiment with this, if it’s something you think you might want to try, is to pick out something that you can easily go and look at everyday. Pick a tree, pick a shrub, pick a plant that’s going to emerge here as the spring comes on, and make a habit and visit that. Plants are good, because, again, they’re stationary. I’m not saying animals aren’t worthy of our attention, they are, but they’re much harder to track easily. But, you can certainly choose an animal if you wanted to. I’ll just use a plant as an example. So, pick a tree or a plant of some kind, and go out at this time of year and figure out where are the leaf buds, where are the flower buds, and take a close look at the bark. What does it look like now? Make as many kind of careful observations about that particular thing as you can right now. Then everyday, or as many days as you can fit into your schedule, go out there and look at those same parts of that plant and start to notice differences, because you will, eventually, begin to see differences. And, at some point, you’ll start to see big differences, even just from one day to the next.

We’re talking about mental time-lapse photography.

Anderson: Exactly. That’s great. Yeah, that’s a great analogy. And, if you want to go so far as to do it, take a little notebook with you, and when you are out there make notes about what you saw.

Well, if you make notes and file them in some way, then the next year and the year after and the year after that, you can make those comparisons and you can see how things have either stayed the same or changed. I know people do this with gardens, for example. It’s kind of the same process.

Anderson: Exactly. Yes, and you can begin to see for your particular species of thing that you’re observing or groups of things, and for your particular location, what is the range of time that the buds start to plump up on an aspen tree in your yard. And, is that the same when they do it on an aspen tree that’s just 50 yards away in a different part of the woods by where you live, because not all species are acting totally in synchrony on a day-to-day basis. They have a range that they might operate in. So, you can start to notice changes like that. So, recording helps us, again, focus a little bit more. You can record just in a notebook by hand. You can go so far as to take your written notes and observations and put them into a database, if you’re good with databases and that can help you sort and compare your information from year to year eventually. You can also decide that you want to check out the opportunities that are there for people like those of us who make these kinds of observations and enjoy doing it to contribute to big databases that are looking at changes and patterns and trends across large areas and across time. As you said, not just from year to year, but over large lengths of time. Phenology is not a new thing. Human beings have been using phenology in the sense of observing the world they live in since they came to be, because it’s how we survive. So, observing and taking note of when things happen is a part of our nature, and cultures have actually been recording phenological observations for millennia. Two great examples are the Chinese Cherry Blossom Festival and the Chinese Peach Blossom Festival. They have records going back over 1,000 years. So, you can really look at some spectacular trends in recording like that.

Well, I suppose that the early humans when they began to realize that certain things happened in certain cycles, particularly those who lived in areas where there was climate change from spring, summer, winter and fall, that it was to their advantage to know when those things would happen, so they could be prepared for it. So, yeah, it makes sense that they must have recorded it in someway or another.

Anderson: Oh, absolutely. It isn’t hard at all, I don’t think, to believe or know, just feel it in your bones, just like we feel spring, you know, it’s not just something on the calendar. I don’t know about you, but I can feel spring coming.

Yeah. It’s in my joints usually.

Anderson: Or winter coming. You know, these are some things that we, too, as a species have been a part of for our entire existence. Even though we’re much more at arms length from a lot of them now, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still a big part of who we are and they definitely are a big part of where we live.

Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks, Chel, for helping us understand how to keep track of what’s going on around us.

Anderson: You’re welcome!

Photo courtesy of Matt Lavin via Flickr.