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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:
Black bear

An early spring doesn't necessarily affect the bears

Hibernation042210Mixdown.mp310.15 MB
Spring has sprung early this year, but does that mean hibernating bears will get out and about sooner than usual? And what about other hibernators? WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about how the weather affects or doesn’t affect, bears, chipmunks and mice.
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. So, welcome Chel.
Anderson: Hello, Jay.
Well, has this very early spring had any impact on hibernating creatures? Let’s first talk about bears.
Anderson: Well, that’s a great question. I think it’s best to start with thinking about ok, bears have been living here for thousands of years and this isn’t the first early spring. So, I have a lot of faith that there’s a lot of resilience built into the bears’ hibernating system. But, it’s still interesting to think about and wonder at, well, how do they manage these things? We’ve talked about how cubs are born in the den, during the winter, during the mother’s hibernation. The moms are going to make all the decisions here. The cubs are far from on their own, so the moms are going to decide are they ready to go out yet or not depending on what the weather is. She’ll just keep them right there in the den or maybe move them even to a better spot, another alternative den, if that seems reasonable. They are very good mothers and I suspect that they’re used to bringing their cubs through kind type of thing. For the other bears that don’t have responsibilities for cubs, whether they are males or females, they could well be out touring around a little bit, looking for opportunities to tie into something to eat. Remember, their digestive systems have been very, I guess, cleaned out is a good way to say it, because they haven’t been doing any eating, right? They’ve been kind of specially prepared physiologically for hibernation, so they have to slowly come back to kind of normal digestion and normal eating. So, they have very simple diets at this time of year. I would say probably the biggest effect on the bears who might be out moving around looking for something to eat by now, even if they’re going back and napping a little bit in their dens, is that because we haven’t had any rain, there isn’t a lot of green up of fresh grass shoots and sedge shoots and things like that, so those aren’t real available yet to eat, and that would be a key early food for bears.
It always seems to me, whether it’s an early spring or not, that bears tend come out just a couple three weeks a little too soon.
Anderson: Yeah, well, they probably do. Maybe they’re anxious, I don’t know, or maybe we’re not quick enough to get everything put away, so that we’re not attracting them.
Well, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s anything much to eat, but then again, I’m not looking at the same goodies that they might. What would be some of the first things? You mentioned grass shoots.
Anderson: Yep, grass and sedge shoots are important. So, fresh shoots of simple things, not woody things, but herbaceous plants, especially grasses and sedges. They also eat the flowers of the aspen, so you might see a bear pulling over a sapling of an aspen to get at the flowers that are out, and there are some aspens that are beginning to flower, not a lot yet, but they’re happening.
So that would be much the same as what they will do later in the year when they are berries to pull down? You see all those branches that have been brought down.
Anderson: Right. Exactly. Another thing that you might see evidence of is you’ll see ant mounds dug up this time of year, because the ant larvae are a good first food often available. Sometimes you’ll see rocks turned over. Bears go around and turn over rocks looking for the larvae of other insects that they can eat. So, those are some of the first and usually available foods right away, but they’re not super abundant yet in part, because as I said, there isn’t a lot of green up of those grassy shoots yet, and we don’t have a lot of aspens in flower quite yet.
What about other hibernators, like chipmunks?
Anderson: Well, you know, for other hibernators, it’s kind of a mixed bag, I think. If you went into the winter in good condition to spend a winter, then you’ve still got some fat reserves to go. So, the fact that there isn’t maybe a lot of favorite foods out quite yet is probably not a big deal, you can probably make do. If you went into the winter not in very good condition, it could kind of play either way. Maybe it’s great that you can get up and start looking for something to eat, because there are fresh shoots of a few things out there that chipmunks would be interested in and they’ll certainly be looking for any seeds that all the other critters that were active during the winter didn’t get. As we’ve talked about for with the amphibians and reptiles, they’re good to go whenever they wake up. As long as the ponds and rivers and lakes are not frozen anymore, they can just start right in on their breeding. There’s plenty of aquatic insects and things that they are using to live on. I can say for sure, though, that some things aren’t up yet. Just this past weekend, I got to see two different nests of jumping mice, where those little mice, those dear little mice, were still coiled up in this perfect little ball with their four-inch tails wrapped right around them, and their big hind feet squeezed up tight to their abdomens, still sound asleep, completely asleep.
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this spring.
Anderson: Always a pleasure. Thank you.


Spring means the song and antics of woodcocks and snipe

Woodcocks042210Mixdown.mp39 MB
Some of the most interesting mating rituals among our northern birds are the flights of the woodcock and snipe. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about “peenting” soaring, freefall and the mysterious warble in the lowlands.
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 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.
Hello, Jay.
Let’s talk about birds. Birds are mating, too. Now, of course, there’s lots of birds, but what I’d particularly like to talk about, which is, I think, pretty interesting to most people, and that is the courtship rituals of the snipe and woodcock.
Yeah. These are some of earliest returning birds, and they are very interesting birds altogether. And, as you say, their courtship rituals are quite elaborate. I know Molly had a really nice broadcast recently of the call of the woodcock. We’ll start with the woodcock, which is kind of a “beaam” sound.
Very good!
So, they’re very busy. For their mating rituals, the males like to stalk around on kind of slightly open, brushy, maybe the edge of a field or could be even at the edge of an old gravel pit or any kind of opening in the woods. Part of the reason they like to be more or less in the open is that their courtship, in addition to stalking around and doing that “beaam” call, is to leap into the air and circle ever greater, wider spirals, up into the air about 300 feet. If you’re watching, they really just about disappear from view. When they get to the top, they start singing, and they’re singing this very distinctive, kind of liquid chirping song and they’re singing as they go up, and the they hover at the top of that spiral for awhile, singing away, and then they just tuck their wings and they dive down towards the ground, but they do it in this pattern like a leaf fall. So, if you’ve watched a leaf fall out of a Maple tree or a Birch tree, it’s kind of a zigzag pattern. And so they do these swoops and turns and swoops and turns, back and forth, singing all the time as they drop to the ground. Then, they hit the ground and pretty quick start up their intermittent “peenting” call again, and if there’s a female right there, they’ll kind of do this stiff-legged walk towards her. But, that aerial display and singing is what they’re using to make their mark with the female.
Now this usually happens right around dusk, doesn’t it? Or early in the morning?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Both the woodcock and the common snipe or Wilson snipe are what we would call crepuscular species. So, they primarily do all their courtship displays and interactions with eachother and feeding from just before dawn through first intense light of the day, and then starting at dusk and into the night. In the case of both species, they will do this courtship during the night, especially if there’s a moonlit night; that will be very popular for doing their courtship displays. The snipe has a little bit different take on the whole courtship thing. They like wetter places, so they’re going to be right out in the marshes or near the edges of swamps. Again, more open, shrubby or grass- and sedge-dominated places, not so much in the forested swamps. Their courtship display is very mysterious in the sound that they make, because they take off and fly very fast and incorporate these swooping dives into the circles that they make around their nesting territory. And, as they do the dives, they do the dives with their tail feathers expanded. At the base of their tail there are two feathers that are a little bit different from all the others, and they extend kind of perpendicular from the body. It’s those two tail feathers that, in the dives, the air going past them vibrates them, and it makes this “wooowooowooo” kind of sound. So, if you go out especially at dusk in most any marsh right now, you can listen to that just, very magical and mysterious sound of the snipe. They’re hard to see doing it. If there is still some light and you’re good with your binoculars and with your visual cues, you can pick them up and try to follow them as they go, but they are flying very fast, and there isn’t anything else that sounds like that.
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s been going on around us this spring.

My pleasure, Jay 

Wood frag

Time for spring singing in the marshes and blooming in the woods

ChelAmphibians041910Mixdown.mp310.22 MB
This is the time of year to hear frogs in the lowlands and start to see wildflowers in the forest. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about amphibian songs and a small sweet smelling flower often overlooked on a woodland stroll.

Marsh marigolds

Spring flowers are coming out and so are the beavers

ChelSpring6BloomsBeavers030410Mixdown.mp37.47 MB
This is the time of year we see pussy willows along the roadsides and marsh marigolds blooming in the wetlands WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local phenologist about early flowers, migrating birds and the return of ducks to the lakes. It’s also time for beavers to emerge and bask in the sun.

Ruffed grouse

Buds, birds and drumming grouse signal spring

ChelSpring4Feeders030210Mixdown.mp38.8 MB

Catkins, tiny flowers and sweet smelling Balm of Gilead are all strong signs that spring is on the way. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local phenologist about changes in familiar shrubs, activity at the bird feeder and drumming grouse.

Red Squirrel

Feeder birds and chasing squirrels – spring is here

ChelSpring4Feeders030210Mixdown.mp38.8 MB

Things are changing at and under the bird feeders. Some birds are arriving, some leaving, some changing color. Then, of course there are the red squirrels with their stunning aerial acrobatics.  WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local phenologist about goings on at the feeder.

Wolf at Tucker Lake. Photo by Fran Smith

Familiar clues for tree tappers and wolves begin to court

ChelSpring3WellsWolves030210Mixdown.mp37.32 MB

We can’t feel it, but trees give off energy that melts the snow from their bases, creating tree wells. Early spring is also time for wolf mating. WTIP's Jay Andersen talks with local phenologist Chel Anderson about tree wells and courting wolves.

Aspen tress produce sunscreen

Aspen sunscreen and color changes in trees with Chel Anderson

ChelSpring2Trees030210Mixdown.mp38.64 MB

As spring approaches we begin to notice subtle changing colors on the hillsides and along roadways. Trees and shrubs are responding to the longer days. WTIP's Jay Andersen talks with a local phenologist Chel Anderson about aspen sunscreen and chemistry in trees.

Grand Marais Harbor 1/02/2010

In late winter the land warms, but the big lake ices up

ChelSpring1_030110Mixdown.mp311.31 MB

Why does the North Shore seem warmer this winter? Temperatures in February were some of the highest in the state. If that’s the case, why is there so much ice out on Lake Superior? WTIP’s Jay Andersen talks with Chel Anderson, a local phenologist, about the interesting ins and outs of late winter and early spring.

Life under the snow

In winter plants may be dormant, but their chemistry works overtime

Dormancy021510Mixdown.mp310.19 MB

We all know animals have various ways of dealing with winter. Some hibernate; some stay active under the snow. Much the same is true for seeds and plants. It’s called dormancy and it has a lot to do with chemical changes, both in the plants and in the rodents that eat the plants. WTIP’s Jay Andersen spoke with a local phenologist about the dormant plant world under the snow.