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North Woods Naturalist

Sunrise west harbor  from the Sunrise Series by Stephan Hoglund

Contributor(s): 
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.

 

 

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Hermit Thrush

Migrating birds and dragonflies are returning north

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JuneBirdsDragonflies052710Mixdown.mp311.58 MB
This is the time of year when migrating birds are returning by the flocks-full. Warblers and the woodland thrushes can be heard throughout the forest. But birds aren’t the only creatures in flight. It’s also dragonfly time. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about birds, dragon flies, damselflies and more.
 
 
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.
 
Anderson: Hello, Jay. Lucky me!
 
Well, let’s talk about new birds we should be looking and listening for this time of year.
 
Anderson: Well, the migration continues onward so birds continue to kind of trickle in. The ones that I’ve been thinking about that I’d like to remind people to be listening for, one is a group called the thrushes. Most people are very familiar with the song of the robin, and the robin in terms of its visual identifiers There’s another few species of thrushes in our forest that aren’t quite so obvious, especially visually, because they’re kind of more hideout-and-sneak-around types, and those are the hermit thrush, the veery, and the Swainson’s thrush, and a fourth one, the wood thrush, which has really become very rare in the county now, so it’s not the most likely one for people to hear or see, also very secretive. But, all four of these thrushes have in common a very beautiful, flute-like song, that’s really, in terms of this group, unmistakable. If you hear one of these flute-like songs, even if you don’t know in particular which one of the thrushes it is, it has to be one of these four. There really are no birds that sound like this. So, these are very melodic, most often heard at kind of dawn and dusk. They are forest birds, so that’s where you’re going to hear them. The veery and the Swainson’s thrush have very similar songs. The veery goes down the scale, so the notes start high and end low. The Swainson’s thrush is just the opposite; the notes start low and climb the scale, the musical scale. So, listen for a real, careful, flute-like notes going up and down the scale, those would be either the veery or the Swainson’s thrush. The hermit thrush is a much more variable song, but the same quality of tone as the other two and starts out with usually one long note then does this amazing run of notes that are very difficult to reproduce. In fact, for all of the thrushes, we’re only hearing a few of the notes that they’re actually hearing are within our range of auditory reception. Other birds coming back, flycatchers showing up now, heavily dependent on insects, along with the warblers. So, they’re all showing up now, taking part in the big insect feasts that are being provided. Along shorelines, a bird to look for now would be the spotted sandpiper. It’s a little brown bird with a spotted breast, usually very visible, hopping along the shoreline, and it does a lot of head-bobbing.
 
Well, Chel, other things that fly besides birds like dragonflies and mayflies, how are we doing with those?
 
Anderson: Yeah, this is a fantastic time of year to pay attention to dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies. One of the interesting things with the dragonflies is that here, in our part of the state, we actually have dragonflies arriving in different ways, in terms of flying adults. There are actually dragonflies that have grown up down south that have migrated up here for the summer, and they’re the first dragonflies that we see. Green darners are usually the mass migrators from the south and they show up and this year they showed up May 8, was the first day, quite early. There’s a lot of art to identifying dragonflies, but if you see a dragonfly in May and it’s a large dragonfly with basically a dark body and if you get a close look at it, some green side panels on the thorax, right behind the head on that kind of stout part of the body. They’re big, easy to spot, and they typically come right up Highway 61. Unfortunately, a lot of them are lost to vehicle collisions, but they use the migration corridor that the birds use, and then they disperse out into the woods and waters of the forest. So, they’re the first dragonflies that we see. Then, the next big event among the dragonflies is something called synchronized emergence. Of course, for lots of species of insects there’s lots of advantages to all coming out at the same time, if the idea is to procreate and make sure the next generation is ready. So, dragonflies are similar in that respect. So, June is just a fantastic time to see these big synchronized emergence of dragonflies. So, if you can find a spot along maybe a slow moving stretch of river inland or lake, and just spend some time cruising the shoreline on a nice sunny day, cruise that shoreline and keep your eyes open for dragonfly nymphs, so this is the aquatic life stage of the dragonflies, and they will be crawling out onto the rocks, onto vegetation right at the edge of the lake or stream, posing there to do their metamorphosis from nymph to flying adult.
 
What about damselflies?
 
Anderson: Damselflies are, of course, related to dragonflies, and they fly a little differently. They look more like a helicopter; they fly more like a butterfly. Their wings don’t move in the same kind of quick synchrony that dragonflies do. They generally, when they’re alighting on something, they fold their wings together over their back. Dragonflies can’t do that. Dragonfly wings are always spread.
 
Am I correct in thinking that the mayfly hatch is one of the big things that trout fisherman look for?
 
Anderson: Oh, indeed. Mayflies are hugely important to fish populations of all kinds, but particularly species that recreational fisherman are after.
 
Now, these guys aren’t anywhere near as big as a dragonfly.
 
Anderson: No, and some are really tiny. Some are smaller than your little fingernail, and then others are up to 2, 2.5 inches. Some only last as adults maybe an hour and a half, and others just a few days as the maximum life span for an adult mayfly.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist, thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this spring.
 
Anderson: You’re very welcome.


 
Moose twins

Moose and their calves are there to be seen

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This is the magic time of year when people start to look for and see young moose. The calves are being born and begin their amazing growth that will prepare them for winter.  WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about moose.
 
 
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us here periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
 
Anderson: Hi, Jay.
 
Now, everyone’s favorite large mammal, moose, when do we start seeing moose calves, or are the around already?
 
Anderson: Well, I haven’t seen one myself, and I haven’t heard that someone has, but that could well be, but typically in Minnesota moose calves are born starting in the second week of May and going thought the end of May, the fourth week in May, and pretty much all the calves are born during that bit of time. If the cows have been in good nutritional condition when they go into the winter and get through the winter well, then they might be having one or even two calves. Twin calves, historically, have been very common in our northeastern Minnesota moose population. Unfortunately, that’s been declining, but we can still hope to see twin calves out there occasionally. One question I’ve had about this is why would they all be born in this tight little timeframe, why not a little bit earlier or a little bit later? They seem to really be concentrated. No one really knows all the evolutionary factors that have led to this, but one of the kind of leading theories about this is that it has to do with something called “predator saturation.” So, if you are an animal who’s young is very susceptible and vulnerable to mortality from predators when they’re young, very young, then it can be beneficial for all of you to have your young at the same time, because then you give the predators all these choices. So, individually or each calf, or each cow’s calves, have a better, higher probability of being overlooked by a predator, because there’s so many other choices out there. So, that’s one possible reason. But, in any case, it gives us a great opportunity to see them, because they’re all being born pretty much at the same time. Pressure from predators is another very significant factor in where calves are born. So, cows are careful about where they choose to give birth to their calves. They want some place with dense cover, not just tree cover, but shrubs. That helps make it difficult for the calves to be seen and the cows to be seen when they are lying down close to the calves. It also helps to be somehow isolated from easy access by land. So, islands have been documented to be very often chosen as moose calving sites as well as even peninsulas, because it just narrows down the directions from which predators either intentionally or accidentally stumble upon the cow and calf or the calf if it’s alone. So, both islands and peninsulas are important places, and it’s also useful if there’s good brows for the cows, so she doesn’t have to go that far to feed when she needs to in between before the calf can really be moving around very far. Calves, when they’re born, are between 25 and 30 pounds. So, big relief to the cow. But then, of course, another sort of chore is to take over, and the calves are pretty helpless, you know, when they’re first born, but they can walk or stand and walk within a day or two, and then start gradually moving around as directed by their mother. The moose calves are the fastest growing mammal on the North American continent. Well, and they need to, right, because they have to make it through a winter in just several months. Initially, they’re feeding strictly on the mother’s milk; that lasts for a month. When they’re feeding on the milk, they’re growing two to three pounds per day. So, when they’re doing strictly dependent on the mother’s milk and when they’re really young, they can’t go so far, right, and they don’t have the strength and agility to manage some of our cross-country travel. So, the cow is assessing all that as her calf or calves develop and, you know, just making the choices about well, we need to do this or not do that, and go here, go there. But, the cow has to take care of herself as well. She needs to find what she needs, but as she recognizes her offspring have the strength and capacity to move, she’ll keep pushing them to do a little bit more and get a little bit stronger. Calves are often swimming by a week old. It’s really remarkable how quickly wild creatures have to become adept.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist, thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around this spring.
 
Anderson: You’re very welcome.


 
Mourning cloak

Spring is flowering in the forest

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Even though the weather can be cool, spring flowers are carpeting the forest floor and early butterflies are visiting them. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about ephemerals and mourning cloaks.
 
 
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.
 
Now that we’ve had rain, things are really starting to green up, but why are spring flowers called ephemerals?
 
Great question. Spring ephemerals, they are a very unique group of plants that really have evolved to take full advantage of the intensity of the spring sun before the leaves come out on the trees and shrubs and before a lot of other plants have come up that would be taller than them and do a lot of shading of these spring ephemerals. So, they leap out of the forest floor with their leaves and start gobbling up sunshine as quickly and efficiently as possible so that they move very quickly into their blooms and then very quickly into seed and maturing their seed. Some of them actually do disappear. They truly are ephemeral in the sense that they’re here today and gone tomorrow. Right now there are carpets literally by the bazillions of spring beauties in bloom in the maple forest, in some moist areas that aren’t even forest but maybe dense shrub cover, but the best place and easiest place to find them is to go out into the maple forest and they’re just all over the place, huge carpets of them. They are blooming just above leaf litter on the forest floor and they will be here for another, oh, until the end of May, perhaps. There might still be a few in bloom, depending upon the weather and how things go. But, by the middle of June, you won’t be able to find those plants at all.
 
What other ephemerals are there?
 
Well, other ephemerals that aren’t quite as dramatic in terms of their briefness that are blooming right now would be the Dutchman’s Breeches, which people might be familiar with. Their flowers look like white pantaloons with little yellow ruffles at the bottom—very sweet. They also occur in large, sometimes very large patches, and are easy to see right now in bloom because there isn’t a lot to hide them. Other spring flowers that are taking advantage of the light in the same way would be our nodding and large flower trilliums, already in bloom, bloodroot, all those species are particularly good at capitalizing on this early spring sunshine before the other leaves come out.
 
One of my favorites: Wild Ginger. Talk about wild ginger and how it kind of hides the flowers.
 
 
Yeah, good one. Yeah, ginger are just beautiful, but easily overlooked, because, as you say, the pretty, velvety green leaf that lies very close to the forest floor actually hides the blossom, which is down at the very base. If you follow the stem of the leaf down, you’ll find the flower, which is a beautiful, deep maroon and shaped kind of like an orb, so very round but then open at the end with some flared fringe.
 
It’s chilly in the mornings. In spite of that, butterflies are around.
 
Yes. Oh, that’s always so much fun to see these butterflies and have them contribute to the color in the woods at this time of year. The first butterflies that show up in the spring here are butterflies that overwintered as adults, and there aren’t many species that actually do that. Some common ones that people may have already seen, or certainly could see anytime now, would be the morning cloak, which many people might be familiar with. So, this is a dark, when the wings are open, so the top side of the wings are a really dark, chocolately brown. There are some beautiful blue, kind of iridescent blue dots and then a beautiful thick, white margin on the wings. They overwinter under the bark of trees and that’s why they can come out so early, because they’re already ready to fly, right? They are physiologically able to protect the fluids in their cells from freezing to the point where it would kill the cells.
 
Butterfly antifreeze?
 
Exactly. Yes. Butterfly antifreeze. Other adults, other species that overwinter as adults would be the tortoiseshells, the Compton and Milbert’s tortoiseshells. There’s the silvery blue, and also the spring azure. These come out early not because they’ve overwinter as adults, they overwinter in the chrysalis. So, probably everybody’s probably familiar with chrysalis from seeing a Monarch chrysalis or whatever. Well, it’s the same type of thing. So, that’s the last stage before you emerge as an adult butterfly.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this spring.
 
Great fun. Thank you.


 
Black bear

An early spring doesn't necessarily affect the bears

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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.


 
Woodcock

Spring means the song and antics of woodcocks and snipe

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.