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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.

 

 


What's On:
Garter Snake

Wildlife buttons up for winter

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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: Hi!
 
Well, OK, as much as I hesitate to bring it up, winter is bearing down on us. Some of us are buttoning up our homes and preparing for cold and snow, but what about shelter if you live in the wild?
 
Anderson: Great question. Let’s talk about that. There’s so many things that we could talk about on this topic that I think we’ll try to limit it. First, let’s make the distinction between critters, like us, who are endotherms, who regulate our heat from the inside out and ectotherms, all these other living things whose temperature is regulated by the outside temperature. They don’t have any control over their own body temperature, so they’re really at the mercy of the outdoors. In that group, we have, first of all, snakes, garter snakes, and we have red-bellied snakes for the most part here. This time of year, in much of the county, you won’t see a garter snake or a red-bellied snake anymore, because they’ve already headed to the places that they’re going to spend the winter. Usually after the first couple hard frosts, they start making their way towards wherever they’re going to spend the winter in something called a hibernacula. And, more often than not, because in this part of the world we don’t have a lot of options of places to get below the frost line, these critters are going to spend the winter together. And so sometimes they’re in places that are traditional over many, many generations of snakes that snakes are moving to to spend the winter at. We don’t know about very many of these here in northeastern Minnesota, but there are some great locations that are known, say, in Manitoba, so even further north than here, where literally tens of thousands of snakes spend the winter together in what are, up there, sinkholes. So, at this time of year, the snakes here are moving sometimes along very traditional routes even to go to these places where they know they can safely spend the winter. They’re heading down into, it might be, under rock piles, talus slopes, fissures in cliffs, places that we can’t tell go down deep, but do go down deep into the ground, deep enough so that they get below the frost line. Once they get down there, they’re just going to get colder and colder and colder, but they’re not going to freeze. They can’t tolerate freezing, snakes can’t, so they have to find someplace that’s going to be reliably above freezing for the winter. They’re going to stay alert, but sluggish, so if their hibernacula would allow them to go deeper, should it get colder than it normally does or maybe there’s less snow cover and that’s affecting their particular spot, then they can move lower if they need to. But, if things get bad and they can’t go any lower, and it gets too cold, then there’s obviously a lot of mortality. It’s not about giving off any heat; it’s about the fact that there are limited numbers of places where this is possible.
 
No, I wouldn’t think so.
 
Anderson: So, think about it, if we only had a few shelters for humans through the winter here, we’d all be there, and we’d pile in pretty deep, I bet.
 
That sounds like a bad horror movie to me, Chel.
 
Anderson: Well, I know especially for people who are a little bit leery or phobic about snakes anyway, it’s not a happy thought. But, it is an amazing thing to see. I’ve only had the good fortune of stumbling upon one of these hibernacula one time, but it’s just incredible to peek down into some depth and see all these snakes together. So, that’s what snakes are doing. An amphibian that’s common to our area here, salamanders, so that would be the red-backed salamander and the blue-spotted salamander, they are also not tolerant of freezing. So, they have to find places to go and very little is known about where our salamanders are going in the winter, very secretive all throughout the year and we don’t really know a lot about it, but it’s suspected that they’re using the tunnels of the other critters that are doing the same thing. So, it might be chipmunk tunnels or woodchuck tunnels; who knows what all kinds of entrances. We might be able to go down some little space around roots of a tree that go deep from the surface. And, of course, they’re also going to be very dependent on having good snow cover, because snow cover makes a huge difference in how deep that frost goes in the ground, as most of us know. Let’s talk about insects, so butterflies. This is the time of year when people may have been seeing on the warmer days that we’ve had a lot of the small butterflies of a variety of different kinds; morning cloaks, commas, tortoiseshells, there are a number of species in those latter two groups. And, they’re going around looking for a sheltered, unheated space to spend the winter to kind of get tucked in. So, before we were inhabiting the landscape, they would have used under the big flakes of tree bark or in the fissures of tree trunks or under some kind of bark, you know, that was maybe propped up against something. So, they’re looking to mostly hide themselves. They can tolerate freezing, they’re adult butterflies, and they’re going to go through the winter frozen, basically. But, they need to hide from things that might want to eat them. So, there are going to be birds and mammals out there looking for things to consume over the winter, and they want to be out of sight, out of mind, out of harm’s way, that way. On the mammal side, in a similar way, we have snowshoe hares that are changing color rapidly to their winter white. They, of course, are an endotherm, like we are, they’re regulating their own body heat, but they are using, similar to the butterflies, a camouflage strategy: “OK, I’m going to change my color here, because that keeps me safer.” So, that’s a form of shelter, a different kind of shelter than we maybe normally think about, but it’s a form of shelter, and it can backfire in some years where you change color before the snow shows up, so I’m sure they’re hoping that the snow comes sooner rather than later.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this fall.
 
Anderson: My pleasure.

 
Stream

Brook trout spawn is on in cold streams

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 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: Hi, Jay.
 
Well, I understand brook trout are spawning. So, let’s talk about brookies and the spawn.
 
Anderson: Yeah, well those who have been taking advantage of fishing the streams and inland headwaters of streams here in Cook County over the summer are no longer doing that for brook trout, because the season is closed, and a key reason for that is because this is the time of year when brook trout are spawning, and we wouldn’t want to get in the way of the spawn, now would we?
 
No, no, because then you don’t get little brook trout.
 
Anderson: That’s right, because then your fishing the next year and years after would not be nearly so promising. So, yeah, brook trout are one of the two native trout species to Minnesota, the other of course being lake trout. Here in our part of the northeast, we have both a coaster lake trout which lives most of its life in Lake Superior, and we also have a stream brook trout that live in the headwaters and upper reaches of streams.
 
Do they get into lakes, too?
 
Anderson: Yeah. They are in lakes and ponds. I’m going to focus on the spawning of the brook trout that don’t spend any time in Lake Superior, because they’re really pretty different. But the brook trout that live in the headwaters of our streams here are cold-water loving species. So, this is where these fish are going to be focused on spending their time and doing their spawning. Brook trout, if one hasn’t ever seen one, is kind of a medium-sized fish, dark back, lighter sides and belly. The belly often has some red; the lower fins have some red on them. They have beautiful modeling on the dark part of their back and upper sides, and then they also have beautiful spots which are red and trimmed with blue. So this is, at least in my opinion, one of the most spectacular fish that one can ever see. They rival any fish I’ve ever seen on a coral reef and have this very close association with what are really rare environments even in Minnesota. Their close association with cold water environments make them a good indicator species for water quality in streams and rivers here in the north. At this time of year, the females are looking for places where the springs are actually coming up through a gravel, sandy, gravelly kind of substrate. They’re interested in finding those particular places for two reasons. One, because that water that’s coming up is cool, so it stays cool all the time and because that constant flow helps maintain the substrate there free of silt and it’s also a place where they can easily make what’s called a “redd” which their nest that they are going to put their eggs in. So, they’re looking for these spots and they’re swimming hard into the bottom and they’re vibrating their bodies and swishing their tails, and over the span of a few days they are doing that in that spot and creating this shallow nest or “redd.” During that time, there may be a male that is defending that against other males while the female is working on creating the redd. Once the redd is ready, the female is satisfied with it, then she’s going to kind of lie still in the redd, just kind of maintaining her position there, and the male will come over and might do a little bit of courting. Then, he’s just going to arch his body over hers and she’s going to release the eggs and he’s going to release the sperm at the same time and they’re going to be vigorously vibrating their bodies and churning the water, so there’s a lot of mixing that’s going to go on when that release is happening. Of course, that’s essential to make sure the eggs get fertilized. Then the eggs will settle down in that depression. The female, then, with swipes of her tail, will move some gravel from the edges of the redd out over the eggs and cover them with a light layer of gravel. So, now they’re kind of stuck there in that nice place where there’s this constant flow of oxygenated, cool water. They’re looking for water temperatures between 40 and 49 degrees, is when they really want to be working on their spawning activities. The eggs are going to develop there. Depending on how cold the water is, it may take anywhere from 50 to 150 days for the eggs to develop and hatch out as tiny fish. They’re going to spend that time right there in the redd, and maintaining that open, oxygenated condition of water moving through is essential to the survival of the egg. So, that’s where the linking of the high-quality conditions of the watershed are so important to the success of the spawning, and the success of the eggs.
 
And they’re developing under the ice?
 
Anderson: Yes, they’re developing under the ice. But, of course, because there’s a spring flow, those aren’t going to be places where the ice is going to form right stuck to the gravel, right? And so the fish are very careful about the spots that they choose. The importance of watershed quality is that we don’t want silt coming in and settling over these places. Of course, a small spring flow can only keep off a small amount of sediments coming through in the stream or in a pond. It’s an out-of-sight kind of activity that’s going on, but so important to something that people enjoy so much about coming and living here and visiting here fishing here. You know, I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to over the years who there’s no greater delight for them than spending a day touring through the woods trying to get to their favorite brook trout fishing area. I mean, these are such important aspects of many peoples’ time here, and it’s important to remember that it persists because of some things that go on outside of our easy-to-see or easy-to-hear kinds of experiences, but they’re really important none the less. Brook trout don’t die after they spawn, they live, you know, three to four, maybe up to six years and they spawn every year of their adult lives. They are usually ready to spawn at just a year old.
 
Yeah. That’s my next question. How fast does it take these little guys to grow?
 
Anderson: Yeah, they grow pretty fast, and usually within a year or so, they can be ready to spawn the very next one.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks, Chel, for helping us understand brook trout this fall.
 
Anderson: You’re welcome.

 
Moose

Fall is time for the annual moose rut

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 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: Hi, Jay.
 
Well, everybody’s favorite very large animal: moose. Chel, what’s this about the rut?
 
Anderson: Oh, the rut. Yeah, I think the moose rut is a pretty interesting phenomenon that we’re lucky enough to have some sometimes up-close and personal experiences with aspects of, and, boy, that’s not something to take fort granted this mating season, which is what the rut refers to in the case of moose. Of course, moose have been, in a way, the mature moose that are going to be doing the breeding, which is mostly not most of the population. Most of the population of moose are juveniles and calves, and those members of the population aren’t going to be doing the breeding, it’s going to be a much smaller group of animals that are the mature bulls and the cows. The most productive cows are in the range of four to twelve years old, and then the bulls, the mature bulls that will do most of the breeding, are between five and ten years old, so it’s a small part, really, of the total population that do all the breeding. In the world of the moose, bulls really prepare all summer in a sense for the breeding season, because they’re growing their antlers, and it’s high levels of testosterone in their bodies that help them harden off those antlers and get them all spruced up for this particular period of the year that we’re in now. Females, of course, have been striving all their lives and now over the summer to be in good condition and be ready to be in good shape for the breeding season. In the moose range is a wide variety of conditions, right, we have moose that live in the tundra; we also have moose like here that are living in the forest. Well, because of that wide range of environments that moose live in, they really have two different strategies that they use for breeding depending upon where they live. We’ll focus on the one here in the forest, but just a short note on those that live in the open, they use more of a group breeding strategy. So, moose, bull moose, round up kind of a loosely-formed harem. But, of course, if you’re in the forest, things are pretty different in terms of how do you find each other, because you can’t see other moose across vast distances. So, here moose typically are just breeding in pairs. Now, you may have a bull that’s breeding a number of cows, but they’re not keeping them together in a group. They are focusing their attention on finding individual cows and being with them when they’re ready to mate and then moving on to another cow.
 
My experience has often been that the cows, you’ll often hear them bellowing and then the bulls bellow back. Sometimes it’s quite a distance, so I’m assuming that they finally get together.
 
Anderson: Yes, indeed. They use both visual cues and auditory cues and olfactory cues, so smells and sounds are both important. Cows give a low, kind of wavering moan. The bulls tend to do something that’s more of a grunt, so those calls can help individuals find each other. They also help the males know where each other are, and they also use smells. So, cows that are breeding age, they’ll be stripping trees of their bark. They don’t eat the bark, they just peel it away, strip it away, and then they rub their heads all over that stripped wood. There are a bunch of glands on their head and they leave their scent there. So, this is something that a bull can pick up on and they can kind of check out that female before he’s actually seen her in person. Both the male and female urine have smells in it, so those clues are being left and assessed regularly by both males and females. Then, the mature males, they really focus on breeding at this time, and they actually give up eating to really just concentrate on finding cows and mating with cows when they’re ready. A bull’s antlers are primarily for the purpose of displaying their superiority to their competitors, but also for displaying their superior qualities as a mate to a cow.
 
They don’t fight that much?
 
Anderson: Sparring is a very dangerous thing and about the only time it will happen is when two bulls think they have the larger of the racks, then that’s when a sparring match of some kind is likely to occur. As I said, it’s a dangerous thing, puncture wounds are not uncommon, and occasionally bulls lock antlers and they can’t get free. That will lead to the death of both animals. Think about even though the tines on a moose antler may not come to as sharp of a point as some other species do, think about the force that a moose can put behind it’s antlers. It’s probably more than we can really imagine. We probably all come across, if we’ve spent much time in the woods, places where you can see a moose has done a lot of rubbing of its antlers. And once moose have shed the velvet, and they’re all shined up and all hardened up and ready and into the mating season, then they’ll use that rubbing and that clacking and thrashing against trees and shrubs as a way to broadcast their superiority, because the bigger the antler, the bigger those palms, that makes a very hollow sound that can go a long distance, so they can use that to assess the competitors’ locations and their size. And, once they’ve actually copulated, it doesn’t go on necessarily for very long, and then, once it’s over, they pretty much go their separate ways. And, for the males, of course, once they’ve finished breeding all the cows that they’ve been able to connect with, they go off to spend the winter or the next couple months trying to regain the weight that they’ve lost and get ready to survive the winter. The females, of course, they’re now going to be carrying an embryo and a little moose through the whole winter, so they need to go off and stay really fit and healthy to bring that moose into the world in the spring. So, once the rut is over, they go their separate ways and they don’t really meet up again until next fall.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us with moose this fall.
Anderson: You’re welcome.

 
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Busy beavers and ballooning spiders signify fall

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 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 back, Chel.

 
Anderson: Thanks, glad to be here.
 
Well, now that we’re into autumn officially, can winter be far behind? That’s a rhetorical question. That brings me to thoughts of beavers.
 
Anderson: One of the things that often happens at this time of year, because the trees, many of the trees, have lost all their leaves, and the trees aren’t taking up nearly as much water from the ground, so when we have our fall rains, that often helps raise the level of our rivers and lakes, because more water can just move right through the ground and into lakes and streams and replenish ground water, so that always reminds me of why beavers might be out being very busy with their dams, right, because water levels can be changing, can be rising. So, dams that might have been sufficient over the summer, especially this year when it was so dry, are now being tested more, and beavers are never comfortable with water running over their dams, or through them, but they’re never really satisfied if their dams have a lot of water running over them. I think it makes them a little uncomfortable. Right now is a very busy time for beavers, both getting their dams really well solidified, built up higher if necessary to take advantage of raising the water level in a pond to give even more assurance that it won’t freeze out to the bottom. So, they’re going to be building up their dams, which includes not just bringing woody material to the dam and interlacing it all together, but also literally digging out with their front feet whatever clay or muck they can from the bottom of their pond and carefully bringing it over and pushing it and patting it and stomping it into and over their dam to seal it up so water moves through it, but very slowly, at a very slow rate. They’re doing the same thing with their lodge. So, they’re preparing where they’re going to spend the winter, so they’re bringing woody material, piling that, and as they go, they do this layering and mortaring of the wood with their muddy mortar. Since the days are shorter now, beavers tend to be out more during the daylight hours, so you don’t even have to go out at night to watch them. And, it’s fascinating to get to watch them, how they do their construction and how amazingly strong they are at carrying sometimes big clods of mud or root balls up on to these steep slopes up to the tops of their lodges, just walking on their hind feet and hefting these huge blobs up onto their lodges. It’s a great form of entertainment, if anything else. In addition to that, they also have to be thinking about the huge food cache that they’re going to make out right in front and connect to wherever they’re going to lodge for the winter. And, they’re starting with material like alder, a variety of shrubs that they’re going to be able to get down below the surface, because they build their pile from the bottom up. So, they go down and plunge those cuttings from the shrubs and smaller tree branches into the muck of the bottom of their beaver pond, and then they build the pile up by wedging more stuff into that, and it just becomes this big jumbled pile that is holding together because it’s so stuck together, and it’s fastened to the bottom, so it can’t go whisking away if the river comes up.
 
What’s all this about ballooning spiders?
 
Anderson: Well, I really thought that would be kind of fun to talk about, because it’s something I really look forward to trying to catch a glimpse of in the fall. Especially on those days when it’s the nicest to be out in the fall, you know, clear, bluebird-blue sky days where the temperatures may be getting up to 50 or even higher some days, and there’s not a huge wind, but a nice, kind of steady breeze. Those are the kinds of days in the fall that spiders use to disperse. Most all critters have to have some way of moving away from each other, because, if you’re a female spider and you’ve hatched out 2 or 3 broods of hundreds of little spiders, even if just a few of those from each brood make it, you can’t all live right there, there isn’t enough for everyone. So, you’ve got to move out and move to new places and spread the genes around, so that we create a lot of genetic diversity within the population. So, there are evolutionary advantages to moving.
 
So, they can’t move far enough away by walking. They have to catch a plane, right?
 
Anderson: Exactly. They have this just amazing thing they do, which, a good place to see would be to go out to somewhere that is an opening, that has a good sunny spot where the breeze is breezing through, and look on the tops of whatever the vegetation is, and try to watch for spiders out on the tops of those. And how they do this is they throw out their silk in a long line and they just keep letting it go out, and the breeze, of course, will pick that up. And they let it out and they let it out and then at some point, I don’t know how they decide or if it’s serendipitous, but they just take off on that silk like a kite, as if it were a kite or a balloon. That just takes them right up into the air, lofts them way up high, and there’s even been some collecting done in what’s called the Aolian sphere. That’s maybe not a common usage word, but that’s the very upper part of the atmosphere, and some spiders actually make it way up high, tens of thousands of feet high. So, ballooning spiders are definitely a potential thing to look for.
 
Well, now some spiders are pretty good size. Can they do that, too?
 
Anderson: No, they can’t. But, the small ones can. So, it’s worth paying attention to if you’re out on a nice hike somewhere and you come to one of those nice sunny openings on the kind of day I described. Just keep your eyes out. Or, if you get wound up in a bunch of gossamer, maybe you’re in someone’s flight path.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist, thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this fall, particularly those ballooning spiders.
 
Anderson: You’re very welcome.

 
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Mammals begin the process of storing up for winter

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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 back, Chel.
 
Anderson: Hello, Jay.
 
Well, Labor Day has passed, school has started, and I guess we’re officially into fall. That means birds and animals are getting ready for winter. In other words, they’re bulking out.
 
Anderson: Yeah, they are. I’m sure people hear that word winter and they go, “No, no! Don’t talk about that!” But, I’m going to anyway. So, if anyone like me out there is a gardener, then you know that at this time of year starting already for a month or so and through September and into October, we’re busy putting up food, making things available to us later, you know, when it’s not the growing season anymore. And, even as we’re busy doing that, there are lots of critters, especially mammals, that are doing the exact same thing. The champion species, from my standpoint, in terms of food storage and that would be the red squirrel.
 
I was going to say chipmunk, but yeah, I won’t argue with you on the red squirrel. Busy, busy.
 
Anderson: I would say they are champion “cachers,” I’m going to use the word “cache.” They really go about a really concentrated and efficient, comprehensive caching program in the late summer and fall. The kinds of things that they’re working on right now, and it’s really easy to observe, are conifer cones. So, conifer cones and the seeds within them are a key food for red squirrels, and a preferred food. This time of year, if you walk a trail anywhere where there are red squirrels, and that’s most places in our forest, you will find little piles of, or sometimes really big piles, of both cones and just the cone scales. So, the scales of the cone are the hard, kind of woody parts that cover the seeds. Red squirrels, at this point in time, are going around in the tops of the conifers and they’re either cutting with one swift little bite, they’re cutting through the connection between the cone and the twig and letting the cones fall to the ground, or they’re actually cutting the twig. So, on black spruce and white cedar in particular, cones occur in small groups, so they don’t bother trying to get the individual cones, they just cut the twigs, the small twigs, that the cones are attached to and let those fall down, and then they make collections of these on the ground after they’ve spent some time cutting. And then in many cases, they’ll pick a spot, a nice, little perch somewhere, and then they’ll just start working through those cones. They swiftly, unbelievably swiftly, peel back those cone scales and clip out the seed and either eat it or stuff it in their cheek pouches and fill those up. Once they’re full, then they can move them to wherever they’re going to cache the food supply.
 
So, red squirrels have cheek pouches, but not as big as chipmunks?
 
Anderson: Right, but they will store those seeds then, along with a variety of other berries, dried berries. Hazelnuts are another important food for squirrels in our area. Good hazelnut crop in many places this year. They peel that green, outer layer off, then they usually put a little bit of a nick in the coat of the seed of the nut. That big husk, they put a little nick in that and then they cache them underground, sometimes by the hundreds to thousands.
 
Why do they put a nick in them?
 
Anderson: I think the squirrels put a nick in them, because they dry better, because they want to get at—they’re not going to eat that husk. They want to eat the seed inside. So, the nick seems to be part of, you know, their process of making the seed most edible and it’s part of their process of storing. The dexterity and the efficiency with which they do this, I would say, is equal to the efficiency of grosbeaks on your sunflower seeds. Red squirrels do also collect a lot of fungi. They put them out to dry. So, it’s very common in the woods, you’ll look around up into the canopy of the balsam, and you’ll see these mushrooms just hanging out on the balsam branches, and those have been put there by squirrels. They put them up there to dry, and let them dry. They do a nice job of drying out in the wind, and then they come back and they gather those dry mushrooms and they put them into their caches.
 
I just realized why it is that I’m fighting an endless battle with red squirrels. They seem to be very bright little creatures.
 
Anderson: They definitely are.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks again for helping us understand what’s going on around us this early fall.
 
Anderson: You’re very welcome.

 
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North Shore corridor important to fall migration

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Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist from 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: Hey, Jay.
 
Now, listen, bird migration continues. We’ve talked about nighthawks, we’ve talked about loons. The North Shore is a real migration corridor, so who else is on the move?
 
Anderson: Yes, the migration is definitely underway. Let’s maybe start by talking about the corridor and what an amazing phenomenon for migration the corridor is and why it’s so important. People have known for a long time how important the North Shore was to the migration of raptors, so hawks and eagles and ospreys and birds of prey, in part because of all the long-term observations that have been going on at the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth. So, people have been documenting numbers of raptors there for a number of years now and banding birds. So, it’s been a great resource, but it’s really only recently that, other than anecdotally, people have really begun to look at how important is the North Shore migration corridor for other kinds of birds, particularly song birds. So, these are the birds that inhabit our forest during the breeding season, but don’t stay here for the winter. They also inhabit the forest to the north of us during the breeding season, but don’t stay there for the winter. So, they’re all going to head south. Recently, in the last three years, I believe since 2008, the Natural Resources Research Institute began a study to really try to get a better picture of how important the North Shore corridor is for birds of all kinds, and what’s emerging is the value of the corridor to birds migrating in the fall has been way underestimated. We literally have hundreds of thousands to millions, potentially millions, of birds that use the North Shore corridor in the fall as part of their migratory route south. So, this is a much more massive concentration of birds than really had been documented or could have been estimated in any kind of accurate way up until now.
 
What makes a corridor a corridor? What are they following, the lake?
 
Anderson: Yes, that’s a great question and an important one to consider. So, birds in migration have to find both food and cover as they make their way. Well, if you’re coming from the north and you get to Lake Superior, you don’t find any cover, and unless you’re some kind of water bird, water fowl, you don’t find any food. So, birds that are migrating during the day, as they come to Lake Superior, they change course and they orient along the shore, and birds that are migrating at night, if they find themselves at dawn out over the lake, they immediately reorient to the shore that they can see, the closest shore that they can see. Then, the second thing that plays a major role in that funneling effect, are the ridges that are parallel to Lake Superior, these high ridges. So, that creates kind of a funneling effect, and they tend to stay between the shore and the tops of the ridges. So, we’re right in one of the premier migration routes of all of North America.
 
Well, besides the obvious raptors. Name a few that we’re apt to see coming through right now.
 
Anderson: Well, I mentioned before that the insect feeders are the first to start to move out. And other than nighthawks, we’ve already had several species of warblers like Nashville Black and Whites, Red Starts, Tennessee Warblers; they’ve been on the move already along with Nighthawks and Tree Swallows and the really heavily focused on insect-type birds. The birds that are starting to move now, in motion already, from further north like from the arctic, that nest in the arctic, are a lot of waiting birds like sandpipers, for instance. Yellow Legs would be other species that have been moving through already. I was out recently and saw a number of solitary sandpipers and some of the larger sandpipers, in addition to the spotted sandpipers that are here all summer. Then, other birds like flickers, the thrushes, the tanagers, all the other warblers, kinglets, and then of course sparrows, are all starting to form these feeding groups and flocking together. Eventually, once these birds get on the move, many of them will be moving at night and then they feed during the day. This is how they keep themselves going, right? They’ve got to get some nourishment to get through the migration. So, they fly at night and feed during the day. And when birds from outside of our area come through here on migration, and they stop to feed during the day, they often hook up with groups of local birds, like chickadees and nuthatches, that are going around in their little bands feeding, because these are the birds that know the local scene for food, right? So, these passing-through birds, these migrant birds, will hook up with these little groups during the day and follow them around and chickadees seem to, you know, be OK with that.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this late summer.
 
Anderson: You’re very welcome.

 
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Early fall means the loons are gathering

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Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
 
Anderson: Hi!
 
And as we edge towards fall, if we’re not already there, what are the loons doing? That’s always a big thing this time of year. Are they getting ready to migrate and when?
 
Anderson: Their lives are changing as well, and one of the really interesting aspects of loon interactions and behavior that is easy to observe at this late summer and through the fall, through September anyway, are social gatherings that loons have. They actually have these throughout the summer, spring and summer, but as the summer grows later and we get into fall, the amount of time that loons spend doing this and in these social gatherings and the numbers of loons that are a part of them really increases. So, whereas in the spring you might have, oh, maybe three to five loons at the most that get together and hang out in these social gathering groups, by this time of the summer you’re definitely getting up above that number at times and eventually, in the late fall when they’ve really left here for the most part, the adults, and have moved into what are their migration staging areas. So, this would be by sometime in October. Then, you can have loons in groups of 40 or more gathering like this, and they use this in a variety of ways during their migration. But, what’s going on basically is, as far as researchers have been able to figure out, is that loons use these social gatherings, these get-togethers on lakes as a way to reinforce their cooperative feeding behavior that they use pretty much only during migration, or especially during migration. So, what that really means or what to look for if you’re wanting to check this out for yourself, is to watch for adult loons in groups of more than three, five, and, as I said, as the summer gets later and early fall, it could be even more than that, spending time together. And, what they do is they come together, they form a circle, and they’ll actually swim in a circle. And as they’re swimming together in a circle, they’ll be doing these very ritualized behaviors of dipping their bills, which if you’ve ever watched loons, you’ve seen them do this head turning, where they just turn their heads back and forth, jerk swimming, it’s called, which is just kind of a dipping of their whole head and neck. They don’t really submerge, but they do that. As they swim in this circle together, they do those behaviors. And after everyone has been engaged in that activity for a few minutes, then one of the loons will initiate the next phase by diving, and that bird will dive and disappear, and the others will all dip their heads down and peer in the water with their heads down. For a little bit after that loon has disappeared, they’ll wait for a little while and then they’ll all dive while the first one is still underwater and then they’ll eventually emerge usually a little distance away in a little less perfectly configured circle and they’ll repeat this over and over and over again. And as they spend, as I said, more and more time at this, they’ll repeat it many, many times, they’ll spend not just a few minutes doing this, but hours doing this together, and researchers believe that it is a way to learn and practice this feeding behavior that they use as they migrate, also to reinforce their connections together and familiarize themselves with each other. Loons spend the vast majority of their lives feeding on their own. In the winter, they pretty much feed on their own. They just hang out all by themselves. In the spring, when they come back here, you know, it’s one or two. That’s it, because of the strict territorial boundaries that they have. They mostly just spend time alone, and the adults, of course, are separate, because one is watching the young or on the eggs when that’s happening, so they spend this time making these other connections that they’re going to need during migration. Apparently, the benefit of doing this is that once loons leave their territorial nesting grounds that they’re very familiar with and know where the good fishing is, right, because that’s where they spend all their time in the summer, and on their migratory routes, they can be in lots of unfamiliar places where they don’t know the good fishing. So, everyone benefits by having 15 or 20 or more pairs of eyes peering down through the water looking for these schools of small fish that they’re primarily using in migration, and getting everyone on the same track to go after these things. So, you as an individual can benefit as a loon by working together with everyone else to find these.
Well, while the adults are moving around in circles, where are the young ones?
 
Anderson: Yeah, well, if you’re an adult loon, you won’t start really being a big part of these social gatherings until your young loons are pretty much good to go in terms of feeding on their own. Young loons are gradually weaned away from being fed by their parents throughout the late summer and into the fall. And so, eventually, the adults just leave the young loons on their own and spend more of their time alone or in these social gatherings, and the young loons, like other young birds, are usually the last to leave, because it takes them a long time to get fit and ready to make the migration. They’re hardwired to know where to go, but, you know, they have to build up their musculature for this long flight, so you’ll see young loons in the fall practicing, trying to get up enough speed to take off, for instance, and doing little practice flights around and around to build up those flight muscles and then feeding, just to build up the reserves that they need.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on with loons this year.
 
Anderson: You’re so welcome.

 
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Late Summer Means The Bird Migration Is Near

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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 back!
 
Anderson: Hi, Jay.
 
Now, I know some birds have started to migrate—in fact, probably quite a few of them. Where are we in the annual migration ritual?
 
Anderson: Well, we’re definitely dealing with the early birds, but it is starting, you know, and it always amazes me that already things are responding to changes in what’s going on in the phenology of other living things and doing what they need to do to take care of themselves in that regard. In particular, birds that rely on insects to maintain and sustain themselves over the course of their lives need to be taking action right now because, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been enjoying the lack of biting insects of late.
 
I was going to say, Chel, we haven’t had a lot of insects, and have been able to actually sit outside and enjoy it. Is that a problem for migrating birds right now?
 
Anderson: Well, I’m sure it’s making it harder to find easy pickings, so to speak, but these birds are really good at what they do, but if you were an adult trying to feed your fledglings and help them, or if you’re a new bird and you’re just learning the ropes on how to find these things, yeah, definitely having fewer bugs out there of different kinds, insects out there to potentially eat is going to be a challenge for you. Yeah, I’m sure it does have an impact.
 
Well, who’s moving through?
 
Anderson: Yeah, well, among the first—and there’s so many, there’s too many to talk about individually, but I definitely want to mention one particular bird that is the Common Nighthawk. I think it’s an underappreciated bird. It is an insect feeder and this is the time of year that one can observe them in flocks as they start their migration to the south, following insect availability. Nighthawks are kind of charcoal-gray, not very large, maybe around the size of a sharp-shinned hawk. They really are exceptionally good flyers, because they have to be able to pursue insects, flying insects. They don’t eat insects that are, you know, hanging out under leaves, they are only after insects that are in flight, so they have tremendous acrobatic prowess in flight. This is the time of year when you might actually get to observe that. They are crepuscular feeders, so beginning in the evening, as the light gets low and then again in the morning. If you’re in a place where there are lights at night, in the Twin Cities, even here in Grand Marais, if they happen to be in-town area where there’s enough light, they’ll be feeding at night and you can here them calling back and forth to each other with this kind of loud, piercing call that they have that sounds like a “beeearrr, beeearrr.” And, they use that to, you know, kind of keep together and let each other know where they are. And, they go around basically flying at high speed with their mouths wide open raking in anything they can come across. Despite their name, including the word “hawk,” they have very little in common with hawks other than, say, a Merlin, which also are sharp-shinned which can fly very quickly and turn quickly and dive and faint. That’s what Nighthawks can do, but they have very weak feet, no big talons like a hawk, and their beaks are very small, not hooked, not for flesh tearing. So, their mouths, instead, are these big, gaping mouths with very course, stiff hairs lining the edges of them that help them rake in and collect insects as they fly through the air. So, they’re looking for, you know, groups of insects that are hovering together or moving together for mating purposes or whatever, but in the air, and trying to hit these groups and then just whisking around as quick as they can to try to sweep them into their mouths.  I had a wonderful experience last year about this time. I was down along the lake, Lake Superior, and I had a good view kind of inland, but also out over the lake, and I saw this bird at a distance come kind of soaring down from inland right to the lake shore and as soon as it got to the lake shore and as soon as it got to the edge of the lake, it turned and started circling above the lake shore. And I thought, “Oh, what’s that?” So, I fished out my binoculars and I’m looking. I was pretty far away, so I wasn’t absolutely sure for awhile. And, as I was trying to figure it out, I saw yet another one come and another one come. Well, eventually there were about 30 of these birds in a group and by then I was close enough and they had moved a little bit down the shore towards me, so I could identify them for sure as nighthawks. It was just a spectacular aerial display watching these birds pursuing insects and being careful though. They didn’t have any need to go out over the lake. There probably weren’t very many flying insects out over Lake Superior, but they were using the lake just like most of our migrating birds do, to make their way down the shore. You know, not going out over the lake, but just following the shore. It was just spectacular.
 
Before I let you go, what about birdfeeder birds? I mean, should we be looking for anything in particular coming through, migrating through the area right now?
 
Anderson: Birdfeeders, probably the main thing would be hummingbirds that are already starting to move, also. So, hummingbirds that aren’t from your little neighborhood there would be coming through and they will be utilizing our hummingbird feeders right until the very bitter end, kind of, of their migration. And of course, young birds will leave later than the adult birds, because they need to put on more bulk and get more fit for their migration, so they’ll be staying around a little bit longer. But, adults, once they’ve kind of finished their work of raising some fledglings, they’ll get started on heading south and they’ll be replaced by other adults that are coming through from other places.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this late summer.
 
Anderson: You’re welcome.

 
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Summer takes on color in the woods, roadsides

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Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.

Anderson: Hi, Jay.

So, Chel, what’s flowering and fruiting in the world of late-summer flora?

Anderson: Many things, as one might expect in a beautiful summer like this. Dry as it has been, we’ve just had enough blips of rain here and there to kind of keep things on a roll. We’ll start with some pinks and purples in the flower department. One of the real obvious ones along roadsides or in sunny openings in the woods, sometimes as large patches, sometimes just as individuals or smaller groups, is fireweed. It’s a tall plant, with bright deep pink to purple sometimes plume of flowers at the top of the plant, very showy. It’s a native plant that’s important to the recovery of burned areas or any kind of natural openings that get created. Another plant with purplish, sometimes pale to darker purple, in abundant small flowers is the Joe-Pye Weed, which is part of our wetlands, open, sunny wetlands, or stream, lakeshores, very common but very showy, very beautiful, I think, plant. The flowers are borne in kind of a flat to slightly rounded topped big head at the top of tall plants that have very lush, sometimes even little bit purplish-green leaves. So, it’s quite a handsome plant, very robust and looks really vigorous right now. In the mix also right now are two other groups of plants that are kind of challenging for most people if they’re trying to really learn, and the groups of plants that are really setting off the countryside right now in terms of color are the goldenrods and the asters. And we’ll start with the goldenrods, which the name pretty much says it for most of them, anyway, that they are gold or yellow, very bright, almost a glowing kind of gold. Although they can be, as I said, difficult to learn to recognize individually, there are a few easier ones that are common in the county, and I’ll start with a couple of shorter species, so they wouldn’t be up to your knee, they’d be less than the height of your knee, and grown in open, generally drier places, including Lake Superior shore. One of those is the stiff or hairy goldenrod, and the hairy comes from the fact that the stem is very, very dense with coarse hairs. The other one, called Gray’s goldenrod, also has hairs but they’re very fine, kind of downy hairs, and give the stem kind of a gray appearance, but also short, nice little group of smaller, yellow flowers at the upper half or so of the stem. Then we get into some taller ones, and in the wetlands right now, so, old beaver meadows or fens along the shores of lakes and ponds, would be the swamp goldenrod. That’s the one that’s blooming out there right now. So, if you’re out in one of those kind of places or along the edge of one and you see a goldenrod out there, that would be the swamp goldenrod, beautiful in bloom right now, and gets quite tall; it can be even up to waist-high on a person. The last one I’ll mention of the goldenrods is the Canada goldenrod. The bloom on that is like a plume, shaped like a plume, so wider at the bottom and kind of tapering to a graceful tip, narrow tip at the top of the plant. It gets quite tall. I’ve seen some up to shoulder-high on myself. So, these get very tall. On to the crowd of blue and white flowers that are really common right now, and that’s the group that I was going to talk about which is the asters. Another sometimes difficult to identify for folks, but we have a couple of white asters that are in bloom right now, and one has a number of common names, calico aster or side-blooming aster. This aster has small, white flowers, so no more than a half-inch in diameter. They emerge from the side branches, all along the side branches of the plant, so it’s a tall plant with lots of branches, and has all these small aster-like white flowers. The other white one is the flat-topped aster, and that aster is again tall, maybe up to waist-high, and instead of flowers out along the branches, it pretty much has one cluster of flowers at the top that has a flat top. In the blue aster, easier to identify right now, would be the large-leaf aster, which if you’ve spent anytime in the woods, anywhere in Cook County, you have seen this, whether you knew what it was or not. It is most recognizable by its large, basal leaf, which can grow over large areas where it’s shaded, and it creates these big, heart-shaped leaves, basal leaves, and when it gets into a patch of sun, then it will flower and put up a fairly tall stem of slightly heart-shaped leaves along the stem and then a cluster of blue flowers along the top.

Are these the asters where the leaves are slightly sweet-smelling and sticky?

Anderson: Yes, they can be. In fact, if you walk through them through the course of the day, or if you have a pet dog, whatever, that runs through them, and you come back inside and you, you know, change your clothes or sniff your pant legs or check the dog, snuggle with your dog, you’re going to smell this. I think it’s a wonderful smell of the large-leaf aster.

Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s going on around us this summer.

Anderson: You’re very welcome.

Airdate: August 17, 2010


 
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In Full Summer, The Kids Are Out To Play

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Chel Anderson is a biologist 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 back, Chel.
 
Anderson: Thanks, Jay.
 
So, let’s talk about youngsters, that is, the ones that are in the woods; things like birds, toads, mammals, and anything you’ve else you’ve got in mind.
 
Anderson: Well, hopefully there are a lot of kids in the woods, too. Human kids.
 
Good point, good point.
 
Anderson: This is a good time for everybody to be in the woods. But, in terms of other critters that are in the woods, this is the time of year when the woods is filled with animal youngsters. From amphibians and reptiles that we’ve talked about. Well, now those critters, the wood frogs and the peepers and the chorus frogs, their young ones are out trying to make their way in the woods and learning as they go, and vulnerable to lots of predators and hazards. And, also, toads, towards the later part of July and first part of August is typically when we see the big, synchronized emergence from their intermediate stage to the adult stage of the American toads.
 
Well, yeah, we haven’t talked much about toads. We’ve talked a couple times here about frogs, but where have the toads been?
 
Anderson: Well, the toads have been out in the woods like they normally are and I happened to see just, I think, the biggest toad I ever saw in many years. I’ve been seeing toads, and this was a magnificent toad, American toad, but they’ve been breeding like the others, and the do some calling, too, but not as prominently and not in big masses like some of the frogs do. But, they’ve laid their eggs and those eggs have been developing and the little toadlets are going to come out, and they’re going to look, unlike the adults, their going to look pretty much uniformly kind of dark black, charcoal, dark charcoal-grey to black. And, where I often encounter them is I’ll be walking down a trail or something and there will be this mass movement of these little toads from wherever it was that they all kind of have emerged from and they’ll all be taking off, you know, kind of at the same time and then gradually dispersing away from their birthplace. But, it’s just amazing to stop and see all these little black toads hopping hither and thither.
 
Well, frogs have tadpoles and they swim in the water. Now, toads don’t do that, right?
 
Right, they don’t do that, so they’re much more difficult. You can’t go out and find a nice big clump of toad eggs and easily identify where the toads might be coming from eventually. Other critters out there in the mammal world, the young are paying a lot of attention right now to their parents. In the case of birds and many mammals, the parenting process once the young have fledged is incredibly important, because although birds and mammals are hardwired to do lots of things, they rely very much on learning from their parents about how to forage for the best foods, where to look for foods. In addition to being fed by the adults even after they’ve actually fledged from the nest, they’re also watching and copying, just like our toddlers do, copying their parents, learning where to look, how to do it, what’s safe, what’s not safe. It’s really essential for them to be able to spend time with their parents, but also in the cases of some birds, with a bigger group, a more social group of multiple adults and other young birds that kind of congregate together once the young have fledged. Parents are very busy keeping track, so we hear a lot of, in the case of birds, a lot of these call notes now that help keep the family group or some wider social group together and keep everybody kind of moving in the same direction and letting each other know where they are.
 
Mammals, now, some have been out for quite awhile already, the young ones. Are there any sort of late bloomers in the mammal group?
 
Anderson: Not that I’m aware of, you know, just because winter is a tough time and our mammals all stay here for the winter, we don’t have any migrants going away in the winter.
 
Yeah, because mammals like squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits, they come out real early and they grow real fast, but fawns and moose calves, they still have to deal with winter, but they’re still pretty little, really.
 
Anderson: Yeah, they are, compared to what they’ll eventually be. But, as we’ve talked before in the case of bears, deer, moose, they feed from their mothers, those that nurse, in the case of mammals, on a tremendously high protein and fat diet. They grow at a really phenomenal kind of rate when you compare it to say, human kids. They are adapted to really put that weight on and move into a level of fitness that is so different than the way a human child develops.
 
Chel Anderson is a DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks, Chel, for helping us understand what’s going on in the woods this summer.
 
Anderson: Yeah, it’s always fun.

Airdate: August 3, 2010