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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:
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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

 
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High Summer Days Bring People To Superior’s Shore

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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, Chel, during these high summer days lots of people are drawn to the Lake Superior shore. What will they see when they get there?
 
Anderson: Oh, splendor. Splendor. Lake Superior splendor. They will be delighted, I’m sure by whatever they see there, but there are a few things we can highlight. First off, the Lake Superior shore is a very unique environment to our landscape. We can see some things there that we don’t see further inland. In the plant world, one of those things is called the Ninebark shrub. So, this is a woody plant, might get up to waist-high if you’re out walking along the bedrock shore, it might get up to waist-high. This time of year it may have beautiful sprays of snow-white flowers, so very showy, three-pointed leaves. If there a little past bloom, then they’ll be starting to develop pink fruits. So, both during their bloom and after blooming, they’re very colorful, and very common along the shore, but you won’t see these at all inland. Another common plant that people may or may not be familiar with is the harebell, and of course this is one of the kind of darlings of both the Lake Superior shore and you can also see this on cliff communities in the inland forest, but far more common right down along the Lake Superior shore, very beautiful, blue bells that dangle out over the water and kind of bounce around in the wind. They are a real beautiful plant of the shore. Other specialties that show up here and there along the shore would be Wood lilies. These are beautiful, upright, trumpet-shaped, orange lilies, quite dramatic, and they’re not as common as the other plants I’ve mentioned, but here and there, they show up. So, if you’re fortunate enough to happen to get to the right place and have your eyes open, you’ll be treated with these beautiful orange trumpets. Also, you can see some small plants that are very interesting. There are sundews that grow in a number of places right along the shore. We tend to think of sundews as an inland plant of our wetlands, open wetlands. They are a little, carnivorous, insectivorous plant, but they are found along the shore and have these beautiful, glossy, red hairs growing over their little kind of spatula-shaped leaves, and little rosettes close to the ground. If it’s not too late by the time you get out there to look, they may have nice wands of tiny, white flowers that are extending up from those basal rosettes of what, at more of a distance, look like red leaves. And also, we can see all throughout the summer the butterworts, which are another insectivorous plant, strictly of the Lake Superior shore. Those won’t be found inland at all, just on the bedrock shore.
 
Isn’t there a natural area down on 61 called Butterwort Cliffs?
 
Anderson: Exactly. Yeah. The scientific and natural area that is down kind of at the east end of Cascade State Park is called Butterwort Cliffs Scientific and Natural Area, and one of the reasons that that was designated as a scientific and natural area is because of the quality of the native plant community and shoreline community there, including the presence of the butterwort species which is a special-concern species in Minnesota, again restricted strictly to the bedrock shore. That’s pretty easy to recognize, even though it’s on the small-side, maybe two inches across at the most in terms of these basal rosettes, but they look like, I think, bright-green, kind of chartreuse-green starfish. It’s a wonderful time to be down by the lake and enjoying these balmy days and just to relish the beauty and the uniqueness of that particular part of our landscape.
 
Well, if you’re down by the lake and it’s in the evening, what should we look for in the sky?
 
Anderson: Yeah, the evening. Well, as July comes to a close, the evening stars, Mars, Venus and Saturn--which of course are planets—they are in this interesting configuration. They are going up from the western horizon towards the west-southwest, so starting in the west and going to the west-southwest, and they are forming this line about a 40-degree line, 40 degrees from the horizon. As the month comes to a close, and then as we move into August, they’re going to get tighter and tighter and eventually they’re going to form, by the end of July, a triangle that’s very distinctive, easy to see, only like seven and half degrees wide, so they’ll be very close together and getting even closer in August. So, it’s a good time to pick those out, start watching them whenever we have a clear night, and looking to see how they eventually come into a nice, kind of tight knot.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist, thanks for helping us understand what’s going on, particularly down by the shore.
 
Anderson: My pleasure.

 
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Snakes In The Sun And Bugs On The Water

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Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist with 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 back, Chel.
 
Anderson: Hi, Jay.
 
Well, in the heat of the summer, that’s when snakes are basking in the sun. So, let’s talk about what kind of snakes we have here and what are they doing.
 
Anderson: Great time of year, best time of year to see snakes out and about. Whenever it’s warm and sunny especially, but warm is good enough. We have common Garter snakes. They are definitely the most abundant snakes and most likely to be seen. We also have Red-Bellied snakes, which don’t have those light dorsal lines that the Garter snakes have.
 
They’re kind of black.
 
Anderson: Yes, dark on the top and get a little bit lighter on the immediate kind of mid-sides, but then their bellies, and you can see this if they’re not deep in the vegetation, you’ll be able to see this orangish-red coloration of their bellies. They tend to be a little smaller, they have a maximum size of about a foot only, whereas the Garter snakes might be two, you know, other parts of the state they might get up to three feet long. There are also some documentation of Green snakes here, but mostly in wet places, but hard to say how many. It doesn’t like this far east and north that there are very many. They are busy doing what most, both amphibians and reptiles are doing, which is breeding, feeding, trying to grow and get ready for winter. And in the case of snakes, part of the growing over the course of the summer is shedding your skin. Snakes have to find very warm, protected, preferably dry air environments is ideal for snakes to cast off their skins.
 
Now, why do they cast off their skins? Is it a matter of growth or do they just want a new wardrobe?
 
Anderson: Well, unlike us, it is a matter of growth. They can’t fit in it anymore, so they have to lose it and then they have to kind of cure that new skin. When the scales are first exposed, they take some time to become road-worthy, so to speak, to be able to handle the elements and all the materials that the snake is going to be moving over. So, it’s important, like I said, for snakes to find a safe place to do that. So, they might pick, oh, if you have some place that’s covered so it doesn’t get easily rained on and is kind of loose, dry material, maybe a compost area that has a roof over it, that would be a very likely place for a snake to go and burrow into, because the process takes quite a long time to get that old skin off and they utilize the materials of whatever they are in as a way of helping coax that skin off, kind of move it off, scrape it off, or they might use a place where there’s a bunch of dry grass, you know, some kind of a thatch that plants have created.
 
Well, I know that snakes eat a lot of insects and speaking of insects, there’s one that they probably don’t eat, but I want you to talk about it because they’re fascinating little things. In lakes and ponds, you’ll find little beetles doing strange things in the water. What are they and what are they doing?
 
Anderson: Yeah. Whirligig beetles, I think, are the easiest one for people to think about having maybe seen or to go and look for, because they tend to hang out in groups in the daytime, and groups right on the surface of the water. They form, might be hundreds up to thousands of them, form these rafts together, and in the daytime, you know, if you’re down by the lake, sitting on your dock, out in your boat, canoe, if there’s some still water usually close to the shore, fairly close to the shore, you’re likely to encounter one of these rafts. Often, you’ll see within visual distance you’ll find, you’ll see other rafts of Whirligig beetles, and these groups of rafts are called aggregations, and they are important little communities that eventually do some interacting and trading off of individuals. But, one of the curious things to me always about Whirligigs is they don’t seem to do anything, except hang out together. You know, like, are they all teenagers? What have we got going on here? Well, it turns out, you know, digging into things a little bit, what people have unraveled about Whirligigs is that they do spend these times together during the day when they’re most vulnerable to predators as big groups, because, of course, if you’re part of a big group, there’s less chance that you’ll be the one that’s going to get picked off by the fish, usually it’s fish, or some other kind of predacious insect. But, Whirligigs are kind of low on the feeding priorities for things, because they taste really terrible.
 
Is this from experience, Chel?
 
Anderson: I wouldn’t admit that. But, no, it’s not, but people have gone to the effort of trying to figure out why is it that they can be so obvious kind of and part of it is that they have a very powerful chemistry that makes them very unpalatable, and people have actually seen something like a frog eat one and then regurgitate it immediately.
 
So, besides moving around in these rafts, and they kind of spin, don’t they, which is why they are called Whirligigs, what are they doing? Are they feeding?
 
Anderson: Not during the day. Turns out, Whirligigs only feed at night, that’s why we see them hanging around apparently doing nothing. Once darkness falls, they start to move out as individuals and they go out along the shore looking for things to feed on, and this would be other smaller aquatic invertebrates. So, they spend the night out feeding, and if you go out on a moonlit night or you bring out your headlamp or flashlight and sit out and look, you can see this beautiful ‘V’ of these little Whirligigs cruising up and down the shore.
 
Well, we’ve been cruising with Chel Anderson, who is a DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand things like snakes and those funny little bugs.
 
Anderson: You’re welcome.

 
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Frogs and lily pads go together in the summer

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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 back, Chel.
 
Anderson: Thanks, Jay.
 
Earlier we talked about spring frogs. Now, summer is officially here, which frogs will we be seeing and hearing?
 
Anderson: Let’s start with a couple of frogs that, unlike most of our spring calling frogs, are strictly water-dwelling frogs. These are frogs that live in and stay pretty much in ponds, lakes, streams, and that we’re hearing now. These are both secretive frogs; they’re kind of shy. They’re not often just going to hang around and let you observe them closely. First of all is the Green Frog. This is a frog that gets, maximum, about four inches long, has a really bright yellow lower lips. It’s dark, olive-brown kind of color, so kind of drab in color. So, it blends in really well when it’s sitting at the edge of the lake or pond, and the pale kind of underneath and lower part of the sides. The best way to know if there are Green Frogs around to be looking for at this time of year is to listen for their call, which is quite distinctive. The call sounds like a loose banjo string. So it’s this low, kind of “buung, buung, buung.” As we know, frogs are really good at projecting, and so this is an easy one to listen for and it’s very common throughout the middle part of the summer. If you’re sitting still somewhere, you might hear frogs that are at the edge of a riparian area will often start calling right nearby, in front of you. So, then, you can look more closely and see if you can find it. A similar looking frog, also three and a half inches long as adults, and with the same kind of tapering snout that the green frogs have and very similar color, is the Mink Frog. The Mink Frog is called the Mink Frog because it has a musky odor, but you’re probably not going to pick up on that unless you happen to be handling one. It, too, has a very distinctive call that is easily differentiated from the Green Frog. To my ear, it sounds like someone taking some blocks of wood and smacking them together. It’s a much sharper sound; it happens just a few at a time. It doesn’t go on; three or four calls, and then a pause, and then three or four notes. So, these are both common frog songs that one can be listening for now.
 
Why are they singing? Is this a mating thing or is that over with?
 
Anderson: Oh yeah. No, these are mating things. Frogs and toads basically sing as a part of their mating rituals for the most part. Another frog that we can be hearing now but also seeing more is the Gray Tree Frog. These are remarkable frogs, because they have these toes that have these great big adhesive pads on them. Their much smaller, maybe an inch and a half or so, more rounded than elongated, broad heads and blunt noses, and can change into different colors depending upon their background. These frogs can climb pretty much anything. They are either gray with black or green with black, sometimes a brownish-red always with some kind of darker modeling. Once the tree frog young come out onto the land, they are just straight bright green, so they are easily identifiable when they’re young.
 
Frogs and water lilies go together, it seems like. Do they really sit on pads like they do in the cartoons?
 
Anderson: Absolutely. I’m sure frogs think that lily pads were made for them. You know, they’re very watchful—they have to be—of predators from above. But, in terms of predators from below, if you’re sitting on a lily pad, hey, you know, you’re invisible to fish. So, that’s a good thing.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand frogs this time.
 
Anderson: You’re welcome, Jay.