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North Woods Naturalist

Sunrise west harbor  from the Sunrise Series by Stephan Hoglund

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

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



What's On:

Early fall means the loons are gathering

Loons081910.mp311.06 MB
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.


Late Summer Means The Bird Migration Is Near

Late_Summer_Migration.mp310.99 MB
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.


Summer takes on color in the woods, roadsides

FireweedAsters_081610.mp311.16 MB

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


In Full Summer, The Kids Are Out To Play

Youngsters072210Mixdown.mp39.39 MB
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


High Summer Days Bring People To Superior’s Shore

LakeSupShore072210Mixdown.mp39.57 MB
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.


Snakes In The Sun And Bugs On The Water

SnakesBugs062410Mixdown.mp311.6 MB
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.


Frogs and lily pads go together in the summer

SummerFrogs062410Mixdown.mp37.54 MB
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.


Trapped Bees and Slap-Shot Gnats – All About Pollinating

Pollinating062410Mixdown.mp312.37 MB
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.
Anderson: Hello, Jay.
Summer is pretty much in full bloom, so let’s talk about what it is that’s blooming and then, who’s doing the pollinating among the flowers, because I know that’s going on.
Anderson: It is summer. We’re just into the real thing now and it really feels like it. The forest and the wetlands are incredibly lush. One can’t drive a road, walk a trail, just walk through the woods, paddle a lake, without seeing things in bloom. So, we’re really now at the point where there’s more things in bloom than aren’t, and that’s an amazing time of year for us, who spend a lot of the year without anything in bloom. There have been tons of wild roses in bloom; I’m sure people have been enjoying those, both the color and the wonderful fragrance. Lots of roadside plants, some native, some not, but yellows and orange hawkweeds; lots of lupines in other places.
What about the pollinators? Whose pollinating?
Anderson: Another one of the groups of plants that’s very prominent right now are orchids, and I know lots of people are interested in orchids. Orchids are a perfect example of the diversity of form and color and fragrance that the plant world exhibits in its blooming. Hopefully everyone’s familiar with the Showy Ladyslipper, which is our state flower, very robust, pink and white, large orchid. There’s also the Dragon’s Mouth Orchid, which some may be familiar with, pink, white, and frilly yellow on the lip. It grows mostly in open wetlands, a lot of them blooming right in late June, up to the end of June. The twayblades are another group of orchids that are quite common in wet places. Coralroot orchids, these are the orchids that don’t have any green. So, lots of different orchids happening right now.
And who are the most prolific pollinators? Obviously these, but are they the only ones?
Anderson: No, they’re not, and we have this amazing array of wildflowers, including a wide range of orchids, because only an insect can make a flower. The wide ranging diversity of flowering plants and the wide ranging diversity of insects really coevolved. So, over millions of years, that relationship between flowering plants and insects is what has driven this tremendous diversity that we have, not just here in Minnesota, but around the world. So, everything from moths and butterflies to bumblebees to solitary bees to gnats, mosquitoes, black flies; you know, there’s just an amazing number of insect groups and individual species that are part of this incredible arrangement. The Showy Ladyslipper is very obvious to insects, because of its color. They’re very attractive to bees, so bees will see the flower, go to the flower and, hopefully everyone’s familiar with the pouch, the pink pouch, and there’s an opening in the pouch, and they head for that opening. They go down into it in search for the nectar. They get down in there, and they’re stuck, because they can’t go back out the way they came in because of these in-curled edges on the pouches. So, they get kind of confused, but in some cases there are color lines that they follow and sometimes some long, pointed hairs that they follow that encourage them to go in a particular direction. That leads them to a couple of escape routes. If they pick one or the other of these escape routes, and those escape routes are much narrower, and to get out, they have to go through that escape route. Well, when they first get into the escape route, their thorax, which is where bees would be carrying any pollen from a plant that they previously had visited, their thorax brushes up against the female parts of the flower, and so they deposit that pollen on the stigma, the part of the ovary of the plant that accepts the pollen. And then, as they push further through to get finally out, then they are exposed to the anthers of the plant, and they get dosed with pollen again when they leave. So, when they go to the next flower, they’re carrying that transfer of pollen from one to the next. So, that’s how the cross-pollination happens, that’s how genetic material gets transferred. So, that’s the pay-off for the plants. That’s the Ladyslipper’s style, and they don’t give anything to the insect in this case; it’s a complete ruse. There’s no nectar for the bee, so usually the bees will learn after a time that they’re not getting anything there. But, there’s always no bees to learn, and so they only need to make that error a couple times, and they’ve done their job of moving things around. In the case of the twayblade, this is an orchid at the other end of the size spectrum; an orchid that’s maybe only four inches tall, total. So, an individual flower would be no more than an eighth of an inch. In that little, tiny space, the twayblade orchids are pollinated by a fungus gnat, which is really tiny. So, the fungus gnat comes sailing in there, exploring around, looking for the nectar. There’s a little flap that is kind of covering a hood that sort of covers the important part to the fungus gnat, and so it tries to kind of reach around and get in there, underneath that flap. When it does, it sets off some hair triggers, and that flap then slaps some glue on the face of the fungus gnat. And then, as the fungus gnat is startled and still in a state of, “What happened?” that flap around the flowering parts plasters the pollen all over that glue. These are some really elegant and fantastic in some ways, I mean this is better than science fiction. Right?
I was just going to say, it sounds like science fiction. Chel Anderson has been sharing science fiction with us. She’s a DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand smacking fungus gnats.
Anderson: You’re very welcome.


The long reach of the gulf oil spill – our migrating birds

BirdsGulf062110Mixdown.mp312.41 MB
The news is dominated by the on-going gulf oil disaster. What does it mean for our northern Minnesota ecology?  The answer lies with our migrating birds -- song birds, waterfowl and even our state’s symbol. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about the critical mix of crude oil and feathers.
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
Anderson: Hello, Jay.
Well, Chel, the huge disaster in the gulf of Mexico. Thousands of barrels of oil continue to spew into the gulf after the Louisiana coast and it’s spreading east. The gulf is a long way from Cook County, but it’s migrating bird country. So, how’s this going to affect us?
Anderson: Oh, Jay, you’re right. This is a difficult thing to even talk about, there’s so many emotions involved, ranging from fury to grief, knowing what’s going on to these cherished places of people and other living things in that landscape. And, you’re right, birds are something if we didn’t already realize it are our wake-up call to the fact that we are connected to these places. This is not someplace else, this is really about us and the place we cherish, too. So, the morning birdsong chorus is extra poignant right now, because many, many of our singing birds will be going to the Gulf, some to migrate through and use various staging areas to refuel on their way to parts further distant and to rest and they need to bulk up when they are there, and they’re going to be foraging through all different kinds of habitats to refuel and then other birds are going to actually be living there over the winter. This is their winter residence. We’re talking about birds ranging from our warblers and thrushes and many songbirds to wading birds and shore birds, the birds we’ve been talking about this spring, the bittern, the snipe, the spotted sandpiper. The list is really too long to go into.
There’s been some discussion about loons. What’s the special deal with loons?
Anderson: Well, loons definitely are another bird that will be impacted. Any loon that leaves here in the late summer, fall, many of those Minnesota birds go to the Gulf and they are sea birds when they aren’t living here. So, they live in the sea, they feed in the sea, and so they are going to be on the front lines of potential impacts, both direct in terms of getting oiled up just like the birds that we’re seeing on TV and all the news reports that are down there right now, and feeding on other organisms that have become contaminated because they’re living in the same thing.
They’re a diver, they’re eating fish.
Anderson: They’re a diver, they’re eating fish, they’re eating, yeah, lots of sea life is being impacted that our birds would ultimately be using to try to feed on, whether they’re loons or other species. So, and if you think about many of the birds that will be migrating from here this fall will be brand-new birds. They’re going to these places without any past experience of the place, much less this very destructive catastrophe that we have wrought in the Gulf.
So, these are the ones that are being born right now.
Anderson: Right. Just this past week, I had the pleasure of being out on a local lake and seeing a little loon lit, brand new, you know, just maybe four inches long, riding around on its parent’s back. You know, just one of those sites that we all look forward to seeing and enjoying, but to think that that bird, if it’s successful in terms of getting through the summer and growing to adequate size and ability, it’s going to take off and go, and it could be going right to the Gulf.
Does this also affect ducks and things like that? Is this a part of their migratory path?
Anderson: Very major part. Much of our waterfowl species from common birds that nest right here, mallards and blackducks, buffleheads, goldeneyes, a couple different species of mergansers, teal, you know, there’s just, again, the list is too long to repeat here of all the waterfowl that use the Gulf as, and both the Gulf itself and also the marsh habitats and the estuaries of the Gulf as their winter residences. Whether you eat fish or you eat vegetation, this can impact your diet.
Now, what about the songbirds? Do they tend to habitat those marshy coastal areas or are they further in, and if they’re further in, will there be some kind of local migration that will push them out of their areas, or how do they share that territory?
Anderson: If they are winter residents, they’ll have a particular habitat that they regularly use, and whether or not that habitat is directly impacted will depend on what the habitat is and the hurricane season. The hurricane season could move oil into habitats that it wouldn’t otherwise get to. They also may find, as you’re suggesting, that winter resident birds, birds from the local area are occupying habitats that they don’t normally occupy, because of changes to their regular habitat. So, there’s a whole range of direct impacts that our migrant birds can experience as well as indirect consequences of this. Birds are a huge part of all of our native ecosystem’s individual habitats here. They play a big role in terms of controlling insect populations. So, they’re a major source of accumulating biomass over the course of the summer that then larger birds, birds of prey, can utilize to feed themselves. So, they’re an extremely directly important to some interactions, but they’re also a major part of the food web here, so, in both directions, you know, higher up on the feeding pyramid and lower down. Having diminished numbers of these birds isn’t just an aesthetic things, it’s a big ecosystem problem.
Finally, is there anything we can do about it?
Anderson: Well, speaking for myself, I think it’s just the most recent reason to do whatever I can to limit my consumption of oil. I feel like I need to take personal responsibility in any way I can to reduce my own consumption.
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand this critical issue.
Anderson: You’re welcome.


Summer plants are blooming

JunePlantsFireflies052710Mixdown.mp310.35 MB
Summer plants are blooming and fruiting. Ferns are worth watching, June berries, moose maple and lots of flowers are ahead of schedule. There’s also good news and bad about blueberries and blackflies. And only good news about fireflies. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about the flowers and insects of mid-June.

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: Hello, Jay.
Now, we’re farther along into the summer than the last time we talked about plants. So, what’s up, what’s blooming and what’s fruiting?
Anderson: Yeah, well, let’s first mention that this time of year is a great time if you want to learn your ferns, right? The ferns are pretty much all up now. It’s a good time to get out and look for them and try to learn to identify them, pick out some groups of ferns that you’re interested in and learn the identification of. Watching them over the summer from here on, watch how they develop and watch the different characteristics that you’re looking for to see eventually when they all come together so that you can identify them. Ferns are happening right now. It’s a good time to be looking for ferns. Other plants that are doing some fruiting right now would be, miraculously, juneberries. Most other years, we have a lot of juneberry plants, or serviceberry is another term, and maybe more appropriate most years here, but we rarely, if ever, have berries in June that you could eat. This year, lots of our juneberries were already pollinated before June 1st, and depending upon rain now and the weather in general, that will determine whether we have a nice, full, plump blueberry crop or kind of get cheated on all that great pollination that went on. There’s a lot of fruits out there. Chokecherries would be another shrub that started blooming quite early this year and already some shrubs have fruits and are beginning to develop. In bloom right now would be highbush cranberries, another one of our later-season, summer fruits. Moose maple or mountain maple shrub is in flower at this time. So, the dogwoods are flowering now. So, a lot of shrub flowering and fruiting going on. In the wildflower department, we’ve got Goldthread in bloom, and these are tiny white flowers, snow white with a gold center, that bloom in kind of moist, dark, coniferous forest; the Canada Mayflower, very common, white, cluster of small flowers; Clintonia, or Bluebead Lily, is another common plant that is blooming right now and has a yellow, kind of trumpet shape, flower; Dewberries are in the same genus as the raspberry, and they are a creeping plant with a three-parted leaf that is very common in the forest; Jack-in-the-pulpit, very familiar to many of us, they’re in bloom by this time.
You mentioned blueberries. Is it too early to have some kind, I mean provided we get rain, is it too early to have any kind of an idea about what they’re going to--they’re not very far along themselves.
No, but they’re coming into bloom. They’re in bloom, so what’s key when the plants are in bloom is to have good weather for pollination and plenty of pollinators, which, of course, includes our favorite species, the black fly. There have been lots of black flies around.
Oh, tell me.
So, as long as there’s good weather for black flies being out and moving around and bothering us, that probably means there’s good pollination going around. The blueberry crop will depend on how much of a bloom there is, so, how did plants do after last year? Did they have a lot of energy stored up so they can put out a lot of blooms? Then, how well are they pollinated? Then, if there’s good pollination and fruit set, then, do we get the rains that we need to plump them up?
Well, let’s talk about another insect that seems to be sort of stories and fiction and fairytales and that sort of thing, and that’s fireflies. Are we in firefly season yet?
Yes, June will be this year, definitely, sometimes it can kind of poke into July, but we’re going to have a June firefly season this year. What a magical thing, the firefly is. Fireflies are also small insects and the adults fly, the males pretty much all fly. Females may or may not fly. In some species, females are wingless. Many species of adults produce a light, they emit light, and it’s something that’s referred to as a cold light, because it doesn’t give off any heat, it’s an incredibly efficient light, 92 to 100 percent efficiency. So, if we could figure out exactly how they do this, can you imagine the energy savings that there is there? I mean, this is something that people have been working to try and figure out because of its potential for many years, and it’s still isn’t completely understood. We still don’t know how to do it, but they do.
In a confined space, they throw a lot of light.
They do, I know, they really do. It’s an oxidation process that’s going on; we do know that much about it. It involves a couple of enzymes interacting with each other, but very efficient light. They use the light primarily to attract mates, so they flash in a very specific rhythm. The males use that to attract females, and the females, if they’re wingless, they’re doing the same thing. They’re flashing, but down on the ground. They communicate with each other this way. The amazing phenomenon of seeing fireflies all together in the night sky flashing away to each other and communicating in the complete silence is just an incredibly magical experience and well worth pursuing this June.
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist, thanks for helping us once again understand what’s going on around us this spring and early summer.
Anderson: You’re very welcome.