October visit to Wisconsin

cranes, fall colors, and a melanistic squirrel

A mid-October trip to my old stomping ground in Wisconsin was full of quiet pleasures (plus a fine performance by the Madison symphony). Despite recent rains and high winds, the deciduous trees put on a grand show of color. Although there were pockets where all the leaves had turned to yellows and reds, the best color exhibits were the swathes of fall color set off by a hillside framework of green.

In certain fields outside my hometown, we often see cranes in the fall. So we went looking. No whooping cranes this year, but little groups of sandhill cranes were foraging in corn-stubble fields. We don’t usually see cranes in fields where soybeans had been harvested and stripped right down to the soil. But this time was an exception: six cranes were looking for things to eat in a now-barren soybean field. I had to wonder what they could be finding.

A visit to the International Crane Foundation offers not only some nice exhibits of cranes of the world but a chance to walk some easy trails in a variety of habitats. There’s mixed deciduous forest of oaks, maples, big-tooth aspen, cherry, and so on. This time I wanted to see the tall-grass prairie section with its rich mixture of grasses and late wildflowers—one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The tallest grass is called big bluestem or turkey foot (for the shape of the seed heads); it grows higher than my head. Thousands of small seed heads of little bluestem almost glowed when backlit by the sun. Here and there were a few yellow, white, or purple flowers persisting among the grasses. The tall-grass prairie once occupied thousands of square miles in the Midwest: centered in Illinois and Iowa, but extending from eastern Nebraska to western Indiana and from Minnesota and southern Wisconsin to eastern Kansas, with outliers in southern Manitoba and Oklahoma. But most of it has long since been plowed under, leaving only small patches and a few conservation areas.

Photo by Steve Willson

A string of bird-feeders and a water-bath outside a window offered continual entertainment, much more variety than at my Juneau house. A male cardinal sometimes claimed the water-bath for himself, but a female was never far away. There were red- bellied and downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, house finches and goldfinches, a few house sparrows, bluejays (real ones, not our Steller’s jay), and white-breasted nuthatches. I always enjoy watching nuthatches scurry vertically up and down tree trunks. Walking down a tree trunk is made possible, it seems, by the large, strong hind toe on each foot, giving a good purchase on the bark. Best of all is watching a nuthatch fly to a trunk and instead of landing head-up, it turns in a flash and lands head-down. (Why don’t woodpeckers do that? They have two back toes on each foot, which would give a good grab on the bark.)

Gray squirrels were occasional visitors to the spilled seed below the feeders, but they spent most of their time collecting hickory nuts and acorns. Gray squirrels occupy the eastern deciduous forests and are often found in wooded suburban areas. Bigger than our local red squirrels, they scatter-hoard their harvest, burying each prize separately; if they fail to retrieve their stash, the nuts may germinate and contribute to the forest composition.

Mixed in with the normal gray-colored squirrels, we often see a few melanistic ones with black fur. The black fur results from a mutation in the DNA of a certain chromosome. If a black squirrel has two copies of the mutation, it is deep black, darker than one that has just one copy. If a blackish squirrel with one copy of the mutation mates with a normal gray squirrel, the litter generally has both blackish and gray pups.

Photo by Steve Willson

Is black-ness an adaptation to some environmental condition? At present, there are two suggestions: It might contribute to concealment, especially in northern forests where there are more dark conifer trees mixed with the deciduous ones. Another suggestion deals with thermoregulation. Black squirrels are said to be uncommon in areas with high air temperatures. Research has shown that black squirrels have more cold-tolerance than the grays: they have lower heat loss at very low temperatures, as well as a lower metabolic rate and a better ability to generate heat. But it is not clear what, if anything, black fur has to do with all that. Things to ponder, but there seem to be no conclusive data, and other possible explanations may exist.


Visiting old home ground

a visit to Wisconsin

In mid-October, I made a quick trip back to my old stomping grounds in southern Wisconsin. In addition to blue skies and sunshine, some long-delayed (by covid) good family time, a short, nostalgic trip on the little cable ferry over Lake Wisconsin at Merrimac, a fine symphony concert in Madison, visits to some excellent regional artists showing their work, and early fall foliage colors, there were some natural history highlights.

Photo by J. S. Willson

Just outside of my old home town, we found lots of sandhill cranes in the stubble fields and pastures or flying overhead and calling. They come through every year from their nesting grounds farther north; they nest mainly across northern North America and most of them migrate to Texas and northern Mexico or Florida for the winter. It’s always a big treat to see them, but there was an even better one: in one rather distant stubble field, all by themselves, were three whooping cranes, foraging, wing-lifting, and hobnobbing with each other. Whoopers formerly nested in prairie marshes all over north-central U.S., but their population declined drastically, chiefly because of habitat loss and heavy hunting. Now they nest only in three locations in North America: a natural, self-sustaining population in northern Alberta and adjacent Northwest Territories, a re-introduced non-migratory population in Florida, and a population in central Wisconsin (at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge) that is maintained by re-introduced birds hatched and reared by captives (with human help) in facilities at the U.S. FWS Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland and the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Captive-bred juveniles are cared for by humans dressed in crane costumes and learn their proper migratory route by following older birds and special ultra-light aircraft. The Canadian contingent flies to Texas for the winter, and the Wisconsin nesters fly towardFlorida, some over-wintering along the way.

Whooping cranes. Photo by J. S. Willson

We visited the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour’s drive northwest of town. There we saw trumpeter swans,a variety of ducks, and still more sandhill cranes, cavorting and calling. As we walked one of the wooded trails, off to the side there was a flash of black and white, flying from one tree to another. That deserved a closer look and yes!!—it was a red-headed woodpecker!! When I was a kid, many long years ago, these woodpeckers were very common. Historically, this species has undergone large fluctuations in population size, partly related to fluctuations in a major food supply (acorns and beechnuts), but also lots of habitat loss, shooting, and other factors. There have been population declines in the past several decades, and the birds may still be endangered in some parts of North America.

Red-headed woodpeckers typically nest in open oak woodlands and in forest edges and clearing, using cavities in snags and dead branches. They eat all sorts of things, including insects (they are expert fly-catchers), fruit, occasional small vertebrates and eggs, as well as acorns and beechnuts, which are especially important in winter. They are one of the few woodpeckers that store food, cramming acorns and large insects tightly into cracks and crevices and behind bark; in some cases they make a big cache of many food items, probably re-storing them later in a more scattered distribution.

My home town lies at the edge of the unglaciated Driftless Area, in a valley ringed by the remnant tops of ancient quartzite mountains that were made hundreds of millions of years ago and eroded over time. These hills now support varied habitats, including cliffs and talus slopes, oak savannas, dry hill prairies, and lots of deciduous forest. I take special pleasure in the diversity of trees in that forest; I can stand in one place and (depending just where I am) see six or eight or ten kinds of tree, each with characteristic branching pattern, leaf shape (and color, in fall), bark texture, and its own way of life. Mixed in with all the broad-leafed trees are scattered white pines.

Of course, it was also good to see old avian friends, such as white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, red-breasted woodpeckers, house finches and goldfinches, slate-colored juncos, and blue jays.

Roots and places

reaching back to the Midwest

When I moved to Juneau three decades ago, I quickly began to put down roots, which have grown stronger over the years. But I still have one good root that goes back to part of southern Wisconsin where I grew up, and every year I make a short trip back to visit, usually in fall. These are ‘my’ places! Every special place has a song it sings to those who care to listen. A respected Wisconsin naturalist called it a Song of Place.

If I use my imagination, I could say that there were signs that my move to Juneau was fore-ordained. My home town lies at the very edge of the driftless area, left uncovered by Pleistocene glaciers. So there are moraines, outwash areas, and erratic boulders in many places. The river that runs through my hometown lies in a valley that was once occupied by a branch of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. The ice dam that made the glacial lake collapsed suddenly, producing an outburst flood that changed the landscape.

Another imaginary sign might be seen in the location of my summer house in the hills not far away (an escape from the corn and soybean desert of central Illinois, where my job was). The house was in Juneau County, named for Solomon Juneau (French-Canadian fur trader, business man, politician, co-founder of Milwaukee), an older cousin of Joe Juneau, for whom our city is named. Glaciers and Juneau were apparently to be part of my life.

This year I made my annual junket in late October. I was in time for good fall colors in the deciduous forest that covers many of the hills. The maples were a little past the peak of their colors, but still made outstanding splashes of scarlet. Big-tooth aspens added their crowns of golden leaves. Bright red leaves of sumac adorned the roadsides and there were even a few goldenrods still flowering. All of that lay against a backdrop of oak foliage in subtle and varied shades of bronze and russet, with occasional touches of crimson. Hard to beat!

There are lots of trails meandering about in that area and, of course, I had to sample them this year. I was surprised to see butterflies on the wing—a couple of orange and black monarchs and a smaller lemon-yellow one. (I wonder what happened to them when two inches of snow fell one night). A big dragonfly zoomed by overhead and a smaller, bright red one landed on a sign post. A couple of small garter snakes had come out to sun themselves at the trailside, but hastily slithered off as I came by. Another little garter snake had, sadly, not been hasty enough and had been killed by a passing bike. Even sadder was the carcass of a very cute, tiny red-bellied snake, not much bigger than an ordinary pencil, that had suffered a similar fate. I had to rummage hard through the rusty, dusty mental files to come up with its scientific name.

A witch-hazel bush was flowering. Late October seems like a strange time to flower, but that is normal for this species. Each flower has four slender, crinkled, yellow petals, so each little cluster of flowers looks like it’s sporting a medusa-like hairdo. The flowers produce nectar and a faint fragrance; they are pollinated by insects—probably late-flying moths and possibly some flies and bees (the reports vary). After pollination, the seeds (two in each capsule) don’t develop until the next summer. Then at maturity, the seed capsules open explosively, forcibly ejecting and dispersing the seeds—to distances as much as thirty feet away. By the way, this plant has nothing to do with witches, good or bad; the name probably comes from an old English word meaning ‘bendable’.

sandhill cranes in corn Steve.jpg
Photo by Steve Willson

It’s always fun to go looking for sandhill cranes, which migrate through there in the fall. They were there, sometimes in groups of four or five but more often in dozens. They hang out in the harvested fields, especially in the corn stubble, avoiding the barren soybean fields. Another treat is a visit to the local apple orchard, to sample this year’s offerings and enjoy their perfect caramel apples and some cider donuts.

The river running through my hometown was once a hard-working river with numerous mill dams restraining its flow. As the mills became obsolete and un-used, they were gradually removed, and by the early 2000s, all were gone. The river was free-flowing once again! Fish populations responded; now even sturgeon and paddlefish can come up the river, seasonally, to spawn.

I like being there and I like being here, but I do not like the tedious and uncomfortable travel in between. On this trip I whiled away some of the time by reading a book by an anthropologist who lived with the pygmies of the Ituri forest in the 1950s. He recounted a pygmy story about ‘The Bird with the Most Beautiful Song’ that I think is a parable for our time: a little boy heard such a beautiful song in the forest that he searched and searched until he found the singing bird. He caught the bird and took it to his father to be fed (and released). This happened again, but now the father was getting annoyed. The third time, the now-angry father took the bird and killed it. With the bird he also killed the Song. With the killing of the Song, he too was killed, and he dropped dead, completely dead, dead forever. (The pygmies considered that there are three levels of deadness).

There is, I think, a lesson for modern times in that story, a lesson that we do not learn well at all!

The hills of home

from Wisconsin to Alaska

I recently returned from a visit to the Midwestern locale where I grew up. There, the hills of home are very ancient mountains, now worn down to their stumps. Pink quartzite cliffs ring a deep, spring-fed lake. Moraines now stretch across both ends of the lake; this is where the last glacier terminated, thousands of years ago.

An Ice Age Trail loops for hundreds of miles across Wisconsin, following the former border of the glacial ice. A nice atlas of the trail provides detailed maps. I walked a portion of the trail, enjoying some old friends, such as Pileated Woodpeckers, goldfinches, chatty little Black-capped Chickadees, and jack-in-the-pulpit with its bright red fruits. I saw ‘real’ Blue Jays (not our Steller’s Jay, which is sometimes called a bluejay). Eastern bluebirds were feasting on wild grapes and the last of the black cherries, alternating between the cherries and a conveniently adjacent grape vine. Fall colors were well underway: sumacs and Virginia creeper in shades of red, and sugar maples glowing red and orange and yellow.

I came back to my Juneau hills of home, with its much more recent mountains, to find that the snowline had crept down to treeline. The low-lying blueberries and dwarf dogwood offered shades of red, cottonwoods provided gold and bronze, and muskeg sedges made brassy tones of orange.

On a walk on the shores of Mendenhall Lake, we encountered a surprising diversity of birds: three kinds of sparrows, hermit thrushes, two species of shorebird, three kinds of waterfowl including a flock of widgeon, some American Dippers, and magpies visiting from the Interior. Kinglets were gleaning vanishingly small insects from the willows; we inspected numerous willow twigs and couldn’t see more than one or two miniscule bugs. I was astonished to see, at this late date, a male and a female yellowthroat (migratory warblers that nest in marshes). They flitted around in the brush, occasionally zooming straight up into the air and catching what looked like small moths.

The sun—amazingly—came out from behind banks of gray clouds. Two ephemeral rainbows emerged from the base of Mt McGinnis and grew toward the glacier, and then disappeared in the same order. The sands of the beach showed signs of passage of beavers, caddis flies, and shorebirds. And no planes or helicopters disturbed the peace!

A happy sighting on the way was an American Coot, busily foraging in a slough and apparently being very successful. Coots are widespread across North America, but they are relatively rare in Southeast. They eat a wide variety of foods, including seeds, greenery, snails, and little fish. This particular coot was probably catching sticklebacks and caddis fly larvae.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

I’ve never found a coot nest here, but they were common in the marshes of eastern Washington where I did a lot of fieldwork many decades ago. Male and female coots collaborate in building a floating nest of vegetation and in other aspects of parental care, right through until the chicks are independent. Young coot chicks are, to my eyes, very silly-looking: body covered with dark down, a ruff of orange and red fluff around the neck and base of the bill, setting off a totally bald crown. Coots defend their nesting territory with great vigor, charging at intruders with loud protests and excited splashing. The females have the unusual habit of dumping some of their eggs in the nests of other coots, and so letting somebody else raise part of the brood.

Coots are prey for many predators, including large gulls, owls, and hawks. In some areas, coots are the main prey of bald eagles. Around here, I see them occasionally in Twin Lakes, especially in fall, but then the eagles are generally busy elsewhere, filling up on salmon.