February 1 – 10
Racine has 10 hours and 21 minutes of daylight at the end of the period and Superior has 10 hours and 5 minutes of daylight - an increase of 25 minutes in the south and 29 minutes in the north from the previous period. This time period transitions from the darkest months to the start of a more rapid progression of sunlight minutes towards the equinox. In some ancient cultures early February was celebrated as the start of spring. From old Celtic and Norse traditions this time period is (heliologically speaking) the start of spring. From a temperature perspective and according to the Julian calendar, we are half way through winter. Either way for warmth and sun worshipers it’s time for celebration.
February 3 has the full moon for the month and is also the cross-quarter day for the season. Names for this full moon in the upper Midwest are Storm, Sucker Fish, Trappers, and Snow depending upon the historical context.
Burbot: This fish is probably the most misunderstood highly edible species in the state. The burbot is a cold-water species related to Atlantic cod. They are most commonly found in Lake Superior and its adjacent lakes and rivers. Occasionally they are found farther south. The spawning season is in midwinter and usually peaks in early February. Many times they form balls of breeding fish under the ice. The spawning site is most commonly found in shallow water (less than 12 feet) over sand and gravel bottoms. Naturalists should look for these unusual spawning fish in streams with high water quality or under the ice if there is no snow cover and good transparency.
Poison Ivy Berries: Most nature observers do not realize poison ivy has three growth forms. The most common low woody plant with leaves of three is found as a ground cover in many woodlots. In some situations, especially floodplain forests, the plant can be four to six foot high shrubs or climbing vines that grow to the top of the tallest tress. Regardless the growth form, the toxic nature of the plants is the same. Surprisingly to many, birds are not affected at all by this toxicity. In fact, over 60 species have been known to eat the berries. Poison ivy berries are a significant food source for birds in the winter months.
Highbush Cranberry: The easily seen red berry clusters are found on the tips of branches and persist throughout the winter. Like other members of the viburnum family, highbush cranberry is readily consumed by birds and mammals. Snowshoe hare, moose and deer eat the branches. While many birds species including Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, American Robin and Cedar Waxwing consume the berries. Some lovers of edible wild foods will make jelly out of the berries. The pulp needs to be separated from the seeds to make sauces, jams, or simple drinks.
Algae Growth: More sunlight promotes more vigorous plant growth. This biological action can easily be seen in calm open water areas or under more transparent ice. Filamentous algae can be seen in balls of green floating in the water. Spirogyra species can be seen as green masses interposed with oxygen bubbles. Many times this pond scum can have dozens of associated species living with it. Volvox forms miniature spheres. Daphnia forage amongst the algae to feed on other critters. As many as 25 different species can be seen in one sample. Grab some early season pond scum, put it under magnification and be amazed at the diversity you can find.
White-winged Crossbill: Starting in Newfoundland and proceeding west, White-winged Crossbill distribution continues in the boreal forest all the way around the earth to the western shores of Norway. Two subspecies are recognized: White-winged Crossbill Loxia luecoptera leucoptera resides in North America and the Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera fasciata occurs throughout boreal Eurasia. Another crossbill with two white wing patches is found on the island of Hispaniola and has been recently given full species status.
Both boreal subspecies feed predominately on spruce, tamarack (larch), hemlock and sometimes fir seeds. Occasionally, they consume seed from pines, red cedar, alder and birch. Mid-summer diet is supplemented with insects, such as spruce budworm, other soft-bodied caterpillars, spiders, etc. Occasionally other foods are sometimes consumed during their interruptions to the south, such as sunflowers, ragweed, chickweed and grasses. However, they are inefficient at gathering these southern foods and are usually outcompeted by other finches.
White-winged Crossbills being so specialized in their favored seeds tend to be always on the move. They coincide their nesting with high food availability much more so than other species whose timing cues in on celestial and rain events. They move great distances and in large flocks to efficiently utilize specialized foods.
Three movements per year occur with three different nesting cycles per year are typical, although in some years only one to as many as four nesting cycles can occur. Timing of the movements is primarily a combination of the juxtaposition of many conifer species and the size of the cone crop. Movements can cover huge distance with swings all the way from Quebec to Alaska and back in the realm of possibility. Movements in mountainous areas are usually less abrupt, because many more conifer species spread their cone crops more evenly throughout the year.
A typical year in Canada would proceed as such: the flock search would look for abundant tamarack and white spruce cone development in May, and once found they would begin nesting. During this first nesting some seeds are eaten, but much of the food for the young is insects. Usually enough animal food is available to supplement the conifer seeds. Tamarack and white spruce seeds drop most often in October to early November and another nesting commences to take advantages of this abundant food source. Sometimes a movement is needed to find an abundance of these conifer seeds, but many times they will remain in the area they found in May.
Black spruce is most reliable and often times the only food source for the winter. This conifer does not shed its seeds until late winter. When the black spruce seed crop is good to abundant, White-winged Crossbills will have a third nesting with the peak time being mid-January through February.
The winter black spruce food source seems to be the most critical factor in movement dynamics. The cause of interruptions is most closely tied to failure of black spruce to produce an adequate number of seeds. Even when tamarack and white spruce seed production is high, poor black spruce crops will spur invasions. Hot and dry conditions over a huge swath of boreal Canada lead to a massive failure of black spruce seed production, which provides the catalyst for crossbills to nomadically search for food.
The major hypothesis for White-winged Crossbill invasion is a good to above average year for producing young during the May-June and September-October nesting cycles. Then with high numbers of birds, a massive northern Canada black spruce cone crop failure occurs. Nomadic southward movements are the only option to survive. Commencing in late October and especially into November, White-winged Crossbill numbers in northern Wisconsin explode. As December approached, number are sky-high statewide. Then right on cue and to be expected, nesting happens in late January and into February. And again on cue, numbers plummet in March and they are virtually gone in April, supposedly with flocks looking for early signs of good tamarack crops in their primary range.
Typically in 2 to 4 years another invasion will occur. The magnitude of the next invasion will depend on the factors listed above assuming normal weather patterns. Given recovery time for the populations to build, big numbers could be seen in the future. However, if hot and dry conditions become the norm in boreal regions, regular massive black spruce seed failure would greatly inhibit any population recovery. Under such a scenario, a heated planet may prevent massive White-winged Crossbill from occurring again.
Great Horned Owl courtship is peaking and nesting begins. Nearly every wooded area in the southern 2/3 of the state has a pair of owls.
Wild Turkeys form huge brood and gobbler flocks. Some flocks of well over 100 birds have been observed.
February is the time northern nomads make it into the southern part of the state. Species such as Bohemian Waxwings and Hoary Redpolls can easily survive the harshest winter if food is available. When they move into northern Wisconsin in December or January, their local foods may run out and they move farther south look for sustenance.
This is a good time period to look for Northern Shrikes. Look for them in similar structural habitat as their summer home the taiga. Open country with scattered trees and cover for small rodents and birds is essential.