January 11 – 20

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racine has 9 hours and 33 minutes of daylight at the end of the period and Superior has 9 hours and 9 minutes of daylight - an increase of 18 minutes in the south and 20 minutes in the north. This time period sees the coldest temperatures of the year on average, although some northern counties and especially coastal have a slightly later coldest temperature by a few days into the next period.  Average high temperatures are approximately 26 degrees Fahrenheit in the south and 22 degrees in the north.

 

Winter Owls: Owls have special significance with many human attributed emotional qualities that nearly classifies them as something different. They always evoke strong feelings that oft times lies between the physical world and myth. To some, they are scary conjurers of the unknowns lurking the darkness. Others seem to be fascinated by the human-like eyes and haunting gaze. Regardless the emotion, humans seem to be irresistibly drawn to them.

 

Most of our Wisconsin owl species are migratory at least partially. Four species are interruptive visitors from farther north (Great Gray, Northern Hawk, Boreal and Snowy Owls). State breeders and short distance migrants (Short-eared, Long-eared and Saw-whet Owls) are annual migrants, and the other three (Great-horned, Barred and Eastern Screech Owls) are locally nomadic moving towards food sources.

 

When winter food is in abundance, nearly all of these species will barely move. The shorter distance migrants move every year with less distance recorded in prey abundant years. Poor food years can have all four far northern species showing up in the state. Many of the prey items for these species are cyclical peaks of abundance and crashes to very low numbers. These northern owl species are adapted to respond to the times of plenty and famine.

 

These stressors especially in winter can have a great effect on the survivability of an individual, but not as much on a population or the species as a whole. Over the eons, these owl species that feed primarily on highly fluctuating prey species have many hundreds if not thousands of individuals die during these low prey years. During years of prey abundance they produce much larger clutches that their cousins farther south and the population soars.

 

Conservation biology and population dynamics rarely enters the thought waves of a person enamored by owls. They are focused on an individual bird at a specific location. The primary purpose apparently is to appease some inner need. Owls seem to bring out the best or worst in a person’s ethics that can run the full gamut of emotion. “It’s a life bird for me” is an often heard refrain, even though they may have heard the species, they must see it. “It may be the only opportunity I ever have to film one close-up” is another refrain, plus dozens of others.

 

When judging another’s viewing ethics in proximity to an owl that simply wants to be left alone for a chance to survive, the owl’s needs are scarcely considered. Viewers of the owl usually consider their reason for their viewing paramount and all others subservient. I did not harm the bird, I stayed a distance away, or I may have been close, but I fed the starving bird all may seem like sound ethical reasons for some. From the bird’s point of view, the person who said I am not going to make the trip may be the most ethical reason to give the bird its best chance at surviving.

 

Of course, we cannot simplify the message to this ultimate degree. These owls with ever expanding human population will continue to experience abnormal stressors for the foreseeable future. And furthermore, birders and photographers can be the bird’s best ally for conservation. We can educate others that our actions can lead to an owl’s demise.

 

Whether or not you agree, by just showing up you add some level of stress to that bird. A constant argument for observation at close range is the starving birds are being fed. These birds are in a state of fasting and their physiological functions have changed. Similar to famine stricken children, if you feed them unlimited amounts of food immediately, their bodies cannot change at a rapid enough pace enough to accommodate the flush of food and this humanitarian action may actually kill them.

 

We cannot stop all stress on these prey deprived birds, but we can limit the stressors by being ethical observers:

 

  • Sleeping owls are happy, if you notice open eyes on species such as Long-eared, Saw-whet, Boreal, or Screech Owls back away.

  • If you notice these same species becoming slimmed down, looking skinny or branch-like. They are trying to hide – back off.

  • Be a steward of a roost. Take care in who you let know about the roost. Supply data to ebird after the roost is abandoned.

  • Do your best to educate others about the stressors affecting owls.

  • If you cause the owl to fly, do not pursue it.

  • Do not bait owls with rodents.

  • No flash photography.

  • No sound devices.

  • Stay on trails and road shoulders and ditches. Do not block traffic.

  • Do not report owl sightings on the internet or bird hotlines.

  • Speak in soft tones or whispers.

  • Do not linger in front of an owl for more than a couple of minutes.

  • Keep a minimum distance. It’s best to observe with a scope.

 

Red Fox Pairing: A few mammal species initiated pairing rituals during mid-winter. An observant naturalist should be aware of the activities and carefully watch. The red fox usually starts pairing activities at this time.  Normally solitary, foxes can occasionally be seen in pairs at this time of year.  Paired encounters are rarely observed, but to the fortunate observer - stop all other activities and watch.  The affectionate play of the paired is endearing and quite memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subnivean Food Web: The nivean environment from an ecological standpoint is the snow world. Subnivean refers to the interface between the ground and the snow. Hardy mammals and birds , such as red fox, rabbits/hares, fisher, and ruffed grouse live on or take refuge in the snow. Other like the chipmunk hibernates underground.  Some species, however, spend most of the winter at the interface between the ground and the snow.

 

A deep snow pack can keep the temperature at the snow ground interface at or near freezing. The primary producers in the food web are weathered and dying plants from the previous summer growth, old fungal growth and many species, especially in northern wetlands of evergreen growth. Due to the excessive energy requirement to grow new leaves in spring many northern plants such as lycopodiums, goldthread, bog rosemary, wintergreen, pipsisewa, bog laurel, partridgeberry, Labrador tea, etc. remain evergreen throughout the year. 

 

These food sources are either eaten directly by mice and voles or insects. Primary consumers of the plants can be species such as springtails, beetles, flies, aphids and leafhoppers. These primary consumers are predated upon by mites, spiders, beetles, and eventually shrews. The top predators are most often members of the weasels family, foxes or owls, especially Great Gray Owl.

 

The naturalist should look for holes on the snow where a Great Gray Owl plunged to catch a vole. Feather prints where a ruffed grouse exploded from its warm retreat. Or you can dig beneath the snow pack to look for evergreen plants or especially runways of mice.

 

The first nest: Nomadic crossbills are interesting critters. They move across the landscape, mostly in Canada looking for their favorite food conifer seeds. Their specialized bills are crossed. They place the bill tips on the pine cone, and then they press the bill together separating the scales and use their tongues to spear the seeds. They move across the landscape looking for abundant seeds sources and when they find abundant seeds, they nest regardless of season. On many occasions over the years, Red crossbills have been observed nesting in January.

Other tidbits:

 

  • Deer antler shed usually starts and by the end of February it’s complete.

  • Rare waterfowl and gulls, such as Harlequin Duck, Iceland Gull and Long-tailed Duck are concentrated in harbor areas along Lake Michigan.

  • Gyrfalcons are sometimes found along these same Great Lakes harbors or open inland areas where grouse and partridge concentrate. The Buena Vista Grasslands and western Grant County are known locations.

  • Golden Eagles spend the winter in the Driftless area. Organized Golden Eagle surveys in mid-winter indicate a few hundred of these birds annual winter in the western part of the state.

 

Great Nature Wisconsin            greatnaturewi@gmail.com

 

LLast update

 Last Update 1/31/2021