January 21 – 31
Racine has 9 hours and 56 minutes of daylight at the end of the period and Superior has 9 hours and 36 minutes of daylight - an increase of 24 minutes from the previous period. This time period sees the coldest temperatures of the year on average in the north, although some southern counties are starting to see average temperatures raise slightly. Average high temperatures are approximately 27 degrees Fahrenheit in the south and 22 degrees in the north.
Winter Stoneflies: Stoneflies collectively, are a group of aquatic insects that feed on detritus or some are predatory on small invertebrates. They live in well oxygenated waters. Most of their lives are spent as nymphs in these waters feeding and growing. Adults emerge to mate and lay eggs then die. A small group of stoneflies emerge in winter as adults. They can occasionally be seen along streams with open water and they are more common in the northern part of the state.
How do they combat the freezing temperatures? They are freeze avoiders. The adults emerge in air pockets between the ice and water. When emerge from the stream, they have very dark bodies that readily absorb solar radiation. They also seek protection under the snow, under rocks or within detritus that has warmer temperatures. This timing of breed virtually precludes any aerial predation. Naturalist should look for these amazing insects along stream courses with high water quality.
Bald Eagle: January is the prime time for Eagle watching. Communities such as Prairie du Sac, Cassville and others have organized “Eagle Watching Days”. These public events are excellent awareness venues regarding the importance of Wisconsin for the Bald Eagle. The increase in eagle numbers over the years has led to Bald Eagles becoming more widespread throughout the state in winter. Naturalist can usually find at least a few Bale Eagles hanging around any open water. Prime location are downstream from dams.
Star Colors: January is the prime time to observe star colors normally obscured by the earth’s atmosphere. Most stars are colored, but only the brightest stars exhibit this phenomenon to the naked eye. Mid-winter has some of brightest stars from our closest galactic neighbors near directly overhead. Use star charts to locate these bright neighbors. Most are in or close to the constellation Orion. The star Rigel appears blue, Aldebaron -orange, Capella - yellow and Betelgeuse - red. Sirius is our brightest star and has been observed changing colors.
Star-nosed Mole: This first cousin of the common mole lives primarily in the swamps of the north. The weird shaped tentacles on the nose are this species’ most important sensory organ. They are nearly blind, but have outstanding tactile perception. These moles are active throughout the year feeding on worms, insects and crustaceans. Large two foot wide mounds indicate their presence. Star-nosed moles do not hibernate and can occasionally be seen on the surface, even on top of the snow. Most observations though are swimming individuals. Look for these seldom seen critters in open ponds or under clear ice.
Long-term changes in bird populations: RecentTufted Titmouse records from Ashland and Iron Counties piqued interest. This species has moved north and become much more abundant over the past sixty years. In the late 1940s, Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) data indicate Tufted Titmouse to be an uncommon species with a bizarre range in the state. This species was sparsely scattered in southern Wisconsin with small pockets in the Madison area, disjunct enclaves in West Central Wisconsin (Prairie du Chien and Viroqua), and along the Chippewa River near Eau Claire. The locations comprised the largest populations, although they were relatively small with less than ten birds recorded on Christmas Counts.
In Passenger Pigeon Vol68, No.2, Kevin Kearns examined Tufted Titmouse CBC data. He found increased numbers through the late 1970s, then a crash, which rebuilt to higher numbers today, although casual factors were not abundantly evident. Amazingly consistent in the data from the 1940s through the expansion/contraction to today is the extraordinary fidelity to the core areas. Locations with consistent, but low numbers in the 1940s are the areas with the highest numbers now. Areas in Central Wisconsin with no populations in the 1940s now have consistent low numbers on CBCs. During the next decade, we should keep our eyes open for an increase in numbers for Central Wisconsin, and maybe establishment of consistent, but low numbers in Ashland and Iron Counties.
A second species has shown a dramatic increase since the 1940s, although the trajectory has been of a gradual linear rise in numbers and a broad frontal push north. Red-bellied Woodpeckers were found in modest numbers 60 years ago. Consistent populations occurred only in the southern third of the state. WSO winter season editor, Sam Robbins, made special note of first county records for Waupaca, Door, and St. Croix Counties. CBC data indicates multiple Red-bellied Woodpeckers were recorded from only three sites.
Today, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are found as a regular resident nearly statewide with low numbers similar to the 1940s coming only from the most northern tier of counties. Southern and Central Wisconsin CBCs report dozens to hundreds of birds producing statewide estimates in five if not six digits.
The third species of interest for this winter season is going the opposite direction. Evening Grosbeaks formerly wintered in consistent, albeit variable numbers statewide. Today this species is recorded in winter almost exclusively north of a line from Shawano to Grantsburg.
Early in my birding life, I found Evening Grosbeak consistently in southern Wisconsin. In the 1970s, they were so easy to find, I considered them to be a common winter resident. I have personal records of 80 birds at a feeder in Poynette, 50 from Sauk City, and 37 from my feeder in Waunakee. I have no records from these locations for the past fifteen years.
The National Audubon Society has recently released a state of “Common Birds in Decline” document. This report identifies Evening Grosbeak as the No. 2 common bird in decline. They estimate this species has declined 78% in 40 years with an estimated population dwindling from 17 million to 3.8 million. Reasons for the decline are complex. Evening grosbeaks in summer feed heavily on spruce budworm. Foresters aggressively tackle the effects of this insect pest by salvaging the product before it decays in the woods. Conversely, Evening Grosbeaks eat copious amounts of maple seeds, a resource in abundant and ever increasing supply.
In winter, they may be limited by decreases in the supply of conifer seeds, but tremendous increases in feeding stations seemingly assure them of great over winter survival. Unknown to birders is a single factor for the decline. Many conservation actions such as timber harvest on public lands and climate change are beyond the realm of backyard birders. The most effective action birders can do is to monitor their feeders. If you see dead or dying birds, stop feeding for at least two weeks. Sanitize you feeders before you put them back up. By saving a few more birds, they may be the source for recovery. You can also encourage officials to consider Evening Grosbeaks when planning for state and regional conservation activities.
Porcupines can be seen on bare tree branches munching away on bark.
About sunrise go outside and listen. Northern Cardinals start singing on territory about this time every year.
If there’s a late January thaw, look for foraging skunks and opossums.
Look for mammal tracks in the snow. Squirrel, fox and cottontail tracks can be anywhere in the state. Farther north look for weasel, fisher, bobcat, wolf, coyote, and especially American marten.
Many mammals begin breeding during this time frame. Wolf, beaver, gray squirrels and red fox are examples.