fff

Eastern White-fringed Orchid

Print Friendly and PDF
Photo by Drew Harry

Photo by Drew Harry

For this Friday "Fringed" Feature, we spotlight one of our native botanical wonders. Aldo Leopold fought to save the Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid at our Faville Grove Sanctuary, and on Thursday, July 11 in the Crawfish River prairie remnants, we surveyed the orchid he eulogized below in his essay, "Exit Orchis". This beautiful wild orchid is a Wisconsin Endangered and Federal Threatened plant, one we're proud to carefully and intentional conserve on our land.

EXIT ORCHIS
By Aldo Leopold
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Archives

Wisconsin conservation will suffer a defeat when, at the end of this week, 75 cattle will be turned to pasture on the Faville Grove Prairie, long known to botanists as one of the largest and best remnants of unplowed, ungrazed prairie sod left in the State. In it grows the white ladyslipper, the white fringed orchis, and some twenty other prairie wildflowers which origianlly carpeted half of the southern part of the State, but most of which are now rare due to their inability to withstand cow or plow.

Thirty miles away a C.C.C. camp on the University of Wisconsin Arboretum has been busy for four years artifically replanting a prairie in order that botany classes and the public generally may know what a prairie looked like, and what the word "prairie" signifies in Wisconsin history. This synthetic prairie is costing the taxpayer twenty times as much as what it would have cost to buy the natural remnant at Faville Grove, it will be only a quarter as large, the ultimate survival of its transplanted wildflowers and grasses is uncertain, and it will always be synthetic. Yet no one has heard the appeals of the University Arboretum Committee for funds to buy the Faville Grove Prairie, together with other remnants of rare native flora, and set them aside as historical and educational reservations.

Our educational system is such that white fringed orchis means as little to the modern citizen of Wisconsin as it means to a cow. Indeed it means less, for the cow at least sees something to eat, whereas the citizen sees only three meaningless words. In preparation for the hoped-for floral reservation at Faville Grove, the Botany Department and the Department of Wildlife Management of the University have, during the last three years, mapped the location of each surviving colony of rare flowers, and each spring have counted the blooms. It was hoped to measure against these data the response of the flowers to complete future protection. The data will now serve to measure the rate at which destruction by grazing takes place. It is already known that with the possible exception of ladies tresses, all the rarer species succumb to pasturing. That is why they are rare. Few of them succumb to mowing, hence the past use of the Faville Grove Prairie as haymeadow has not greatly injured its flora.

In my opinion no individual blame attaches to the owner of the Faville Grove Prairie for converting it to pasture. The public taxes him on the land. It is not his obligation to provide the public with free botanical reservations, especially when all public institutions, from the public school to the federal land bank, urge him to squeeze every possible penny out of every possible acre. No public institution ever told him, or any other farmer, that natural resources not convertible into cash have any value to it or to him. The white-fringed orchis is as irrelevant to the cultural and economic system into which he was born as the Taj Mahal or the Mona Lisa.

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Photo by Joshua Mayer

John Muir, who grew up amid the prairie flowers in Columbia County, foresaw their impending disappearance from the Wisconsin landscape. In about 1865 he offered to buy from his brother a small part of the meadow of the family homestead, to be fenced and set aside as a floral sanctuary or reservation. His offer was refused. I imagine that his brother feared not so much the loss of a few square rods of pasture as he feared the ridicule of his neighbors.

By 1965, when the rarer prairie flowers are gone, the cultural descendants of John Muir's brother may look at a picture of the legendary white fringed orchis and wish they could see one.

Note: Aldo Leopold was the founder of the science of Wildlife Management and professor of this subject at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is now well known as the author of the fundamental text in this field, as well as the lyrical essays collected in "Sand County Almanac." The above appeal, written May 15, 1940, so simple, yet magnificent in its eloquence and emotional in its urgency, was successful in stimulating purchase of a 40-acre piece of Wisconsin prairie. Spared damage from "cow or plow",this small piece of the Faville Prairie has become one of Wisconsin's finest scientific areas. Today, administered through the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, it is useful in research, indispensable in teaching, and unsurpassed for its beauty and biological interest. Leopold was one of the early inspirers and guiding lights of the Arboretum whose own difficult beginnings are documented by Nancy Sachse, 1966 "A thousand Ages."

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Print Friendly and PDF
Photo by Jeff Bryant

Photo by Jeff Bryant

The chestnut-sided warbler, decorated as it is with chestnut-streaked flanks, almost resembles an oak leaf. Indeed, in southern Wisconsin the breast of a chestnut-sided warbler could very well extend from a cured black oak leaf—a potential spot for finding this warbler during the breeding season.

I love the appearance of a chestnut-sided warbler: with its yellow cap it declares its warbler-ness while its messy chestnut streak resembles spilled coffee down its side. Likewise endearing is its call—the mnemonic I've come up with is “choo choo choo god-bless-you!” Unlike the eastern towhee which admonishes you to “drink your tea,” or the yellow warbler (which can have a confusingly similar song) in its braggadocios endowment of itself as “sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet,” the chestnut-sided warbler sneezes and humbly excuses itself.  

There's more to that song than the trivial way a human remembers it, however. Ending the chestnut-sided's song is either an accented or unaccented syllable. When the accent is used, the male is attempting to attract a mate, while the unaccented song is employed for territory defense when other males are around. So, we have some idea of the language of the chestnut-sided warbler: if he's on a nest, you might expect to hear the territorial song (unaccented) while his accented ending may mean he's still looking for a mate.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Further research into chestnut-sided warbler song has revealed that certain songs are associated with greater reproductive success. It turns out, in chestnut-sided warblers, high-pitched and steady wins the race. Males who sing with a high and steady pitch and consistent timing are more likely to have a successful breeding season. If you hear a chestnut-sided warbler in the woods that's mapping new vocal territory with each song, it's not as likely that a female will choose this variable warbler.

When I've encountered chestnut-sided warblers it's been in oak barrens areas in northeastern Wisconsin, where the bird is common north of Marathon County. It's uncommon in central Wisconsin, and a rare breeder in southern Wisconsin where I've seen it in regenerating oak scrub in the southern Kettle Moraine. While this bird's preferred habitat is rather rare in Wisconsin (oak savanna and barrens), the advent of large-scale logging operations proved a great benefit to chestnut-sided warbler populations. These birds will readily occupy cut-over land, and as such they have a secure population in northern Wisconsin.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Banner photo by Arlene Koziol

Common Loon

Print Friendly and PDF

One of the most iconic species of summer in the northern forest, the common loon beckons admiration, from wooden carvings, gift shop trinkets, ring tones, and paintings. For those spending a vacation around a campfire in northern Wisconsin, loons lay the soundtrack in equal parts to the campfire.

In fact, I think the distribution of common loon breeding in northern Wisconsin is a good approximation for the southern limits of “up north.”

Rough approximation of “up north” based on common loon breeding range in Wisconsin. Image courtesy of eBird

Rough approximation of “up north” based on common loon breeding range in Wisconsin. Image courtesy of eBird

The Journal Sentinel has developed a map where you can draw your own line for where “up north” is located; most agree, it follows a line a little north of Green Bay west to about Chippewa Falls.

Over the course of the year, loons will move through southern Wisconsin, typically occupying larger bodies of water along the way. Lake Mendota in Madison and Rock Lake in Lake Mills are two excellent spots to view the common loon right now as it migrates through the area.

Colorful common loon on Lake Monona, April 4, 2019. Photo by Pat Ready

Colorful common loon on Lake Monona, April 4, 2019. Photo by Pat Ready

Lake Monona loon, april 4, 2019. Photo by Pat Ready

Lake Monona loon, april 4, 2019. Photo by Pat Ready

During migration, loons with tracking devices have been recorded on dives of 174 feet.  If you see any loons on Lake Mendota this spring, imagine the deep hole between Picnic Point and Maple Bluff. That’s 82 feet deep, so loons can dive to depths of more than two Lake Mendota’s!

Listen to the calls of the common loon, and watch how it deftly dives and swims underwater. Video by BR Valley.

Historical accounts indicate that loons did nest in parts of southern Wisconsin. A number of factors conspired to limit the loon’s range to the northern expanse of Wisconsin, including wetland loss and degradation, mercury bioaccumulation, and lead poisoning.

Loons nest within a few feet of the water, and wetlands at the edge of lakes are critical to nesting success. A common spot for loon nests is on the floating sphagnum mat at the edge of relatively acidic lakes in northern Wisconsin. Unfortunately for loons, lakefront development can negatively impact the ability to nest.

Good habitat on a sphagnum mat, inset: no habitat. Photo courtesy of Mike Meyer, “Twenty Four Years of Common Loon Research in Wisconsin”

Good habitat on a sphagnum mat, inset: no habitat. Photo courtesy of Mike Meyer, “Twenty Four Years of Common Loon Research in Wisconsin”

Researchers have found that development of housing greater than 25 buildings per kilometer of shoreline prevents loons from nesting in the area. Housing development usually leads to the degradation or elimination of wetland habitat along shorelines.  It doesn’t need to be this way. Many alternatives to a barren lawn exist that beautify the yard and add habitat for wildlife, and protect the erosion into the lake.  You can find numerous excellent examples here.

The map below is from the USDA Forest Service’s North Central Research Station and shows how housing density has increased in northern Wisconsin since 1940.

Image from  Wisconsin’s Land Legacy Report

Image from Wisconsin’s Land Legacy Report

Having the pleasure of loons on your lake can come with a number of responsibilities. Known nesting sites should not be disturbed during the summer. If there are known nesting sites, efforts should be made to reduce wake in those areas. Additionally, lead fishing tackle contributes to significant mortality each season. In Minnesota, one study found that 15-20% of dead loons had lead poisoning. Using non-lead alternatives is good for loons and the whole ecosystem. One of the biggest items on Wisconsin’s Conservation Congress hearings this past week was a ban on lead tackle and ammunition. This would have positive impacts for the loon population, and it is estimated that a lead ban would save over 50 loons in Wisconsin each year.

An issue outside of a loon enthusiast’s direct control is the emission of mercury from coal-generated power plants. As stated before, loons are sensitive to the bioaccumulation of methyl mercury because they are high in the food chain, long lived, fish-eaters, and nest on acidic lakes, which tend to have higher availability of mercury to move up the food chain (pictured below).

As pH decreases (becomes more acidic) mercury concentrations increase in both adults and chicks of common loons. Graph courtesy of Mike Meyer, “Twenty Four Years of Common Loon Research in Wisconsin”

As pH decreases (becomes more acidic) mercury concentrations increase in both adults and chicks of common loons. Graph courtesy of Mike Meyer, “Twenty Four Years of Common Loon Research in Wisconsin”

A new EPA proposal would roll back some limits on emissions of mercury for coal-burning power plants. This could have a huge effect on public health, and different accounting estimates calculate the potential indirect benefit of saving thousands of lives due to the “co-benefit” of also decreasing particulate matter linked to lung and heart disease. In Wisconsin, coal-burning power plants have been granted exceptions for mercury emissions. Beyond public health, mercury for loons spells trouble. 

As mercury increases, hatching rates decrease beyond a sustainable number. With high mercury concentrations in the food chain, adults become lethargic and might not reproduce at all. This decreases the likelihood of success for the common loon, which already faces difficult enough odds on its breeding grounds where approximately 50% of nests fail, due to predation, flooding, or other causes.

Another twist might occur as the climate continues to change. With flooding more likely, the amount of mercury in aquatic systems may also increase. Research from UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology has found an interesting correlation between annual water levels and the concentration of mercury in walleye. You can see that interesting blog post here. With flooding and high water levels, loons may be even more susceptible to mercury bioaccumulation.

While fragile, the outlook for loons in Wisconsin is rather positive. Since 1980, the population has nearly doubled and continues to increase. If you’re able to help, you can sign up for Northland College’s Loonwatch, which aids research in a number of areas.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

Sources

Stewart, S. I., Hammer, R.B., Radeloff, V.C., Dwyer, J.F., & Voss P.R. 2003. Mapping Housing Density across the North Central U.S., 1940-2000 [Slide show]. Available: http://www.ncrs.fs.fed.us/IntegratedPrograms/lc/pop/hd/title.htm

Meyer, Mike. "Twenty Four Years of Common Loon Research in Wisconsin." Microsoft PowerPoint file. Accessed here.

Puerto Rico: Winter Habitat for Birds and Humans

Print Friendly and PDF

According to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, 439 bird species have been observed in our state. It’s true that some of those are considered rare or accidental migrants, but the number still stands. When temperatures drop below freezing, virtually all above ground insects are killed, wildlife cover is reduced as plants senesce, and liquid fresh water becomes scarce. The 439 bird species drops to 111.

During the first two weeks of January, Calla Norris (UW-Madison student and bird enthusiast)  and I traveled to Puerto Rico. This United States territory is known for its high biodiversity despite small relative size. For reference, Puerto Rico is about 6% of Wisconsin’s land area but harbors a similar number of bird species (363). Our goals were to snorkel the coral reefs, experience a different culture, and observe new plant and animal species.

- Corals, octopi, jellyfish, eels, dinoflagellates (bioluminescent diatoms), lobsters, rays, crabs, urchins, flying fish

- Ate traditional suckling pig, visited shade-grown coffee farms, ate several coconuts which we opened ourselves, petted many stray dogs

- belted kingfisher, red-tailed hawk, blue-winged teal, common yellowthroat, mourning dove, house sparrow, killdeer, spotted sandpiper.

Mourning dove by USFWS National Digital Library

Mourning dove by USFWS National Digital Library

Blue-winged teal? Mourning dove?! We could have traveled to virtually any county in Wisconsin during the growing season to encounter them. My point here is not to devalue these species by calling attention to their commonness or wide distribution, but to reaffirm the value of borderless bird conservation. Providing habitat for migratory birds in Wisconsin is essential, however, it’s easy to forget that wintering grounds and stopover sites are also of critical importance.

The concept of borderless bird conservation was formally established in 1918 with the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Ornithologists, notably waterfowl enthusiasts, realized that conserving habitat over vast spatial scales is crucial to maintaining population levels of migratory species. A prime example of this is the indigo bunting. This striking songbird of edges and shrubby fields nests in high densities throughout the eastern United States. During the winter, indigo buntings travel to Central America and Caribbean islands. Only a tiny portion of the population remains within the political boundaries of the United States. Even if huge tracts of prime breeding habitat are provided in the US, indigo buntings would surely decline or disappear if their wintering areas in other countries were decimated.

Indigo bunting by USFWS National Digital Library

Indigo bunting by USFWS National Digital Library

Indigo bunting range map by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Indigo bunting range map by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Calla and I explored as many new ecosystems as possible. They ranged from dry forests dominated by cacti in the Guanica State Forest and Biosphere Reserve to the rainforests of El Yunque which receive about 240 inches of rain annually. On Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Calla approached a group of fifteen people wielding machetes and hand saws to inquire about their curious (if not threatening) accessories. They were volunteer trail builders for the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, and we offered to join them. After chopping and chatting with students and trust members alike, we learned some birding hotspots. At all locations we observed birds that can be put into three categories: 1) species native to Wisconsin (or other northern regions), 2) pelagic generalists, and 3) species that are endemic to the Caribbean or Puerto Rico itself. Okay, so we’ve established that providing habitat at warmer latitudes is required to maintain migratory bird populations in addition to the non-migratory locals. Now let’s check that box:

- Yellow-crowned night heron, brown booby, black-necked stilt, white-cheeked pintail, gray kingbird, brown pelican, royal tern, smooth-billed Ani, American oystercatcher, Puerto Rican tody, greater Antillean grackle, and 30 or so others.

Puerto Rican Tody by Annabelle Watts

Puerto Rican Tody by Annabelle Watts

Yellow-crowned night heron by USFWS National Digital Library

Yellow-crowned night heron by USFWS National Digital Library

Next time you take a trip south, keep an eye out for the rarities, the unexpected, the lifers. But watch out too for birds native to your own state. Sure you might regularly see them out your back door, but old birds in new places remind us of their complex life histories, ignorance of political boundaries, and need for wide-ranging if not global conservation efforts.

 Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward 

Lapland Longspur

Print Friendly and PDF

The Lapland Longspur, a winter bird here in Wisconsin, perhaps best represents the arctic chill currently swallowing the Midwest. The longspur breeds on the highest of the high arctic, residing on the tundra grasslands that typically reserve this -30 degree Fahrenheit air.  On its breeding territory, the longspurs display a brilliant black bib, face, and crown, a rusty nape, and a vibrant yellow beak.

Lapland longspur in its summer breeding grounds. Photo by Fiona Paton FFF

Lapland longspur in its summer breeding grounds. Photo by Fiona Paton FFF

This species eats seed during its winter foray into Wisconsin, a diet which its bill is well-adapted for. Here at Faville Grove Sanctuary, I wonder if these birds are finding sufficient food for the winter, but the staggering diversity and weight of seed in a prairie restoration should easily last the winter. I’ve seen longspurs along the edges of fields down Prairie Lane this winter.

Because of its high arctic breeding grounds, very little is known about the Lapland longspur in terms of population or ecology. The overall population seems to be healthy, as this is a common winter bird of the northern United States.

Lapland longspur photo by Nigel, FCC

Lapland longspur photo by Nigel, FCC

One study on longspurs found that the birds show a slight spike in testosterone during the breeding cycle when they use song displays and participate in courtship. This spike lasts for two days. Over the next week or so, the males will vigorously defend the female they are paired with. Outside of this week-long window, male longspurs are quite affable and tolerant of other males entering their territory. Other species, in studies involving testosterone, have shown longer-lasting spikes of testosterone and exhibit agressive behavior for a much longer time period, even over a month long. The chill of the Lapland longspurs goes beyond their general habitat and infiltrates their very demeanor.

You might find Lapland longspurs down Prairie Lane, once the snow has melted a bit.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward