Rough Day on the Lake

It was a rough day on Lake Winnebago recently.  Steady winds at 30 mph and gusts to 50 mph were driving large waves on the lake.  Lake Winnebago is no pond, but it is not one of the Great Lakes or the ocean, so the waves are not monumental, but I would not want to be out in a boat on day like today.  On huge bodies of water the wave heights can be immense, but on a shallow lake like Winnebago the wave lengths are short, meaning a boat, or the shore is repeatedly pounded by waves in short succession.  There is no riding the waves up and down in this situations, just a constant battering.  The waves are continually interacting with the bottom, disturbing the it in deeper water and churning it into a soup in the shallows.

This churning of shallow waters, and erosion of the shoreline, releases nutrients from the bottom where they can be taken up by algae.  If warm, calm weather with bright sunshine were to follow a storm such as this an algae bloom would not be far behind.  This time of year though an algae bloom will be less noticeable because it will be dominated by species of diatoms sometimes called the golden brown algae.  When diatoms bloom they can be mistaken for sediment.  In the summer Lake Winnebago would be dominated by blue-green algae.

High winds also drive water across a body of water stacking it up on one side.  On October 14th when the video was taken NE winds caused a half a foot difference in lake levels according to the gauges monitored by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  These changes in water levels brought on by wind events can give lake users a sense that the entire lake has rapidly changed water level, when the effect has only been local.   When the wind abruptly ceases it will cause a sloshing effect, as if the lake were a huge bathtub.   This sloshing is called a seiche.

Click the pdf. below and look at the bottom graph to see the differences in water levels on the four Lake Winnebago gauges

Lake Winnebago Water Levels

The above was generated by the USACE Lake Winnebago Information website.


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Green Heron (Butorides virescens)

The Green Heron (Butorides virescens) is a small heron of about 18 inches in length with a wingspan of 26 inches.  It is well camouflaged, and like all herons it often remains motionless, but when it does move it makes slow  deliberate movements to avoid detection by its prey.  The Green Heron eats fish, frogs, and larger invertebrates found in the shallows of lakes, rivers and marshes.  Most often it catches its prey with a lunging stab of its long neck and bill.  However it will also occasionally dive from a standing position.

Green Heron on a Log

Young Green Heron

Green Herons usually nest alone in a tree or shrub above water.  However they are known to form small colonies or join the colonies of other bird species.  Both parents raise the young.  These birds breed primary in North American, including Mexico.  Mexican birds often do not migrate.  In winter most of the American birds migrate to Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the Caribbean.

I found this young Green Heron skulking on log, on the Fox River in Green Lake County, Wisconsin.  It noticed me and slowly tried to sneak away when I stopped my boat to take photographs.  Peaking through the viewfinder it was hard to locate the bird at first thanks to its camouflage and slow movements.  When Green Herons became alarmed, as this one eventually did, they flare a small crest and make a kuk, kuk, kuk, kuk noise, at least that is how it is described the Sibley Guide to Birds.  I find Green Herons to be fascinating residents of my local lakes and marshes.

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Northern Shrike Storing Food

Shrike stores food

Northern Shrike stores its food, a shrew, on a cattail

All too soon it will be the that time of year when a few hardy birds from the north come down to spend the winter in the less harsh climate of the Upper Midwest.  One of those birds is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor), a small bird of prey.  Shrikes are well known for their method of storing food.  Often the birds will catch small mammals, birds and in the summer large insects.  If the shrike wants to save a meal for later it will store, or cache its prey for eating later.  Many bird species like crows, ravens, and jays will do this.  What makes the shrike different is it does not hide its food, rather it is stored out in the open for all to see.

Shrikes are famous for impaling their prey on the thorns of hawthorns, and other thorny trees and shrubs.  There are a few of those in the marsh I was walking through, however there were plenty of cattails.  This shrike, or shrikes tightly wedged their food between the stem and leaf of cattail plants.  All the food I found stored in this manner were shrews, which are tiny predators themselves.  Shrews mainly eat insects and other invertebrates, but can take down mice with the help of their poisonous saliva.

The day I took the above photo I found about half a dozen stored shrews, and no other animals stored on cattails.  I was far from shrubs or other places that could be used for storage, and unfortunately the marsh was largely covered with invasive hybrid cattails (Typha x glauca), but the shrikes took advantage of what they had.  I wonder if these shrews had been caught in the marsh, or the shrub carr habitat nearby.  In the marsh I found no tracks or tunnels of any small mammals and I don’t know if they are inhabited by them at anytime of year.  If the shrike did fly the shrews all the way over to this part of the marsh it must have been to avoid having another predator or scavenger find its food.



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A third of US birds in Decline!

I was just reading the BBC News online and came across this article on their front page. “A third of US Birds in Decline”  Terrible news, but not really surprising.  I work with a number of bird species and they are endangered and still declining.  One of these species, the Common Tern is hardly common in the state of Wisconsin where it is listed as endangered.  The Common Tern in my state is on the edge of its range, but if today’s edge is lost then, the new edge could be next and so on until the range shrinks to nothing.  The Common Tern is not yet endangered as an entire species, but has been on the decline throughout much of its range.

What is happening to this bird species is also happening to dozens of others in the US and abroad.  A slow decline due to a number of factors including habitat loss on its breeding and wintering grounds.  If we do well to protect breeding grounds in this country and its wintering grounds disappear in South America, then their is still little hope that the species will survive.

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Looking for Wild Rice on the Rat River.

Today I took a little trip on lakes Poygan and Winneconne looking for Wild Rice.  I was curious to see how it was faring this year, and also looking for a bit to harvest. Formally these two lakes, especially Lake Poygan, were rice lakes; meaning a great potion of their surface area was covered with wild rice.  In the 1800′s there would have been thousands of acres, today I can say there were a couple of acres, if I am generous.  The most wild rice occurred in Boom Bay, which is located by the inlet of Wolf River.  Much of the rice was short, but there were several tall, dense stands.    Although there wasn’t a lot of rice there were red-winded black birds and wood and mallard ducks enjoying what was there.

Red-winged blackbirds in wild rice bed

Red-winged blackbirds dot a stand of wild rice

As I approached the blackbirds on the rice bed, they refused to leave.  I wonder if they were so full of rice they did not want to fly.  In fact they barely moved at all, and made no calls.  Now that I think about it, I wonder if they are ok.  I’m sure they just had stuffed bellies from feasting.   They looked as lethargic as I do after a Thanks’s Giving dinner.

Finding only a few scattered beds of wild rice on the lakes, I decided to head up the Wolf River to check out a few sloughs.  None of the sloughs had much rice in them, so I ventured up the Rat River.  I have spent a fair amount of time in the marshes and swamps of the Rat River State Wildlife Area, but I haven’t actually spent anytime on the river, so it was about time I explored the river.

Rat River Bridge

South Road bridge over the Rat River

I engaged my outboard motor and  began my way up the river.  The Rat is a slow river, and looks great to canoe of kayak on, and I plan on returning with my canoe someday.  However, today I had my work/fishing boat, and I enjoyed the travel too.  I found a few small beds of wild rice, but after traveling a couple of miles of river they didn’t even add up to be half an acre.

Although low on rice, the river was clear and full of other aquatic plants.  Waving in the current were: Coontail, Eurasian Water-milfoil, and Water Stargrass to name a few.  I eventually had to give up my travels when it got too shallow to proceed, which happened to be the first bridge to cross the river at South Road.

It is a shame that nearly all the wild rice is gone from the system.  It once supported vast quantities of migrating waterfowl and even passenger pigeons now then.  It would have also supported many small fish, invertebrates and other creatures.  Today we have only a few beds to remind us of once was, but at least we have those.

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Boardwalk Through Wetlands

Wetlands can be difficult to travel in.  Wet, soggy ground require proper footwear in order to stay dry.  Rubber boots are great in a wetland, or on dewy ground, but on a long hike they quickly become hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.  The soggy ground can also suck feet in making your movements tedious and arduous.  Wetlands however are great places to explore.  Many unique plants and animals reside in marshes and swamps and nowhere else.  Even more common species often use wetlands for feeding or taking shelter, not to mention some require them, if only briefly, to complete their life-cycle.

Board Walk Wisconsin

Boardwalk through a tamarack swamp in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest


Sometimes elaborate boardwalks with bridges and lookout towers and decks are put up to allow nature lovers better access, but sometimes all that is needed are a few simple boards.  I was up in the Nicholet-Chewamegon National Forest recently and came to this short boardwalk that cuts across a tamarack swamp.  It is utilitarian, designed only to get the hiker over the wetland while staying dry.  However short, it allows great access to a moss covered world under the feathery soft needles of tamarack trees.  I paused to take photos of many kinds of plants, cranberries, Indian pipe, sphagnum mosses, and to just stand in the stillness for awhile.

Boardwalks can be very difficult and expensive to construct.  There is always the issue of the walk sinking down into the muck whether the boards are simply placed on the ground or pilings driven into it.  The constant contact with water encourages rot and either wooden materials have to be replaced frequently or treated to slow the process of decay.  In some climates boardwalks have to deal with heaving caused by the formation and melting of frost.

Despite the difficulties of construction and expense I hope more nature centers, parks, etc. construct these gateways into wetlands.  We need more appreciation of wetlands, so people will fight to protect and manage these wonderful places.

Broken board walk

A broken and abandoned boardwalk through the Allen’s Marsh wetland adjacent to Lake Butte des Morts, Wisconsin is a lost educational opopportunity

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Foggy Lake Morning: Photo of the Week

A peaceful and quiet, except for bird song, morning on a small Wisconsin lake in Forest County.  Getting up early often pays dividends in getting good photos and seeing wary wildlife.  On this morning I was certainly not up early, but at a reasonable hour, early enough to catch the fog before the sun burned it off.

Photo of fog on a lake

Misty summer morning on a Northern Wisconsin Lake.

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Lake Poygan Blue-green Algae Bloom

Bottle filled with algae

Calm water, sunny days and excessive nutrients fuel a large blue-green algae bloom on Lake Poygan, part of the Lake Winnebago System.

Although the temperature has not been excessively hot, blue-green algae blooms are in full swing on the Lake Winnebago System.  Everything is in place for such algae blooms:  warm temperatures, calm weather and excessive nutrients in the water.  Many types of algae can be found in the water column.  Regular old green algae, diatoms and others are valuable parts of the food chain, but blue-green algae or cyanobacteria are less desirable because they are of lower food value, and because on occasion they can produce toxic compounds.  The bloom over the last few days contained numerous blue-green algae commonly associated with the blooms:  Microcysts, Anabanea, as well as several others.  I looked at several samples under the microscope and all I could find were blue-greens, no green algae or diatoms in the soup.

The accompanying photos were taken on Lake Poygan, but the other lakes and rivers in the shallow system are suffering the same blooms.  Despite the green water, there were plenty of boats on the lake and swimmers in the water.   Thirty boats were parked along the Cane Beds off of Lone Willow Point between Lake Winneconne and Poygan.  Many stayed on the boats enjoying the beautiful weather, but others splashed around in the sun.  Most people who enjoy these lakes are used to the green water of summer.

Blue-Green Algae phytoplankton

Heavy blue-grean algae provides little contrast with hardstem bulrush.

Why was the Algae Bloom Bad?

For one, calm weather increase the chances of algae blooms. Waves keep pushing phytoplankton down to where there is less light, and in some lakes, cooler water.   This slows their growth.  When the waves are reduced, algae accumulates on the surface where temperatures are greatest, and light is most intense.  There they are free to reproduce rapidly until a thick soup forms.  This bad situation can be made into a nightmare for lake shore property owners when winds return and blows the algae into shore concentrating it into a smelly scum.

Boats on Lake Poygan

Boaters and swimmers enjoy a great day on Lake Poygan and Winneconne of Lone WIllow Point despite the green water.



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Common Tern Colony on Lake Butte des Morts Destroyed

Common Tern Photo

Adult Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

The Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) is an endangered “seabird” in the state of Wisconsin.  Unlike gulls, Common Terns are a bit smaller with a sharp bill, and generally built more like a fighter jet than a cargo plane.  They hunt for small fish and aquatic invertebrates by hovering then plunging into the water, momentarily disappearing in splashing water before emerging with their prize.  In the case of male Common Terns this prize is often presented to its mate early in the mating season as part of courtship. The Common Tern is called common because it is one of the most frequently encountered terns in the world.  Its name betrays its status as endangered in Wisconsin.  Just as in Wisconsin, many other places the common tern is in decline due to competition with humans and other birds for beaches where they nest.

Creating Common Tern Nesting Island

In Wisconsin, as of 2013 there were three locations where the Common Tern nested:  two on Lake Superior, and one in central Wisconsin on Lake Butte des Morts.  The Lake Butte des Morts colony was located on a small island specifically created for these birds by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Lake Butte des Morts Conservation Club, with funding from the Fox River Natural Resource Damage Assessment.  It was a beautifully simple, “build it and they will come” idea.  A small sandy island protected from erosion with rock riprap.  All these birds needed was a place to land free from predators, scoop out a place in the sand, lay eggs and rear fuzzy little chicks to fledge and make the migration south.  Created in the winter of 2007-2008, the island brought in nesting birds and a colony formed the very first year.

Common Tern nesting island.

Common Tern Colony on Lake Butte des Morts before vandals killed chicks and the birds abandoned the site.

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Get Down Low: Photo of the Week

Sometimes you have to get down to Nature’s level, low down, on your hands and knees to see the small beauty that lies at your feet.  Such is the case with this Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum).  The small plants usually lie hidden under water and send up tiny blooms just above the water’s surface.  This one has been exposed from several years of water, surviving in the still saturated sand it is highly visible, but only if you stoop down to look.


Blooms of Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum)

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