West Bay Cane Bed Flight

The West Bay Cane Beds in Lake Poygan have been in decline for decades, but the last decade has been particularly unkind.  The beds are rapidly eroding from wave and ice action.  The beds are now so small that a hand full of muskrat families are eating much of what remains.

I flew a small drone over the vegetation to document its current sad condition and to compare with some past air photos.

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What is a Forb?

A Forb is a herbaceous or non-woody plant that is not a grass, sedge or rush (graminoids), so practically all wildflowers fall into that category.  “Wildflower” is a loose term in itself, and could be said to include roses, which are a woody plant.  Some times we throw terms around without even thinking, and eventually they come to mean multiple things, or the definition becomes fuzzy, hopefully this little post clears up the definition.

Forbs in a sedge meadow

Forbs such as goldenrods, thistles ares surrounded by Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta) a non-forb.


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Mouse Tunnels in the Snow

Winter finally showed up and dropped a little snow, but the temperatures fell much harder.  For the last several days the temperature has dipped below freezing, so what little snow we got is going to stay with us for awhile.  I had complained about the brown world last week, but now I must humbly deal with the cold.  Its not too bad without the wind, but lately its has dropped the temperature to twenty or more below zero, with the wind chill.  I ventured out yesterday, just outside of town, to feel the wind bite my face and look at the winter world.

Snow Tunnel

The raised and broken snow mark the tunnel of a small furry creature, perhaps a mouse or shrew.

In many places I found the tracks of small mammals, I couldn’t quite tell if they were shrews or mice.  In addition to the tracks the small furry guys make tunnels in the snow to find food and protect themselves.   Something that I have always found odd is that snow is an insulator.  It keeps animals relatively warm compared to the outside world.  It also blocks that heat robbing wind, so small animals which cool off faster due to their surface area to mass ratio, can take full advantage of the snow.

Tracks in the snow left by a mouse or shrew

Tracks made in the snow by some small mammal, and the wind blowing a blade of grass.

Snow must make it hard for mice and shrews to find food, but it also makes them less likely to become food, because the snow masks their movements.  When the snow is shallow you can the surface of the snow move up, but when it is deep there is no telling by sight that a mouse is moving below the snow.  The snow acts not only insulation from the cold, it dampens the sound of their movements and activities too.  Still many predators have very good hearing and owls sit quietly waiting for the sound of scurrying and feeding beneath the snow.  The snow makes pinpointing a target difficult for predators, but foxes, coyotes, and of course snowy owls seem to manage just fine.

The tunnels themselves are not safe havens either.  Small weasels in their ermine white winter coats follow the tunnels looking for their makers.  At the same time the weasels too enjoy keeping out of sight from the hawks and owls over head.

In spring, just after the snow melts you can see the remains of well used tunnels as the grass in leaves have been moved aside in seemingly random, winding patterns.  The furry mammals are again exposed to the wind, rain and claws and teeth from above.  I wonder if they enjoy their time under the snow, and miss it when the wold thaws.

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One Photo Per Day

In order to improve my photography skills I decided to do one of those self-imposed one photo per day challenges.  Images are posted on my photography blog gallery.  To kick off on this first day of the new year, and also to get outside.  I headed over to Lake Winnebago, and observe winter’s arrival.  The only real snow we have gotten this winter technically occurred in fall, in early November, and that has long since melted.  Just last week I saw some people fishing from a boat on the Fox River in Oshkosh.   The river was completely open.   A recent cold snap has frozen 90% of the river and left some thick ice on much of Miller’s Bay on Lake Winnebago, even though parts of the lake are still open.

A basswood leaf frozen into the ice of Lake Winnebago.  See more photos from my photo a day challenge.

A basswood leaf frozen into the ice of Lake Winnebago. See more photos from my photo a day challenge.

At the lake on the thicker, safer ice I found some leaves frozen in the ice, as well as interesting patterns made by bubbles and cracks, and took my first photo for the challenge.   I brought my daughter along to enjoy the ice as well.  We spent some time sliding around.  The winds and lack of snow made the sliding fun, but there was also a thin film of dirt on the ice, which made us pretty dirty.  Perhaps I’ll head out again tomorrow.


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Waiting for Winter

On this day after the Winter Solstice I sit waiting for winter weather to begin, specifically snow and ice.   I am mostly looking forward to snow to cover the brown world.  I would also like to get out the skies and snowshoes and head out into the marshes, swamps, and all the uplands.  We had a couple of inches last month, but it has melted and nothing has taken its place.

There is ice on many of the lakes, but it is too thick for me to venture out.  I like to wait until it is thick enough for trucks go out.  Ice levels the playing field for the economic classes. You don’t need the investment of a boat to go out on the lake, only some boots.  Just be careful out there.

I’m also looking forward to some clear skies so I can go out at night and look up at the stars, which are not easy to observe from my house in the city.

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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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