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 are surrounded by Tussock sedge (Carex stricta) a non-forb.

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Mouse Tunnels in the Snow

Small Snow Tunnel

Fresh tunnels in the snow, made by small mammals.

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.  It’s not too bad without the wind, but lately its has dropped the temperature to twenty or more degrees 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.  I always feel a little more alive in bitter cold, but as like having central heat to return home to.

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 from the cold and predators.   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 of small mammals

Tracks in the snow of small mammals

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 world thaws.

Shrew or Mouse Tracks in Snow

In the fresh snow I found the racks and tunnels of many small mammals. These belong either to a shrew or mouse.

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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 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.

Green Heron

A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) stalking fish on a log.

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

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.

Northern Shrike Stores Food

Shrikes are famous for storing their food by spearing it on the long thorns of some trees and shrubs. At least on Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) in this area has found that cattails (Typha sp.) make a good place to store food. While walking through this wetland one winter I notice three shrews, like this northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) stuffed between the cattail’s stem and leaves.

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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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 on Wild Rice

Red-Winged Blackbirds on 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’ 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.

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.

Rat River Bridge

End of the road at a bridge crossing the Rat River

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Boardwalk Through Wetlands

Boardwalk Through Tamarack Swamp

Boardwalk through a tamarack swamp in northern Wisconsin

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.

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 bog.  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.

Bog Boardwalk

Panoramic view of a northern bog lake and a boardwalk that allows for easier travel for fisherman and hikers to walk to the lake.

Broken Boardwalk

A boardwalk destroyed by soft soil and frost heaving.

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.

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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.

Foggy Lake Sunrise

Misty summer morning on a Northern Wisconsin Lake.

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Lake Poygan Blue-green Algae Bloom

Algae in a bottle

The water in this bottle contains millions of algae cells, from an algae bloom. Most of them are blue-green algae.

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.

Lake Poygan Boaters

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

Why was the Algae Bloom Bad?


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

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.

Continue reading

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Wood Turtle Road Crossing: Photo of the Week

The wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is a long-lived species that primarily lives in river bottoms, frequenting both the streams and surrounding areas.  The wood turtle is omnivorous its diet consisting mostly plants, but also slow moving animal prey.

Wood Turtle on Road

Helping a wood turtle across a highway in the UP of Michigan. Fatalities from cars are one of the main causes of turtle mortality.

The species takes a long time to reach sexual maturity 14-18 years and does not lay many eggs (3-18).  This low level of reproduction and high nest predation often by over populated omnivores such as raccoons means the chance that any one nesting will produce offspring to adulthood is very low.  This probably was not much of a problem before advent of cars which kill adult turtles as they travel daily and especially females during the nesting season.  Adding to the turtles trouble is habitat destruction, from agriculture, and expanding cities, and the building of houses and lawns near streams.

For these reasons the wood turtle is listed as endangered, threatened, or protected in much of its range.  In Wisconsin, for example, it is listed as threatened and the Michigan turtle in the photo is a protected species.

I found the turtle in the photograph on a bridge, and seemingly have a hard time figuring out how to cross.  I would imagine turtles are near-sighted and the concrete wall of the bridge seemed never ending on either side.  I crossed the bridge, put on my hazard lights, parked the car, picked up the turtle, took a quick photo and walked it down to the stream below.  The turtle was much heavy than it looked when compared to painted turtles.

Not long after I found a common snapping turtle laying her eggs about a half inch from the asphalt on the shoulder of the same highway.  I did not try and help her find a more suitable nesting location.  If you are the kind of person that helps turtles across the road be very, very careful to avoid cars, not to mention the claws and snapping mouths of the turtles.

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