Friday, August 31, 2007

Wild Rice

Nature Watch
August 31, 2007

By Susan Benson
Director of Education
Cable Natural History Museum

As summer winds to a close, hunters may be thinking of upcoming game seasons, but gatherers are equally anxious. Of special significance this time of year is the wild rice harvest.

Wild rice is an annual aquatic grass whose nutritious seeds serve as valuable food for waterfowl. The plants themselves provide roosting and resting areas to adult waterfowl and protective cover for young birds. Wild rice also provides habitat for snails, insects, and mammals, adding to the biological diversity of the wetlands where it is found. In addition, wild rice helps maintain water quality by binding loose soils, tying up nutrients and slowing winds across shallow wetlands. These factors can increase water clarity and reduce algae blooms.

But wildlife and water quality are not the only beneficiaries of wild rice—this plant has long been a staple food for Native Americans and early European explorers of the region. To the Ojibwa, the plant is called manoomin, a term derived from “Manitou,” meaning Great Spirit and “meenum,” meaning delicacy.

Today’s wild rice harvest methods remain similar to those used for centuries. The ripe grain is harvested from canoes or small boats with the use of smooth, wooden sticks. Generally, two people gather rice as a team; one moves the canoe through the rice bed using a long push-pole while the other uses the sticks to “knock” the grain from the plant seed heads into the boat.

If you’ve never tried ricing before, be sure to check with the DNR to see when the season is open, and to check if you need a license for the area in which you wish to rice. Wild rice flourishes best in shallow, flowing water such as rivers and flowages, and in the lakes that have an inlet and outlet. Even if you have no interest in ricing, rice beds are worth watching for the number of animals they attract.

Another botanical sign of late summer is, for some people, the onset of hayfever or the “summer cold.” It’s not really a cold, but rather a reaction to the pollen of ragweeds, whose small green flowers unleash huge amounts of pollen from late summer to early fall. Goldenrod is often blamed for the hayfever, but it is innocent of the charge. Because it is tall with large clusters of bright yellow flowers, and flourishes at the peak of the hayfever season, goldenrod often takes the undeserved blame for our sneezing and runny noses.

Through early fall, listen for the chirping calls of crickets and cicadas. Crickets make their songs by rubbing a sharp ridge on one wing against a rough spot on the other. As the cricket rubs, its wings start to vibrate, creating the sound. Cold-blooded field crickets need heat to warm up their instrumental wings. That’s why we hear their singing in late afternoons or early evenings in summer and early fall.

Male cicadas make their pulsating, high-pitched buzz to attract mates from high in the hardwood trees. But by the end of September, after they’ve mated and laid their eggs, the adult cicadas die.

Cicadas spend most of their life underground. Born in trees, young cicadas drop to the earth after they hatch and tunnel into the soil. They feed on root sap for 13 to17 years until they emerge from their dark burrows. In adult form, these insects can’t eat—they don’t even have mouths! Adult cicadas live only as long as it takes to mate and lay eggs.

Now, a warning: boxelder bugs may have a huge population explosion this fall. These insects flourish on 10-year cycles, and we’re now in the most active part of their reproductive cycle. Boxelder bugs are mostly black with red lines decorating their backs. Though they are not harmful, they can be a nuisance as they seek shelter in protected places, such as cracks or crevices in walls, doors, under windows and around foundations.

Become a phenologist! Next to spring, late summer through early fall is the most active times of year in terms of natural changes due to weather and season. As you think ahead and prepare for the coming fall, take note of how plants and animals around you do the same.

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Late Summer

Nature Watch
August 23, 2007

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

While gardeners are busy harvesting green beans, sweet corn, zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, seasonal changes in nature are occurring all around. A bumper crop of acorns is falling right now, and squirrels can be seen in a frantic scurry to collect them. We can also find small piles of broken and chewed pine cone bracts as squirrels have eaten the pine seeds and left the remains behind.

Even more fascinating is what occurs in the bird world this time of year. During these late summer days, migratory birds have been feeding heavily, increasing their body weight sometimes by as much as 100 percent as they store fat and protein. They are able to eat more food because their digestive organs actually increase in size (those that do not feed during migration actually shrink.) The birds’ reproductive organs actually atrophy and shrink as hormone levels fall with decreasing daylight. Flight muscles, heart, and lungs also increase in size.

Flocks of birds, especially red-winged blackbirds, are flying about in extremely large groups. The first nighthawks have been spotted flying through the evening sky. Crows and blue jays can be seen migrating in flocks of up to 200 birds. Grackles and robins are moving through, flying fast and straight through the sky. Migrating birds of prey can be seen circling on thermals, large bubbles of warm air rising in the sky. Migrating flickers fly through in swooping flight and sun themselves on roadsides.

Adult loons begin flying south in late August and early September. Chicks stay on the nesting lakes, feeding and taking their first test flights, until nearly ice-over. One day, they start running across the water, take flight, and head south, where they will stay for the next three years. Most loon chicks will eventually return to their original nesting lake or find one nearby. Some loons do not establish their nesting territory until they are five years old.

We are beginning to see geese and some ducks flying in a regular V-shaped formation. One theory as to why they fly in this v-shape is that all birds except the one in the lead can gain lift from the wing-tip angles produced by the bird in front of them. According to scientists, the most efficient flight would include a one-fourth wingspan distance from the bird in front of it. However, motion pictures of flocks in flight show that Canada geese do not travel in these types of formations. Some scientists believe that the formations geese do use enable the birds to maintain visual contact and avoid possible mid-air collisions.

Become a phenologist! Keep your eyes open for migrating birds. Try counting them as they move through and track the date and numbers you observe. To get a good count, try counting as many as you can in a short time (before they are out of sight), and then estimate what fraction of the flock you have counted and multiply.

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Nature Watch
August 16, 2007

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

What do Carolus Linnaeus, Aldo Leopold, and Henry Thoreau have in common?
They all studied and recorded phenology, the practice of tracking changes in nature through the seasons. Like the farmers of old, some use phenology to make decisions on when to plant or harvest crops. By recording the annual date of the migrating red-winged blackbirds in my backyard, I know when to look for them each year. As a gardener I know when to begin looking for the first fall frost. I also can make unexpected observations—for example, watching the 13-lined ground squirrel in the yard being repeatedly hassled by the nearby hummingbird, simply for moving a few inches! Or perhaps while walking down the road, we might glance at a monarch depositing the last eggs of the season.
Noticing those small “bugs,” mostly black with red lines on their backs? If a boxelder tree is planted nearby, neighbors might be experiencing an explosion of boxelder bugs. These insect populations grow exponentially during years seven through ten of a ten-year cycle. This year is number eight. These bugs eat other plants as well, and seek shelter in protected places, such as cracks and crevices in walls, doors, windows, or foundations. They seem to favor south and west exposures.

The avian world is now free from the challenging parental duties of establishing nesting territories, singing, building nests, incubating eggs, and feeding growing chicks. Many adult migratory birds now are molting their breeding plumages. Molting occurs in response to a mixture of hormonal changes brought about by seasonal changes. Feathers take special care, but in spite of preening, dusting, bathing, or other feather care, the feathers still wear out. Older feathers loosen in the sockets (follicles) by the growth of new feathers. Feathers that need to migrate long distances wear more rapidly than those of resident birds.

Many ducks and grebes change their feathers all at once in a period lasting from two weeks to a month. New feathers are necessary to keep the birds’ flying ability intact and strong. Birds such as chickadees, hawks, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds only molt once a year, maintaining the same colors. Resident birds require more insulating feathers and their winter plumage may contain more than twice as many feathers as their summer plumage.
While enjoying the blooming goldenrod, watch for a round lump on the stems of many goldenrod plants. This lump is produced by the activity of the goldenrod gall fly, whose larvae will spend the winter well-hidden and surrounded by food within the goldenrod stem. During the summer the female adult fly lays an egg on the stem; the egg hatches and the larvae chews its way into the stem, where the movement irritates the plant, which responds by making extra thick layers of plant tissue around the larvae. In the fall, the larvae will form an exit tunnel that ends close to the outer stem, and then returns to the center for the winter. In spring it will pupate and later emerge in late May or early June.
Out for a walk in the woods? Asters are blooming, especially the large-leafed aster, a purple/blue flower known as the lumberjack’s friend—when in need, the leaves can be used as toilet paper. Daisy Fleabane, a small daisy-like flower, also is blooming. This plant is beneficial to bees, which collect the pollen or suck nectar; to beetles who feed on pollen; and to many other butterflies, flies, wasps, and plant bugs. Red maples have been showing some touches of color, possibly due to stress brought on by this year’s drought conditions.

Become a phenologist! Watch for the changing plumage of our migratory birds, or the V of a flock of geese. Look closely at a daisy fleabane to see what insects might be hanging about. Look for your own signs that fall may be approaching.

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Things Happening in Summer

Nature Watch
August 9, 2007

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Can you believe this hot weather, again? Do we really have to go another day without rain? It is observing life’s cycles that makes life so interesting, and a great topic of conversation as well. As we look around in nature, we see other signs foretelling of other upcoming climatic events. The nests of the bald-faced hornet, the world’s best paper makers, are growing layer-by-layer seen as gray masses up in trees. Acorns will be falling from the trees to provide meals for black bears, wood ducks, deer, and turkeys. Believe it or not, some birds are already beginning to migrate south.

Some male ruby-throated hummingbirds begin migrating south as early as July, while the juvenile may not leave until November. Some warblers, shorebirds, and nighthawks have begun migrating south. Common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and geese are now gathering together in large flocks.

Keep an eye out for northern flickers along roadsides as they are foraging for ants. This bird species eats more ants than any other bird species in North America. Flickers are known for their behavior called “anting” in which flickers allow ants to crawl up on their wings. There are different theories as to why this happens: one is that the ants’ formic acid is used as a fungicide or insecticide against feather or skin parasites or fungus. Another speculation is that anting is a comfort activity that stimulates the skin during a summer molt.

If you have any fruit trees in your back yard, look for bird visitors to those trees. If you have a black cherry (Prunus serotina) there are at least 47 species who eat the fruit, including the northern flicker, rose-breasted grosbeak, and white-throated sparrow. Pin cherries attract eastern bluebirds along with many other bird species. Red elderberry fruit is fed on by scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, American robins, and rose-breasted grosbeaks.
Jewelweed, which is blooming right now, has orange-yellow flowers which resemble miniature cornucopias, and hang from flexible stems. Researchers believe that the flexible stems could be a mechanism for hummingbird flower pollination. When the hummer feeds, the spring-like stem pulls the flower forward, putting pollen on the bird’s upper bill. Be sure to check back soon after jewelweed has finished blooming, because when the “touch-me-not” seeds have ripened, simply touching the bulging seed pod will bring about an exciting explosion almost quicker than the eye.
When finished finding the jewelweed in your nearest wet marshy area, be sure to put on the calendar the upcoming fantastic display of natural fireworks, the Perseid meteor shower. With a dark sky from the new moon on Sunday, August 12, there will be little moonlight, making this year’s meteor show a great one, possible one or two per minute during the shower’s peak. The show begins at 10:00 p.m. By 2:00 a.m. Monday morning it is possible that there might be dozens crossing the sky an hour. The source of this shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle, whose tail intersects Earth’s orbit every year in August. Tiny bits of comet dust hit our atmosphere making a vivid streak through the night sky.

Become a phenologist! Changes in sunlight are driving our seasonal changes, and plants and animals around the globe respond in a fascinating myriad of ways. Watch how our seasons affect the web of life. Get out an enjoy them – grab a chair and blanket and find the nearest field or clearing for the perseids, or hike through a nearby trail!

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

More Summer

Nature Watch
August 2, 2007

By Sue Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Did you know that the first known written phenology records date back to 974 B.C. in China, or that the Japanese have records of the peak cherry blooms for the past 1,200 years? Phenology continues to provide joy to many people as they study the life cycles of plants and animals as they respond to seasonal changes.
Looking out towards the roadsides brings a splash of beautiful colors this time of year. If it is yellow that greets the eye, it could be early goldenrod or a number of other flowers. Goldenrod typically grows from knee- to waist-high, and can be identified by small yellow flowers located in pyramid-shaped clusters at the top the leafy stems. Tansy grows 3-4 feet tall, with heavily cut leaves, and a disc of smaller flowers that look like bright yellow buttons; this plant was brought from Europe because it was used in windows to keep flies away. Common mullein is a tall yellow spike with soft, hairy leaves at the base of the stem.
Shades of lavender also flash from the roadsides, and start with the very edge of the roads with short, fuzzy, fur-like flowers called rabbit’s foot clover, named for their resemblance to rabbits’ paws. Blazing stars are slender, spike-like plants that can grow up to 5 feet tall. They have grass-like leaves and hairy stems. Wild bergamot is lavender with firecracker-looking flowers and square, grooved stems, about 3 feet high. This plant is in the mint family and is used to make tea, is noted for its fragrance, and is used as an oil.
Joe-pye weed is a member of the aster family, and has purple flowers on the head and a purple spotted stem. This plant is often found in wet meadows or shallow marshes. Another lavender flower with a short tuft of flowers is spotted knapweed, an introduced, invasive species that can quickly take over fields and roadsides with its production of over 1000 seeds per plant.
Looking into the bird world this time of year, we will often find loon chicks diving and catching food on their own. Their wings are becoming more developed as they exercise them more. Adult loons will often leave the chicks and form pre-migratory flocks in early August. Mourning doves can be working on their third clutch of eggs for the season.
How do hot summer temperatures affect our waterways? According to Senior Fisheries Biologist Frank Pratt of the Hayward DNR, the Namekagon River currently is experiencing one-third less flow than average—the lowest on record. Surface temperatures for many area lakes are running 75-79 degrees F right now. Temperature data from a USGS gauge at Leonard's Spur in Hayward shows that on 90+ air temperature days, the water is at 67-69 F in early morning hours and rises to 77-80 F in late afternoon/early evening.
When air temperatures are in the mid-70s to mid-80s the water temperature cycle is more like 59-64 F at the low end and 74-78 F at the high end. Pratt stated, “For most species except trout, cisco, whitefish, and northern pike, these temps (70-80) are good for growth and survival. That’s why we call species like musky, bass, bluegill etc. "warm-water" species. The former group would be what we call "cold-water" or "cool-water" species. They seek out cooler water (<70) href=""> to learn more about exhibits and programs.