Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Power of Pollinators

In honor of National Pollinator Week last week, Nature Net is here for your pollination education!  

Pollination occurs when the pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) is transferred to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma). This fertilizes the plant and leads to the production of fruits and seeds!

Pollinators play an essential role in flowering plant and gymnosperm reproduction, as only about 20% of plants are pollinated without the assistance of animals -- and one out of every three bites of food is pollinated by pollinators! Without these hard-working critters, we would be without many fruits, vegetables, and nuts that we enjoy on a daily basis.  

Pollinators can be found just about everywhere during the summer months! The majority of pollinators in Wisconsin are flying insects, including bees, flies, wasps, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Hummingbirds and bats are other very important pollinators in the state.

This is what your grocery store would look like
without bees!
From: Whole Foods Market and Xerces Society
Bees are the most important local pollinators for most native     plant species.  Bees pollinate more than 100 types of crops in the US (and 2/3 the world’s crop species), including many favorites, like berries, peppers, melons, and avocados. There are over 400 native bee species that play a crucial role in pollinating Wisconsin’s food crops. Bumble bees are more effective than honey bees at pollinating highly-valued crops, because they fly at cooler temperatures, damper conditions and lower light levels, which can extend pollination by several hours daily. Bees have been disappearing in huge numbers in recent years due to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, of which scientists are just beginning to understand the cause.

Hummingbirds are another very interesting and important species. Along with being incredibly fun to observe -- they beat their wings as much as 80 times per second! -- they are also important pollinators. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only common species in the Midwest.  It is easily attracted to feeders, and quickly accustomed to human presence, so it’s very easy to entice these birds to come to your yard!

Bats are also incredibly important pollinators and seed dispersers in Wisconsin. Additionally, they are important predators of biting insects, and may be extremely important in reducing insect-borne diseases, such as the West –Nile virus, which is becoming more and more prevalent in Wisconsin.

Butterflies and moths are other very important local pollinators. Some important Wisconsin butterfly and moth species include the Viceroy, Meadow Fritillary, American Snout, Black Swallowtail, Monarch and Hummingbird Moth.

These pollinators all play an incredibly important role in maintaining biological diversity in ecosystems and food chains throughout Wisconsin. Humans and wildlife both depend on these pollinators as a food source. Unfortunately, some of these important pollinators are declining due to pesticide use, habitat destruction, invasive species, climate change and disease. However, there are many things you and your family can do to help these local pollinators continue helping you!

What you can do to help your local pollinators:

Without pollinators, we would be without so many of the things we enjoy on a daily basis. So the next time you eat an apple or have your morning cup of coffee, think of who (or what) made it possible, and thank a pollinator near you! 

If you're interested in learning more about bees, be sure to check out the UW Arboretum's event on July 19th called Bumble Bees and Pollination!  For more information, click here.

Happy Strawberry Season!
Lauren, Communications Intern

Monday, June 16, 2014

Monarch Madness

The arrival of the Monarch butterfly is an exciting phenological event that is a sure sign of summer in Wisconsin. They can be found throughout the state beginning in early May when they migrate north from Mexico and Southern California, and until the last butterflies leave in October, migrating south again for the winter. Unfortunately, this beautiful migrating species, and the migratory phenomena that they rely on are in danger. 
Monarch butterfly, Aldo Leopold Nature Center

Monarch butterflies have an important migration process that spans four generations annually. The first generation migrates north in the spring and breeds there. This generation goes through the same life cycle as the following two summer generations, which lasts 6-8 weeks. This cycle consists of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis (also called cocoon or pupa), and adult butterfly. The adult butterfly then breeds and creates the new generation. As the summer comes to an end in late August, and the fourth generation becomes an adult butterfly, migration plays a key role. Unlike its parents and grandparents, this generation does not breed and die soon after it becomes an adult butterfly. They cannot adapt to the colder temperatures and lack of moisture of northern autumn, so instead of staying in the north and laying eggs, they put their energy into migrating south, up to 2,500 miles away. There, they live for six to eight months in Mexico or Southern California, where they enter a deep sleep called torpor, which is a very long, still sleeping state similar to hibernation. When spring arrives, they breed and create the new first generation. 
The Monarch Butterfly Annual Cycle from Journey North

This span of generations and annual life cycles could not exist without
migration. However, the number of migrating monarchs has been plummeting for the last few years. There are many reasons for this decline in monarch migration. One reason is that monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. When the young caterpillars hatch, they rely on milkweed for food.  However, there has been a widespread loss of milkweed, due to deforestation, development, and farming. Global climate change has also had a significant effect on the migration patterns of monarchs, due to climate fluctuations such as extreme temperatures and precipitation events and changes in seasonal cycles.

In addition to being esthetically pleasing, monarchs are also important plant
pollinators. Therefore, they play extremely important roles in many ecosystems. They even pollinate some crops that humans rely on, such as corn. So what can you do to help stop the decline of migratory monarch butterflies and help this important and beautiful species?

As a child, I used to observe monarch butterflies undergo metamorphosis every summer. Being able to witness this natural phenomenon was a great learning experience for me, and it’s a wonderful way to teach your children about insect life cycles and the wonder of nature. It just wouldn’t be summer in Wisconsin without these beautiful butterflies!  Hopefully, with the collective efforts of citizens in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, these populations will be able to recover, so we can enjoy this unique and beautiful species for generations to come. 

Happy Summer!
Lauren, Communications Intern

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trip to The International Crane Foundation

A few weeks ago Nature Net Intern, Emma, went with her Birds of Southern Wisconsin class on a field trip to one of Nature Net's member centers, The International Crane Foundation. The International Crane Foundation has been around for approximately 40 years and does conservation work with many species of cranes, has a resident pair of each species, does education work, and much more! Their site is located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, but they are involved with organizations all over the world.

The class got an exclusive tour with one of our teaching assistants, Matt, who actually works for ICF. He gave us an overview of each species, told little anecdotes about the pairs that no one else would know, and outlined any cultural significance the species may have. Many of these cranes are pictured in their culture's stories and illustrations. You can find out more about each of the species by clicking the links below, which will take you to the ICF species pages. 

Black Crowned Crane
Black-necked Crane
Blue Crane
Female (left) and Male (right) Sandhill Crane at
the Aldo Leopold Nature Center
Demoiselle Crane
Eurasian Crane
Grey Crowned Crane
Hooded Crane
Red-crowned Crane
Sandhill Crane
Sarus Crane
Siberian Crane
Wattled Crane
White-naped Crane
Whooping Crane

The two types of Cranes we have in Wisconsin are Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. While Sandhill Cranes were once endangered, they are now plentiful and inhabit Wisconsin between the months of March and October. In fact, they are the must abundant species of crane in the world. You have likely seen or heard these beautiful birds near your home. Pairs will frequently use the same site for nesting year after year, and the Aldo Leopold Nature Center has a resident pair of its own! If you have noticed cranes in the same area many years in a row, it could be the same pair; they know that that area has allowed them to safely raise their chick(s), and trust it to be safe in the future.

Whooping Crane on Nest, ICF
Perhaps the most amazing story was of the Whooping Cranes. I had heard of this species, but never seen them, and there's a good reason for this. In the 1940s, the species was decimated to 21 individuals in the wild. With the help of ICF, though, it now numbers almost 600 birds (both captive and wild). Conservationists have used "costume rearing" to help raise Whooping Crane chicks, in which volunteers put on a crane costume and used a hand puppet to feed the chicks to keep them from imprinting on humans. Teaching the first group to migrate was a bit more difficult: they used an ultra-light plane and flew with a flock to Florida! You can find out more about this process on their species page. ICF has a beautiful "theater" for their Whooping Crane exhibit. There's a little wetland area with a pair of cranes and their nest, all located in front of a seating area with information on the cranes.
Whooping Cranes, ICF

Many of the cranes are quite vocal individuals, and throughout the morning we heard them calling. What's interesting about cranes (and some other species of birds, as well) is that they do what is called a "unison call." This involves both the male and female calling at once. The pitches of their voices are different, and the combination of the two creates a cool, unique sound.

If you're looking for something fun and educational to do this summer, why not go to Baraboo, and see all 15 of the world's crane species in one day! For hours, directions, and prices, click here.

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern

Friday, May 9, 2014

Technical Difficulties - Missing Blog Photos

We are experiencing technical difficulties with our photo files disappearing from our Google account. We are working to recover this and apologize for the inconvenience!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Finches, Sparrows, and Their Allies--Birding Adventure, Week 6

Sparrows are difficult to tell apart, which is often why they get lumped into one big group. However, there are many different types of them and once you can identify their distinguishing characteristics, sparrows are a bit easier to differentiate between. It will make spotting a Chipping Sparrow that much more exciting, instead of dismissing it as "just another House Sparrow."
A female (left) and male (right)
House Sparrow

Speaking of House Sparrows, they're a great place to start this week. These little birds are ubiquitous in urban areas. They were actually introduced by the American Acclimatization Society around the 1850s because a member of the society happened to love Shakespeare and decided to introduce each avian species he mentions in his plays to America. That's why we have birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings; they do very well here, but they are not native. The House Sparrow is actually not related to native North American sparrows at all. Its body type is "chunkier" and its head is usually larger. These are good birds to practice your identification skills on, but if you go out to the woods, you will not find them--they like urban areas best and generally need humans to survive.If you live in a city, though, you can definitely look out your window and see some! The male has a black chin and chest with a darker "chestnut" brown back and eye stripe and a grey crown. The female has a buffy chest with a mottled brown back.
Here's that bird topography map again,
just for your reference

We in North America have a number of native sparrows that you are likely to see if you venture just a short ways away from urban life. In order to identify these natives, I think it is important to talk about what ornithologists refer to as "field marks." A field mark is a characteristic that is distinguishable in the field and can help you to correctly identify a species. Remember when we talked about bird topography a few weeks ago? Well, this is where it comes in especially handy. Many of these little sparrows have one or two field marks by which they can clearly be identified, and it is easier to explain those field marks if you have a general knowledge of bird topography. For our class, we used a "dichotomous key" to learn the different sparrows, which was really helpful. It divided them by those with rusty-red colored crowns, black-and-white striped crown, or a streaked/striped crown. Some sparrows have yellow just above their eyes, some have very streaky chests, and others have spots on their chests. These are all little characteristics that will help you determine which type of sparrow you are looking at.

1. Swamp Sparrow
2. Chipping Sparrow
3. Field Sparrow
4. Lark Sparrow
5. American Tree Sparrow
6. Fox Sparrow
7. Grasshopper Sparrow
8. Clay-colored Sparrow
9. White-crowned Sparrow
10. White-throated Sparrow
11. Vesper Sparrow
12. Savannah Sparrow
13. Lincoln's Sparrow
14. Song Sparrow

Passeriformes: Emberizidae
Eastern Towhee
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco

Passeriformes: Fringillidae
House Finch
Purple Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

Passeriformes: Passeridae
House Sparrow

Passeriformes: Calcariidae
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting

Most recently in our birding lab, we have seen Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrows hopping about. These little guys are coming back and more are on their way, so get outside and test your identification skills! The links to the birds, as always, provide pictures, characteristics, and calls. Enjoy this beautiful weather with a pair of binoculars and a field guide!

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ancient Assemblages of Birds: Rails, Herons, Cranes, and Landfowl--Birding Adventure, Week 5

Wisconsin finally seems to have decided that spring is on its way, and with spring will come some pretty amazing and wildly-colored rails, herons, cranes, and other landfowl. Some landfowl do stay in Wisconsin for the winter, such as Ring-necked Pheasants and Wild Turkeys, and American Coots, but most others in this week's list migrate to places with more open water.

Great Blue Heron
A few weeks ago, our morning birding group was down by a little spot of open water off of Lake Wingra in the UW Arboretum and we saw a Great Blue Heron flying overhead. It was snowing and cold and we were baffled--Great Blue Herons usually fly south where there is more open water because they feed on fish and small amphibians. It was early February when we saw it, so what was more amazing than the fact that it had stayed for the winter was the fact that it had survived the winter. Maybe it just came back early, but no matter the situation, that is one hearty bird! What do you think it was surviving on? We were hypothesizing all morning.

When it warms up a bit more, the rails will start arriving. Have you ever heard the expression, "As thin as a rail?" That actually comes from the members of the family Rallidae, not from a rail on a staircase. If you check out some of the rails' All About Birds pages, they may seem rather plump if you look at them head on. However, when they turn to the side, they're quite skinny; this makes it easier for them to weave through the reeds, as they are mostly marsh-dwellers and moving through their habitat quickly and quietly helps them catch their prey.

Galliformes: Odontophoridae

Northern Bobwhite

Galliformes: Phasianidae
Gray Partridge
Ring-necked Pheasant

Galliformes: Phasianidae (Tetraoninae)
Ruffed Grouse

Galliformes: Phasianidae (Meleagridinae)
Wild turkey

Suliformes: Phalacrocoracidae
Double-crested Cormorant

Pelecaniformes: Pelecanidae
American White Pelican

Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae
American Bittern
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron

Gruiformes: Rallidae
Virginia Rail
Common Gallinule
American Coot

Gruiformes: Gruidae
Sandhill Crane
Whooping Crane

Columbiformes: Columbidae
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove

Some of this week's birds have some very interesting calls. My two favorites are probably those of the Sora and American Bittern. The Sora sounds like it is saying its name: "Sor-ah! Sor-ah!" The American Bittern, however, sounds like water being slowly poured out of a jug. It is important to learn the calls because you will often hear these birds before you see them. Many have very camouflaged plumage and are good at staying hidden, but if you hear them, you'll have a better idea of where to start looking--that is, when the ice finally melts!

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mixed Winter Flocks and More--Birding Adventure, Week 4

In the winter months, birds often gather into large, mixed-species flocks. When you think about it, it's not such a bad idea! They can keep one another warm, find food together, and protect one another from predators (like the birds of prey discussed in the last blog). Many of these birds are repeats from the first week of class because common winter birds are often found in mixed flocks. Let's take a look at some of the ones we haven't discussed yet!

Belted Kingfisher
The Belted Kingfisher is on the list for this week, thought it is not a winter bird. These awesome creatures make their nests in the banks near bodies of water and fish (as their name suggests) on lakes, ponds, and rivers, so when the ground freezes and the lakes ice up, they have to migrate. They're still pretty amazing, though, and if you learn them now you'll be able to spot them right away when they get back in the spring. Often, I hear them before I see them; their call is a really neat rattle that is very distinctive.

The other birds that are new on the list this week include the
Northern Flicker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flicker. These are both types of woodpeckers that will be coming back very soon! The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker looks almost like a Hairy Woodpecker, but it has more red on its head and a yellow wash on its belly. The Northern Flicker, however, has a black "bib" below its chin and polka-dots on its chest and belly.

My very favorite of this bunch has to be the Pileated Woodpecker. It is one of the largest, most iconic forest birds in North America, and while it is not endangered, it can still be difficult to find. We went out to the UW Arboretum to go birding as a class for the first time this semester earlier this month. It was snowing the whole time and the temperature was around -5 degrees, but we found a patch of open water. Not only did we see a Great Blue Heron (which usually migrate south in the winter), but we got a good look at a Pileated Woodpecker! It was our first time out, and already I was able to see one of my "life birds." A "life bird" is a species that you have not yet seen in your life. Most birders keep a running list of all the species they have seen and what they most want to see, and now I can add the Pileated Woodpecker to my life list!

Pileated Woodpecker

Coraciiformes: Alcedinidae
Belted Kingfisher

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker

Passeriformes: Corvidae
Blue Jay
American Crow

Passeriformes: Paridae
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse

Passeriformes: Sittidae
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Passeriformes: Certhiidae
Brown Creeper  

As usual, the list of birds for this week and links to their informational pages can be found above. Start looking for woodpeckers in your back yard--Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are especially common, and I have seen quite a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers lately.

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern