Wild Side: Migration season is here
Look up, look down, look around. Depending on who you are, that phrase may mean something to you. You may be thinking of a song you know-or maybe a children’s book. If you are a Wildland Fire Fighter, you know it as a safety refresher course.
Looking up, down, and around is a way of being aware of what is going on all around you. I have learned that I see a lot more in the world of wildlife when I look up, down, and all around.
Take the last week of August for example. I was sitting in a meeting in a second story conference room on a Monday afternoon. Across the table from me were several large windows, giving me a nice view of Rhinelander rooftops. Above the rooftops appeared birds, which I soon determined to be common nighthawks. The nighthawks kept coming, circling over the city, zipping in and out of view. I tried to count them, but I couldn’t; there had to have been a couple hundred birds. I nudged the warden, who was sitting next to me, and told him to look out the window at the birds.
This is a migratory event, where flocks of nighthawks, called kettles, prepare for and begin their migration southward. That week there were reports of massive nighthawk kettles all across Wisconsin. Nighthawks are a pretty secretive bird, normally active at dusk or early evening, so you have to be looking for them to see them. During this migration, they were out at suppertime, so if you looked up, you saw them.
Another migratory bird that evades detection unless you are looking up is the chimney swift. Swifts are related to birds like swallows and purple martins, and they are given their name because they build their nests in chimneys. In fact, they cannot land on a wire or branch to perch like other birds; they have to hang from a vertical surface, like the inside of a chimney. They are small, dark, fast moving birds with a very swift wingbeat; they look a bit like a cigar with wings, or a flapping torpedo. This is the bird I that people most often seem to confuse with bats; rightly so, given their roosting habits, their feeding on insects at dusk, and their high-pitched chattering call.
These birds are in decline across the country, considered near threatened. Before there were chimneys, birds hung inside hollow trees, which are less common today given modern forestry practices. The construction of chimneys for fireplaces and furnaces suited the birds well, until the recent developments in high efficiency furnaces and pellet stoves which do not need stone or brick chimneys. The change in modern construction techniques, including caps or guards on chimneys, has apparently led to a decline in these birds. If you look up, in southwest Rhinelander, we have an impressive chimney swift population. They are apparently occupying the large square chimney of a vacant school building. These birds are impressive to watch, if you look up to see them.
Looking down can yield similar rewards, especially when wandering around the Northwoods. I can’t tell you how many times I spotted the occasional shed snakeskin, or porcupine skull, or grouse nest right under foot. The plants that cover the ground can tell you stories about the soil, the sunlight, and the wildlife. You will see animal droppings and animal tracks that reveal different animals and the activities they undertake. My boys are shorter than I am, and they see even more than me; plus, they are amazed at pretty rocks, or twisted sticks that look like Harry Potter’s wand.
Look up, look down, look around. There is a lot to see, a lot to learn, and a lot to appreciate in the natural world around us.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.