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MADISON – Wisconsin’s wildlife and plant species yielded some of the most spectacular photos and stories in 2012, from an exceptional irruption of snowy owls, to a 1-in-a million albino bat found in February, to a bald eagle nursed back to health after winding up in the grille of an oncoming truck while diving for roadkill.
Here are the Wisconsin images and stories that made 2012 a notable year, in addition to celebrating the 40th anniversary of the state law that protects endangered species.
These Top 10 selections reflect those photos and stories that came to the attention of Department of Natural Resources communications staff and is decidedly not a scientific survey. If there’s a notable story or photo missing, please share it on DNR’s Facebook page and add it to the conversation. www.facebook.com/WIDNR.
- Snowy owls fly into record books: Snowy owls staged a massive “irruption” into Wisconsin and more than 30 other states (including Hawaii!) during winter 2011-2012. The owls spend summers on the treeless tundra north of the Arctic Circle and in most years only migrate south to winter in southern Canada, appearing in Wisconsin and the Midwest only in small numbers annually. However, last winter Wisconsin bird watchers reported more than 700 sightings of 200+ snowy owls to Wisconsin eBird’s online database, says Ryan Brady, a DNR research scientist in Ashland. No one knows for sure but these irruptions are usually caused by a widespread crash in lemming populations – the owl’s primary prey – across Canada. It may take a few years for these populations to rebound. Consequently, owls are again on the move in winter 2012-2013 with approximately 35 snowy owls already reported in Wisconsin, mostly along the shores of Lakes Superior and Michigan. This year’s flight won’t match that of last year but it will be better than average, says Brady, who has posted photos he took of snowy owl catching and eating an American toad Nov. 21 at the Ashland airport.
- Rare albino bat found: Wisconsin bat scientists found the rare 1 in 1 million albino bat while searching more than 100 caves and mines in winter 2012 for signs of the deadly bat disease white nose syndrome. Good news: no sign of the disease was found, although the fungus that causes the disease was detected in an Iowa cave about 30 miles from Wisconsin. The bat, a male little brown bat, was hibernating in a cluster of about 30 other bats. Two other albino bats were found hibernating in a different Wisconsin mine in 2010.
- 240-pound sturgeon cruises Lake Winnebago system: State fisheries crews netted a 240-pound, 7-foot 3-inch lake sturgeon on April 10 during surveys on the Wolf River near Shawano. It’s the biggest sturgeon captured during Wisconsin’s half-century of surveys on Lake Winnebago, and would have been considerably heavier had it not already dropped most of an estimated 30 to 80 pounds of eggs it was carrying before spawning. The fish is considerably bigger than the biggest fish harvested in recent times, a 212- pound sturgeon taken by Ron Grishaber in 2010 in the lake sturgeon spearing season on the Lake Winnebago System. “There are other fish like the one we caught Tuesday out there on the Winnebago system,” says Ron Bruch, longtime sturgeon fisheries biologist in Oshkosh. “We’ve seen them but we haven’t been able to get our nets on them. And she wasn’t the only big one we saw this spring.”
- Dickcissels arrive in unprecedented numbers: In summer 2012, Wisconsin experienced an unprecedented invasion of dickcissels, (exit DNR) a grassland bird named for its song. Resembling a sparrow-like meadowlark, this species is a fairly common summer resident in prairies, meadows and weedy fields in the southern half of Wisconsin, only occasionally reaching large open areas in northern Wisconsin. However, this summer, extensive drought throughout their typical breeding areas in the southern and central U.S. forced large numbers northward. Remarkably, dickcissels were documented in all 72 counties in Wisconsin. Not only were Dickcissels farther north than normal, but dense concentrations resulted in what birders called “eye-popping record-high counts” in numerous counties and the state as a whole.
- Record warmth brings early winged arrivals: Record high temperatures in mid-March in Wisconsin and much of the country brought early migration and emergence of many winged species. Thirty-eight butterfly species arrived early, according to wisconsinbutterflies.org, a website maintained by butterfly expert Mike Reese. Some, like the clouded sulphur, clocked in 39 days earlier than the previous earliest sighting! According to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, state records fell for the earliest arrival date for an incredible 24 bird species in 2012. Some of these included American avocet, American white pelican, Franklin’s gull, Hudsonian, godwit, pine warbler, the wood thrush, and the ruby-throated hummingbird.
- Plant records fall, invaders rise with temperatures: More than 250 plants species set records in Wisconsin for earliest bloom dates, fueled by Wisconsin’s record setting early and warm temperatures, according to the decades-long records that University of Wisconsin Stevens Point botanists Bob Freckmann and Emmet Judziewicz have kept for the blooming dates of 263 species of plants. These same plants bloomed 14.2 days earlier than the average! In addition, without searching very hard, these botanists also found six new non-native plants that moved into Wisconsin this year – three of which were found at one site in southwestern Wisconsin. The high winter temperatures also allowed a number of invasive plants – water lettuce, water hyacinth and parrot feather — to survive over the winter and spread for the first time in Wisconsin. Large populations of these highly invasive plants were found in a bay of the Upper Mississippi River (pool 5 – near Buffalo City). Biologists from DNR and other agencies took measures to contain and control these plants and the site will continue to be monitored to see if they survive in future winters.
- Trumpeter swan records take flight: Trumpeter swans reached a new peak in the number of nesting pairs statewide, 214, in 2012 and also produced a record number of young, 373, says Sumner Matteson, the DNR avian ecologist who has directed the recovery program started by DNR and partners in 1987. The bird was removed from the endangered species list in 2009. This year was also a milestone as it saw the last annual banding of trumpeter swans done by DNR, partners and volunteers; in coming years, those management activities will occur less frequently.
- Three new dragonfly species documented in Wisconsin: Undoubtedly due to the warm weather, three dragonfly species were recorded in Wisconsin for the first time ever in 2012. The blue-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum) was documented and photographed by Ellen Luhman of Whitefish Bay and published in the Journal Argia, the band-winged dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata) was recorded by Cynthia Donegan in Kenosha and Paul Sparks in Milwaukee, and the striped saddlebags (Tramea calverti), was documented by Dan Jackson in five southern Wisconsin counties along big rivers and from Jym Mooney in Grant County. All three species are members of the skimmer family and are commonly found south of Wisconsin, well south in the case of the dragonlet and saddlebags, which are normally found in Texas and Florida. Also seen this year was the comet darner (Anax longipes), not seen here in 34 years! These records are documented by the DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources as part of the newly formed Wisconsin Dragonfly Society and bring the state’s total dragonfly and damselfly species checklist to 162 species. For more information about the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society contact Bob DuBois (Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Karner Blue butterfly hits milestone on one site: Wisconsin has the largest population of Karner blue butterflies in the world and in 2012, these diminuitive, federally endangered fliers got more wind beneath their wings. Thirty volunteers trained this summer under a new program that engages citizens to help look for the butterflies and assess their habitat, and a lot of restoration work was done in Karner recovery areas due to a large federal grant received the previous year, and one state-owned property, the Sandhill Wildlife Area in Wood County, has achieved its federal recovery goal with Karner counts of more than 6,000 butterflies on one site for five consecutive years. This is the first property in Wisconsin to demonstrate recovery of the Karner by meeting federal recovery standards. The Karner blue butterfly range in Wisconsin runs from Waupaca and Waushara counties west to the Black River Falls area, and then northwest to Grantsburg.
- One tough eagle: Wisconsinites got a sense of just how tough bald eagles can be and how caring people can be. An eagle diving in to feed on a muskrat carcass on State Highway 10 near Fremont wound up embedded in the grille of a Pittsville driver’s truck. He stopped and called the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department for help. They, in turn, called out a DNR conservation warden who worked to free the bird from the grille, and with the help of sheriff’s deputies, stowed it in a dog carrier and took it to a New London bird rehabilitator. After a month in her care, the bird recovered and was released back to the wild, a story captured in Up on the Sandhill, a blog written by Dave Horst.