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A feathered silver lining for nature lovers this winter

by Sharon Stiteler

As I looked down the bleak possibility of not traveling for many months this winter, I wondered how I’d fare birding-wise. I find that birders have been given a gift. This is a great winter in the Midwest to experience winter finches. Birds like common redpolls, white-winged crossbills, and evening grosbeaks are generally not a guarantee in winter unless you find yourself in the very northern reaches of the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. This year, however, the finches appear to be coming to everyone, even the Southern states.

Initially the winter finch forecast seemed to indicate that we wouldn’t see too many birds this winter. Sure, red-breasted nuthatches and siskins, but many pine grosbeaks, Bohemian waxwings, and white-winged crossbills were going to stay up in Canada. Until they didn’t.

It started in early fall when hoards of pine siskins descended on northern state feeders. About the size of a goldfinch and covered in dark streaks, the birds arrived in large flocks of 20 to 50 birds. Once the sunflower and Nyjer was temporarily depleted, the hoards headed further south. Along with the siskins came a steady stream of red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches.

Soon reports of evening grosbeaks started coming through the birding networks and many people are seeing them at feeders or hearing them flyover. Looking like a goldfinch on steroids, the birds caught the attention of even the most novice bird feeders. Reports have evening grosbeaks in Iowa and Indiana.

And now white-winged crossbills are at the top of any conifer with pine cones. I heard a report of some nearby crossbills and I stepped outside to get in my car to find them. As soon as I was out the door, I heard some and discovered them feeding on pine cones on all the trees in my neighborhood. As COVID-19 has brought in new birders because people are stuck at home, photos of crossbills feeding on sunflower seeds are popping up with people wondering if they have a bird with a beak deformity.

Common redpolls are popping up in the northern states, and as winter progresses, more will be heading into the southern Midwest. These birds are noticeable for their white streaky bodies, red cap and black goatee and like pine siskins they love sunflower seeds and Nyjer.

So whether you’re new to bird feeding or an old seasoned pro, keep an eye on those feeders for a few wild cards to show up this winter. The smaller birds like siskins and redpolls readily come to finch feeders, but the larger grosbeaks and crossbills prefer platform feeders or hopper styles with lots of sunflower seeds. Basically, if a cardinal will come to it, they will come to it.


Smoking salmon again

by Tom Pink

At my wedding reception in 1987, I heard several people – some who had traveled far – say they almost didn’t make it to the church on time.

It wasn’t because they were stuck in traffic or left home late. It was because they were having so much fun catching pink salmon off the downtown docks that they didn’t want to quit.

Who could blame them? In the mid- to late-1980s and early 1990s, the St. Mary’s River pink salmon fishery was phenomenal. It still is fantastic, but the shore fishing isn’t quite as easy as it was back then. These days, fishing from a boat, or wading in the St. Mary’s rapids or Lake Huron and Lake Superior tributaries, produces better results.

Days before the wedding, I told my dad that the anglers who were doing best were using pink-colored flashy spoons that they jigged through the schools of fish, rather than just casting and retrieving. With that intel, Dad tied some lures using Lake-St.-Clair-meets-Lake-Superior technology. He took jig heads that he normally would use for walleye, painted them with pink nail polish, and instead of threading soft-body tails onto the jigs, he tied tufts of Christmas tree tinsel on them.

The combination may sound crazy, but the flashy results spoke for themselves, so much so that after Dad caught his limit, he was kept busy building his custom jigs for fellow fishermen right there on the dock and he sold them as quickly as he could tie them, for a buck apiece. We all had a lot of fun and Dad and his buddies went home with coolers full of pink salmon that had been smoked by a local resident for – wait for it – a buck apiece.

More than 30 years later, we got into pink salmon again, but this time, we fished with a guide with a ton of experience and a knack for tying flies that proved to be irresistible not only to pink salmon, but Atlantic salmon, too. Jason Carstens of True North Guide Service really knows his stuff and I was amazed at how he matched the nymphs with what the fish were eating.

For a little while, Dad tried his ol’ tinsel-tail jig for old time’s sake, but he quickly switched over to one of Jason’s secret weapons. A few hours later, we went home with a dozen pink salmon – having released several – as well as a beautiful rainbow trout and two Atlantic salmon, both caught by Dad – his first and second.

The excursion left an impression on me in so many ways. First, it never ceases to amaze me that you can pull a hard-fighting, acrobatic fish into the boat using just a tiny No. 12 to 14 hook. Also, there is no substitution for fishing with someone who has put the time in and gained a lot of knowledge about the fishery. I’ve been relying on fishermen smarter than I am since I settled in Sault Ste. Marie 40 years ago.

Jason’s enthusiasm and joy for being outside is contagious. I’ve never been into sports, but I know a good coach when I see one. I’ve known Jason since he was a college student, and he has always been generous with his time, knowledge and equipment. Dad and I were really grateful to be able to spend time on his boat.

I haven’t run a smoker since I gave mine away to another student several years ago, but I borrowed one from a buddy for this batch of pinks. We filleted the Atlantics and used Jason’s brine recipe to prepare them for the grill later in the week. All of the fish were delicious. Outstanding. I ate the last of the smoked stuff on scrambled eggs the other day.


St. Croix River in good health, although pollution threats loom

By Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The St. Croix River is still in good health but is facing pollution threats, according to two new reports.

Popular for its scenic beauty and recreation opportunities for boaters and anglers, the St. Croix remains one of the cleanest tributaries to the Mississippi River, thanks in part to a large forested watershed that helps filter out contaminants.

But the reports highlight some troubling trends, including increasing development that leads to more polluted runoff entering the river, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

The St. Croix flows more than 160 miles before joining the Mississippi River at Prescott, Wis., forming a large part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It was one of the first rivers in the United States to be designated for protection under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s study of the river’s health finds much to be positive about, said Pam Anderson, who manages the MPCA’s surface water monitoring program.

“The St. Croix River is a beautiful river, (with) lots of intact natural shorelines,” Anderson said. “We have relatively good water quality. We see low levels of bacteria. We have excellent fish communities and good bug communities.”

Much of that cleanliness can be attributed to the scenic river protections and the heavily forested watershed, said Monica Zachay, program director for the St. Croix River Association. which released its first “State of the St. Croix River” report.

“Forests are really good for water quality,” Zachay said. “They’re our best defense against water quality degradation as when it rains. Those natural ecosystems soak in the water into the ground and they act as natural filters.”

However, the reports highlight some threats to the river, including too much phosphorus from farm and urban runoff, which can cause algae growth. The stretch of the river from Taylors Falls to Lake St. Croix is considered impaired because of phosphorus levels.

Cities and industries discharge stormwater and treated wastewater into the river, which can contain phosphorus and other pollutants. That includes chloride from road salt or water softeners. Levels of chloride in the St. Croix are relatively low but rising, according to the MPCA report.

“We are adding more chloride to the system than should be there, and that’s something that can’t really take out of the water,” Anderson said. “So it’s imperative that we do what we can to minimize what goes into the system.”

Urban stormwater also can raise the temperature of streams, which can threaten fish and other aquatic life.

The St. Croix is home to 41 different species of freshwater mussels, including five that are listed as federally endangered. But 26 of the 41 mussel species live in water that is close to the maximum temperature that they can tolerate, so preventing further warming of the water is crucial, the MPCA report states.

Other contaminants have been detected in the river, including pharmaceuticals, microplastics and synthetic chemicals known as PFAS, which are used in a variety of consumer products because of their durability and resistance to heat and water.

And the St. Croix also faces a potential threat from invasive species, including zebra mussels and invasive carp.

Zachay said local governments, soil and water conservation districts and other groups have been making strides toward improving the St. Croix’s water quality, with efforts such as adopting conservation tillage practices to reduce runoff and adding retention basins and rain gardens to capture stormwater.

Unlike some rivers that are “so far gone,” the St. Croix still stands a chance of seeing improvement and possibly being removed from the state’s list of impaired waters, Zachay said.

“We are right kind of at this tipping point where we could actually see significant results in our lifetime,” she said.


Montana has dive team to search for aquatic invasive species

By Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — Aquatic invasive species are like the COVID-19 of streams and lakes. It takes only one watercraft to become a super spreader, introducing an invader like Eurasian watermilfoil or zebra mussels to a waterway.

When an invader is detected, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks now has an “A Team” it can call. Last year the group created a six-member dive team pulling volunteers from across its Aquatic Invasive Species staff.

Prior to that, the agency used the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s divers for mussel-type events, but it can take time for them to assemble and drive to Montana when time is of the essence.

“We thought it would be nice to have a quick response dive team, not only for mussel detection,” said Stacy Schmidt, leader of the crew.

“There’s a lot of interest in using the dive team for population delineation of other species, control work for mussels and whatever fishery needs might come up, such as fish counts,” she told The Billings Gazette. “It just seemed like it might be of great value for all of fisheries.”

FWP’s aquatic invasive species program is pretty broad, said Liz Lodman, AIS information officer. In addition to watercraft inspections, the group does education and outreach, AIS detection and prevention, water sampling and laboratory analysis. With the dive team’s help, the staff is also working on eradication.

Beaver Lake near Whitefish has been the subject of a dive team project with partners to eliminate invasive Eurasian watermilfoil. By anchoring mats to the bottom of the lake, the crew is attempting to choke out the weed before it spreads.

“We’re trying to nip it in the bud,” Lodman said.

“Every year we have to go in and check the mats,” she added, to make sure they are still secured and covering the target area. “It’s a fairly low-cost way of dealing with an invasion like this.”

Watermilfoil has become such a problem in some Midwestern and Eastern lakes that companies have been formed just to remove the weed. Michigan-based Aquatic Plant Management, founded in 2012, employs a team of 20 divers for the task.

Having weed-choked lakes is not only bad for a lake’s fish and other inhabitants, it can also lower property values for lakeshore owners by up to 16%, studies have shown. No one wants to buy a cabin on a lake where the weeds are so thick you can’t drive your boat through them.

The cost to the United States of these water-borne intruders has been estimated at $137 billion a year, according to FWP.

In addition to removing aquatic invasive species, the FWP dive team is also working to identify underwater plants and invertebrates, often in water that is cold (40 to 60 degrees depending on depth) where visibility is limited.

“We don’t have great water quality” when it comes to visibility, Schmidt said.

That requires divers to be careful to not stir up sediments and silt that might further cloud the water. It is especially important when working in shallower waters, where most of the invasive species are found. To help out in those situations, the team will use air tanks rather than snorkeling if they are at depths of 15 feet or working around docks.

This year the AIS crew added a specially designed sled that it pulls along a lake or pond’s bottom. The sled carves off the top layer of silt which is then rinsed and sieved to search for aquatic invasive species. The sled was tested in Billings’ Lake Elmo this year.

“It samples a large area quickly,” Schmidt said.

The combined work of the AIS team has paid off. Last year inspection crews checked more than 109,000 watercraft and intercepted 16 fouled with mussels and another 170 transporting aquatic weeds.

This year the numbers of inspections has increased to more than 128,000, Lodman said, as more people were recreating outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of those inspections, more than 30 were infested with an invasive species.

“The latest was two jet skis from Minnesota,” Lodman said. “It was amazing how many mussels they had on their boats.”

The personal watercraft were being towed from where they had been purchased for winter storage in Whitefish, she added.

Out of more than 4,300 water surveys this year, FWP has logged 98 AIS detections. The most common species found has been curlyleaf pondweed.

So far, the combined efforts have helped keep Montana waterways at a low rate of AIS infestations compared to other states.

“The more tools we have the better,” Schmidt said.


How many carp does it take to tango?

Asian Carp
These two Asian carp could have produced over three-quarters-of-a-million fertile eggs. (University of Michigan photo)

I wrote a column in Michigan Outdoor News recently about a single Asian carp being found in an eastern Michigan stream. This one happened to be a grass carp which, if a body of water has to be infested with Asian carp, the grass carp is likely to be the least disruptive. It’s sort of like a guy having prostate cancer instead of pancreas cancer – neither is good, one is only less bad.

That was (hopefully) just one lone fish and with grass carp and the other Asian carp threatening Michigan – the bighead, black and silver carp – one single carp won’t reproduce. As with most (not all) species, it takes two to tango – two of the opposite sex.

Let’s say, however, two Asian grass carp had been captured and the biologists who nabbed them determined they could have danced the tango. Had that dance occurred, would that spell the end?

The best answer is “possibly.”

There’s a reason a female  Asian carp spews out about three-quarters of a million eggs each time she spawns. It’s because each individual egg has less than a one-in-a-million chance of hatching and surviving long enough to tango with another survivor and thus proliferate the species. There’s actually a better than even chance, if one boy Asian carp and a girl Asian carp were to swim past the existing barriers keeping them out of the Great Lakes, they either wouldn’t tango or none of the three-quarter million future spawners they would produce if they did would hatch and survive to maturity.

Obviously, it could happen with just two fish and the odds would increase if there were three of them, or four, or a dozen. How many Asian carp would it take to ensure a successful invasion?

That’s a question researchers at CIGLR (Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research) are asking. Obviously, the scientists can’t devise many “in the field”  tests. Instead, they produce models, which crunch all the numbers, details, facts, possibilities and other information to come up with an answer.

The answer they’ve come up with is: “it depends.”

It depends on where, when, and other factors that a slug of tango-capable Asian carp were to somehow gather.

The model they worked up indicated if 100,000 bighead carp were to be stocked randomly in Lake Huron, the odds for them to survive, tango and make a mess of the lake’s ecosystem is remote. However, using the same model but moving the stocking site to Saginaw Bay, the odds are that just 10 stocked bigheads would likely allow tango-dancing to occur and start an unstoppable road to ecological devastation.

Ten is not many, compared to the millions of Asian carp now swimming in much of middle America’s big rivers and many lakes. The presence of Asian carp has irrevocably changed the fish communities everywhere they have become established.

This research does nothing to curb the invasion, but it does highlight the need to sideline political and economic concerns and keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

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