Mosquito close-up

If you’re concerned the heavy rains that hit some parts of the Madison area last week might put our previously mosquito-free summer in jeopardy, stop worrying.

“I’ve been asked about mosquitoes, and honestly I find that question a little silly from my standpoint,” says Phil Pellitteri, a distinguished faculty associate with UW-Madison’s Insect Diagnostic Lab. “We’re just not holding water.”

Mosquitoes, after all, need water to complete their life cycle. And although some areas of southern Wisconsin got more than 2 inches of rain Wednesday night, there just isn’t much of the wet stuff sitting around.

“You’ve got to have pooled water for 10 days,” he says. “I know we had some flooding, but we didn’t have the kind of flooding that I think is going to last long enough to get us the mosquitoes. So even though I had 3 inches in my rain gauge on the west side of Madison the other day, that water just disappeared because it’s so dry. So unless we get a wet pattern, it’s going to stay pretty much mosquito-free.”

While this news will no doubt be cheered by everyone from grill-masters to gardeners and hikers alike, experts say the extreme heat and drought conditions are causing plenty of problems for plants, birds and other wildlife that are more popular than the pesky mosquito. And some of the implications could be long-term.

“When I see all the stress that’s being placed on trees, I think that could really cost us in the next couple years due to things that are taking advantage of the situation -- in particular, wood borers,” says Pellitteri. “So I’m going to expect a lot of trees to be in various states of decline, if not death, two or three years from now from borers that basically got their foothold this summer.”

And although additional rain would be welcome by many, experts tend to agree that even if we do start receiving above-average amounts of precipitation in the weeks and months to come, much of the damage has already been done, ecologically speaking.

“There is no chance to return to normal this year,” says Stanley Temple, a UW-Madison professor emeritus of conservation and a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo. “We’ve passed the point when a lot of the most important seasonal events have happened for plants and animals. We’re sort of on the downhill side of things, even if this were a normal year. The breeding season is pretty much over. The season when most plants are flowering and then producing fruits and seeds, that’s all past. We’re not going to recoup that.”

In fact, Temple says some migratory birds have already started leaving the state due to the harsh conditions and lack of food. “A lot of people have probably noticed there are big flocks of swallows,” he says. “They’re pretty obvious if you drive the countryside -- just look at the power lines and they’re all lined up. They’re leaving, heading south because the conditions are so bad.”

Although the high temperatures and dry conditions have caught the public’s attention over the past month, in particular, the unseasonably warm and relatively dry weather dating all the way back to March is noteworthy, experts say.

“This year has really been off the charts in a lot of ways,” says Temple.

He has been examining the historical records kept by Leopold at his famous shack that date to the 1930s and 1940s, another period with a good deal of drought and heat. Leopold is the former UW professor whose observations on his land on the Wisconsin River near Baraboo led to the publication of “A Sand County Almanac,” a foundation of the environmental ethics movement.

Temple says the Aldo Leopold Foundation is teaming with a group that’s examining similar notes compiled by Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond in Massachusetts in the mid-19th century, and they plan to put together a paper talking about these historical records and what they can tell us about what’s going on today.

“We’re looking at all of Aldo Leopold’s notes from the shack and this was the warmest spring on record,” says Temple. “There is really nothing to compare it to, at least in terms of timing of events tied to plants and animals. These records for Wisconsin temperatures in March and April and May translated into the all-time earliest records for plants to bloom and many of our resident birds to begin breeding -- in some cases by almost a month earlier than the previous record. It was crazy.”

The hot and dry weather put a great deal of pressure on bird populations during the spring breeding season. Although adult birds are mobile and can travel good distances to find water and food sources, Temple says many baby bluebirds and tree swallows, for example, that were nesting in a tree cavity or nest box were doomed due to heat stress and dehydration.

The warm, dry spring also blew a range of bugs into the state that don’t typically live in Wisconsin, reports Pellitteri.

“I’m seeing a whole bunch of southern things,” he says. “I’m seeing things that are really quite unusual that can blow up in the winds, and when you identify them they’re from Texas or whatnot. We’ve seen all sorts of craziness blowing in.”

Pellitteri, who helps ID bugs that are sent to his lab from all around the state, adds that the number of creatures being submitted for identification is up over 30 percent from last year, meaning the lab will likely set a record by the time the year is out.

The early spring also altered the typical schedule of the growth and flowering of plants, and that’s still having a “ripple effect right up the food chain,” says Temple, noting he was observing a “cloud of hummingbirds” around his hummingbird feeder while conducting a phone interview -- likely because there are so few flowers producing much nectar.

Another bonus for birdwatchers due to brutal conditions that are gripping much of the country is the opportunity to more easily see species that don’t typically visit the state in large populations.

Temple reports observing good numbers of dickcissels, a small, sparrow-like bird that nests in grasslands. The center of that bird’s range is the Great Plains -- mainly Kansas and Nebraska -- but dickcissels have been moving in the hopes of finding cooler, moister conditions.

During a walk Friday around where he lives in rural Mazomanie, Temple also reports observing a “timber rattlesnake that had come down from its normal haunts up in the wooded hills to find water in the wetland near the valley floor.” He adds that “I didn't see any 13-lined ground squirrels. They have apparently retreated into their underground burrows and may actually have gone into estivation,” which he explains is a “state of dormancy much like hibernation, except it’s in response to extreme heat and dryness rather than cold.”

The good news, says Temple, is that studies have shown bird populations, for example, tend to bounce back relatively well, as long as there are more normal conditions next year.

But Pellitteri says he’s worried the dry, hot summer could pose at least one more problem for outdoors lovers heading into the coming months.

“Historically, hot and dry years is when we’ve had the most problem with yellow jackets,” he says. “So I’m afraid they could become a big problem when we’re eating and drinking outdoors later in the year. And when those show up sometime in August, it won’t slow down until we get well into October. So I’m nervous. It’s been pleasant without the mosquitoes, but I just wonder if we might pay for this in the form of additional yellow jackets.”

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