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The astronomical winter begins next week with the winter solstice December 21, but unseasonably mild weather has continued through yet another week, making it feel anything but winter-like and delaying winter sports activity. Most lakes and rivers in the state remain ice-free, and even most of the northern lakes that had ice have lost their ice cover. Some of the smaller lakes still have a thin layer of soft ice, but it was not close to a thickness that would support any kind of ice travel.
With the re-opening of many northern lakes, there were a few anglers that took advantage of the situation and gave open-water fishing a try. Conditions have been rather windy and brisk, and success was generally low with just a few perch, crappie and small walleye caught.
The far north received from 1 to 3 inches of new snow this week, but not enough for any of the northern forests or parks to begin grooming ski trails. The mild weather has given park and forest staff and snowmobile clubs plenty of time to clear and mow trails, so when snow does arrive trails should be in good condition.
The ground remains unfrozen across much of the state, and rain in the last week - some very heavy - has many trails and roads soft and muddy. With up to 4 inches of rain in some locations in the last week, many rivers were at or near flood stage, including the lower Wisconsin, Rock, Baraboo and Pecatonica rivers. The DNR has been monitoring the levees along the Wisconsin River at Portage. Water levels have now begun receding in most locations.
Conditions were less than ideal for the four-day antlerless only hunt. Windy and rainy conditions dampened hunting pressure, and deer weren't moving around much on their own. But the unusually mild weather has provided for some good late season grouse hunting. Hunters are finding near ideal conditions to work their dogs one last time before the snow falls. Archery and crossbow deer season is also still open through Jan. 3 and some hunters are taking advantage of the mild winter.
Bird sightings should start to pick up now that the Christmas Bird Count season has begun, with more than 100 being held across the state. With the mild fall, Wisconsin has yet to see the peak influx of Canada geese and other cold-hardy waterfowl. Common redpolls and American tree sparrows have been seen along the roadsides. Chickadees are out in force investigating anybody in their territory and pine siskins are flittering from branch to branch feeding on small seeds and cones.
Only a few sandhill cranes are lingering at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area but they are still plentiful in the south. The flooding out of Wisconsin River sandbars displaced high numbers of sandhill cranes that had been roosting there and flocks are crisscrossing the sky with their distinctive bugle filling the air.
Least weasels have pretty well completed their annual autumn molt during which their color changes from brown to all white. Snowshoe hares had also begun to really stand out in their white fur against a brown background, so the recent snow in the north should help conceal them from predators.
Some landowners have reported lilac buds beginning to swell and green up. The lack of snow creates an opportunity for landowners to access upland sights and do invasives control. This is a great time of year to do cut stump treatment of buckthorn, black locust, or other woody invasive plants.
Warm weather has allowed a number of species to linger longer than usual across the state, including large numbers of sandhill cranes and Canada geese, the former north to Crex Meadows and the latter all the way to Lake Superior where hundreds remain on Chequamegon Bay in Ashland. A high diversity of waterfowl continues as well, though birders haven't reported impressive numbers anywhere other than on the Mississippi, where some tundra swans also hold on. All three scoter species, common loons, and others were found on the Madison Lakes. The Lake Michigan shoreline at various vantages such as Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Manitowoc can offer good waterfowl viewing this time of year, along with Thayer's, Iceland, glaucous, and great black-backed gulls amid the more common herring and ring-billed gulls. Back on land, easy access to plentiful natural food sources has yielded slow conditions at most bird feeders statewide. This is likely to change with prolonged cold or additional snow events but for now be ready with our Ten Tips for Winter Bird Feeding! Among those that may visit your feeders this winter are common redpolls and pine siskins, two boreal species that have come south in above-average numbers this year. Other winter finches seen recently are pine grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings in the north and red crossbills in a few southern Wisconsin locales. Backyard feeder watchers and other birds may want to participate in this year's annual Christmas Bird Count. More than 100 counts take place in all parts of the state in the two weeks ahead - find one near you at wsobirds.org/christmas-bird-count (exit DNR). On those counts, observers will be on the lookout for snowy owls, which made another surge this past week. Recent reports have come from Milwaukee to Superior, Madison to Green Bay, Eau Claire, and various other locations statewide. A total of 108 snowies have now been tallied in Wisconsin this year and more are expected to arrive with the potential onset of more wintry weather in the weeks ahead. Some of the rare birds spotted this week included red phalarope and harlequin duck in Bayfield county, Lewis's woodpecker in Trempealeau, black-legged kittiwake in Brown, and Eurasian tree sparrow in Racine. - Ryan Brady, Bureau of Wildlife Management research scientist, Ashland
Superior DNR Service Center area
Brule River State Forest - A wet blanket of snow fell on the Brule area over the past 24 hours. Warm temperatures remain, making roads slick and slushy. Although many people are thankful for this prolonged fall weather of warmer temperatures and good driving conditions, many are hoping for at least enough snow to make it a white Christmas. We are still waiting for enough snow to quench the thirst of cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. The ground is still very soft so a few days of cold weather would also be helpful to create a solid base before we can start grooming and prepping the trails. - Edwin Koepp, visitor services associate
Spooner DNR Service Center area
Crex Meadows State Wildlife - Winter is here, although the flowages are not iced over due to the warmer weather we have been experiencing. The roadways are clear and easy to travel, and winter birds are here. A few sandhill cranes are lingering in the farmland along Highway 87 south of Grantsburg near Assembly Road. Colder weather should make these birds leave soon. Trumpeter swans and Canada geese can be found in open water and in farm fields during the day. Rough-legged hawks have been seen. Bald eagles, crows and ravens are common. Lots of deer carcasses are along the roadways in and around the wildlife areas and these are popular sites to see these carrion feeders. Sharp-tailed grouse were reported along East Refuge Road. Common redpolls and American tree sparrows have been seen along the roadsides and at area feeders. Northern shrikes are present. Otters are easier to find during the winter months as they play and feed on the ice. Wolves have been active in and around the wildlife area - look for their tracks on sandy roads and freshly covered snowy roadways. - Kristi Pupak, natural resources educator
Park Falls DNR Service Center area
Upper Chippewa Basin fisheries report (Price, Rusk, Sawyer Taylor and inland Ashland and Iron counties) - With the mild weather of the last two weeks, most lakes have lost their ice cover and this put an end to any sort of early-season ice fishing. Some of the smaller lakes still held a thin layer of very soft ice, but it was not even close to a thickness that would support any kind of ice travel. Colder temperatures are predicted for the next week and should give the lakes a re-start on this winter's ice cover. But, it will take several nights of single-digit low temperatures to get the 3 to 4 inches of ice needed to support a person on foot. With the re-opening of many area lakes, there were a few anglers that took advantage of the situation and gave open-water fishing a try. Conditions have been rather windy and brisk, and success was generally low with just a few perch, crappie and small walleye being caught. Most anglers though are just biding their time until good ice re-forms on their favorite waters. - Skip Sommerfeldt, senior fisheries biologist, Park Falls
Flambeau River State Forest - One of these days, we will get enough snow so we can open our snowmobile trails and the ski trail! All of our grooming equipment is ready to go. We have had about 2 inches of rain the past few days and about 1.5 inches of snow on Monday. Otherwise the hiking trails throughout the forest are open but you will want to wear your rubber boots. The snow we received sure helped to pick up our holiday spirit. The Flambeau River is high and moving fast. Kayak and canoe enthusiasts need to put on their dry suits. Little Falls/Slough Gundy Scenic Area is beautiful with the snowfall. The lakes and river are open. Not much activity out there because of the precipitous weather. The chickadees are out in force investigating anybody in their territory with their round little black heads and little busy bodies and the pine siskins are flittering from branch to branch feeding on small seeds and cones. Lots of birds out there! It's easy to catch their movement without the leaf cover and the white layer of snow. The forecast for this week and weekend includes snow and colder temps then we have had lately and lows in the teens and single digits Friday morning. There have been a few grouse hunters out there and the archery and crossbow deer season is still open. Come north and enjoy the Flambeau River State Forest. Both Lake of the Pines and Connors Lake are closed till next season. - Diane Stowell, forestry technician
Woodruff DNR Service Center area
Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest - Ski season is off to a slow start. All cross-country ski trails have been cleared and are ready for enough snow to groom, but there has not been enough so far this season. Snow is in the forecast this week and next. - Tony Martinez, forestry facilities worker
Antigo DNR Service Center area
Langlade County - In the Antigo Area - Lakes that were iced over have opened up again with the recent rains and warm temps. Rivers and streams are either at or near record levels for this time of year. The unusually mild weather has provided for some good late season grouse hunting. Hunters are finding near ideal conditions to work their dogs one last time before the snow falls. - Eric J. Borchert, wildlife technician, Antigo
Peshtigo DNR Service Center area
Marinette County - Spring-like weather and heavy rains have ditches, streams, rivers, and bottomland forests swelling with water. More rain is forecast. The temperatures are still above normal and there is no snow in the forecast. Bow season is still open and some hunters are taking advantage of the mild winter. Other hunting season still open include: Fall turkey, squirrel, rabbit, grouse, and pheasant. The lack of snow creates an opportunity for landowners to access upland sights and do invasives control. This is a great time of year to do cut stump treatment of buckthorn, black locust, or other woody invasive plants. Simply cut the tree/shrub close to the ground and immediately dab the cut surface with a label approved chemical. On larger trees, treatment of only the outside ring (cambium) is needed for control. A few local landowners have reported lilac buds beginning to swell and green up! Mallards are feeding in flooded fields, turkey strutting, and lilacs trying to leaf-out --- conditions here have been very spring-like indeed. Hopefully cold weather will settle in soon and remind the wildlife what season it really is!- Aaron McCullough, wildlife technician, Wausaukee
Green Bay DNR Service Center area
Manitowoc County - The nine-day gun deer season was busy in Manitowoc County. There were plenty of hunters out and about. However, the general consensus from hunter's contacted in the field was a slower season than last year. The preliminary deer registration numbers during the nine-day gun season for Manitowoc County are slightly down compared to last year. There was one hunting related shooting incident that occurred in Manitowoc County and eight that occurred throughout the state. This is a constant reminder to always practice TABK, no matter if you are a veteran hunter or new to the sport. TABK - Treat every firearm as if it is loaded, Always point the muzzle in a safe direction, Be certain of your target and what's beyond it, Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot. There is still time to fill those archery tags this season. Have fun and good luck. - Nick Miofsky, conservation warden, Mishicot
Wautoma DNR Service Center area
Waupaca County - Winter sports folks are bumming. No snow or ice at all. No report on any fishing at all, rivers are out of their banks after 3-4 inches of rain earlier this week. Antlerless deer hunt was pretty much a non-event, very low pressure. Seems that many if not most hunters call it quits after the firearm deer season. Lack of snow makes for excellent ruffed grouse hunting, which is open until Jan. 31. - Karl Kramer, wildlife technician, Wautoma
Plymouth DNR Service Center area
Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area - Heavy rains last weekend brought water levels up on Theresa Marsh and on area wetlands and streams. Late season deer hunters, trappers and other hunters have reported very wet conditions. Quite a few Canada geese are still around the area for the late season goose hunters. Other migratory birds like sandhill cranes and many species of ducks are still present on Theresa Marsh, with good viewing and photography opportunities along Hwy 28 west of Hwy 41. - Tom Isaac, wildlife biologist, Hartford
Dodgeville DNR Service Center area
- Pam Dressler, visitor services associate
Fitchburg DNR Service Center area
Columbia County - Conditions in the county weren't great for the four-day antlerless only hunt. Windy and rainy conditions probably dampened hunting pressure, and deer weren't moving around much on their own. With the heavy rains that occurred over the weekend, the Wisconsin and Baraboo rivers have hit flood stage, and are expected to be at flood stage through the weekend. With the Wisconsin River flooding out the sandbars, the high numbers of sandhill cranes that have been roosting there have been displaced. Flocks of sandhills are crisscrossing the sky today with their distinctive bugle filling the sky. - Sara Kehrli, wildlife biologist, Poynette
Dane County - Very warm temps and heavy rains have limited outdoor activities. Bird sightings should start to pick up now that we've entered into Christmas Bird Count season. Feeders/backyard birding is very slow with the warm temps and lack of snow. Still good numbers and diversity of waterfowl on area lakes with no freeze up in the near future. Hard to believe but I'd say that we have yet to get our peak influx of Canada geese and other cold-hardy waterfowl. A snowy owl was reported today (Tuesday) in Madison. Birders should be on the lookout for owls as we progress toward the "traditional" period for them to show up. Earthworms were out and about this week after the rains December 14. Warm forecast temperatures should allow for some comfortable late-season bow hunting for deer/turkeys. Late season goose hunting is going to be tough unless we get some colder temps - which doesn't look likely given the forecast through the Dec. 21. - Andy Paulios, wildlife biologist, Fitchburg
Jefferson County - The persistent, unseasonably warm weather has kept water open, providing great opportunities for late season goose hunting and waterfowl viewing. Large numbers of geese are still present throughout the county. Tundra swans have been arriving from the north. Turkeys have continued to form winter flocks despite the warm weather. With the abundant rainfall as of late, water levels have been very high, providing excellent paddling conditions for those who hadn't already put the canoe or kayak into storage for the year. - Mark Witecha, wildlife biologist, Lake Mills
Devil's Lake State Park - The park received its first snowfall of the season, about 3 inches, a few weeks ago, which has melted. Since then there has been no more snow. So there's certainly no skiing, snowshoeing or sledding. The lake won't freeze over for another several weeks. The park is open every day of the year from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Visitor Center is open every day, except for just a few days. The Visitor Center will be closed on Christmas Eve day and Christmas Day, along with December 30, New Year's Eve day, and New Year's Day.
La Crosse DNR Service Center area
Vernon County - Least weasels have pretty well completed their annual autumn molt in which their pelage color changes from brown to all white. This diminutive, hotdog-sized weasel is the world's smallest carnivore and undergoes two molts each year. The autumn molt is usually completed by early December and is triggered by the photoperiod. The autumn molt begins on the animal's posterior and progresses toward the head. The white winter coat provides camouflage color to match the winter snowy surroundings usually encountered during this time of year. The long-tailed weasel and ermine, both larger cousins of the least weasel and found in Wisconsin, also turn white for winter but have black-tipped tails. Least weasels prey mainly upon mice and voles and kill them with a series of rapid bites to the neck and base of the skull. Because of their small size and active lifestyle, these bundles of energy need to consume 40-60 percent of their own weight daily, which is equivalent to one or two mice per day. Least weasels inhabit grassy fields, brushy areas, and marsh and woodland edges. - Dave Matheys, wildlife biologist, Viroqua
Black River Falls DNR Service Center area
Black River State Forest - Temperatures this weekend are expected to be in the 30s with a slight chance of snow Sunday night. Christmas tree permits are available for purchase on the State Forest. Permits are good for one Christmas Tree and can be picked up at the main office located at the Castle Mound campground. ATV trails remain closed. With the warmer temperatures and all the rain we have received lately trails are very wet with standing water in places. Trails will not open until they dry out and the ground has frozen. Jackson County Forestry and Parks maintains and grooms all of the state forest's snowmobile and winter ATV trails. Grooming updates are posted on the Jackson County [exit DNR] website. - Emily Alf, visitor services associate