by Dave Peters
A great variety of birds, mammals and other animals make their homes on the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.
The flagship species on the barrens is the sharp-tailed grouse. Creating and preserving habitat for this bird was the reason the wildlife area was created in the 1950s. Popular activities on the barrens – reserving blinds in spring to watch the spectacular mating dance and holding hunting dog trials in late summer and fall – revolve around the grouse. See a video of their of mating dance.
But many other birds also use the barrens for some or all of the year.
Most sandpipers are found near water, but the upland sandpiper lives on the barrens, nesting in the grasses. Referred to by some as the upland plover, it is one of the premier birds of the wildlife area. Once a target of hunters, it, like the sharp-tailed grouse, benefits from the controlled burns that keep the barrens open.
Go here for more on the upland sandpiper (including a video) .
Other birds that nest regularly on the barrens are the eastern towhee, brown thrasher, bluebird, tree swallow, kestrel, a variety of springtime warblers and more than a half-dozen sparrows that are hard to identify visually but easier to identify by sound.
Go here for a full description of most birds you’ll find on the barrens.
The Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area has been part of the general resurgence in wolf populations in recent decades across northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. You don’t see them often but they leave their tracks in the sand and their scat on the roads regularly. At night, it’s possible to hear their occasional howl.
Wolves were found on the barrens during a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources count in 1979-80, apparently part of a pack that had moved from Minnesota. But then wolves struggled and weren’t counted again until 1996, when again a pair moved in from Minnesota and used the western part of the wildlife area.
Since then the barrens have been used by several different packs that ranged over much larger areas. In the winter of 2018-2019, the most recent count available, the Namekagon Barrens pack of three wolves occupied the northwestern portion of the barrens, the Webb Creek pack, also three wolves, occupied the southeast portion and the Carps Creek pack of five wolves occupied the northeast part of the barrens.
The distribution of those packs was expected to be similar in the 2019-20 winter count but the numbers of individuals was uncertain. Although not on the barrens see and listen to wolves howl here.
Coyote and Fox. These are the other canines using the barrens throughout the year, feeding on much the same diet as wolves – mice, squirrels, rabbits and ground-nesting birds. Coyotes are smaller than wolves, about 25 to 30 pounds. They’re bushy-tailed, long-legged animals with long erect ears and they have been getting more attention across the nation for moving into urban areas. But they thrive on the barrens as well. They tend to use parts of the barrens that the wolves are not using at any given time. The best time to hear them barking is in the fall. Foxes are smaller and shorter than coyotes, about eight to 15 pounds, about three feet long and 15 or 16 inches tall at the shoulder. If you see one on the barrens, it’s probably a red fox, which tends to prefer open areas. Gray fox like forests but they are seen on the barrens as well. You can tell a red fox, not necessarily by the color of the fur, but by the presence of a black nose and black tips on tail and feet.
Hundreds of thousands of white-tailed deer roam northern Wisconsin, and they are common in the barrens. Deer populations today are larger than what they were before white settlement of the region. Deer hunting is popular, although it can be challenging without many trees for stands. There are great opportunities for ground blinds, especially setting up on a little hillside that overlooks a valley and one of the many heavily used deer trails. Humans aren’t the only predators, given the presence of wolves on the barrens. The deer feed on leaves, wildflower shoots, acorns and the new buds of jack pines. Although they like to seek shelter in conifer forests, they also like to bed out on the open barrens, where the breeze keeps annoying bugs away.
There are likely only a few dozen moose in all of northern Wisconsin but every so often one of these 1,000-pound animals wanders through the barrens to chew on the aspen trees. Moose are the largest members of the deer family; the bulls’ antlers can measure five feet across. Read a story about a moose on the barrens here.
Bear. These forest-loving animals like to use clearings to feed and also frequent the barrens. Like wolves, they are seldom seen but leave their tracks and scat as evidence of their presence. Black bears are typically 150 to 250 pounds but males can get up to 500 pounds. Read a story of a moose on the barren here:
Beaver. The largest rodent in North America, beavers like rivers but they can show up in the wet areas of the barrens. The average beaver is about 40 or 50 pounds and they eat leaves, buds, twigs, ferns and water plants. They store tree cuttings beneath the water in ponds for eating in winter.
Porcupine. These animals are the second largest rodent in North America. They tend to be nocturnal, but occasionally one ambles slowly among the jack pines of the barrens during the day. Weighing from 20 to 30 pounds, they eat leaves, succulent twigs and bark. They love to climb trees and their sharp quills are an obvious defense that makes up for their slowness. When attacked, they turn their backs on the predator and wave their tails (but they can’t “throw” their needles.) The most successful predator is likely the fisher, which maneuvers to bite a porcupine on the face until it bleeds to death and then flips it upside down to start eating from its stomach, which is not covered in quills. Mountain lions, another predator, sometimes just put up with the quills sticking into them.
Badger. Much talked about in Wisconsin but seldom seen, badgers are odd-shaped, stocky, low-slung mammals roughly two feet long. They are very common on the barrens. But badgers are most evident from the tunnels they dig, spreading sand in aprons around the slanted, oval openings that can be up to 12 inches across. They eat mice and squirrels and spend most of their days underground.
Bobcats. When it comes to the largest wild cats, only bobcats are thought to breed in Wisconsin. They weigh up to 40 pounds, and have spotted coats, especially obvious down their legs and on their faces. Lynx are similar but rare in the state, moving down from the north during winters. Mountain lions, also known as cougars and pumas, are much larger, up to 160 pounds and have long tails. They are solitary and very rare but have been spotted on the barrens once in a great while, thought to be dispersing from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Small fur-bearing mammals. Chipmunks, gray squirrels, red squirrels, thirteen-lined ground squirrels and a variety of mice and voles are found on the barrens. They feed on acorns, hazelnuts and buds and in turn they become food for hawks, coyotes, wolves, bobcats and other predators. Also on the barrens are other fur-bearing mammals — rabbits, raccoons, fishers and weasels.
Northern Prairie Skink. Perhaps the most interesting reptile on the barrens is this skink, considered rare and a species of special concern in Wisconsin. A five- to nine-inch lizard, it eats spiders, crickets and grasshoppers, and it likes the sandy soils of the barrens for its burrows and is typically found under vegetation debris. It has black and tan stripes running down its back.
Information from the Wisconsin and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources