This afternoon I gave myself an hour to check out the bird situation at Stricker’s Pond. There were not many birds but I had better luck than I have in the past few weeks and I liked what I saw. At first I only saw mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) but I made my way over to the lotus fields and found some pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) hiding among the dead stalks.
I heard something move in the cattail marsh across the path. I glimpsed it and saw it was a small bird. A closer look revealed it to be a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula).
As soon as I got to the woods I came across a loose flock of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Further into the woods I saw another ruby-crowned kinglet and two golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa). The golden-crowns were difficult to get pictures of. Taking a camera with me while birding has made me understand bird activity better and I never fully appreciated how much those little sprites flit around. My best attempt at a golden-crowned kinglet picture is below.
The pond did not have many waterfowl. Aside from mallards and geese, I saw a few hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) and ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris).
Do you have a place out in nature that feels like a sacred temple to you? For me that place is Ferry Bluff State Natural Area. My parents have been taking me and my brother there for almost as long as I can remember and the bluffs there have special significance to me.
When entering the SNA, the road traces Honey Creek along the bluff wall until you get to the parking area where the creek meets the Wisconsin River. From there the best way to head is up. Before I even gain that much elevation I feel a rush of emotions- this is after all the trail I loved as a kid. After a single switchback and some steep strides I make it to the top of Cactus Bluff, the first stop on the way to Ferry Bluff. The forest makes way to a small, sandy prairie. But what really gets me is the view.
As with most days there were already several view enthusiasts up there when I made the hike on Saturday. I cannot say how much time I spent up there but I looked down from the bluff at every angle I could think of. I can say I know this place like the back of my hand but that is a lie. There is always something else to notice and it is worth my time to take it all in.
After a while it was time to move up higher. The view is just so much more “wow” the higher you go, and so I headed up to Ferry Bluff.
The path continues on up the hills and is even steeper in spots than the first half of the trail. Some parts require climbing up some rockier terrain. One of the most beautiful parts is along a narrow prairie ridge.
Eventually the path horseshoes around to the top of Ferry Bluff and you realize just how low you were before.
It was time to sit and enjoy the view.
The view is so much more incredible from up there. I can say I’ve felt some sort of “viewlightenment” every time I’ve been up there. On last week’s trip is was especially strong. Being up that high can bring upon a spiritual feeling in me. I think it has to do with how I can see all the details of a relatively large area at once. Below me were the river, the creeks, and all their islands. I saw eagles, human fishermen, and lowland forests. Beyond the riverway were the farms, towns, and Blue Mound. I was in the sky, not just staring up at it, but there was still an infinite stretch of space above me. When you see all of this at once it is hard not to appreciate the interconnectedness and beauty of the world since it is staring you right in the face. Soak it in.
After a while I knew I had to go back down. I was meeting my friend Nicholas shortly. He wanted to get outside too so I picked him up at his place nearby and we went up Cactus Bluff together. Views do not diminish when shared with others.
I haven’t gotten out camping much this year, so I was happy that my friend Jon invited me to Governor Dodge State Park with him last weekend. At just over 8 square miles, it is the fourth largest of Wisconsin’s state parks and is just under an hour’s drive from Madison. I’ve been going here with family since a young age so the place has a lot of memories for me. I am always glad to go back and visit.
I arrived Friday night at 8, after having delays getting out of town. Jon was just finishing up cooking and I added some cold food to our selection. After supper we sat around a fire and talked of the election (and some more upbeat topics) while a tree frog sang nearby. It was not too cold out but the fire felt cozy.
In the morning we decided on our first hike- the gorgeous Stephens Falls and Lost Canyon trail. It is a short hike, just over a mile, but there is a lot to see along the way.
The trail starts off following a small creek. Not long after the trail begins the creek flows down the waterfall and the path curves around to follow it into a tranquil glen.
Where should you go after visiting the waterfall? A lot of people head back up the the parking lot, but taking the rest of the loop is much more enjoyable. The Stephens Falls Trail continues for about a quarter mile after the falls and when we reached the end of it we took a right onto the Lost Canyon Trail.
The loop ends at a small prairie. In the summer lupines are abundant but this time of year the best sight is the grasses turning their lovely fall hues.
For our afternoon walk we did something much longer. We took the Pine Cliffs Trail around Cox Hollow Lake, one of two man-made lakes at the park, starting at the beach. This loop was about four or five miles, including the portions we walked on the road and on the Lakeview Trail. The highlights are the two large cliffs that overlook the lake, each with a plant community that seems more northern in its makeup. White pines are the predominant tree and blueberry plants and ferns fill the understory.
We saw some animals, mostly turkey vultures. We heard some creatures too. Around every corner that day there was a spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer, chirping in some hidden location. This small treefrog species doesn’t have much longer to go until hibernation. The woods get a lot quieter once winter hits.
Unfortunately I had to work on Sunday so this was a one-night trip for me. Governor Dodge is a large park that has many trails worth checking out. You can’t hit them all in one weekend. The two I did, however, are two of my lifelong favorites and I would recommend them to visitors of the park. Of the two, the falls is a the easier hike. Not only is it shorter but there is less of an elevation change. The pine cliffs are a little more strenuous but can be done on a shorter route than we did. The park’s trail network is very interconnected and it’s easy to create a custom route to see everything you want to.
On Wednesday I woke up and headed out to explore Madison and Middleton. I didn’t take long to see birds; there was a belted kingfisher patrolling the waters of Wingra Creek before I even got to the entrance of the Arboretum. The Arb itself was alive with bluebirds as usual, with a few white-throated sparrows and a ruby-crowned kinglet thrown in for some migration fun.
Pheasant Branch had even more white-throated sparrows. A large flock greeted me at a savanna area near the parking lot.
It’s the middle of fall migration, roughly speaking. Many warbler species hit their peaks already but waterfowl season has yet to truly heat up. I love that best in late October and early November, when you can see several duck species on a lake. Most of October is a pretty good time for sparrows, though I’ve only had luck with white-throated so far. I’ve had days in past years where I can see five sparrow species just on top of Frederick’s Hill at Pheasant Branch.
Wednesday was a mixed day in the herping realm for me. I saw five DeKay’s snakes, a very common snake but a favorite of mine. These little things only get about a foot in length and look super adorable. They also don’t slither away at the sight of people like garter snakes do so they’re really easy to observe.
The day was tinged with sadness though as I saw almost as many dead snakes as I saw living ones. There were two DeKay’s, one common garter (just a little baby), and one red-bellied snake all flattened on trails. Two of these were on paved trails, and all the living snakes I saw were either on gravel or pavement. This is pretty normal behavior for them and a lot of the smaller snakes will sit still when a person approaches instead of moving off the trail. The idealist in me wishes we could just stop paving trails with materials snakes love or at least put some gravel patches off-trail too as alternative sunning spots. The realist in me however will just remind people to please watch where they step and bike and to remember trails are just as much the space of other creatures as they are ours. Your awareness could save a life.
Yesterday I finished the course I’ve been taking with the UW Extension. I am now a Wisconsin Master Naturalist volunteer. This means I have completed 40 hours of class time and worked on a final project (seed collecting and a presentation about it). Going forward, this means I need to complete 40 hours of service and 8 hours of further learning a year in order to retain the certification.
The volunteer categories are education, stewardship, and citizen science. I have led nature walks before, but I gravitate more toward stewardship because I like working with my hands and citizen science because the Christmas Bird Count, one of the most famous examples of citizen science, is a tradition in my family. For stewardship I would like to do more work with prairies, both with seed collecting and removal of invasive species. I’m also curious to see what some of the more outside-the-box opportunities there would be for me. As far as citizen science goes, I’m a big fan of species counts. I might even move beyond bird counts.
The love of nature in all my classmates, instructors, and guest lecturers was infectious. None of us were masters of all things natural. I’m a bird and snake guy. I know very little about plants and insects, but some people in the group knew a lot. Other people’s knowledge makes me want to up my own. I am suddenly way more interested in flowers and butterflies than I ever have been in my whole life. Who knows, maybe in a year or less I’ll make a post with several properly-identified butterfly species.
I’m thrilled to be a part of a program where I will volunteer frequently and get notifications about volunteer opportunities I would not otherwise be aware of. I love birding and hiking and all that, but when you’re working in nature you’re more of an active participant. This might sound cheesy, but I felt like I got to know the plants better when I was picking their seeds. It’s very similar to the feeling I get on the rare instances I go foraging or fishing.
I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to become a Master Naturalist volunteer and I’m excited to see where my skills and interests will lead. I should go out and buy some plant identification books and get started on new adventures.