Goose Pond 11-30-16

The Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Sanctuary lies about half an hour north of the city, just over the Columbia County border. Making it to this pond is a tradition I make happen once or twice a year, and I prefer going in fall. I have been horrible at picking good birding days this year, and I missed out on most of waterfowl migration. However, there was a surprise waiting for me today. In birding a “life bird” or “lifer” is one you’ve never seen before. It took me a minute or two to make out my small flock of lifers hiding among the rest of the waterfowl today.

They're in there somewhere
They’re in there somewhere
There they are.
There they are.
Right there
Right there

Snow geese (Chen caerulescens) have been a “nemesis bird” (one that I always seem to miss) for many years now. I even saw their less common cousin, the Ross’s goose (Chen rossii), when my parents and I read a bird report in 2014 that said one was just a mile from our house. As you can see in the above picture, the snow goose has two varieties of plumage: the more common white morph and the gorgeous blue morph, where the goose below the neck is given a dark coloration. The two blue morphs in the picture are at the far left and center.

Also present on the pond were Canada geese (Branta canadensis), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus), and canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria).

Also also present was something that I didn’t notice until I reviewed grainy pictures back home on my computer. I hadn’t bothered to bring my parents’s scope because I thought my binoculars and camera would be enough, but I underestimated the size of the pond in my memory. My binoculars were not powerful enough to see every bird in full detail, and the stationary scope at the pond had finally been out in the weather long enough that it was no longer usable (in the past it just gave me foggy, but adequate, views). Anyway, when I got home, I realized I missed out on another lifer- the greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons). And no, I can’t possibly count it if I saw it in a photo later. Mega-zoom cameras are great, but only on small ponds like Stricker’s Pond can they double as a scope. Oh well, I’m glad to have you as my nemesis, greater white-fronted goose, and I’m happy to have added you to my list, snow goose.

East Bluff Journey, 11-19-16

If you want quartzite cliffs rising 500 feet above a broad valley, the best place in Wisconsin to experience them is Devil’s Lake State Park. Today, along with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group, I climbed the south face of the East Bluff.

The bluff from the parking lot
The bluff from the parking lot

We took Balanced Rock Trail up the bluff. It is a steep hike up a talus slope. Fortunately, there are stone steps along the way helping hikers ascend. The steps are made from the same rocks as the hill- this choice is as beautiful as it is practical and the steps do not distract from the landscape.

img_4478It is a quick rise. It is also more rugged terrain than I am used to seeing in Wisconsin. To me, Devils Lake feels like a miniature Colorado or other western location. Sometimes even western birds such as golden eagles and Townsend’s solitaires are spotted there. I have seen solitaires there in the past but had no such luck today.

Once you near the top of the trail, you encounter the balanced rock which the trail is named after. This pillar of quartzite sits on a side trail overlooking the valley.

Balanced Rock

At the top of the bluff, I parted with the rest of the group and headed on a short walk over to Devil’s Doorway. It was a cold, windy day, but at the cliff face the air was calm. I was warm as I slowly ambled along enjoying the scenery. Curiously, the top of the hill has a thin strip of prairie vegetation before the forest takes over again. I followed the East Bluff Trail along the cliffs.


Some shady patches still had some snow in them.
Some shady patches still had some of the season’s first snow in them.
A beautiful view looking roughly southeast
A beautiful view looking roughly southeast

After a few minutes I made it to Devil’s Doorway. This rock formation is perhaps the biggest attraction at the higher elevations of the park. I have never been able to get a picture of it without someone else in the frame and this was true even on a colder day like today. But hey, I can’t really blame people for liking it.

Devil’s Doorway and a fellow park visitor

Wanting to keep things short, I took the next trail, the Potholes Trail, back down to the “ground level” of the park. Of the three trails that lead up the south face, this is my favorite. The part that really stands out to me is when the trail passes through a tight space between two large rocks. It has the feel of a miniature canyon.

Looking up through this narrow passage
Looking up through this narrow passage

After descending the hill, the trail that leads back to the parking lot is the Grottos Trail. It is flat and by most standards is an easy* trail but this feels especially true after hiking the East Bluff! It traces along the bottom of the hill and you look look up and marvel at the beauty from a different perspective.

*except for in the winter when it’s pure ice

Grottos Trail

At almost 16 square miles, Devil’s Lake SP is the largest state park in the Wisconsin. There is much to explore there and what I described in this post is only a small portion of it.

11-12-16 Waterfowl

On Saturday I would have liked to have headed over to Goose Pond in Columbia County, my favorite waterfowl spot, but I had a busy day and didn’t have much time to bird. I ended up birding someplace much closer. Welcome to another one of those Stricker’s Pond posts!

This time I made it to the pond late in the day, at 4 PM when the shadows were starting to get long. It was colder than I’ve been used to so I kept the visit short. I completed the mile loop in 40 minutes, which is quick by birder terms. This is the one hobby where you’re encouraged to walk as slowly as possible. There were more waterfowl this time, mostly due to 2 large flyover flocks of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) but also from a growing number of hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus).

Hooded mergansers
Hooded mergansers

Hooded mergansers are perhaps the strangest-looking duck in North America. The males have a white crest that they can open like a fan during their courtship display in which they “dance” around on the water while bobbing their heads. There were 15 in total. Hooded mergansers prefer to stay in the center of ponds rather than hugging the shoreline like some ducks. With my current equipment, this makes them a hard bird to capture on photo. I hope that I can find a flock in a smaller body of water in the coming weeks. I know a few locations where that might work out.

I have not yet had a day with a wide variety of waterfowl but the numbers keep increasing and over the weekend I noticed large rafts of American coots (Fulica americana) on Lake Monona. When they show up the “cold weather” ducks are usually right along with them. What will tomorrow bring for this birder?

My full ebird checklist can be found here: