My Wisconsin Herping Experience, 2016

After a few exciting snake moments in 2015, I went full herper in 2016. Since the year is coming to an end I wanted to take a look back at all the reptiles and amphibians I saw this year.

The herping season in southern Wisconsin starts in March. I didn’t see my first herp until the 12th of that month when I saw a few painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) sunning on a log. Soon after I came across a brightly-colored younger one hiding out in the reeds at the edge of another pond. These turtles are the ones most often seen in the state so they were nothing new to me, but being my first herps after the winter I was pleased to see them.

My first 2016 herps
itty bitty painted turtle

The second herp I saw, and the first of the snakes, was the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). Starting with a sighting in early April of a rather sluggish one, I began to see them everywhere for a month or so. Also around this time I started hearing spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata), both tiny treefrogs, and started seeing eastern American toads (Anaxyrus americanus americanus), one of our omnipresent amphibians.

eastern garter snake

In May things really started to heat up- literally! And since herps are cold-blooded, this meant much more of them. One day I went down to a lowland forest by the Wisconsin river and it was herps galore. The first one I saw after getting out of the car was a Ouachita map turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis).

Ouachita map turtle

Walking a bit farther, I found the forest’s frogs. These included the very common green frog (Lithobates clamitans), as well as the wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) and northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens).

green frog
wood frog
northern leopard frog

My best turtle day of the year came later in the month when I saw three species on one outing. The two other besides painted turtles were the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the eastern spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera).

common snapping turtle lurking

The eastern spiny softshell is one of the stranger vertebrates I’ve encountered. Their shells are, predictably, not as hard as the shells of most turtles people are familiar with. In fact, they even curve with the terrain.

spiny softshell turtle, male

Females are larger and darker than males. They also have the trademark spines of the species along their collar.

spiny softshell turtle, female

May brought me some more snakes as well. The first one was, as of yet, my first and only smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis). I found it in an oak barrens. I didn’t notice it until I almost stepped on it, the snake being small and camouflaged. I was in awe. I had not expected to see one and it had a gorgeous, dainty appearance. At roughly the girth of a DeKay’s snake (Storeria dekayi) and not much longer it had the appearance of a little green snake fairy. Unfortunately I was not able to get a picture of this shy creature, making it the only snake species I saw but didn’t get photographic evidence of this year.

The next day I almost ran over a snake with my bike. I was riding along a gravel path when suddenly something much larger than the previous day’s snake slithered, almost jumping, out of my way. I slammed the breaks, sending gravel flying. I walked back to where the snake was and it was safely on the grass intent on getting away from me. I took a few pictures and later identified it as an eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos). Oddly enough it wasn’t behaving like one. When startled, they usually spread their hood giving them a cobra-like appearance, fake striking, and finally playing dead. I guess I didn’t freak this one out enough or it figured it could outrun me. All for the better. I’d rather see a safe snake than to get a good view of one.

eastern hognose snake

Wisconsin has a handful of treefrog species. Two of them are virtually identical and I can never tell which is which. They’re cute anyway so I let it slide. Below is a young treefrog of either the eastern gray (Hyla versicolor) or Cope’s gray (Hyla chrysoscelis) variety chilling on a compost bin.

Hyla spp.

I saw my final two snake species of the year at Door County in June. The first was the DeKay’s snake and the second was a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) basking by the surf.

northern water snake

Finally here’s a picture of a DeKay’s snake from this fall. I already posted it but they’re cute and I have a hard time resisting that face.

DeKay’s snake

What a fun year learning more about the natural world around me! I can’t wait to see what kind of herping adventures I’ll have next year. Stay tuned for my upcoming post about my 2016 birding fun.

Christmas Bird Count, 2016

Hello and happy holidays! This is a busy time of year and I haven’t had much time to write. Last weekend was the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort where birders put their skills to use to count every single bird they come across within their assigned area. My dad has been leading the Madison CBC’s Area 4 for decades so this is a family tradition for me. Unfortunately, I did not sleep well the night before and only joined the count just before noon, meaning I had to miss out on the “long walk” portion of our count, when we generally see some of our best birds. I still had fun though in the short amount of time I spent out with my feathered friends.

Upon entering our area, the first birds I saw were rafts of American coots (Fulica americana) occupying small patches of open water on Lake Monona. They were so densely packed that they looked more like big black blobs rather than individual birds. I called my parents to tell them I would count the coots, but they said the other two members of our area were on it. Later when we met up with the others, we found out there were some other birds hidden among the flocks, including a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) and a redhead (Aythya americana).

I met my parents at the Yahara River where it cuts through the isthmus. We counted a lot of birds there, mostly mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and coots.

American coots on the river

After the river count, we traveled along the lakefront to see if there was anything on our part of Lake Monona. We found very distant clumps of tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) and herring gulls (Larus argentatus) out on the ice as well as a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I found the eagle when I went ahead of my parents and checked out an area near a beach. It look off before I could get a picture and then flew right in front of my parents not a minute later.

Next we went to Hiestand Park. By this time it was snowing pretty hard. We found mostly black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), and mourning doves (Zenaida macroura). In the past we’ve had some good Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) sightings at the park but had no such luck today.

Lastly we went to the house of our area’s sole feeder watcher. We spent some time adding her notes to ours as well as seeing if anything new showed up while we were there. Something new often makes an appearance during our visit, but this year it was only a second house sparrow (Passer domesticus). We had some good views of birds she had already recorded though. A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) stood guard in a distant tree almost the whole time we were there and we even saw the resident Cooper’s hawk dive with athletic skill under a yew bush. I got a good view of a red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) as it went to a feeder right by the window but I could not get a picture before it flew off. I did get some pictures of juncos and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). These were the most frequent visitors to the feeders during this time. The cardinals especially came out in large numbers while the light began to drop.

Dark-eyed junco
And a cardinal in a yew tree

What an amazing day! I’m happy to be part of such a great effort to not only track numbers of our wintering birds but to also enjoy them.

Parfrey’s Glen, 12-10-2016

Today I hosted a hike at Parfrey’s Glen. This narrow gorge is located in the Baraboo Hills and was the first area in our state to be designated as a State Natural Area. What I like about this hike is that the topography changes so dramatically in such a short distance.

The trail starts off as a flat pavement/gravel path.

The first change I notice is that once in thicker woods the path becomes less even and the valley starts closing in.

Then things really start to look, well, like a glen. The terrain gets rockier as you approach the gorge.

The inside of the glen is cozy, but wide at first.

Along the way there are always impressive ice formations this time of year. The one below resembles a rock fall.

The second part of the glen is a bit narrower. A special spot is a rock face that looks like a lion roaring. I always have to get a picture of it when I pass through. Thank you, Jon, for pointing this out to me a few years ago.

Near the end of the trail you have to climb over a pile of boulders. In the picture below you can see the remains of stone steps from when the glen was more accessible. The gorge even had a boardwalk up until the late 2000s when floods washed it away. The DNR has not rebuilt the boardwalk and I treasure the more natural vibe the place has now. The only downside is that crossing the stream (as you have to to move up the glen) can get you a little wet. That’s more of a problem now that the temperatures are below freezing than it is in the summer.

Just as suddenly the glen begins it ends in a small waterfall. The terrain becomes more open again as if the rock walls never existed in the first place.

The best thing about this being an out-and-back hike is that you get to experience the magic of the glen again heading out. As we headed back, it began to snow lightly. By the time we were about halfway back the snow intensified, bringing with it extra quiet and calm as we hiked out.