May is Nature’s Month

Maybe I only think so because it’s happening now, but May might just be the best month. What other month has such an explosion of life? Insects and herps come out of hibernation in droves and the spring bird migration gives us a large amount of birds that we will not see again until fall. The amount of color dazzles the senses too, after seeing mostly brown for several months.

Today’s post is my collection of May 2017 nature pictures from the Madison area. This is not an exhaustive list of everything a saw, but a sampler of late spring flora and fauna.

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) being good at hiding
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula) provide one of the brightest oranges of Wisconsin’s birds
Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), a relative of mockingbirds and thrashers
Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
American cancer-root (Conopholis americana) is a non-photosynthetic plant. Because it can’t get energy from the sun, it is a parasite of tree roots.
Unidentified dragonfly (order Odonata)
Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla)- a drab warbler but one I don’t see every year
The closely-related northern waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) bobbing along Pheasant Branch Creek
Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), a stunning tricolored bird of eastern woodlands

Bauer Brockway Barrens

After some technical issues, it looks like I’m able to upload pictures again so I can make another post. This is another one looking back to my recent camping excursion to Black River State Forest. While camping, I didn’t stay entirely within the forest boundaries. A nearby place I spend a sunny Saturday afternoon was Bauer Brockway Barrens State Nature Area. I love barrens. With their sandy soil and, well, barren look, they seem like they don’t belong in Wisconsin, but they are a native part of the state’s mosaic of natural beauty.

I did not explore much of the SNA as I did not know where the exact boundaries were. Turns out that at just over half a square mile the parcel is much larger than the part I stuck to. As I found plenty to experience within a short distance of my car, this was more of a post-lunch nature relaxation hour than a hike.

In one area I found several earth star fungi in various states of decay.

Much of the barrens was flat and open, the small jack pines (Pinus banksiana) having been controlled.

My “I’m in a barrens!” face

Closer to Indian Grave Creek, the landscape changed. The trees were denser and I had to part the branches as I made my way through them. The creek was in a tranquil ravine. Like much of the surface water in the area it was colored a rich orange with tannic acid from pine and moss. This is the same acid that causes the namesake dark water of the Black River (when the water is deeper it gets a dark appearance that reminded me almost of red wine). The creek was narrow and I jumped across it easily.

On the east side of the creek the trees were dense and the traveling was not as easy. A few wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) had gathered there and we had a Scooby-Doo style chase scene before I headed back west into the open.

The sun was beating down and I decided to take a brief rest. Sometimes when I’m in a beautiful place my strongest desire is to lay down and let nature do all the talking.

After a few minutes of looking up at plants and clouds I closed my eyes. When I opened them back up, I saw a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) circling close above me! I wasn’t dead and I didn’t want to see what would happen if it kept believing I was. I waved at it when it circled around another time but it came back again. I waved more furiously the second time and never saw it again.

I didn’t stay long after that. I still had more I wanted to do that day. Bauer Brockway Barrens SNA is just a little square on the map, hidden in the back roads of Jackson County, but it was one of the best places I found up there. I will definitely visit again so I can see more of it.

Dike 17

Last weekend I went camping at the Black River State Forest in west-central Wisconsin. I had three days packed with hikes that I took at a slow pace, taking nature in at all its beauty. I can’t fit all of the trip into one post, so I’ll start with my favorite part and write more some other day.

BRSF is large. At over 100 square miles it is larger in size than any city in Wisconsin. It is easy to feel alone there, at least the time of year I went. I assume it’s more crowded after Memorial Day. Anyway, I got to spend a lot of time in solitude. I only ran into other people on two of my hikes, both of which were next to campgrounds.

My favorite area I explored was Dike 17 Wildlife Area. It is far from the campgrounds and the road by it is not as smooth as the more heavily-traveled spots. So obviously it’s a good place to get away. On Friday evening I made the drive over to the wildlife area before having a late supper. I did not have much time to explore but I checked out the barrens area close to the parking lot. I did not seem much as far as wildlife went but it was a peaceful walk. Afterward I walked along the main service road to Dike 17 Flowage. Along the way I heard an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) and spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer).

The flowage, like the others in the forest, is man-made. That did not stop me from being awed by it. It is vast and really doesn’t look that artificial. This is not like the little ponds at Nine Springs in Madison.

It was a short walk. I felt an urge to go back. On Sunday I made Dike 17 the only place I explored twice over the weekend. This time I went farther, though I didn’t have to go too far to see what I am pretty sure were tracks from the resident wolf (Canus lupus) pack. Domestic dog prints generally top out at 3.5 inches and these were about 4.5 judging by how they compare in size to my boots.

They also just look big without a measurement.

I didn’t stay within the wildlife area boundary but I didn’t realize that at the time. The surrounding parts of the state forest blend perfectly with it. I took a route of all right turns. The first led me along a wet ditch and marsh.

The next turn led me past an American lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) to the Partridge Crop Flowage. Aside from a few Canada geese (Branta canadensis) I was the only animal I saw. After how far I walked I sure felt isolated even though I was still close to the road and the forest itself is not the most remote place I’ve been. It was a strong feeling. I stood facing the flowage and the adjacent marsh soaking in the beauty and sense of distance from humanity.

After a while I headed back to the parking lot. It was time for my weekend of solitude to be over and to head back into Madison. I walked back slowly, taking it all in for a second time. I never saw the wolf pack or any of the reintroduced elk (Cervus canadensis) but I knew they were there in that wild unurbanized place.

Small Fast Things

You know what are easy to take pictures of? Large birds. Their movements are slowed by their size and they spend much of their time waiting for prey or slowly stalking it. Smaller birds are a different matter. It seems that the smaller they are the less they stay still. We are now in early May when songbird migration is nearing its peak. It’s hard track some of those warblers and kinglets much less take pictures of them. Often I am left with nothing more than just a blur or a bare branch where I swear there was a bird just a second before.

I started my day at Pheasant Branch in Middleton, slowly walking the creek corridor in search of these small wonders. The weather was pleasant- not too hot, but sunny and calm. Birds don’t always seem to enjoy the same weather as us and good days can make for mediocre birding. I didn’t see many species at the creek today. Most of them were ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) and yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), though I did have a single FOY blue-winged warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera). I didn’t get any pictures of migratory birds there. I did, however, have better luck with butterflies. They’re fast too, but at least they rest every now and then. I mostly saw cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), an invasive species, but also a few red admirals (Vanessa atalanta).

Cabbage white on another invasive species- garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

The birding was better at Stricker’s Pond. I saw two FOY birds- solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) and palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum). I saw various swallows and blackbirds as well as white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). I got a picture of a yellow-rumped warbler. I don’t get many warbler pictures so when I do it’s a big deal to me.

yellow-rumped warbler

Okay, so the sun’s a bit strong but a warbler let me take a picture of it. That’s not something that happens every day. What I like about this shot is that it shows all three yellow points in this bird, including, yes, its namesake rump. There’s plenty of context to emphasize the small size of this bird too. I only got two pictures before it flew off into who knows where, so I’m both grateful and shocked that one turned out. I was trying to get pictures of birds all morning and it finally paid off. Warblers are the highlight of spring birding. Just ask any North American birder. Sharing my love of these birds makes it even more exciting for me.