Not-so-Humans of Jackson County

Last weekend I went back to the Black River State Forest a year after my first visit. Last year I was alone, this year I invited five friends. I was eager to play tour guide and I narrowed down the hikes to to my three favorites, which wasn’t hard. Hint: two of them I profiled last year. The other one is a short nature trail by the river that was unfortunately full of mosquitoes this time around.

I did go farther on the trails than I did last year, but since I already wrote about them I’m not going too add more detail on those areas. I consider those posts good enough introductions. Instead, I am writing about the amazing diversity of life in Jackson County.

A trail near the Dike 17 Wildlife Area and one of my favorite spots in the state

It starts with the animals I only had residual evidence of. Two years straight of timber wolf (Canis lupus) tracks near Dike 17! At one particularly sandy spot, I saw wolf, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) tracks. Hmmm. I wonder if there’s a good story behind that. Maybe the wolves tracked the deer, successfully taking one down. The tracks were pointing in the same direction. Wolves also hunt cranes, but my money’s on the deer being the prey. Apparently wolves mainly go after young cranes and these tracks were pretty large. I can see an adult crane being able to fly to safety. Maybe the cranes flew off high into the sky and witnessed the kill from afar.

A big concentration of deer tracks

Then there were the sounds. Eastern whip-poor-wills (Antrostomus vociferus) and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor). The magical fluting of the veery (Catharus fuscescens). The “drink your tea” of the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). The loud, crisp call of the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). These are all sounds I heard right at our site.

Then, of course, there was everything we saw. I had a remarkable glimpse of a golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) when I was without my binoculars or camera. It was flitting low through our campsite, in the low trees by the edge of the river, probably scouring the twigs and foliage for bugs. It stayed for a minute then flew off to the east. This brings my year warbler count up to 20. There were other birds too- the trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) and common loon (Gavia immer) on my Dike 17 hike. The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) that flew in front of my car while I was driving down Cemetery Road. Brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) were everywhere, including one my friends saw tearing the wings off a dragonfly before devouring it.

The herping was decent. My friends rescued two Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) from the road and we got a good view of a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) doing its best to hide in fallen leaves. No snakes though, but Jackson County as a whole seems like good habitat for many species.

Blanding’s turtle
Spring peeper

When it comes to plants and invertebrates I’m only able to identify so much of what I saw. The woods are mixed conifer and deciduous. Jack pines (Pinus banksiana) are common especially in barrens. Lupine (genus Lupinus) was blooming but we were just past the peak and many of the plants were going to seed. There were a few types of fern, the one that stood out the most being the cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum).

Cinnamon fern- tall with distinct red-brown fertile fronts

The only dragonfly species I was able to identify is the chalk-fronted corporal (Ladona julia), a striking black and white dragonfly that was basically everywhere on one of my hikes. Despite its abundance, I didn’t get a picture I like. I got quite a few butterfly pictures and I’ve put them all below.

Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis)
Red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax)- we also saw the white admiral subspecies (Limenitis arthemis arthemis)
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
Pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

This is definitely not an exhaustive inventory of every species at the Black River. It is simply my post made in praise of the abundance of life I witnessed and the joy I felt over the weekend. This was my first camping trip of the year and even though 2018 is wet and buggy I hope for at least one more outing before the calendar changes over.

Late May and into June

As mid May became late May, the bird migration slowed down. There were no longer warblers of every species rummaging for grubs in the forest canopies.  A few flycatchers were passing through and that’s about it. The days and even the nights grew hot as we entered a week-long heat wave. The weather was unpleasant but I still wanted to get outside. What’s a guy to do?

Well, I went to Parfrey’s Glen of course. I head there at least once every year, and in a variety of weather, but the only post I’ve done in the past was in December of 2016. Back then the landscape was barren, the only green coming from the pines atop the cliffs. What a change from December to May! Everything was leafy and the canopy was dense and the forest floor shaded. The water I avoided in the winter felt refreshing as I walked through it in my water shoes. The creek was the best “trail” for parts of the hike and that was fine by me.

Parfrey’s Glen
The lion’s head

While I didn’t see much in terms of warblers and shorebirds in the past few weeks, I have had better luck with herping than I have the rest of the year. I’ve been seeing quite a few turtles besides for the standard painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), including a few large female common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and eastern spiny softshells (Apalone spinifera spinifera). My herping highlight so far has been to finally see my first eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). The sun was growing low on a mild day and I was walking near the edge of a woods looking for firewood. I was not the first to see it. One of my fire buddies pointed it out first and I didn’t know what species to expect when I looked over. It was not a long snake, maybe about as long as a large garter, but thicker. It was brown overall with dark reddish blotches in a crisp, uniform pattern.

Fun fact about non-venomous snakes: many of them mimic rattlesnakes in order to convince would-be predators to leave them alone. How do they do this? When it realized we saw it, it headed into dense cover and began vibrating its tail. The sound against the dead leaves isn’t a dead-ringer for a rattlesnake, but it’s close enough. I’m too smart to be fooled. Nice try, snake.

Surprisingly that was my first snake of the year. Hmm. Better late then never.

Eastern spiny softshell turtle doing its best impression of an aquatic pancake
Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)- a warbler that breeds in marshes and low prairies of the state

The calendar still says its spring, but I know better. The seasons are a continuum rather than an abrupt change. Bird migration is dying down. Mosquitoes are everywhere (I know, right?). The trees are fully leafed out. This might not be summer yet, but it sure is the lead-in to it.