Long Weekend in July

The long weekend: a fine American tradition of pampering yourself. Sure, I spent some time cleaning and doing other important things, but I had plenty of openings in my schedule for hiking. Having Wednesday through Saturday off last week was a lucky little mistake of mine, as I meant to take off time in September instead. I’ve never accidentally given myself a vacation before, but I was glad to take it.

Wednesday evening found me at the Spring Green Preserve. The day was getting comfortably cool as I set out. The setting sun hit the grasses, making them golden and the shadows on them long. Lark sparrows (Chondestes grammacus) darted along the path and swallows flew overhead. There was a slight breeze and not a mosquito in sight. It was a good time to be in the “Wisconsin Desert.”

Spring Green Preserve before sunset
Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

A arrived back at the car just as the sun was setting. An idea struck me: I could redo the hike after sunset. I’d never been there after dark before. I listened to Harry Potter while waiting for the sky to grow darker. After the chapter ended, I turned the audio book off and headed back out into the prairie. I was glad I thought to bring a flashlight with me. I could make out where the trail was but there wasn’t much definition to the objects I saw. I didn’t want to trample one of the animals I claim to like. I had the flashlight on for most of the time except for the times I would stop, turn it off, and enjoy the twilight. I was wondering if I’d see snakes, coyotes, or foxes hunting in the night, but I didn’t see any critters larger than a spider.

Spring Green Preserve at night

The twilight changed as I went along. The warm glow on the horizon shrunk and a few celestial bodies stood out even with the cloud cover. I got home after ten.

Saturday was my last day off and I wanted to make it count. Early in the afternoon I asked my dad if he wanted to join me somewhere west of town. He said yes. Earlier in the day he and my brother went for a bike ride in western Dane County and went past Rettenmund Prairie State Natural Area near Black Earth. Neither of us had been there before so we decided to check it out.

The prairie is on a long, narrow hill surrounded by agricultural land. Parts of it are clearly remnant prairie, especially near the top. The prairie is on the drier side and short plants dominate the steep, rocky areas.

Rettenmund Prairie
Dad by a compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
Me by the same plant

It started raining before we got back to the car, just a few drops at first then it started pouring down. I hid my camera under my hat, cursing my decision to leave my backpack in the car. We waited out most of the storm in the car, then drove to our second location of the day, the Mazomanie Oak Barrens SNA.

Mazo oak barrens

The barrens doesn’t have any official trails, so we had to find the best way to get over to the center of the land. We cut through the maze of knee-height flowers and sumac to arrive at a slight upland where the cactus patches grow stronger than any other I have seen in the state. The individual plants often are taller and wider than the ones elsewhere. We didn’t find an incredibly large one I was wowed by last time I went, but we didn’t have a lot of time because the sky looked dark in the distance again and we wanted to avoid the rain this time. We did find some impressive prickly pears though, and a few other barrens plants that look alien compared to the typical Wisconsin ones.

A rather large eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa)

And then, before I knew it, we were back in the car and I was getting ready for work on Sunday. A long weekend had been well spent.

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.

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.