August Insects

When I go out hiking, I never know for sure what the highlight is going to be or what is going to show up. Will I see some interesting turtles? Will there be a vast array of flowers? This week the insects reign.

One of them I saw was a cicada (family Cicadidae) of some sort. As I have zero experience in cicada ID, I’m not going to offer any sort of positive identification, but it was a black and green insect with a white belly. It might be a member of the genus Neotibicen. Members of that genus are annual cicadas, meaning that adults are present every year. This is in contrast to periodical cicadas, which only show up as adults every thirteen or seventeen years depending on the species. Annual cicadas still have multi-year life cycles, but the life cycles of individuals aren’t synced so some will show up as adults when others are still at an earlier stage.

Cicadas are an essential part of my summer. I love the buzzing song that rarely seems to stop. It’s as if the warmest part of the year comes with its own hum. It is a sound that reminds me of picking berries by the alfalfa field when I was a kid. It also reminds me of when I worked at a Christmas tree farm and I’d go to cut a branch and an angry cicada would come flying out at me, buzzing its loudest. This never caused me any harm but it always startled me. Mostly cicadas are creatures that would make summer silent if they disappeared. Their absence would be more startling than their presence.


Now onto things I can identify! I’ve been seeing quite a few butterfly species around town. I’m still deciding on a favorite species, but I know I like swallowtails. I was in luck in Saturday because the black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) were plentiful. I saw a few I presume were mating, and I captured a few pictures of one getting the most nectar it could from a thistle flower.

Black swallowtail

Everybody’s favorite butterfly is the monarch (Danaus plexippus), isn’t it? The few up on top of Frederick’s Hill in Middleton were very photogenic, perching on yellow flowers in the patchy shadows of oaks.


Summer won’t last forever. In a matter of months, insects will be just a memory. In the case of mosquitoes that’s a good thing, but I will miss butterflies for their dazzling appearance and cicadas for the daily company they provide with their songs.

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.

Road Trip Part IV: Copper Falls State Park

Welcome to my final post about my July 2017 road trip. Sorting through my photos took a lot of time, but almost a month after my vacation I’m finally done. This is much harder than it sounds; the process requires thinking about which pictures would best sum up each place and sorting through dozens, or even hundreds, at each park. I took more at Copper Falls than any other place I visited on my journey, as it was the only park I spent multiple nights at.

How would I describe Copper Falls to a southern Wisconsinite? I would say it’s the Devil’s Lake of the north. It’s a well-known park, and deserves to be because of the splendid views. While Amnicon Falls has a cozy feel, Copper Falls State Park is a land of deep gorges and lofty views. Like Devil’s Lake, the views attract a lot of visitors. The trails were crowded when I first went during the day, but starting at about 5 in the evening the traffic slowed way down. I ran into very few people at this time and hardly any starting at about 7. Packing a meal I could easily eat on the trail paid off because everyone else was eating back at their campsites.

This gave me a lot of time to enjoy the numerous overlooks without feeling like I’m hogging the view. My favorite views were from the backside of the falls, watching the water cascade down. There was so much energy in the water’s rush toward Lake Superior. The water is colored a warm brown with tannic acid, but that is not how the falls get their name. The name also has nothing to do with the color of the rocks. Instead, it comes from failed attempts at copper mining in the area. That is a fact I learned from the many interpretive signs along my hike. I have to say the colors are interesting though, and I do not blame myself for thinking the falls were named for them before my visit. The color of the water is especially nice; it’s like watching beer tumble into a glass.

Along my hikes, especially the more solitary ones, I was wary of bears and other regional megafauna, but I never saw any. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a black bear (Ursus americanus) from the distance. Instead, a saw a few red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and black squirrels (a color variation of the eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis). On a side trip through Ashland county I didn’t encounter any moose (Alces alces) but I saw several white admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis) butterflies along a stretch of gravel road.

White admiral

The falls themselves are part of the Bad River (Copper Falls) and the Tyler Forks (Brownstone Falls). Copper Falls is 29 feet high and Brownstone Falls is 30. In addition to the falls there are also smaller cascades, rapids, and a geological feature known as Devil’s Gate.

Copper Falls
Copper Falls, second view
Brownstone Falls, front view
Looking down from Brownstone Falls
Tyler Forks (foreground) flowing into the Bad River
Fallen logs in the gorge
Devil’s Gate (background) and an island with cairns

Upon leaving Copper Falls State Park I made the long drive back to Madison.

I did not leave the state on my week off as I had originally planned on doing, but I found spectacular landscapes nonetheless. I had wanted to go up north again for a while now, but I hadn’t known it was the right time until it happened.

A popular picture spot at the park

July 1st Prairies

I was hiking at the Spring Green Preserve today with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group when my friend Jon mentioned that he’s been coming to the preserve for about 20 years. How long have I been going there? Good question. I cannot recall a first time. I remember going there with my family at various times when I was very young, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they took me there before I left infantile amnesia behind.

Point is, it’s a place that feels like a longtime friend. Like with any friend I only see a handful of times a year, it’s easy to pick up on changes. Last time I went, on May 31st, Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) was the dominant flower, making the prairie blue. Today the prairie had more white and yellow. The yellow was partially from eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa), of which about a third to a half were still in bloom following their mid-June peak.

Grasshopper on a prickly pear flower

As usual, grassland birds were among the delights. Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) and lark sparrows (Chondestes grammacus) remained from my last visit and welcome newcomers were the dickcissels (Spiza americana).


The Spring Green prairie was not my first one growing up. I know without a doubt the first prairie I ever “met” was my parents’ small restorations. Taking pictures there after mowing the lawn I was able to get shots that I couldn’t under the harsh sunlight at Spring Green. My favorite find were the banded hairstreaks (Satyrium calanus) butterflies on a patch of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). I remember seeing hairstreaks all the time in the backyard as a kid. Could these be the same species? It wouldn’t surprise me if that was at least partly true, but I bet we had other species too. I remember seeing ones that looked more gray or blue than brown. Today’s hairstreaks were super easy to photograph. It took me back to childhood memories of butterflies that I could walk right up to.

Banded hairstreak on butterfly milkweed

One plant that is abundant at Spring Green is leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and the purple flowers were in bloom on our hike. My best picture of one today is of my family’s sole specimen.


There has been a lot of talk lately about the therapeutic comfort of nature and many people talk about walks in the woods as their preferred method of outdoor stress relief. Me, I’m a prairie guy. I don’t know if it’s because they’re our original ground cover, their amazing biodiversity, or because I like the feel of open spaces rather than the coziness of the woods. No matter what the reason is (fewer mosquitos?), I feel more of a “forest bath” when I’m not in the forest. Spring Green has one of my favorite prairies and I would strongly suggest that anyone who loves a good prairie hike check it out. Maybe you can feel the prairie too.

Fellow visitors letting themselves get lost in the beauty

Butterflies and birds of Lodi Marsh SNA

Today I headed back to Lodi Marsh to see what it’s like in summer. Spoiler alert: it is great. There was much more animal activity than the times I went in February and April. Having never been to the SNA until this year, I didn’t know what it would hold but I was pleasantly surprised.

I stuck to the prairie, as the path down to the marsh was thick with poison ivy. As I was making my way up the hill, a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) kept me company as it sang from the tree line. This mimid repeats a seemingly random series of lines in pairs of two. I heard it all the while I climbed.

The next bird sighting really surprised me. I have seen over 200 species in Wisconsin so I’ve added most of the common ones to my list. Additions to my life list in this state are not frequent, just a few a year, but there are still some less common birds I haven’t seen yet. One of these was on my wish list… until today. I have finally seen Henslow’s sparrows (Ammodramus henslowii). These grassland birds are the decline, mostly due to habitat loss, so the prairies that host them are very special indeed.

Henslow’s sparrow

Up at the top of the hill I had a few butterfly encounters. The most adorned one, and also a new one for me, was the common buckeye (Junonia coenia).

Common buckeye

On the far (southern) side of the hill I ran into the bluest bird in the state: the indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea).

Indigo bunting

The hour was growing close to noon as I retraced my steps back down the north side of the hill (with Henslow’s sparrows making another appearance) and back through the low areas. Down near the trailhead it was butterflies galore. Here are the highlights: I saw a few of my lifer eyed browns (Satyrodes eurydice) as well as a chance to view up close some of the fritillaries that had been avoiding my presence on the rest of the hike. I knew they were definitely some species of the large, orangey butterflies as I made my way through the prairie but I couldn’t tell which ones. They were always on the go.

These ones, however, were feasting. I flushed them as I walked close, unaware of their presence. I noticed the food they had left behind (more on that later) and decided to back up to see if they would return to their meal. They did- and I didn’t even have to back up that far. I was able to slowly walk back toward them and snap a few pictures so I could identify them later. This proved to be no easy task, as two of the species we get here are irritatingly similar. After an hour or so of studying pictures and species descriptions I have arrived at the tentative conclusion that the one in the background is a great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) and the one in the foreground is an Aphrodite fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite).

Why yes, some butterflies get nutrients from scat. Don’t say you never learn anything from me.

One field mark the accounts say separates the two is a small marking on the Aphrodite’s upper wing. I’ve circled it in the picture below.

That little comma-shaped mark

This being said, butterfly identification makes birds and herps look like a walk in the park. I make no claims as to the exact identity of these butterflies.

I will keep Lodi Marsh in my mental list of places to go year-round. It is certainly a prairie with a lot going on, from sparrows to fritillaries.

Arboretum South

When I go to the UW Arboretum I usually go to the large section north of the Beltline. Today my friend Jon and I explored the southern end and I discovered it is a jewel in the city.

The Grady Kettle Forest and Grady Oak Savanna were our first stops. This was also a surprisingly quiet part of the arboretum even though it is close to the highway. The thick forest north of the savanna does a good job at drowning out the automobile sounds.

The main plant in bloom at the savanna was common spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), a knee-high plant with blue/purple 3-petaled flowers. One bird we heard was an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), a large member of the sparrow family found at woodland edges. The standard mnemonic for its song is “drink your tea” with the tea syllable trilled. I also saw a few silver-spotted skippers (Epargyreus clarus). Skippers usually throw me for a loop but I was able to identify this species because of the bold wing markings.

Silver-spotted skipper

The biggest treat was the Greene Prairie. For a restoration, this sure has a lot of biodiversity. I couldn’t identify every plant and it would take a while to even recall all the ones I could. Just know this is not your typical restoration. Every twist and turn on the narrow trail led to a new floral discovery.

A small corner of Greene Prairie
Shadows on a prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf

Jon mentioned that he’d like to see the prairie a few weeks from now when more plants have a chance to bloom. I agree. I would like to visit this amazing (and close!) prairie gem often now that I’ve had a taste. It would give me a chance to work on my plant ID’s that’s for sure. The sun was getting high by the time we got to the prairie (not good for pictures) but I would like to come back and do a few flower posts this summer.

Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor)

May 31st


I spent the last day of May outside from 9-5. Sure beats spending it indoors. Several hours in southwest Wisconsin wading through ditches, walking through woods and prairies, and sneaking up on turtles along the Wisconsin River really paid off. My reward was sun and fun.

I got a few first-of-years too.

FOY birds:
Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri)
Northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
Bank swallow (Riparia riparia)
Lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)

FOY herps:
Ouachita map turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis)
Eastern spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera)
Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

FOY butterflies:
Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
Giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
American copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
Little wood satyr (Megisto cymela)
Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

Forster’s terns on distant debris

The turtles were all easy to spot. The snapper was the only one that I never saw sunning. All the other turtles were out on the sand by the river. The stretch of shoreline I was at was remarkable; there were shelled creatures everywhere. The hard part was getting close enough to get pictures and to identify them under the piercing rays of the sun. They spook easily but I eventually found a good method. I would sneak up on them from above and behind, taking advantage of the steep bank behind them. It worked well until one would inevitably look my way and run wildly into the water with the others following behind.

Ouachita map turtles


Eastern spiny softshell turtle

The shore was also where I saw the bank swallows and most of the northern rough-winged swallows. Nesting in holes on the bank, they flew over the river in search of food and perched on bare twigs overlooking their watery domain.

The butterflies were all a little more inland, except for the eastern tiger swallowtail which was by a swift and narrow back channel.

Eastern tiger swallowtail

The American coppers and little wood satyrs were lifers for me, but only because I only took up butterfly viewing as a hobby this year. They’re quite common and it was nice to finally “meet” them. I was stunned by the simple beauty of the satyrs (those spots!). The coppers proved difficult to photograph as they were energetic and would fly to another perch just as I got the camera set on them. Getting a snapshot of their open wings was downright impossible but take my word that they look quite amazing spread.

I did not get pictures of the mourning cloak or the giant swallowtail. The former is a favorite from my childhood and the latter is uncommon in Wisconsin so they were real treats to see.

American copper
Little wood satyr

If the quality of a day is measured in sights seen and layers of mud on clothing then it was a great day on both accounts. What a wonderful time spent in my favorite river valley with its inhabitants.

Lark sparrow

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

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.


The French word for Easter is Pâques. This is where the term for an early-blooming prairie plant, the pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens), comes from. On Saturday they dotted hillsides with their pale purple flowers, both at a local prairie I was doing volunteer work at and atop hills overlooking the Wisconsin River where I spent my afternoon.

The birds were out just like the pasque flowers were. In the brush along the river I heard my first-of-year house wren (Troglodytes aedon). Whenever I hear a bird again for the first time in the spring it takes me a few seconds to recognize it, even for common birds. Once I realized what it was I went looking and found it slinking through the barren branches near a slow-moving tributary. On the crest of a tall prairie bluff, I saw my FOY field sparrow (Spizella pusilla). Down below I saw a large white patch on an island. When I looked through my binoculars I did not expect to see a mass of birds, but there they were. I was not quite sure what they were until one stretched its wing, revealing a large black patch. They were my FOY American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).

Field sparrow

The lowland forests contained herpetological treasures. In one spot on the river I saw 5 northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica), my first of the year.

Northern map turtles

Farther from the river, by a small pool, I startled a frog and it ducked into the water to avoid my detection. Fortunately for me, it decided to “hide” practically at my feet. I got a few pictures of this wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) before Jon stepped in to take my place and got a few pictures for himself.

Wood frog

Oh, and there were butterflies. The upland ones stayed low due to the wind, but they were flying around enough for me to take notice. This American lady (Vanessa virginiensis), gorgeous both with its wings open and closed, caught my eye.

In the lowlands there were a few spring azures (Celastrina ladon), a butterfly I had never identified before, and red admirals (Vanessa atalanta). Spring azures may look drab blue-gray when they rest, but the uppersides of their wings are a mesmerizing blue noticeable in flight.

You can see a sliver of the blue in this resting spring azure

Red admirals are a common yet stunning species. At our longest trek through the lowland forest, Jon and I saw a handful of these along a gravel road. I took the picture below when we went off trail and found one in a relatively open area.

The day before Easter was a wonderful spring day full of a variety of animals and even a literal Easter flower. I hope everyone had as nice of a weekend as I did.