Ridgeway Pine Relict SNA, 3/17/18

I like hiking off trial. Yes, it’s harder than walking through a groomed area, but that’s the point. You have to push through brush. You have to look at the lay of the land and plan each twist and turn. You have to prepare for the possibility that even though you know where you are, you still don’t know exactly where that is.

Yesterday I went hiking at the Ridgeway Pine Relict State Natural Area with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group. Five of us showed up for what ended up being my most adventurous hike of the year so far. The SNA covers almost a square mile of land, but don’t let that make you think the SNA square- it follows Driftless Area valleys. It’s a steep hike down from the prairie restoration on the ridge to the relict, but it’s worth it. The forest, a mix of deciduous trees and pines, is a sparkling jewel. A pine relict is a type of forest that is left over from a colder time when the glaciers were leaving Wisconsin. As a result, relicts often resemble the vegetation you’d expect farther north. Like others in the area, the Ridgeway Relict in in a sheltered valley.

One of the trails heading down into the valley

There is an old logging road that leads partway down from the Ridgevue Drive parking area, but it doesn’t go very far. As with many SNA’s there is no designated trail. At some points there are deer paths or worn routes from previous hikers but for the most part it was up to us to decide where to go. The trickiest part of navigating the SNA is that it doesn’t perfectly follow the valley floors and we’d wind up hitting private property. To figure out how to get around these areas, we had to know where in the SNA we were. A combination of a parcel map (provided at the trailhead) and GPS was helpful. Even with that, we still disagreed about our exact location sometimes. That’s just part of the experience.

The highlight of the hike for me was the rock formations. Composed of warmly-colored sandstone, they dotted the hillsides. Most were on steep slopes and hard to get to. I’m glad that while I was growing up I was able to gain experience on this type of terrain; it reminded me of when I was a kid and would play in the woods in western Dane County. I’m definitely going to go back and explore the hills and rocks more. I think spending several hours there someday soon would be a good idea.

The world’s luckiest person has a deer stand on top of this rock

An added bonus is that I get to expand on the theme I started with my previous post. Blue Mound was in my line of site at the top of the hill on Ridgevue Drive and was only about 8.4 miles away. Since the two points both lie in a high area, there were other hills that got in the way of Blue Mound and it could only see it from the crest of the hill.

From foreground to background: prairie restoration, pine relict, nearby hill, Blue Mound
Blue Mound is marked in blue, the approximate point I was standing on the road is marked in red

Road Trip Part III: Wisconsin’s North Coast

The distance between my 2nd and 3rd destinations, Amnicon Falls State Park and Copper Falls SP, was short so I decided to take a few extra hours and check out the sights along the way. There is plenty to see along Highway 13, as this route follows Lake Superior for much of the way, and when I wasn’t right by the lake I was driving through boreal forest.

Port Wing Boreal Forest SNA

Port Wing Boreal Forest is a beautiful State Natural Area where I had my first stop of the day. I didn’t see much of it, which is a shame because pictures of the beach look amazing, but I spent a few minutes in a small clearing with a calm, isolated vibe.

My next stop was Bark Bay Slough SNA, which was a good SNA to get decent views of from just the road and parking lot. In fact, I didn’t head off-road at this one at all. The namesake slough was on one side of the road, an expansive bog on the other.

Unusually cooperative belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) at Bark Bay
Bog view
Open pool in a small stream with tamarack (Larix laricina) trees
Bark Bay Slough and surrounding forest

Next I wanted to get my nostalgia on and revisit the site of my first Great Lakes memories at the unincorporated town of Cornucopia, near the belly of Siskiwit Bay. I was 5 when my parents first took me and my brother there. When I was a kid, the sight of the water shocked me. Never had I, in living memory, seen water that stretched as far as the eye could see. I would squint and try to see the far shore. As with anyone else gazing out at the lake, I couldn’t.

Flash forward to 2017, and it was still a dizzying spectacle. Half of that was the size of the lake, half of that was the weather. It was a hazy day, but still plenty bright and the horizon was a hard point to focus on as the lake and the sky were equally bright.

Kind of neat in an abstract way, but it strained my eyes at the time
Siskiwit Bay, east side

After spending some time by the bay, I headed to Ashland to get some lunch (with a lake view!) and continued on my way toward Copper Falls, which will be the subject of final road trip post.


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.


I started off Saturday with a plan to go on as many nature walks in the metro area as I could between 9 and 4. Aside from briefs breaks for food and the gym, I did just that. It was a beautiful day- mostly sunny with a high near 70. The only disappointing part of the weather was the strong wind that kept all the butterflies out of site. They’re much easier to notice when they fly about. But that didn’t hold me back from birding and herping as I saw 6 first-of-year species and took a lot of pictures.

My FOY species for the day:
Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
Purple martin (Progne subis)
Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)
Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)
Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)
Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

I had seen my FOY wood ducks (Aix sponsa) the evening before but I hadn’t had my camera then. The dapper fellow below was the subject of the day’s first picture.

Some more birds from the same walk:

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

It’s not just the animals that were beautiful. The landscapes were still very brown and drab, but this small pool in the woods gave me cozy feelings.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw my first hermit thrushes of the year. They are the first members of the genus Catharus, the brown woodland thrushes, to be seen in a Wisconsin spring. They can be secretive, so it took some patience to get a shot of one without any branches in the way. This is the most beautiful picture I have gotten of any members of this genus.

Of special excitement to me was my first snake. This is a whole category of animal I had yet to see this year. One of my walks was along a trail I’ve grown to associate with garter snakes. I took me a while to see one on Saturday and I was worried it would be a day without a sighting right before I finally lucked out.

It was gorgeous. I enjoy the slim, bold appearance of these snakes. I crouched down as the snake moved about on the forest floor just feet from me. I got several shots of it, including a few with its tongue out. I can’t resist going for those.

There weren’t many leaves out yet, but the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) patches were starting to show some green. Compare this to late February when the flowers were just starting to poke out of the ground.

Aside from golden-crowned kinglets, which are nearly impossible to photograph, the hardest bird to get a decent shot of was the brown creeper (Certhia americana). It made photographing the hermit thrush look easy. I’ve never seen one hop so fast up a tree. Usually they take a little more time to pause as they glean for insects in the bark, methodically scaling the heights with short bursts of energy. It took me several tries before I got a picture where the bird wasn’t a complete blur. Considering these birds will leave southern Wisconsin for northern locales in a few months, capturing one on camera was a perfect ending to my day.

Brown creeper between hops

Cherokee Marsh, 2-18-17

Today I led a hike with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group at Cherokee Marsh- North Unit on Madison’s far north side. My dad says he used to take me and my brother there when were were kids and I was interested to see if I could remember any of it. I could not, but I had a fun time exploring it as a new place. Cherokee Marsh is a wetland along the Yahara River and the park we went to is just a small portion of it. It was not a long hike, but I liked what I saw and I’m curious to see what it’s like in the spring and summer as well.

small woods
little pond…
… with a prothonotary warbler nesting box (I’ll have to come back later in the year to see if it gets used)
marsh boardwalk
view of the river
muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) house

Aside from the muskrat house, other evidence we had of mammals were frequent white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks. Most of the birds we saw were on the river. I identified Canada geese (Branta canadensis), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus), and common mergansers (Mergus merganser). I also heard my first-of-year sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) calling in the distance.

Another bird that I usually start seeing the same time as sandhill cranes is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Later while on a run in Middleton I heard one give out the distinctive “check” note and dive into a mass of cattails. I’ve also heard northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) singing for the past several days. They are the first bird around here to start singing in the “spring” and I am delighted to hear them. I will keep my eyes out for other bird happenings of late winter.

Pheasant Branch Conservancy, 2-5-17

I headed back to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy to do some winter birding, and this time I stuck mostly in the woods. There was no shortage of birds this time. I saw 15 species total.

One of the species I saw the most of was the American robin (Turdus migratorius). Most non-birders and those new to the hobby are surprised to find out that we get them in the winter, but their year-round range extends into southern Wisconsin. This time of year they seem to prefer areas with open water, berries, or both. We don’t have the multitude we get in the warm months but if you get out and about you can see them at least a few times each winter. In fact, what surprised me the most about seeing them today is that it took me over a month to see my first robins of 2017. I saw 17 of them today.

American robin

The species I saw the most of was the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). These small, delightful birds were also a first of year species for me. Over 20 of them were congregated in a small area of the forest where most of the robins were. Not only did they have the highest numbers of any bird around, but their collective high-pitched calls changed the entire atmosphere of the woods. It was like swimming in their sea. I loved it. I wouldn’t have left but the day marched on.

Cedar waxwing
A waxwing showing off its red wing patch

Not a bad birding day. The woods was alive with flight and sound. My full ebird checklist can be found here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34158193

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.

Governor Dodge State Park

I haven’t gotten out camping much this year, so I was happy that my friend Jon invited me to Governor Dodge State Park with him last weekend. At just over 8 square miles, it is the fourth largest of Wisconsin’s state parks and is just under an hour’s drive from Madison. I’ve been going here with family since a young age so the place has a lot of memories for me. I am always glad to go back and visit.

I arrived Friday night at 8, after having delays getting out of town. Jon was just finishing up cooking and I added some cold food to our selection. After supper we sat around a fire and talked of the election (and some more upbeat topics) while a tree frog sang nearby. It was not too cold out but the fire felt cozy.

In the morning we decided on our first hike- the gorgeous Stephens Falls and Lost Canyon trail. It is a short hike, just over a mile, but there is a lot to see along the way.

The trail starts off following a small creek. Not long after the trail begins the creek flows down the waterfall and the path curves around to follow it into a tranquil glen.

Looking down at the waterfall
Walking ferns, Asplenium rhizophyllum, on a nearby rock



Where should you go after visiting the waterfall? A lot of people head back up the the parking lot, but taking the rest of the loop is much more enjoyable. The Stephens Falls Trail continues for about a quarter mile after the falls and when we reached the end of it we took a right onto the Lost Canyon Trail.

Some of the fall beauty along the trail.
Downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens
More forest beauty

The loop ends at a small prairie. In the summer lupines are abundant but this time of year the best sight is the grasses turning their lovely fall hues.


For our afternoon walk we did something much longer. We took the Pine Cliffs Trail around Cox Hollow Lake, one of two man-made lakes at the park, starting at the beach. This loop was about four or five miles, including the portions we walked on the road and on the Lakeview Trail. The highlights are the two large cliffs that overlook the lake, each with a plant community that seems more northern in its makeup. White pines are the predominant tree and blueberry plants and ferns fill the understory.

Looking down at Cox Hollow Lake through the trees
One of many fern patches on the cliffs
Looking up at one of the cliffs not on the trail

We saw some animals, mostly turkey vultures. We heard some creatures too. Around every corner that day there was a spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer, chirping in some hidden location. This small treefrog species doesn’t have much longer to go until hibernation. The woods get a lot quieter once winter hits.

Unfortunately I had to work on Sunday so this was a one-night trip for me. Governor Dodge is a large park that has many trails worth checking out. You can’t hit them all in one weekend. The two I did, however, are two of my lifelong favorites and I would recommend them to visitors of the park. Of the two, the falls is a the easier hike. Not only is it shorter but there is less of an elevation change. The pine cliffs are a little more strenuous but can be done on a shorter route than we did. The park’s trail network is very interconnected and it’s easy to create a custom route to see everything you want to.