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.

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.

Middleton Birding 3-4-17

March is upon us. Some days these past few weeks have felt wintery, others precociously springlike. This was one of the warmer days (though not the warmest by far) with temperatures hovering around 40. It still felt cold, with persistent winds and a dampness to the air. Since it wasn’t precipitating, I went birding before my workout. I started at the North Fork Trail in Middleton, a good place to spot early spring migrants.

Apart from a few Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), there did not seem to be many birds. Then I saw two sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). They blended in spectacularily with the marsh plants. My favorite picture I got of them was one where they are both in the frame. The second one is hard to see. It’s not too hard to believe a jogger could pass them by without noticing them. These were the first ones I saw (as opposed to heard) this year.

Yes, there are two birds in this picture.

Walking on I came to the largest cluster of waterfowl. There were the typical geese and mallards, but also a few northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) and one American coot (Fulica americana).

Northern shoveler- the duck with a bill like a shovel

I also saw a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) near the cranes and when I was heading back I was able to get a few pictures of it.


After a short lunch break I went to Stricker’s Pond for the first time this year. There were a few woodland birds, most notably a handsome hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) that was unfortunately not at a good angle for a photo, but most of the bird activity was on the water. The water was still mostly ice, but the edges were thawed.

Mallard walking/swimming right at the edge of the ice

In addition to the mallards, I saw my first-of-year buffleheads (Bucephala albeola). There were two males of this small duck species swimming and diving near the edge of the ice a bit farther from the shore than the mallards.


The main action on the pond was between a few ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) and a flock of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Crows are known to gather in groups and harass certain birds in what is known as “mobbing.” Usually this behavior is directed at a raptor species and can be a good way to find a hawk or owl you otherwise would have overlooked (one time my mom and I found an owl and a hawk in the same tree being mobbed by crows). Today I saw this behavior directed toward the gulls. I found this interested because I’ve never seen gulls as the target species before even though I go to the pond often and both species spend much of the year together there.

Crow sounding the alarm
The gull that got most of the brunt of the mobbing
“Can you believe this, human?”

A single crow harassed the gull for a bit. An immature gull joined the first one and a bit of a skirmish developed, with the crow diving at the adult gull. The immature gull flew away. The crow and the remaining gull then got into a fight that looked almost like the rolling cloud of dirt fights from old cartoons. Other crows began to gather on nearby trees and cawed. The gull then left.

Usually the crows do this because they consider the other bird a threat, but they have no young or eggs to protect this early in the year and a gull is not going to pose a threat to an adult crow. This seemed strange to me but I’m also not a bird behavior expert. Birds are entirely capable of doing what I least expect.

Out of the birds I saw today, the cranes were the most springlike. All the species I saw can be found in winter but cranes are a rare sight through December and January. Usually the first true spring birds I see are tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) or eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe). The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) might as well be in this category too since they are only very rarely seen here in winter. So far I’ve heard one of those but have yet to see one. They prefer open ground and the snow probably forced them to move farther south again. The red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) I saw have disappeared too. On the other hand, I’ve seen more flocks of American robins (Turdus migratorius) again and they are more suburban-based than I expect from winter flocks. I think that in a week or so I’ll start seeing more spring birds.

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.