Last week my mom and I went hiking at Blue Mound State Park. Before hand, we made a quick stop at the Thomson Memorial Prairie a few miles away. I wanted to get some pictures of Blue Mound in fall. I was waiting all summer for it. I arrived a week or so after peak color though. Many of the yellow leaves had fallen already or were hidden below the oak canopy, which was a dark red-brown. Oaks are not known for their fall color.
I hadn’t been keeping up with my plan to get pictures of Blue Mound from multiple parks in the area just because this summer ended up being so wet and buggy. Now that the mosquitoes have mostly died off, I’m hiking a lot more again. Our hike at the park was pleasant, as the trees kept us out of the wind, and there was plenty to see along the way.
Even though I took the picture of Blue Mount from a short distance away, I decided to make my customary map.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lastyear. 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A new month, a new overall feel. This past week of more autumnal weather has rendered the landscape looking a little bleaker. Sure, some color hangs on, but it just looks more drab outside. It feels more like late fall too. Today I had a brief birding break at Stricker’s Pond, and the wind was whipping across my face as cold November rain threatened to fall.
Yet, the birds and I still spend time outdoors. The birds have no choice but to do so, and neither do I if I want to see anything beyond the typical backyard visitors. The pond was not as flush with waterfowl as it can be in the fall but there were a few species on what first looked like an empty plane of water. Aside from the Canada geese (Branta canadensis) the first species I took notice of were hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), followed shortly by ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and a northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata).
I noticed a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) mixed in with the geese. Great blue herons will stick around later than other migratory species, but it still looked out of place on this chilly day. Another summer bird hanging out was an eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) on the north side of the pond.
The woods had less harsh air than the open areas and was a more comfortable part of the walk. There I found three sparrow species: white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), a fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca), and a dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). White-throated and fox sparrows are mostly migratory species in this area, but juncos are a winter bird, though this one may have been making its way through to locales farther south. The sparrows were hard enough just to get decent looks at and I didn’t get any pictures. Oh well, I’ll get one of a fox sparrow someday. The trees were gorgeous though, and the oaks in particular were beautiful as they peak later than many of our other trees.
I’ve been part of five seed collecting work days so far this fall. I haven’t written about all of them and I don’t intend to and the related posts will just be the highlights of my experience. The most recent volunteer day took me to a part of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy that I do not often get to go to. I had a chance to get my feet wet in a strange world. I mean that literally because on Wednesday I collected seeds in the wetter part of the prairie.
That was easier said than done. The ground was not wet all over, but was an undulating surface alternating between wet and dry. It was difficult to gain a footing on this uneven ground. When I stopped near a plant one foot would be in ankle-deep water and the other would be several inches higher and dry.
Even before we moved that low I was getting wet from the first plant I collected. Three of us were assigned to collect the seed pods of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a plant from a family that lives up to its name. It didn’t take long for my hands to be covered in its white sap.
The sap came off during the course of the day and didn’t seem to have any effect on my skin. It’s not a tough sacrifice to pay to make butterflies happy.
In the wetter areas I gathered seeds from spotted Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), two plants used medicinally in the past. The species in Eutrochium are named after Jopi (Anglicized as Joe Pye), a healer who used the plants to treat various ailments. While we don’t use these as medicine anymore, it was fascinating to realize the plants I paid notice to also attracted the attention of people who lived many years before me.
In June I first visited the Greene Prairie in the UW Arboretum. I wanted to go back in the following months to see how the vegetation changed throughout the summer, but the frequent rain and buggy summer intervened and I didn’t get outside as much as I wanted to. The weather has been cooler and drier lately, and the mosquitoes have died down for the most part, so on Saturday I finally went back.
The Greene Prairie is a bit of a walk from the parking lot, but the walk is through forest and savanna so I don’t mind.
I didn’t know what the focus of the walk would be beforehand, and I was hoping for more fauna, but I saw more flowers than critters. Other than a turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and a few blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), I cannot recall any birds. With an abundance of flowers, they took my focus for the day. Not every flower was done blooming, and the ones that had already bloomed were displaying their seeds. Post-bloom does not imply absence of activity.
Bottle gentians were one of the first blooming plants I noticed. I had not seen any in bloom so far this year (I saw plenty of cream gentians, or Gentiana alba, in the previous few weeks). Already gone to seed was the prairie dock. Rattlesnake master was in the process of changing its white flowers to brown seed heads. Many grasses looked like they were preparing to drop seeds soon too. Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) was particularily far along in this process and the seed coverings looked somewhat like wheat. The cycle of life is continuing with this next generation that has yet to take root.
Ah, the transition from summer to fall. Maple leaves around town are starting to change color, pumpkin spice lattes are back on the menu, and volunteers are out in prairies collecting seeds.
Wait, what was that last one?
In the past few weeks the outdoor volunteer opportunities have consisted heavily of seed collecting. That’s fine by me. I like any sort of work in the prairie but collecting seeds is my favorite. I consider it an opportunity to advance my plant ID skills- with hundreds of species in the area there’s always more to learn! Three of the five species whose seeds I’ve collected this year were new to me. Today I worked with one that is a long-time favorite of mine but I hadn’t collected before, leadplant or Amorpha canescens.
This legume is usually just above knee height but a few today were a bit taller, though not quite waist high. Unlike many prairie plants, leadplant does not abandon its stem in the winter. Plants in their second year or older have woody stems. The stems are destroyed by fire, but like many plants in fire-dependent ecosystems they will just grow a new one in the spring. I could tell there have not been fires at today’s particular prairie for a few years because some plants had exceptionally thick stems and were rather bushlike.
The purple flowers are replaced by dull-colored seed pods this time of year, a silvery-gray with just a hint of the royal color. They were easy to collect with plant clippers by cutting the stalks just above the highest leaves.
I was working with five other volunteers but as the morning wore on we spread farther apart. I stumbled upon the mother of all leadplant patches just over a short knoll from everyone else. Here the plant was growing in large circular groups. It certainly kept me busy.
Working in the prairies gives me more of a chance to explore them, as the pace I take is slower. As frequently happens, I encountered numerous spiders and insects I could not name. Fortunately I only had to scoop one out of collection bag. Many of the spiders were large orb-weavers with bold black and yellow markings and I believe there were a few different kinds as they varied in size and pattern. Grasshoppers, beetles, and smaller spiders were on various plants I walked by and even some I collected. Like I said, it’s a good way to see what’s really going on.
Our work paid off. In total the crew collected two large bags of seeds that will be spread at parks throughout Dane County. Other teams collected seeds from other species. Most of our prairies are restored land and they depend on human power to collect and disperse seeds to get higher plant biodiversity at individual sites. It feels wonderful to be part of that process.
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 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.
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.
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.
I just spent 2 days near Cedarburg Bog at the UW Milwaukee Field Station for a short course. The course was amazing, but this post is about the bog itself. I found a new SNA that I love. As explained by the prof, the bog is a relict habitat, meaning it is a leftover from a time when the local climate was much colder and it resembles a natural community you might find farther north. It is not the first such habitat I have visited and it’s fun to know the history of these places and how it ties in with the rest of the region’s history.
Part of my hands-on coursework led me into the west side of the bog (on university property) during the day but I feel like the point I fell in love with it was when I took a night walk there with a few other students. It took on a whole new feeling when the shroud of darkness made it more mysterious. Not wanting to take away from that feeling, I set my headlamp to a soft red rather than a harsh light. It made for some unique pics.
Today when class ended I went to the south entrance. There I found another sizable boardwalk with a scenic meandering route.
Cedarburg Bog is in Ozaukee County in southeastern Wisconsin. It is worth visiting not only if you live in the area but also if you are spending a weekend nearby like I did. To find the boardwalk at the south parking lot, take the right hand path when the trail forks. I assume the bog is also amazing by canoe or kayak.
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.
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.
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.