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.

Seed Collector Diaries: the Lowlands

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.

Milkweed sap
Milkweed pods

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.

The fluffy seeds of Joe Pye weed
Wet prairie

Greene Prairie, 9/9/17

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.

Liatris spp.
Unidentified flower
Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)
Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
Rattlesnake master up close
The large-leafed plants in the foreground are prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

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.

Seed Collector Diaries: Leadplant

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.

One of the denser clusters in a patch

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.

Road Trip Part I: Perrot State Park

On July 16th I headed out on a “slow tour” of Wisconsin, traveling the state over 6 days at a pace that let me explore places I’d merely passed through before. This was not my original plan. I had wanted to badly explore South Dakota, but with the temperature there hovering around 100, I thought heading north sounded a little better.

And so I began my journey. I started off in the Driftless Area, the part of Wisconsin (and Minnesota and Iowa) that was not leveled by the glaciers that covered the rest of the region thousands of years ago. The land there is much less flat than the rest of the state and when I was a kid I loved driving across bluffs and through steep valleys on the way to visit relatives. I still enjoy the scenery. Much of the first few days was spent exploring small town but I camped for one night at Perrot State Park. I had some time to explore the park on my second day.

Perrot is a smaller park, just under two square miles, but it packs in a lot of beauty per acre. The quintessential stop is Brady’s Bluff, which also happens to be an SNA. I woke up early on the 17th and hiked the steep hill just as dawn was beginning to creep in. The lower half of the bluff features dense woods with ferns and sandstone cliffs. The top of the bluff is a whole different story, with prairies and drier woodland. And man, what a view!

A view of nearby Trempealeau Mountain and the Mississippi
One of the steep prairies on Brady’s Bluff
Detail of the water, with the Trempealeau River being the smaller meandering in the foreground

After my morning hike, I didn’t leave the park just yet. The previous evening I had checked out Horseshoe Falls and I wanted to revisit it in better lighting. “Falls” is a misleading name because during my visit there was just a series of drips heading over the cliff, but it was beautiful just the same. Walking up to it felt like walking into an old, ornate cathedral.

Vines hung over the lip and moss grew in the wetter spots in what resembled cave formations. Two pillars of moss to the right of the main drip were roughly the size of my thighs.

Moss formations

I haven’t mentioned any wildlife yet. Animal activity slows down this time of year, especially when it comes to birds. I have a few butterfly pics that will be in later posts about this trip but I spent more time enjoying scenery than seeing a plethora of animals. Here is one exception: there is a colony of northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) at horseshoe falls. Their erratic flying and beeping added to the cathedral feel of the place. Were they perhaps the choir or possibly angels flying above any worshipers who entered?

Overall though my posts about my trip (and the pictures) will be focused more broadly on scenery than my typical emphasis on birds and other critters. That is only fitting for a trip that included stops at not only the bluffs of Wisconsin’s driftless area but also the world’s largest freshwater lake and several waterfalls farther north.

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)

Pheasant Branch Conservancy, 1-25-17

After two weeks of Seattle-like weather we finally got snow again. Granted, it is very wet, heavy snow that is probably more typical of the Pacific Northwest than Wisconsin, but fresh snow is beautiful. I wanted to go to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy at least once this month but I was putting off my visit until it snowed. Part of my reasoning was that I wanted to visit the springs. They look more gorgeous in the winter when the flowing water contrasts with snow. They are also an area birds like to congregate this time of year.

I saw few birds yesterday, even at the springs. My species list was very short and there was nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year. I did, however, enjoy the walk. The precipitation was a bit hybrid, not quite warm enough to be freezing rain, but not quite typical snow either. It stung my face a little, but the main discomfort was from getting my hair all wet. Rather than making me miserable, this made me appreciate being outside. The weather made it an experience I had to earn.

I think forests are the most beautiful spaces in winter but yesterday I spent most of my time in prairie/savanna and near marsh. I made a game of trying to identify the withered plants. The tall one was cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)- some of the unmistakable leaves were still intact. I also recognized round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata). The scattered trees were beautiful with the snow adorning their deep brown limbs. The bright branches of red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) in the marsh brought color to a landscape that was otherwise low in it.

My favorite part of the walk was the sound of falling snow. I could hear it while walking but whenever I paused I was stunned by how overpowering its quiet sound could be in the middle of the prairie. The snow was my one constant companion while walking through the winter wonderland.

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.