When I showed up for the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group’s annual Christmas Day hike, the temperature was about ten Fahrenheit with a windchill that was probably well below zero. Despite the cold weather, there was nowhere else I’d rather be. If you dress warm enough, keep walking, and enjoy your company, the cold will be a part of the experience, not a distraction from it.

I have only been to Donald County Park, southeast of Mount Horeb, on Christmas Days past. We did our usual loop. It was so beautiful that I was surprised almost two hours had gone by when I got back to the car.  Time flies when Christmas is merry, even if the weather is frightful.

Note: these are phone pics and look best on a small screen.

The brightest color at the park
Our frozen path
The Big Spring
Some critter scurried up this diagonal log earlier in the day.
Oak upon the hill
A good old southwest Wisconsin trout stream

TBT: Horseshoe Canyon

Hi all, I wanted to try something new with this post that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. Believe it or not, I have been enjoying the outdoors long before I started this site. I have been many cool places. Many trips I’ve taken happened prior to the founding of A Heron Takes Flight and I have neglected to write about them here. Today this changes. This is my first Throwback Thursday post.

In September of 2015 I went to Utah with a friend. A second friend was supposed to join us but he had to stay behind for work. Although he couldn’t go, he was the most experienced with the state and narrowed down the points of interest to a few highlights he considered essential to a Utah visit. There’s more to see in southern Utah than you can fit into a week, but we hit some of the top spots. My favorite hike, both in terms of the trip and quite possibly in general, was a day spent in Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

The Horseshoe Canyon unit of the park is separate from the main unit and is accessible by driving 45 minutes through unpaved desert roads. That was an adventure in itself. The roads were unmarked and we guessed our way through based on the maze of lines on the map, counting forks in the road and making judgments from nearby landmarks (I could tell we needed to pass between two small mesas at one point). The road, being made of sand, was often bumpy or deeply-rutted. Sometimes there were cattle off to the side with no fences to keep them out of our way. Only when we got close to the canyon did a few signs confirm we were on the right path.

The canyon seemed to come out of nowhere, a lip opening up from the flat landscape. We parked in front of the gaping chasm. Almost right away I got my first life bird of the trip in the form of two rock wrens (Salpinctes obsoletus) flitting in and around a small crevice. These were the only birds we saw near the top.

The descent took a while. Living in Wisconsin does not properly prepare one for the concept of “canyon.” Just as the seemingly improbable heights of mountains had to be introduced to me by previous trips, so did the insane depths of canyons on this one. It was interesting to watch the landscape change during the hike down. Barren rocks with small shrubby plants eventually gave way to scattered, steep fields of flowers. Upon arriving at the bottom, we were in for a real surprise. Much of the landscape stayed arid, but some of it was shockingly moist. This should not have surprised me too much, as canyons are formed by flowing water, but the puddles left over from what had been a stream maybe just days earlier felt out of place. The canyon floor was an oasis. Not only was there tall grass growing along the bank, but there were even stands of trees in some places. Trees! There sure weren’t any of those up above.

My second lifer was a Say’s phoebe (Sayornis saya). With it being a bird that favors open areas with exposed perches, I encountered it before we got into heavy tree cover. It had the typical behavior of a flycatcher and never stayed put for too long. I have to admit I didn’t consider it as a bird I’d see in Utah so it took me a while to realize what I was looking at. The harsh light didn’t help the situation either as it was hard to make out any color details of the bird at the time.

Say’s phoebe

The hike through Horseshoe Canyon is not just a walk through nature, but an open-air museum of human art in a natural setting. What do I mean by that? The canyon walls are decorated, quite prolifically, with ancient paintings. They start off sparse at first, with a few sites with a handful of smaller paintings, but the trail ends at “The Great Gallery” where there are a number of human figures that are almost life size. That was going to be our final destination.

The first set of paintings we came to- as usual, you can click on a picture to enlarge it

It was a hot day and any shade we got felt like heaven. It was while under a small tree that I saw my first bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus). They are small birds, much like kinglets or chickadees, and have the energy of other small birds. A flock of five or so made its way quickly through the trees lining the mostly-empty stream with such speed that I felt lucky to see them before they moved off. A ways up, in a woods that surprised me with its density for being in the middle of the desert, I saw lifer number four of the hike. This green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus) was not that different from its eastern relative in the way it moved half-hidden through the brush. Of course, there was less brush on the canyon floor than in a Wisconsin forest, but it was still a dark woods and the bird at the very least was hidden from the harsh light my eyes had grown accustom to.

At one point my friend doubted the existence of the Great Gallery and I started to as well. We had walked so far already. It wasn’t that long of a trail was it? To add to our doubt, two other hikers we ran into earlier (the only others on the trail) said they didn’t see anything like it on their hike. We agreed to go just a little bit farther to see if it was real. I’m glad we did because just a little bit after we came to it. Nothing can prepare you for the feelings you get when you see it. This is a massive wall, and the large figures are ghostly. You get a sense they haunt the place, as do their creators. There isn’t much you can do but stand in awe and remember to whisper a thank you to the artists of the past. We sat for a while enjoying the paintings but also taking time to rest before the long hike back. Three miles is longer than it sounds when heat and elevation are involved and we still had to climb back up.

Me enjoying the Great Gallery (and this is only just half of the gallery!)
Close up of a gallery section

On the way back I saw lifer number five, a red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis). It was not the only woodpecker in the canyon and just before I saw the sapsucker we saw a northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) fly away around a bend. Interestingly, it was the western red-shafted subspecies as opposed to the yellow-shafted one we get out east. Instead of showing yellow on its underwings when it  flew, it had a nice, warm red. It went along well with the warm colors of the canyon walls.

The hike back up the canyon was difficult and I will admit that was not my favorite part, especially since the day was heating up and we didn’t have any shade for that portion. We really had to push each other and take frequent breaks. It was worth it though- not just for the life birds or the cliff paintings but just for the whole experience. 10/10 would recommend this hike. If you make the trip in the warm season as we did, wear lightweight clothing and trusty hiking boots. Take as much water as you can.  Stop to enjoy the trees. Don’t turn around until you get to the Great Gallery.

This large rock overhang (friend for scale) offers shade as well.

Northern Shovelers, 11/8/17

I’ve never done a species-specific bird post, have I? In the interest of doing something new, I’ll be focusing on just one species I saw yesterday. Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are the most well-known and most frequently seen waterfowl in southern Wisconsin. Others are not quite as common but are still seen regularly here. One such bird is the northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata).

From a distance, they are easily recognizable by their white and cinnamon plumage, but their most striking feature at a closer range is their comically large bill.

Two drake shovelers
Three drake shovelers and a hen

If you asked me what I think the most beautiful duck is, I would respond with a list topped by northern pintails (Anas acuta) and wood ducks (Aix sponsa). I would not think to put northern shovelers on that list. Yet, despite their lack of elegance, there is something charming about them. The warm cinnamon and deep green are captivating colors and I love the golden eyes of the drakes. But, of course, it’s that giant bill that wins me over. It makes them look awkward but in the most endearing way. Perhaps “adorkable” is an appropriate word.

Just look at those little weirdos.

They can be seen in the Madison area any time of year, but I have the most sightings of them during migration. In early winter, they are one of the birds that hang around at Babcock Park in McFarland, sometimes in a very large flock. During spring and fall I have seen them on many ponds in the area.

Just Beginning

Yesterday I finished the course I’ve been taking with the UW Extension. I am now a Wisconsin Master Naturalist volunteer. This means I have completed 40 hours of class time and worked on a final project (seed collecting and a presentation about it). Going forward, this means I need to complete 40 hours of service and 8 hours of further learning a year in order to retain the certification.

The volunteer categories are education, stewardship, and citizen science. I have led nature walks before, but I gravitate more toward stewardship because I like working with my hands and citizen science because the Christmas Bird Count, one of the most famous examples of citizen science, is a tradition in my family. For stewardship I would like to do more work with prairies, both with seed collecting and removal of invasive species. I’m also curious to see what some of the more outside-the-box opportunities there would be for me. As far as citizen science goes, I’m a big fan of species counts. I might even move beyond bird counts.

The love of nature in all my classmates, instructors, and guest lecturers was infectious. None of us were masters of all things natural. I’m a bird and snake guy. I know very little about plants and insects, but some people in the group knew a lot. Other people’s knowledge makes me want to up my own. I am suddenly way more interested in flowers and butterflies than I ever have been in my whole life. Who knows, maybe in a year or less I’ll make a post with several properly-identified butterfly species.

I’m thrilled to be a part of a program where I will volunteer frequently and get notifications about volunteer opportunities I would not otherwise be aware of. I love birding and hiking and all that, but when you’re working in nature you’re more of an active participant. This might sound cheesy, but I felt like I got to know the plants better when I was picking their seeds. It’s very similar to the feeling I get on the rare instances I go foraging or fishing.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to become a Master Naturalist volunteer and I’m excited to see where my skills and interests will lead. I should go out and buy some plant identification books and get started on new adventures.