The Wisconsin River Headwaters

The Wisconsin River is the largest river in the area. I consider it something along the lines of a “spirit river” or a “home river.” It’s not a river it’s the river. Down here, it is wide and surprisingly deep at its center. It serves as a border for many counties. Up north it has a very different personality. Rivers are smaller at their headwaters and the Wisconsin is no exception.

After a year or so of yearning to see my river’s beginning, my parents invited me up to Vilas County along with my brother, his girlfriend, and two family friends. It was early September and I was 30 minutes from Lac Vieux Desert, where the Wisconsin River first drains out of.

On the second day up north I got in the car and made the drive. After a few back roads and smaller highways I got there. It was a humble roadside stop, a marker near the lake and another marker a few miles downstream. The parking lot is not right on the lake, and it’s a short but pleasant walk to the actual headwaters.

Lac Vieux Desert

The River first empties through a culvert into a shallow pool. After that it winds adjacent to the path, then cuts through the forest.

Right after the culvert
By the parking lot

To say the river starts off small is an understatement. It doesn’t look like something that would normally be called a river, but it has to start somewhere and at some size. That size just happens to be about as wide as my car at some points. What a dramatic change from the stream that flows out of Lake Vieux Desert to the mighty river that empties into the Mississippi! As I drove home, I noticed the changes the river makes as it winds its way south. Near Rhinelander it gets slightly larger, but it doesn’t begin to look like the river I know best until the Wausau area. Down near Portage, now that’s something I’m familiar with. That’s where I left the river; it had to work its way west and I had to go south. As it heads farther downstream, and goes past the final dam at Prairie Du Sac, it is the wide and sandy lower Wisconsin River I’ve always known. Somehow it’s all the Wisconsin River, even the parts that seem like a whole different entity. It just has many different sides as we all do.

Road Trip Part IV: Copper Falls State Park

Welcome to my final post about my July 2017 road trip. Sorting through my photos took a lot of time, but almost a month after my vacation I’m finally done. This is much harder than it sounds; the process requires thinking about which pictures would best sum up each place and sorting through dozens, or even hundreds, at each park. I took more at Copper Falls than any other place I visited on my journey, as it was the only park I spent multiple nights at.

How would I describe Copper Falls to a southern Wisconsinite? I would say it’s the Devil’s Lake of the north. It’s a well-known park, and deserves to be because of the splendid views. While Amnicon Falls has a cozy feel, Copper Falls State Park is a land of deep gorges and lofty views. Like Devil’s Lake, the views attract a lot of visitors. The trails were crowded when I first went during the day, but starting at about 5 in the evening the traffic slowed way down. I ran into very few people at this time and hardly any starting at about 7. Packing a meal I could easily eat on the trail paid off because everyone else was eating back at their campsites.

This gave me a lot of time to enjoy the numerous overlooks without feeling like I’m hogging the view. My favorite views were from the backside of the falls, watching the water cascade down. There was so much energy in the water’s rush toward Lake Superior. The water is colored a warm brown with tannic acid, but that is not how the falls get their name. The name also has nothing to do with the color of the rocks. Instead, it comes from failed attempts at copper mining in the area. That is a fact I learned from the many interpretive signs along my hike. I have to say the colors are interesting though, and I do not blame myself for thinking the falls were named for them before my visit. The color of the water is especially nice; it’s like watching beer tumble into a glass.

Along my hikes, especially the more solitary ones, I was wary of bears and other regional megafauna, but I never saw any. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a black bear (Ursus americanus) from the distance. Instead, a saw a few red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and black squirrels (a color variation of the eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis). On a side trip through Ashland county I didn’t encounter any moose (Alces alces) but I saw several white admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis) butterflies along a stretch of gravel road.

White admiral

The falls themselves are part of the Bad River (Copper Falls) and the Tyler Forks (Brownstone Falls). Copper Falls is 29 feet high and Brownstone Falls is 30. In addition to the falls there are also smaller cascades, rapids, and a geological feature known as Devil’s Gate.

Copper Falls
Copper Falls, second view
Brownstone Falls, front view
Looking down from Brownstone Falls
Tyler Forks (foreground) flowing into the Bad River
Fallen logs in the gorge
Devil’s Gate (background) and an island with cairns

Upon leaving Copper Falls State Park I made the long drive back to Madison.

I did not leave the state on my week off as I had originally planned on doing, but I found spectacular landscapes nonetheless. I had wanted to go up north again for a while now, but I hadn’t known it was the right time until it happened.

A popular picture spot at the park

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.

Road Trip Part II: Amnicon Falls State Park

On the third day of my road trip I arrived at Amnicon Falls SP, and it is now one of my favorite parks. Situated on the Amnicon River in Douglas County, this is the smallest state park I visited along my way. That might be part of why it was my favorite stop for a few reasons.

This is not a high-traffic park, at least compared to ones like Devil’s Lake or Copper Falls. Walking around, I did not have to worry about walking into the frames of several photos, even during the busy times. By the waterfalls I was always guaranteed that I would be able to find a place to sit by myself.

With the park being so small, all the falls are within walking distance of each other. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good hike, but it’s neat having a park where everything is, well, right there when you come in. I really mean that when I say it: the park lobby is next to a decent set of rapids. I was briefly distracted by them before I went inside to purchase a site.

The three biggest waterfalls are Upper Falls and Lower Falls on the north channel and Snake Pit Falls on the south channel. Between the two channels is a rocky island that allows good views of all the falls (though the views of Upper and Lower Falls are also great from the other side of the river). What I liked about the setup at Amnicon Falls is that you can get as close to the river as you want. There are no guard rails and it is very easy to walk out to it. I could do things like eat lunch by the rapids or take a seat by Lower Falls and just watch the water rush by with a roar. Getting into the river itself is technically not allowed, but that didn’t stop another visitor from entertaining me with his cliff-diving feats at Snake Pit Falls. I wouldn’t recommend diving, and I didn’t do it myself, but I can’t say I wasn’t impressed.

Lower Falls
Lower Falls from a different angle
Snake Pit Falls with a diver
Upper Falls

Out of these three falls, Snake Pit was my favorite, and not just for the name or the diver. It does not have the volume of the other two falls, but its twists and turns captivated me, as did the deep, bowl-like pit and narrow gorge it flows into. Snake Pit was the hardest to get a decent look at from all angles, which made it the most intriguing. What goes on in the narrows? The cliff diver might know but I do not.

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.

Cedarburg Bog SNA

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.

May 31st


I spent the last day of May outside from 9-5. Sure beats spending it indoors. Several hours in southwest Wisconsin wading through ditches, walking through woods and prairies, and sneaking up on turtles along the Wisconsin River really paid off. My reward was sun and fun.

I got a few first-of-years too.

FOY birds:
Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri)
Northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
Bank swallow (Riparia riparia)
Lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)

FOY herps:
Ouachita map turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis)
Eastern spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera)
Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

FOY butterflies:
Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
Giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
American copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
Little wood satyr (Megisto cymela)
Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

Forster’s terns on distant debris

The turtles were all easy to spot. The snapper was the only one that I never saw sunning. All the other turtles were out on the sand by the river. The stretch of shoreline I was at was remarkable; there were shelled creatures everywhere. The hard part was getting close enough to get pictures and to identify them under the piercing rays of the sun. They spook easily but I eventually found a good method. I would sneak up on them from above and behind, taking advantage of the steep bank behind them. It worked well until one would inevitably look my way and run wildly into the water with the others following behind.

Ouachita map turtles


Eastern spiny softshell turtle

The shore was also where I saw the bank swallows and most of the northern rough-winged swallows. Nesting in holes on the bank, they flew over the river in search of food and perched on bare twigs overlooking their watery domain.

The butterflies were all a little more inland, except for the eastern tiger swallowtail which was by a swift and narrow back channel.

Eastern tiger swallowtail

The American coppers and little wood satyrs were lifers for me, but only because I only took up butterfly viewing as a hobby this year. They’re quite common and it was nice to finally “meet” them. I was stunned by the simple beauty of the satyrs (those spots!). The coppers proved difficult to photograph as they were energetic and would fly to another perch just as I got the camera set on them. Getting a snapshot of their open wings was downright impossible but take my word that they look quite amazing spread.

I did not get pictures of the mourning cloak or the giant swallowtail. The former is a favorite from my childhood and the latter is uncommon in Wisconsin so they were real treats to see.

American copper
Little wood satyr

If the quality of a day is measured in sights seen and layers of mud on clothing then it was a great day on both accounts. What a wonderful time spent in my favorite river valley with its inhabitants.

Lark sparrow

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.


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

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.