Viewlightenment at Ferry Bluff

Do you have a place out in nature that feels like a sacred temple to you? For me that place is Ferry Bluff State Natural Area. My parents have been taking me and my brother there for almost as long as I can remember and the bluffs there have special significance to me.

When entering the SNA, the road traces Honey Creek along the bluff wall until you get to the parking area where the creek meets the Wisconsin River. From there the best way to head is up. Before I even gain that much elevation I feel a rush of emotions- this is after all the trail I loved as a kid. After a single switchback and some steep strides I make it to the top of Cactus Bluff, the first stop on the way to Ferry Bluff. The forest makes way to a small, sandy prairie. But what really gets me is the view.

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Wow

As with most days there were already several view enthusiasts up there when I made the hike on Saturday. I cannot say how much time I spent up there but I looked down from the bluff at every angle I could think of. I can say I know this place like the back of my hand but that is a lie. There is always something else to notice and it is worth my time to take it all in.

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Looking west from Cactus Bluff

After a while it was time to move up higher. The view is just so much more “wow” the higher you go, and so I headed up to Ferry Bluff.

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The view of Ferry Bluff partway up the trail from Cactus Bluff

The path continues on up the hills and is even steeper in spots than the first half of the trail. Some parts require climbing up some rockier terrain. One of the most beautiful parts is along a narrow prairie ridge.

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Eventually the path horseshoes around to the top of Ferry Bluff and you realize just how low you were before.

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Cactus Bluff looks like a little bump in the terrain from this view.

It was time to sit and enjoy the view.

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Looking west from Ferry Bluff

The view is so much more incredible from up there. I can say I’ve felt some sort of “viewlightenment” every time I’ve been up there. On last week’s trip is was especially strong. Being up that high can bring upon a spiritual feeling in me. I think it has to do with how I can see all the details of a relatively large area at once. Below me were the river, the creeks, and all their islands. I saw eagles, human fishermen, and lowland forests. Beyond the riverway were the farms, towns, and Blue Mound. I was in the sky, not just staring up at it, but there was still an infinite stretch of space above me. When you see all of this at once it is hard not to appreciate the interconnectedness and beauty of the world since it is staring you right in the face. Soak it in.

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I could have sat there all day.

After a while I knew I had to go back down. I was meeting my friend Nicholas shortly. He wanted to get outside too so I picked him up at his place nearby and we went up Cactus Bluff together. Views do not diminish when shared with others.

Governor Dodge State Park

I haven’t gotten out camping much this year, so I was happy that my friend Jon invited me to Governor Dodge State Park with him last weekend. At just over 8 square miles, it is the fourth largest of Wisconsin’s state parks and is just under an hour’s drive from Madison. I’ve been going here with family since a young age so the place has a lot of memories for me. I am always glad to go back and visit.

I arrived Friday night at 8, after having delays getting out of town. Jon was just finishing up cooking and I added some cold food to our selection. After supper we sat around a fire and talked of the election (and some more upbeat topics) while a tree frog sang nearby. It was not too cold out but the fire felt cozy.

In the morning we decided on our first hike- the gorgeous Stephens Falls and Lost Canyon trail. It is a short hike, just over a mile, but there is a lot to see along the way.

The trail starts off following a small creek. Not long after the trail begins the creek flows down the waterfall and the path curves around to follow it into a tranquil glen.

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Looking down at the waterfall
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Walking ferns, Asplenium rhizophyllum, on a nearby rock

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Where should you go after visiting the waterfall? A lot of people head back up the the parking lot, but taking the rest of the loop is much more enjoyable. The Stephens Falls Trail continues for about a quarter mile after the falls and when we reached the end of it we took a right onto the Lost Canyon Trail.

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Some of the fall beauty along the trail.
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Downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens
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More forest beauty

The loop ends at a small prairie. In the summer lupines are abundant but this time of year the best sight is the grasses turning their lovely fall hues.

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For our afternoon walk we did something much longer. We took the Pine Cliffs Trail around Cox Hollow Lake, one of two man-made lakes at the park, starting at the beach. This loop was about four or five miles, including the portions we walked on the road and on the Lakeview Trail. The highlights are the two large cliffs that overlook the lake, each with a plant community that seems more northern in its makeup. White pines are the predominant tree and blueberry plants and ferns fill the understory.

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Looking down at Cox Hollow Lake through the trees
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One of many fern patches on the cliffs
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Looking up at one of the cliffs not on the trail

We saw some animals, mostly turkey vultures. We heard some creatures too. Around every corner that day there was a spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer, chirping in some hidden location. This small treefrog species doesn’t have much longer to go until hibernation. The woods get a lot quieter once winter hits.

Unfortunately I had to work on Sunday so this was a one-night trip for me. Governor Dodge is a large park that has many trails worth checking out. You can’t hit them all in one weekend. The two I did, however, are two of my lifelong favorites and I would recommend them to visitors of the park. Of the two, the falls is a the easier hike. Not only is it shorter but there is less of an elevation change. The pine cliffs are a little more strenuous but can be done on a shorter route than we did. The park’s trail network is very interconnected and it’s easy to create a custom route to see everything you want to.

10/5/16 Birds and Snakes

On Wednesday I woke up and headed out to explore Madison and Middleton. I didn’t take long to see birds; there was a belted kingfisher patrolling the waters of Wingra Creek before I even got to the entrance of the Arboretum. The Arb itself was alive with bluebirds as usual, with a few white-throated sparrows and a ruby-crowned kinglet thrown in for some migration fun.

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eastern bluebird

Pheasant Branch had even more white-throated sparrows. A large flock greeted me at a savanna area near the parking lot.

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white-throated sparrow

It’s the middle of fall migration, roughly speaking. Many warbler species hit their peaks already but waterfowl season has yet to truly heat up. I love that best in late October and early November, when you can see several duck species on a lake. Most of October is a pretty good time for sparrows, though I’ve only had luck with white-throated so far. I’ve had days in past years where I can see five sparrow species just on top of Frederick’s Hill at Pheasant Branch.

Wednesday was a mixed day in the herping realm for me. I saw five DeKay’s snakes, a very common snake but a favorite of mine. These little things only get about a foot in length and look super adorable. They also don’t slither away at the sight of people like garter snakes do so they’re really easy to observe.

adult DeKay's snake
adult DeKay’s snake
much younger one
baby one

The day was tinged with sadness though as I saw almost as many dead snakes as I saw living ones. There were two DeKay’s, one common garter (just a little baby), and one red-bellied snake all flattened on trails. Two of these were on paved trails, and all the living snakes I saw were either on gravel or pavement. This is pretty normal behavior for them and a lot of the smaller snakes will sit still when a person approaches instead of moving off the trail. The idealist in me wishes we could just stop paving trails with materials snakes love or at least put some gravel patches off-trail too as alternative sunning spots. The realist in me however will just remind people to please watch where they step and bike and to remember trails are just as much the space of other creatures as they are ours. Your awareness could save a life.

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.

Prairies Have Fall Color, Too

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a class with the UW Extension. This course happens to be hosted by The Prairie Enthusiasts at their beautiful Schurch-Thomson prairie. Over the past few weeks I have noticed a shift in the coloring of the plants their, with the grasses and forbs alike become a bit more fall-like. Below is a photo from the 11th of September.

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Still fairly summery for sure. The next photo is from the same location on September 24th.

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Okay, so I don’t like to compare pictures that were taken is very different lighting conditions, but the prairie is redder in the second one. The grasses in particular stand out. Who says fall color is just for trees? Prairies change throughout the year too and they are a delight to watch.

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bergamot turns from green to a deep red
as does this showy goldenrod
as does this showy goldenrod

 

this milkweed leaf doesn't look that different than an autumnal tree leaf
this milkweed leaf doesn’t look that different than an autumnal tree leaf
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compass plants and their relatives turn yellow and then a rich brown fit for the season
a closer view of a particularly red clump of big blue stem
a closer view of a particularly red clump of big blue stem, one of the grasses adding to the warm tone of the prairie

This is just the beginning. I consider mid to late fall to be even prettier in terms of autumn prairies. By then there is very little green left. The color is not as brilliant as a forest in peak color, but it is a nice brown with a hint of warmth. It is hard to compete with. Expect more prairie posts in the coming month.

 

 

Seed Collecting and Walking the Pheasant Branch Conservancy

On Saturday I invited my roommate to volunteer with me at the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, a large tract of prairie, marshland, and other natural communities on the north side of Middleton. We ended up doing seed collecting in the prairie. First we collected sideoats grama seeds. This is a grass that is much shorter than the big bluestem that towers over prairies and the seed heads were below my waist. They were very easy to pick. Instead of using trimmers we just ran our fingers along the stalks and collected the seeds as they fell into our palms.

Sideoats grama (with roommate in the background)
Sideoats grama (with roommate in the background getting his own picture)

It took a long time for us to fill our seed bags even partway. After about two hours’ work each of us had only collected about 5 cups.

After a short break we switched over to collecting penstemon seed heads. Considering penstemon is the genus name and not the species, I’m not entirely sure the exact identity of what we collected. My best guess is penstemon digitalis. I still have a long ways to go on my plant IDs. We filled up our bags faster on this because we clipped off the stem right below the seeds.

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After a few hours of work I took my roommate on a brief tour of the conservancy because he had never been there. First we went up Frederick’s Hill and saw a multitude of plant and insect species on our way.

black swallowtail
black swallowtail

The top of Frederick’s Hill is one of the best views in town. I can’t resist the urge to take a new picture every time I am up there.

the immediate view looking south
the immediate view looking south-pardon the city in the background

The conservancy is so gorgeous! The creek in the picture is a fork of the Pheasant Branch Creek, which winds through much of Middleton. After getting down the hill we went to the springs that feed into the creek.

The springs have a boardwalk that goes right down to the water. The water felt cold to the touch, but it wouldn’t feel that bad in winter. The ground keeps it at a moderate temperature and in the winter it remains unfrozen. At that point the springs are a good place to find birds looking for warm water and all that comes with it.

An indigenous belief is that the springs lead to the spirit realm. While I do not believe that, there is something spiritual about being in a place where water begins its journey on the surface of the land. The water we saw bubbling up will flow to Lake Mendota, travel farther down the Yahara River to the Rock River, then on to the Mississippi and eventually the ocean. Like everything else, the springs are part of something large and intricate once you take a deeper look.

the springs
the springs

Wisconsin River Valley, 9-10-16

Moving takes more time than I’d like. Not only did my roommate and I have to move all our stuff but we had to unpack it too. I still have some stuff left at my parents’ house (sorry guys). I didn’t have much time to write. I have been out in nature though. My roommate, who majored in forestry, and I went to the University of Wisconsin (UW) Arboretum and walked through their prairie parcel a few days after moving in. My biggest exposure to nature though is through a course I’ve been taking through the UW extension.

On Saturday the class took an amazing field trip through the valley of the Wisconsin River. Growing up only about half an hour from the river, it is my river. Or maybe I’m its human. Either way, it feels like home. The first place we stopped, the Avoca Prairie and Savanna State Natural Area (SNA) was new to me. Our plan was to drive across a low channel to access the prairie, but the water was high due to the large amount of rain we’ve had this summer.

pretty though
pretty though

But hey, at least we got to view the river bottom forest a little. The predominant trees were silver maple and river birch. They are both adapted to frequent flooding. Unfortunately the understory was dominated by invasive reed canary grass, but there were some bright red cardinal flowers blooming through the cover.

cardinal flower surrounded by reed canary grass
cardinal flower surrounded by reed canary grass
silver maples and high water
silver maples and high water

On our way out, we spotted a first year common snapping turtle. It’s amazing that these small things grow into such a tough animal.

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Someday it will be big- their shell can be over a foot long at adulthood

Next we headed to the Spring Green Preserve, a Nature Conservancy land. This is a place I’ve been since childhood, but every time I go it’s different. Prairies are in a constant state of flux throughout the year, with different plants blooming at different times. The Spring Green prairie is a dry one with sandy soil and has earned the nickname “the Wisconsin Desert.” It even has prickly pear cactus, which shocks a lot of my friends when they find out it is native. Dry prairie was once the dominant vegetation type along parts of the river valley but plowing and lack of fires led to corn fields replacing it on flat areas and woods replacing it on hillsides. It is only because of hard work by restoration teams that what remains of the prairie exists today.

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the view upon entering
prickly pear cactus with fruit
prickly pear cactus with fruit
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bird’s foot violet
Little blue stem, one of teh most common grasses at the preserve, is the reddish-purple one in front of the trees.
Little blue stem, one of the most common grasses at the preserve, is the reddish-purple one in front of the trees.

Backyard Birds, 8-24-16

In a week I will be moving out of my parents’ house and into the city. It’s fitting then that today’s post would celebrate their backyard. This is the only house my brother and I were raised in and it’s where I learned the basics of bird identification. Today I was sitting near the back windows watching some Netflix when movement out in the woods caught my eye. All the birds were low to the ground. At about eye level I made out a great crested flycatcher, a Baltimore oriole, a blue jay, and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

great crested flycatcher
great crested flycatcher

The flycatcher was the biggest surprise because they’re usually hidden high in the canopy. I hear them more often then I see them. They have distinct calls- a whistled “wheep” and a buzzy “creep.” The bird flew around a bit and eventually landed on an open branch where I was able to snap some pictures of it.

I also got a picture of a ruby-throated hummingbird. I had been trying to take a satisfactory picture of one for about a week. They are difficult subjects- fast, tiny, and not apt to stick around for long. After grabbing my camera and snapping whenever the feeder was busy I finally got a shot of a male that made the cut.

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My apartment life in Madison won’t have the same experiences as my suburban life with my family but Madison has pockets of nature. I’ll be living close to the arboretum and I plan on checking that out frequently along with other spots that were never as close and convenient when living on the far west side. It’s going to be a change of scenery, but I will not stop being a nature lover.

Lotuses 2: the Relotusing

I went back to Stricker’s Pond a few days ago. This time it was closer to midday so the lotus flowers were open. I took some flower pictures and also some of dried pods that I got a closer look at. Consider this more of a “bonus materials” feature of my first post than an original one.

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One of the dried pods on the shore

 

Another dried pod- notice the different amount and relative size of the seed holes
Another dried pod- notice the different amount and relative size of the seed holes

 

They are pretty large.
They are pretty large.

 

An open flower
An open flower- pretty, huh?

 

This one can't be that much older than the previous flower. The center is starting to look more like a developed pod though it is still bright yellow-green and some of the petals are retained.
This one can’t be much older than the previous flower. The center is starting to look more like a developed pod though it is still bright yellow-green and some of the petals are retained.

 

A good look at the "field." It's hard to get a big shot of the pond without including houses. Given its suburban location, Stricker's Pond is a great place for people to study nature without driving to the countryside.
A good look at the lotus “field.” It’s hard to get a big shot of the pond without including houses. Given its suburban location, Stricker’s Pond is a great place for people to study nature without driving to the countryside.

Yellow Flowers and a Green Turtle

Last night brought more rain to southern Wisconsin, bringing the mosquitoes back to their peak after a few days of relative relief. That same night I heard the fall songbird migration had reached our area but this morning I wanted to stay out in the sun where there would be fewer mosquitoes- but fewer birds as well. I went out after breakfast to explore the parks of Middleton to see what I could find.

The predominant color for flowers right now is yellow. This was most striking in the form of cup plant (Silphium perforliatum) and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

Cup plant
Cup plant

Cup plant has an unique leaf shape that traps water. Small animals can even take a sip from it. With last night’s rains, there was still water in many of the namesake cups.

Nature's water glass
Nature’s water glass

Cup plant thrives in open areas with a scattered trees, and I saw many of them at both Stricker’s Pond and the Pheasant Branch preserve. Contrast this with compass plant which I find in more open areas (cup plant does great at my parents’ partially shaded lot while compass plant fares poorly). I found a few compass plants at the sunnier part of the Stricker’s Pond park.

Compass plant
Compass plant on the left, big blue stem on the right

It was a hot day and I got a late start so I didn’t see a lot of animals. American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were my most seen birds of the day. The turtles were in abundance. I didn’t see any snappers today but Wisconsin’s omnipresent painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) were busy sunning on logs before it got too hot.

Painted turtle
Painted turtle

If you want to see a painted turtle in the Madison area, just go to any calm body of water. If it’s not winter, you’ll see one. They are “painted” in red and yellow on an overall dark body. However, you will see an occasional one covered in duckweed like I did. Then it will be green.