Tuesday, April 12, 2016

In the Gorges

Saturday night the radar and winds looked decent for bird migration. However, the weather forecast was "meh" with light rain and moderately windy conditions forecast for the morning .

Given the potential for rain and temps forecast in the 30s for the early Sunday morning, I set my alarm accordingly for a late start time (conducive to my preference for sleeping in). But bird I was going to since it would be my only opportunity to do so before my extended visit to Texas. Plus I find birding on dismal days pleasantly solitary with most people tending to stay indoors under threat of rain and chill. My calculation proved delightfully true.

I was hopeful a Louisiana Waterthrush might show up somewhere in Wisconsin (like where I would be going). However upon waking on Sunday, the radar looked pretty discouraging for much of anything new arriving. Field observations proved the morning's radar to be correct.

My birding yielded the usual forest birds that were recently reported. I birded Pheasant Branch Conservancy (Dane Co) in the late morning and Baxter's Hollow State Natural Area (Sauk Co) in the afternoon. Given I hadn't done a whole of lot of woodland birding recently, despite no new arrivals, a few species were first of the years (FOY) for me.

My second calculation of the day was to go where I would be sheltered from the wind. Birding in the wind ranks lower than birding in subzero temps in my opinion. The gorges carved out by the creeks at Pheasant Branch and Baxter's Hollow provide a much desired ambient shelter on most windy days. I found both places to be rather serene with only the occasional breeze. In addition to be calm for birding, both locations were also targeted for their Louisiana Waterthrush potential (would be FOY).

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy
It was in the low 40s when I arrived at the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch. The theme for birding here was "grounded." Lack of insects in the canopy had the kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers (FOY) joining the typical ground dwelling Winter Wren in a mad search for insects among the leaf litter and moss. Even the Eastern Phoebes were found low, poaching insects from the warmer asphalt path.

Eastern Phoebe, Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Sitting quietly at the creek's edge I had my first of the year stunning looks at Winter Wren and Yellow-rumped Warbler. The Winter Wren quietly snuck in foraging among the rocks, roots and lichens.

Winter Wren working the rocks, moss and roots
Eventually, he began quietly singing. His song was so slight, had I not been so close, I imagine it would not have been audible above the din of the creek rapids. For a time I was unsure if the bird I was observing was the one singing since I could not see his bill opening, but indeed he was.

Delicately trilling Winter Wren

Despite having Golden-Crowned Kinglets at my feet nearly everywhere I walked, I struggled to get a satisfactory photo, challenged by the low light and their typical continuous movement.

Golden-crowned Kinglet looking back at me
Though much fewer in number, Ruby-crowned Kinglets (FOY) also joined the party of birds among the rocks adjacent to the creek.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Other notable FOYs included fairly numerous Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a single Hermit Thrush which never provided any great photo ops.

After lunch, I headed to Baxter's Hollow State Natural Area in the Baraboo Hills. The birds species there were similar to the morning with the addition of Barred Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers calling. Shortly after arriving, I quickly discovered Baxter's Hollow is apparently a dog park on Sundays despite pets generally not being allowed on any Nature Conservancy property with the exception of a few locations (see "What you cannot do" here). (I feel a rant coming on...) Why is it the majority of dog owners fail to read the signs at the natural areas they visit? Signs that read "No pets allowed" or "Dogs must be on a leash." Enter dog owner one asking me where the trail head is.  Me, I'm thinking, "Why are you asking me about the trail when your dog can't be on Nature Conservancy property?" I say nothing because I fear the all-too-often hostile and indignant response I get from dog owners when you politely point out the rules. Next up dog owners two (a couple). They pull up, get out with their dog and start walking the public road through the property with their dog on leash. No rules broken...yet (I'm assuming the public road is permissible to dogs). Meanwhile dog owner three comes down from the bluff area through the woods with his black lab on leash. Kudos for the leash, but the guy was blatantly on conservancy property near the rock outcroppings, possibly coming down from on top (it sure looked that way!) where NO ONE should be walking. Subsequently the dog owning couple takes their dog of its leash! Now I'm unnerved and can no longer hold my tongue. "I hope your dog is going to stay on the road because dogs are not allowed on Nature Conservancy properties." I get the annoyed, not overly hostile tone with the man's response, "I didn't know that." AS A DOG OWNER IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND ABIDE BY THE RULES AT ANY PUBLIC PLACE YOU TAKE YOUR DOG!!! "Let it go", I tell myself after arming myself with photos of each of the three vehicles and their license plates. So I'm going to let it go, but not only are these pets and owners disturbing sensitive habitat, THEY LEAVE CRAP ALL OVER. Yes brown disgustingly smelly crap. Hiking in areas where people bring dogs comes with the need to have land mine dodging skills, and when one fails at such skills, it really stinks! (nyuk, nyuk...moving along...)

Back to why I went to Baxter's Hollow, Louisiana Waterthrush breed here. During early summer an excursion along the Otter Creek can easily yield 3-5 individuals, perhaps more, singing on various territories. With several species arriving early in Wisconsin this year, I was unrealistically hopeful this species had already arrived on territory. April 10 is not even consider record early. But it would seem Wisconsin isn't really having an early spring. We had a brief hint of warm weather early on. But overall this spring has been a mixed bag of odd weather waffling between below average and above average temps in a rather acute fashion.

Hepatica, Baxter's Hollow
At Baxter's Hollow, most of the early spring ephemeral flowers were still emerging. I found limited pockets of flowering or near flowering hepatica, but the landscape was still trending brown with corpse plants of last year. The greens and reds coloring the landscape were mostly provided by the persisting lichens, moss, quartzite rocks and conifers.

I found a single, pathetic looking, frost bitten skunk cabbage bloom. Most of the skunk cabbage still looked like this...(minus the death I failed to notice until processing photos).

Emerging Skunk Cabbage, photobombed by death

Trout lily...not even close,

Trout Lily
The sighting of the day came near the top of the road where I discovered a bat flying around. I have since come to learn this bat is the federal and state endangered Northern Long-eared Bat. It landed on a nearby tree affording me some photos and close observation. I proceeded to walk down the tree and attempted to nestle behind some bark before deciding to fly off. I subsequently learned roosting behind bark is typical for this species.

Northern Long-eared Bat!
It's become almost regular for me to find bats during the daytime in April. It never grows old with each encounter feeling newly amazing! I'm curious, do some bats hibernate in the caves of the Baraboo Hills? Did this bat hibernate nearby or was he/she returning for the summer? Was it roosting up in the bluffs only to be disturbed by a man and his dog? Or was it simply out in the afternoon sun hunting for insects?

A couple hours into my visit I reached the trail head. I noticed raucous calls that I first thought might be crows calling from up the valley. Wrong. I quickly realized the sounds were coming from the pond, so I approached to investigate. I surmised I was hearing a chorus of frogs, possibly Wood Frogs? They went silent upon my approach. I eyed a few in the water, but was uncertain on the ID. Further investigation of frog calls confirmed I had indeed heard Wood Frogs. There had to have been a large number calling to produce the decibel level I noted.

Wood Frog
Following a narrow footpath further into the woods, I found a few more frogs. scrambling and hopping among the rocks and dead grass. These were no Wood Frogs, but instead Spring Peepers.

Spring Peeper
I explored a little more off the beaten path and discovered an active beaver pond I was not aware existed on this property.

(photo to be uploaded later from my phone)

I could conclude this by saying, "All that was missing was..." when I ponder the lack of butterflies and a certain waterthrush. Truthfully though, nothing was missing. It was exactly as nature would have it (minus the dogs). The periodic sunshine had warmed the atmosphere to the high 50s, and I felt engaged with natural world.

The bat was simply amazing.

I closed out my visit down by the lower creek of Baxter's Hollow, lying at the bank's edge, soaking in the remains of the day and tranquility of the creek passing through the quartzite boulders.

I could not have asked for more.