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Mergansers

Thanks to all who voted in my first multiple-choice style “mystery” post.

The correct answer, garnering 71% of the votes, was a Hooded Merganser!

I spotted these birds on a peaceful early-morning kayak down the Pine River, in Florence, Wisconsin.  I was on the relatively wide and slow-moving stretch just below the popular “Oxbow,” taking in the sights and sounds of nature on this undeveloped Wild River, when a bird flew out on front of my boat, splashing back and forth across the river.  Between the speed and all the spraying water, I couldn’t clearly see what it was, or why it was doing what it was doing… until I looked over and saw these cute little guys pulling away from the shoreline behind me.  I got several (mostly blurry) photos in before Mamma spotted her ducklings and got even more excited!  I could almost translate her squawking word for word: “What are you guys doing?!  I told you to stay put!  You never listen!  Get back in the bushes!  No, wait, come up here!  But hurry, as fast as you can!”  And the little ducklings did as she commanded, all four of them getting back to their mother’s safety before the menacing kayaker could cause them any harm.

Female Hooded Merganser flying in feigned distress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uh-oh! Is this little guy going to catch up?

 

Phew, he made it!

 

It’s experiences like these that make every journey down one of our Wild Rivers exciting, even in a year like this one with low water levels.  Although I greatly enjoyed watching the fascinating behavior of this Hooded Merganser family without ever seeing another human on my trip, I could have done without the extremely slow-moving water and constant scraping along the bottom.  I probably won’t paddle the Pine again until we get some significant rain fall, but I may pull the fishing pole out for some stretched of rapids farther upstream.

Luckily, though, we have more rivers in our small county, and later on the very same day that I saw these ducklings, I found myself on the Brule River, which forms the border between Wisconsin and Michigan.  The flows there are much more consistent and paddle-able pretty much all summer long.  It is a wider river than the Pine, though, at least below where the Paint and Michigamme flow into it, and just before it becomes the Menominee, which forms the rest of the border down to Lake Michigan.   There is one nice little rapids that you can either go around (as my friend did) or through (as I did,

Common Mergansers on the Brule

with a little trepidation).  If you’re in a canoe or kayak, I would use some caution and planning even on those rapids, but if you’re in a tube, just go for it – it’s a lot of fun! We saw several cool things on our trip that afternoon, despite the fact that it is more developed and we were greeted by homeowners and boaters frequently along the way.  One of the neatest was several Common Mergansers along the way – I’ve never seen both the Common and the Hooded practically next to each other like that, and I was surprised at how big the Common Mergansers were, close up  – from a distance, I thought they were geese!

 

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Trying for Turkey…

My second morning of turkey hunting really was clear and crisp, and as I carried my gear out to the car I looked up at the 4 am stars, pleased to see the familiar summer constellations back in the sky.  It certainly didn’t feel like summer, shivering in the dark mid-April air, but I knew that once the sun rose the temperature would rapidly rise.

As we started unpacking the car for the day’s adventures, we head a warbling call from the nearby lake, and exchanged smiling glances.  The first loon of the spring back in Florence!  We headed out to the same spot where we had sat the morning before, but for some reason we couldn’t find the nice, comfortable, flat spot where we had set up then!  We dallied a while, searching our 200 square foot area for that one 5×5 spot – to no avail.  As the sun rose, we popped open the blind and set it down where we thought it would be decent… but in fact it was on enough of a slope that it led to a few more minutes of scrambled seat-arranging.  We hastily abandoned thoughts of a morning spent in comfort, and settled in to focus on the task at hand.  J pulled out the box call and produced a soft whine, followed by a couple louder ones, and finally a quick yelp.  He was instantly rewarded by a couple gobbles – from two different directions!  We exchanged excited glances, and J couldn’t resist calling one more time before setting his tools aside to wait.

The gobbles from the south were repeated frequently, but didn’t seem to get any closer.  We weren’t sure if the turkeys had even come down off the roost yet, until finally the excited males seemed to be moving towards us.  J put his new diaphragm call into his mouth to soften it, then began to entice the gobblers with the yelps of an eager hen.  As the gobbles came slowly closer, I imagined a proud tom strutting back and forth on the gravel road with feeding hens looking on from the brush, feigning boredom even as they followed him along.   As the hen sitting next to me in the blind, that is also what J was doing – mostly sounding like she was just minding her own business here in this lovely clearing, though allowing a frustrated yelp to escape every now and then.  He explained in a slurred voice around his mouth call that he was calling much more frequently than he usually wood, but he soon convinced me that he knew what he was doing, as the tom suddenly sounded almost outside our door!

We were in a broad clearing, with a good view of a trail of sorts that led in from the gravel road, across the grassy bracken field, and up a hill.  I couldn’t

View out of my side of the blind, with a good view of one of the decoys next to a trail. The road is off to the right, over a berm and beyond some brush.

see where the trail met the road, but I was sure that our tom was just on the other side of a small rise next to that intersection.  Any second he was going to pop around the corner, so I got into shooting position.  That sounds easier than it was: since the birds were on my side of the blind (and don’t forget that we were on enough of a slope that I was doing everything I could to stay on my seat), I had to kneel down, turn to my right, negotiate swinging my 12-gauge shotgun around in the blind without hitting J with the stock, then simultaneously balance myself on the tilted ground and aim slightly uphill.  That accomplished, J continued his clucks, purrs, and yelps to mask my maneuvers, but the gobbler just kept gobbling … right outside of our view.  He stayed there for about twenty minutes, and we could hear not only his excited calls but his drumming wings and shuffling feet as he danced for a mate.  Unfortunately, we could also hear that he had a hen out there with him.  J groaned softly when he first noticed those clucks, but renewed his efforts, grabbing the slate call at his feet.  Working both the slate and the diaphragm, J teased the gobbler at our doorstep with the prospect of at least two potential mates here in this lovely inviting clearing, and the tom responded by getting, if it was possible, even more excited.  Not, however, excited enough to come in off the road.

After a few minutes, I thought I heard a new hen calling, and I was astounded that J could manage threecalls at once – but when I pulled my gaze away from the window, I saw that he was looking out his side of the blind, and he let out a low chuckle.  I, too, was soon able to see a real, live hen crossing the slope in front of us – J hadn’t managed to get a tom in here, but he’d convinced this female that there was a flock of others like her with a great spot that she might like to try out for herself!  She clucked as she made her way towards our decoys set out along the trail.

The real hen (left) feeding nest to the “alert” decoy!

The tom out on the road got more and more excited, but our hen just played hard-to-get, as she foraged very intensely text to the trail.  She went and checked out each of our decoys in turn, and seemed a bit confused that they didn’t respond to her polite greetings, but J just clucked and purred softly, and she seemed to accept the situation.  After a few minutes, though, J began to cough – having that diaphragm call in your mouth and constantly calling for an hour can do that to you!  As he struggled to gain control of his larynx, the hen got somewhat distressed, and I was sure that she would not only run off, but alert the birds out on the road in the process!  However, some quick calling by J, combined with the apparent fact that the hen really, really  didn’t want to lose this opportunity to breed, seemed to allay her fears.  Unfortunately, after she had been around for about fifteen minutes, the tom either got what he wanted from the hen he had with him, or gave up trying, and we heard him proceed fairly rapidly back in the direction he had come from.

Remarkably, J managed to keep the hen around for another half hour or so, while we tried to figure out a new strategy.   As we watched the hen feed and work out her own strategy, I became very impressed with J’s calling ability – he was able to mimic the real hen almost perfectly!  Just as we were starting to get bored with our “pet” bird, we again heard a gobble out on the road – only this time from the other direction!  Now, when I had scouted out this site, that was the direction I had seen birds come from, so I wasn’t completely flabbergasted, just rather surprised that he had gotten this close to us without our noticing him at all.  The hen heard it too, and began to walk fairly quickly back in the direction.   J struggled to keep her in the clearing – if she got out to the road, the tom would have no reason to come and investigate our faux hens, but only succeeded in slowing her down a bit.  It became clear that there were two birds on the road, a fact which the hen apparently also noticed and turned back towards them with greater decision.  All of the action was now on J’s side of the blind, and just as the hen passed away through the brush, and our disappointment started to set in, I heard him say, “Here they come!” which what might be described as a hushed squeal of excitement.

He motioned me to get into shooting position, an act which was significantly easier out that side of the blind, and I was set up within seconds.  J said, “There are two of them! Wait for them to separate,” so when a male head bobbed into view, I let him get far enough through my field of vision to make sure that there was no other bird next to or behind him.  He was about 15-20 yards away, I had an easy view, and was aiming slightly downhill.  J claims that I said something like, “Oh, I can hit that!” which, given the above situation, should have been obvious.  I don’t remember saying anything but, in the heat of the moment, I can believe him (if he’ll forgive me the “squeal of excitement” comment, which is also true).  In any case, I quickly proved it to be true – I squeezed the trigger and the bird went down.  I was going to re-load, in case I’d only injured him, but J cried out, “He’s down! You got him!” and struggled to unzip the blind.  We got out in the field, and over to the bird, which was indeed dead where he lay (though, in the manner of dead birds, still had some twitching going on).   It was pretty wild that, after wooing one bird for over an hour, the whole experience with this group only lasted around ten minutes.

After examining the jake for a few moments, we began the photo shoot – I think we got every pose imaginable… but hey, I had to figure out which was my “good side” in camo!  The young bird itself wasn’t a trophy (with a half-inch beard and little frost-bitten nubs for spurs), but I hoped that would make him taste scrumptious!  Check out the upcoming post for the determination on that…

Me with my first turkey, posing approximately in the location where he went down, with the early-April bracken grassland around me and a ridge of oaks beyond.

These cranes flew noisily overhead as we were posing the turkey for his photo, and J caught a quick shot of them.

J did a wonderful job calling in some turkeys for me, and I think that he might have been more excited than I was with the result!  Not that I wasn’t excited, I just wasn’t squealing about it J  Now I’m rooting for him to be able to get one of his own, which means doing an anti-rain dance (doesn’t seem to be working, so I think I’ll need the rest of you to help me)!  And next year I hope to call in one of my own!

Trickery Revealed

I had one great, and correct guess on this week’s Mystery Photo.  The answer is indeed Larix laricina, alternately called the American Larch, Hackmatack, or, most commonly here in Wisconsin, the Tamarack.  In writing this post, I just found out that “tamarack” is an Algonquin word meaning “wood for snowshoes.”

A bright green Tamarack (or Larch, or Hackmatack) next to its non-deciduous counterparts

The most interesting thing about the Tamarack is that it is a deciduous conifer – it looses its needles each fall and replaces them in the spring.  What you saw in Tuesday’s photo in an example of a twig “leafing out” this spring.  These early trees are easy to identify, because of the way they seem to glow in the sunlight with their tiny, light-green clumps of needles.  Looking closely, you’ll see that they even sprout needles from the trunk!  Once summer hits,however, the tamarack’s color does not stand out quite as sharply from the other species around it.

A tamarack on the edge of a northern lake, barely discernible from the many other species of trees around it

 

 

 

 

 

It is still relatively easy to identify then, though, primarily because it grows in fairly specific areas.  While the tamarack is capable of growing in many soil types and in extremely (to moderately) cold regions, it is usually found in fairly moist, even wet areas.  If you find yourself in a bog and there is one lone tree, there is a decent chance that it is a tamarack.  It may also be a black spruce, but the two are not difficult to tell apart.  Tamaracks are among the first species to invade an open area – they help to initiate the succession of an open grassland to forest, and thus could be termed an “early-successional species.”  As such, they do not do well at all in shade, will not germinate in their own shade, and are rarely found in stands of other trees, other than on the very edge.  Because they tend to grow in more open areas, and don’t grow their needles until part-way through the spring, they also usually have healthy undergrowth around them – a great place to look for pitcher plants and other exciting bog species!  In the autumn, their needles turn a consistent yellow color, and they stand out sharply against the vareigated maples, aspens, and oaks around them, adding to the rainbow of “fall colors.”

A lone tamarack in a Florence County, WI bog on a gray mid-summer day

 

 

If you see a tamarack, consider yourself lucky – it means you’re in a special place!

Still Searching…

The next day’s scouting turned out much more productive, from an “actually finding what I was looking for” standpoint.  I parked my car up on a ridge just before sunrise, rolled down the windows, and tried to avoid the spitting rain that fell onto my lap, glad that it was at least relatively warm out for an early spring morning.  Before too long, the birds began to sing, and I heard a gobble in the distance.  It was eventually echoed by another one to the northeast of me, and as I waited for them to start moving, I took in the other wonders of the early morning.  The Imagecranes stayed farther away this time, but I could hear their occasional calls, along with a pair of geese that flew overhead.  Robins darted, flew, and called out their sweet-and-sour songs.   In a dead birch next to me, a bird warbled out a complicated song that I couldn’t identify but that intrigued me.  The clouds flew by overhead – a precursor to the windy day ahead – and as the storm clouds alternately gave way to light clearings and the sun began to rise, the changes in light and clouds was fascinating.

I began to hear the gobbling again, this time more enthusiastically, and I pinpointed their location as just across the small lake from my perch.  It sounded like they were coming up the brushy hillside from the lake, toward the road – the spot where I had parked my car the week before, and seen all the turkey tracks in the dust.  I was pleased to see them following a similar pattern – if they were in a different place every day, it would be hard to find them on the day of my hunt.  Soon I saw a dark spot moving on the road, and I pulled out my binoculars to see a good-sized tom begin moving up out of the brush.  Before long, I could see some hens, too, and possibly another male.  They Imagegobbled constantly, and danced their display for the ladies, and moved on up the road.  After they were out of my field of view, I stayed in the car for a few more minutes, beginning to shiver as the wind picked up, and then drove out past where I’d seen the birds.  As I reached the top of the hill, a startled a couple of hens, who went scuttling off to the east – right into the spot I’d hoped to set up when the day came!

As the day wore on, the wind blew harder, and when I left the office to walk out to the shop around noon, I was startled by the chill in the air.  The rain turned to snow, and light white flakes floated around our lot in the gusts.  I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated – it’s not unusual for us to get snow in mid-April, but it is a little disappointing, after a March with bare ground and temperatures closer to 100°F than 32!  I began to re-plan my attire for the big day, and considered whether I should drive into town that night to pick up a warmer camo outer layer than what I already had.

By the time I got off of work, the precipitation had stopped, but it was overcast, and very cold and windy.  I drove down to the south end of the property again, and saw a tom and two hens cross an old logging road between two pine plantations.  I stopped and watched them from the car, and they turned and walked farther down that road, not sure that they should stick around my idling car too long.  I drove on, and pulled into the next logging road, which I was pretty sure formed a loop with the first.  I parked in a little clearing at the end that was full of turkey poop, and walked down the hill to the creek, away from where I expected the birds to be coming from.  I climbed up the steep hill on the other side, through a recent timber harvest and aspen that was only a few years old.  Summiting the ridge, I could see quite a ways in every direction, back to my car, out to the pine plantation closest to the river, and down to the next plantation to the west, beyond which I had seen the wolves the day before.  I shivered in the wind, though, and kept moving, heading east so that I could make a big loop around the birds I’d seen before.  I went over a few smaller hills, then headed back north towards the small creek I’d crossed.  I hopped over it again, and beat my way up through slightly older (and denser!) aspen towards he pine plantation above me.  To my surprise, I found myself already on the road that I had been hoping to hit a little farther down.  I walked quietly down it, and suddenly saw the turkeys ahead of me.  I darted back quickly and crouched in the brush, but they had seen me.  The tom folded up his wings, the hens stopped playing “hard to get,” and they all hustled off in to the brushy aspen, down the hill to the creek where I’d come from.  I thought that I might get lucky and they would follow the creek until the clearing I had parked in, or climb the hill across from it so that I could see them on the way, so I dallied on the trail, looking for more turkey sign.  I saw a little scat here and there, but also got to see some plants coming up and even starting to bloom.  The prize was a couple little white flowers on Trailing Arbutus, barely discernible from the snow flakes on the stiff green leaves!Image

ImageI got back to where I’d left my vehicle, and since it wasn’t dark yet, decided to continue on in the other direction, still hoping to catch another glimpse of the turkeys and find out their route.  I headed into the recently harvested area along what I thought might be a game trail, and was rewarded in seeing turkey poop in ever small clearing along the way.  I walked about halfway to the next plantation, that marked the border between State and County property, and decided not to hike all the way over there.  As I stood on the edge of a hill in the wind and rain, I saw a dark shape moving under some small pines on the opposite slope, and though that it looked like a tom strutting!  As I watched, though, it became apparent that it was less like “strutting” and more like “waddling.”  For a moment I thought that it might be a small bear, common out here among the cherries and blueberries in the summertime, but as it emerged from under the trees I could see that it was light brown in color, and definitely neither a bear nor a turkey!  I watched the large porcupine make his way out from under the trees, across the slope, and down through some small trees, back out into the open.  Here on the northeastern bracken grasslands, or “barrens,” it is common to see “frost pockets” on the landscape.   They are depressions in the ground where cold air settles, creating frost even in mid-summer, and nothing but the eponymous “bracken” grows in the bottom of them.  The porcupine was headed down into a very large frost pocket, that was possibly even wet at the bottom, because he came out in what looked from a distance like a mono-culture of Leatherleaf (side note: leatherleaf is not a very exciting-looking plant, except when it’s blooming, but is has a beautiful scientific name: Chamaedaphne calyculata).  The bottom was almost perfectly round, and two game trails crossed nearly in the center, creating the appearance of a helicopter landing pad.  About then, I climbed up on a stump to try to get a better view, and the porkie decided to get out of the open space where he was more vulnerable, climbing up into the brush on the far slope.  I shivered, remembering the wind, and went back, again checking out the plants along the way.  There was still no sign of the turkeys, and the sun was starting to think about setting somewhere behind the thick clouds, so I hopped in my car and headed out, turning left at the highway towards town so that I could pick up a few last-minute supplies for the big hunt before heading home to get my beauty rest.

Wild Turkeys in the Northwoods

Here in Wisconsin, the spring turkey season lasts from early April through late May, but an individual permit is for one designated week (Wednesday to Tuesday) in one designated Zone (1-7).  I had Period B, Zone 5, which put me in northeast Wisconsin in the third week in April.  Applying for that season (applications are due in December) can be a bit dicey – we often have snow on the ground or falling from the sky that time of year up here – but it’s also a beautiful time to be out in the woods.  Plus, a lot of people don’t like being cold so there’s a better chance of getting that week, and since I had never applied for a permit before I wanted to improve my odds.  I don’t like being cold, either, of course, but I have plenty of cool weather clothing!

I started scouting about a week before my season started.  Around here, there are a lot of birds in agricultural fields that border woods.  I work on public lands, though, so I wanted to hunt in one of the areas where we’ve worked to improve turkey habitat.  It’s a prettier spot, but also more challenging because they don’t necessarily follow the rigid patterns that develop in farmlands where they have consistent food sources and less danger from predators.

The area where I was scouting was burned last spring to improve wild turkey habitat by setting back brush and stimulating the grasses and flowers.

My first morning scouting, I chose an area that I had heard had good turkey activity.  I parked my car and walked around a firebreak and up an old trail.  It looked “ideal” for turkey, but I only scared up a few deer in a small draw next to an oaky ridge.  I saw some canid scat that was too old for me to be able to tell coyote from wolf, but not much else.  The songbirds were nice to listen to, but I didn’t hear a single gobble, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes soon drowned out the other sounds.  They sounded like they were down in an open bog to the south of me, then I heard them in the air, then again to the west, and then they flew again.  Their resounding trumpets echoed off the hills.  The turkeys were probably just as annoyed as I was with the din, and had moved on to a place where they could call to their potential mates and actually be heard!  I continued walking down and up the hills, overlooking a couple small lakes, though it was well past dawn and I hadn’t seen any sign, just to enjoy the morning off of work.  As I walked back up the road to my car, I saw my first black bear tracks of the spring in the soft surface.  Continuing on up the hill, I saw several turkey tracks in the sandy surface, including thin lines where the strutting toms had dragged their wings to attract the hens.   They must not have been gobbling, or else I had arrived too late to see them and missed their tracks on the drive in.  I would have to come back to this spot.

The next time I went out, it was already light, and threatening to rain, but I thought that I might look around for some tracks anyway, or hope to hear a gobble in the distance.  I was on a different part of the same property, a couple miles away – over the river and through the woods, you could say.  At first, I didn’t see much other than a few wolf tracks, but when I turned off onto a narrow, rarely-traveled road that is sandwiched between denser woods, not only did the wolf sign increase, but I began to see turkey scat and tracks in the hardened mud.  Turkey signsare interesting, because you can tell males from females without being an accomplished biologist or DNA-analyst.  On female turkeys (hens), all three toes are approximately the same length.  On males (toms-adults, or jakes-juveniles), the middle one is noticeably longer.  Hens poop comes out in a spiral shape, whereas males poop out

Hen poop!

a long segment.  I saw a little of each on the trail, and got my hopes up.

When the trail opened up again, my turkey tracks faded out – not sure if it was because they moved off the path, or because the grass growing on it obscured indentations.  I continued on, mostly because I love that area and enjoyed being far enough back off the road that I knew I wouldn’t encounter any other people.  I thought I might walk all the way down to the river, as I’d never quite gotten there from this direction before.  I scared up a couple small groups of white-tailed deer along the way, although they all stared at me for a long time before running away, as though they hadn’t seen people since last fall.  I veered off the trail to poke my head into a little wetland area, checking for interesting plants since I had given up on the turkey.  As I came back out onto the trail, I heard a rustle behind some bushes that didn’t seem like a deer, and my hopes rose that I might have found a turkey after all.  Instead, as I rounded the corner, a round and furry head appeared, tawny yellow and gray and white mixed together, and I found myself face-to-face with a wolf, not 20 yards away.  It was as surprised as I was, and bounded back a few paces before stopping to look at me again.  I backed up quickly and steadily, keeping my eyes on the bushes that it had come from, and it ran downhill a little farther, also keeping its eyes warily on me, before running across the trail into the brush and towards that little wet area I had come from.  A moment later, a second wolf came out of the bush and ran across the road, too.  I didn’t see another sign of them, although as I walked back the way I came, I did hear one more quiet commotion in that direction.

As I walked up the hill, my heart was beating and hands shaking as adrenaline pumped through me.  I was much more excited than if I had found the turkeys I had started out stalking – I knew that there was a pack of wolves out here somewhere, but I’d never managed to come across one before!  They hadn’t been particularly alert when I’d happened along, or they never would have let me see them.  The deer must have known they were close by, but hadn’t seemed disturbed, either.  Probably they were all enjoying the unusual warmth of this spring, and had enough to eat and drink, and several square miles to roam undisturbed.  Fawns haven’t begun to drop yet, so the does don’t need to be worrying about protecting them, and wolves are still cleaning up the carrion from the winter.  I felt lucky to have gotten such an uncommon glimpse into the world that these animals inhabit every day.

Everyday Adventure

The first strawberry blossom of the year! Two days later, I found the first white berry starting to grow just down the road.

One of the nicest things about spring is that there is always something new to discover: flowers that have just begun to bloom; birds just arriving from their wintering grounds; animals mating, nesting, and giving birth to young.  The flow of water changes constantly, as snow melts, spring rains fall, and the last frost leaves the ground.  There is a certain excitement in driving to work in the morning, seeing what has changed since the day before along the way.

A dogtooth violet (aka Trout Lily) leaf just beginning to poke up from the dry leaf litter around it.

The first maple leaves of spring... it was a short sugaring season this year, with temperatures so consistently warm!

This time of year, I don’t feel like I have to go anywhere special to have an exciting adventure.  On the contrary, I love going back to my favorite places, to see how spring is progressing there.  It’s fascinating to compare notes from year to year – where there is a thick blanket of snow one year, there might be a carpet of wildflowers the next, or a torrential flood might have reduced it to bare ground.

Above Meyer's Falls on the Pine River

    This year, as most already know, has been a sharp deviation from even the wide range of variations that can be considered “normal.”  Even more remarkable than the warmth, or the wind, or the lack of rain has been the consistency of that weather pattern through time and across the continent.  Here in northeastern Wisconsin, we haven’t had more than a drizzle of precipitation in a month and a half, and although we’ve had a few cool nights, temperatures have been consistently above average for most of that time, including multiple days above 70°F in mid-March!  Winds have been strong for weeks, sometimes averaging close to 20 mph – all of which combined has resulted in high fire dangers and prohibition of open burning – putting a damper on anyone who wants to celebrate the warm weather with a bonfire or roast marshmallows on a camping trip.  Luckily, though, we’ve been spared from the series of tornadoes that have been ravaging the lower Midwest.

Pipsissewa stays green all winter, but I love catching a glimpse of it just for its mellifluous name!

The wild flora and fauna don’t appear to be suffering too much yet from these weather patterns that are making our lives more difficult.  Although rivers are comparatively low, our woodland plants are appearing ahead of schedule and animals are as active as ever.  You can see some of that spring splendor here, but you can’t hear the chorus of birds that surround me everywhere I go – since the Robins came back a couple weeks ago, they joined the Black-capped Chickadees in seemingly-constant singing.  Phoebes started their rough songs a little over a week ago, and in the past few days I’ve gotten to hear some of my favorite bird songs: those of the Wood Thrush and Hermit Thrush.  This morning I heard the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk and looked up to see a pair wheeling in circles above me – perhaps protecting their nesting territory?  I’ve been listening closely for Wild Turkeys, and though I haven’t heard as many as I want to, the gobbles and clucks are always thrilling to hear.  The honking of a flock of geese overhead, or the strident ululating of a pair of sandhill cranes echoing off the hills tends to drown out all other sounds, simultaneously

Spring shows off what the beavers were busy with all winter... I wonder what interrupted the one that didn't finish this job?

shattering the peace of a spring morning while evoking the wildness that they represent.  Of course, for every bird that has a distinctive and common cry, there are several more out there that I can’t distinguish from the rest of the background… but every time I learn to identify a new bird, or see the first buds on a tree, or spy the first strawberry of spring, it’s an adventure in my own backyard!

A club moss begins to grow spores

Dutchman's Breeches - the first one I've seen this year, with a small flower blossoming.

 

A red Wintergreen berry stands out on a moss-covered rock

Memories

While no match for the torrents of the Cascades, LaSalle Falls is the highest waterfall in Florence County, at 14 ft. Here, it is a torrent of its own, after 4 inches of rainfall in just over 24 hours!

A year ago today, I was in the Cascade Mountains in central Oregon.  Tall trees, snowy bowls, swiftly-flowing streams, crisp mornings, lava beds.  In some ways, that landscape was radically different from the one I’m in now, but I’ve been reminded of my time there recently.  In fact, over the last several weeks I have thought back on most of last fall’s journey.  Depending on the stage of the season and the weather conditions, I have been reminded daily of everywhere from Isle Royale to the Rocky Mountains, down to West Texas and back up through the Ozarks.

We have had our share of cold and damp in northeastern Wisconsin this fall, with our first frost over Labor Day weekend, 3 hard freezes in September, and two nearly straight weeks of rain and drizzle.  The last couple weeks, however, have made up for my disappointment with the failed garden, as we’ve had nearly constantly clear skies.  This, along with the natural senescing of vegetation, has resulted in low humidity, near-record daytime temperatures (81 today!), and chilly evenings (except for this weekend, when I sat around the campfire in shorts and didn’t feel a chill until after midnight).  It feels like waking up in the mountains.  Specifically, it feels like waking up in the Rogue-Umpqua National Forest south of Crater Lake, where I was on October 4th of 2010.

The Pine River at Meyers Falls in northern Florence County, WI

What exactly does that forest have in common with the Chequamegon-Nicolet, other than the hyphen?  They both have Wild Rivers flowing swiftly over bedrock.  Chilly, dewy October mornings with warm, sunny afternoons. Sandy soils supporting conifers and heath species, with an understory including wintergreen and the always-popular pipsissewa.  In that respect, really, it’s not too different from, say, the Superior National Forest that I hiked through on my way to Isle Royale, at the beginning of my trip.  Or the Chippewa that I crossed in drizzle through northern Minnesota, watching the beginning of the brilliant fall foliage.  It’s easy to be reminded of those places from here in Florence County.

Heading north on WI-55 in northern Forest County, WI

Fallen leaves and drooping Wild Rice characterize the "north country" in the fall, here at Glidden Lake in Iron County, MI

Though one of the smallest counties in the state of Wisconsin, Florence Cty. actually has two distinct ecoregions in it – the “northern forests” that I cited above, and a bracken grassland/jack pine barrens that is an open, hilly

Jack Pines dot the bracken grassland at Spread Eagle Barrens State Natural Area in northeastern WI

landscape of sparse vegetation, growing on sandy glacial outwash.   When I’m over in the eastern half of the county, I’m no longer reminded of the wilds of Oregon or the headwaters of the Mississippi.   Instead, I feel as though I never left the glacial hills and aspen parkland of northwestern Minnesota.  As the colors turn to browns and reds, it even looks a little like eastern and central Montana, or the hills of West Texas.

Ferns, heath, and trees changing color at Lake Mary Plains in Iron County, MI

Blueberries and other heath species have colors as brilliant as the scrub oak around them

Which reminds me… I still have some catching up to do!  The long-awaited story of my travels through Texas is coming up soon, and I hope to be caught up on all of last year’s adventures before a year has passed.  After that, I’ll fill in more of what I’ve been seeing since my return!