Awakening Land

SUNDAY, MARCH 10, 2013

This year’s March is quite different from last year. At this time last year, there were woodland wildflowers in bud (and bloom!). This year, we’re still snowed in.

Sunday walk’s was wet. The above-freezing temperatures have melted much of the snow, but the ground is still frozen and so the ground was sloshy. We waded through the native plant garden and into Longenecker gardens, which is basically a huge ankle-deep lake. We did our best to stay on higher ground, but it’s only relative – and so perhaps we avoided some of the deepest water but in some places we waded through water that still reached the bottom of our ankles. It was a good test of our shoes’ water resistance—and I think that there were plenty of wet feet.

The theme for our walk was the “Awakening Land” and so we made the requisite stop at the willows in Longenecker to see that some of the species are certainly awakening, with silver “pussy willows” out. As we move into spring, these pussy willows’ silvery appearance will turn to yellow, as the male reproductive parts mature and reveal pollen.

We then started the annual pilgrimage to the skunk cabbage. On the way, we noticed a fly on the snow. It was a bit too cold for the fly to fly (or really to move much at all) but it was alive and (probably) well. Insects are “awakening” now, too. If you look long enough, you can often see little springtails known as snow fleas boing-ing around on the snow near the bases of trees.

I was concerned that the Wingra Woods trails would be slippery, so we wound down the slightly longer route—although the temperature was high enough that the trails were quite walkable, and not slippery. On the way down, I noticed a scattering of dark material on the snow beneath a dead tree. I assumed it was bark bits, knocked down by the activities of woodpeckers. But as we approached, we saw that it wasn’t—it was scat. We considered whose scat it might be but were very unsure. Thank goodness for camera phones – I took a few pictures to bring back and solicit ideas from other Arb folks. After some consultation (thanks, Susan Carpenter and Brad Herrick!) we have two ideas: 1) it’s flying squirrel scat or 2) it’s bat scat (aka guano). In either case, it’s possible that there was a midden, a waste area, within a hollow in the tree and that some other animal got into the midden and scattered the scat (no pun intended). It’s also possible that it is just a favorite resting spot for a particular squirrel (or bat). I’m most convinced by the flying squirrel idea. Flying squirrels are nocturnal and, by day, find shelter in places like hollows in dead trees. This particular dead tree was leaning at an angle. I’m imagining that the flying squirrel found shelter in a hollow that was on the “underside” of the angle, and, therefore, its scat did not fall to the bottom of the hollow but rather fell directly to the ground. Flying squirrels are known to live in Wingra Woods. In fact, they are probably living and mating in Wingra Woods—it’s their mating season right now.

We made it to the skunk cabbage and appreciated their maroon and thermogenic splendor. These beautiful reproductive structures are often visible in late February. As the season progresses, they will send up large, green, not-particularly-cabbage-y leaves.

Bring your waterproof boots if you venture out in the slush. As the snow gives way to mud, some trails may be temporarily closed to prevent trail destruction and soil compression, which can harm the nearby plants. Please stay on the trails themselves and don’t walk around a muddy spot. If you think it will be muddy, and there’s a particular trail you want to walk, call first or ask at the front desk to confirm that it will be open. Happy almost-spring!
Sara Christophersen, Arboretum Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.