PUBLIC TOUR - Wetlands

SUNDAY, JULY 7, 2013

The air was thick as our group of twenty took off from the visitor center this past Sunday afternoon. On the bike ride over I had wondered whether the pair of Swamp Sparrows along the Icke Boardwalk would be able to muster the energy necessary to give our tour the sort of auditory display that they had been giving for the past few weeks. With the heat index nearly to ninety degrees Fahrenheit, it was questionable whether our mid-day wetlands tour would be able to tally more than a mere twenty or so bird species.

As the majority of my formal training and field work has revolved around our lovely members of the avian community, it is nearly always the first thing on my mind. As I head outdoors to explore and in this case, present information and experiences to others, I tend to consider the conditions and how they will be affecting the birds. From there, one can detect relationships and find patterns with other communities. It also works in the other direction. For instance, it has been an awfully wet year thus far, and I therefore expected that we would encounter a number of flying insects. Members of the family Tyrannidae, the Tyrant Flycatchers, can be easily observed “sallying” when flying insects abound. The small to mid-sized birds with flattened beaks take off from a perch and head out to grab an insect before returning to the same perch and looking around for the next morsel. It can be quite entertaining, particularly when the prey is large enough or the view good enough that you can make out the type of insect or even spy the insect moments before the bird takes it.

Eastern Phoebe

On this outing we detected two flycatchers: the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and the Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens). I anticipated also hearing a common resident, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), due to its tendency to be fairly vocal; but alas, either my ears are not as alert as I had thought, or it was not around that day. I would like to note at this time that the bird list from our hike is posted at the end of this article.

There are a few quick points that need to be covered before we move much further. On the heels of a drought year, and in the midst of a wet one, we are at a unique and more obvious view of the worth of our wetlands. They act as natural filters for certain, but also as a complex and quality sponge that not even modern science could devise. In order to keep damage to a minimum, we need our wetlands to slowly distribute and act as a water reservoir during drought years, and to mediate excess water during years like the one we are experiencing now.

Prior to reaching our first destination, I mentioned a few current wetland laws. Following glaciation, the roughly half of the state of Wisconsin was covered in wetlands. By the time European settlers came to the area it was closer to one-third, but since that time and until only last year, our state had few laws working in favor of wetland conservation. Federal programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Clean Water Act (Section 404) and the Food Security Act (Swampbuster provisions) have been in place for at least a couple of decades now, but laws on the state level were grim. Interestingly, CRP has had more luck with continued conservation of wetlands than grasslands due to the fact that reverting a wetland back to agricultural land is much more difficult than a grassland. Last year, Wisconsin applied Act 118 which requires almost any modification of a wetland (as small as a quarter of an acre) to first pass through a permit process and review by the DNR. In order for a permit to be granted, “compensatory mitigation” must take place. If a wetland is modified or destroyed through the actions of a project, the damage must be offset somewhere else. This is a step in the right direction. Additionally, if you are interested in finding out more about Wisconsin’s wetlands and associated conservation efforts in the state, look into the Wisconsin Wetland Association.

Our first stop was a quiet trip to Teal Pond. Before heading onto the short path leading to the pond, I took a moment to encourage the group remain silent for a first few minutes out on the Teal Pond pier. This way, we ensure that the best opportunities for viewing and listening to wildlife will not be squandered. An exercise of this sort always seems to work out, and I think that most if not all of the participants enjoyed the time of quiet discovery. In this way, we enjoyed Painted

painted turtles

Turtles, young Gray Tree Frogs and members of the Order Odonata. Speaking of said members, I spent a few minutes reading aloud from our most recent Arboretum Newsleaf. In it, fellow naturalist and poet Kathy Miner offers an insightful article on the wonders of dragonflies and damselflies. It was a fitting article for a wetland hike in July, and a great opportunity to expose people on the hike to our monthly Newsleaf publication.

As we strolled from Teal Pond towards Gallistel Woods, I presented a map of the Arboretum’s wetlands and general hydrological flow. On it, one could see that the Icke Boardwalk was our next stop down the line, and that eventually the water in this system would make its way past Skunk Cabbage Bridge and out to Lake Wingra. It was rewarding to think about water as it moves across the larger Arboretum landscape. We could also tell the water was coming from south of Teal Pond – the Beltline. Dr. Joy Zedler’s research and the Stormwater Management Research Facility (SMRF) were mentioned in about as much haste as they are being mentioned here, but I recommend readers to investigate both if they are interested in the Arboretum’s bounty of water and how it interacts with modern-day Madison.

About halfway to the gazebo, while standing on Icke Boardwalk, we graciously received the aforementioned show from two male Swamp Sparrows (Melospiza georgiana).

swamp sparrow

Their songs went back and forth almost the entire time we were there. Intermixed were songs of nearby Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypus trichas) as they flitted along the edge of the wetland. Next, I took advantage of Aldo’s Sand County Almanac and one of his essays from the month of July, “Great Possessions.” It was a good opportunity to cool down in the shade of the gazebo and take in the words and ideas of Leopold. Afterwards, we headed back along the trail for another quick stop with the plethora of Odonatans at Teal Pond before heading back to the visitor center for the afternoon.

Submitted by Arboretum Naturalist – David Laufenberg

Common Crow
Blue Jay
White-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-tailed Hawk
Turkey Vulture
House Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow
Cedar Waxwing
American Robin
Downy Woodpecker
Common Yellowthroat
Red-winged Blackbird
Northern Flicker
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Northern Cardinal
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Gray Catbird
Eastern Towhee
House Wren

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.