Late Autumn Woodland Walk


As we started Sunday’s tour I noted that the temperature was about 10 F below normal—but then quickly corrected myself. In casual conversation we might find ourselves saying that the weather is something different from “normal” but—what’s normal? I corrected myself and explained that what I really meant was that the temperature was about 10 F below average. It’s usually a good bit warmer at the end of November. We had a lovely walk in the sunshine but I think we all felt the cold. Perhaps our bodies haven’t yet adjusted adequately to the cold weather.

Down in Wingra Woods, we enjoyed the springs—noting their vibrancy especially in the cold weather when the forest feels quiet. We noted that there used to be many more springs in the Madison area but that most were lost to development. We also discussed how Lake Wingra’s shape today differs from Lake Wingra of pre-development. Today, the lake is a large area of open water with a defined shoreline. In the past, Lake Wingra had a smaller area of open water and a much more extensive surrounding marshy area, with abundant wild rice. If you enter the Arboretum from the Mills St. entrance, you will notice that the edge of the lake is defined by the road. If you look across the road, you will see that there is marshland. It’s not hard to imagine that, pre-road, the lake would have phased into extensive marshland.

Woodpeckers were active.

Red-bellied woodpecker

I believe we saw a hairy woodpecker and a red-bellied woodpecker (which, just to clarify, has a read head, not a red belly). The hairy woodpecker was either hairy or downy – a downy woodpecker is smaller and has a more delicate beak than the hairy woodpecker.

Downy woodpecker with beak smaller than width of head

It can be tricky to tell the two apart but I am pretty sure we saw a hairy woodpecker. It was good-sized. On the bird topic, we also spotted a flock of turkeys later in Longenecker. These birds seemed content and were certainly in a better place than the wild turkey that police chased out of someone’s home, according to the Madison police blotter.)

Winter tree characteristics is one of my favorite topics and we took some time to observe the colors, textures, and shapes that are oh-so-much easier to observe when all of the leaves and the rest of the summer color is gone. We compared the maroon and rounded red maple buds with the yellow-brown and oblong-pointed (“cigar-shaped”) beech buds. We felt the (REALLY) pointy brown sugar maple buds. Later, in Longenecker, we noted the relatively huge size of buckeye buds. We noticed that some trees, including beech and some oaks, held on to their leaves despite being deciduous. This pattern is known as marcescence. This also applies to non-native trees that do not lose leaves before frost as well as to native trees that get “surprised” by early frost. Typically, native trees go through a highly coordinated process of leaf-loss that involves forming an abscission layer, which is a layer of cells that separates the soon-to-be-shed leaf from the tree.

On our way out of Wingra woods we took note of an aging but impressive fungus. Thanks to Molly Fifield Murray and Amy Jo Dusick for helping to ID it: Tremella foliacea or “leafy jelly.”

Next week’s walk: Effigy Mounds of the Arboretum – come on out!

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.