Looking for the Green

SUNDAY, MARCH 16, 2014


What else is there to tell, really??

But seriously. Here’s more of the story:

On Sunday it was just over 24F, which is a bit lower than the average low temperature for this time of year and a full 20 degrees lower than the average high temperature for this time of year. Still, the sun was shining, and at a higher angle than in earlier weeks, and we convinced ourselves that we could actually feel its warmth (at least in certain fleeting moments).

With just a few days until spring is officially here (astronomically speaking), we set out “Searching for the Green,” to find some evidence of spring activity. First stop: the hazelnut bushes in the native plant garden. These aren’t quite yet convinced that it’s spring but keep an eye on them to see a very magenta and diminutive bloom that will appear at the tip of some buds. This is the female flower. The male counterparts are the catkins that will loosen and elongate in the coming days (weeks?). Next stop: the willows in Longenecker garden. Although not native to this area, several of the willows in Longenecker are in “pussy willow” stages. It’s encouraging to see some plant reassurance that spring is, indeed, around the corner.

We headed to Gallistel woods, and walked down from F6 to just past G1 when a visitor pointed to a woodpecker that she spotted. I followed the direction of her point and didn’t see the woodpecker but found myself staring directly into the blinking eyes of a barred owl (!). The owl was really quite close – up in a tree that was just off of the firelane. The owl tolerated us for a few minutes and then flew off in that beautiful silent owl way. And we also saw the original little woodpecker flying off (in that bobbing woodpecker way) across the woods.

We continued on for maybe another 20 yards and then heard a very (and I mean VERY!) loud construction-like hammering— except with that lovely hollow, round woodpecker-pecking-a-tree sound. I froze in my steps and I think that pretty much everyone snapped to attention—like, WHAT WAS THAT? And, although slightly incredulous, I was quite sure that it must be a pileated woodpecker. We turned toward the sound and, although slightly more incredulous, there it was: in plain sight and pecking away at a dead part of a standing tree. We watched. And watched. And watched. And the bird just stayed there. It was close enough for a very good look but far enough that I think we were not perceived (by the bird) as in its personal space. A couple of visitors had cameras (real ones, not phone ones) with them and got some great pictures. (I think that one from J. Gapen may be included in these notes?) After a good long viewing session we decided to continue on—although it was quite difficult to walk away from a pileated woodpecker! Although there’s evidence of pileated woodpecker activity throughout the arboretum, these birds have not been seen at the arboretum for about a year.

At that point, we were all, I think, torn between being the motivation to stay upright on the treacherously icy pathways (which meant looking down) and the motivation to continue the winning streak of bird sightings (which would mean looking up).

We continued over to Wingra woods to check on the skunk cabbage. These are in bloom and doing their thermogenic thing, melting the surrounding snow and offering warm(er) shelter for insects on cold almost-spring days like these.

We made it back to the visitor center with no falls, but until things thaw, watch your step—it’s icy out there! And, of course, after it thaws it will be wet and muddy. If you are planning a visit to the Arb, you may wish to call ahead or check in at the front desk of the visitor center to find out about closed trails (due to ice and/or wet conditions). These upcoming muddy spring days are sensitive times for the trails and they need to dry out before they are ready to withstand foot traffic.

Happy (almost) spring!

Sara Christopherson, 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.