TransitionsSUNDAY, APRIL 6, 2014
Our walk began as it remained for the rest of the afternoon – warm, sunny and beautiful. Early on, the larger group of nearly 45, split into two. Samantha Nagy led the other crew whilst I headed toward Teal Pond with my own. The program, entitled “Transitions,” took advantage of the current dance between seasons.
This past winter’s cold ran deep and long. Therefore, many of our annual spring observations of the natural world are coming a bit later than normal. Leopold was fascinated by this idea of “phenology,” and took meticulous notes regarding the date and time of phenological events. So much so, that a professor at the UW, Dr. Stan Temple, recently published an article comparing Leopold’s phenological notes with notes from the present day. In his article, Dr. Temple shows that a significant shift has occurred in the timing of a number of phenological events; therefore adding yet another proxy for measuring climate change. Interestingly, a number of Temple’s current students were on this particular Arboretum program earning credit for his class (one that Leopold himself once taught!).
Anyhow, back to the program. Within fifty paces of striking out from the bottom of the visitor center stairs, we stopped to watch a few Tree Swallows (of the family Hirundinidae) just back from their wintering grounds. Like a number of bird species we saw on this day, it was one of the first days they had flown back from their wintering grounds to the south. Not to be tuckered out following a long trip, they were already going about the business of finding a decent place to nest and raise their young. While we stopped to watch, I also mentioned the daily show that takes place in many of Wisconsin’s prairies and meadows this time of year, the “Sky Dance.” The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), or Timberdoodle, is back and displaying for mates. It is a striking display whereby the male ascends in a great spiral hundreds of feet above the ground before tumbling back to earth in a warbling frenzy. Next Saturday night’s “Sky Dance” program begins at 6:30, but I also recommend trying it on your own if you cannot make it. The show begins roughly twenty minutes after the sun sets, and it is best if you can put the prairie between yourself and the sunset. This way, you can better see the silhouette of the performer with the sunset’s afterglow as the backdrop to the stage. If you are an early riser, the performance also takes place prior to sunrise, albeit a shorter one.
Per custom, I took a short break prior to visiting Teal Pond. I do this in order to point out that Teal Pond is a great place to view wildlife, and that in order to do so, I encourage everyone to remain silent for the first couple of minutes. Afterwards, we have the opportunity to talk about what we saw and heard. This a great location to see dragonflies throughout the summer months, but our first of the year, the Green Darner, will not be around for another few weeks. On the other hand, we did see one of the season’s first Painted Turtles (Chrysimys picta) as well as hear Chorus Frogs (family Hylidae).
Our next stop was Icke Boardwalk, but just prior to leaving Teal Pond the group spotted a number of raptors in the sky. The first was smaller, lower and flapping its wings. It was the mid-sized member of the forest hawk genus Accipiter, the Cooper’s Hawk. I could count the beats, which one cannot do with the smallest member, the Sharp-shinned Hawk. The largest member, the Northern Goshawk or Grey Ghost, is quite rare, generally found farther north and has more of a “stove-pipe” tail. The Cooper’s tail is rounded (the outer tail feathers are shorter than the ones in the middle) and the Sharp-shinned tail has squared-off corners. The other two raptors in flight were members of the soaring hawk genus Buteo. They were our most common raptor, the Red-tailed Hawk.
At Icke, we once again heard a couple of Chorus Frogs. We added to our list a Song Sparrow (family Emberizidae) that was both singing with its characteristic double-note in the middle of the song, as well as its call note, which is often referred to amongst birders as a “bark.” Our final stop was a fair distance farther, but we decided as a group that we could make the trek to Skunk Cabbage Bridge. I had been there less than two hours earlier to scope out the condition of the trail, and while there, I ran into two individuals taking pictures of the emerging Skunk Cabbage. They were as impressed as my group by the floral display of scarlet and streaked spathe and spadix of Symplocarpus foetidus. The leaves will not come out until later in the season. The leaves, as with all plants, will eat light as we eat grilled cheeses in order to gain enough energy to send its flowers skyward again the following spring. Oftentimes, the flowers emerge while there is still snow on the ground. The heat energy released by the plant’s metabolism actually melts the snow and carves out space as it flowers.
On our way back to the visitor center we had the good fortune of hearing a drumming Pileated Woodpecker in the distance. Two from our group peeled off to go looking for it, and by the afternoon’s end, just prior to peddling away form the visitor center on my bike, one of the Picidae-seekers flagged me down to show off her pictures of North America’s largest woodpecker (it was the Ivory-billed until we sent them into extinction over fifty years ago). While traveling through Longenecker Gardens we kept both eye and ear out for the Eastern Bluebirds (members of the same family as the American Robin, Turdidae) that were reported there earlier in the week. But, alas, we will have to return in order to put Sialia Sialis on this year’s bird list.
We closed with a reading from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac – the Sky Dance. As both a hunter and a naturalist myself, one of my favorite bits of the essay is copied below:
“The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
Respectfully submitted by David Laufenberg
UW Arboretum Naturalist