Woodland burn

February 22, 2017

I left the house a bit before five this morning. Drippy fog settled down on the region overnight. It was about 50 degrees, and a robin was singing. On a May morning two decades ago, I awoke at about 4:30 to the sound of an exotic thrush singing outside. I had just taken an ornithology class, and my head was brimming with bird songs. I dressed quickly and raced outside: that also was a robin. This morning’s robin caught me almost equally off guard. I know robins are early-morning singers, but it seems so early in the year for this sort of thing. We have winter-resident robins here and in fact well up into Wisconsin, and they are perhaps primed and ready to go when the temperatures rise early in the spring, as they have this year, even with the days still relatively short. The robin had sunrise beat by about an hour and a half. Can you measure backwards from sunrise to the first robin song of the morning? If so, does the length of the robin-ruler change with the temperature? Does stamina increase and singing start earlier as the spring wears on, or does it decrease?

Temperatures have been higher than average for most of January and February, and reading the high 50s and 60s for about a week now. In the past two weeks, bluebirds and mourning doves have been singing and moving around the neighborhoods. Chickadees have been singing their hearts out. Red-bellied woodpeckers have been especially noisy, even for red-bellied woodpeckers. Enormous flocks of cranes flew over on Sunday, impossibly high, as loud as if they were in a park on the other side of the street. Male redwing blackbirds showboated around the pond behind the visitor center yesterday. I think about our little prairie experiment on the west side and worry about about how early the weeds will emerge this spring.

We burned our rain garden over the weekend, and the Arboretum has been burning the East Woods. This morning I started at P10 and walked south and east through the blackened forest. The charred leaves and naked trees had a subduing effect in the fog. Aside from the sound of I-88 blaring away to the south, I was completely alone there. The burned woods stretched off as far as I could see. Heavy, isolated raindrops hit the charred leaves at intervals. The sound was shorter, less resonant, than it would have been on dead leaves. A fallen log was still burning steadily, flames darting out from beneath the edge of the burned-out base. The tree had fallen and the bark had decomposed. The burning base was no bigger than a campfire. How did it feel to come across spontaneous fire like this in the wild when it was still easier to carry fire from place to place than to start a fire from scratch​? Over and over, groups of people must have rediscovered this mystery and felt grateful, awed. Was it a living thing? Was it a gift? Even today, it’s hard to believe that such a thing as fire can exist here with us.

Further on, a spark rose from the darkness about 20 feet up and arced down toward the ground, going out before it had traveled more than 5 feet or so. I walked toward it and found a tree smoldering in a small section where the spark had emerged. The fire had apparently hit the tree on the downhill side and flamed all the way up, leaving one section burning. Fire is capricious: this looks to me to have been a particularly thorough, even fire, but even so there are strips and patches of unburned leaves in the middle of the woods, and some logs that might have burned well go untouched while others burn slowly for days.

Chorus frogs called from the lower parts of the woods toward the interstate. I crossed the road at P8 and walked the path separating the burned section to the west from unburned woods to the east. This is where I typically start sedge walks, but there was too much happening in the woods this morning for me to pay attention to sedges. Some bird had been calling in the woods since I started walking, and now that I’d gotten used to the burn I was puzzling over it. It was reminiscent of a spring peeper, though certainly not that, similarly incessant but less methodical, less insistent. I crossed the road and hit the edge of the spruce plot. A fire break had been raked along the length of it and I followed this to the road, walking through dry woods and spongy places with the burn off to the left and the spruces to the right.

I caught back up with the trail and crossed the road to the unburned section east of Big Rock. There was a sudden noise in the woods, like something hitting the ground abruptly. I sometimes think of myself as unflappable, but at times like this I’m not. I shined a light at the deer or coyote or potential assailant. A raptor—barred owl perhaps? I’m not sure what else it could have been—fumbled around on the ground and turned to fly up into a nearby tree. I followed with my light, but the fog was still too thick to see where the bird had gone. Barred owls don’t spend a lot of time on the ground, I don’t believe, and I suspect what I had heard was the moment of impact when the bird hit the mouse on the ground. If so, what a quiet descent! I hadn’t heard a thing before the impact. I’m not sure this is what happened. I’ve seen mice get taken, and they scrabble at least a little bit. I once heard what I believed to be a rabbit scream in the woods, taken by predator. So much happens in the dark that we see only a bit of, and we imagine the rest. I guess that’s why the dark is scary. We’d be fine out there at night without our overactive imaginations.

I walked back to my bike, retrieved my backpack, and rode toward the visitor center. To the west of the oak collection, I heard the unmistakable whistling of a woodcock flying low overhead. He landed and uttered a single peent in the field between the planted buckeyes and woods adjoining the Carex lacustris marsh. I waited a few minutes, but he had no more to say, not this time of day. I think evening is more a woodcock’s time. This is the second earliest in the year I have heard a woodcock call. The earliest was February 19, my mom’s birthday, up in Madison, Wisconsin, and I believe that was the record for our area at that time. Welcome back, woodcocks.

I was almost back to my office, trucking along, when suddenly a song sparrow began singing in the field to the east of the visitor center. Still foggy, sun still down, still February, and he was singing as though his life depended on it. Spring seems to have come.

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