First day of spring

Last week’s cool temperatures and snow slowed things down just a bit. Today is the first day of spring, and the woodland sedges in my yard are about two inches tall. The Carex trichocarpa in the rain garden is growing more slowly, and the crocuses are all in bloom. The cornelian cherry dogwoods are in full bloom. Iris leaves are 5” out of the ground. An old friend came into town last night and walked through the wetland by the school. Everything is mushy and caught between brown and green, but growing.

On my ride to the Arboretum this morning, I noticed that the robins didn’t start in earnest until I had biked about 2¼ miles west of my house to Belmont, where suddenly there was a noisy flock of them. I have noticed this other days, and I had assumed it had to do with the timing of my ride. But we set the clocks back for daylight savings time a week ago, so timing can’t explain it. It must be that the robins are simply more abundant at that corner. There’s a big field across the road at the Recreation Center; it may be that the robins like to feed there, and I’m catching the spill-over at the house on the corner of Belmont and Grant.

Just inside the gate, I saw a mouse run across the drive. He galloped like a deer mouse, I thought, though I am uncertain because I did see any tail to speak of. It may be that meadow voles are more scampery than I realized: to be honest, I mostly see tracks, not the mice themselves. In this woods I generally see deer mouse tracks instead of voles, but I leave the question open for now. I followed him with my bike light: straight across the drive he raced up into the brambles and moved along them as easily as if he were running along edge of the yard. What kind of intelligence does it take to think in three dimensions like that? Mostly we think of our movement in two dimensions. Even scaling a rock face is a two dimensional problem, with the surface curving beneath us. He moved along the canes from juncture to juncture and was soon lost to view in the shrubs.

I parked at Parking lot 8 and walked counterclockwise around the trail, which I hadn’t done yet this year. It’s remarkable how different a trail looks the other way around. At the low spot in the trail going east, the peepers were audible above the din of the interstate, but they trailed off as I worked my way upslope and the hill insinuated itself between the frogs and me. The large white oaks gave way to a denser tangle of oaks, and then the woods opened up again as I neared the top of the slope. Earlier this year, I had the impression that the oaks were bigger here at the top of the hill, but I think now that that’s not the case: there may be more clearing around them than there is downslope, but their average size looks to be about the same.

I turned north and saw a peculiarly branchy tree in the distance, branches jutting straight off the bole like branches off a white pine, crown reminiscent of a white oak. I walked to it and found the ground littered with black walnut shells. The bark had the furrows that I associate with this species. The trunk was straight and constant in diameter from bottom to top, with the dead, broomstick-thickness branches sticking straight out in near whorls all the way up. This strikes me as an odd arrangement of branches for a black walnut. I am struck this year at how little I know about the growth forms of trees.

I entered the stand of sugar maples to the north and stood still for a moment. Fat water drops from last night’s thunderstorm were falling to the ground at long intervals from a great tree overhead. I watched them fall one by one from a height of perhaps 20 feet, quivering and shimmering as they fell, as bright as Christmas lights in the flashlight beam. They appeared tawny in my light, and wondered whether in fact they might be maple sap. They fell far enough that I could maneuver myself to catch a few. I tasted them: pure water. Perhaps they were tannic from the tree bark or mosses growing on the trees.

From Big Rock Visitor Station, I could hear another pocket of peepers and chorus frogs singing in the pond just north of the road, one of the ponds that formed when the drainage tiles were systematically crushed a decade or so ago. A woodcock started peenting in the burned prairie along the path. I watched for him, shone my light where I thought he was, and he stopped calling. I didn’t see anything. I turned the light off, and immediately he called again, twice. I shone it again: he stopped. I watched and listened for awhile, but I didn’t see him. My friend Sylvia Marek used to stalk these guys to their dancing spots while they were flying so she watch them when they landed. I’ve tried a number of times but never succeeded. I see them on the wing, I’ve watched them racing between two-flats in Lincoln Square, I’ve seen them in movies, I’ve brought stuffed woodcocks to school for the kids to see, and I’ve been listening to them dance since 1993, but I have yet to see one dance up close. It still delights me to hear them and see them flying overhead, and this past four weeks of morning walks with them buzzing around and whistling overhead have been very nice.

Near the visitor center, the chickadees were calling. Juncos flew over the trail in front of me. It is a good first day of spring.

You might never know

I parked at the Big Rock visitor station this morning just after 5:15. Robins had been singing as I rode through the neighborhoods, but here it was quiet and just a little windy. I walked east, over the bridge at the edge of the parking lot and into the white oaks. The oaks here are large, and there is a gap perhaps 30 feet in diameter that I hadn’t noticed before. Up the hill to the east, the white oaks gave way to red oaks and sugar maples, though I’m not sure how clean this break is. My first impression was that I had gone abruptly from a stand of all white oaks to a slope of red oaks, but as I walked it back and forth, prowled around the woods checking trees, I decided that there was probably a more gradual transition here that would be worth coming back to in the daytime. I’ve become more aware as I grow older that I’m susceptible to my first impressions, and I’m trying to get into the habit of lodging them to look at more closely later on. This transition is one of many such.

Two chorus frogs called from the little valley that runs between the main trail east of the Big Rock Visitor Station and the Woodland Trail to the north. I walked downslope to hear them and got interested in the sedges on the slope. They were evident as dark breaks in the leaf litter even in the twilight. These were the narrow, dark-green leaves of Carex jamesii, I believe, though the clumps were not as dense as I recall finding with Sebastian in these woods in late January. The leaves were still evergreen; I didn’t see any fresh shoots coming up, but I expect them very soon. The two frogs called on, and I stumbled back to the trail.

A woodcock circled over the trail to the south, just east of the large field cleaved out of the forest, where I have collected senescent milkweed stems for the Cub Scouts to make twine bracelets. He flew high, kissing and whistling, then was silent as he dropped back to the ground. I couldn’t hear him peent, and I suspect I was lucky enough to catch him at the end of his dancing. While it’s possible that he dropped to the far side of the hill where I couldn’t hear him, I believe that particular sound carries too well to miss over such distances. It would be fun to map the soundscape of the East Woods through the year: woodcocks and chorus frogs, chickadees, nuthatches, robins, barred owls, then suddenly warblers and field sparrows, then vireos through the summer, then cicadas and katydids, then crickets and grasshoppers, then the sounds of geese flying overhead, then winter again. The problem, I think, would be integrating over the particularity of the place: this woodcock here at 5:30 on March 6, 2017; the next day quiet, then a barred owl the day after, all at the same time of the morning. Would you plot the probability of each sound by time by volume by location? Would it be a four-dimensional soundscape, crammed with piecharts colored by sound? This could be a person’s life work.

I passed the bridge at the east end of the woods, crossed the road for the second time and got to the trail running west from the southeast corner of the woods. The chorus frogs have been most clear here, and today was no exception, but I also heard what I thought was a single spring peeper. I tramped south to try to find it, and I found not a single spring peeper, but a whole pondful of them. I had completely forgotten about the wetlands between the East Woods and the berm. These are fairly typical, weedy wetlands of the upper Midwest, ringed with the Phragmites and Phalaris that was brought in to stabilize creek edges and roadsides. There was a little bur oak along the edge of this pond, and the spring peepers were deafening. I listened for a few minutes, then walked up to the berm overlooking the interstate. From there, I could hear cars and the chuckling of a robin, but no frogs. An Aramark sign was lit up across the highway. You could drive this highway for decades, have been to Lisle 100s or 1000s of times for breakfast or a walk at lunchtime, and have no idea there were spring peepers cavorting in this pond. I walked back toward the trail. The spring peeper calls became deafening again. A song sparrow called. Back toward the trail, the peeper calls attenuated and then were out of earshot. You could miss them even on a walk through the woods.

Twilight had given way to morning. I continued west through P8, through the oak collection—leaves are still hanging on the little post oaks and jack oaks I’ve been watching—and around to the wetland where I’ve been listening to woodcocks the past two weeks. Nothing. Not even a frog call… maybe one, a squeaky thing, but then nothing. The wind had picked up again. In the wet meadow downhill from the geographic collections, a few peepers were still calling. A broad-leafed grass—orchard grass, I suspect—was pushing up young, rubbery first leaves. An elm was flowering.

Further on, burned dropseed bases pimpled the banks of Meadow Lake. The hazelnut catkins hung, about a third of them pendant, fully or nearly fully open. Outside the visitor center, all the elms were flowering, and it appeared to me that fruits were beginning to form. Mt. Fuji early spirea was in bloom, as was Cornelian-cherry dogwood. Male redwing blackbirds were at their treetop stations. Construction sounds floated over from the new building at South Farm. Folks were working in the research building, cleaning and getting ready for the day. We were just 10 minutes by foot from bucketloads of spring peepers and armsful of woodcocks, but you might never know it.

— March 6, 2017

Spring peepers and wood ducks

March 1, 2017

Last night’s thunderstorm emboldened the chorus frogs, who seem to have spread in the past week from a small stronghold along the southeast edge of the East Woods to much of the southeast corner. An inch of rain fell overnight, and the morning was foggy. I parked at P10 and walked through the burned woods, which are now completely cool. Last week sections of the forest were still smoking. There were pools of water along the edge of the trail even in this highest section of the woods. Across the interstate, through the oaks and partial fog, the office buildings and the cars and the lights were a different world. The chorus frogs could not have cared less.

After the warmth and excitement of last week, the drop in temperatures last Thursday and following had slowed everything down. When I left the house on Thursday, it was 50F, and I foolishly wore sandals. By that afternoon, it was rainy and 40F, and by nighttime it was nearly freezing. Over the weekend we had snow. But this morning is back to spring. There is a dusting of newly fallen leaves on the burned sections of the forest floor. I was hopeful that perhaps the marcescent oaks were actively dropping last year’s leaves. From what we know – based, I believe, on a single study of black oaks in Madison Wisconsin – marcescent oaks yield their leaves when secondary growth starts up beneath the bark, and the young cork forms an abscission layer where none had formed the previous year. But I suspect the fallen leaves had just been knocked down by the wind: the buds on the white and bur oaks I passed still appeared to be in winter, and beyond the woods in the oak collection, one of the marcescent young post oaks I have been watching still wore all its leaves.

I walked south of the oak collection hoping to hear a woodcock again. A deer startled and bounded off. I stopped at bur reed marsh to listen to an odd squeaking bird or frog at the edge of the pond. One moved close to the boardwalk. I thought at first of spring peepers, but that didn’t seem right. The call wasn’t as strident as I remember, but it had the rubbery squeeky precall of a frog. I wasn’t sure what else it could be. It might have been a shorebird of some kind… it reminded me of a sora rail, which I assume is nonsense at this time of year. A woodcock started peenting from an opening in the woods to the north of the boardwalk. The acoustics were funny, and every peent seemed to come from a different spot in the woods. I don’t believe there was more than one: the calls were regular and never overlapped, and he might well have been moving in and around sparse tree cover, projecting his voice in all directions. I haven’t roamed around off trail in that section of the woods, and today was wet enough that I was disinclined to. That’s a project for another day.

As I walked west of bur reed marsh, the woodcock took off and started his whistling, kissing flight overhead. I wonder if he favors the burned vegetation. I once heard that the woodcock likes the burned prairies because they show off his legs so nicely. Vain woodcocks. Was that Aldo Leopold? or Ken Wood, another great Madison naturalist? Ken was master personifier and brilliant observer, and this sounds like his sense of humor. It’s a luxury to have a woodcock show all to yourself so early in the morning. There have been times in Madison that I’ve watched woodcocks in the prairie with 30 other people, all perched along the trails watching up as the birds fly and squinting out when they drop to the ground and start peenting.

The trail crossed the road to a wet marsh. The day was growing lighter. I had walked into a cloud of spring peeper calls. I hadn’t expected to hear them so early in the year, but they were unmistakable, a din of songs all piled up on each other. This is most likely what I had heard in the marsh as well, with some variation that I didn’t recognize.

I walked back along the north trail that runs the length of the east woods, studying the white oaks and the bur oaks. Catkins aren’t opened yet on the Ostrya, though they are on the alders lining the visitor center. The elms are in flower, and I looked for first leaves shoots of Hepatica and Anemone in the woods. Nothing yet that I notice, but at this rate they’ll be out soon.

On the walk back there were wood ducks, song sparrows, blue jays, robins and cardinals singing. Oddly, no chickadees that I recall.