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.

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