Sunday, August 8, 2010

Teal Pond Getaway

A short path through the over-hanging cedar branches leads to one of my favorite places in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum - Teal Pond. The heavy tree canopy dims even the midday sun. Little groundcover survives the shade. A permanent pier sits at the path's end, supported by sturdy aluminum poles. Standing on the weathered planks, my eyes take a moment to adjust to the bright sunshine after leaving the shadows of the cedars.

If I had a stone, I could easily heave it the 100 feet across the water to the other side, about the distance from first base to home plate. Ash, alder, and dogwood ring the pond, creating a pocket of natural silence around the water. The faraway mosquito-like whine of traffic on the Beltline (US Highway 12/18) blends with the buzz and hum of the pond's inhabitants. I like best the escape from the bustle of city sounds -- wailing sirens, blaring horns, the jarring sounds of road construction. All fade at the edge of the pond.

The Arboretum's location within Madison makes it a much-used recreation waypoint - bicyclists have easy entry to numerous close-by bike trails. The long entrance road, with its 25 mph speed limit, sees little vehicular traffic and runners and walkers favor it. Joggers have worn a narrow path into the grass on either side of the pavement.

Today, a Sunday, groups of multi-colored spandex-clad cyclists pass me on their way out of the Arboretum. Runners in twos and threes, jog along the long winding access road. This morning, the humidity hangs heavy in the air; the dew-laden grass soaks the tips of my shoes. No one joined me on the trails to Teal Pond, though.

Green Darner dragonfly
Rarely have I encountered other people here. Within these moments of solitude, I observe and, for a short time, sink uninterrupted into the goings-on. The pond bustles with activity and sounds. Dragonflies, the largest a green darner, lead the fast-paced charge, bouncing across the water's surface with a purpose known only to them.

Occasionally, they come to rest, a brilliant cherry-faced meadowhawk alighting nearly at my foot. A butterfly, its jet black wings be-jeweled with red spots, rests on a willow leaf for a moment's respite. Skimming just beneath the pond's surface, a pair of Western painted turtles lazily moves amongst the spidery aquatic grasses. A muskrat glides into an unseen den amongst the bulrush, leaving a barely perceptible wake; he heads out minutes later and passes a female mallard dipping for edibles. Green frogs calling to one another with their distinctive loose banjo string twang punctuate the background buzz. Cicadas sound the top notes of this natural symphony; the hum of a thousand insects carries the base notes.

Cherry-faced meadowhawk dragonfly
I could spend hours here watching, lost in the moment. For a brief time, it feels as though I am a part of this bustle. Everywhere I turn, there is some wonder to observe. My presence is neither a threat nor a disturbance to the pond’s inhabitants.

I try not to look at my watch but before I know it, an hour has passed. I don’t think the muskrat and turtles hear the sigh that passes resignedly from my lips. Its time to head back …… the hustle and bustle of my world awaits me.

All images by CartoGeek

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bees, Wasps and Aliens

Throughout my life, bees, wasps and I have had an uneasy relationship. The presence of stinging insects usually kicks in a healthy flight-or-fight response, one that only as an adult I have come to control.

My father’s honeybee hives sat at the edge of the woods, near the property line, facing a large expanse of “pasture” – a grassy field – that never saw a grazing animal. As a teen, it was my job to mow the ¼-acre plot.

Sitting atop the riding mower, I circled the field, spiraling towards the center. With no trees or bushes to obstruct their flight paths, the bees followed long low track lines across the grass. Sooner or later, one would collide with me, catching in my hair, unable to free itself. My immediate response was to bat at it, crushing it but not before it had inflicted several stings. (They say that honeybees sting only once, don’t believe it!) I lobbied hard for hazardous duty pay to no avail.

My current yard is too small to house honeybees but it is home to an interesting array of tenants. Wrens occupy the age-old birdhouse once more and robins fledged three babies in a hanging plant basket on the front porch. Bugs of all sorts are not strangers.

One evening, two large insects hovered over a maple log set on end in my driveway. These bugs were unlike anything I had ever seen. Six needle-thin legs supported the three-inch long bodies, dappled in brown and yellow. Each appeared to have a long black “tail” protruding more than three inches from its abdomen. This had the menacing look of a stinger to me. The sight caused that old knee-jerk reaction; I retreated behind the metallic safety of my SUV. The visitors, though, weren’t particularly interested in me I discovered. The focus of their attention was the log and with each passing minute, the feelings of uneasiness faded. From my initial vantage point about 10 feet away, I circled the log, moving closer and closer, observing them from every angle. Fascination and curiosity had gained the upper hand – these creatures were strange and new. What would they do next?

Amazingly, one began to “drill” a hole in the center of the log. The long tail appendage, actually composed of two parallel strands, looped back over the upraised abdomen. I could see a slight quivering, even as the insect itself remained motionless. The hole became deeper and deeper. Eventually, the end of the abdomen opened up like a clamshell and a third strand entered the hole – the ovipositor. This egg-laying apparatus guided the insect’s future offspring to their nesting spot.

These odd-looking visitors could easily have been cast as extras in an “Alien” movie. I had to find out what they were. Dr. Phil Pellitteri of the UW Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab answered my questions. He identified it as a species of Ichneumoid wasp. The body and ovipositor of the giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) may extend more than five inches. Great! A giant wasp with a stiletto stinger – a nightmare embodied. But, these insects do not sting and are considered beneficial. Their main prey is the pigeon tremex horntail (Tremex columba), another non-stinging wasp, a tree borer.

The horntail larvae develop in trees that are dying or recently dead. M. macrurus females drill into the bark with their ovipositors to find grubs of the host, paralyzing them before depositing an egg. In a parasitic relationship, the developing egg will then feed on the immobilized larva, lying dormant until the ichneumon adult emerges a year later.

Check out this Ichneumoid in action:

My fear of bees has receded with time; the gut reactions dulled. Bees and I have come to an understanding: most of the time, these insects will leave people alone unless provoked and I do my utmost to maintain that status quo. The Ichneumon wasps that visited took this awareness to another level. These alien-looking creatures, coupled with the horntail, participate in a complex natural history, one inextricably dependent upon the other. Knowledge has brought a deeper understanding and curiosity has taken the place of fear. One step in a life cycle dance played out before me, leading to a truer appreciation of Nature’s wondrous relationships.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hunting Prairie Gems

Tom and Kathie Brock and other Prairie Enthusiasts tend to Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie State Natural Area, just south of the city of Black Earth, Wisconsin. The slow-moving traffic and small downtown belie its popularity for hunters, trout fishermen, and nature lovers. Black Earth Creek snakes its way through town and joins Garfoot Creek just west of the city limit. The Department of Natural Resources classifies both as Class I trout streams.

But, there is more to this area than fishing or hunting. Sunday, I set out to find some prairie beauties and capture a bit of their splendor with my camera. My quarry: June bloomers. The steep slopes of Rettenmund prairie harbor remnant grassland habitat. Seen from a distance, the milkweeds, black-eyed susans, spiderworts, sunflowers, and prairie clover create a Monet-like scene, scattered with points of color against the backdrop of paler grasses. Here, the two stars today were the wood lilies and butterfly milkweed. The two feet tall single-stemmed lilies shouted out with flame-orange brilliance as if to say “Look at me!”. Purple-brown spots dotted the inside of the six large petals forming a cup perched atop each stem. The smaller milkweed flowers, though, make up for their stature with abundance and originality. Each sprawling stem carries hundreds of orange-hooded flowers, petals curving downward and away as if to set the frame for the show.

Pleasant Valley Conservancy, about five miles to the west of the Rettenmund Natural Area, shelters a state endangered species – the purple milkweed. This oak savanna beauty first appeared after the Brocks began restoring their property in 1999. These plants announce their arrival with a showy display. The characteristic hooded milkweed flowers produce an eye-popping shade of magenta. It’s not hard to see them amongst the dull (by comparison) grassy surroundings, shaded by tall white oaks. But, they come and go, springing up some years and not others, according to Nature’s whims. It was my lucky day and truly a pleasure to capture a picture of these illusive gems.

All pictures by CartoGeek

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Home Fires Burning

The blaze edged closer and closer. The coming fury, pushed along by the light southerly breeze, roared as the dry prairie grass ignited. A warmth rose on my cheeks as the fire approached, a flutter of concern bubbled in my stomach.

No need to call 911, though. A carefully planned burn unfolded before me. Prescribed fires occur all over the Midwestern prairie states in the spring. Unlike a cheery Currier-and-Ives winter hearth fire, this one, in southern Wisconsin, moved with wild intensity and power.

As a kid, fires brought the best kind of comfort – warmth on a cold evening, the embers' murmuring tones echoing in the brick hearth. The flames always mesmerized me. I threw in twigs and stirred the coals with the poker, endlessly entertained by the erupting flares of light. I wadded up bits of newspapers and watched as the red-hot coals ignited the fuel into a dozen hues – yellows, blues, and greens – as the inks combusted. The glossy advertising pages produced an especially colorful display.

Seated atop the brick hearth extension, the fire’s heat flushed my cheeks with pink warmth. Turning around, my back got the same treatment. Drying my hair after a winter’s bath was far more pleasant at the fireplace than with my mother’s noisy 60’s-era portable salon dryer. In the morning, the cold gray remains lay in the firebox, ready to sweep down the ash chute.

I found comfort in the fire. I never thought much about the power of the flames caged within our fireplace. That is, not until I found myself helping with a prescribed burn.

Once let loose on a dry prairie field like the one I was standing in, a fire devours nearly everything in its path with all-consuming ferocity. The stalks of Indian grass, at nearly seven feet tall, waved in the gentle breeze. The fire soon enveloped them, the flames carried higher and higher by the long blades of grass. Smoke billowed from the leading edge of the soaring blaze. Standing more than 20 feet away, I felt the intense heat. The fire’s roar sounded like a run-away semi-truck barreling down a steep slope.

I found the display just as mesmerizing as the fires of my childhood. But the heat in my cheeks broke my reverie. I backed off to the safety of a previously prepared firebreak.

Backfires set earlier in the day created protective strips to help corral the flames where needed. Done right, a nicely executed prairie burn rivals a military maneuver – meticulous planning, good communication, and battle-ready crew movements. The day’s preparations ended with the fire scorching the four-acre field within a half hour.

The fire’s aftermath leaves a blackened patch of earth. Drooping nubbins of heartier fire-adapted plants remain to break up the topography. Regular burning keeps invasive plants at bay and paves the way for new growth. The earth, now perfectly prepared for new shoots to rise, Phoenix-like, can renew the splendor of the prairie for another year.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Natural Connections

10 Suggestions for Rediscovering your Nature

A wonderfully entertaining and engaging world awaits those who step outside the enclosures of modern life: cars, houses, malls, offices, and groceries, to name just a few. Rather than focus on what we leave behind – air conditioning, 24-hour TV with 1,000 channels, and the ability to hop in a car that takes us anywhere and nowhere we want to go – focus instead on the discovery and reconnection to that which is forgotten. A world we are integrally a part of but which has been buried in far away recesses of our modern lives.

To get you thinking about how to do this, here is a list of 10 activities (see previous blog posts). Some are easy, some require a bit more effort but each one makes the cut because I have experienced them. Give it a go and then take a moment for reflection, pay attention to what you see and feel. You might find it surprising!

1. Go barefoot – when was the last time you did this? Remember as a kid wriggling your toes in mud or sun-baked beach sands? Can’t find a beach? Just try walking on a grassy expanse.

2. Take a hike or walk in the woods. No matter where you live, parks and trails await exploration. Check out your city’s web site for park locations or research state parks in your area.

3. Volunteer for a restoration work party. Help stamp out invasive plant species or build trails. You are guaranteed to meet great people, get some good exercise, and someone always brings after-work goodies.

4. Put up a bird or bat house. Another pair of twittering wrens occupy my birdhouse. Sometimes you don’t even need a birdhouse – a nesting robin has made a home in a hanging planter on my front porch!

5. Take a dog’s walk. Amble with your own or join a friend whose dog needs a stroll. Either way, you’ll get outside and have lots of company.

6. Get your hands dirty - start a garden. If your yard is small or shady, find a community plot. There’s nothing better than getting an armload of fresh produce or getting to know a fellow gardener “over the fence”.

7. Go for a bike ride. Or better yet, start commuting to work once a week on your bike. Google provides an extension to its map service to help you find a route.  Many cities claim a bike-friendly atmosphere with impromptu groups forming for regular rides.

8. Join a conservation organization or become a citizen scientist. Many local organizations keep tabs on your particular area but even national organizations such as the Nature Conservancy or the Audubon Society have local chapters. See what the Milwaukee-based RiverKeeper organization does to help monitor water quality in its area.

9. Visit a farmer’s market. Farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture enterprises provide fresh local produce for most of the year. Madison has several markets open on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Experience a closer connection to the food you eat and where it comes from.

10. Support local restaurants supporting local food. Enjoy a great meal in a non-chain eatery in your area like the one I reviewed in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Make a comment about your reflections or suggest other ways to reconnect to your nature.

Volunteering for Nature

Watersheds – the land, water, and living things -- depend on people.

In October 2008, the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact became law, the culmination of years of negotiation by a laundry list of regional, national, and international organizations, comprised of thoughtful and dedicated people. At heart, the Compact is a conservation agreement like no other in the sweeping scope of its water management coordination. Eight states along with Ontario and Quebec are recognized as stewards of this shared great resource.

The Milwaukee River Basin includes three major rivers – the Milwaukee, the Menomonee, and the Kinnickinnic -- that flow to Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes. This watershed, dominated by the City of Milwaukee’s urbanized area, is the focus of the Milwaukee RiverKeepers.

The organization participated in the formulation of the Compact but they haven’t rested on their laurels since the passage of the Federal law nearly two years ago. The group’s advocacy, still a large part of their work, speaks to sound land use planning decisions. The mission statement echoes and extends themes found in the Compact’s guidelines: assessment of management strategies, conservation and improvement of water quality and wildlife habitat. Assessing the health of the streams is the first step.

Monitoring projects seek to take the pulse of the rivers. The RiverKeepers have instituted a citizen-based program boasting 58 volunteers who gather data using consistent standardized methodology. This information is important for assessing the condition of Milwaukee’s river system over time. Here is a map showing some of the results of this work.

One volunteer monitor is Erica King, a Waukesha native (from just over the watershed divide). She recently completed the rigorous two-day training program. “I signed up because I really care about the health of our streams and thought I could be of value with my past experience with stream monitoring. I also wanted to help give back to the community” says Ms. King. She will be doing “the level two monitoring which is a little more advanced. It includes additional testing for water quality and the use of more accurate (and expensive) equipment.” Ms. King samples two stream sites for various water quality parameters once a month. Volunteers enter the collected data into the Department of Natural Resources’ database to determine the health and habitat value to the stream.

The monthly commitment pays big dividends. These data help to shape stream management decisions that affect the quality of life in the larger community. And for Ms. King, the responsibility is one she relishes. “It’s just really enjoyable and I feel connects you more to nature and the resources in your own community.” With the combined efforts of volunteers such as Ms. King and organizations like the RiverKeepers, our lakes and rivers will be nurtured and improved.

The health of our watersheds and ultimately our communities really does boil down to individual people committing to give back just a little.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Wrens are Back

A metal awning over my kitchen window diffuses the summer’s intense morning sun. Attached to one support arm hangs a well-used wren house, a simple rectangular box with a pitched roof. The roof overhang protects a narrow horizontal oval entryway.

For several years, the wrens have been absent, replaced by a pair of cardinals, who built a nest in the overgrown lilac bush under the window. I watched the new neighbors with fascination each morning just as I had the wrens. They raised one ever-hungry chick before one day it and then they disappeared. Perhaps because the nest remained, the male cardinal (who we dubbed Ralph) decided that the other awning support provided a good resting place. He spent all winter perched on the end of the metal arm with the protective awning at his back. The wren’s house sat silent across from him. Ralph joined me as I did dishes late at night and was there before the rising sun’s light broke through the dark early morning, flying off during the day to parts unknown.

This Spring, the laissez-faire yard work attitude I had adopted needed an adjustment. Since Ralph and his mate had moved on to a new landlady, I didn’t worry too much about disturbing the now disheveled and unused nest. The out-of-control lilac bush got whacked. Within a few days, first one wren and then its mate came to check out the stunningly clear view from the birdhouse. It seemed to suit them.

It is hard to distinguish male and female wrens visually but they both love to sing. The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds describes their voice as “a stuttering gurgling song, rising in a musical burst, then falling at the end.” The beak opens and a split second later, the stuttering song begins, the throat’s vibration carrying all the way down their little body to the tip of their tail as it quivers with the exertion.

Perhaps all the noisy to-do is a complicated mating ritual or perhaps they are bickering over house decorations – “move that twig just a scosh to the left please” or “the spider web padding goes in that corner, not this one”. They make trip after trip, carrying small twigs that usually fit through the hole; sometimes the sticks are too long and they fall to the ground. You can almost feel the wren’s resignation at having to try again. But eventually their nest will be just right. If I am lucky, I will get to witness the growth of a clutch of baby wrens.

The last nesting pair gave me a beautiful honor. One morning, as the coffee brewed, I witnessed, cheered, and sighed as one fledgling after another left the nest on their first flights. Some went out strong taking off in full flight; others tentatively, landing on a lilac branch before heading out. One dropped like a rock, its fate unknown but imagined.

Yes, I am glad the wrens are back.
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