Saturday, September 12, 2009

Riverland Conservancy

The last day of vacation is always a bit melancholy. You want to cram in the last bit of fun, all the things you haven't done so far, but there just isn't time. You know you have to pack everything up and get it all in the car again as early as possible tomorrow morning. It's trite, perhaps, to talk about saving the best for last, but I certainly enjoyed today because we got to do some real birding in some terrific prairie regions.
The Wisconsin Birding Trail has five listings for Sauk County, and we covered three of them through the week. Today we went to the Riverland Conservancy - Merrimac Preserve. Alliant Energy, the power company, operates several restoration areas, and this one is just south of Devil's Lake State Park. The Merrimac Preserve encompasses more than 1,800 acres of forest, prairie, savanna, wetlands and streams in south-central Wisconsin, and provides a wildlife corridor between the Baraboo Bluffs and the Wisconsin River.
Although we found this place through the Birding Trail, the restored prairie simply blew me away. The grass and flowers we taller than we were! Just imagine what it was like for the first settlers, who must have felt buried in grass. I've never seen purple grass before, but several varieties stretched as to the horizon with short or tall purple/reddish grasses. We followed the bio-diversity trail through prairie, wetlands, and oak savanna regions, enthralled with both the plants and animals we found. I'm sure we spent much longer to complete the trail than the planners had in mind!
I kept seeing the prairie as an inverted forest. When forest birds want to hide, they fly up to the canopy where the dense leaves protect them from flying predators. In the prairie, the birds and other animals dive down into the densest grass and flowers, where the crowded stems protect them. Although a hawk or owl can hear or see a mouse on the ground, the vegetation is so thick the bird couldn't possibly capture the mouse once it was in the tall grass, could it? I noticed the same thing about the miles of corn growing in Wisconsin. Mice could hide forever in those forests of standing cornstalks. No hawk could fly into them.
Although the official Wisconsin State Bird is the American Robin, I would recommend changing that to the Turkey Vulture, which certainly seemed the most common bird we saw this week! The Birding Trail book says that Sedge Wren and Lark Sparrows are rare at the Merrimac Preserve. We saw a lot of LBJ's (Little Brown Job's), many of which were sparrows and wrens, but darned if I could see them long enough to decide what kind! All the birds seemed to be in a hurry, and enamored of the thickest branches. One resembled a Meadow Lark, but had a thick beak. Ah! I remember seeing that one before - the Dickcissel! The field guide confirms that the bib is missing in fall. Cedar Waxwings and Gold Finches were easier to locate and identify. Upon investigation, the wren was probably a House Wren. A few fall warblers of generic color and markings joined the anonymous flocks.
Then a raptor flashed by! It turned and displayed a red tail - Red Tailed Hawk we said. But as it turned, it seemed small for a Red Tail, and the face looked white with malar stripes. Could it be a falcon??? I tracked it to a distant tree and got this shot, but the details are unclear. The field guide says neither Peregrines nor Prairie Falcons live in Wisconsin. Sigh... It was probably a Red Tailed Hawk after all. Anyone else have a good guess on little evidence?
A dragonfly couple danced a duet around the wetlands, then flew away.

The wild grapes are just as ripe as those at the winery. I just hope some migrating bird doesn't get drunk on them!

We thought this might be a lupine, but now I don't think so. More investigation is required, but isn't it beautiful? Blue flowers are rare and special to me.

After our walk through the prairie we went back to Devil's Lake to eat lunch. The place was packed with picnickers and swimmers. We decided to get a double kayak and take a spin around the lake for a while. Our was not fiberglass, but inflatable, like a raft -- rather unusual, we thought. Let's just say that we got to see a 360 degree view of the lake as we paddled around, and the double paddles made sure we didn't overheat as they dripped all over us. We returned to shore to dry off, and found this marker on the sunny bench: "Life is a journey, not a destination." Somehow that seemed especially appropriate for our kayak adventure!

Our final adventure for the day was a horse drawn wagon ride through the Lost Canyon. This one wins hands down for being the deepest, narrowest canyon we saw this week. I never would have believed that a pair of Belgian horses could pull a wagon through these rocks! A doe paused to watch the parade go by. At one point, the left horse seemed stuck under the overhang. The driver said he simply had an itch he wanted to scratch on the rock. I did notice several streaks of blue paint on the walls where a wagon had come a leeetle too close! This was a family owned and operated business, and we were glad to see it, since so much of this area has gone the way of big corporations.

In the morning, we will try to pack everything back into the car, including all the rocks we have picked up. It all fit in a week ago, so it should go back now, right?

1 comment:

Kathiesbirds said...

Kathy, what a great trip! I would love to see that tall grass, but I don't think I would like to live in it! I need to see the sky too much. Love the shot over the horses' rumps! I think Hap was right that your little falcon was a kestrel.