Have you visited the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area located on the southern border of Devil’s Lake State Park yet? Remember, this time around the new public land is only open until May 27th as there is still a lot of work to do out there. If you had visited the SPRA today, you would have seen smoke rising from somewhere on the southern end where workers from DNR and Devil’s Lake State Park were performing a controlled burn.
Controlled burns are used to help restore historically fire-adapted environments such as Wisconsin’s grasslands, prairies and oak savannah. Fires bring health back to the land by removing brush, shrubs, dead wood and non-native plants. Native fire-adapted plants will quickly regrow and the land will be awash in green, often in just a couple of weeks! It’s an amazing transformation!!
It’s worth noting too, that restoration burns are not simply about plants. Many insects and animals are specially adapted to live in these specific fire-adapted environments. Controlled burns maintain they open environments they need to survive.
If you would like to see more pictures from today’s burn and more pictures from the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area in general, check out our SPRA Pinterest Board. If you plan to visit Devil’s Lake State Park in the next few weeks, why not take a drive over to the SPRA and have a look around as well. It’s a little rough around the edges at the moment, but it’s easy to see what an amazing place it will be, not too far into the future!
April 12, 2014 is the official “Ice Out” day this year at Devil’s Lake State Park. It came as a bit of a surprise. Just the day before, the whole of the lake (Well, 95% of the lake!) was covered with ice! It only took one night for the ice to completely disappear from the surface of Devil’s Lake. No floating ice, no ice on the shoreline or drifted up on the beach. Nothing! This can happen sometimes when we have a few days of heavy rains, or when the air temperatures are unusually warm. This time however, we had neither. The ice was just there one day and gone the next. Amazing. Spring is here!
Now that the ice is gone, folks will be tempted to get right out on and into the water. Keep in mind that the water temperatures will be just above freezing. If you fall in, cold water shock and hypothermia are immediate risks. No one should really be on the water this time of year without a drysuit and life jacket.
Yesterday at 2pm the popular free Merrimac Ferry began shuttling passengers across lake Wisconsin. The Merrimac Ferry is free and is a popular attraction for both locals and visitors to the area who take their cars or simply park and ride. We shot this shot video clip yesterday (April 11, 2014) as the ferry came into Merrimac on one of it’s early runs.
Oh, and by the way, those orange ropes in the water, well those are the cables that are used to pull the ferry back and forth across the river. BOATERS avoid these cables.. hitting one would be bad.
We kick off our new Backyard Explorer series with a visit to the French Creek Wildlife Area which is located about 35 minutes north-east of Devil’s Lake State Park, just 6 miles north of Portage, Wisconsin. The French Creek Wildlife Area is a 3,506 acre slice of wetlands, grasslands, savannas, fens, tamarack bogs and sedge meadows. French creek is a recommended stop for birding and was worth a visit during the spring migration.
Leaving from our home here in Baraboo just after 5pm, we still had plenty of time to enjoy the sights. There are no trails per se, but it’s possible to watch the wildlife from highway F which cuts through the lower section of French Creek or to head into the French Creek Fen State Natural Area where you can walk a maintenance road through the wetlands.
Marsh Hawk scans the water for an easy meal..
From our first stop in a parking area along county highway F, we were surprised to see that there seemed to be no ducks nearby. Well, that was until we saw a Marsh Hawk (Nothern Harrier) gliding in from the east. After the hawk slid by, the ducks began to move out into the open water once again.
What is a Fen? (click to enlarge)
After watching the area from the road for awhile, we drove down to the south end of the wildlife area and found the small, rough dirt road that took us into the interior of the preserve and to a small parking area that marked the beginning of the French Creek Fen State Natural Area. From the parking area strewn with garbage and beer cans (and a deer carcass hanging in a tree), we walked passed a gate riddled with shotgun holes out onto a maintenance road that traveled right through the center of the wetlands.
From 100 yards into the hike you feel as though you have traveled deep into the wilderness. The air was filled with the calls of Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese, Red-Wing Blackbirds and occasional chattering of ducks. The road was flat and made walking no effort at all. Every few minutes we would stop to take in all the action. We saw coots making their way through the grass as Blue Winged Teels flew past and splash landed in the distance. A pair of Canada Geese begrudgingly moved as we walked by their nesting area which they were building right next to the road. Overhead, cranes, geese & ducks were continually flying may and calling as they went. In the light of the setting sun, the birds in flight glowed in awesome hues of yellows and orange.
Now here was the trick, we knew we were running out of daylight, but we were being called forward by the road which seemed to continue on and curve off in the distance. Using my fingers to measure the amount of time we had before the sun would slip below the horizon we decided to continue on for a few moments before turning back. We finally came to another curve in the road, when we simply had to get back if we wanted to return to the car before darkness fell. We’ll certainly be going back to explore some more.. next time we may have to take the kayaks!
Check back for more “Backyard Explorer” posts over the coming weeks and months as we explore the many natural areas and interesting sights right here in our part of Wisconsin. Even if you only have a few hours, you can still find awesome new places to explore right here in your back yard!
The take aways:
Again, the drive is about a half hour from Baraboo and only 6 miles from Portage, so you are always close to a small town for gas and supplies.
Bring bug spray from late spring to late fall!
French Creek is a great place to go hunting for birds, especially during migration seasons. (In the post above I didn’t name every species we saw, but there were quite a few more.)
For kids the road through the state natural area will be an easy walk and you can expect encounters not only with ducks, but frogs and other wetland creatures as well.
From a canoe or kayak you’re going to feel like you’ve been transported to Canada.
If you’d like to learn more about the French Creek Wildlife Area or The French Creek Fen State Natural area we would recommend these links.
The Wisconsin DNR announced today that the deadly bat disease called “White-Nose Syndrome” has been discovered in Wisconsin. The discovery was made in a colony of bats located in Grant County about 83 miles south-west of Devil’s Lake State Park. The sad news is that up to 95 percent of bats in infected caves and mines in other states have died and we can expect white-nose syndrome to continue to spread.
Here at Devil’s Lake State Park, many people have enjoyed the popular “Bat Watches” put on by the Nature Center during warm summer evenings over the last couple of years. This summer howeve, there is no guarantee they will continue. You see, when the colony of nearly 500 bats that spend their summer at the park’s North Shore Chateau return, they’ll find their homes are gone!
Click To Enlarge
So, here’s the story; Park staff had wanted to remove the bats from the Chateau for some time for a variety of reasons, one reason is that they want to update the siding on the historic building. It was finally decided that the bats had to go. The first plan was to build a large new bat condo with the idea that the bats could be tempted to give up their many cozy homes on the Chateau in favor of one big bat apartment building. The new bat condo was placed a few hundred yards east of the Chateau near the north-shore boat landing. Summer came and went and the bat’s were having none of it! The new bat house stood empty.
Not to be deterred, the park staff decided last autumn to forcibly evict the bats by removing their bat houses from the Chateau building completely while the bats were away and hibernating over the winter. (Hopefully not in Grant County!) The idea then, was to attach a couple of the old bat houses to the outside of the new bat condo and hope that when the bats return this spring, they will find and accept the new digs. Will they? Who knows? They could simply choose to move on.
I certainly hope the bats find and choose to stay in the new condo. Certainly displacing bat colonies when we’re on the cusp of dealing with a killer like “white-nose” is a risky proposition by itself. If the bats don’t return it would also be a real bummer for people who use the lake’s north shore, considering each bat in the Chateau colony of about 500 individuals, can eat up to 600 mosquitos per hour!!! If they do move on, we’ll certainly need more bug spray!!
When you visit Devil’s Lake State Park this summer, be sure to stop by the bat condo and see if our local bats have decided to stay. If so, take some time right as the sun sets below the east bluff, to watch the bats head out to hunt for the evening. Maybe you’ll want to shout out a “Thank you” as they get to work! I will. (..and I might whisper quietly, “Thanks for coming back!”)
When you think of “big events” here in the Baraboo hills, your first thought might not be the annual bird migration, but maybe it should be. It’s really a rarity to see so many different types of birds gathered in one place at one time. What’s more, they are easy to find and often watch from the road with little effort required. When it comes to nature, it often feels like Baraboo is at the heart of everything! Right now you can see everything from hooded mergansers, scaups & wood ducks to pelicans, cranes and heron within minutes of Devil’s Lake State Park! Trumpeter swans have also been seen in the area as well. While some will stay through the summer, many species will be here for just a matter of days before heading further north.
Hooded Mergansers on the Baraboo River
Our favorite spots to look for migratory species right now would be Gallus Slough near Merrimac, the wetlands on Marsh Rd and DL near Parfrey’s Glen and certainly the slough and Dell Creek at Mirror Lake State Park.
If you decide to head out to have a look for yourself, just remember most waterfowl are pretty skittish. It’s best to stay in your car when possible. Binoculars are a good idea. The best times to go out looking for wildlife, especially on the water is in the early morning or late evening when the birds are settling in for the night. While bird identification isn’t required to enjoy the sites a good ID book or birding app can enhance the evening’s discovery. When it comes to books, we use a Crossley Guide. It’s a bit expensive, but worthwhile. Also, remember not only to watch, but listen as well! Some folks are simply much better at locating and IDing animals and birds by the sounds they make, rather than on sight. Most of all, have fun and keep in mind that you are sharing in an huge annual event that few people actually take the time to see. How cool is that?!
Have you visited any of these local spots this spring? What migrating species have you seen this year?