“Sandhill Cranes never sleep,” says the UWM Field Station guide leading the twilight nature walk. “I walk my dog at midnight and they are still going.”
Our group is nearing Mud Lake and the Sandhill Cranes are only a small part of the racous, bird & frog evening party-time cacophony. It’s mating season, and thousands of Spring Peepers join in a shrill chorus, each hoping to stand out from the crowd. Their high pitch is periodically interrupted by the lower-octave chuckle of Wood Frogs. A month ago, it was all Wood Frogs, says our guide, but their window of opportunity grows shorter.
Our guide describes the emphemeral ponds these frogs are breed and born in, small shallow areas that hold water for only a short time. By summer the ponds will be gone. Your entire world just dries up and disappears.
I stop at the sound of a Barred Owl hooting from somewhere in the darkness (“swamp birds,” says our guide). Its call is a hollow and unanswered question.
Listen to the Barred Owl audio I captured. It’s pretty faint, but you can make it out.
Our next stop is a field the UWM scientists use to study the prevalance of cuckolding in the local swallow population. In the daytime, you can see the sparse man-made forest of numbered bird boxes on posts. I drove past once, and there was a family of turkeys capering about among the bird boxes, surprisingly light on their feet.
In the evening, it’s a preferred launchpad for Woodcocks to perform their showy, springtime mating flight. By mid-April, most of the female Woodcocks are sitting patiently at home on a clutch of eggs. But the males are still out, literally playing the field. One last shot.
We spied a male Woodcock sitting in the grassy pathway and watched it’s routine a half dozen times. Nasal quacking noises for about a minute before alighting into the sky – swirling, zagging, climbing hundreds of feet, making complex patterns. A swirl earthward and a plop back on the grass. He didn’t seem to attract the attention he was looking for, but he kept doing it over and over again.
The online description for the “Woodcocks & Frogs ” event said that listening to springtime frog sounds could be a religious experience. That’s a pretty good hook for a nature walk.
And while I wasn’t exactly spiritually moved, I can tell you that standing in the dark on the edge of the unpaved road, hands cupped behind my ears (as advised for amplification), the sound becomes an all-consuming, physical experience, blanking out any other thought or sensation.
Here is some audio I took of the walk. The prominent background sound is the Springtime Peepers, and the gravelly “quack” or “chuckle” is the Wood Frogs. To get the full effect, turn up as loud as possible.
On my daytime visits to the bog, I found it best to start north of the UWM Field Station at the small trailhead parking lot off of Highway 33. (The field station is not open to the public outside of its nature walks and the other entrance points to the bog don’t really have parking lots.)
One bizarrely warm, 80 degree April day, the bog feels dense and prehistoric. I walk along the boardwalk path, making percussion sounds in the hollow space above the water. The bog is covered in a layer of algae that, in places, appears to be burbling, and in others is flat and imprinted with leaves like a strata of fossilized shale. A piece of bark has peeled off a tree and lays curled and halfway submerged, like a heavy shed snake skin.
Many trees have lost their anchoring in the soft ground, and have heaved upwards, pulling moss and limbs and root with them. Having their lost balance, they lean on nearby trees, looking casual.
One thick log on the side of the trail has become as barnacled as the bottom of a ship.
The bog is shades of green on green on green, and changes with every visit. One week, flowering Skunk Cabbage is everywhere. It’s name belies the beautiful, curved purple shell protecting a round, spiny pod.
By the next week, the Skunk Cabbage has retreated in prominence in favor of a leafy plant that appears to have peas growing at its center.
I comb through the Friends of the Bog list of common bog plants, hoping to identify this friendly-looking plant, along with a half dozen others I had taken pictures of. I search but come up short.
However, I do enjoy reading their exhaustive list of plant names, which range from the delicous-sounding (Pineapple-Weed, Wild Sarsaparilla, Orange Jewelweed, Butter-And-Eggs) to the medical (Ebony Spleenwort, Brittle Bladder Fern, Pale Vetchling, Canadian Lousewort). Other favorites include Dame’s Rocket, Small Enchanter’s-Nightshade, Interrupted Fern.
Cedarburg Bog is a place that invites you to scale small, especially this time of year when so many things are tiny and beginning. I’m down on my knees, on my stomach (to the possible amusement/confusion of other park visitors), peering closer at strands and buds. Fragile filaments taking shape and developing identity.
Walking further into the bog, the path splits with option of heading to Watts Lake or a field trail that regularly left me squishing through mud and asking “wait, am I still on the path?” Let’s go to Watts Lake.
The boardwalk path leads directly out to a short pier and fishing dock on Watts Lake, a modest-sized body of water fringed with cattails. I peer into the shallows and see small dark fish swimming near the shore. Red Winged Blackbirds are everywhere. They bob and bend on the tops of the cattails, squawking metallically.
An interpretive sign on the dock reminds the visitors of the impermanence of their existence, and the fact that everything is an ephemeral pond, depending on what you consider a season:
“Lakes constantly change. Watts Lake started as a sterile kettle left by the glaciers. Now it is the fertile home to many plants and animals. In time it will become a shallow pond, then a marsh and finally dry land.”
Hwy 33 entrance is between Lakeland Rd and W Center Rd.
Links & Further Reading
UWM Field Station – Events https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/events/
Friends of the Cedarburg Bog http://bogfriends.org/
Woodcocks are truly weird creatures. Did you know their ears are between their eyes and their beak? Read more about them.