Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Burn Notice-The Sturtz Prairie Fire

At one time Wisconsin had over 2.1 million acres of tall grass prairie,  reduced to only 0.5 percent of it’s original ecosystem today, often degraded and fragmented into small plots.  It was the result years ago of farmers moving in and plowing the fertile prairie soil and of fire suppression, which led to the invasion of woody vegetation.  Luckily, some have a vision of the importance in restoring our prairies and see value and importance in preservation, of bringing back rare plants and wildlife and maintaining this diverse genetic resource.  And…their beauty.

As stewards of the land, Rick and Toni Sturtz have this vision-after acquiring an old historic farmstead near the ghost town of Columbia (in southwest Clark County), they set forth an effort to create a place to live in harmony with the natural environment all the while upgrading their home and surrounding outbuildings.  The Sturtz’s have unparalleled vision and creativity, along with a generous spirit and willingness to share with others and future generations.  Their tall grass restoration project is not only for them, but for others to catch a glimpse of what parts of the state looked like a hundred or more years ago.  This was the home to rare grassland birds and wildlife, grasses like Big Bluestem, and Switchgrass, not to mention the beauty of native flowers.  Within a few short years, converting this fallow 35 acre field into prairie has attracted everything from  Cranes, Northern Harriers and  Bald Eagles to endangered Ornate Box Turtles.

Fire plays a crucial role in maintaining prairie ecosystems.  At one time lightning or Native Americans burned dead vegetation and woody material promoting plant growth and returning nutrients to the ground.  A call from Rick a few days ago, gave me a heads up that a prescribed burn would take place on their prairie and perhaps I would be interested. I was anxious for the opportunity, for it would provide a rich environment for some photography but also pique my interest in the process of a prairie burn.


The local volunteer fire department took this as a chance to train new firefighters on wildfire control and very quickly set up and burned a perimeter back burn against the wind. Once a safe “black ground” border was established, the fire could be spread across the entire prairie and in an astonishingly quick time, the entire 35 acres was  burned.  I was amazed at the sound-the loud crackle and echo off the surrounding forest of the dead grass quickly igniting, and the speed of the flames shooting skyward.  I have a whole new appreciation of wildfire, its dangers and of firefighters who battle them.

As quickly and dramatically as the fire consumed the prairie, just as soon it became black and silent. A few smoldering embers remained, its' smoke to waif across the field. In time, and a little rain, nature will quickly restore the vegetation with renewed vigor. I can’t wait to watch the progression this year as new life emerges from the soil...it should be simply amazing.  
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Return of the Cranes

Crane Pair on Cliff's Farm
Growing up in central Wisconsin, I can’t remember ever seeing a crane-Sandhill Crane to be specific.  That was the 60s and 70s and the largest birds I’d encounter while fishing or hunting were “Shy-Pokes” as my grandfather would call them (Great Blue Heron).  It wasn’t until after college and settling down in Clark County did I start seeing cranes.  Quickly I grew to be amazed at their size and loud raucous call.  The Neillsville area and points just south, seem to be a gathering place in the fall before migrating.  The harvested farm fields drawing them together in staging for the long flights to our southern states. 

The Reed Farm Cranes
On the return in the spring, it’s always exciting to hear those first vocalizations as they start setting up courtship and nesting sites.  It's then I know spring is truly here.  Over the years here, I’ve grown to appreciate what a unique species they are and it’s always a treat to see them and have them in the neighborhood. In the early morning light, whether in a turkey blind or out photographing waterfowl, the cranes are usually the first to signal the start of the day.  Sometimes their call will echo even before the toms start gobbling.  I love that-a sound that cuts though the darkness and preludes the wisp of wing beats overhead.

The Tiny Island Crane
Many of my “neighborhood” cranes this year have already set up their nesting site, or are in the process of picking one.  I take part in the annual Spring Crane Count, and selected the parcel of territory nearby.  By the time of the count, the breeding pairs and singles are already pretty familiar in the area, which is a mix of farm fields, woods and wetlands.  Just within a square mile of my home, there are 3 pairs and a couple sub-adults.  One pair is already nesting on a tiny man-made island on a friends pond down the road.  I understand cranes can swim, so hopefully the young will be able to make it to land after they’re hatched in a few weeks.

The Ochre Plumage
Some legislators are proposing a Sandhill Crane hunt, and currently advisory voting in the spring hearings approved the idea.  Populations of the once endangered species perhaps biologically can justify a hunt, and there are arguments that can be made both ways.  As a hunter myself, personally…I just don’t see the need to hunt them after a long recovery process.  Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should and I’ll be happier if our lawmakers stay out of the wildlife business.  I know the Lesser Sandhill crane is hunted in the Central Flyway, where I’ve seen them while waterfowl hunting in the Dakotas, but here, for me,  I’d be happy if our birds could continue to recover unimpeded and to amaze me each time I see and hear them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Color of Spring?

I can't remember ever seeing this much color in the spring...and I don't mean color like the Cow slips, Wood Violets and Tout Lily-but rather the tree color!  I'm sure it's all about the 3 week early spring-temps in the 70s and 80s for a stretch and not really falling off until this week (Mid April).  Aspens nearby have leafed out already and buds and unfolding leaves from other trees are working hard to fully open.  All of which is leaving (ha) the forested landscape here brilliant with reds, oranges and yellows-again, something I never really noticed before at this time of year...to this degree.  For whatever reason, it's beautiful and made the perfect backdrop of these photos of a pair of geese who have set up home just down the road.  I see them about everyday when I'm out and about scouting.  They rise from a nearby pond to the west around 6:00am, then noisily head east to several farm fields to feed (early planted oats seem to be a favorite right now) and I'd imagine soon will set up a nest site.
I was actually really pleased with these shots considering it was a quickly fired series of photographs panning with their flight as they headed out to another field.  I really liked the sharpness of the birds themselves, the light coming through the primaries and blur of the colored background.  You can almost hear their raucous honking as they quickly exit.
Spring was never been my favorite season, but it's growing on me... maybe with global warming, it'll be a bit more enjoyable, although there is something to be said about going through the transition period each year after the snow has melted.  In any regard, I'll just try to always have a camera ready, be out there and appreciate the sights, sounds and colors that surround me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hoodies

Hoodie Drake in Full Dress
 This "spring" is flying by so fast, the window of opportunity for photographing waterfowl may be very short I fear.  Although I wouldn't profess to be a wildlife photographer, from time to time I enjoy at least attempting to make pictures of birds and other animals.  Usually a camera of some kind is along while hunting or mountain biking, but photography is second fiddle to the primary activity.    Toting camera gear, can only be done when not carrying a bow or gun or atop fat tires.  For me, it needs to be the primary mission.  Just down the road on a neighbors land, is a swamp and pond and a good location to catch migrating waterfowl and other birds.  Some, like the wood ducks and canadian geese and a pair of sandhill cranes, stay all year here.  Others, like Hooded Mergansers, will be passing through, but spend a while in this small patch of water.
The Chosen One
 This past week gave me the chance to observe and photograph some of their courtship rituals.  I'd never really seen this behavior before-the arched necks, soft croaking call, puffed up crest and several hours of chasing each other around.  When I first saw the female towing two drakes along across the pond, I guessed one would have to put up a good show to leave the winner and mate of the hen.  In between the displaying and chasing, some woodies would cruise in and geese poke along the shore.  A lone crane lit on the far side, so there was always activity in front of the lens.  After a while, the hen seemed to have made her choice, and only one drake was allowed to swim along side her, and any encroachments by the other was met with vigorous pursuit.   Quite an entertaining morning watching it all unfold.
Hoodies and Woodies
 Costly, perhaps....meaning, my final images show a lack of crispness, because of a slow inexpensive lens.  Even in full daylight, I just was hoping for better pictures.  I know photography isn't about equipment, but trying to shoot wildlife does require some special gear-long fast lenses, which equate to smaller wallets!  Shopping for new gear isn't in the cards right now, so I'll have to be happy with, and make the best pictures I can with whatever camera is in my hands.  Of the 200 or so I took, I was fairly happy with these, so they'll  have to satisfy my waterfowl craving  for now.  Soon the birds will move on, and I'll be just as happy with other subjects in front of the camera and I look forward to discovering just what that'll be.
Cruisin Canadians