Thursday, April 28, 2016

Best Laid Plans

The slate squawks out another series of hopeful yelps, not much like the ones I'd heard earlier this morning sadly. I plead with the call a few more times, but to no avail. A phrase runs through my mind as I sit in the blind-”The best laid plans of mice and men go awry.” I believe it comes from a poem by Robert Burns- “To a Mouse.” The furry little rodents had nothing to do with how my morning was ending this day.

I set out on another series of trailing off yelps from the slate. Nothing.

At the crack of five-ish with sprinkling clouds overhead, I made my way through the dark to my turkey hunting spot-sunrise would be a late today I thought. Perfect, a few extra minutes to set decoys and hunker down before daylight. Hopefully I'd not bust any birds in the roost as well. After crossing a cut cornfield to the edge of a thin strip of woods and cover and about to take that first quiet step to the blind, I startlingly hear it. The unmistakeable haphazard beating of wings and feathers bashing branches from the tree directly above me. Then another, taking flight, crashing twigs and trunks in the opposite direction. So much for a quiet entry. The echoes of their flydown only stopped when they hit the ground a short ways off. I'd been busted, or I busted them-either way, not ideal. I wondered how long they'd watched my dark shape tip toe across the field heading their direction?

With a shrug I went about my business of setting up the deeks and getting comfortable-nothing I could do about those hens now, besides, maybe I could pull them back with some calling if they were in search of each other. Potentially, it could work in my favor if they brought a tom with them? I'm trying to be optimistic here. I contemplate that idealistic strategy in the dark, sipping the first of a tiny thermos cup of coffee and digging out a call to place on my knee. The waiting game was on.
He remained quiet, did his tango silently, just as he had when he moved in an hour earlier. It most likely was him I'd heard gobble far off in the early dawn, and I'd like to think my calling brought him in, covering maybe 40 acres. It seemed as though he'd answer my plea from time to time, but on final approach, he didn't make a peep and he remained that way now. It was pointless to call now, he knew the “hen” was there.

My eyes started to water as they stared unblinkingly at the jet black spot between two trees 60 yards away. The dark daub would seem to move, turn directions, then disappear. Red and white exchanged places with the blotch in that sliver of space between two maples, then a flash of ochre would peek out and then back to black. I could hear the “thump” of a fan being unfurled by the big mature gobbler, being careful to remain half hidden at all times. Eyes strained to see him, but he was winning at this game of peek-a-boo.

Moving a bit closer, but not much, he paraded back and forth displaying and making a spectacle of himself for the plastic decoys he could just see in the field. I wondered why he didn't improve his vantage point, which would put my quarry in range. Nope. His head and neck would stretch high when deflating his posture to confirm the “hen” was still there. “She” was, and he'd start his promenade again in the leaf litter.

Tens of minutes clicked off, I started to hate this bird. Back and forth, back and forth he'd waltz, never closing the gap an inch. Hate maybe to strong a word, for this is hunting, and no animal can frustrate more than a pea size brained turkey it seems. This singular focus on one strutting bird 50 yards away was getting the best of me. He would-not-budge, I wouldn't shoot, just wasn't comfortable with a long shot, so I remained as patient as possible.

The weathered 870 laid coldly across my lap, slate and striker tucked in a pocket. My stare burrowed into that feathered spot making me crosseyed. As his head turned and extended upward, I caught a movement, dark shapes- off to the side. An agonizingly slow turn of gaze revealed 3 confused jakes 10 yards away skirting the decoys. With red heads and pretend tufts of beards, they were bewildered as to what these fake birds were. Understandably, they noiselessly appeared on scene while all my attention focused on the tom. Maybe at the same moment, the mature bird also noticed them-perfect, I mused, he'll charge in and defend “his mate,” offering an opportunity finally. Not exactly.

If one could only figure out what these animals would do every time, in every situation, I guess it wouldn't be a challenge-at this particular moment however, I'd take less of a contest. For whatever reason, he stayed put-not how it's supposed to work. The gobbler showed his best strut, slow walking back and forth provoking the youngsters. Instead of my well thought out harvest plan, they defied me and walked toward the big bird, false yelping and cluck-putting along the way. The woods exploded with some loud gobbles from the tom-he'd show who was boss here, his silent treatment apparently expired. He charged at the juveniles-excellent, “come on back and join them” I think , ever hopeful.

The flapping, jumping and chasing continued but crept further an further away-did they not know my well thought out strategy? Steadily moving away, I got on the call, just to remind them their lady friend was still motionless waiting at the edge of the field. Apparently, it didn't matter-no amount of calling would distract them from marching deliberately elsewhere...together. The 10” bearded gobbler joined the 3 teenagers and made their way...away. Thanks for nothing.

The rain returned and kicked in a bit heavier and brought out the scent of the season of the woods. I wish they could bottle that fragrance, sans the strong garlic smell of the ramps I'd stepped on coming in. The incense of this landscape, along with the spring sounds, are the best part of being out here. But again, I was here to try and outsmart a bird.

The four turkeys had long since wandered off after reappearing a second time for a possible return bout. There had been a lot of downtime after the jakes initially “stole” my tom, but gradually, they'd worked their way north, then east and back near enough that I could hear and see them again. This time, they'd keep their distance and I suspect maybe they'd picked up a real hen along the way. I'd call softly and get a reply, and even thought I saw some interest in their reappearance. I even went so far as to eye up some potential shooting lanes if they got closer.

The first bird in line had a long swaying beard-”that's the one!” I thought. At 80 paces, and plenty of brush and trees between us, I'd have to be patient. I am. Another muted call from the slate and the birds froze, trying to pin down my location. Potential? I tied a few more reserved yelps to coax them nearer.

With eyes strained again, I looked at every opening, searched for any movement, for quickly as the birds had arrived, they disappeared. What started out so promising, just petered out-the turkeys vanishing, off again dang it. I think their return was just to tick me off. It worked, in as much as these things do, but I remind myself it's about being out here, although some wild turkey in the freezer would be good too.

Rain continued and I'm sure by now the hens I'd rousted from the roost are long gone, perhaps joining up with my gang of bachelors. Maybe that stubborn hung up tom finally tracked them down, preferring the real thing over plastic-who knows. It's the last day of my season and I'll just relinquish the battle to the birds. They won this round-next time perhaps my game plan, my strategy on hunting them will pan out differently. Maybe not.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Halls

Paddlers call it an otter slide. It's a cool (I must admit) showy entrance into the water. Tuck yourself into the kayak on dry land, get situated and rock back and forth nudging the boat forward until sliding off a bank and burying the nose underwater and popping up. Mine may have been called a Muskrat slip-about a 1' drop, kerploosh, into the drink. It's as cool as I can get right now.

The put in is just below the Trow Lake hydro dam south east of Merrillan Wisconsin. Halls Creek, which runs through the upstream town, dumps into two small flowages, Oakwood Lake, alongside State hiways 12/27 and 95, and Trow Lake a few miles downstream. Halls is another one of the small creek gems within the Black River basin. It shares some similarities with Wedges Creek to the north and Robinsons and Morrison further south. Of all of these, Halls maybe is the showiest-not so much in water, but in the grandeur of some of the high sandstone walls, which creates an almost canyon like feel in places.

Dan, my paddling partner, jokes about locals having nothing to do in this part of the state-they are clueless about these rivers right in their backyard. I admit, though I spend every second I can outdoors, I had no idea how great the waterways are nearby. Once one drops a boat into these rivers and creeks, it's like another world from the surrounding countryside. Halls, keeps that tradition just like the other bodies we've paddled lately.

Water levels are crucial on Halls Creek (also known as Stockwell, upstream from Merrillian) if one is to avoid a scrapy trip. The nearby Black River sometimes is a poor indicator of water levels for these smaller creeks. A visual cue is a large rock upstream from the hi-way E bridge, if it's half exposed, water is too low. Our tour down the Halls saw enough water-with some scrapes and bumps, but passible. You could body english yourself across the drops and most of the riffles had enough flow.

This would be my first run down the creek, while Dan had paddled it several times. Again, he kept his opinion of the Halls to himself, and let me enthusiastically discover it's beauty- “I knew you'd like this one.” he later commented.

Indeed, Halls brings a scenic richness that I hadn't expected. Much of it flows through county forest, and what is private, has limited development, with few structures. The first section to Garage Road is a bit more understated, much like Wedges Creek, with mostly easy riffles, good water flow and a subtle shoreline. This four mile stretch would be easy for novice paddlers.

From Garage Road to the confluence with the Black River, the creek (to me anyway) changes character. Water generally flows faster, with more rapids (class I & II) to interrupt the serpentine path of the creek and shorelines reach higher and higher with sandstone walls. In a word, more dramatic in complexion.

There are drops along the way to the Black, 2-5 footers, that I, as a rookie, managed to slide and scrape my way across. At higher levels, the water may very well increase the pucker level. An old dam near an abandoned YMCA camp really starts things off after a few minor rapids upstream. Dan had told me about this and I wasn't sure, but wanted to give it a go.

Delapidated Camp Bradfield lies overhead and as far as anyone knows, the cement dam blocking Halls Creek here was constructed to provide a swimming hole for visitors. Perhaps it's older-maybe a remnant form the logging era, when logs cut in the pinery to the north were held in Trow lake, then floated down Halls to the Black during springtime flooding. Hard to imagine the difficulty in that process now days. A small chute, cut or worn in the dam at river left, provides the only safe passage through the obstacle. Cement and iron pilings protrude across the rest of the dam and are potential for serious injury. I hope at some point, this eye sore is removed to provide a free flow through to the rest of the creek.

Riffles and class I rapids lie downstream from the old dam, and the before mentioned drops. With Dan leading over the river features, I just avoided places he'd get stuck-that, and hit the drops with speed to hopefully slide through the rocks. They were fun and a little sense of accomplishment for myself as I (hopefully) continue to improve my paddling.

What really stands out (literally) are the high layered sandstone walls on almost every outside corner of this pretty little creek. As we travel downstream, they seem to get higher and higher (they actually do) and more impressive. Some appear to be squishing the layers of rock below after thousands of years of pressure. Different gradients of color, from gold to blue and green and every shade of ochre in between. Tiny plant life, mosses, miniature ferns and lichens, cling to any fissure the stone allows. Water seeps from the rock, and in places ice walls still clung to shady faces. (Ice climbing next winter?)

The last couple big bends before county hi-way E are awe-inspiring. We lingered a while, taking some photos and drifting beneath the rock outcroppings-almost baby sea caves in a way. Current is fairly strong here, so the boats still need to be tended to even while we admired the scenery.

Drifting below the high bridge, a few rock gardens greet us, but current slows considerably-it's a pick-your-way-through kinda section. Some scrapy bottoms and a couple twists of the creek push us toward the much larger Black River ahead. A few remaining walls line the shallow sandy terminus of the Halls with a high tiny waterfall on river right as the last sensatory treat before we hit the DNR landing around the corner. The swift strong current of the Black, a stark contrast to the last mile we'd paddled, swirls around the canoe launch, making one last challenge for a “dry exit” from the kayak.

Like many of the smaller creeks and rivers in the Black River country, the characteristic of the water can change dramatically throughout the year-hit the level just right, and they can provide a whitewater delight, at lower levels, a tamer cruise. I appreciate that these different watercourses also provide such a variety of visual experiences for the paddler. Each has a distinct flavor, and Halls Creek is one essence I'll have to try again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Fake Jake

He's staring back at me. Two little beady eyes-plastic. A fake jake decoy balanced a bit off-kilter on a wood stake. Perhaps he's thinking it's been a bit boring this week during the hunt. Maybe.

The other two decoys, a fanned out “Pretty Boy” tom and feeding hen, pose silently, wiggling slightly in the cool morning wind. Unfortunately, that breeze is from the south, driving with it the fresh scent of recently spread manure, the smell, almost overwhelming. The decoys wonder why I'm not calling more. I've learned years ago that it can be overdone and any tom wandering in search of love nearby would have taken note if in earshot. So far in this week of hunting, they must be strolling around somewhere else.

Five hens fed here yesterday and as my logic works, where there are hens, there will be gobblers. That theory hasn't proven true to date this season, but I'll stick with it. Turkey hunting can change in a second-many hours spent glassy eyed staring at an empty field or dead oak leaf carpet in the woods can change instantly. I'm waiting..... Not a sign, seen or heard of my quarry these past few days. If just one single gobble would sound off, it would change this game directly, that's how this sport is and why I come back.

My slate call rings out another semi-accurate yelp, increasing in volume and echoing off the nearby tree trunk filled hillside. The decoys hardly notice. Nothing, no reply like I'd hoped from unseen male birds.

Arriving at the very first glow of the morning, I checked in earlier than my opening day, when I accidentally slept in and had to scoot out to the blind in broad daylight it seemed. Today was textbook-set up decoys in the pitch black darkness, hunker down quietly with a thermost of hot coffee and watch the orange east horizon grow brighter. From my vantage point the sunrise glows through parallel lines of trees with a gentle curve of a hilltop cutting them in half. Three or four deer trotted along the crest, silhouetted in the pre-dawn light. They'd exited a farm field and would soon end up in my lap, the wind against them this morning.

By 6:00, it seemed like I'd been here forever, but it hasn't-just impatient for daylight if not for some gobbling to keep up my interest. That's not to say it's boring.

At some predetermined time, mother nature sets off an alarm clock because the woods seem to come alive with every imaginable spring sound. In just a one or two minute time span (literally) I tallied the harmony of calls from an array of wildlife. A “boss” robin loudly defending her turf, bluebirds, coopers hawk, a pair of geese overhead, cranes rattle calling, squealing of wood ducks, squirrels chattering, barred owns dueling behind me. Crows started in with blue jays and a flicker. Cows, roosters and even a donkey, over a mile away, joined in the chorus. The turkey woods can be incredibly noisy for a brief time. I've listened to this ensemble many times before, sometimes even with turkey yelps, putts and gobbles tossed in the mix.

I scrape the wood dowel across the round slate surface again at the plastic jakes insistence. No reply.

The forest creatures seem to quiet down somewhat as the sun continues upward. I've noted that before too. Maybe the brightness of the day doesn't need all that sound or I can't distinguish the individual pieces and parts of the melody any longer.

The remaining coffee in my cup needs to be warmed up-I can't stand it luke warm. Steam drifts up as it's poured and warms my hands. It's supposed to get to 75 today, the warmest all spring, but it's starting out at 40 and cool. Long johns and stocking cap required.

The coopers hawks had constructed a stick nest high in the crotch of a tall oak tree nearby. I'd become aware when approaching too close and they sounded the grating “cak-cak-cak” of an alarm call. I tried to stay clear on my return trips through the woods. Most of the morning a game of harassment was played between the pair of hawks and some crows. Sometimes it's the crows dive bombing the perched accipiter, and other times it's the cooper on the big black birds tail, like a fighter through the close quarters of the trees. The game continues till one or the other tire. I suspect the crows move on to something else to amuse themselves.

The three acre field is now fully lit. One hen managed to wander out, scratching the manure for some breakfast (yes, I do think about what they eat). I call just for fun, and she glances in the direction of the
phony birds. I took it as her saying she wasn't interested in joining the trio. That thought was confirmed as she pecked her way back off the field and back into the brush. At least it was a turkey I muse.

The hi-way is a couple miles away, but the drone of vehicles seems to get louder-I hear few animals now. Everything seems to settle into the day with each passing morning minute. The only movement is from the deeks who wiggle back and forth (looking quite real I might add) but no game sees them. A raven lands in the field, inspects something, flips it up and flies off leaving me with no further entertainment.

I can't in good conscience leave-I call again, a series of louder then training off yelps. No answer. Another hour passes. The warming southern wind is picking up, ushering in the mid seventy degree day-much to warm for me to enjoy camo clad turkey hunting. Another spring sport will take hunting turkey's place today.

It's mid morning, half a day since I woke and walked out here and my tenacity is waining. Most of the forest animals have moved on and found better things to do. The coffee is gone. Tomorrow, when it's cooler, I'll repeat this whole process again with maybe better luck. The fake jake agrees I think. I pluck him and his partners from their wood stakes and they catch a ride under my arm back to the blind. Yep, tomorrow (and the next day-and the next?) we'll play this game again and watch the day wake.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Robinsons

Kelly Road Drop
“No, you need to do this.” Dan insisted glancing my direction. ”I know I should have decided this a long time ago.” He added. “I'll feel worse if I don't run this than if I wreck my boat.” I shook my helmeted head. “I don't need to make up my mind. “ I answered. “You can make this!” He urged again. “I know, but I'm just not ready.” I shrugged. With a back bladed stroke, I let the current swing me around and then paddled toward shore. The roar of the 4 foot drop was just downstream at the Kelly Road bridge and drowned out any other remaining discussion (as far as I was concerned). I know Dan well and he would have to run this pitch, a noisy full cross channel drop adjacent to remnants of an old grist mill. Scouting it before we started the days paddle, I knew it wasn't for me at this point.

The conversation started as we rounded the final bend in Robinson Creek before the take out just south of Paquette and Dodge road in Jackson County. Since I'm fairly new to kayaking whitewater and still getting a feel for the new boat, doing just the upper section of Robinsons with numerous riffles and class I rapids, was fine for me. Dan, an experienced whitewater paddler, would have loved to continue to the lower part, with class II and III rapids, some 4-5' ledges (including “Polly Falls”) and plenty of pushy water. I'll get there, but for now, a less challenging route was good enough.

Jackson County, in south central Wisconsin, is home to some of the most underrated rivers and creeks for boaters in the state. Most are unknown. Except for a few in paddlers (and trout fishermen), they go unnoticed, as folks make bigger bodies of water, like Lake Wazee, Arbutus and the Black River, their destinations. The Morrison and Robinson, along with Halls and Wedges in Clark County to the north, were familiar with me, but I'd not slipped a boat into them before this cold spring. I'd missed a lot by not doing so sooner.

It would be hard to pick any one of these as the best-they all have some unique facet to them as far as the water and surrounding terrain. Robinson Creek, which feeds into the Black River 8 miles below Black River Falls, piqued my interest earlier this winter while crossing it several times during wolf tracking surveys. From the limited vantage point of the remote township roads, it appeared to be a gem-to say this is a beautiful body of water, would be an understatement.

Dan had paddled it a couple times already this “spring” in his ongoing quest to wet his kayak and homemade cedar strip canoe as many dozen times as possible before his work season kicks in. “I'm never concerned about weather,” he'd say. Rain, snow, ice (which has been more than common) didn't phase him, nor me as I'l learning. The only reason to look at the forecast was to see if water would be up or down on rivers and creeks. I even remarked to him while paddling last week-”I'm in a dilemma now.” “Oh no, why?” he asked. “Because I don't know if I want it to rain now or not-it kinda stinks for mountain biking, but makes it so much better for kayaking!” I answered. “That's why I'm just prepared for all of it.” he snarkily replied. And he is right, his Dodge pickup racks are loaded for bear with every outdoor toy you could all times. People literally take photos of the black truck with bikes, canoes, kayaks and skis all somehow finding a place attached to his rig.

We generally change into paddling gear at the take out spot before shuttling to the put in. With temps in the low 30's and snow and rain spitting, dry suits were the dress of the day. I purchased one days after bringing my new crossover boat home, knowing if I wanted to paddle now (which I did) it would be required. Neoprene boots and gloves (and insulating layers under everything) along with a helmet, would make this a comfortable outing.

Robinson starts near Millston Wisconsin and the very upper part, is within the Robinson Creek Pines state natural area. The creek is narrow here (but scenic) but most paddlers opt to begin at Old Cty. I. There is a steep embankment down to the water and a good starting point for our 6+ mile trip. We'd been told the creek is runnable most of the year, but was down some from Dan's previous jaunts. We bumped a couple rocks directly under the bridge, but soon had smooth sailing with what seemed like endless riffles and good water flow. In exactly zero seconds, we were transported into an almost magical place. The remnants of fog hanging between the towering white pine canopy and high carved sandstone banks, reminded me of some kind fairytale illustration. It's hard to believe the scenery down in the creek bed we paddled for it's so different from the dry sandy jack pine and oak terrain of the surrounding county forest. Dan just chuckled-he knew I'd love this place.

With only a few cabins along the way, Robinsons feels remote and other worldly. No thought was put into paddling-it seemed to happen by itself, I was too busy taking it all in. Dans well used cedar whitewater canoe lapped riffles noisily at times behind-a good sign to know his whereabouts when waves and current increased. Sections of the creek are constant class I, one after another and you can't help but smile the whole time. Deep outside corner pools counter small sand bars inside, which the creek builds and erodes away constantly. One is always maneuvering the boat to set up for the next bend (and there are a lot!).

A few miles in, the flow slowed and we made our way through log jams which the local “Friends of the Black River” judiciously cut through each year. A roar from angry water was ahead and I asked Dan if there was a beaver dam- “No, man made dam.” he replied. Hmmm, unexpected as there is so little development here. A large concrete structure loomed ahead and we made for the right shore. Apparently, Robinsons is dammed here to divert water for the adjacent cranberry marsh. We portaged around and slid back into the water below the frothing spillway. Overflow water snuck past the dam through the woods to rejoin a short distance downstream. From this point on the water slowed, was bendier and we met jams more frequently, a change from upstream. Another mile or so and the flavor of Robinsons returned-speedier flow and taller forest on both sides.

Keeping a small creek free flowing is a constant job. Dan had lashed a small stihl beneath a cane seat in his boat to address a couple white pines that had dropped into the water making passage impossible. In shallower places, he could wade out in his drysuit and cut his way through, while others, the work had to be done while balancing inside the canoe and being showered with water and wood chips. It was good work and paddlers who follow, will appreciate it.

This section finishes with a couple moderate (okay, easy) drops and rapids and the banks increasing in height. It's as if the creek is preparing the paddler for the bigger water (class II and III) below Kelly to Fall Hall Road.

Dan decided (as I knew he would) to run the drop beneath the bridge. It was his way of properly putting the river section to bed. I'd watch from downstream. The pitch is the base for an old dam which powered the Dodge gris mill built by Daniel Mills in the 1800s. All that remains is crumbling concrete and field stone foundations high along the south bank. Taking a position with camera in hand below the drop, I watched Dan set up and bring the canoe around for the line he wanted to take. The shutter snapped a few photos off as the boat nosed over the ledge in a nonchalant manner, barely splashing water inside. I was impressed. “You made it look easy” I shouted. “Well, I don't have to fix my boat at least” he casually replied. I doubted the canoe would come to harm-Dan remarked how well the design handles and he's skilled at paddling it.

After loading boats and stowing gear, we visited the drops near Fall Hall Glen. The cascading ledges here looked intimidating to me, but I was assured by Dan they were not that bad and are straightforward to get through-the weekend before he and others had made multiple runs here. I'll work up to that test at some point I guess. As it was, Robinsons couldn't have been a better trip for a cold spring day and I can't wait to slip a boat in here again. The seasons will surely flavor the trip differently, but I know it'll be a great experience. I can't wait to return paddle in hand.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Buena Vista 'P Chickens

I should have known better, for this “spring” has been anything but predictable. We were teased with 50s and 60's a couple weeks ago and I'd even donned shorts a day or two, but Mother Nature is fickle this year. My feet were beginning to thaw as the truck heater poured out warming air through the floor vent. I busied myself in the meantime transferring hand written notes to a data recording sheet to be dropped off before I left these tall grasslands east of Wisconsin Rapids.

Hours earlier, I met my guide, Peggy Farrell, the Prairie Chicken Viewing Project Coordinator, at the Buena Vista Grasslands Wildlife Area. Peggy is also the Director of the North American/Wisconsin BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) from UW Stevens Point. Although I'd have to hit the road at 3:15 a.m. to make our 4:30 meeting time, I was excited to experience my first greater prairie chicken (Tympanachus cupido) booming grounds.

As one of four grouse species here, prairie chicken range historically was in the native grasslands of the southern third of the Wisconsin. By the end of the logging boom in the late 1800s they inhabited every corner of the the state. Market hunting and land fragmentation eventually collapsed the population and relegated the birds to state and federally protected status in small habitat clusters in central Wisconsin.

Buena Vista Wildlife Area comprises several adjacent WDNR grassland Natural Areas, including the BV quarry prairie and the BV Prairie Chicken Meadow, where I'd hunker down with camera and clipboard for a few hours. This 12,700 acre property was once dominated by a tamarack and black spruce marsh, and at one time was drained for agriculture. Now it's managed as grassland habitat and is one of the biggest blocks east of the Mississippi and home to the largest population of native greater prairie chickens in the state. Rotational grazing, prescribed burns and control of woody vegetation and evasives constitute some of the management practices on the property. Besides prairie chickens, the area also is home to many grassland bird species and is designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA), which provides essential habitat for breeding and non-breeding birds.

Several photographer friends have made the trek to Buena Vista and were rewarded with amazing images. The 'p chicken is one bird I've never observed, so an opportunity to reserve a spot in one of the blinds located there was something I didn't want to miss. Reservations can be made through UWSP and contacting Peggy at 715 -346-4681. Blinds are available from April 1st to the 30th and accommodate four people each. Participants are asked to observe and record activity at each lek (booming grounds) to aid in the annual population census.

Peggy guided me to a roadside trail which led into one of the leks-it was a straightforward short hike through the frost covered prairie, following the beam of the flashlight. At 20 degrees and clear brilliant star covered sky overhead, the pre-dawn darkness was (literally) breathtaking. Blinds are squat rectangular wood boxes, with benches inside and small covered viewing ports. I'd hauled a tripod and camera gear and extra clothes (very much needed) and tried to be as quiet as possible as I settled in. Every bump of the wood sidewalls or frame seemed magnified on this perfectly still morning. The hour and a half wait inside the blind passed fairly quickly. I'd checked each port to be sure they were not frozen shut (some were) so as not to spook birds later.

As sunrise approached, the grassland started to wake. Mallard wings whistled overhead and lit nearby in an unseen black pothole. A pair geese broke out from the frozen fog of the eastern horizon and settled in a short distance away. A few sandhill cranes far off sounded their double rattle calls. As the darkness relented, a squawking, chuckling sound commenced from the lek outside the blind. Carefully lowering the wood port cover, I was happy to see a cock prairie chicken dancing around searching and calling for an invisible hen. Soon, another male landed, which immediately set off a loud booming competition between the pair to vie for their piece of breeding territory. False charges, leaps into the air and stomping feet were all quite entertaining. About the same time, echoes of other booming birds at distant leks seem to surround the blind from every direction.

Trying to photograph at this time of day proved difficult, just not enough light to get sharp images. No worry, the sun would be up and illuminate the grounds soon enough...or so I hoped. With no hens to impress with their mock battles, the second male lost interest and flew off south in search of a mate. The remaining bird continued to boom and put on a good show for the non-existent hens he'd hoped to
attract, until he too, flew off. As quickly as the performances started, they ended. Although “my” lek remained silent with no additional visitors, the distinct and constant low pitched 'whoo whoo whoa' continued from all corners of the grassland. An impressive chorus to tune into for the remaining time on the grounds.

The breeding activity is relatively brief in the April mornings and by 7:30, the booming tapered off. Good thing, as my feet had started to become numb and the hot thermos of coffee sounded pretty appealing after such an early start to the day. Besides, my observation notes, although thin, needed to be transposed to a data sheet, and I may as well be start warming up while writing.

Although the PC activity had all but ended for the day, a hor frost morning in early light is not to be missed. Earlier, Peggy had suggested a drive around the grassland after leaving the blind and take in some of the other wildlife. I explored some of the frozen muddied dirt side roads within the property and managed to nab a few photographs of sandhill cranes, kestrels and waterfowl.

After circumnavigating much of the grassland acreage, I'd finally warmed up and put a decent dent in the hot coffee. I've grown to really appreciate and become fond of tall grass prairies, so the Buena Vista landscape is a place I'll be back to again. It'll be interesting to follow the transformation here throughout the year, so I'm sure my return trip will not be too far off.

For more information on Wisconsin's greater prairie chicken, checkout the DNRs page on the species here.