A blast of cold, damp air grips the front door, and I struggle to control it. I step out onto the porch, zip up my heavy Carhartt jacket, and head out into the rain and wind. “Spring in Wisconsin,” I grumble, but it’s good to be outside in nature. Moments before, I was stranger to myself – a captive in my own house, locked to a computer, consumed by the grim world news, and lost in the uncertainty of the unfamiliar.
Oblivious to the crappy weather and the pandemic plight of us humans, nature is fully engaged in renewal.
A nearby pair of soggy Eastern bluebirds sit in a young bur oak tree. The male is busy warbling away and fluttering his wings. The female sits motionless. Her face expressing a “grumpy bluebird” look. Not far away in a dead black oak snag, a male wood duck stands guard as the female prospects holes for a nest site.
I pass through a section of dry prairie we burned last winter. A few green grass-like shoots are emerging from the ashes. It’s been a long time, but I recognize the green clumps immediately – June grass and needle grass. I find another familiar plant, wood betony, its purple crinkled leaves just barely poking out of the ground.
An Eastern phoebe is balancing precariously on a dried round-headed bush clover stalk. A favorite hunting grounds, there is typically a nesting phoebe pair in this area every year. I hear a loud rattling call and find its creator above me, flying slowly past the steep sandstone ledges. It’s a belted kingfisher, and I bet it’s looking for a place to burrow into the sand to nest.
I enter into an oak savanna. There’s just a touch of green showing on the swollen bur oak buds but most of the herbaceous plants are still sleeping under the dried oak leaves. I find a large whitetail deer shed antler and scoop it up to inspect. One antler tip is gnawed away. Based on the teeth marks, it’s likely a squirrel. I notice a second tip with smaller, finer gnaw marks. This is from a mouse or vole, I reason.
I find a narrow, approximately 10-foot long linear area where the oak leaves have been swept away. I inspect the bare ground for clues and find a few droppings (feces) nearby in the shape of the letter “J.” This confirms it, I whisper to myself. It’s a strut zone. An area where an adult male turkey repeatedly displays its iridescent plumage in hopes of attracting a hen’s affection. He fans out his tail feathers and drags his wing tips on the ground as he struts back and forth, occasionally throwing in a boisterous gobble or two for good measure. And, in case you are curious, hen turkey droppings are curly.
I descend down into the valley bottom. Newly arrived red-winged blackbirds are everywhere. The males are perched on elevated dried plant stalks singing wildly in anticipation of breeding season. They let me pass without harassment, but soon, after the nests are constructed, they will bravely attack any intruder that wanders into their territory. The females are the engineers of the family. She skillfully interlaces pieces of dried plant matter through several closely spaced coarse plants stalks. The plant grows up through the nest and conceals it from above.
A cottontail rabbit flushes out from under a tuft of dried big bluestem grass. There are bits of rabbit fur near a small opening at the base of the grass clump. I wonder how many youngsters she has tucked away in there.
The ground is soggy underfoot now. I pick a spot to stand quietly by the sedge meadow and wait. Moments pass. Nothing stirs other than the sound of the wind and the calls of the red-winged blackbirds. Finally, I hear a slowly rising creeee sound that some liken to a fingernail being dragged across the teeth of a comb. It’s a Western chorus frog. He’s cold, evidenced by the amount of time passing between each note of his breeding call. Another calls just feet from my location. My eyes dissect every inch of ground but to no avail. The little guy is hidden well.
I decide that I’m cold too, and trade my poky gait for a ground-eating stride as I make my way back to the house.
Once again I fight the wind as I open the door and step inside. But unlike before, I am
strengthened and renewed. Nature has helped me find myself once more.