One of my favorite drawings I made a few years back

One of my favorite drawings I made a few years back

Editor’s Note: If you are new to Dan’s weekly column, you may not know that Dan for years accompanied his writing with a color drawing or two made from the elements of nature he observed during that week. Not long ago, Dan tried a different tool–the digital camera–and found he could provide a much wider range of nature’s visual treats with every posting. True, but we still love his drawings, so we’ve decided, in the spirit of spring renewal, to bring them back from time-to-time for encores. This lovely drawing of a badger is doubly relevant, because Dan writes from his native Badger state, Wisconsin. 

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Spring presses on in spite of the cool weather. Warmer days and nights should be here soon. The slate-colored juncos finally felt the urge to migrate north, so they left on Friday. I love those little winter birds, but I won’t see another one until autumn.

The first flowers to bloom in the marsh have appeared! The beautiful yellow marsh marigold is a testament that proves the once-brown marsh really is alive and well. It’s always startling to see that first splash of color. Yellow and green sure works for me. The bright green leaves of the skunk cabbage look good enough to eat, but the truth is, they really are not: they are all show and no go.

The barn swallow uses mud to build nests inside man-made structures, like sheds and barns

The barn swallow uses mud to build nests inside man-made structures, like sheds and barns

I was happy to see many of the swallows had returned to the valley on Thursday, and especially happy to see the pretty little cliff swallows. There were so many circling over one particular pond that I had to watch them for a while. It was impossible to get a close count as they crisscrossed over the water, but it’s safe to say there were hundreds. They seemed to be flying in every direction all at once; it’s amazing that they never fly into each other. It was a cool and cloudy day, which probably made it a little harder for the swallows to find insects. The next day a pair of barn swallows caught my attention as they flew in and out of the old open shed. They have only just returned, but already they are making plans to build onto last year’s nest. The weather finally warmed up to the sixties later in the week, which means we’ll soon see more of the insects that the swallows and other birds need in the spring.

The great blue heron is subject for a gorgeous picture of spring's visual bounty

The great blue heron is subject for a gorgeous picture of spring’s visual bounty

A stately great blue heron wades in the shallows in search of a nice fish for breakfast. It’s good to see these beautiful long-legged stalkers again for the first time since fall. It’s an even bigger treat for me to have one fly over my head—his long wings beating out a slow rhythm and his long legs trailing out behind him.

I can’t say enough about how important muskrat houses are to the marsh. The muskrats benefit the most from their houses, of course, but other animals use them too. Each year, I see several of these mounds of wet and dry reeds being used as a nesting site for Canada geese and sandhill cranes. One particular mama sandhill crane chose to lay her eggs on top of an abandoned muskrat house out in deeper water. When the little chicks hatch, they leave the nest within a few hours and are able to swim to high ground without any trouble. As long as it keeps getting warmer I have faith that there will be new little cranes in a couple of weeks, which will be extra sweet, because I didn’t see any hatchlings last year.

Ah, sunshine! The softshell turtle emerges from hibernation and enjoys some rays

Ah, sunshine! The softshell turtle emerges from hibernation and enjoys some rays

The sunshine Monday brought a few turtles out of the water to soak-in some of the warm rays. A painted turtle found a nice spot on top of a submerged log. The warm sun must feel wonderful after a long, cold winter in hibernation. Tuesday brought another sunny day; two huge softshell turtles had climbed out of the chilly backwater and onto the grassy bank. I’m sure they are the same pair of turtles that I’ve been watching for the past ten years. Their bond is strong and they seem to love their home in the still, dark waters just off the main current of the Kickapoo River.

Lots of new birds in the valley this past week and there are a few that we heard but didn’t see. A catbird sang his jumbled-up songs from the cedar trees and I heard the rapid warble of a house wren in the tall grass down near the spring creek. Several brown-headed cowbirds appeared on the ground under the bird feeder. Cowbirds are a curious sort, often seen in a pasture, snapping up insects that are stirred up by the cattle’s hooves. Another curious thing about cowbirds is that they are among only a few birds in the world that don’t raise their own young. In fact, neither the male nor female ever see their offspring. The female cowbird lays an egg in another bird’s nest—often a warbler or towhee nest—and the host birds will raise the young cowbird. Most often, the young cowbird is the only nestling that survives.

With its sculpted colors, the male rose-breasted grosbeak is hard to miss in the Kickapoo Valley

With its sculpted colors, the male rose-breasted grosbeak is hard to miss in the Kickapoo Valley

The rose-breasted grosbeak started drifting in to the valley last Tuesday and there were a dozen of them at the bird feeders by Sunday. I make sure there are plenty of sunflower seeds for them to eat, hoping that many of them will stay and spend the summer with me.

Nothing brings in the orange of the Baltimore oriole better than an orange itself

Nothing brings in the orange of the Baltimore oriole better than an orange itself

This morning I was watching the grosbeaks at the window feeder when a beautiful Baltimore oriole appeared on the feeder. He ate a few sunflower seeds before flying up to the suet feeder to sample that before flying off. I quickly sliced a couple of oranges in half and stuck them on four different nails near the windows. I thought sure the oriole would spot the sweet treat but he didn’t return. The next morning there were six beautiful orioles feeding on the orange halves. The orioles will eat a lot of different things besides insects, but it’s a fresh juicy orange that will bring them in like a magnet.

Spring definitely picked up the pace this past week, and with any luck, May should begin to feel more like summer with each passing day, especially when the thermometer tops the 70° mark.

It’s springtime! The time is right to be outside day or night, so head outdoors and enjoy life in a real sense.

Naturally yours,

Dan