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High plains drifter: A journey through southwest Wisconsin
Driftless Area stretches across portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.
I had some business to tend to in Sauk County, Wisconsin, recently so I took the opportunity for some county birding on my way there. The idea was to see a few birds in some counties that I hadn’t recorded previously. In this case, I had the chance to bird a few southern Wisconsin counties I’d long been missing, places on the eastern edge of the Driftless Area, the hilly, unglaciated portion of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Glaciers missed this pretty pocket of the world which resulted in a landscape more resembling West Virginia than the Upper Midwest. Today’s post veers into geology and topography because of this idyllic landscape.
Starting the day in the Lake Border Upland, aka, the very modest moraine in Chicago that is beyond the point of historic Lake Chicago’s shores. Moraines are masses of rocks and sediments carried down and deposited by a glacier. Most of the low hills and slight rises in Illinois are actually moraines. That includes some in the Far Northwest Side of Chicago. Current elevation is 611 feet according to the altimeter on my watch.
The altimeter is now at 891 feet as we climb a subtle slope going west on the outskirts of Chicagoland. This is the start of a bigger moraine that stretches north into Wisconsin and the more famous Kettle Moraines. The highway here bisects an old stretch of bur oak savanna on the morainal hillsides.
Now at 960 feet—we’re really going up! No dreads about altitude sickness or lightheadedness, though.
The roadway passes under Garden Prairie Road. This catches my eye because the road leads to where a Ruff appeared in a fluddle on the border of Boone and McHenry counties last April.
The altimeter hits 888 feet as the landscape transitions from Illinois’ Northeastern Morainal division to the Rock River Hill County. Now we’re in Winnebago County, home to Rockford and the sort of rolling Piedmont to the Driftless’ Appalachian Mountains.
There’s a roadcut that appears to be thinly bedded dolomite seven miles south of the Wisconsin border. The last time this region was glaciated was 125,000 to 300,000 years ago. Points east and south were glaciated as recently as 10,000 years ago.
I ride for a while behind a Dollar General tractor-trailer. There’s an image on the back showing a smiling family and the words “Today’s General Store.” I think of a recent New York Times article about a dispute over a Dollar General in rural Virginia.
I’m just barely in Wisconsin! And lo and behold I pass the minor-league baseball stadium in Beloit, home to the Class A Beloit Sky Carp.
You might wonder what a sky carp is—it’s another name for the ubiquitous Canada Goose, particularly the non-migratory sort that lingers around office parks and golf courses. It’s a bit of a pejorative, but with the humorous logo and the eye-catching design it is also kind of cool for a baseball team name (since 2021). The wrench in the logo symbolizes a former factory in Beloit that produced hardware.
A roadside Red-winged Blackbird becomes my first life bird for Green County, Wis. (Please clap.)
BIG blackbird flock, several hundred, off to the north side of the road in the yard of a relatively small farmstead. Loads of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles.
A big rock exposure of Ordovician limestone and dolomite just uphill from the Sugar River. We’re really getting into the Driftless Area now.
The Juda Tank Wash is a place where food-grade tankers are washed out, and all I can think is that we are in America’s Dairyland and milk tankers are a big deal here.
We’re just outside Monroe, Wisconsin, “Cheese Capital of the USA,” and the altimeter tops 1,000 feet above sea level for the first time, reaching 1,060 feet. Victory!
I make it to my first stop of the day, Cadiz Springs State Recreation Area, the No. 1 hotspot on eBird for Green County. The park is home to a big impoundment, walling off Beckman Lake from Zander Lake, and relatively high up in the hills. It’s surrounded by mixed woodlands and prairie.
I walk out onto the cross-dike. It’s perfect sparrow habitat—dogwoods and other shrubs on both sides and it’s laden with Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows. Out on the lake there are four Tundra Swans, a Wisconsin first for me, and six Bufflehead.
On my way toward Lafayette County, and I encounter a group of bow hunters along the side of the road. This tracks with a sign I saw back at Cadiz Springs:
There’s a quarry near appropriately named Sand Road. The site hearkens back to the Driftless Area of the 19th Century, when lead and zinc deposits were mined from the Ordovician deposits.
Just as I cross into Iowa County, Wisconsin, near Blanchardville, a gorgeous female American Kestrel flutters across the road.
Outside of Argyle, I almost top 1,000 feet again. The terrain here is truly beautiful. If this was the East Coast, it would be the subject of umpteen breathless travelogues and Currier and Ives paintings. The New York Times would file gauzy portraits of a quaint Americana at our doorstep. I imagine “36 Hours in the Driftless Region.”
Adding an American Crow to my Iowa County list. There’s something cool about a county in Wisconsin called Iowa, and to my eye many sections of the terrain resemble the Hawkeye State.
The highway crosses into Dane County, home to Madison and the University of Wisconsin. We’re in the big time now. I espy the famed Blue Mound—the highest point in southern Wisconsin—off in the distance.
Somehow I’ve failed to check my altimeter for a little while. I know I’ve been on winding roads, on the shoulders of mounds, but didn’t expect this: 1,486 feet! We’re higher than any point in Illinois and most all of southern Wisconsin.
Perhaps that’s the appropriate note to end on, as my destination in the Baraboo Range and Sauk County is approaching.
At 12:53 p.m., I entered a Kwik Trip and made the most Wisconsin of purchases: a pack of smoked sausage, cheese curds, and twelve bottles of New Glarus.
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November 28 - FLUDDLES, McHenry County College, Luecht Auditorium, McHenry, Ill., 6:30 p.m.
December 6 - THE MAGIC STUMP, Thatcher Pavilion, 8030 Chicago Avenue, River Forest, Ill., 6 p.m.
December 9 - FLUDDLES, Rock Springs Nature Center, 3939 Nearing Lane, Decatur, Ill., 2 p.m.
You might recall last week’s post about fearing nature, including reacting to a White-tailed Deer, Cooper’s Hawk, and even a Red-bellied Woodpecker with trepidation.
Just as the ink was drying on that post, I came across another human-animal interaction in the wilds of the bungalow belt.
Ye gods, here we go again. The concerned Facebook poster has this sort of “what’s in it for me” mindset when encountering nature or something unfamiliar. It’s the idea that nature is something that needs to be feared and controlled rather than appreciated. Would the fox really pounce on the little dog in the bright lights of a city park?
The post went on to spawn numerous comments of dubious provenance. My conclusion, much like last week: seeing a Red Fox in an urban area is amazing and awe-inspiring. We should celebrate these creatures that against all odds are surviving and thriving in an environment dominated by humanity.
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