When the sale of my farm was becoming a reality, I said it often.
“I can’t wait to experience spring from a non-farming perspective.”
Don’t get me wrong; April was my favorite month on the farm. To have the growing season within grasp yet fully out in of front of me was pure blissful anticipation. To see the cows grazing sprigs of grass as they emerged – against the rules according to some experts, but it never stopped me – and wondering how they could be gaining anything from it, ran through my mind annually. Yet every year the bulk tank would respond positively and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in May’s verdant beauty.
But this day I collected a half-gallon of birch sap from one of two yellow birch that rise up from moss-covered rock and decaying logs supporting gorgeous bracket fungi. The sap was clear and had but the tiniest trace of sweetness when I sipped it from a Mason jar.
Today the birches along Glenview Road have already cast their catkins onto the gravel road. The road is boiling up with eruptions of frost coming out of the road tracks where five months of country traffic have driven winter deep below the surface.
Today the east branch of the Little Sandy Creek – pronounced crick in these parts – pushed beneath the bridge in a tannic torrent, while two mallards busted out of the tag elders and voiced their anger as they sought another lair.
Today a pileated woodpecker diverted my attention from the simple task of starting this column piece.
Dare I say, this past Friday morning was even better. Pinch me; I must be dreaming.
Initially it was an auditory experience. At 4:30 a.m. one could only hear the snipes in flight, landing near our blind. The turkeys added to the choral din, along with sandhill cranes and geese.
“Do you hear that?” asked Becky Brathal, Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist.
It was prairie chickens waking around us.
“Yes,” I answered in a hushed affirmative.
But I really wasn’t sure. Eventually with her tutoring I learned to identify it.
Brathal had invited me to join her in the Buena Vista Marsh as part of her work surveying the prairie-chicken population. She’s a central-Wisconsin Farm Bill Biologist with Pheasants Forever.
“If you’re a coffee drinker you might want to abstain that morning,” she told me. “You can’t leave the blind for any reason or the survey will be shot.”
Because I drink about a half-gallon of coffee each morning, I started mulling over the adventure. Knowing the clockwork-like nature of my parasympathetic nervous system – with its control of the when factor concerning smooth muscle contractions within the core of my being – I realized it was going to be an event that took me out of my comfort zone to a degree. And I was more than ready. I was Zen-like and steady that morning. Mind over matter prevailed.
I met Brathal about a mile from the marsh and followed her car to where we’d walk in. The full moon was our guiding light. It was quiet and cold as we hiked across the marsh, slogging through an occasional low point with a thin layer of ice crusted on it. She found the spot with her GPS app and in less than a minute raised the blind. Once inside we sat on 5-gallon buckets she brought along.
Time passed quickly. The birds weren’t exactly cooperating, but it was early so there was still hope of a good photo op. The sound of snipe calls punctuated the marsh. We looked out at the flat expanse of marsh backlit by the glowing moon. As daylight broke the fauna came alive.
A lone prairie chicken flew in to a point about 150 yards away. I figured I was having my first Owen Gromme experience of the morning. Then two geese soared slightly upward toward a moon that hung over the cinnamon-colored marsh grass. Okay there’s a second Gromme moment.
We waited until full light before we decided to stalk the birds, realizing we’d be lucky to have a decent photo due to their wide flight zone. Before long Brathal spotted a lek – a group of male prairie chickens – with her binoculars. We came within 50 yards of it, a good distance to take a shot with my 400-millimeter lens. There was courtship displays happening so the opportunity for a decent shot was there.
But I didn’t pull it off. On a scale of 1-10, my prairie chicken image earns a 4.5. It was a testament to the difficulty of the task. Their camouflage is uncanny. But it didn’t detract from my morning in the Buena Vista Marsh with Brathal, a trained biologist willing to share her morning with me.
Before we parted a group of sandhill cranes silhouetted the striped sky. And there you have it, Gromme moment number three.
It was only 7 a.m., and I’d already had a good day.
Editor’s note: Owen Gromme, considered one of the best wildlife painters of all time, was inducted in 1994 into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.