The raw April edge in the air is gone, the trails and bike paths are lined with trees leafing out, and the song of birds accompanies me as I commute to work on the bike path. Nesting red-winged blackbirds scold as I pedal past. Robins sing in the branches or probe the new grass for a tasty worm.
Flocks are coming back north, the air is full of bird calls and the weather is just perfect for getting some great spring bike trail time - a welcome post-winter combination for those in love with things that have two wheels and/or two wings.
The month ushers in a burst of migrant birds arriving in Wisconsin's woodlands, wetlands and meadows. Some early season species have already begun nesting. Crows are carrying twigs in their beaks to build nests, and hawks and owls are already laying, sitting on or hatching eggs. Finches are flashing their brilliant red or yellow breeding plumage.
It is time to get on the bike for a ride into the natural world.
Pine River Trail
One of my favorite rides, both for its rural feel and its wildlife, is the Pine River Trail in southwestern Wisconsin. It runs from Richland Center Gotham (actually farther, but this section avoids the noisier section parallel to busy Highway 14) along the Pine River. I rode this trail at least a half dozen times when I was working at University of Wisconsin-Richland Center in a special summer program. But it was a spring trip a year ago with my wife Kathy that really turned both of us on to the bird life that this route offers.
As we pedaled over countless plank bridges through agricultural and river bottom lands, we watched a red-tailed hawk soar over us with a snake swinging from its talons. A green heron made its trademark loud call, took off and left a splat on the water when we interrupted its fishing trip.
This is a great ride, and all the avian life in the valley makes it even more memorable. The gently flowing Pine River and its wetlands harbor muskrats, frogs and turtles. On the bluffs above, old farmsteads look down onto the valley. A short side trip in the village of Gotham lands you at the confluence of the Pine and Wisconsin Rivers. The views across the Wisconsin are worth the extra couple of miles of pedaling, and the feel of the village takes you back to a simpler time.
On the return trip from Gotham, be sure to get up top on County Road TB (as in Twin Bluffs, a rustic settlement of two or three houses nestled in the Pine River valley). The road route parallels the Pine River Trail below and gives a sweet taste of the climbs and panoramas of the Coulee Country's abundant road routes. There are a couple of good climbs of about 200 feet on this road, but they're worth the effort since you get stunning views of the valley that you've just cycled through.
If you do decide to stretch the ride all the way to Lone Rock, you end up with about a 23 mile loop and leg trip. This ride is the "Pine River/ Bogus Bluff Tour" in Phil Van Valkenberg's Mountain Bike! Wisconsin, a wonderful resource book for those looking for detailed descriptions of Dairy State rides.
If you need to rent, repair or buy a bike, Backroad Bicycle, trailside in Richland Center, can help. Richland Center is a good base for trail riders, with accommodations, restaurants and a vibrant little downtown featuring the A.D. German Warehouse, an early Frank Lloyd Wright design. Wright was born in Richland Center.
Mazomanie State Wildlife Refuge
Between Richland and Madison, you can experience river bottom riding and hiking that might seem more at home in Southern Illinois or the swamps of Arkansas. The Mazomanie State Wildlife Refuge guides you deep into the Wisconsin River bottomland and its excellent birding opportunities. It also offers unique off-road biking for the naturalist in the spring and summer.
Last summer, as we biked and hiked through the refuge, we heard and spotted woodpeckers mining the aging trees, songbirds like catbirds and orioles flitting through the canopy, and a little flock of turkeys scratching in the undergrowth. Take County Road Y north out of Mazomanie for about 3.5 miles and turn left into a driveway that gives access to the wildlife area.
Capital bird watching
In Madison, there are plenty of great birding spots a bike ride away. There seems to be something about the presence of people and their development of the land that attracts wildlife of all types, especially birds. Over the years, we've spotted nearly as many species in metropolitan Madison as we have in our many hundreds of miles of cycling the rural, less settled parts of the state. You might see Baltimore orioles, catbirds, wood ducks, woodcocks, terns, grebes, loons and warblers. The lucky may even glimpse a Scarlet Tanager or Indigo Bunting, as beautiful as their colorful names. And the list goes on.
The four lakes of the capital city and sprawling natural spaces like the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Picnic Point on the main campus (great for songbirds in the spring), Pheasant Branch Conservancy and, yes, even the Madison Sewage Treatment Plant's holding ponds (where water levels are managed to attract migrating shorebirds like sandpipers, egrets, herons and other seasonal waders) draw avian visitors from the south, and they all can be seen along easily-accessed bikeways.
One of our favorite sandhill crane encounters happened just a few yards off the Capital City Trail, Madison's signature bikeway/greenway. A pair of the stately (some say gawky) birds grazed through the grass, raising their red-crowned heads to eye us as we slowly pedaled past. They seemed almost unconcerned by our presence, unusual for these birds, as we followed them for several hundred yards until their path and ours slowly diverged.
Dave Fallow has become an icon to area birder-bikers by leading field trips in and around Madison since the 1980s. For environmental reasons, he's added this caveat to his guided tours of Madison birdland: "All trips require that you bicycle (or bike-bus) to the meeting place," often Picnic Point or the UW Arboretum, where you "will proceed on foot" to discover the avian world with a knowledgeable naturalist. Visit his blog at bikebirdmadison.blogspot.com. He also has a weekly naturalist segment on Madison's community radio station WORT (89.9 FM) at 11 a.m. on Thursdays. WORT also streams live on the Internet, so you can listen to Fallow from anywhere.
Since we started our "life list" of birds many years ago, we've encountered well over 100 species, including frigate birds or wild parrots from far off Caribbean islands and the Florida Everglades. But the vast majority of the species we've seen were found right here in our own state of Wisconsin. That's good news for the bicyclist who's looking for a trip into the natural world.
The southern tier of the Dairy State is blessed with many hot spots for bird-watchers. Wisconsin's Favorite Bird Haunts, a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology publication, devotes 50 pages to good bird territory in Southern Wisconsin. You don't have to get far from Madison to find bike routes, whether they are rail trails, serene mountain biking or urban bike paths to enjoy good birding.
Be sure to bring binoculars and a bird identification book in your pannier. Through a pair of good lenses, that bird in the distance will show off its colors, subtle or brilliant, and its throbbing throat as it calls for a mate from a treetop.
James Sajdak is an English teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. He recommends the online resources found at www.wisconsinbirds.org/trail/maps and birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/WISC.html.