Driftless Terroir: The Bounty and Beauty of Birds and Bugs

by Debi Morton

Debi Morton

Winter moved out slowly in the Driftless this year and remained cold and wet well into May. Winter left behind a beautiful Wolf moon, record low temperatures and lots of snow. Once the melt started it was hard to plant a garden dodging the raindrops and dealing with cold wet soil. But each spring we wait anxiously to see what nature brings. Every year it is different and every year something or some being raises our awareness and teaches us. These nature encounters are always surprising, never anticipated and unique. Never to be repeated.

The house wren’s continuous singing from dawn to dusk is unmistakable and uplifting.

We kicked the spring off early with a trip to Kearny, Nebraska, to see the sandhill crane migration north. Of the four major migratory paths in the United States, this is one of the largest and a true wildlife spectacle (nebraskaflyway.com). Eighty percent of the world’s sandhill cranes converge there. “Migration is the most dangerous time for cranes due to habitat loss along flyways, powerline collisions and shootings … and they must do this twice a year!” according to the International Crane Foundation (savingcranes.org). Unfortunately November is the worst, as hunting them is legal in some areas.

Once we returned we started hearing the arrival of the new seasonal bird sounds one by one and spotted our local sandhill crane pair near a wetland on County Road T. The small birds all appear hungry at the feeders. This year the birds were late, about one week at our place. But they came in numbers. We had more orioles than we could keep up with, trying to provide oranges daily and a full feeder of seeds. We had all our usual visitors: rose-breasted grosbeak, towhee, indigo bunting, red-bellied woodpecker, phoebe, house sparrow, warblers, catbird and many others. But this year we had a red-headed woodpecker* come every day until breeding time. Common years ago and now we rarely see them.

*Redheaded woodpecker has declined in the United States 65 percent and in Canada 70 percent in the last 40 years. Decline is due to habitat loss of woodlands, edges and dead trees; hunting by farmers due to fruit and berry loss; and road mortality. To reverse this trend, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology encourages leaving dead trees on property and restoring oak savannahs.

A mating pair of sandhill cranes at Unity Chapel near Spring Green.

But the bird that took our hearts this year was our house wren. The chirp and continuous singing from dawn to dusk is unmistakable and uplifting. Every spring we have a family or two or more, but this season there was one hardworking male that could not stop building nests and seemed to be courting continuously. We found his first nest because my dryer was just not drying. I went to the dryer exhaust vent and it was full of small sticks completely blocking the vent. I cleared it out. But he kept bringing sticks. I kept clearing. The next nest we found was when I opened the sliding shed door and the same type of sticks fell on my head. I dislodged the nest when opening the door. He kept bringing sticks. I kept clearing. Then our RV reported the air cleaner canister was blocked. And yes, the house wren had built a nest in the canister that blocked the airflow. It was an expensive fix and why he got in there was a mystery. He eventually settled in the Korean lilacs above the rock garden — a protected glade of bushes. House wrens will build up to a dozen prospective nests and show his mate each one. She starts adding nest material to the ones she likes. Besides our house wren’s persistent nest building, he was continuously flitting around our patio eating insects and chasing other birds of any size away. He used the Pagoda dogwood tree outside the patio door as his staging point for monitoring his territory. One caution is that because they are quite aggressive for a small bird, it is not recommended that you attract them if you have bluebirds close by. They will take over their nests or damage their eggs.
Many people have house wren stories, so go to https://www.wild-bird-watching.com/House-Wren.html for more or to submit your own experience with these adorable birds.

*Aphids cause tens of millions of dollars of damage to crops worldwide every year; because of this, aphid-eating hoverflies are being recognized as important natural enemies of pests, and potential agents for use in biological control. Some adult syrphid (Hover) flies are important pollinators. Gardeners will use companion plants to attract hoverflies — such as alyssum, buckwheat, chamomile, parsley and yarrow.

Every day was a new thrill as we spotted lots of monarch butterflies.

Spring gave way to summer and because of the continuous rain, mowing never stopped. Blooms never set due to cold. Fruit trees were not productive because the -38 degree temperatures killed the fruit buds. The wet weather however seemed to give the prairie an extra boost. It was breathtaking with large patches of fluffy pink Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula) bending softly in the wind. Twelve-foot high cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) with bright yellow flowers towered over the field. Thin vertical bursts of bright purple liatris popped in the midst of tall foliage. Pale and dark purple cone flowers (Echinacea), soft lilac and deep red bergamot/bee balm heirlooms contrasted with the yellow cup plants. The thick leaf textures and white spiny flower ball of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) gave insects an interesting hard perch. Clumps of bright yellow Coreopsis and 8-foot-tall sunflowers (Helianthus) love our clay soil and became huge. Big bluestem waved in the breeze and provided protection for the sedge wren, bobolinks, wood thrush, field sparrows and brown thrashers. Later in the season the pink and purple asters (Symphyotrichum) provided hundreds of monarchs, viceroys, swallowtails, bees and other nectar seekers plenty of food. Dragonflies skimmed just above the prairie top grabbing a bounty of gnats. Every day was a new thrill walking the trails. I met a praying mantis on one sojourn that I haven’t seen for a long time. She was grabbing yellow jackets for dinner! The friendly non-aggressive hoverfly* (Syrphidae family) that many people swat thinking they are sweat bees remained visiting us until very late. Evenings buzzed with cicadas.

I met a praying mantis on one sojourn that I haven’t seen for a long time. She was grabbing yellow jackets for dinner!

The prairie continued to change colors and provided spectacular fall walking experiences but bird songs slowly fell away. No longer raising young, the birds took off to their winter homes. Sandhill cranes start gathering in the cornfields. The sounds of birds and insects replaced by increased coyote calls and owl hoots. Winds became increasingly cooler. More rain! Hues turned darker on the landscape. Signs of the deep quiet and snow cover to come in the Driftless. As winter coerces us inside and we reflect on the past year, I am so thankful to live here and to experience the Driftless’ bounty and beauty.

Debi Morton lives on the ridge toward Dodgeville. Retired and owner of Driftless Depot Organic Market, Deli & Café in Spring Green. She is a lifelong foodie, chef and advocate of eating organic & locally. Debi and her husband are also organic and biodynamic growers of fruits and vegetables and Driftless area caretakers for 40 years. Proud member of Driftless Defenders and Driftless Area Land Conservancy dedicated to preserving and protecting the Driftless Region.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.

1 Comment
  1. As a former nearly lifelong Midwesterner who retired first to California and later to Arizona, this excerpt reminds me of all the lovely little snippets of nature that I miss. Bugs, birds, beauty and peace in the smallest creatures and observations. Thank you Debi for the great trip down memory lane. I must make a note to myself not to stay away so long next time. Thanks! Nancy Spencer