Send Letter to Editor
We stood in the coppery glow of an early spring twilight, watching the dancing cranes with wonder. There were 16 in all – striking, graceful birds painted by the light in a soft fawn hue, leaping and prancing along the water's edge. Their strong cries resounded across the countryside. As light faded into darkness, the sandhills took flight, wings gently tapping a flight rhythm to carry them swiftly over the ridges. Spring had come to Navarino.
Navarino Wildlife Area ranks as one of Wisconsin's top-rated wildlife viewing areas and public hunting grounds. The 14,500-acre property in southern Shawano County (near the Shawano, Waupaca and Outagamie county lines) receives a great deal of hunting pressure during the fall as it is located near the heavily populated Fox Valley. Yet, with easy access, abundant parking, spectacular scenic beauty and well-managed habitat, opportunities for watching wildlife year-round have never been better.
Once part of a glacial lakebed formed about 12,000 years ago, the waters here receded to form swampy lowlands and rich forested uplands. As the glaciers melted, massive sand ridges sculpted by wind and water formed the rolling landscape.
The returning sandhill cranes signal the start of nature's year at Navarino. They arrive with the first billowy warmth of March, about the same time as the season's first wildflower – skunk cabbage – blooms in the wetlands. Sandhills have benefited greatly from habitat development that has created a meandering mix of grasses and marshes at Navarino. Resident sandhills are here from March through October. When cranes "dance," a single bird or an entire flock will leap, twirl, scamper and bow in one of the most elaborate courtship displays and bonding rituals in the natural world.
With April and May comes a breathtaking display of wildflowers in the woodlands. Low wet areas and roadside ditches sparkle with flashy marsh marigolds; their lush green leaves and brilliant yellow blooms provide the season's first splash of color. Colonies of bloodroot and May apples open big white waxen blooms and spread their huge umbrella leaves. Delicate wood anemones, violets, wild geranium and hepatica bloom en masse in shades of purple, yellow and white.
Then, the grand finale – trilliums, blooming by the thousands, blanketing the hills and forests like snow that never melted away.
Spring evenings in the marshy lowlands are filled with the bizarre courtship displays of American woodcock and snipe. Just after sunset, the male woodcock struts about his private dancing ground, "peenting" loudly. Suddenly he explodes into flight, circles higher and higher, and bursts into bubbly song before zigzagging back to his dance floor. Common snipe perform an equally stunning courtship dance. The bird spirals upward in widening circles to a height sometimes reaching 300 feet, then sets his wings, spreads his tail and swoops to the ground, producing a strange pulsating "woo-woo, woo-woo" growing louder and louder until he pulls from his death-drop just a few feet from the ground.
While the common snipe sings his courtship song with his tail, the ruffed grouse announces his intentions with his wings. Throughout the spring woodlands, drumming grouse thunder from their forest log perches.
Early mornings, a thin mist drapes the temple-like aisles of giant pines. Three whitetails wander through the arching fern oasis like ghosts in the shadows. A gentle rain – barely more than drizzle – moistens the woodlands and the loud, clear song of the northern waterthrush rings through the heavy morning air. Warbler watching is a highlight of a Navarino spring. Along with northern waterthrushes, expect to see or hear as many as 30 species, including colorful yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, magnolia warblers, black-throated greens, American redstarts, chestnut-sided, black-and-white, and more!
One of the best places on the property to observe warblers and other wildlife is the Navarino Nature Center, on Lindster Road within the southern refuge portion of the wildlife area. The center offers a large butterfly garden, a forest boardwalk, and a trail system that winds through the high sand ridges, large prairie, sedge meadow, willow, aspen thickets and marsh.
Thunder grumbles on the western horizon. The shadow of the coming storm's massive anvil darkens the sky. Sturdy bracken fern and royal fern line the rolling trails and swaths of sensitive fern carpet the wet lowlands between the ridges. Graceful wild columbine and Canada mayflower still bloom on the hilltops. The storm looms closer, rumbling louder in the distance, the sun hidden now behind a veil of hazy clouds.
A crystal-clear pond reflects the fortress of birch and oak. Dragonflies dance across the surface. A green frog strums to break the silence, and from the shadows of the fringing cedars, the clear, liquid song of the veery rings out. The chorus of the woodland thrushes has begun.
The song of the veery floats effortlessly across the calm water, joined by another farther down the shore. Another woodland thrush, the American robin, chimes in with its cheerful and familiar song.
The cedar swamp is a haunting place to spend a quiet summer evening. Ferns and skunk cabbage whorls decorate the flooded forest floor. Exquisite starflowers grace the moss-coated stumps and crags, and jack-in-the-pulpits, Virginia waterleaf, and wild sarsaparilla bloom in abundance. Eight-spotted forester moths, black and white, dance among the ferns, and the dusk rings with the rich "TEA-cher, TEA-cher" song of the ovenbird. The darkness deepens and the plaintive sweet voice of the white-throated sparrow drifts slowly through the forest shadows.
Lightning flashes more vividly on the night horizon. In the marsh, green herons and great blue herons stalk the fertile shallows. A family of American coot scuttles through the flooded wetland and a lone northern harrier makes a final sweeping pass over the rippling marsh grasses.
The willow thickets and ditches are ablaze with sparkling fireflies. Lightning flashes wildly as the storm rages just to the north and west. Hot, hazy days and firefly nights: this is summer at Navarino.
The colors of autumn set the woodlands ablaze and the hills are painted in fiery shades of yellow, gold, orange and red. These cool fall days welcome the noisy return of Canada geese. Resident birds are joined by migrating flocks from the north, and goose numbers annually peak at several thousand birds during fall migration. Large numbers of ducks – mallards, teal, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks and more – add to the cacophony.
Navarino's wetlands are managed to provide a wide range of habitat, from sedge meadow to cattail marsh to open water. Fifteen dikes flood over 1,400 acres, and the area features seven main flowages, several ponds, and two rivers – the Wolf and the West Branch of the Shioc.
The area is well known to deer hunters for archery and gun seasons. Nearly 4,500 acres are primarily aspen – prime habitat for upland gamebirds such as woodcock and grouse.
Squirrel hunters also love Navarino's large oak stands, which produce big bushy-tails.
Fall is also the best time of year to experience the prairies in full bloom. Colorful butterflies dance and flutter among towering cup plants, coneflowers and prairie dock. Flaming goldenrod and splashy asters in pinks, purples and white decorate the meadows and forest edges. Goldfinches swarm among the prairie giants and gray catbirds scold from the fiery dogwoods. The afternoon chorus of crickets and grasshoppers swells in the last of autumn's warmth.
The season marches on, busier and busier, louder and louder, until suddenly, one day, silence falls across Navarino. The geese have moved on. The crickets and grasshoppers sing no more. There are no leaves left in the trees to rustle in the late autumn breeze. Even the goldfinches have lost their bubbly effervescence. This is December.
Challenging trails and high ridges provide prime cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities for winter visitors. The snow-covered hills offer wonderful wildlife viewing as well. White-tailed deer and wild turkey travel along the ridges. River otter, mink, rabbits and weasels bound and slide along the hillsides. Flashy woodpeckers brighten the bare hardwoods and large roaming flocks of juncoes, chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays sweep through the winter forest.
Large roosts of crows gather in the evergreen boughs late each afternoon, their loud raucous cries echoing through the hills. Before long, February will turn to March. The slow trickle of water in the wetlands will again flow. A south breeze will bring the gentle warmth of another spring and with it, the sandhills will sing, dance and welcome another year at Navarino.
Robert J. Zimmer is a freelance writer from Neenah.