Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wisconsin May 2014

Now into our sixth full year of a gypsy lifestyle, but no matter how far and wide we travel, it’s always a great feeling to be back in Wisconsin each year. As long as it’s not winter. However, as busy as we might feel while we’re traveling in the RV, it tends to pale compared to the activities we try and squeeze in while back in the Badger State. Catching up with family, friends, doctor appointments, etc., it seems our schedule is alway pretty full.
In no time at all we were back onto our cement pad and what has become our second Wisconsin home at the Ward’s residence in Dale. Snuggles, as did the cats, seemed unfazed by our reappearance. As for the Ward’s, who never seem to be upset that they can’t see their garage for a while, were as always, most welcoming.

Alrick is always surprised to see us
Then we were off and running. Within a few days we’d managed grocery shopping, laundry, finishing work on a “Birding Wisconsin” program due in June, a bird outing with Todd and Cindy to Van Patten Road where we bumped into several folks from the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club along with our target bird - a Horned Grebe, a drive to Green Bay to surprise grandson Alrick with our return, a visit from Larry Darling (recording engineer at Lawrence University), a stop to reconnect with long time friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore in Menasha, and a gathering of the Monday night martini crowd at Dick and Jen Orr’s in Appleton.

view from deck at Country House; Dutchman's Breeches Peninsula SP
With barely time to turn around we packed for an overnight stay in Door County with Dave and Betty at the Country House Resort which had been in the planning for weeks. Fortunately the weather held as we started the first day, eating our way through the Inn at Cedar Crossing in Sturgeon Bay and ending with a gloriously extravagant evening meal at Inn at Kristofer’s that evening. Sandwiched in between? We birded Peninsula State Park before the weather began to head south.

breakfast fare White Gull Inn; Bald Eagle at Toft Point
The next day we began where we had left off - eating. This time it was breakfast at the White Gull Inn. By now, rainy, windy weather haunted us as we backtracked through part of Peninsula State Park (Weborg Point) and during a short hike at Toft Point State Wildlife Area (unusually un-birdy for the time of year). By mid afternoon we found ourselves back in Green Bay at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary where not only had the weather improved, but so too the birding. And then what better way to end the day than to eat at our favorite fast food addiction - Culver’s.

White Rive Marsh SWA; Henslow's sparrow; Wood anemone
Barely one day to turn around and we were off to visit Marge in Merrimac at her home on Lake Wisconsin. Along our route, we drove through White River Marsh SWA (alas, no Cerulean Warbler, a bird we will wind up whiffing on this year). The project to reclaim much of Badger Army Ammunitions Plant, located near Marge's house, netted us an opportunity to drive through what has been for decades, closed to the public. A great place for grassland birds including Henslow’s Sparrow (we were not disappointed). And as long as we were so close, a short walk through Baxter’s Hollow which, for birding opportunities, turned out to be uncharacteristically quiet for May. Around Mothers Day, it typically has been hopping with migrants. Ah, well. The spring flowers were a nice distraction.

Baxter's Hollow; Acadian flycatcher
May 10 meant it was someone’s birthday. The preparation to celebrate this year was far less frenetic, but nonetheless meaningful, as we celebrated over lunch with Melissa and Jerry
Our time with Dave and Betty had filled us renewed hope that Tom’s lack of hearing might now be improved with hearing aids. Ten years ago, an Appleton area audiologist had said there was no way that Tom would ever hear most bird calls again and to not waste our money on hearing aids. But Dave’s hearing, which was notoriously worse than Tom’s, had greatly improved when he was fitted with digital hearing aids a few months earlier. Dave was now hearing birds again! Using Dave and Betty’s recommendation, Tom scheduled an appointment with the same, audiologist, Holly Rusch-Clothier at The Hearing Clinic of Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists of Wisconsin. Testing indicated that Tom might go from a 45 to near 80% mid to high range hearing loss to a respectable over all 20% loss. His low range hearing was still very good.
Based on the test results and understanding he would have a free 30-day trial to return the hearing aids should they not prove worth the expense, a set of ReSound Linx digital hearing aids was ordered. While the decision to try the hearing aids was still in question, choosing this particular model was sealed when Tom learned that hearing aids could be controlled by our iPhone (via Bluetooth). It’s been said that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. With Tom, the best route is through electronics.

Caitlin and Graham
Son Graham and his girlfriend (now fiancee) Caitlin stopped by to say hi.  They’ve been dating for about two years now. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that wedding bells were in their future.
More doctor appointments loomed. First up was the dentist who, thankfully, gave us a clean bill of health. Next up, our dreaded colonoscopy appointments, both set to be completed with a five day window of time. Tom started his intake of the yucky liquid and had no sooner completed his exam when Carol began her intake of the horrid stuff. In the Everything turned out well for both of us so we're good for another 10 years (which will be too soon).

Dave, Betty, Carol, Raven, Mike
However, during Tom's restrictive intake of food, friends Mike and Raven from the UP had arrived. It left us little time to party although fortunately, Dave and Betty, who were able to spend time with them, had us all over for lunch. Tom got to watch other people eat, but it really the camaraderie and conversation that was most filling.
A few days for some needed RV maintenance (new kitchen faucet and toilet repair) during which time Tom managed to throw his back out. Thanks goodness for better living through chemistry (and some stretching exercises) while Carol worked in the Ward’s garden, picking up where she left off the year before.

High Cliff SP birding
Back on our regular diets and Tom's back feeling much better, we made time for a bit of birding at High Cliff State Park where there was finally a pretty good fallout of warblers being reported (and there was!) On a birding roll, the next day we scored a red-necked grebe on Van Patten Road. We knew, having not been in south Texas this year, that to hit 400 bird species this year was going to be a stretch so every little bit helped.

Chris, Carol, Penny, Tom, Dale
Good friend Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber had decided to make a run for a WI Senate seat and we convinced her to stop by for lunch while she door-to-door campaigned in Dale with State Senate minority leader, Chris Larson. Always fun to talk with Penny and Dale even if we're no longer residents of Wisconsin...she's such a terrific common sense representative, something sorely lacking in Wisconsin these days.

Mosquito Hill, White-tailed deer, Indigo bunting
breakfast with Jennie and Alrick
Another birding trip to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay (Connecticut warbler - yay!) and a never-a-dull-moment breakfast with Alrick and Jennie. Mosquito Hill Nature Center hike on the way back to the RV.

Holly adjusting levels, Andy from ReSound covering the iPhone, fitted in place
Finally came the big day for fitting of the hearing aids. Since this was new technology, the ReSound representative had made the trip from Berlin, WI to lend a hand - and then surprised us with a $1200 discount for the devices! Carol noted that as soon as the hearing aids were switched on, Tom started speaking in a much softer voice. In fact now, it's Carol who will have to say "what?" when Tom is speaking. Also, when listening to audible books in the truck or watching TV, Carol gets to set the volume control while Tom sets his hearing aid volume (via the iPhone) to a comfortable level. To celebrate we stopped at Salsa’s Mexican Restaurant with Dave and Betty (noting that hearing conversations in a restaurant setting was now possible) and then met the Ward’s at Heckrodt's Wetlands Preserve and found him a life bird sighting of an Eastern screech-owl (red phase).

Eastern screech-owl
At the end of May we squeezed in a bird hike on the WIOUWASH Trail where Tom noted for the first time he could actually hear birds again! How nice it was to hear sounds he's not heard for years.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bounding for Badgerland 2014

Departing far northern Mississippi, we made short work of Tennessee (including breakfast at a Perkins) and western Kentucky, arriving by mid afternoon at the Hilltop Campground outside Goreville, Illinois, 230 miles later.
We’re never entirely sure who we’ll run into as we travel but our stop at Hilltop seems to always coincide with when Jerry and Karen Smith are there. This year was no exception. The tradition remained unbroken.
Aside from catching up with the Smiths, our stops at Hilltop over the years have always involve two sure things. A visit (or visits) to Ferne Clyffe State Park where the birding during migration can be stellar, and, a pilgrimage to what has become our favorite winery in southern Illinois, Owl Creek Vineyard.

our site at Hilltop
But first up was a late afternoon happy hour with Karen and Jerry. We spent much time getting caught up on mostly birding topics. In past years we’ve all wintered together in south Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, but this year, having broken with that tradition, we had instead wintered in central Florida. Lots of good natured banter about differences in birding between Florida and Texas…and we have to say, when it comes to sheer numbers of bird species when padding one’s annual bird list, Texas wins hands down.

as the state park's name implies - ye olde Ferne Clyffe
Something else had crossed our minds as well. Our stops in southern Illinois have given us pause to rethink how we experience the cycle of winter to spring. After years of winter in Wisconsin, we now spend winter in a much milder southern climate. This has resulted in our perceptions of the coldest season of the year being more and more at odds with what are becoming distant memories of landscapes locked in white. The cycle of winter into spring still exists - we’re simply seeing it in an entirely different light.

on the Round Bluff Nature Preserve trail
We no longer witness winter in black and white. And because we no longer do, there are a few trades offs to be acknowledged. One is that we miss the anticipation and joy of hearing the first male red-winged blackbird song bursting forth signaling that a Wisconsin winter’s icy grip has been broken. As any true lover of nature understands, the red-winged blackbird (not the American robin) is the true harbinger of Spring.
On the other hand we now witness the red-winged's northward departure from their wintering grounds whereas before, we witnessed their southerly departure out of Wisconsin. The seasons are, from our perspective, upside down.
But that’s not a negative as far as we’re concerned. Instead of waiting for spring to burst forth amid melting snows and winter’s hush, we’re simply following spring as it spreads northward. And in southern Illinois in April, that’s where we found ourselves - smack in the middle of spring.

hiking wit the Smiths at Ferne Clyffe SP
Early the next morning we set out for Ferne Clyffe State Park. Recent rains had made slick some of the trails but who could complain about muddy boots when so much was, forgive the pun, springing up all around us? Hues of flowering dogwood, redbud, serviceberry, spicebush, sumac, sweetgum, maple, oak, and hickory. Woodland wildflowers of dutchman's breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, spring beauty, and trout lily were awakening. Songs of spring from wood thrush, Louisiana waterthrush, white-throated sparrow, warbling vireo, golden-winged warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, and Acadian flycatcher.

Ferne Clyffe
And what better way to salute spring than to toast its arrival than with a raised glass of wine (or two) at Owl Creek Vineyard? We’ve become such regulars (as regular as our once annual visit allows) that the staff actually remember and recognize us. But first a wine tasting of the year’s labor, then a sit-down glass of Owl’s Leap. “Reminiscent of a spicy Shiraz, the Chambourcin grape has a black pepper aroma and flavors with anise and clove. There are also hints of plum, black cherry and in exceptional years a bright jammy fruitiness.”  Indeed, that’s exactly how it tasted. And made even more enjoyable when combined with an assortment of cheeses (super sharp cheddar, marblette, and pepper jack), along with summer sausage and sesame seed crackers. Or perhaps warm Italian bread and spiced olive oil?

Awake, thou wintry earth -
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!
 - Thomas Blackburn

Jerry and Karen Smith and Carol and Tom
Or as Robin Williams so succinctly said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, "Let’s party!"

Re-energized and refortified after our hike at Ferne Clyffe, we wasted little time heading over to Crab Orchard NWR, a 44,000 acre refuge well known as a significant resting area for migratory birds utilizing the Mississippi Flyway. It was now late afternoon and the visitor center was on the verge of closing for the day. However, the young woman on staff noticed Tom’s Lake Woodruff NWR cap and had all kinds of questions about our experiences volunteering at a NWR. She suggested we try hiking the Woodland Trail, an easy partially paved trail that includes two fishing pier overlooks of Visitor’s Pond. But being late in the afternoon, not much was going on at this location so we headed off to the 1,200 acre Little Grassy Lake section of the refuge where there was more open grassland and mixed hardwood woodlots. What might some roadside birding produce? Our answers came in the form of eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, dickcissels and singing/perched bobwhite quail.
A busy day to be sure but there was one last stop to be made before heading back to the RV. Pizza at Walt’s in Marion, a “southern Illinois favorite since 1977”. Well, the pizza was OK - nothing like what we’d find at the Stone Cellar in Appleton - but it capped off a great day of hiking and birding with good friends…plus there were no dishes to clean up afterward.

Our second day at Hilltop was far more mundane. Laundry, grocery shopping and helping Jerry wrangle with a computer problem (a perennial task). More drinks late in the afternoon with the hopes we might run into the Smiths again while we’re in Wisconsin.
Leaving southern Illinois behind we set our GPS for Utica and the Hickory Hollow Campground. Traveling in central and northern Illinois would be unbearable were it not for audible books and what has become another traditional stop along Highway 51, breakfast at Joyce’s Cafe in Vernon, IL, population 178. One day, we mused, we should really make an effort to stop in Springfield and spend a day at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Hickory Hollow Campground - a trusted easy in and easy out pull-thru site. We didn’t unhook as we would be wanting to get an early start the next morning. By this time, even most of the tree buds were noticeably absent. It seems that we had gotten ahead of spring. No snow on the ground but clearly, it hadn’t been long before reaching the Utica area that the snows had only recently departed. The absence of spring activity, however, we knew would only be temporary. Counting our lucky stars, we’d experience spring twice in the same year.
Hickory Hollow RV park has been a reliable stop in the past as it puts us within striking distance of reaching Dale, WI within an uncomplicated day’s drive. With our feet in the starting chocks and our end goal of Dale clearly in sight, we bolted for the Wisconsin border, along with our red-winged blackbird traveling companions.