Early May near the Wingra Woods springs means hikers see sings of returning life, like migrating warblers, skunk cabbage leaves, and buttercup-yellow marsh marigolds. It’s a spring tonic to see again the flashy and flitting warblers, the lush green cabbage leaves (Symplocarpus foetidus), and the buttercup-yellow marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) dressing up the otherwise drab lakeshore wetlands.
Where you see marsh marigolds and skunk cabbage, you can count on fresh, seeping or flowing water. And where you see these two plants you will be sure to find early spring insects and the birds attracted by them. The skunk cabbage is so-called because of the fetid odor of its early spring flower. The carrion-like smell is reputed to be an insect magnet.
Neotropical migrants are hopscotching their way north from their wintering grounds in Central America. When they put down in Madison after a long flight of 500 or 600 miles from the southern US, they are hungry and immediately start looking for food. This tree-top, shrub and ground-level foraging provides birdwatchers with a cherished spring ritual.
Some of the early neotropical migrants seen today include yellow-rumped, palm, yellow, and blue-winged warblers that have just begun to arrive in Madison. (The spring migration will last for a couple more weeks with new arrivals and new species on display each day or so). This morning a hiker also saw a sweet little blue-gray gnatcatcher, a catbird calling, and a flock of white-throated sparrows foraging in the undergrowth like a troop of army ants.
Gliding over the springs was a red tailed hawk while a Cooper’s hawk perched nearby. Wild turkeys moved about in awkward flocks, the females foraging and scratching for seeds while the males strutted and showed off to the could-care-less females. Wood ducks are already nesting in boxes and hollow trees at improbable and inexplicable distances from the Lake Wingra water’s edge.
Visit the Arboretum interactive map for locations of the Wingra Woods springs, birdwatching areas, and tips on planning your trip. You can also contact the Madison Audubon Society for dates and times of birdwatching trips this spring. Madison Audubon leads regular birdwatching trips to several spring migrant hotspots in the Madison area.