Monday, September 16, 2013

Array of waterfowl await hikers on lake trail

Eastern trailhead, off of East Refuge Road,
for Phantom Lake Trail.
Day hikers can walk to the largest body of water – a 2,000 acre lake teeming with birds from spring through autumn – at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area via the Phantom Lake Trail.

A pleasant day in August or early September marks the best opportunity to see a variety of waterfowl and their spring chicks.

To reach the trailhead, from the County Roads F and D junction, take County Road D east. Turn left/north onto East Refuge Road. Just after Lundquist Road, park in the southern lot for the Upper Phantom Flowage Trail. Backtrack on East Refuge Road and take the jeep trail going west.

The 1.2-mile out-and-back trail (2.4-miles round trip) heads through a wooded area then skirts a wetlands before reaching the southeast edge of Phantom Lake, Crex Meadows’ largest waterbody.

Before the mid-1950s, no lake existed here. Instead, it was a shallow marsh until when farmers drained it to create fields in the early 1900s.

That changed in 1954, though, with the construction of a 2.6-mile long dike so that waterfowl would have a protected wetland to use. Phantom Lake Road on the flowage’s west side runs atop that dike.

Much of Crex Meadows follows the same history – a wetlands drained for farming then converted to a set of flowages. Since the end of World War II, earthmovers have constructed more than 23 miles of dikes, creating 30 flowages that total 8000 acres in size, at the wildlife area.

Today, Phantom Lake – like Crex Meadows’ other flowages – is the perfect spot to view waterfowl.

Beginning in spring, watch for red-necked grebes, which typically nest southeast of Phantom Lake. Marsh wrens, yellow-headed black birds, and even the least bittern nest in stands of cattails and bulrush near the flowage.

From May through August, you can expect to spot trumpeter swans, as well as baby geese and ducks with their parents. Be aware that the adult geese can squawk and chase to protect their young, so don’t too get too close to the brood.

During June through August, watch for swans, geese and ducks flying over the flowage’s northern half. What may be Wisconsin’s largest wild rice stand grows there and serves as a major food source for the three species and other birds.

By August, the wild rice stand spreads across the entire flowage. From then through autumn, the mature rice seeds attract large populations of blackbirds, coots, ducks and rails.

Upon reaching the lake’s southeastern edge, the jeep trail turns to a gravel road. Continue on to the boat landing, which marks a good turnaround spot.

Read more about day hiking Crex Meadows in my Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking Crex Meadows Wildlife Area guidebook.