Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Spot rare butterflies in Wisc. pine barrens

Buckley Creek Barrens/ Photo
courtesy Wisconsin DNR.

Four species call state natural area their home

Day hikers can truly get back to nature with a walk through a pine barrens near the northern reach of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

The Buckley Creek Barrens Trail is an undesignated out-and-back footpath that runs 1.2-miles round trip through the Buckley Creek Barrens State Natural Area west of Gordon, Wis. Late summer and early autumn mark the best time to hike the trail, as spring through June will be wet and buggy.

To reach the trail, from U.S. Hwy. 53 in Gordon, head west on County Road Y. At about 4.4 miles, turn left/south onto South Lost Lake Road. After 4.3 miles, turn west onto Sunset Drive then in about a mile right/north onto Carp’s Creek Road. The road runs north/south through the state natural area. In about 1.5 miles, you’ll see a footpath on both sides of the road. Park on the shoulder here so other vehicles can pass.

Returning ecosystem
Go east on the trail, which heads through Buckley Creek Barrens’ higher elevations. The St. Croix River is a few miles to the east curving north.

In this region of Wisconsin, a number of wetlands and small lakes dot the landscape, surrounded by pine barrens – areas of sandy soil that support mainly pine and oak. The barrens once was the bottom of a glacial lake that existed at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.

The trail is a biologist’s dream, especially for those studying the rare pine barrens ecosystem. After years of preventing wildfires – which flora in a barrens depends upon to maintain their life cycle – one broke out in 1997. A barrens much like that which existed before white settlers came to the area more than a century before has returned, providing a living lab.

Beyond jack pine and hill’s oak, among the trees that you can spot on the trail are black and pin cherry. The wetlands host a number of grasses.

Four rare butterflies
Because of this flora, butterflies and birds literally flock to the pine barrens. Among four rare Wisconsin butterfly species you might spot here are the cobweb skipper, the dusted skipper, Henry’s elfin, and the Gorgone checkerspot. For birds, a number of thrashers, warblers and sparrows call the natural area home, and you might even spot an osprey or bald eagle overhead.

After 0.6 miles, the trail reaches a wetland’s southeast tip. This marks a good spot to turn back.

State natural areas in Wisconsin typically don’t have public facilities, and Buckley Creek Barrens is no exception. If you truly want to get into the wilds, this is a great hike. Be sure to use insect repellent and wear pants and long sleeves when walking the trail.

On the drive back to Gordon along County Road Y, you’ll pass the Saint Croix Flowage. This man-made lake often is mistaken for the St. Croix River’s headwaters; it's also not part of the national riverway.

Read more about day hiking the scenic riverway in my guidebook Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.