Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trail offers chance to spot great blue heron

Casey Lake Trail. Photo courtesy of WI DNR.
Casey Lake Wildlife Management Area

Casey Lake, grasslands provide ideal heron home

Day hikers can sight great blue herons on the Casey Lake Trail in western Wisconsin.

The 0.2 miles-round trip trail heads near a rookery for the great blue heron, which is one of Wisconsin's two big birds (the other being the sandhill crane) As the trail is located in a section of the Casey Lake Wildlife Management Area that can be utilized for training bird dogs, it’s best hiked April 15-July 31, when the site is closed to such use.

To reach the trail, in Baldwin take U.S. Hwy. 63 north. Turn left/west onto 130th Avenue. Look for a gravel parking lot on the left/south side of the road between 200th and 190th streets.

From the parking lot, take the jeep trail south across a grassy area. It jogs east to a pond that an intermittent stream feeds and runs through. A woodlands surrounds the stream’s shoreline.

Great blue heron rookery
This habitat is perfect for a great blue heron rookery. The gangly-legged birds are easy to spot – at four feet tall, they often stand motionless in the water waiting to stab at fish and frogs with long, scissors-shaped beaks. They’ll also spear snakes, mice and other birds if the opportunity arises.

Seeing a great blue heron fly is an impressive sight. With a 6-foot wingspan, they usually reach speeds of 20+ miles per hour.

If you see dead fish hanging in trees or on the ground, you’re probably near a heron nest, as they’re messy birds. Look up into the tops of tall trees; their large nests made of sticks often weigh down the branches.

It's best to stay away from a nest, though. Great blue herons have been known to attack intruders by throwing up on them. If that doesn’t work, some will resort to puncturing skulls.

If you don’t spot a great blue heron, you’ll probably see one of many other birds that call the wildlife area home. Among them are blue winged teal, bobolinks, mallards and pheasants.

Prairie restoration
Two important geographical features make the wildlife area ideal for the great blue heron and these other birds.

First is Casey Lake to the south. With a surface area of 29 acres, the lake can reach a depth of 12 feet. It offers plenty of food to eat and shoreline to nest.

Secondly is the segment of the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration, in which a long-time agricultural field to the trail's east is being converted to native prairie habitat, to the trail’s east. An expansive effort that includes 15 different locations in St. Croix County and neighboring Polk County, the project aims to restore 20,000 acres to pre-pioneer grasslands, which provide excellent nesting sites for bobolinks and pheasants.

Note: Some maps and documents refer to the state site as the “Casey Lake State Wildlife Area.” And as with other wild management areas, public facilities are nil.

Learn more about nearby day hiking trails in my Day Hiking Trails of St. Croix County guidebook.