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Yard MD: Nature of the Fox Valley part two
Yard MD: Nature of the Fox Valley part two: Yard MD: Nature of the Fox Valley Part Two visits Brillion Nature Center, located at the edge of the vast Brillion Marsh. Home to a wide variety of habitats and wildlife, Brillion Nature Center is a great place to visit year-round. December 15, 2013
Brillion Nature Center is the only nature center in this area located at the edge of a vast cattail marsh. The wetland attracts a number of key wildlife species including osprey, sandhill cranes, tundra swans, Canada geese, many species of owls, hawks, whitetail deer and coyotes. / Rob Zimmer/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

NATURE OF THE FOX VALLEY: A SERIES

In this series, Rob Zimmer introduces you to the Fox Valley’s nature centers to showcase the richness and wild heritage found here in our back yard. Each of the area nature centers feature habitat and wildlife that separates it from the others. At the same time, these areas complement each other wonderfully, resulting in one of the highest concentrations of public natural areas found anywhere in the state. Follow the series each Tuesday during December and January.

A FIRE ON THE MARSH

The summer and fall of 1976 were an exceptionally dry period at Brillion Marsh. A two-year drought that extended into 1977 forever changed the landscape of areas of the marsh, especially on the eastern and southern portions of the wetlands. That fall, a massive wildfire swept across the vast Brillion Marsh, lighting up the skies for miles around and burning deep, permanent holes in the thick peat layer of the wetland. The fires burned 6,000 acres of marshland, along with private property near the state wildlife area, settling deep into the rich, peat layer and smoldering for many weeks. Scars from the massive wildfire can still be seen today across sections of Brillion Marsh. In other places, life rebounded in the form of dense stands of aspen that took hold and transformed sections of the area into an open marshy forest, perfect for gamebirds such as ruffed grouse.

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BRILLION — The wild cry of the Osprey echoes across a flowing sea of cattails, as the bird sweeps across a summer sky.

The towering darkness of a looming summer storm marched across the rippling marshland, as 8-foot reeds danced in the gusty winds.

The osprey pair nests upon a towering man-made platform in the middle of Brillion Marsh, overlooking their vast, watery domain.

The birds spend much of the day feeding in the open wetlands, plunging into the open water and snatching live fish with their long legs and sharp talons.

Brillion Nature Center is one of just a few locations in our area where these magnificent birds can be seen throughout spring and summer.

“Brillion Nature Center is a private, nonprofit organization that leases land on the Brillion Wildlife Area, which is owned and managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources,” said naturalist Louie Kolberg. Forty acres of prairie, woodland and marsh is leased by Brillion Nature Center, originally part of the Behnke family farm.

“Brillion Nature Center has often been referred to as the best-kept secret in Brillion,” Kolberg said, explaining that visitors are often confused when they try to locate the nature center as the long drive in leads through an old salvage yard.

More from this series

Part 1: Heckrodt Wetland Reserve | Part 3: Bubolz Nature Preserve

Spring beauty

The voices of the marsh change with the seasons, bringing with them a medley of songs, sounds and experiences that make Brillion Nature Center a must-visit destination throughout the year.

The only nature center in our area situated at the edge of a vast cattail marshland, Brillion Nature Center features a rich and amazing diversity of plants, habitat and wildlife.

During spring, the upland oak forests are decorated with spring ephemeral wildflowers such as trillium, hepatica, spring beauty, maidenhair fern, trout lilies, violets and many others.

“Being in such close proximity to the Brillion Marsh, the woodland areas are low and wet in the spring,” Kohlberg said. “As a result, there is a gorgeous parade of woodland wildflowers. Spring beauty, trout lily, violets, bloodroot, marsh marigold jack-in-the-pulpit and many more provide an ever-blooming smorgasbord for the senses as winter gives way to spring, and spring transitions into summer.”

Courtship chorus

During spring, the voices of the marsh ring loud and clear across the landscape. Migrating songbirds, as well as trumpeting sandhill cranes fill the morning air with their rich, colorful songs.

Common snipe and American woodcock perform their unusual spring courtship displays over the marsh and upland edge. These closely related shorebird species court in early spring by rising high above the wetlands and diving through the air during their courtship dance.

In the wetlands, the voices belong to frogs and toads, which begin to breed soon after emerging with spring’s warmth. Over a period of six to eight weeks, several species of frogs and toads erupt into song throughout the wetlands.

Spring peepers, wood frogs, American toads, gray tree frogs, leopard frogs and green frogs sing in the warmth of the new season at Brillion Nature Center.

The rich drumming of ruffed grouse can be heard throughout the upland forests and marsh edges during spring.

Ruffed grouse, along with ring-necked pheasants and woodcock are upland gamebirds of the grasslands and forest edge that thrive here at Brillion Nature Center.

Mourning cloaks, rich chocolatey brown butterflies with bright gold edges to the wings, are common in early spring, as well.

These butterflies are often on the wing before snow completely melts from the countryside and woodlands. They feed upon the sap rising with spring’s warmth in the forest trees.

Wild cries of summer

During summer, as the prairie comes into its own, the colors of the season dance with the summer winds. Colorful spires of wild lupine, wild indigo, cup plant, wild bergamot, Culver’s root and others rise over the prairies and grasslands.

The marsh itself is a wonderful destination during all four seasons. During summer, painted turtles rest on logs and other floating debris, while green frogs strum in the heat of the afternoon sun.

One of the most spectacular sights at Brillion Nature Center is the thrill of osprey feeding and caring for their young over the swaying cattails. The birds fill the skies with their piercing shrieks and wild cries throughout the breeding and nesting season here, just one of a handful of locations in our area where nesting osprey can be regularly observed.

Osprey, or fish eagles, are huge birds of prey that feed on fish they catch on the open water of the marsh and river.

From the Marsh Overlook, watch as the magnificent birds plunge to the open water, then sweep onto the nesting platform, fish grasped in their talons, feeding their young throughout the late spring and summer months.

With the explosion of colorful wildflowers across the prairies at Brillion Nature Center, the butterflies follow in spectacular numbers. Eastern tiger swallowtails flutter from the open forests to feed on wild lupine and other spring and early summer wildflowers.

As milkweeds and other summer bloomers come into flower, the Monarchs descend upon the prairies.

Music of migration

During fall, large numbers of sandhill cranes and Canada geese use the marsh as a staging area during migration. Flocks of tundra swans may also gather here on their journey east.

Their voices fill the skies at sunrise, as thousands of waterfowl waken with the dawn and begin to call out. Sandhill cranes, gathering here by the hundreds join the dawn chorus, their loud, rattling cries echoing across the vast marshland.

The voices of winter belong to the owls, jays, crows and red-tailed hawks. Other smaller birds, such as juncos, chickadees, cardinals and goldfinches also flutter through the forest edges in an endless search for plant seeds and other bits of food on which they depend through the cold.

— Rob Zimmer, Post-Crescent staff writer, writes about nature every Tuesday in his Nature Calling column. He is reachable at 920-419-3734 or yardmd@postcrescent.com. Follow him on Twitter @YardMD.

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