By Doris Dubielzig, Preserve Volunteer and member of the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve
Start your walk at the Raymer’s Cove parking lot. The birding in this area can be spectacular in migration. At any season (when the lake is ice free), you might see or hear a loon or see diving ducks or grebes during migration. Now is also the time that rafts of coots begin to congregate on Lake Mendota and in University Bay.
Take the wooden staircase down to the beach. Admire the view of the lake and the sandstone cliffs bordering it. The sandstone was formed under a shallow sea, in the Cambrian Period, 490 to 500 million years ago. This sandstone is slowly being eroded by the lake water lapping against the cliffs, along with weathering and wind action. Cliff swallows and barn swallows now build their nests in cracks between layers of the soft rock.
Return to the parking lot level and walk eastward on the Lakeshore Path. The grand white oak (Quercus alba) is in its autumn glory, and its colorful branches stretch over the trail. Its rounded-lobed leaves distinguish it from the red and black oaks that have pointed-lobed leaves. As the days shorten, less of the green pigment chlorophyll is produced, and the remaining chlorophyll is broken down and taken back into the tree. Yellow (xanthophyll) and orange (carotene) pigments that were masked by the chlorophyll are now visible. While most trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves by the end of fall, white oak is one that hangs onto its leaves, especially on the lower branches, which don’t shed leaves until the spring. Small, low patches of purple New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and yellow zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) bloom on the other side of the path.
Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) on both sides of the path bear abundant 5-lobed, yellow leaves arranged opposite one another on the stem. The sugar maple is Wisconsin’s state tree. Important both economically and ecologically, it is a source of maple syrup, maple sugar and lumber. One of the slower growing maples, it provides food for insects and mammals and nesting habitat for birds. As Sugar Maples and Red Oaks prepare to shed their leaves, a layer of cells grows between the leaf stem and the tree branch. Trapped in the leaves behind that layer of cells, remaining sugars and tannins create anthocyanin pigments that produce dramatic red and purple colors. Typically, the side of the tree receiving full sun turns red, while the shaded side turns yellow. Some of the young maples have spots of gray lichen growing on their bark, mostly on the lakeside of their trunks. One old maple on your right has a huge hollow trunk supporting its branches high in the sky. How does it do that?
Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) occurs on both sides of the path. It has distinctive, large, curving strips of bark on their trunks and large, 30-60cm compound leaves with 5 to 7 leaflets. When each leaf falls off in the autumn, a prominent scar remains on the stem. Many of the leaflets appear to be spotted with Hickory anthracnose or leaf spot fungus. Shagbarks are native to the Midwest; the species is a member of the walnut family and makes an edible nut. Do you see any?
In addition to learning about or getting reacquainted with the Preserve’s treasures, allow your experiences here to clear your head and restore your soul.
Here’s a poem from me to you:
Maple leaves, Goldenrod, Sunlight
All flaunt their farewell.