Black Ash Swamp

On Saturday morning I went on a hike with the North Woods Native Plant Society, an informal group of natural history enthusiasts who put together outings in northern Wisconsin and the western Upper Peninsula every summer. This particular trip was to the Toy Lake Swamp State Natural Area, where we spent a little time exploring a plant community I wasn’t familiar with, a black ash swamp. It’s pretty unusual to stand in a forest where the canopy is composed almost completely of ash trees. (Emerald Ash Borer isn’t in this area – yet – but ash trees just aren’t all that common here.)

The understory was wet, green, and wild. There was no trail – we just bushwhacked through this, our boots getting soggy. The basic definition of a swamp is a wetland that is forested, and black ash, like red maples and some other deciduous trees, are well-adapted for growing in this saturated soil.

Because this was supposed to be about botany, we talked a little about sedges. Um… do not ever ask me to identify a sedge. I had to learn a bunch of grass species once for a job that involved doing plant surveys, and that was hard enough. The seed heads of sedges are cool-looking, though. If you don’t know, the way to distinguish sedges from grasses is to remember the mantra “sedges have edges” – if you roll the base of the stem between your fingers, a sedge will feel angular while a grass will feel round.

Also cool was this old Red-eyed Vireo nest, suspended from a branch.

Totally worth getting up at 7AM on a Saturday and driving an hour to meet up with a bunch of strangers and slog through a swamp!

4 thoughts on “Black Ash Swamp”

  1. Oh! I think I might have seen a Red-eyed Vireo nest in progress today. It was just the barest outlines of a round cup-shaped nest hanging from some thin branches, and it looked just like the nest in your picture except still mostly transparent, with just a thin layer of grass so far. I saw a little bird working on it, but it flew away before I could get a good look at it. I’m really glad to have an idea now of what I saw! Thanks for the very timely picture! :D

    1. Nice! I can’t really claim much credit, as I don’t think I would have known what it was if I hadn’t been with a bunch of people who said “oh, look at that old Red-eyed Vireo nest.” There may be other birds that hang nests from branches like that, I don’t know. Orioles sort of do this but their nests are shaped different, I think.

      1. Yeah, I’ve seen Oriole nests around here before, and they hang down more into like a tear-drop shape, I think. I don’t know my birds’ nests at all! I’ll see if I can’t hunt around for some more information, but at least now I have a place to start! :P

  2. This sounds like it was a really fun day. Swamps just make me happy in general–if you get to go off-trail adventuring in them it’s even better. Seems like you have a lot of wetland diversity out there!

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