From farmland to birdland

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Neil Johnson
Friday, October 5, 2012

— Brian Buenzow spit sunflower seed shells out the window of his Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources pickup truck. A checkerboard of autumn woods, dry wetlands and tan prairie blurred past.

The truck rumbled along a washboard gravel road that cuts through the scrubby, sandy flats of Avon Bottoms State Natural Area. Buenzow pulled in the drive of an old farmstead where a home no longer stands.

The parcel overlooks hundreds of acres of former cropland south of West Beloit Newark Road that is being restored as lowland prairie and wetlands.

Buenzow got out of the truck and walked past a coyote den and ground squirrel holes dug in the sand among nubs of frostbitten switch grass. To the south, hundreds of acres of bright purple aster Canadian wild rye and little bluestem stood motionless in still afternoon air.

Buenzow smiled and sniffed at the sharp scent of blooming goldenrod.

"This is just wild, feral land," he said. "Don't you just want to take a dog way out there and see what you find?"

The DNR and Pheasants Forever are seeking funding to secure that acreage and another chunk of land a few miles east—700 acres in total—as part of public land for recreation and a pheasant management program.

The state is currently leasing the land for public use, and Pheasants Forever has raised about $685,000 in grants to buy the land.

Buenzow, who manages the surrounding area as a DNR wildlife technician, said if Pheasants Forever can raise $235,000 more, it would buy the land and donate it to the state. That would put the property under permanent management by the DNR as a public use area.

The groups view the land, which is now owned by H&L Farms, as a linchpin to adding ecological diversity to the 2,800-acre Avon Bottoms State Wildlife Area.

Avon Bottoms is a mix of farmland, grassland, forests and swamps in the Sugar River watershed. Buenzow said it supports dozens of species of mammals and more than 200 species of migratory songbirds as well as waterfowl and pheasants.

The H&L property includes marshes, ponds and prairie areas that have been restored during the last three years through the United States Department of Agriculture's Wetland Reserve Program, which is used to turn flood or drought-prone farmland into conservation land.

Buenzow said it is rare that the DNR would have access to such a large swath of re-developed conservation land.

Usually, such properties only become available 30 or 40 acres at a time.

This land, he said, is a goldmine that is ready for wildlife management right now.

"Wildlife is really just a function of the fertility of the land, and diversity is key. The best we can provide is a mosaic of different tracts of land. You need a blend of woods, open grassland and wetlands. This land gets you there. It's completely turn-key," Buenzow said.

The birds must know it, because they are everywhere.

A red-tailed hawk perched on a road sign.

Bluebirds, doves and kestrels sat on branches in stands of ash trees.

A white and black flicker flew up from a roadside anthill, leaving its lunch of ants behind.

Even the ground was alive. Late-season grasshoppers scattered in the grass with every footstep.

"That's pheasant food. All protein," Buenzow said. "You shoot a pheasant in season, and they're full of those guys."

Pheasant hunting in Rock County and southern Wisconsin has hit the doldrums in the last 10 years.

Buenzow said the pheasant population is down, partly because federal land management programs that supported pheasants came to an end in the late 1990s—but also because flooding and heavy snows in the last five years have been hard on the birds' breeding population.

A management program like the one proposed on the H&L Farms property would be a boon to pheasant hunting.

The DNR already stocks pheasant on the H&L property, but Buenzow said if the land came under permanent management, the agency would probably redouble its efforts. It could even expand its efforts to include a re-stocking late in the hunting season.

Buenzow said the H&L property is open to public use now, but it could someday become a year-round spot for hiking, bird watching and duck hunting.

In a swampy spot on a portion of the H&L property just north of the Sugar River, a wildlife photographer pulled up in a van. He was looking for waterfowl.

Buenzow told the photographer the marsh was big enough to support breeding couples from several species of ducks, but he warned the man that the birds would likely be skittish this time of year because of hunting pressure.

He wished the photographer good luck, and the man trudged off into the marsh with a camera slung over his shoulder.

Buenzow popped a handful of sunflower seeds in his mouth and hopped back in his truck. He looked out at the photographer and smiled.

"See? That's what this is all about," he said.


Last updated: 4:54 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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