Notes from the field – Discoveries in Wisconsin’s desert
American Transmission Co. environmental project managers traverse hills and countryside monitoring construction activities year-round. They are the eyes and ears in the field, working with contractors to ensure that we demonstrate our environmental commitment.
Our Notes from the Field blog features highlights of what our environmental project managers see while they work on projects throughout our service area. This installment features photos and observations from Michael Warwick, ATC senior environmental project manager.
The driftless area. A vast chunk of Wisconsin that the glaciers missed, so many years ago. The lack of glaciation means the western part of our state looks incredibly different from the east, and those differences are plentiful. While the eastern portion of the state is relatively flat with numerous lakes, the west is covered in wooded hills and dry, rocky bluffs. Parts of the driftless area are often called “Wisconsin’s desert,” due to the vast swaths of sandy soils, dry microclimate and prickly-pear cactus scattered about.
These differences mean that western Wisconsin provides an incredible amount of habitat variation for species that depend on the habitats described above. Because of its unique qualities, this city-based nature nerd gets excited whenever a new transmission project means a visit to another area of the state that I’ve never previously explored.
I was recently assigned a project on a transmission line in an area that is about as far west as one can travel in the state without hitting the Mississippi. Almost immediately after being assigned to this project, substantial late-winter flooding resulted in the emergency replacement of a wood pole on the same line. The pole was replaced temporarily, with the intent that a permanent fix would take place later, once floodwaters had receded to make construction more accessible.
On May 14, a beautiful, 70-degree Wisconsin spring day, I set out west to visit portions of the project. My goal was to assess the possible habitat associated with each location, and determine which, if any, resources would be impacted by our work. On the way back, I planned to visit another project currently under construction, one as complex environmentally as any I’ve worked on, to check on protective matting removal and restoration efforts.
But first, I had a stop to make. Just three minutes down the road from the western portion of the project exists a site known to have several species of snake that I’ve never had the luck of observing in the wild. Last year, I made the five-hour roundtrip drive to this site on a Saturday in June, family reluctantly in tow, on quite possibly the worst possible day for this kind of thing; a 95-degree, obscenely humid, awfully mosquito-filled day. We found nothing. The whole day was a bust, and the family, irritable.
This time, I would not be denied. The weather was perfect, and I would find my Holy Grail. Within five minutes at the site, as I glanced off to my left at a flat outcrop, there they were. Two large, adult timber rattlesnakes.
I kept my distance, but it didn’t take long for them to consider me at least a minor annoyance. They rattled their tails at me … a warning to give them their space … as they slithered away to find refuge in their rock crevices. As I leaned in to take photos while they made their exit, I almost didn’t notice another, much smaller critter at my feet, hidden among the grays and tans of last season’s fallen leaves.
Another timber rattler, this one a juvenile. Likely born late last summer, as evidenced by its small size and the tiny button at the tip of its tail, not old enough to have developed a rattle. It laid perfectly still, hoping I would finish what I was doing and move on. After snapping numerous photos from various angles, I did just that. My day had been made! I was lucky enough to have witnessed three individuals of a species I have never seen in the wild in all my 41 years, despite actively seeking them out. It was only 10 a.m., and I had the rest of the day ahead of me.
TO BE CONTINUED …
Michael Warwick is a senior environmental project manager at ATC. Prior to joining ATC he worked as an environmental consultant conducting tree and plant surveys, wetland delineation, GIS, project planning, community planning and permitting. He previously worked at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with a focus on waterway monitoring and studies, and wetland and waterway permit reviews.
Michael earned a Bachelor of Science degree in conservation and environmental sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is currently certified by Wisconsin DNR as an Endangered Resources Reviewer and is a member of the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC) Outreach Committee. He volunteers his time guiding annual natural resources-based educational field trips for the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin