A few days ago I drove west, as I do every spring, to join thousands of people who converge annually on the Platte River and the Rainwater Basin wetlands of south-central Nebraska. Nearly everybody who comes here comes to see some of the millions of migrating birds that congregate in this narrow stretch of the Central Flyway in March: sandhill cranes, ducks, geese, and more.
Some of us are also here to see people.
In 1867, John Muir crossed northern Florida on his way to the Gulf of Mexico
“Chk, chk.” The voice comes from a nearly leafless tree in the soggy floodplain of the Baraboo River. I look up at two rusty blackbirds – and now a third flies in. They confer briefly – perhaps about me – and drop to the ground, out of sight. The blackbirds, migrating from their breeding grounds in Canada, are heading south, maybe just to Illinois, but possibly as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s October 24, 2016. One hundred fifty-nine years ago today, John Muir, having just walked “joyful and free” from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, fell ill with malaria. His sickness and long recuperation interrupted his plans to travel onward to South America. More importantly, they almost certainly changed the course of conservation history in the United States by sending the young naturalist on a different path. Continue reading
Wooly bears are on the march. Whether on sidewalks or on trails, you can hardly walk anywhere these days without crossing the path of this favorite fuzzy caterpillar.
There’s something about seeing a wooly bear – so seemingly intent on its destination – that always makes me smile. But sometimes I feel vaguely troubled, too, because I am reminded of the countless mysteries in life that I ponder but never get around to looking up. Mysteries like: Does a blacker wooly bear really foretell a harsh winter? Or is it a browner wooly bear that does that? And how is it even possible for a caterpillar to forecast the weather?
And what the heck is a wooly bear, anyway? Continue reading
Not a birdwatcher? You could monitor turtles!
When a pair of cyclists rode past me on the bike trail recently, I was staring intently into a shrub. Maybe I looked a little bit deranged, standing there with my notebook. I was watching a baby warbler and, frankly, was having too much fun to care what anybody thought. That’s what a citizen science project can do to you. Continue reading
You’ve seen those bumper stickers: “I brake for wildlife.” I’m one of those people who stop for wildlife. But I have a confession: I am as likely to stop for a dead animal as for a live one.
I know: Eeew. But it’s not as unsavory as it might sound. Sometimes we happen upon animals from whom life has only just departed. Aesthetic reservations aside, these encounters provide an unparalleled opportunity to closely examine animals that we usually see only from a distance, if ever. Continue reading
Thanks to University of Nebraska Press for the opportunity to write the following guest post for the UNP blog: What the Platte River Taught Me.
Chip-chip-ch, d-d-d-d-dit. Two sedge wrens echoed each other’s songs in the marshy bottomland near the forks of the Baraboo River. I walked along the bike path, listening and taking notes.
A pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks came zooming down the path toward me, and then veered off into a tree over my left shoulder. The male, black and white with a scarlet bib, perched among the leaves and began to sing. I wrote that down.
The breeze was chilly, and the gray clouds sagged in the sky. It was not the most inviting day for a walk but I was in search of something: an eagle’s nest.
A bald eagle had showed up from time to time on my walks south of Elroy last summer. Once, it was circling high overhead Continue reading
In his essay, “Marshland Elegy,” Aldo Leopold mourned the steady decline of sandhill cranes – and the wildness they represent – in the upper Midwest. All lost to a thing called progress.
Seven decades later, the trumpeting voices of thousands upon thousands of cranes ring out across the marshes and river valleys Continue reading
In this part of Wisconsin, we’re fortunate to be surrounded by many types of public land: county forests, ruggedly beautiful state parks, a huge national wildlife refuge, and more. But the public lands that I use most often are those strangely unnatural avenues for exploring the natural world: rails-to-trail bike paths.
The phenomenon of converting abandoned rail beds to recreational paths has spread across the continent, but it started right here with the former Chicago and North Western Railroad line that became the Elroy-Sparta Trail in 1965. Continue reading