The Plants Muir Left Behind

In 1867, John Muir crossed northern Florida on his way to the Gulf of Mexico

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

Wanted: Your Observations

Not a birdwatcher? You could monitor turtles!

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

A Parting Look

IMG_3596 (2)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

Making a Map of the Bird World

Sedge wren

Sedge wren

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.

Continue reading

Making Themselves at Home

Sandhills at NNWR (2)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 Praise of Bike Trails

Elroy Sparta Trail Oct 2015In 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

History Museums: Some Discoveries Come in a Small Package

Aztalan Museum

Aztalan Museum

You’ve seen them: those little museums housed in old mansions or school buildings. A wooden sign out front bears the name of the local historical society and some infrequent hours of operation. It’s easy to look right past those signs. After all, the spotty hours can give the impression that little museums are usually closed.

The little museum in Aztalan, Wisconsin, on the west bank of the Crawfish River, comprises the village’s former church plus other historic buildings that have been relocated to the site. Continue reading