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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

Echoes of an Ancient People

Aztalan: The View from Outside the Wall

Aztalan: The View from Outside the Wall

A fortified city stood on the west bank of the Crawfish River nine centuries ago. Adobe-like walls – upright wood posts, plastered with clay – surrounded tiered platform mounds, a community plaza, and the dwellings of some four hundred people. The homes, like the fortifications, were built with what the river provided: woven willow branches sealed and bound together by the Crawfish River’s clay. Hardened clay also covered at least one of the great mound structures.

When the sun shone brightly, as it did when I visited the Crawfish River yesterday, how the city must have gleamed! Continue reading

What Does It Take to Know a River?

The Crawfish River

The Crawfish River

I walked down the Glacial-Drumlin trail in south-central Wisconsin today to the old railroad bridge that crosses the Crawfish River. It’s a view that I’ve seen countless times over the years while training for marathons, birdwatching, or just taking a stroll. But for all the times I’ve looked at the river from that bridge, I realized today how little I have seen.

There are many ways of knowing a place. One way is to see it repeatedly over an extended period of time, observing changes Continue reading

Bad Butterfly Pictures

Northern Pearly-eye, in the sub-family of satyrs.

Northern Pearly-Eye, in the sub-family of satyrs.

What is it about butterflies? Even people who shudder at the sight of most other insects pause to admire the beauty of a butterfly. They may even extend a hand, in hopes that the fluttering creature will light there.

Butterflies, with their delicate, ephemeral beauty, can seem magical. They can also be rather infuriating to those of us who want to look more closely and learn something about them. Continue reading

Baby Bird Watching

Food for the kids.

Food for the kids.

A few nights ago we heard an unfamiliar sound – a persistent, high-pitched squawk – through the open dining room window. What could it be? A small mammal in its death throes? I padded barefoot around the back yard, listening, and got a surprise: the sound was coming from two directions, maybe more. Back inside, I made a wild guess and a quick internet search, which confirmed my suspicions. We had newly fledged great horned owls in our neighborhood.

The next morning, as I walked upstream along the river, an American redstart flew across my path and into a small tree where she delivered a morsel into the mouth of a waiting baby bird. Another sign of the season. Continue reading

More Bird Books

Western or eastern meadowlark? A field guide will tell you.

Western or eastern meadowlark? A field guide will tell you.

Remember the feeling you got as a kid when a Christmas catalog showed up in the mail? That’s how I feel about a good bird book. Time slips away as I flip through page after colorful page, making a mental wish-list of the birds I’d like to see.

In the July 16 post, I recommended two guides to the behavior and natural history of birds. Identifying birds in the field, though, calls for a field guide. Continue reading

Watching What the Birds Are Up To

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Out for a run along the river last week, I noticed something flicker at the edge of my vision and looked up just in time to see a cedar waxwing launching itself upward from a branch to snatch a dragonfly in mid-air.

I stopped running and watched the bird land again on the dead branch, where it appeared to reposition the big insect Continue reading

A Short Trip Downstream

Paddling the Baraboo River

Paddling the Baraboo River

To really experience a river, there’s no substitute for floating it in a canoe. Slipping through the water, a paddler really participates with the stream, negotiating bends, feeling the current, and listening to the trickle of all the rivulets as they enter and feed the river.

A few days ago my husband Mark and I paddled a stretch of the Baraboo River from Union Center, where the river’s west branch joins its main stem, to a landing near the Sauk County line. In this segment, the Baraboo’s channel arcs and doubles back on itself like a watery labyrinth. In general, the river flows east-southeast, but for a few relaxing hours, we could only guess at our direction by the position of the sun. Continue reading