Category Archives: Afield

Counting Cranes — and More

Dimming my headlights, I turn onto the gravel lane and let the car roll slowly downhill in the direction of the Crawfish River. Ostensibly, I am here to count sandhill cranes, but the first order of pre-dawn business is to look – and listen – for snipe.

I lower my window, turn off the car and close my eyes. And there it is: an eerie whir that rises and fades, rises and fades as air rushes over the fanned tail feathers of a Wilson’s snipe in territorial display. Through my binoculars I search the twilit sky and finally make out the ghostly form of the foot-long shorebird in its quick, stuttering flight. Continue reading

The View from the Back of the Blind

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.

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Wondering about Wooly Bears

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

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

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

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