Category Archives: Reflections

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.

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

A Silphium by Any Other Name



Any naturalist afoot in Wisconsin this month is looking for wildflowers and finding plenty. Every week brings another “birthday,” as Aldo Leopold called a species’ first blossoming of the year. Along the Baraboo River, I can look forward to a changing array of woodland, wetland, and prairie plants flowering from spring through summer.

And this spring and summer, as I do every year, I will look up and try to memorize the names of all the plants I don’t yet know. Continue reading

Public Lands

Before I had the good luck – and the good sense – to marry a wildlife biologist, I never knew there were so many places where a person might take a walk.

Sure, I knew of a few state parks and faraway national parks. But in Lake Mills, if I wanted to be alone with the red-winged blackbirds, I settled for walking the gravel shoulder of Faville Road, where cars only occasionally zoomed by at 55 mph, and only one farm dog regularly chased me.

If I had looked at a county map, I might have seen several irregularly shaped green blobs within an easy drive of my home: Continue reading