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

Making the Most of Stolen Moments

Hillsboro TrailI like to take my car to get the oil changed. It’s not just that the owners of the auto shop provide competent and friendly service within minutes of my home. As an added bonus, their shop is located right on the Elroy-Sparta Trail. So when the car goes in for service, I go out for a walk.

This morning I strolled a half-mile down the trail, listening to chickadees, an indigo bunting, and dozens of red-winged blackbirds. An ovenbird’s bouncy song rang out from the wooded bluff across the road. And in one of the trees growing on the bluff, on a branch that drooped over the highway, a vulture sat patiently, waiting for something to get clobbered. Continue reading

Sitting at Home

Eastern bluebirds

Eastern bluebirds

Rivers, meadows, and wetlands may beckon, but sometimes the nicest place to be is at home in your own back yard.  This morning I’m outside, feet propped up, a glass of sun tea at my side. I’m watching the creatures who live – or at least take their meals – in our yard. Our tiny prairie planting attracts butterflies, bees, and other insects, as do our vegetable gardens.

The insects attract bluebirds, house wrens, catbirds, and other birds. More species, including chickadees, cardinals, and goldfinches, come for the seeds in the feeders. The songbirds sometimes attract Cooper’s hawks and nest-raiding blue jays and crows. Continue reading

A Welcome and Unwelcome Guest

I was at my desk today, deep in thought, when I gradually became award of a growing din outside. Blue jays screamed, crows cawed. Then I heard within the frenzy a single, descending whinny. Ah. Even before I reached the back yard and looked uphill, I knew what I would see. A bald eagle, which makes occasional visits, was perched atop the old white pine at the south edge of our yard. Continue reading

Choosing a Wildflower Guide

NewcombFor beginning naturalists, the vast number of wildflower guides can be nearly as daunting as the innumerable species of plants waiting to be identified.

It’s easy to find guides to wildflower identification in stores or online, but finding the right ones can sometimes be a matter of finding the right seller. I like to visit the gift shops at nature centers, wildlife refuges, and parks. They carry books specific to the state, region, or habitat type where they’re located (plus, buying from them helps a good cause). Continue reading

A Sort-of Easy Approach to Identifying Flowers

Marsh marigold

Marsh marigold

Marsh marigolds are blooming in the soggy bottomlands along the Baraboo River. I was on the 400 Trail in southern Juneau County this morning, looking for birds, but I kept finding wildflowers, too. The sky threatened rain, but nobody seemed to care. American redstarts sang in the trees, a pair of wrens chattered in the brush, and in the distance a pair of sandhill cranes gave a unison call.

I paused to photograph a chokecherry in bloom. At least, I thought it was a chokecherry. Because my purpose was birdwatching, I had a bird book, but no wildflower guide in my pack. 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

Mysterious Trills, Plunks, and Peeps

Herp ID

Many states’ natural resource agencies have frog identification tips on their websites

Birds are singing along the upper Baraboo River this week, proclaiming their territories and trying to woo mates. But as I ran along the Elroy-Sparta Trail yesterday, I heard other voices as well. Wood frogs were calling, “quadda-quack, quadda-quack”. Chorus frogs were singing in short, ascending trills, and spring peepers were “peep, peep, peeping” in the wetlands along the trail.

The frogs have recently emerged from hibernation and, like songbirds, are calling for mates. This is a sound of spring that I heard – but didn’t recognize – for most of my life, until one day when my husband brought home a cassette (yes, we’re that old) entitled, “Wisconsin Frogs.” I listened, astonished, to the long trills of the American toad and the various grunts, chirps, and trills of eleven frog species. “I thought all those sounds were insects!” I exclaimed. Continue reading

Brush up on Birdsong

You can’t always count on birds to demonstrate their songs, as this Western Meadowlark is doing.


Since moving to Wisconsin, one of my rites of spring has been the drive to Nebraska for the sandhill crane migration…and the long drive home afterward, often through a snow storm. One thing that brightens the trip is my little stack of birdsong CDs. In fact, I listen to them almost any time that I’m in the car in March and April.

I’m not talking about mood-music CDs – the ones with wood thrushes singing while Clair de lune plays in the background. Mine are ear-training CDs for birders. Continue reading

Migration on the Platte River

I’m away from home for a while, and here’s why. This is the place that taught me what it means to be a naturalist — and why it matters. My own photo gives barely a hint of what it’s like. To see more, type “Platte River sandhill cranes” in your search engine, and enjoy.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA