Tag Archives: nature study

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

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

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

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

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