Saturday, August 4, 2018

Phenology at Lakeshore State Park

“During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No [one] can heed all of these anniversaries; no [one] can ignore all of them. … Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.”

~ Aldo Leopold

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes in the landscape, such as the emergence of plants and the migration of animals. Hearing the term reminds me of A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s epic tribute to the natural world. The quote above is from a chapter entitled Prairie Birthday, which strikes me as appropriate for the landscape of Lakeshore State Park. This 22-acre treeless island in Milwaukee Harbor, which was wholly fabricated from debris excavated from Milwaukee’s deep tunnels, has been planted with flowers and grasses native to Wisconsin prairies.

It is a bold initiative, creating a park from scratch and in such an unlikely and precarious location between city and lake. Leopold also wrote this:

“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, … but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

I went to Lakeshore State Park for a phenology hike. It was a brilliant morning, not a cloud in the sky. The day promised to be hot, but the cooling effect of Lake Michigan had so far mitigated the relentless sun. A great time to explore the park. In the shade of a grove of river birches at the north entrance, I joined a small gathering, which had been organized by the Southeast Wisconsin Hiking Group of

This story was posted June 22 in The Natural Realm, a new blog on the new A Wealth of Nature website. Please click here to go to continue reading.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Welcome to “A Wealth of Nature”

Not long ago, while walking along the Menomonee River in Milwaukee's Three Bridges Park, I experienced the magic of urban nature. Late afternoon sun lit the undulating hills with a golden glow when, suddenly, four great blue herons bolted from cover on the near shore. They flew several hundred yards downstream to land in the upper branches of tall cottonwoods on the far shore. To see so many of these normally solitary creatures at one time seemed miraculous.

Then, close behind me, a fifth heron stirred. With a loud, guttural squawk, it unfolded immense, angular wings and rose with ungainly haste. Once aloft, it glided gracefully up and over the thin band of riparian trees and circled slowly on slender, widespread wings that, in the distance, looked prehistoric. Skimming low over the water, it vanished behind tall grasses lining the riverbank. Farther on, it reappeared, swooped upward, stalled over the outstretched limb of a dead tree, and came to rest. The magnificent wings collapsed onto a suddenly svelte body, as if deflated. Mesmerized, I watched the heron stand warily on its perch where it had a commanding and enviable view of the river—and the glistening skyline of downtown Milwaukee.

There is powerful magic here. 

Southeastern Wisconsin is the most urbanized region of the state and yet those who live here are blessed with an abundance of opportunities to experience this kind of magic. Our wealth of nature makes it possible. When Preserve Our Parks initiated this project, we called it “A Wealth of Nature” in order to express not only the abundance but also the quality and value of the parks, preserves, wildlife areas and other open space that exist near at hand. Preserve Our Parks has long been a watchdog organization advocating for these places. 

This story was posted June 22 in The Natural Realm, a new blog on the new A Wealth of Nature website. Please click here to go to continue reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Treasures of OZ 2018 focuses on the Milwaukee River

Milwaukee River at Bike Path Island, Grafton
Seven Ozaukee County parks and preserves rolled out the red carpet on Saturday for the annual Treasures of OZ Eco-Tour. This year the event featured places on the banks of—and one in the middle of—the Milwaukee River, billed as Ozaukee’s Other Coast. Experts and volunteers at each site provided visitors with information about the park, the river and the fish and wildlife that can be found there. I made it to most of the sites, some of which were familiar. The two that I hadn’t seen before—Hawthorne Hills County Park and an island in the river—were special treats. 

This story was posted June 22 in The Natural Realm. Please click here to continue and read about Hawthorne Hills, Riveredge Nature Center, Bratt Woods, Bike Path Island and more.

Crayfish, Riveredge Nature Center

Monday, May 28, 2018

Welcome to summer: A lakefront photo essay

Bradford Beach

Milwaukee’s magnificent and unmatchable lakefront—where else do you go on Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of summer? Especially if the inland temperatures rise above 90° as they did this weekend. Although I tend to avoid crowds, I decided to check it out this year. It was definitely crowded. Lincoln Memorial Drive was a slow crawl from end to end all afternoon. But it was in fact noticeably “cooler near the lake” and a perfect opportunity to observe how much we Milwaukeeans love our lakefront.

Bradford Beach
Bradford Beach, epicenter of the action, was pretty much wall-to-wall people. A surprising number even ventured into the frigid waters of the lake.

Beach volleyball on Bradford Beach
Defending the sand fort
Not wanting to be intrusive, I tend not to train my camera on individuals at the beach. But these young people saw my camera and invited me to take their picture.

Those who desired a less congested beach experience chose McKinley Beach, the semi-circular sandy inlet just north of McKinley Marina.

Kayakers setting off from McKinley Beach

The Veteran’s Park lagoon was hopping with activity, kayaks, paddleboats and paddleboards aplenty.

There was a kite festival going on at Veteran’s Park. I didn’t get out that far but it was easy to see the striking display of kite design and flying ability from Lincoln Memorial Drive. I did find a couple of boys having their own personal kite festival on the wide-open stretch between McKinley and Bradford Beaches.

The Oak Leaf Trail running between the lagoon and Lincoln Memorial Drive saw a steady stream of people walking, biking, rollerblading, and running.

I found this amazing and aromatic panorama of lilac bushes at the corner of E. Lafayette Hill Road, across from Colectivo. 


Monday, May 21, 2018

Hiking Hartland Marsh and the Ice Age Trail

The Bark River

Spring was still trying to catch up from our unseasonably cold April last week. But this day dawned brightly and suddenly turned unseasonably hot. Shedding jackets, a dozen or so of us gathered at the Cottonwood Wayside for a hike into Hartland Marsh led by Jeff Romagna, a volunteer with the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

Hartland Marsh Preserve is nestled between the Lake Country Industrial Park and the Gleason Commerce Center in Hartland. Its 180 acres is protected by the Waukesha County Land Conservancy in partnership with the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Village of Hartland. The Bark River meanders through the middle of it, somewhere out where we couldn’t see it from the Wayside.

Our tour began on a mulched path, known as the John Muir Overlook, through a hardwood forest featuring ancient bur oaks. The trail narrowed, then led to a boardwalk across the marsh and over a small wooded island. 

Birds were plentiful, it being migration season. This is a rose-breasted grosbeak.

Another boardwalk looped through last year’s cattails and back to the forest. Here the trail was hemmed in with thickets of buckthorn. 

Most of the preserve has a far more open understory and the difference was striking. Jeff, our guide, introduced us to Paul Mozina, known as The Buckthorn Man, whose volunteer efforts have been largely responsible for removing this particularly obnoxious invasive species. Along with being more aesthetically pleasing to hike through, the cleared portions enable a more robust diversity of native species to flourish.

Across an open field we watched as a pair of sandhill cranes shepherded two chicks away from us towards a pond.

A side trail led us through a beautiful glade, over a hill and across the Bark River on a footbridge to another small island. Paul pointed out the many natural springs around the two hills that had led to its being a homestead, now vanished.

Four more sandhill cranes watched us warily from the marsh, their colors a nearly perfect match with the dead cattails. Can you spot all four?

According to the Ice Age Trail Alliance, wetland preserves like this are becoming more and more important as land is developed and urbanized. Wetlands serve critical ecological functions that help maintain environmental health as well as sustaining wildlife habitats.

Hickory sapling in bloom
By absorbing rainwater and nutrients, a marsh helps reduce flooding, prevents shoreline erosion along waterways, recharges groundwater, and enhances water quality.

Preserves like this one also provide opportunities for recreation, research and education, serving as both a laboratory and outdoor classroom for students and teachers.

The John Muir Overlook is a 1¼-mile loop linked (across Cottonwood Avenue) to the Hartland segment of the National Ice Age Scenic Trail. We hiked east along a portion of the trail until we reached the Aldo Leopold Overlook. The 45-foot tall glacial hill—which could be an esker or a moraine, according to Jeff—gave us views of the surrounding marsh. As we turned to go, a pair of brilliant white egrets sailed in to land on an open pond.

Tree huggers! It took three to reach around this enormous oak.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jane's Walking in the Milwaukee River Greenway

Vince Bushell and I would like to thank the ten hardy souls who showed up despite the rain and gloom to take a Jane's Walk as part of the month-long celebration of the life and legacy of Jane Jacobs. Vince is Project Manager for the River Revitalization Foundation and our walk began at their headquarters on the bend in the river between Humboldt and North. 

The blustery conditions did not keep the small group from paying rapt attention as several of us provided information about the history of the Milwaukee River and development of the Greenway, the wildlife, the Arboretum, Urban Ecology Center and other sights along the way. Vince and I were helped along by Virginia Small, who is one of the Jane's Walk organizers, and Dennis Grzezinski, a board member of the Urban Ecology Center.

Our walk took us up the East Bank Trail to Riverside Park, where we discovered this spectacular display of wild bluebells. Then we crossed the Locust Street Bridge to Gordon Park and returned via the Beer Line Trail. By the time we finished the sun had finally peeked out, though it was a good thing everyone came prepared for the rain.

We had 32 registrations and it's clear from the flurry of emails and text messages I got this morning that the conditions kept most away. Understandable. Virginia, Vince and I discussed the possibility of scheduling another walk for those who couldn't make it. Stay tuned for that.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Photo essay: A spring bouquet for Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day to my mother (in remembrance), to the mother of my children, to the mother of my grandchildren, and all the other mothers out there. After a disappointing April that included a blizzard, May finally has given us spring flowers. Here is a bouquet of wildflowers (except for those at Boerner Botanical Gardens) to brighten up your Mother's Day.

Crown imperial (fritillaria) nestled among bluebells at Boerner Botanical Gardens, Hales Corners.
Hepatica, Genesee Oak Opening and Fen State Natural Area, Genesee.
Marsh marigold patch, Greenfield Park, West Allis Forsythia and South Ravine Bridge, Lake Park, Milwaukee
Skunk cabbage, Zinn Preserve, Town of Erin, Washington Co. Hawthorn budding, Zinn Preserve, Town of Erin, Washington Co. White trout lilies, Niagara Escarpment, Town of Leroy, Dodge Co. Trout lily patch, Niagara Escarpment, Town of Leroy, Dodge Co. Yellow trout lilies, Sanctuary Woods, Milwaukee County Grounds, Wauwatosa White trilliums, Jacobus Park, Wauwatosa Tulips, Boerner Botanical Gardens, Hales Corners. Redbud, Boerner Botanical Gardens, Hales Corners Bloodroot, Retzer Nature Center, Waukesha Co.
Flowering fruit tree, Underwood Parkwy, Milwaukee County Grounds, Wauwatosa