Monday, April 30, 2018

Seeking wildflowers, finding…

Where is spring? I have been complaining about this elusive season ever since moving to Wisconsin (many years ago now.) But this year has been particularly egregious (see last week’s post of the blizzard!) On Saturday, a scheduled “Spring Wildflower Hike” at Havenwoods State Forest caught my eye and so, with minimal expectation, I went to see if the premise of the theme would be confirmed or not.

No, there were no flowers blooming, I was immediately informed when I arrived. The landscape was as sere and colorless as ever. Nevertheless, since I was there anyway I went for a walk and discovered that there were plenty of people out and about enjoying the park despite the delayed spring.

Nature can rejuvenate the spirit in any season. I have long believed that.

I didn’t wander aimlessly however. I was directed by park staff member Laura Spencer to where a group of Sierra Club members were working. They were digging up clumps of purple loosestrife, an invasive species. I learned that they were not digging them up in order to get rid of them but to take them back to the Nature Center and grow them. This came as a surprise until they explained further: The collected specimens would be grown in an enclosure so that beetles that are used to control the spread of the unwanted plants would reproduce and multiply.

Later the beetles will be released back into the wild in the areas that are infested with purple loosestrife where they will act as a natural biological control.

On my way home, I also stopped at McGovern Park, which is just across Silver Spring Drive from Havenwoods. Having been there in previous springs and delighted in a profusion of wildflowers I thought just maybe I would find a few early ones.

Most of the large woodlot there still looked quite barren, urban wilderness at its bleakest! I did see numerous shoots that I knew would bloom into lovely trout lily blossoms. But it would take another few days at least.

As at Havenwoods, however, the chilly temperature was not keeping everyone away.

Just when I was about ready to give up on wildflowers I found a few. I almost missed them. Spring beauties are tiny and these were not in the woodland where I expected them. They had sprouted up in a grassy spot next to the pond. Vindicated, I went home reassured that real spring would soon arrive. 

You can see last year's spectacle of trout lilies in McGovern Park in my column at Milwaukee Magazine on "Hidden Gems." 


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Greenfield Park run for organ donation

The temperature was still surprisingly chill for late April, but that didn't stop hundreds of people of all ages from turning out for the Cream City 5K, a run/walk to support organ donation. I caught a little of the action.

Finding Resilience in Nature: A Reflection on the Geography of Hope

In a small clearing on the bank of the river, under a stand of alders just beginning to bud, the people gather (right). They form a circle around a thin wisp of smoke rising from the center. Using only a traditional hand drill, several volunteers help breathe fire onto collected tinder. Native American leaders Caleen Sisk and Sky Road Webb offer a blessing, invoking earth, air, water, and fire, along with the surrounding trees that shelter us. The last cool tendrils of morning fog evaporate as the sun rises over the eastern ridgeline, bathing the congregation in warm light.
For me that moment illuminated the geography of hope.

The moment occurred on the second day of a conference entitled “Geography of Hope” (hosted by Black Mountain Circle and co-sponsored by the Center for Humans and Nature), which is held in Point Reyes Station, California. Though the conference was a long way from my home in Wisconsin, I had been intrigued and enticed by the theme: “Finding Resilience in Nature in Perilous Times.” Like so many of the other participants, I felt an urgent need to nurture resilience within, if not outright resistance to, our current cultural and political climate. And while the conference was as inspiring as I had hoped, what I didn’t anticipate was how much larger its message would prove to be.
It is easy and predictable, after all, for a lifelong nature lover to seek comfort in wondrous places. Spending a few days at beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore, which literally surrounded the conference site (top and below), may in itself have sufficed—especially for a Midwesterner hungry for an elusive spring. But, I felt there had to be more to the conference than lovely scenery, and there was.

This essay was published in City Creatures Blog by the Center for Humans and Nature.
Click here to continue reading.

To see a complete set of photos from Point Reyes and the Geography of Hope go to my Flickr album.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Menomonee River Parkway: Close encounters in an April snowstorm

You may think last week's snowstorms were an unseasonable fluke or a sign of the changing climate. You may have felt cheated of spring on the cusp of Earth Day. You may have grumbled about having to shovel out so late in the year. I know I did. However...

It was beautiful! (Look closely at the center of the photo to see the two deer.)

I'm not sorry it's melting away now. All I'm saying is when the climate gives you lemons, make lemonade. In this case, go out and enjoy the snow. I know I did.

One lovely, snowy evening I went to one of my favorite haunts along the Menomonee River Parkway just north of North Avenue. I didn't expect to see the deer, but I saw them, in spades. Both sides of the river. A few of them, as you can see, got up close and personal. (I was not using a telephoto lens.)

They seemed surprisingly tame, curious...and hungry. When I didn't offer them anything to eat they returned to rooting in the snow.

The deer were not the only wildlife blindsided by the blizzard. Numerous ducks swam about on the river, ducking for cover.

Most of the snow had melted by the weekend. On Saturday I joined the hundreds of volunteers for the annual river clean up sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. While I didn't actually do any cleaning up, I did take a bunch of photos, which you can see on Flickr.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Nashotah Park: A lovely winter day in April!!

The snow was soft, heavy and surprisingly deep the third day after an unseasonable blizzard in April. But the wide trails over hills and through woodlands were well-trodden and tracked by skis by the time I got there. All the same I had the place nearly to myself on a lovely midweek morning. I say lovely because it was—if you forgot for a moment it being April. Sunny and warm for February.

Like every single person I’ve spoken to since it snowed, I felt betrayed by the weather. I didn’t go out to enjoy it for two days. My loss. I’m glad I broke the spell and ventured out to Waukesha County to explore a park new to me. The snow made an already beautiful place even more enchanting.

Nashotah Park is 444 acres nestled within a glacial terrain of rolling hills, woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands. There are two large natural lakes, an oak forest and an oak savanna. There are wide open fields, a cedar glade (I’m told—I didn’t find it), and broad expanses of marsh. 

I did see a solitary hiker on a portion of the 10-kilometer trail system, which has multiple loops. 

Later, around noon, towards the end of my walk, several skiers zipped by, proving the popularity of the park for cross-country skiing, even after an unexpected spring snowfall. Although they hadn’t been groomed this late in the season, the trails are groomed in winter for both classic and skate style cross-country skiing. There is even a separate trail for snowshoeing, according to the Wisconsin Trail Guide website

The Waukesha County Parks website states, “Due to the variety of landscapes, Nashotah Park has an outstanding array of songbirds.” And I saw some, including this pair of male Eastern bluebirds, looking rather cold in the circumstances. I was also surprised to see a couple of great blue herons fly by over the oak canopy—although I suppose it shouldbe warm enough for them by now! The redwing blackbirds were making a ruckus in the snow-dusted cattails, too.

Don’t let the snow get you down! I know we’re all hoping for balmier conditions and spring flowers to bloom. But, hey! It’s lovely out there in the parks.

This is one of an ongoing series of stories about parks that I have undertaken as part of a long-term project called A Wealth of Nature. Anyone familiar with my Urban Wilderness blog will find little to differentiate the new series, for it is entirely consistent with my previous work. However, in an effort to be more comprehensive I am deliberately exploring parks all around Southeast Wisconsin that are new to me.

A website for the project is underway. Meanwhile, I have just created a new Instagram account (@awealthofnature) and Facebook page, which I invite you to like and follow. A Wealth of Nature is a project of Preserve Our Parks, on the board of which I serve.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Burning Washington Park

The other day I was delighted to be able to watch as parts of Washington Park went up in flames. No, I’m not a pyromaniac and the fires were carefully controlled by professionals. Although the benefits of using fire as a management tool have become relatively common knowledge it is still unusual to get the chance to see it in action—especially in an urban setting!

Fire was once a natural and common feature of many ecosystems native to the U.S., including woodlands, prairies and even wetlands. Many native plant communities adapted to fire. Some species even require burning to propagate. Prior to European settlement, the indigenous peoples used fire as a management tool in many parts of North America, including Wisconsin.

After over a century of fire suppression policies—think Smokey the Bear—we have come full circle. Once again, fire is being used for ecosystem management. The benefits of controlled or prescribed burning include reducing weeds and invasive species, removing the duff layer of last season’s leaves and other organic matter, returning nutrients to the soil, and invigorating fire adapted native species.

The burning of Washington Park was done by Dare Ecosystem Management under the supervision of the Urban Ecology Center, which has one of its three branches there. Five separate patches of prairie were burned. The ability of the crew to control the burn was quite impressive, especially considering conditions that involved gusty winds that shifted direction. 

Jason Dare of Dare Ecosystem Management uses a drip torch to ignite the perimeter of a patch of prairie. The drip torch, an essential tool for a prescribed burn, literally drips fuel (usually a mixture of gasoline and diesel).

The Washington Park Bandshell, never in danger, provides a backdrop for one of the prescribed burn sites.

Kim Forbeck, Manager of Land Stewardship at the Urban Ecology Center helping to control the blaze with a rake.

The actions of the crew, igniting and tending to the fires, brought to mind the "firemen" in Ray Bradbury's novel, Fahrenheit 451. In contrast to that dystopian tale, however, these actions are totally benign.

One of the burn sites was a narrow strip of prairie grass along the edge of the lagoon. A bystander watches from a park bench.

The burn contributes to the Milwaukee County Parks Department's Shoreline Habitat Restoration Project, which is intended to establish a riparian buffer zone between the land and the water. The native plants in the buffer zone help prevent erosion, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and protect water quality in the lagoon by capturing runoff. The Urban Ecology Center can be seen in the background.

Michaela Molter, Land Steward at the Washington Park branch of the Urban Ecology Center, supervising the burn.