Nature Blog

Ripples 11/23/22

 by Nancy Nabak, Communication Coordinator

It snowed a week ago. It’s probably going to be melted by time Thanksgiving dinner is over. I guess that’s ok, but I love when our sky-sprinkling, earth-decorating snow arrives.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of the 30 mile per hour winds on the lakeshore when it’s 10 degrees below zero, but I love my flakes, I love my frost, and I love snow angels.

photo of snow on landscapeAlthough shoveling isn’t considered a good time, snow still has a funny way of creeping in and making us enjoy it. Snow is entertaining – we make angels (my favorite), we catch snowflakes on our tongue, and we write all kinds of songs about snow. Irving Berlin hit the big money when he wrote, “White Christmas” – a dreamy song of yesteryear, reminiscing of glistening tree tops and hand-written Christmas cards. It’s nostalgic and cozy… and all because of snow. (I have yet to find a beach song that makes me feel this way.)

Snow is an element that gets us out there. We cross country ski in the powder. We snowshoe when there is a good base. We snowboard when we’re youthful and have what it takes. Hopeful children and sledding hills beg for this crystal element by the inches. Barring severe storms, such as the six- foot one in Buffalo last week, usually the more snow the better.

photo of snow bunting in the snowWe even celebrate birds whose names include the word “snow.” There is a Snowy owl who comes down from the northern parts of Canada during the winter months – appropriately named after its brilliant white feathers. There’s also the Snow bunting, an adorable, white and black, medium-sized bird that sometimes looks like it has caramel drizzled over it. The Snow goose breeds in the Arctic regions of North America and eastern Sibera, but can be found in our area during migration. There are also such birds as the Snowy egret, Snowy Plover, and the Himalayan Snowcock. The Snowy egret has a healthy population and shows up from southern states and Mexico every now and then. The other two; however, are not in our region and have much less of a population to go astray.

A small gift came to me in the mail the other day. It was a field guide to snowflakes. A grade school friend of mine sent it from California. He said he figured I already had it, but wanted me to enjoy it or pay it forward. I’m tickled with this nerdy gift and can’t wait to study the crystal structures.

I heard on the news we’re predicted to have a “normal” snowfall this winter – meaning more than the last couple of years. When it does come, please go out and catch a flake on your tongue. Make an angel. Or hum a bit of “White Christmas.” Whatever you choose to do, let yourself go. Be free. Just like a snowflake.

Photo of bird: Snow bunting by Nancy Nabak



Ripples 11/17/22

Written by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist

We recently moved Coneflower Trail across Woodland Drive to its new location at our Henry’s Wetland property. The parking space right off Woodland Drive (straight across from Goodwin Road) connects to a trail that takes you directly to the observation platform. As you walk towards the observation platform, take a look up at the osprey tower. Though no osprey has nested there yet, a red-tailed hawk likes to perch up there and survey the property. Speaking of looking up, during the cooler months northern harriers and rough-legged hawks also like to soar above this property, so don’t forget to keep an eye on the sky to see some really awesome raptors!

photo of prairie and November skyOnce you reach the observation platform, you can climb up to get a hawk-eye view of the new property! From ground level, it is a bit difficult to see the various wet pockets due to the tall wildflowers and grasses, but once you’re up on the platform it is easier to see the full expanse of the property. In warmer months, the view would be full of colorful native wildflower species and grasses, and prairie-loving birds singing away too. Though it is colder now, the view is still amazing, snow clinging to the old flower stalks glistening in the sun.

After enjoying the view from above, you can head out on the trail that forms a loop through some of the property. Going right past the tower, and heading through the prairie will be a beautiful walk regardless of what season we are in. The educational signs that were out on Coneflower Trail’s previous location have already been moved to this new one, so as you walk you can read about different aspects of prairies and the creatures that enjoy them. 

Speaking of, on the day that we created this new trail I put up one of our trail cameras facing down the newly constructed trail to see what other nonhuman creatures are hanging out over there. The camera was only up for a little under two weeks, but it got some pretty neat stuff!

On the trail camera we saw a herd of deer stop by almost every day, flocks of geese and ducks, what look to be two owls flying over the grasses at dusk, huge groups of sandhill cranes flying by (pictured), various songbirds, and in addition to the animals out there, the camera picked up amazing videos of the open sky filled with clouds drifting on by. 

If all of that was captured by a camera just facing a singular direction, imagine how much more you can see if you are out there yourself! I hope you stop on by and check out the new trail, and hope you see some awesome things too!

Ripples 11/10/22

by Nancy Nabak Communication Coordinator

We’re in the heart of November now, and as we say goodbye to our migrant friends, we also say hello to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Colored leaves, acorns, and turkeys are collective images that come to mind when we think of Thanksgiving. Our bright, colorful flowers have turned to seedheads of brown and gold. Orange gourds placed decoratively at the table remind us of a pure earth harvest. These gifts, these plants and animals of the earth, are blessings we acknowledge not only on this holiday, but throughout the year.

Yet, there is one more gift that I am truly thankful for this season – the many volunteers we have at Woodland Dunes. Over the past year, we have had more than 140 volunteers put in over 2,000 hours of incredibly valuable work time.

These selfless workers have helped in a variety of ways, but all of them are equally important. We have volunteers with gardening talents who help us maintain our Dorothy Star Butterfly & Bee Garden.  Some help repair and maintain our trail systems. Others plant trees. Some like to plan and create special events. All bring different talents to the table, but they all help make things click and tick at the Dunes like a fresh-batteried clock.

We have volunteers who lead bird hikes during migration seasons to teach the joy of birding to beginning and seasoned birders alike. We have volunteers who show children how fun it is to look for salamanders in a swale. We also have volunteers who greet our guests at the front desk and tell them about our wonderful trail systems and Nature Center.

Bird surveys, moss surveys, mushroom surveys – all assisting science, are conducted here by volunteers. Owl banding is done with the help of volunteers. Removal of invasive plant species on our Preserve is a constant job and always with the help of volunteers.

I know that my gratitude is shared by all of us at the Dunes. Without these wonderful people to help us reach our goals, our community wouldn’t be as strong or as special as it is. These generous-spirited people assist in keeping things at the Dunes better than okay. I would say experiences here are extraordinary and wondrous because of them.

We currently have the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee living on our Preserve. If we didn’t have volunteers to help us in other areas of need, we couldn’t spend the time or resources to help bring this amazing pollinator animal back from the brink of extinction. This is only one example of how volunteers keep Woodland Dunes special. And our community and corner of the world special.

This Thanksgiving, we thank all of you who have supported us with your time and talents. You do make a difference in the big picture. For that, we give thanks.

photo of volunteers who built new Trillium Trail boardwalk by Sue Crowley

Ripples 11/3/22

Some days things just line up the way they’re supposed to, and as a result something good gets done.  That has happened on a number of days lately at Woodland Dunes, as we rush to finish field projects and outdoor education programs before the snow flies. Weather becomes more and more of a factor, and the coming winter adds a bit of urgency to our work, but we have been lucky lately.
Two things stand above all others at the nature center.  They are- educating about nature, and restoring or improving habitat.  Good weather helps us accomplish both.  We still work when the weather is bad, but it is a bit harder to accomplish as much, or be as effective. But lately the weather has been good, and it shows.
Today was such a day. It was relatively warm, even in the early morning, temps in the upper 40’s.  A southeast breeze was invigorating, scattering falling leaves and waving cattails in the marsh.  As school children gathered in the yard to learn about owls, some of us prepared for planting. Not planting in our flower beds or grasslands, but out in the marsh along the West Twin River.  Today is wild rice planting day.
Wild rice was found in much of the upper Midwest before Europeans came.  Estuaries, those slow, marshy stretches at the mouths of rivers entering Lake Michigan, were good places for rice to grow.  Milwaukee originally had a large marsh near the mouth of the rivers, populated with wild rice before it was developed and all the native habitat was replaced by buildings and wharfs.  Such was undoubtedly the case here as well, and fortunately a marsh remains on the West Twin.  Wild rice was an incredibly important food for native people.  In fact, Ojibwe people came to the western Great Lakes because of wild rice- “the food that grows on the water”, or minoomin.  What we’ve done to our rivers has not been good for wild rice, which has been replaced by plants which tolerate poorer water quality.
Last year, Dr. Seilheimer from UW SeaGrant and myself ventured to wonder if wild rice might still grow here, and we obtained a small amount of seed for a trial planting.  Early last November, we paddled out by canoe and scattered seed in areas where we thought growth might be possible.  This summer, we were delighted to find rice growing in certain areas of the marsh, where vegetation filtered the water and improved its clarity and quality.  This year, with the help of UW Green Bay and Ducks Unlimited, we were able to obtain more seed from the Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.  We stored the seed submerged in a pond at the nature center until we were ready to plant.  Then, with the help of two members of our Board of Directors, we were able to scatter seed in the marsh on this windy November morning, one group in a canoe and one in a fishing boat.  In two hours we were able to disperse 200 lbs of seed, which quickly sinks to the mucky bottom.  It lays there dormant and cold until spring.  After germination it sends stringy leaves toward the surface, where they lay just below.  In mid-summer they erupt out of the water, and in late summer flower and form seeds.  In fall the seeds drop into the water, or are knocked into the water by feeding ducks, to begin the annual cycle over again.
Now we will wait patiently to see if this enhanced planting is a success.  It often takes five years of planting to produce beds of wild rice that are self sustaining- a lot of work for an aquatic grass.  However, this is a plant that belongs here, and whose population can be restored.  It is important as food for wildlife, and for thousands of years feed populations of people too.  For those two reasons, we feel it is very important to at least attempt to recover a population of wild rice here.  Doing so, we feel, would not only benefit the life of the marsh, which we hold important, but would also honor those people who lived here for so long and valued the land as do we.  
So, we hope when you visit the nature center, and take a stroll out to the end of the Cattail Trail boardwalk, that next year and beyond you will see wild rice reaching out of the water, providing cover, and food, and balance to the marsh.  And we hope it reminds you of all the life in the marsh and the river, and the lives of those who lived here before us.
Photos- Dr. Titus Seilheimer planting wild rice on the West Twin on November 3 2022

Ripples 10/27/22

Written by Kennedy Zittel, Assistant Naturalist

photo of changing leafOn my way to work, I have passed by the same group of four sandhill cranes every morning. What started as two small chicks and the two parents has now turned into 4 sandhill cranes of the same size, hanging out in the same field each day. I have gotten so used to seeing them that when they weren’t there the other day, it felt like part of my routine was all out of sorts. They were back the next day, however. It reminded me that soon enough they will migrate for the winter. 

With that thought, I felt quite sad. I love fall. I love the cooler weather and the changing of the leaves, yet it always seems to go by so quickly. And with the passing of fall, comes the colder weather, which means that many of the animals that we had grown so accustomed to seeing each day will no longer be around.

I have begun to notice that a lot of the common sightings around here have already disappeared. The ground squirrels that once raced across the lawn have been missing for a few weeks now, tucked away in their burrow for winter. The resident woodchucks, all named Skippy, have not been seen eating fallen seed under the feeder for the past few weeks either. A lot of the birds that once sang from the treetops or ate at the feeders have either migrated already or are decreasing in numbers with every cold front leading them towards warmer areas for the winter. 

As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Come springtime, when the snow is finally gone, when the sun is finally warming us up, getting to see those animals return will be so much more exciting after not seeing them for so long. What used to be such a common occurrence that we wouldn’t even pay it much thought, will be announced with such excitement. “I saw a sandhill crane!” “Skippy woke up!” “There goes a ground squirrel!” etc. 

With the passing of fall also comes the arrival of other friends to take the place of the ones that are snoozing or spending winter in a toastier place. Juncos spend their winters here and are a welcomed sight at the feeders. Some animals, like squirrels, will stay awake in the winter, so we still get to see them scamper around. As the fall season passes by, I will try to take every sighting with excitement, knowing that any day now might be the last until spring. It makes us appreciate what we are so lucky to get to see, once we no longer can see them. With that, I wish my warmer-month friends the best of times on their winter vacation, and cannot wait to see them again in spring!

photo by Nancy Nabak