Photo credit: Wendy Woodard

The Tundra swans are once again on Lake Mendota here in Madison, Wisconsin. They are very large, have a long neck, and are all white except for a black bill. They have migrated from their breeding home in the Arctic. Every winter they come; in the last seven years we’ve lived here, I documented first hearing their raucous bugling sounds late at night on these dates:

• 2020 – December 13
• 2019 – November 11
• 2018 – November 9
• 2017 – December 1
• 2016 – December 2
• 2015 – December 29
• 2014 – November 14

The Tundra swans usually congregate near Governor’s Island, a small green space nearby that isn’t an island anymore. Canada geese and Mallard ducks also join them and it can get truly crowded and the honking and bugling make for one crazy gathering.

Photo credit: Wendy Woodard

Tundra swans form life-long pairs and are together year-round. They nest on the arctic tundra. They are North America’s most numerous swan species. Here is what a large flock sounds like.

Are there alligators in Lake Mendota?

Photo credit: Wendy Woodard

It’s the end of December, with a new year approaching. Many people are looking to 2021 with hope – hope for positive change in their lives. And many people just want to forget 2020. As I reflect on 2020, I can, fortunately, say my entire family is healthy. It was frightening for me in the early days of the pandemic and also when Wisconsin was a hot spot in October and November. And, there were – and are – some problems concerning employment, schooling, and adjustment, but overall I feel incredibly grateful for how well my family fared. 

Common tansy is a non-native invasive plant! It can displace native vegetation. And here I thought it was a pretty prairie wildflower.

In 2020, I kept my senses open to nature. I can count on nature. And I can count on nature changing year to year.

It will get warmer, and then colder. The trees will bud and a profusion of leaves will grace their branches. Bees and earthworms and migrating birds and dragonflies and butterflies and spiders and much, much, much more will appear in my yard and everywhere like clockwork. Winds will bring rain and hail and even smoke from fires thousands of miles away. The bald eagles will soar over the lake as the temperature drops and the lake starts freezing up. Nature is always “on” in the background.

Overall, I noticed more of nature and spent more time in nature. It is always exciting, wondrous, and restorative.

Much earlier this year, I flew to the west coast via the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. I did not expect to see giant butterfly and moth art but there it was – in the entrance to a bathroom! (Art by Josie Lewis) The airport is apparently big on bringing arts and cultural events to their spaces. Way to go! This link includes pictures of all the mosaics.

Never regret a day in your life: good days give happiness, bad days give experience, worst days give lessons, and best days give memories.

I wish you well.


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Odonata – what?

Do you know the word Odonata? I didn’t. But I recognized an opportunity to learn: it’s the scientific order of flying insects that includes both dragonflies and damselflies.

Dragonfly: Widow Skimmer (male)

I think they are actually REALLY COOL.

They have been around for almost 300 million years! Their relatives had a wingspan of almost three feet! There are fossilized records of Odonata!

Dragonfly: Widow Skimmer (female)

They start out in life underwater as a nymph, eating tadpoles and worms and such. Then they crawl onto land and through a metamorphosis process are flying in about a week.

Damselfly: Tule Bluet (male)

Over 160 Odonata species have been observed in Wisconsin!

In general, dragonflies are fast fliers, have thicker bodies, and their wings are held flat or below when perched. Damselflies are slow fliers, have thin bodies, and their wings are held directly over their body when perched.

Dragonfly: Eastern Pondhawk (female)

Dragonfly: Eastern Pondhawk (male)

I photographed many Odonata this past summer, all in my neighborhood in Madison. There is a prairie nearby where many of them were darting about. They really are a delight.

AND, I self-published a book about them for youngsters (and others) who want to see what the most common species are in Wisconsin. Dan Jackson gratefully provided the photographs for the book.

Dragonflies – clockwise, starting at top left: Band-winged Meadowhawk (juvenile), Halloween Pennant (female), Twelve-spotted Skimmer (male), Eastern Amberwing (male)



Here’s the book cover and a couple of sample pages. It’s available on Amazon and hopefully soon at the Madison Public Library.


I can’t pass up taking pictures of prairie plants, so here are some of those as well. From the top: Culver’s Root, Rattlesnake Master, and Gray-headed Coneflower.


“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
– Rachel Carson


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Catching Up

From April to August this year, the blog posts here were about my recommended nature-related books.

It’s time to catch up with what happened in nature in my neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin.

Please, share your favorite nature sightings from this Spring and Summer below!

April 7th – A Mallard pair on the neighbor’s roof:

Backyard splash of color:

May 10th – THREE male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks come to the feeders! It was raining and they looked a little ragged. They eat sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and raw peanuts at feeders. 

May 16th – Bird-watching near Lake Mendota during Spring migration; from the top: Magnolia Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.



Last week of May – Shooting Star flower (also called Pride Of Ohio, Roosterheads, and Prairie Pointers) and Oriental poppies:


June 6th – Backyard Peony:

End of July – Nicotiana flowers and a dragonfly at the CSA garden (more on dragonflies in the next post!):


Mid-August –

A Tawny Emporer butterfly (unusually common this year),

“Dog-day” cicada that is seen and heard every summer (The orange and black cicadas with bright red eyes are periodic, showing up every 13 or 17 years depending on the species; here in Wisconsin that will be 2024.),

and some flowers from the garden:


August 26th – first Aster!

Early September –

front and back of the Black and Yellow Argiope spider (it’s huge),

the Milkweed Tussock Moth (aka Milkweed Tiger Moth) larvae, with milkweed plants for hosts (like Monarchs),

and an Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly:


Listen to Sounds of the Forest! Upload your forest sounds here, too 🙂

About Sounds of the Forest: We are collecting the sounds of woodlands and forests from all around the world, creating a growing soundmap bringing together aural tones and textures from the world’s woodlands.

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”
– Neil Armstrong


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Nature Books, Part 5: Assorted

Good day –

The time has come. This is the last post about some of my favorite nature books. And there is no theme; there is a little bit of everything.

1 – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Delightful, contemplative, and scientific – this short read will leave you thinking about snails for a long time.


2 – Never Cry Wolf: The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves – by Farley Mowat

You can’t go wrong with anything written by Farley Mowat. I enjoyed this book both for the content and the author’s writing style. It’s campy at times and that is amusing to me. You’ll have more compassion for wolves by the time you finish.

3 – Our Living Ancestors: The History and Ecology of Old-growth Forests in Wisconsin (And Where to Find Them) – by John Bates

This book is a great resource if you’re interested in old-growth forests (now and in the past) and the ecosystems they create for other living things. The first half of the book describes how Wisconsin got to this point – only about 1% of the remaining forest has never been logged – and details areas of importance. I learned so much, such as 1) Niagara Escarpment white cedar trees in Door County are up to approximately 600 years old (and possibly older), 2) Trout lilies only grow in colonies that are centuries old, and 3) Nearly 700 State Natural Areas (SNA) protect over 75 natural communities. The second half of the book details – with maps and pictures as well – the 50 best sites in Wisconsin for old-growth trees. Fantastic.

4 – Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic – by Jennifer Niven

I enjoy reading true stories of man/woman vs. the environment, and this book did not disappoint. Ada and four men spend a year on an island in the Arctic. They all undergo growth through multiple challenges, especially Ada. There’s plenty of drama, too.

5 – How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals – by Sy Montgomery, Rebecca Green

This book is a collection of 10 or so essays describing the author’s experiences with specific animals – dogs, a pig, and even an octopus. They each taught her something. It’s sweet!

Abandoned mallard duck egg (I think) in our backyard

6 – Three Among the Wolves: A Couple and Their Dog Live a Year with Wolves in the Wild – by Helen Thayer

This is a detailed glimpse into the daily lives of three packs of wolves; two in the winter and one in the spring/summer.

7 – Meditations of John Muir – by Chris Highland, John Muir

I read this while visiting Yosemite National Park. Muir’s choice of words and phrases in each meditation are playful and deliver a punch.

Could this be Orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia)?

8 – No Man’s River – by Farley Mowat

After reading this book I felt incredibly grateful for a heated home, warm clothes, and food that I don’t have to hunt or fish for. Farley goes on a scientific expedition with a partner and then ends up having his own adventure. It was hard to put this book down.

Not nature – but I liked the shapes and design

9 – The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees – by Stephanie Kaza

If you’ve ever gasped at the beauty of a tree, or a stand of trees, or a forest, this book will take you to places deeper and richer than you’d think you’d ever go. Here is just one passage: “The voice of a forest is an elusive thing. It sings in the sweet warbles of purple finches and Swainson’s thrushes. It rustles in the leaves dancing in the afternoon sunlight. It buzzes in the slim sounds of crickets and mosquitoes. It creaks in the sway of tree trunks rubbing against each other. I wonder when a tree gains its voice.”

Think this is a juvenile Barred owl – it was squawking as I bicycled past it

10 – Black Star, Bright Dawn – by Scott O’Dell

This is YA fiction and written well. Bright Dawn races in the Iditarod. It is not as good as Island of Blue Dolphins but a page-turner nonetheless. 

Any good nature books I haven’t covered? I’m always on the lookout for new books to read.

Looking at Madeline Island from the larger lighthouse catwalk on Michigan Island (Wisconsin)

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth”
– Henry David Thoreau


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Nature Books, Part 4: Western United States

Greetings nature lovers –

This fourth post about some of my favorite nature books involves the theme of the Western United States. The West has so much to offer: desert, mountains, plains, rainforests, glaciers, and some of the oldest and largest trees on the planet.

I’d like to hear from you about your favorite books about the West! Please comment below.



Artist: Sandra Harpole (cabinets at Blue Lake Resort – Minocqua, Wisconsin)

1 – Desert Solitaire – by Edward Abbey

Abbey was a ranger at Arches National Park in Utah in the late 1950s. He experiences nature fully and poetically writes about it. He ventures into environmentalism and also his morality.

Dad in Utah – 1946

2 – Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country – by Pam Houston

The author connects with nature and the wilderness in a way that is intense and passionate. This collection of essays reveals her history and heart while experiencing all that life offers on a 120-acre Colorado Rockies homestead. 

3 – Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout – by Philip Connors

In 2002, the author spent about 6 months in a 7′ x 7′ fire lookout tower in remote New Mexico. His job was to watch for fires and sound the alarm if he saw smoke. He contemplates the landscape, wildlife, and solitude.

4 – Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living – by Karen Auvinen

The author describes the critical scenes of her childhood with care as well and how she has found her place on a Colorado mountainside. In fact, this wild woman thrives in the sometimes raw and challenging landscape – and I admired that.

5 – Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place – by Terry Tempest Williams

This is essentially a love letter to the author’s mother and to the birds of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and nearby bodies of water. It chronicles changes to health, emotions, water levels, and bird populations. 

6. Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside – by Edward Abbey

Yes, another Abbey. In this wise and lyrical book about landscapes of the desert and the mind, the author guides us beyond the wall of the city and asphalt belting of superhighways to special pockets of wilderness that stretch from the interior of Alaska to the drylands of Mexico.


7 – The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed – by John Vaillant

This recounts the history of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, the logging industry, and the Haida First Nation people. A sacred Sitka spruce, 165 feet tall and covered with golden needles, is sacrificed in protest to clear-cutting.

8 – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories – by Sherman Alexie

Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. With each of the 31 stories in this book, he reflects on the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not related to nature per se however he is such a strong and colorful writer that I must include it. There are stories about the reservation, war dances, wind turbines, and more.

The next and last in this series of blog posts on my favorite nature books includes a group of miscellaneous topics: wolves, trees, John Muir, snails, and more!

Be well,


Mom in Glacier National Park – 1951

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