Look Around You

Notice the black eye-line and solid black beak of this Chipping Sparrow. Photo by Roy Lukes.

One of my very best mentors, among many, over the course of the past 80-plus years was Murl Deusing. Murl was a member of the education staff at the Milwaukee Public Museum during his early professional life and eventually became one of the world’s great wildlife photographers and lecturers. He and his wife had a vacation home along the beach at Baileys Harbor. Murl was President of The Ridges Sanctuary and, along with Ridges’ Vice President Harold Wilson of Ephraim, hired me as the first Ridges’ naturalist and manager for the summer of 1964 – a job I held for 27 years.

Murl accompanied us on many early morning bird hikes and also my favorite half-day nature exploratory outings. We always admired him for being simply “one of us” and not holding above us his awesome skills of identifying just about everything we encountered. All of our outdoor adventures with him were par excellence. When I asked Murl how he could possibly locate so much wildlife and good things to observe, his to-the-point answer was, “Look around you!” And I’ve been doing it ever since!

In thinking over the many hikes I’ve been on with Charlotte, by myself, or with other friends and organized groups, we were constantly restoring and reinforcing our interest in nature, enlarging upon our skills of observing, finding and trying to identify what we had discovered. At the same time, without even trying, we were also relaxing and putting ourselves into a different mind-set. Invariably we returned home tired but also refreshed.

Fox Sparrows lingered longer this spring in Door County than is normal. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Greg Philby, editor-in-chief of Midwest Living magazine, wrote an excellent story in the October 2011 issue titled “Hike for a Better Brain.” He relates that exposure to nature creates a better mood and considerably improves short-term memory. Researchers have found that your exposure to nature can be as simple as observing birds and other wildlife through a window or taking short walks outdoors by yourself, surrounded by nature, to put you into a different mindset resulting in a restful experience.

I’m very grateful that I developed a habit over 50 years ago of recording events in nature. At first these notes were kept in shirt-pocket-size spiral notebooks, dozens of them which all have been saved. Around 23 years ago I began recording nature sightings every day of each year on 110 lb. index card stock and filing them by the month. Today its great fun, and also useful to me in writing my stories, to be able to go back in time, say 20 years ago, and compare sightings then with those of today. The point I wish to make is that, in my opinion, nature sightings can be greatly enhanced by recording them often and then being able to refer back to them in future years.

Mild April dusk is made for frog and toad choruses. The unseasonable early warmth this year had the Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs, Leopard Frogs and Western Chorus Frogs singing up a storm. They will be followed a little later this month and even into early May by the American Toads. Their high, thin, mellow, tremulous trills are sung on one prolonged pitch. A dozen or more, each with a slightly different pitch, produce the most wonderful and melodic discordance in nature one could imagine.

The beautiful Lincoln’s Sparrow has fine “pencil-streaking” on its chest and flanks. Photo by Roy Lukes.

April is sparrow month. I do not include the non-native House Sparrow (old name was English Sparrow) in this group because, technically, this bird is a weaver finch and not a true sparrow. With some field work it is possible to see 13 sparrow species in Door County in April: Song, White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Field, American Tree, Swamp, Chipping, Grasshopper, Savannah, Lincoln’s, Vesper and Clay-colored. Four of the species – the Fox, White-crowned, American Tree and Lincoln’s – will not nest in the county.

This past winter was very good for the American Tree Sparrows here. I scatter some millet seeds on the ground every morning, and the Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are very fond of it. It happens every spring that we receive inaccurate early reports of Chipping Sparrows having returned to the county well before their normal time. Careless looks at an American Tree Sparrow, having a rusty crown, rusty eye-line, and upper black but lower yellow mandible, erroneously make it to be a Chipping Sparrow who also has a rusty crown but sports a black eye-line and solid black upper and lower mandibles. Yes, it’s easy to confuse the two.

One of our favorite sparrows that we see only during its spring and fall migrations is the Lincoln’s Sparrow. It’s easy for a first look at one to make you think Song Sparrow, but the streaking on the Song’s flanks are much wider than the pencil-thin streaking on the Lincoln’s. The Lincoln’s also has beautiful buffy coloring across its upper flanks and chest. This classy little sparrow is attracted especially to our dripping water bath, a feature I strongly recommend for luring birds to your yard. Three species of sparrows are attracted to our dripping bird bath in summer, the Field, Song and Chipping.

An interesting summer challenge is to locate and observe some nesting Grasshopper Sparrows. They prefer overgrown, fallow, weedy fields. The male, his flat top-of-head profile clearly showing, will perch at the top of a tall weed stalk and sing his weak buzzy song which considerably resembles the sounds made by a grasshopper (insect) after which it was named. You should also notice the bird’s short weak flight, usually fairly low to the ground.

Notice the rusty eye-line and yellow lower beak on the American Tree Sparrow. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Loren Eisely, one of my favorite authors, wrote: “We cannot in one lifetime see all that we’d like to see, or learn all that we hunger to know.” (But its fun trying!) More and more we want to send our roots deeper and deeper in one place, to learn the land and its native wildlife inhabitants well, to get to “feel at home,” to be good partners in nature.

What an incredibly wonderful, nature-rich place Door County is in April!