Thursday, November 26, 2015

A loud call of thanks

By David Horst 

Here's something I'm thankful for.

It has been nearly a month since we've seen the pair of sandhill cranes that were regular morning visitors all summer. I had contented myself that we would have to deal with the quiet, unremarkable field until spring.

Then last Saturday we heard that prehistoric call from high above Sandhill Lama Farm. A dozen cranes did a noisy fly-by. It happened again Sunday.

They hadn't abandoned us just yet.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Grand marshal gave great sacrifice

Former U.S. Army machine gunner Alan Lewis is a strongly built man, but his outgoing personality is even bigger than his wide shoulders and broad chest.

He was riding up top of the back seat of my dad's 1958 Ford Skyliner as grand marshal of the Milwaukee Veterans Parade Saturday, greeting the onlookers huddled in patches of sunlight along the downtown parade route.

The Skyliner, also known as a "retractable," has a hard top that comes down into the trunk to create a convertible, making us a good candidate for carrying a parade dignitary. My late father made a tradition of volunteering for the parade and I'm driving to honor his memory.

Beside the grand marshal is young Alan Jr. "Wave that flag high, boy," his father would remind him from time to time.

"Are you real happy?" the boy asked, as his dad is awash in attention from the crowds on the sidewalks.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Budget cut brings swan song

By David Horst 
When a nature column reaches the end of a long run, you can really only describe it as a swan song — a tundra swan song in this case, I suppose.
My byline has appeared in the pages of The Post-Crescent for more than 30 years. Nearly 13 of those have come since I left the full-time employment of The Post-Crescent to go to the nonprofit Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.
Due to budget cuts at the Post-Crescent, my column and other correspondent work have been eliminated.
My intention in these columns has been to take you along on outdoor adventures. If you have ever felt that way, I've succeeded. If you have learned anything, it has come by way of the highly knowledgeable people this column has allowed me to meet.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Hanging with Jungle Jack

By David Horst

To see a slideshow, tap here and on the slideshow icon
in the top-right corner of the page that appears.
Jack Hanna thrilled a crowd of 700 people of all ages Oct. 16 at Kimberly High School with a blend of his stories, videos of some of his best adventures and cute, exotic animals from snow leopard to otter.

It all benefitted Mosquito Hill Mature Center and was sponsored by the Charlotte Bates Fenlon Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. That's the official story. My day was more about hanging out with Jungle Jack.

Jack Hanna is the definition of personable. He is interested in what people have to say and what they care about. He is funny and irreverent, and genuine.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Master canoe restorer's work will help people experience the Fox River

By David Horst

Master canoe builder Jim Suffield.
I’m standing in the pouring rain in the parking lot of the Waupaca Fleet Farm with two buddies from my Fox River adventures, when the one with the ponytail lights up a smudge pot and starts waving the sweet, aromatic smoke it is emitting under two 25-foot wooden canoes we’ve hauled back from the Rhinelander area.

It’s times like these that I realize I have amassed a pretty novel collection of friends.

The guy with the smudge pot is Glen Gorsuch of Neshkoro. He is part-owner of a voyageur canoe larger than either of these and a French fur trader in his re-enactor character. He wants to bless the canoes as they enter their new life, in the traditions of Native Americans.

The guy who provided the boat trailer and cobbled together a way to carry the two big canoes is Dave Peck of Appleton, an enthusiast of wooden boats of any kind.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Locks Paddle a big success

By David Horst

Like the 4-minute mile or Hank Aaron's home run title, it was a record made to be broken.

Paddlers pack 186 boats into Appleton Lock 4.
The most boats ever jammed into a Fox River lock was 169, set twice in the past decade. The record fell and fell hard Saturday as part of the joint North East Wisconsin Paddlers and Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway's Appleton Locks Paddle.

The Appleton Locks Paddle sardined 186 boats into the locks. They were mostly kayaks, a few canoes, stand-up boards, two 25-foot canoes and rescue boats from the Outagamie County Sheriff's Department and the Appleton Fire Department.

This was the sixth time we've held this paddle and it has been surprisingly popular. Paddling 6.5 miles in about three hours — including sitting in four locks while the water is drawn down to let you into the next section of the river — may seem like a "been there, done that" kind of thing, yet people keep coming back to do it again, and lots of new people join them.

Saturday, 219 people decided to do it.

It was the perfect no storm.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

VanBuecken left a wilder landscape

By David Horst 

TOWN OF MENASHA — To explain how well Donna VanBuecken knows her craft, I only have to recall a native plant rescue she organized probably 15 years ago.

I was among a group of volunteers who were to dig up native plants from a prairie that had been planted at a Fox Cities medical facility. The owners were advocates of native landscaping but they needed the space to expand the business and, well, business is business.
Donna VanBuecken is retiring from Wild Ones

Through some act of miscommunication, the prairie was mowed the day before the rescue. We wandered through the field of stubble unsure what was weed and what was flower. Donna, executive director of Wild Ones Native Landscapers, not only recognized which were keepers, but she could recite the species.

VanBuecken has announced her retirement and the Wild Ones reports it is close to naming her sucessor. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

High Cliff is in Cindy Mueller's DNA

Two women who have been leaders in environmental causes in the Fox Valley have announced their retirements. Today I look at the career of Cindy Mueller, who served as a naturalist at four area nature centers. The next column will look at Donna VanBuecken's quest to encourage native landscaping as executive director of Wild Ones.

By David Horst

SHERWOOD — Working as a pharmacy technician at a drug store 30 years ago, Cindy Mueller had this recurring dream about teaching in a classroom, a dream so vivid that she experienced the smells of the school building. Then the dream would change to her fishing.

Cindy Mueller
It wasn't until she took a job in 1987 as a naturalist at Fallen Timbers Environmental Center near Black Creek that the dream’s meaning became clear. Bringing the outdoors into the classroom and the students into the outdoors as an environmental educator took her to nearly every Fox Cities nature center. And it won't end with her retirement Oct. 31 as High Cliff State Park’s naturalist.

High Cliff has always been in her blood. Her great grandparents had a place near what is now the park entrance. Her parents lived up on the ridge that gives the park its name.

“I kind of grew up here,” she said. “As a child, High Cliff was the place to go.”

Friday, August 21, 2015

Porch offers view of monarch recovery

By David Horst

By all accounts, 2015 has been a good year for monarchs.

I can verify that without checking the winter habitat in Mexico, or monitoring the flyway. Up on the Sandhill we call home, we don’t have to look any farther than the rose garden out front.

We’re not really rose-cultivating people, but they came with the house and seem to be able to take care of themselves, for the most part. So they remain.
In the middle of the summer, milkweed plants started to pop up between the rose bushes. Milkweed is sacred at our place, so they were allowed to grow. Now neck-high, the plants’ upswept leaves became dotted with little greenish-brown bb’s. Telltale signs of monarch caterpillars.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Weather delay shrinks Park-to-Park

After launching from Neenah's Shattuck Park, 75 boats head for Lake Winnebago.

By David Horst

What if you planned a paddling event for 250 people and the tandem of thunder and lightning was the first to arrive?

That was the fate of the 14th annual Park-to-Park Paddle on July 18. The storm was settling down as we started to gather for the launch at Shattuck Park in Neenah, but smart phones showed another storm hitting just before the fastest paddlers would land in Appleton. 
A roomy trip through the Menasha Lock.
See more photos

That’s a rarity for these paddle events, sponsored cooperatively by Northeast Wisconsin Paddlers and the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway. We have experienced uncommonly good weather.

When you are responsible for the safety of group of people, you just don't put them on the water in the lightening with 6-foot sticks in their hands.

The three main organizers -- Jeff Mazanec, Tom Young and me -- conferred and postponed the paddle from Saturday to Sunday. Perhaps a dozen paddlers went out anyway. The rain stopped. The second line of storms never came.

It may have been a misinformed call, but it was the right decision.

Sandhill warrior II

Up on the Sandhill, even the wildlife
does morning yoga.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Whip-or-will calls and paddling Peshtigo Flowage are rare treats

CRIVITZ -- I think the whip-poor-will is a very cool bird. Naturally camouflaged and nocturnal, we don't encounter them much. The few times I've heard them I was thrilled, because their population is in decline.

Renee Dallich of Green Bay pauses to admire
the mirror-calm water after Saturday’s rain.
David Horst photo. See more photos.
It is, however, difficult to be thrilled with a bird that is calling "whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will" enthusiastically and repeatedly at 2 a.m.

That is what you are likely to encounter when you camp at Gov. Tommy Thompson State Park near Crivitz. I was there June 20-21 as part of a two-day kayak trip to the Peshtigo Flowage.

The Pesh brings visions of roiling whitewater to most paddlers. This section of the river is an impoundment -- two pools of slow-moving water formed by hydro dams. We had 18 people for a 10-mile paddle on the Caldron Flowage Saturday and another 18 -- not all of the same 18 -- on High Falls Flowage Sunday.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paddle starts with Portage

By David Horst

I loaded up my kayak and pointed the truck south toward the headwaters of the Fox River.

That’s the way it is with the Fox. You have to go south to get to the Upper Fox and north for the Lower Fox. Counter­intuitive but driven by gravity, which we know is the law.

The launch point was the Indian Agency House, one of several impressive historic sites in Portage. This is where government Indian agents meted out federal policy. Native Americans might see it more as the scene of the crime.

It is not the very beginning of the Fox, which is off beyond Pardeeville.

About 30 kayaks and a few canoes took part in this second of the North East Wisconsin Paddlers series for this year, this one in partnership with the Fox­Wisconsin Heritage Parkway. The first drew 79 boats for a current­-aided sprint down the Wolf River from New London to Hortonville.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Counting on a good morning

By David Horst

HORTONVILLE -- Thirty-two was the number I entered on the form under "Total number of sandhill cranes observed or heard."

It is the biggest number I've recorded in some years for the International Crane Foundation's annual Midwest Crane Count, which took place Saturday. But the most I saw on the ground at any given time was two.

My statistics were built on cranes flying in, flying out or flying over. I heard them congregating, but they chose to settle in a depression behind a few rows of last year's corn stalks, just out of my view.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Remembering Ellen Kort

This column first ran in May of 2010 in a week like this one, following the annual Midwest Crane Count. Ellen Kort died this morning. I hope she gets her wish.

Sandhill cranes lift poet to flights of fancy

How about starting your workday by getting a call from Wisconsin's first poet laureate? 

She says she enjoyed reading about the Midwest Crane Count and has something she wants me to hear. It's a poem about sandhills. It's a poem about how, when she dies, she wants to come back as a sandhill crane.

My computer is still booting up. My brain is trailing even farther behind. Then I am graced by lovely words from the trusted, calming voice of Ellen Kort.

"If there is faith at the appointed hour / if light breaks open and this time I get to choose / I will come back as a sandhill crane," she begins.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sandhill cranes are my resource, too

By David Horst

For many years, I listened to the moans of my newspaper colleagues as they went off to what they described as an endless evening covering one of the spring Conservation Congress hearings held in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties.

Sandhill cranes call in the hayfield
of Sandhill Llama Farm
Last Monday finally found me at the Outagamie County conservation hearing at Appleton North High School. I was there for the birds.

While the hearing did grind on like a tortured old winch motor, it only lasted about an hour and a half. No one shouted. No one booed. In fact, not many people even spoke. Even so, I felt like staying through the whole hearing should have earned me a cap or something.

DNR conservation warden Thomas Sturdivant dutifully read through the often minute changes in regulations for fishing in this location or trapping at that hour of the day. Then he came to proposal No. 25 on the green ballot. It was to create a hunt for sandhill cranes.

Check my email address, check the name of our farm, check my license plate and you will see I am a fan of cranes. I raised my hand and made my way to the microphone to state my case for a vote against crane hunting to a crowd I knew was not in my camp.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Keep looking up

By David Horst 

The drive to work has gotten a bit less interesting.
A sandhill crane prepares to land at Sandhill Llama Farm 

The snowy owl that had added some expectation to the trip has headed back to the arctic, but she generated a lot of interest in owls while she was here. Several more emails came in from readers with white owl stories to tell.

Robert Petri and his wife were on their way to work. As they passed a Greenville industrial park, his wife told Robert about a delivery man who talked about spotting a snowy in the area several times. The words were hardly out of her mouth when Robert pointed to the roof of an industrial building and said, "You mean like that one?"

Kathy Moderson was on her way home from the funeral for her sister-in-law -- a victim of cancer. She wasn't up to going home right away, so she and her husband went for a drive to check out the area around Outagamie County Regional Airport, where they had read snowy owls had been sighted. They saw nothing at the airport and headed down State 76. There they saw a pair of snowy owls.

"I hope and believe my dear sister-in-law had something to do with that," Kathy wrote to me.

There is something spiritual about a mysterious creature that appears only infrequently. While the snowies have left, spring brings new hope and new reasons to look up.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

More than fog hangs over crane count

By David Horst

It's a routine every April -- grab the camera, spotting scope and a notebook, dress in layers and head out before sunrise.

The International Crane Foundation's annual Sandhill Crane Count requires me to sit quietly and watch the morning come.

Saturday, April 14, I'm sitting in a lawn chair at the edge of one of last year's cornfields, waiting for cranes. The count begins at 5:30 a.m. My only company as I set up are the peeping of a killdeer and a fog-shrouded half-moon.

The usual routine is that the cranes start calling from the swamp beyond the farm field and, within an hour, start flying in one, two or three at a time.

This year is anything but routine. The count is taking place in the aftermath of a one-sided Conservation Congress vote in favor of a hunting season for sandhills.

If that were not enough, small orange flags flop in the stiff wind that often seems to accompany crane count day. They mark the corridor of a four-lane bypass highway around Hortonville that will wipe out my crane counting area and dislocate its residents.

It's 6 a.m and still no crane song. Cows down the road bellow for breakfast. Redwinged blackbirds trill their part in the morning chorus, but the lead singers have not taken the stage.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Snowy winter has lots of fans

By David Horst

Faithful reader Alice Wagner posed this question after seeing my last column, which recounted the saga of me trying to photograph a female snowy owl my wife and I were seeing regularly near the Outagamie County Regional Airport.
Photos by Jordan Feucht
“I wondered, how do you know this is one owl, the same owl, at each different place you and your wife saw it?” Alice asked.

I explained that the black bar pattern on the owl identified it as a female. The pattern, which can vary substantially among individuals, and the close proximity of the sightings left me fairly confident we were seeing the same owl, a winter visitor for the arctic driven south by a short food supply.

Then comes an email from Jordan Feucht of Appleton that demonstrated that, while we may have been seeing the same owl, it wasn’t alone.

Jordan worked security at the Oshkosh Truck building on State 96 near the airport where our owl frequently perched. Photos he shot with his smartphone show there was a male companion, nearly pure white in color.

A shot he took through a chain link fence gives the eerie impression of a snowy owl doing hard prison time.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Snowy makes elusive photo subject

By David Horst

The Outagamie County Regional Airport’s owl has been leading me on quite a chase.

It's a snowy owl, an occasional visitor from the arctic who takes a foodie vacation in Wisconsin when its favorite rodent back home, the lemming, falls into short supply.

This has been one of those years, which is odd because so was last year.


My wife spotted the snowy near the airport first. She was driving down State 96 and saw it on a utility pole.

A week or so later, I was scanning the airport perimeter with jealousy still in my heart, when I saw outstretched wings directly above my truck. The figure was white and it had the unmistakeable wide head of an owl.

Having seen it, my next challenge was to photograph it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Each lost pet leaves a scar

Truffula in 2014
By David Horst

Every pet makes a mark on your heart. The death of each leaves a scar.

On another farm, Truffula would have been livestock. At our Sandhilll Llama Farm, they are all pets.

Truffula was our matriarch. She was the top of the pecking order in a small herd that includes her son, Thidwick, and her grandson, Horton. Dr. Seuss fans will recognize a pattern.