It's a sad Christmas for so many this year. We've got our own sadness happening here, but we will press on and share our love with those around us. We'll do the best we can.
So many people are missing loved ones this year. Whether staying safely apart due to Covid, missing loved ones that have passed on, or simply being too far away to be together.
Though you may be feeling melancholy, please know you are not alone. Reach out to someone in any way you can. Phone, text, email, video chat.
Get outside. Go for a walk. We've got lots of places listed here on our website. Find one that intrigues you and just go. Breathe some fresh air. I was feeling blue today, and just twenty minutes at a park calmed my spirits and helped me to breathe.
And if you're thinking of someone special, let them know. I recently recorded a music video using photos from Spruce Lake Bog. The song is called EVERGREEN, and it reflects on spending Christmas apart from loved ones. Feel free to share it.
Merry Christmas, from Me.
One of the simplest joys of the holidays is also one of the most festive - holiday lights. Though many celebrations this year are overshadowed by Covid-19, at least there are plenty of holiday light displays to bring us out of the dark.
No matter where you live, chances are there is a local, county or city park near by that offers a holiday light display. Some are drive-thru only, some socially distanced walking tours. And, if all else fails, just take an evening walk through your neighborhood, or a drive through your local area, and enjoy the displays of family, friends and neighbors.
Following are some highlights from a few of the holiday light displays I've visited in recent years, along with a listing of some others throughout Wisconsin as well. Be sure to check your local news sources for holiday displays in your area. Put some Christmas music on the car radio and enjoy!
Winter Wonders - Whitnall Park/Boerner Botanical Gardens
This holiday display is back for a second year, with new displays, concert lighting, and a whopping one million lights. Features new dramatic lighting techniques and displays set throughout the forests and fields of Boerner Arboretum and Whitnall Park.
There's even a Mini Drive-In Theater (first come, first serve).
Recommended to purchase tickets online. Peak wait times on Fridays, Saturdays, and holiday weeks. For lower wait times, visit Sunday-Thursday evenings after 7:30pm.
Open 5-pm to 10-pm every night through January 3, including holidays. This is a drive-thru only display. Admission is $25 per carload.
Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival
Downtown Milwaukee at: Cathedral Square Park, Pere Marquette Park, and Zeidler Union Square
This perennial holiday light display in downtown Milwaukee is a perfect way to lift your holiday spirits. Walk or drive-thru to experience the festive displays of over 500,000 lights as animated sculptures, interactive displays, and twinkling street decorations boost your holiday mood.
Admission is free. The displays run through January 1.
Candy Cane Lane - West Allis
This annual event of neighborhood light displays takes donations for the MACC Fund, and has set a goal this year of $100,000 for the fight against childhood cancer.
These festive displays, all created by neighborhood residents, will cheer you and yours. The neighborhood parameters are: 96th Street to 92nd Street, from Montana Avenue to Oklahoma Avenue. Drive-thru this holiday season, the event runs through December 27. See their website for specific hours.
Enchantment in the Park - West Bend
This holiday light treat in Regner Park, in West Bend, has been an annual event since 2009. The displays offer both a walk-thru and drive-thru experience. Your choice.
Sponsored by the local Washington County area Rotary Clubs, this festive display is a fundraiser for local food banks. Admission is a suggested $10 donation, or non-perishable food items (no glass containers, please). The festival runs through December 24, and is open from 5-pm to 9-pm daily. See the event calendar for special features and events.
Holiday Light Show - Rotary Botanical Gardens, Janesville
This brilliant holiday event is held on the grounds of the Janesville Rotary Gardens. Themed light displays, animations, and twinkling walkways will lift your holiday spirits with over one-million holiday lights.
We attended this event a few years back, and it was well worth the drive to Janesville. However, it's a very well attended event. Be sure to check their schedule for details on purchasing tickets in advance to secure a time spot for your visit. Tickets prices: Free for 2 and under. $5 for children 3-12, $10 for those 13 and up.
Dates: Dec. 10-13, Dec. 17-23, Dec. 26-30. Evenings: 4:30-pm to 9-pm.
Reservations/Tickets required purchase in advance.
20 More Holiday Light Events Across the State
Making Spirits Bright - Sheboygan
Beaver Dam Rotary Lights - Swan City Park
Illuminate Ozaukee - Cedarburg
Wonderland of Lights - Racine Zoo
Garden of Lights - Green Bay
Miller Holiday Lites Drive-thru Light Show - Miller Valley, Milwaukee
Holiday Fantasy in Lights - Madison
Country Christmas - Pewaukee
Wisconsin Christmas Carnival of Lights - Jellystone Park, Caledonia
Kids2Kids Christmas Wonderland - Grafton
East Troy Lights - East Troy
Lake Ripley Holiday Lights - Cambridge
Lights in Lincoln Park - Manitowoc
Light the Square - Oak Creek
Celebration of Lights - Oshkosh
La Crosse Rotary Lights - La Crosse
Marshfield Rotary Winter Wonderland - Marshfield
Sam's Christmas Village & Light Tour - Somerset
Christmas Village at Irvine Park - Chippewa Falls
Lakeside Park Holiday Light Show - Fond du Lac
Uncertainty. The past year has been fraught with it. I think it's safe to say that every one of us has struggled in 2020. Covid-19 brought with it so much loss, pain, anxiety, sadness, and even conflict.
For me this was to be a year of deliberate change. My job of 15 years was ending and I was looking forward to taking THEPARKNEXTDOOR down new avenues. Perhaps leading hikes, nature photo workshops, and more. This website and its content are a labor of love for me. I've been building and maintaining it for over 6 years now. I was ready to turn it into something more. Though the pandemic put some of those plans on hold, I have tried to focus even more on the hiking local aspect of the site. And I haven't run out of new green spaces yet.
The value of even a tiny bit of nature has become even greater. A quiet space to breathe, a bench to sit on, a short walking trail, a Robin in a birdbath, a garden path. Just a window view on a rainy day can be a respite of sorts. We are intertwined with this earth.
On a personal level, we've encountered some difficult days this past year. I've had some ongoing health issues, my husband has, too, and our immediate family have had some very close calls. Dropping off a loved one at an emergency room and having to wait in the car is an experience I don't wish on anyone. Not being able to visit a sick and very vulnerable loved one in the hospital has been heartbreaking.
I credit the moments spent in nature as keeping me sane during these times. No matter how brief the stay, I always return home feeling a little better, a little calmer, a little more hopeful. More able to cope.
This year has not been one of long hikes for me. But every moment spent in nature has been priceless.
I'm grateful, too, for readers like you. For nature lovers near and far. For those that find peace in the garden or the wood. For those that love the smell after a rain, or the sound of footsteps in the snow. For those who delight in birdsong and the falling leaves. For those who love a good walking trail, or a run along the river. Don't lose hope, Friends. Remember, we all live beneath the same big beautiful sky.
Tonight I stepped outside to record a song I've been working on. The crickets have finally arrived, and I thought they would be a nice accompaniment. After a hot summer day, I discovered that the temps had cooled, there was a nice breeze, the crickets were fully orchestrated, and the sky was laden with stars. Even from our backyard here in the city, the stars above were twinkling brightly. And so many of them, too!
After I finished my task, I went inside to invite my husband to join me for a glass of wine, and to witness the shining constellations. I brought out a pair of binoculars, too. Most often used for bird-watching, but they have proven very useful for stargazing, too.
Though there are city streetlights on both sides of our block, we could still see the clusters of stars twinkling above. In my experience, you need to head away from the city, to dark skies, to witness that many stars. But not lately.
Back in mid-July, the world was abuzz about the comet Neowise passing through Earth's orbit, en-route back to the outer parts of the solar system. We decided to try and spot and photograph it ourselves, and, surprisingly, we were able to do so. We definitely needed the binoculars to spot it, but spot it we did. It was so exciting! I decided to collect my camera gear the next night and try to photograph it.
I did some research to determine what might be the best settings, and what lens to use, and set up my tripod in the backyard and waited. Eventually, like the night before, it showed up. Once I had tracked it with the binoculars I adjusted my camera view and started shooting. Though the photos are not stunning, like so many I saw on Instagram, I was able to capture it. I'm considering it a success.
Just last week the Perseid Meteor Showers were peaking. Though they often pass through the galaxy at a rate of up to 100 per hour, I was only able to spot two from our backyard. Even so, it was a thrill!
It's a wonder to experience comets and meteor showers, so far from the galaxies they inhabit. But, it's also amazing to look up at the skies on a simple summer evening and witness the wilderness of stars above. When so much chaos is going on in the world these days, looking up can impress upon us a bit of wonder and beauty. It can instill a bit of peace and awe.
Even if Covid-19 prevents us from being with the ones we love the way we'd like to, we can take a bit of solace in the fact that, no matter where they are, we are all together beneath the twinkle of the night sky.
When I decided to build theparknextdoor website it was in an effort to share the bits of nature I found here in Southeastern Wisconsin with Everyone. I wanted all walks of life to find peace and beauty in nature, just as I do. There is so much of it here, after all.
With all of this recent unrest, my eyes have been opened to the sad fact that people of color are often made to feel unwelcome, or even deemed suspicious when out observing nature. It's unfair and unwarranted. Nature should be bringing different cultures and races together, not separating us further.
Recently a group of Black Birders, Scientists, and Environmentalists joined together to create #blackbirdersweek. An event shared on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. As a birder, I was excited to follow along and meet some of these amazing birders, scientists, and environmentalists. Their enthusiasm and experiences are both heartening and heartbreaking. It was a fantastic and enlightening event to be privy to.
If you follow theparknextdoor on Instragram you may have noticed that I have been sharing many of their posts and stories to my story feed. I've been following some of them for a while on Instagram, but never realized the adversity they met when simply trying to spend a day on a trail or in a park birding. Spending time in nature should bring peace and awe, not fear or discomfort.
I intend to keep sharing these amazing naturalists along with my regular Instagram story feed. If you are on Instagram I invite you to follow along, and follow them as well. Together we can dispel this notion that nature is for a specific type of person or race, certain fitness level, age, sexuality, or ability.
Nature is for All of us. Black Lives must be included in the All.
Personally, I love dandelions. They are one of the first bright blooms of spring, and to me, they bring cheer to the winter-worn landscape.
I'm aware that to many lawn enthusiasts, they are a horrible weed. But I ask that you reconsider. Or at least, find a little room in your space for them.
Not only do pollinators enjoy them as a first bloom of the season, rabbits eat the stems, and, when the blooms are fading, lots of birds eat the seeds as well.
In fact, recently, as I stared out the window on our rain-laden backyard, I spotted several birds munching away at the dandelion seed heads. House Finches, Gold Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, and Indigo Buntings, too!
I recall last season seeing the House Finches enjoying the seed heads, but seeing the Indigo Buntings and White-crowned Sparrows enjoying the seeds today was a first.
Turns out, even if you don't plant a garden, if you leave the dandelions rise, you will feed the wildlife easily.
If you don't want dandelions on the front lawn, or maybe the neighbors scoff, consider at least avoiding the use of harmful pesticides and just mowing them down. Free lawn mulch.
Leave some in the backyard, or start a small brush pile of fallen sticks, branches and twigs, and leave the dandelions surrounding the brush pile. Not only will the dandelions be eaten, but the brush pile will provide shelter for the wild birds. Makes for a great photo-op, too.
I stare out the window a lot these days. Particularly on gray, rainy days of late. The warmth of the sun seems scarce this spring. The days when it shows up are glorious, but, seriously, we need more of them.
Even so, I'm thankful for my room with a view. Our bedroom windows look out on our city backyard, and we are lucky to have habitat that is visited by birds and critters alike. This is our second spring in this house, and I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring migrants. Last week saw the arrival of Chipping Sparrows, and a small flock of White-throated Sparrows. We even had a Wild Turkey visit! The White-throated Sparrows are still here, flitting through the habitat, and singing in the rain. This is the beginning...
Last year our biggest migrant day was May 10. I watched in amazement, through the window, as migrant after migrant, and many feathered residents, arrived. I counted a total of about 20 different species, in multiples, throughout the day, and in the few days after as well. Birds I had seen in the wild before, but not in our city backyard.
There were Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Clay-colored Sparrows, Song Sparrows, a Gray Catbird, Baltimore Orioles, Downey Woodpeckers, Hermit Thrushes, a Common Yellow-throated Warbler, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, along with some of the usual summer residents: American Robins, Common Grackles, Starlings, Cardinals, House Sparrows, Gold Finches, House Finches, and Mourning Doves. Crows, too. I was so overwhelmed, I actually cried. It was incredible.
We've added many native plants to the garden since then, several native bushes, a brush pile, and a leaf compost bin. And a couple more birdbaths. I'm hoping these added elements will entice more migrants to visit our avian Airbnb. At the least, I'm hoping visitors from last spring will visit. And bring friends.
The prospect of Spring Migration has been a major balm for me in these Covid-19 times. I try to get out a couple times a week for a walk in local parks and nature trails, but being able to enjoy the comings and goings of wildlife in our backyard habitat has been a welcome distraction as much as a passion.
I'm looking forward to working on the habitat in the coming months, too. We started some plants from seed, a first for us. We shall see how that turns out. I'm sure we will do some curbside pickup from local garden centers as well. Evenings in the backyard surrounded by flowers and birdsong will be a welcome retreat from the stress of current times.
I'm aware that bird watching is not everyone's cup of tea, but in times like these, the melody of bird song, and the beauty of nature might help to fill your cup. No matter where you live, there's bound to be some wildlife in view. Just look out the window.
Bird Watching in Your Neighborhood Park and in Your Own Backyard
I'm a bird nerd. Not, by any means, an expert, but I love birds. I find them beautiful, awe-inspiring, incredible creatures. I love bird watching, and I hike often in an effort to do so. However, it's not necessary to go out into the wilderness to witness birds in their habitat.
Spring is a great time to bird watch in Wisconsin. There are many bird species (about 250) that make Wisconsin their year-round home, but during spring and fall migration, upwards of 400 birds have been recorded throughout the state. Many of these birds pass right over our homes while we sleep at night, en route to their summer nesting destinations. In fact, if you sit outside, late, on a quiet evening, you can actually hear the call of migrating birds overhead. They'll be too high up to see them with the naked eye, but you can hear them. There are even bird migration forecast maps that can tell you when birds are migrating, where they will be heading, and what types of birds are migrating. Check out: birdcast.info
Of course, Wisconsin State Parks and trails are a great place to spot these birds, but don't count out your local neighborhood parks or your own backyard. During migration, birds fly thousands of miles from places like South America, to the United States and Canada, where they will breed, nest, and raise their young over the spring and summer. En route to these destinations, you can find them feeding and resting in green spaces all across the state of Wisconsin. If there's a park or yard with trees, bushes, a bird bath, and a pond or wetland of some sort, they will find it. Bird feeders can help, too.
Just recently I took a walk around the pond at my neighborhood park, McCarty Park, in West Allis, and was gifted with sightings of a Golden Crowned Kinglet, an Eastern Phoebe, and a Hermit Thrush.
I also saw many of our more common resident birds such as American Robins, Goldfinches, Cardinals, House Sparrows, Mallard Ducks, and Canadian Geese.
Inviting the Birds to Your Own Backyard
Chances are, no matter where you live, you see birds. But if you want to attract more of them to your yard, you can do some simple things to make your yard more hospitable. Got trees or shrubs already? Great! Add a simple bird bath. Resident birds will enjoy the water source, as will the migrating birds passing through. You can create a simple bird bath using a medium sized flower pot, putting the bottom flower pot tray in the top of the pot. Fill it with water, and maybe a big rock for birds to land on, and you have a welcoming spot for thirsty birds. A simple bird bath like this can fit nicely on a small patio or balcony, too.
Birds need shelter. Trees and bushes are great. But another simple way to provide shelter for birds is to make a brush pile using fallen branches and sticks. The birds will appreciate being able to find shelter under the sticks, sitting on top of the brush in the sun, and scrounging for bugs to eat beneath the brush as well.
You can place your brush pile off to a corner of the yard, or next to a fence or garden border. We have ours next to a leaf compost bin, in a spot where we can easily see it from the window so we can watch the birds come and go. Brush piles will provide shelter for birds in all seasons. They are great places to hide out from predators, a winter storm, or a heavy rain. Keep an eye on your brush pile. You'll be amazed at the wildlife visiting.
Feed the birds with native plants, shrubs and trees. We have a variety of native plants in our garden. One of the most popular, and easily maintained native plants is Coneflower. This plant returns year after year, and its pollen feeds butterflies and bees, and its seeds, later in the season, will feed many birds. Leave them in the garden over the winter as well, and birds will find them a great source of food during a time of year when natural food is more scarce. For other native plants ideas, visit the National Wildlife Federation website Native Plantfinder.
You can supplement the natural foods available in your yard and garden with bird feeders.
In addition to native plants, we also put out feeders with sunflower
seeds. A wide variety of birds will eat sunflower seeds. You can also plant some of the sunflower seeds in pots, or in the garden. Their blooms will provide pollen for bees and butterflies, and the seeds, again, will feed the birds in the fall through winter.
Bird watching is such a rewarding activity. It helps me to appreciate, and care about, the wildlife that surrounds me. Birds are fascinating, beautiful creatures. I love that I can watch them, and hear their song, whether in my city backyard, neighborhood park, or in wider, wilder environments. I'm humbled, and calmed, by their presence. Hopeful, too.
For more information on backyard birding, visit the Audubon website.
For information on preserving birds and other wildlife, visit the National Wildlife Federation website.
It's been a strange year, already. To say the least. All those new year's hopes and dreams suspended or ravaged by Covid-19. I started the new year by finding out the shop I worked at for 15 years was closing. We spent January and February selling out the merchandise, and clearing the shop. It was hectic and sad, to say the least. When it was over I figured I would take a little time to determine how next to proceed. My hope was to build on THE PARK NEXT DOOR, and add content related to gardening for wildlife.
Like most Wisconsinites, I was tired of winter and looking forward to spring. So I reached out to one of my favorite local garden centers, Poplar Creek Gardens, to see about visiting their green house for a sneak peek. Kae and Robb invited me to spend an afternoon working in the greenhouse planting, and photographing the process. Hands in the dirt, putting tiny little flower plugs in pots. The smell of dirt, divine. Mind you, this is just a snippet of the work being done to have plants ready for everyone's gardens this season.
Poplar Creek has added two large greenhouses to their center this year. Filled with hanging baskets, flats, shrubs, annuals, and perennials. One of the things I love about Poplar Creek is that they use locally grown suppliers, and their plants are not treated with neonicotinoids, an insecticide which has been shown to be harmful to bees. Kae and Robb are extremely knowledgeable about the plants they grow and sell, and host workshops for gardeners as well. Their hanging baskets are spectacular, by the way.
Given the Covid-19 safety precautions, Poplar Creek will be offering curbside pickup and (limited) delivery options beginning this month. Visit their website, or their Facebook page for further details. If we're going to be staying home, we can at least take advantage of this time to get a head start on our gardens and containers, and enjoy the season to come.
Last summer was the first in our house, and we added several pollinator-friendly plants to our garden. I purchased many of these at Poplar Creek, and I look forward to seeing them spring up in the garden this year.
Escape. That's what I'd like to do. Leave all this frightening virus stuff behind. Luckily, escape from stress and worry, for me, usually involves spending time in nature. It's a balm that rarely fails to help. It brings fresh air, some exercise, and a place to clear my head, to enjoy nature's surroundings, listen to the birds calling, wild beauty and peace.
During these strange days of Covid-19, as we stay home, and social distance, in an effort to stem the tide of this malicious disease, we must find ways to stay healthy, stay positive, refreshed. For me, that means getting outside. We can social distance in the outdoors. There is an abundance of green space in South Eastern Wisconsin. Plenty for everyone. Keeping in mind that most indoor facilities are closed, we can still get out on the trails, no matter long or short, for a hike.
The Park Next Door has location listings from Milwaukee, and the surrounding 90-mile radius. From Milwaukee County Parks, to Nature Conservancy sites, State Parks, and regional parks from Milwaukee to Madison, to Horicon, to Sheboygan, to Kenosha, to West Bend, and more.
Following is a quick visual list of some of my family friendly favorites. Click on the images for further information, and be sure to stay informed of any changes in park access status. And if all else fails, take in some sunshine in your garden, on your patio, your balcony, or the front steps. Stay safe, everyone.
A traveler, singer, novice photographer, humane gardener, and nature lover.