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You're floating down a glistening river shaded by tall willows. Blue herons step slowly through shallow water in search of a meal. A salamander slips off of a rock as you glide by. Along the banks a bullfrog croaks. You beach the canoe and walk to the top of a bluff. There a small group of people are removing small songbirds from a very fine net and another group is planting prairie plants in a small area while yanking out exotic weeds. Where is this little slice of natural paradise? In the middle of Milwaukee, just blocks from houses and bustling traffic.
Riverside Park has been part of the Milwaukee County Park System for more than 100 years. Situated at the end of stately Newberry Boulevard, the park provides a green buffer between a busy commercial corridor and the Milwaukee River. In addition to providing three acres of traditional park complete with softball fields and playground, Riverside offers 12 acres of natural outdoor classroom with prairie plantings, oak groves and aquatic plants.
The park is also home to the Urban Ecology Center, a community-based environmental education center working to enhance the park as a research laboratory and as a classroom for residents and school children living in the surrounding neighborhoods. Over the course of the school year, the Center conducts programs for more than 10,000 student visitors from 12 neighborhood schools as well as classes and workshops for more than 3,000 adults and families who visit the park every year.
The property also serves as a site for science research in a friendly, accessible setting. The Center connects researchers and graduate students from local colleges and universities with younger students and local elderly citizens who have an interest in the natural sciences. Researchers get valuable field assistance and the assistants get involved in real life field research.
"It has been very rewarding to see citizen volunteers meeting and learning from university scientists," says Jim McGinity, Urban Ecology Center Research liaison. Both gain from the experience, and the scientists get much needed help collecting data.
Last spring, the Urban Ecology Center laid the framework for conducting longer-term research by marking off grids every 50 meters in the more natural portions of the park. These grids will permanently mark study plots where plants and animals can be inventoried and changes can be tracked over time.
For instance, volunteers come to the park from 4-7 in the morning to take part in a bird banding study. They learn to set up and take down mist nets, safely extract the birds, handle birds delicately, apply the bands and record data. The up-close look at birds helps them identify species they subsequently see flying through the area. Over the course of eight mornings last spring, the banders caught 85 birds of 27 different species including seven warbler species and four species of sparrows.
The continuing project helps volunteers appreciate that this urban green space less than a mile from the Lake Michigan shore is a way station for long-distance migrating songbirds and a year-round home for other species. Weekly surveys note the diversity of the birds in the park and the phenology, or timing when the birds arrive and leave the park each year. This year, staff led bird walks every Thursday morning and the early risers tallied 145 species, including four species recorded here for the first time.
"I began bird watching a few years ago, but I had never seen a wild bird so close and certainly had never held one in my hand," says Eva Rumpf, a bird banding volunteer.
"I was astounded that so many species migrate through Riverside Park, a small area in the heart of Milwaukee, and this experience has reinforced my concern for protecting their habitats."
Last fall, in another research project, 50 monarch butterflies were tagged by Center staff and volunteers. The specially designed tags were obtained from the Monarch Watch program through the University of Kansas and all information gathered was submitted to the university. One of the tagged monarchs was recovered in central Mexico this past winter. Thanks to the project, researchers documented this butterfly traveled 1,768 miles on its annual migration! The center hopes this fun research continues each fall.
Another exciting find came last spring while doing weekly surveys of snakes living in the park. Four-by-four pieces of plywood (snake cover boards) were numbered, mapped and distributed in the natural parts of the property. The boards were lifted and checked quickly to see what had slithered, dug or burrowed underneath. In May, two Butler's Garter snakes (Thammnophis butleri) were found. Although this threatened species is quite rare, they are at home in disturbed, urban areas. The discovery was even more thrilling when researchers realized one of the snakes was a pregnant female, as verified by Milwaukee Public Museum herpetologist Gary Casper. The snake survey by Kathleen Manke, an intern from Alverno College, working with neighborhood children and adults, also found the more common brown snakes (Storeria dekayi) here.
One other research project in the park takes a really long view forward, if it works. Center staff and interested neighbors developed a 100-year biotic plan to manage plant life on the property. It lays a continuing plan for prescribed burns on the prairie portion and a parcel adjoining the river to begin ridding the park of invasive exotic species before native species will be planted. A committed team of volunteers, the Burdock Brigade, will do hand-to-root combat with the alien species.
The plan focuses on maximizing diverse plant communities in the park using native species to try and replicate the pre-settlement environment as much as possible. As many as ten different plant communities may be developed including the prairie and a southern mesic forest. Volunteers will first catalog the types, conditions and locations of trees and plants currently found in the park. Invasive species will be removed and native ones replanted. "The long timeframe in our plan is giving local citizens a sense of ownership and responsibility for this urban park," says Kim Forbeck, Urban Ecology Center land steward.
It takes some doing to convince people they can find real opportunities to interact with nature in town. Many believe they have to venture to rural areas to have natural experiences. Programs at centers statewide offer participants and volunteers new-found knowledge and appreciation for what's in their own back yards.
If you can make the mental jump beyond the mown grass on the edge of a busy intersection, even small green spaces have natural stories to tell in the hands of curious learners and enthusiastic teachers. Creatures and plants make their homes there, and even rare or threatened species may feel quite comfortable in urban settings if conditions are right.
Urban green spaces also make an excellent outdoor classroom for students of all ages and backgrounds. Once you get away from the mindset and expense of busing students to more pristine areas for field trips, you may inspire people to more regularly take a close look at the environment. Where nature is accessible, people visit more often and can appreciate changes as they follow natural cycles. The mission of places like the Urban Ecology Center is to connect learners of all ages to the natural aspects of their neighborhood. The hope is that with repeated exposure, these people will better connect to the natural world and will be better stewards of it.
These open spaces surrounded by teeming neighborhoods present some interesting challenges as well. Given that the most densely populated space in Wisconsin lies within a mile of Riverside Park, these 15 acres could be in danger of being loved to death. Public parks are viewed as fair game, and mountain bikes, dogs and hikers all have their own needs. A key is getting some neighborhood consensus about the range of activities one parcel can handle.
Though most people view parks as places to get exercise, one program at the Urban Ecology Center is designed to provide more of a mental workout than a physical one. The Citizen Science forums provide an outlet for city residents who want to study science more seriously. Students and adults are encouraged to develop research projects examining plant, animal, habitat and human conditions in the Riverside Park area. Research results are shared through monthly presentations at the center and throughout Milwaukee. Citizen Science lectures have examined nature-based wastewater treatment, identified wildlife corridors in the neighborhood, and have discussed life histories of animals living in the park. Updates on current research projects are also presented. On December 10 at 7 p.m. researchers will share results of the spring snake survey.
To discover more about family outings, lectures and opportunities at the Urban Ecology Center, contact us at (414)-964-8505 or visit Urban Ecology Center. But by all means, follow our advice and discover opportunities to explore nature in town near your back yard. Check out similar opportunities for nature study, skills classes, research and fun at the centers nearest your home listed here.
Theresa J. Lins is on the publicity committee of the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park in Milwaukee.