Just a few hundred feet from her home on Madison's north side, Trish O'Kane points out a "hidden treasure" - a pair of cocoons beneath some leaves at the base of a tree. These are from moths she'd seen mating, this past June. She read up on the subject and was even more amazed.
"The female leaves a chemical trail on trees, and the male flies as far as eight miles to find her," O'Kane enthuses. "How cool is that?"
O'Kane, a journalist and educator, is a fount of such knowledge as she makes her way through her extended front yard, otherwise known as Warner Park. Much of it concerns birds, her particular obsession.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she says of a tiny nest clinging to the limb of a tremendous burr oak. In August, she spent many hours watching its tenants, the Eastern wood-pewee. "It's called a pewee because it makes that sound: 'Pee-wee!' It's a hilarious bird."
O'Kane began birding in early 2006, when she returned to New Orleans to teach, a few months after her home there was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. "There was death everywhere. I had to focus on something alive."
It changed her life: She's now a graduate student at the UW-Madison's Gaylord Nelson Institute, and spends every minute she can watching birds at Warner. To date, she's identified 87 species, including an osprey, a bittern and a bald eagle. She's also seeking community and grant support to reimagine the park as a "180-acre living, breathing classroom," for the education of children.
O'Kane wants to teach a birding class to neighborhood children next spring. And she's drafted a proposal for a broader education initiative, in which north-side kids would produce a "Field Guide to Wild Warner." Local experts on birds, trees and water could provide lessons.
"This will be our classroom - our outdoor classroom," says O'Kane as she sits on a hill overlooking the park, effortlessly identifying stray background chirps. "That's a blue jay." "That's a dark-eyed junco."
Kids in the apartment complexes that ring the park could identify bird species, help locate nests, even conduct a biodiversity study. O'Kane says their keen eyesight and hearing make them "natural birders."
Beyond that, there could be kiosks calling attention to the park's wildlife, perhaps even a nature center. Says O'Kane, "The possibilities are limitless."
Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it's drawing a flock of support.
"I'm really excited about it," says Bill Barker, president of Madison's Park Commission. "We're always looking for ways to connect people to parks."
Last month, O'Kane and several members of the local Audubon Society turned out to oppose some ideas for Warner that made their way into a neighborhood plan. Like renting paddle boats at the park's lagoon, which Barker notes is "not a great idea if shy water birds are nesting." The Park Commission axed this idea.
But the group also suggested using Warner to educate neighborhood kids about nature. Barker, a geologist by training and associate dean at the UW-Madison, is intrigued: "I see a seed here, and I'm doing my best to put some dirt on it and keep it watered."
Barker, his sprinklers activated, brought in Kevin Niemi, the UW's science instruction outreach program manager. The university already helps run after-school science clubs, using UW students, in about three dozen Madison schools. Warner Park could be visited by north-side school programs, perhaps tapping students at Shabazz City High School, which stresses student community service.
"We would love to work with them on that," says Niemi. "We've brainstormed some interesting scenarios."
Back at Warner Park, O'Kane points out a trio of crows passing overhead.
"Crows are sort of like a gang - they're bullies," she says. "They do something called mobbing" - dive-bombing unwelcome guests who might prey on their young. They can lead birders to owls and hawks. "The next time you see a flock of angry crows, watch what they're doing, because somebody is getting hell."
And what kid wouldn't be interested in that?
School gift keeps on giving
Martha Vukelich-Austin admits that when most people think of a high school classroom, they don't think of trout. "In the core school curriculum, it's probably not right up there with literacy and math."
Yet Trout in the Classroom at East High was among the programs green-lighted last week by the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools. Vukelich-Austin, the group's president, calls it "hands-on science as well as community service."
Students will work with Trout Unlimited and the state Department of Natural Resources to raise trout for eventual release. The $2,100 grant is for equipment.
In all, the foundation awarded $44,701 to 37 Madison schools. The money comes from the Individual School Endowment Initiative, established in 2003 with $5,000-per-school challenge grants from John and Leslie Taylor of Madison. The schools now each have a permanent endowment fund of $10,000 or more that provides annual distributions for projects and extras. The program is said to be the first of its kind in the nation.
Other allocations: $200 to produce "Dig It!," a mini-musical on archeology, at Hawthorne Elementary; $302 to buy students pedometers for a Walk and Talk program at Kennedy Elementary; $1,139 to buy two round gathering tables for outdoor science classes at Sennett Middle School; and $376 for yoga mats for "behaviorally challenged" ninth-graders at Memorial High. For a complete list, see fmps.org/isei-grants.html.
The wild, wild isthmus
Journalist Jay Rath, a keen observer of Madison's downtown, has a question about the restored log cabin at North Hamilton and East Dayton, behind the new Children's Museum: "Under what zoning does that fall? Residential? Light industrial? Historic? Log?"
Matt Tucker, Madison's zoning administrator, says the museum grounds are zoned C4 commercial, and the 1840s cabin was approved as a conditional use "based on it being a display." The Urban Design Commission also signed off on the deal.
So can an ordinary homeowner erect one of these things in his or her yard?
"You can, yeah," answers Tucker. A homeowner could build a log cabin shed or garage, so long as the requisite permits were obtained and building codes followed. The city's main concern: "We like to make sure they're safe."
Laughs Rath, "I'm going to get out my Cub Scout hatchet and erect my own home - oops, I mean 'display.'"
Newspapers reopen their profit spigots
The Capital Times Co., half owner of Capital Newspapers, last week made a $5 quarterly distribution to stockholders, or $600,000 on its 120,000 shares. That's much less than usual (the company's four quarterly dividends topped $60 in 2007) but better than the summer quarter's payout: nothing.
Meanwhile, Cap News' other half-owner, Lee Enterprises (see "Taking Stock of Lee's Up and Downs," 11/05/09), just reported a third-quarter profit of $1.7 million, a sizable improvement from the same period last year, when it lost $192 million. (Overall revenues are down, $244.8 million to $195.8 million, between the two quarters.) And the company's stock price continues to rise, on Tuesday hitting a 52-week high of $4.25 per share, up from a low of 24 cents.
Next thing you know, the employees who suffered to produce this turnaround will be rewarded. Any day now....