Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Book Review: When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin

Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin from 1976 to 1981, while he was working on his Ph.D. and I was teaching. I spent one or two days every weekend birding, went birding every spring morning before school started, and spent a lot of my summer mornings birding—it was simply what I did. I was part of a small birding circle, and when I wasn’t helping with Madison Audubon field trips with one or two of my friends, one day each weekend I’d be off on a more focused birding jaunt with my more competitive birding buddies. Being both an introvert and timid about driving, I never set the agenda or invited others, leaving that to the people who were driving.

One of my favorite birding friends, Randy Hoffman, was a lot like me—introverted and rather shy. Randy was at least a few steps ahead of me in his birding skills, but like me didn’t like birding as a competition—he simply liked getting out there and seeing birds. Unlike me, Randy was also a superb general naturalist, far more knowledgeable about plant communities and big picture stuff, and extremely generous with his knowledge, so the few occasions that I did get to go out with him were wonderful and memorable. In May 1978, when he found out I still had never seen a Barred Owl, to took me where he knew we’d find one. And when he pointed it out and I still didn’t see it at first, he wasn’t the least bit arrogant or superior about it. I learned a lot about sharing my good birds and how to treat other birders as equals from Randy Hoffman.

Barred Owl

Randy wrote a fantastic book back in 2002, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, titled Wisconsin’s Natural Communities: How to Recognize Them, Where to Find Them, which somehow I didn’t learn about until just last month. It’s heavy on text which is fine with me—Randy is a very fine and vividly clear writer, and the maps and occasional illustrations are very helpful. He describes the natural communities of the state and gives excellent examples of places we can go to enjoy each one. Randy writes in the introduction that the book is written for:
amateur naturalists, hunters, bird watchers, hikers, campers, anglers, and others who appreciate the natural world and want a deeper understanding of what makes a healthy natural community. It is also intended for landowners or land managers who want to manage their land in the best way possible for the health of the natural community. The book is designed to help you understand the workings of these natural communities and to provide a foundation for recognizing the interconnections between different species in a community and between species and their habitats.
Last month, Randy came out with another great book, When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin. This one is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or as a kindle-ebook. Like every self-published book and, nowadays, too many by major publishing houses that have cut back on copyediting, it could stand a bit of editing, but Randy is a clear enough writer that the book is still excellent—what I consider, like his Wisconsin Natural Communities, to be an important book for birders of Wisconsin and surrounding states.

When Things Happen breaks the year into 36 periods, three per month. It’s not really a phenology, because Randy doesn’t focus on first and last occurrences of anything, and has few illustrations. Instead, he offers in rich detail and depth is what is happening throughout the state in each time period. He starts each section with the day length in Racine in the southeastern corner of the state and Superior in the northwest, and often mentions meteor showers and other regularly appearing sky-watching phenomena. Depending on the season, he may talk about the sap running in trees and its value for humans and wildlife, give the peak blooming times for various plants, explain when does are most likely to drop their fawns, or tell us what to look for when trying to identify lichens. Where illustrations or sound recordings would be important, he gives excellent resource recommendations.

The meat of each section is an essay about some natural phenomena happening right about then, or simply something to think about—the essay for December 11-20 is about generosity and giving, focusing on ways we can give back to nature via conservation. These essays conjure the magical times I spent birding with Randy back in the 70s, with him sharing his knowledge in such an inviting way. In forthcoming blog posts over the coming year, I will highlight some of what he shares. Meanwhile, When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin by Randy Hoffman is a splendid book to be savored, month by month.