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Bird enthusiasts flock to Chequamegon Bay festival
Local enthusiasts leading field trips to bird-watching sites

For an all-too-brief halfhour, a tropical kingbird, rarely spotted north of Texas, sat in yellow-bellied splendor near Washburn, delighting birders on a Chequemegon Bay Birding & Nature Festival field trip.

The tropical kingbird's appearance in 2016 has been the "No. 1 festival find" during the fest's 13-year run, said Nick Anich, who coordinates the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas for the state Department of Natural Resources and hosts festival field trips.

The thrill of sighting beautiful birds from a cross section of species draws more than 400 people annually to the three-day festival and inspires a year-round, lifetime passion in many residents of Chequamegon Bay communities.

Anich and cohorts Tim Oksiuta, Neil Howk and Ryan Brady are among avid local birders who keep their eyes on the skies and in tree branches. Drawing on their avian expertise and where visiting birds typically perch, the professional and amateur birders lend their skills as fest field trip guides and presenters.

Diverse habitat

The Chequamegon Bay area is a mecca for birders and the reason lies in the bay

waters, forests, grasslands, agriculture fields and the barrens. The rich variety of habitat provides a haven for more than 250 species that call the area home or deem it a cozy wayside en route to northern or southern climes.

Many people can't help but be fascinated by the assortment of bird life flying through the area at different times of the year, Anich said. With divergent habitats within a short driving distance of each other, all anyone has to do to spot an entirely different type of bird is trot down the road.

But that's not to say timing isn't everything. The festival is the prime time for birders intent on logging as many different species as possible. The organizers scheduled it to coincide with the spring migration, when birds fly to their summer homes and leaves are still buds on trees, posing no threat to obscure watchers' views.

Howk, the president of Chequamegon Audubon, will lead five trips this year, including one to Les Voigt State Fish Hatchery and another to Raspberry Island, both of which offer excellent bird-watching opportunities, he said. Although fest field trips cover a great deal of ground, they just "scratch the surface" for what the Ashland area has to offer birders, he said.

Rare sightings

On average 180 different species are spotted during the festival, and sometimes an exceptional discovery shoots a thrill through festgoers — if they're lucky.

Luck smiled on but a few birders in 2016 when a tropical kingbird landed within their sight on a field trip, and the meeting between bird-watchers and bird is now legend.

Anich was leading the trip near Washburn when birders spotted what they believed to be the feathered visitor from the far south. But some kingbirds look similar enough to each other that Brady, a DNR conservation biologist, was called in to help make a positive identification. It wasn't easy.

"We had to work it for awhile," he said.

The tropical kingbird is so named for a reason — it typically lives on the coasts of Central America and Mexico, and its breeding range barely makes it over the U.S. border into Arizona. How it wandered so far north is anyone's guess.

The birders shot some nice photos of the out-of-place flier, but they were the only festgoers to see the bird in person as it remained in view for only 30 minutes. It was the first confirmed sighting of a tropical kingbird in Wisconsin, Brady said.

Trip leaders also cited a Lewis's woodpecker in 2017 as a highlight because it was only the fifth confirmed sighting of the bird in the state. This western-states woodpecker was a more gracious guest than the tropical kingbird. It stayed in one place for the duration of the festival for birders to observe.

Its appearance was almost as perplexing as the kingbird's. Lewis's woodpeckers rarely stray from the open pine woodlands of the West.

The thrill of seeing "wayward" birds passing through makes the festival that much more exciting, Brady said, although many people are simply happy to see common yet beautifully colored local birds.

Lifetime hobby

Birding is an easy and inexpensive hobby to take up at any time of life.

Brady drew Oksiuta into the birding way of life when they joined forces to count hawks at Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in spring 1999. When Brady left the area to continue his education, Oksiuta stepped up to bat to record the spring rapture migration.

Oksiuta advised prospective birders first to gear up with binoculars and a good bird book. A spotting scope is a nice addition, while a camera comes in handy to take photos for memory albums or to get help from others to ID birds.

He also cited websites as invaluable tools. If all other measures to ID a bird fail, online birders will be glad to weigh in. He posts on eBird.com to log his sightings and share them with other birders or scientists.

Howk recommended people who are new to birding or simply the area to check out the fest and take some field trips.

"You're going out with some of the best birders in the area," he said.

Economic impact

A former visitor center director first conceived of bringing birders to witness the spring migration in Ashland, Brady said.

After being asked his opinion, Brady thought, "This could work," and helped launch the festival.

The Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce was one of the first organizations brought on board, as organizers thought it would be interested in helping start a festival that could draw tourists to the area during the shoulder season.

The fest proved popular, although the chamber has not estimated how much it contributes to the area's economy.

The event has changed little over the years, Brady said, and a large part of its success lies in the huge number of quality field trip leaders credited for their enthusiasm and knowledge of the area.

Mary McPhetridge, the chamber's executive director, said she has learned much about birding from being involved in the festival's organization.

She said people love to kayak and hike in the area, both of which can easily be combined with birding, and guides frequently take festgoers off the beaten path to see habitat and birds they might otherwise miss.

The chamber handles registration for the event. Although the fest has same-day registration, trips may be filled by the time the event rolls around on May 16. But being able to find an available trip among the 120 offered is one of the beauties of the festival, McPhetridge said.

Whether traipsing through forests or wading through marshes — or hanging around the visitor center where guides will net birds so festgoers can get up close and personal with their feathered friends — birders will spend three days flying in heaven.

If You Go

What: Chequamegon Bay Birding & Nature Festival.

Where: Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center.

When: May 16-18.

To Register: Call 715-682-2500, or visit birdandnaturefest.com to register online (single registrations only).

For More Information: birdandnaturefest.com.


Copper Falls, Big Bay state parks getting electrical improvements
Evers budget calls for higher pay for seasonal workers

Visitors to two of Wisconsin's most northerly state parks could have a better quality vacation if budget proposals by Governor Tony Evers receive approval by the state Legislature.

Evers has proposed additional spending of $2.8 million for state parks. Of that total, some $931,000 annually would go towards $1.50-per-hour raises for seasonal park workers, with another $500,000 going for increased costs and maintenance associated with additional electrified campsites that were authorized under the 2017-2019 biennial state budget.

Among the state parks authorized for additional electrified camp sites are Big Bay on Madeline Island and Copper Falls near Mellen.

Former Friends of Copper Falls chairwoman Sandy Christl said increased support for state parks is good news for the tens of thousands of Wisconsin residents — and tourists — who enjoy vacationing outdoors.

"Certainly improvements

at the parks are good news for our community," she said.

Christl said that when previous improvements such as the addition of showers were introduced at Copper Falls, campers tended to stay longer, which in turn caused a noticeable uptick in the local economy.

She state parks are vital to the region's economy and its overall health — a view reflected in the membership of the Friends of Copper Park organization, which includes members from Ashland and many other communities who help the group organize activities at the park.

"Whatever can improve the park, we support," she said.

Ben Bergey, director of the Wisconsin State Park System and a former superintendent at Copper Falls, said the pay hike for seasonal workers is intended to draw workers for jobs that aren't always filled at the state parks because parks must compete in a strong economy with all other employers.

Under the governor's proposal, the funds would come from the segregated state conservation fund. Under a demand-based pricing structure for state park activities that went into effect in 2018, funding has increased considerably in the conservation fund.

Under the new system, daily admission fees have increased at three of the state's most popular properties, Devil's Lake, Peninsula and Willow River state parks. Those extra funds have allowed the state to reinvest $2 million in improvements, including the electrification of an additional 200 campsites at different campgrounds, including Big Bay and Copper Falls.

Using funding approved in 2018, the DNR is electrifying seven campsites at Big Bay and four at Copper Falls. The work at Big Bay totals $46,200, or $6,600 for each site. At Copper Falls the project cost is $19,900 or $4,975 per site.

Bergey said the cost for the campsite improvements was in line with what the state had paid at other parks. He said the electrified campsites at Big Bay and Copper Falls would pay for themselves in less than four years through higher camping fees.

The use of demand-based pricing is also intended to assist the state parks in becoming self-supporting. For the time period of July 1, 2018 through April 30 of this year, the parks program has seen an increase of 17 percent, or more than $1 million in admissions revenue, over the previous year. While popular sites like Willow River and Devil's Lake have had large revenue surpluses, some parks where revenues are minimal or where the state doesn't charge admission will need the additional revenue that the demand-based structure will provide, Bergey said.

That hasn't been an issue for either Big Bay or Copper Falls, which Bergey said are self-supporting in most years.

"Last year they were just above breaking even," Bergey said. "Historically because of their use as destination properties in the north they both have good use, both in day and overnight use."

Bergey said the state will not shut down any state parks that can't become self-supporting, as other states have done.

"That is not at all what our model is," Bergey said. "We operate as a system. We have some properties that net in the millions of dollars. We operate as a public good, not as individual properties. Because of that we are able to support the properties that don't make money."

Utilizing the funds requested in the governor's budget proposals requires the approval of the state Legislature. Bergey said the funds aimed at maintaining the newly electrified campsites would come back to the state as enhanced revenues, while the pay hikes for limited-term employees were important to attract temporary workers.

Under the governor's proposals those wages could go up from $11.05 an hour to $12.55 per hour.

"We've noticed in several of Wisconsin's markets, that we are competing with higher-paying businesses that are seeing an upswing in employees in summer, and when we look at that, we have to be able to pay more, to compete to attract folks and to retain the good ones we want to have working for us," he said.

Bergey said the emphasis of the governor's proposals to authorize the use of more money for state parks was to reinvest in the parks.

"Our model is reinvesting user fees back into the user experience. The more we can reinvest, the fees people are paying back into their experience the next time they come, the more successful we will all be," he said.


Ashland educator named Teacher of the Year

Special education teacher Bawaajigekwe Andrea DeBungie had no clue Monday that the state schools superintendent was about to give her one of education's highest honors.

Although DeBungie works at Lake Superior Elementary School in the morning, the principal asked her to attend Ashland Middle School's morning student assembly, telling her a few special guests would be on hand to kick off Teacher Appreciation Week.

When she walked in she saw state schools Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor standing next to David O'Connor, who is the Department of Public Instruction's American Indian Studies Program director, and a representative from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.

DeBungie walked over to chat with them. The presence of education's luminaries still hadn't tipped her off that something special was about to happen.

But illumination began to dawn as Stanford Taylor revealed in her speech that a teacher of the year was present. Only Herb Kohl Foundation Fellowship teachers are eligible for the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year award, and DeBungie was one of them.

"Is she talking about me?" DeBungie asked herself. "No, she can't be. Is she talking about me?"

She was.

To DeBungie's shock and surprise, Stanford Taylor called her forward to receive the honor, which comes with a check for $3,000.

As she walked to the front of the assembly, her family, community members and the entire Bad River Tribal Council emerged from the stairwell where they had been hiding. DeBungie said her mother and daughter had known about the award for three weeks, as had a student who gave a speech about her.

"They all kept it a secret," DeBungie said. "I had no idea."

The whole child

DeBungie earned the honor after only 11 years in education, but she spent those years working in a diverse range of educational

institutions, including an Ojibwe language emersion school. During that time she came to embrace a teaching philosophy that inspires her to accept her students for who they are and teach to their mind, body, spirit and heart.

A child's heart can't be separated from his or her mind, DeBungie said.

"I accept them as they are and how they come into the classroom and foster that," she said. "There's a purpose for them in the classroom."

DeBungie sees her role as less about being the expert in charge and more about helping students learn — and maybe even teach her a few things — "so we're all learning with and from each other," she said.

Turning teacher

DeBungie, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, grew up in Bayfield the daughter of a reading specialist teacher and a prosecutor for the Red Cliff Nation who is now a judge.

She always felt an inclination toward both education and law, but in the end she decided to follow in her mother's teacher footsteps when she was 17 years old working as an aide in her softball teacher's kindergarten class.

"I thought, 'This is it. This is what I'm meant to do — work with kids,'" she said.

After graduating with a degree in education plus minors in special education and First Nations studies from UWSuperior, she returned to Bayfield. Coming full circle, she accepted a teaching job that placed her in the same kindergarten classroom where she had settled upon her career path.

Returning to Bayfield was a chance for her to give back to the community that helped raise her, she said.

Family

Five years later, DeBungie left Bayfield to work at Waadookodaading, a pre-kindergarten through seventh grade Ojibwe language emersion school near Hayward, where she also enrolled her daughter, Animikiikwe Durant, who is now 13.

But three years of commuting between their home in Washburn and Hayward started to take a toll on her daughter, DeBungie said. They decided it was time for Animikiikwe to attend Washburn Middle School.

DeBungie had always worked in a school that her daughter attended and wanted to continue the tradition. But there were no openings in Washburn, so she accepted a job three years ago in Ashland while becoming a school board member in Washburn to stay connected to her daughter's education and be involved in the community.

Tribal ties

DeBungie has always taught in schools with a high number of indigenous children, working to close the achievement gap. She is pursuing a doctorate at UW-Green Bay in an indigenous education program — the first of its kind in the state, she said — so she can explore how the education system can support the success of American Indian students.

She feels blessed to be working in Ashland, where she splits her time between the elementary and middle schools, so she can strengthen connections with her community and family of the Bad River Band.

Besides tending to her students, DeBungie helps students write grants and apply to attend the Wisconsin Indian Education Association conference, and in the past helped create Native American clubs for students and educators.

She told the DPI: "Indigenous students are some of the brightest and most brilliant, and they must be looked at through this positive lens on a systemic level, otherwise they will continually be oppressed and stunted within the educational system."

When not in school, DeBungie is a volunteer basketball coach, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College academic board and is part of a group of jingle-dress dancers.

And she'll be plenty busy over the next year touring the state to participate in events and ceremonies related to her status as 2020 Teacher of the Year.

Humbly honored

DeBungie said she was honored and humbled to win the Teacher of the Year award, emphasizing that it was a team effort and recognition should be shared among her community, colleagues, students and family.

She wouldn't have been standing in front of the student assembly holding the plaque if it hadn't been for all of the teachers she learned from over the years. And among those numbers she included her greatest teachers — her students — and her daughter, "who is my greatest teacher of all," she said.


(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)