Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Conservation Biologist Ryan Brady of Washburn is a dedicated birder who has over 300 species on his life list.
The pastime reflects his passion for birds. When he's not working out of the Ashland DNR office for the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, he is often out and about with his binoculars and spotting scope, checking likely spots for interesting species.
That's what he was doing over the Memorial Day holiday, checking out the Bayfield Peninsula with fellow birders Tim Oksuita of Moquah and Betsy Bartelt of Bayfield and Appleton. The three were peering over the shores and waters at a beach near Herbster in northern Bayfield County when Bartelt saw it first; a single bird, paddling a bit over a quarter of a mile out in the nearly calm waters of Lake Superior. Brady and Oksuita immediately focused their lenses on the bird. It was clearly a loon, but it didn't look like the usual common loon found in Wisconsin.
When Brady first got a good look at it, he became excited.
"I said 'Wow, there is a Pacific loon in full breeding colors,' I wasn't even thinking of an Arctic loon; they are super rare," he said.
Although the sighting of a Pacific Loon would have been a very good birding coup indeed, the more Brady looked at it, the more uncertain he became.
"I looked at Betsy, and she said something like, 'What, you're not so sure of yourself?'" he said.
What caught Brady's attention were the bird's patches of white on its flanks, clearly visible when it dove under water to forage for food. Those patches are a key for identification of an Arctic loon.
"But it can't be one of those," he told his companions.
In fact an Arctic loon has never before been confirmed in Wisconsin. If the sighting could be verified, it would be historic — a life list addition beyond any of their dreams.
Arctic Loons are most common in the Atlantic portions of northern Europe, from Portugal to Finland and from Scotland to the Black Sea in Turkey. A smaller population is found in Alaska and Siberia, with a few sightings down the Pacific coast as far as California. There have been a couple of sightings of birds in Colorado, Ohio and in upstate New York, but never anywhere near Wisconsin.
But the more the trio looked looked, the more they thought it had to be an Arctic loon.
"We were pretty sure that's what it was," Oksuita said — though Brady was more conservative.
"I'd never seen one of those birds, or had any experience with them, so I was wasn't super comfortable declaring such a huge find without more evidence," he said.
The debate went on for over an hour as the three examined the bird through their optics.
"What I really wanted was someone who had seen an Arctic loon before," Brady said.
He got out his cell phone and began calling friends in the regional birding community to let them know about their sighting. Then the phone calls paid off.
"It happened that there was this guy Ian Davies in Duluth, and he's not even a resident of Duluth; he just happened to be there," Brady said.
Davies, of New York, is a world-traveling birder, director of the eBird Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and someone who has seen Arctic loons in Alaska, Finland and Norway.
When Davies heard of the sighting, he immediately drove to Herbster to see for himself.
"When he came in he said 'Oh yeah, that's an Arctic loon,'" Brady said.
"That was pretty much the highlight of my birding career," Oksuita said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime sighting, I'm pretty sure."
Fellow birdwatcher David Bratley of Washburn agreed. He said he has been birdwatching most of his life, often with Brady, and never expected to see an Arctic loon.
"To see that here, an Arctic bird, is just unbelievable," he said.
Bratley missed the original sighting because he was out of town, and the following day was disappointed not to see the bird. But the day after, Brady called him saying the loon was back at the original spot.
"That in itself was unbelievable, and I was out there in a heartbeat. I saw it, and it was fantastic," Bratley said.
The confirmation by Davies took the pressure off of Brady, who feared that birders would descend on the spot to share in the unique sighting, only to have it turn out not to be an Arctic loon.
"When Ian came, that clinched it for me," he said. "He had the sort of experience you can't get from a field guide."
Once the word went out there was a confirmed sighting of an Arctic loon, birders from surrounding states and even as far away as New York came to see it, Brady said.
Exactly what the presence of a single Arctic loon on the south shore of Lake Superior means is a mystery, Brady said. He said it could be something as simple as a bird going astray in a storm. But he warned against asserting it is a sign of anything greater such as global warming.
"You can't get that from one bird. When one bird shows up out of whack, it could be anything," he said. "If we start getting piles of Arctic loons coming over the years, maybe there is something going on. But until that happens, it's just conjecture. I think we've got one bird that is very lost."
Whatever the reason for its visit, the loon hung around for several days, allowing birders an opportunity to share in the unique event
Brady said he suspects he'll never see one again – at least in these parts.
"This will probably be the rarest bird I will find in my life," he said. "I've been watching birds around here for a long time; this one takes the cake."
The year 2020 was a milestone for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – its 50th anniversary. The symposiums and celebrations planned to mark the anniversary were put on hold by the pandemic, delayed until this year.
Two celebratory projects that marry art and science are just now on display for the public – an ABC book celebrating the Apostle Islands and "Island Intersections," an exhibit using scientific research as an inspirational springboard for visual art and poetry.
Both "Island Intersections" and the artwork and poetry for "A is for Apostle Islands" are on exhibit through the end of June at the Washburn Cultural Center.
The two projects were spearheaded by Bayfield's Poet Laureate Lucy Tyrrell, herself a poet, artist and naturalist holding a doctoral degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tyrrell said that when she was applying to become poet laureate for 2020, one of the criteria for selection was developing a project that would benefit the community. Because 2020 was the lakeshore's anniversary, Tyrrell thought projects augmenting that celebration made sense. With a grant from the Chequamegon Bay Arts Council, support from the Bayfield Carnegie Library, the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and the Friends of the Apostle Islands, the projects became reality.
The ABC book project was one dear to Tyrrell's heart.
"I collect ABC books, and I have always had the idea to create one," she said with a smile.
"A is for Apostles" was, however, a major undertaking. The first phase was figuring out what each letter of the alphabet would stand for, as Tyrrell wanted each to be represented in the best way possible. She consulted Lakeshore staff, a representative from the Friends of the Apostle Islands and members of the Anishinaabe community looking for ideas for plants, animals, geology, park management, the islands, recreation and history and culture.
"It became clear pretty quickly that one topic for each letter was unsatisfactory for many letters," Tyrrell said.
Thus, A is for both Apostle Islands and Anishinaabe, B is for bear and berries, C is for Chequamegon and Chief Buffalo, and so on. Tyrrell found 26 visual artists and 26 poets (with five multi-talented individuals creating both art and poetry) each to take a letter of the letter of the alphabet. The poets crafted words to express the importance of each topic, limited only by the fact their poems had to fit on one page, while the visual artists created colorful, stunning illustrations for the letters as well as art serving as page borders.
Tia Nelson, the daughter of Gaylord Nelson, wrote a forward for the book, while poet Margaret Noodin, a professor of English and American Indian Studies at UW-Milwaukee, wrote a poem translated into Anishinaabe for the book, and Bayfield poet Denise Sweet allowed her poem "Lightwoman's Lament," written while she was an Apostle Islands National Lakeshore artist in residence, to be included.
Tyrrell said there is a limited printing planned, providing copies to the artists as well as local libraries. She is hoping a publisher may be interested in the book, which would make it available to a wider audience.
The second piece of the exhibit, the Island Intersections project, was supposed to have kicked off in September at the Lakeshore research symposium, which was canceled and rescheduled for March 2021. For this exhibit, the 15 researchers who gave presentations at the symposium were paired with a visual artist and a poet. After listening to the research presentation, and sometimes asking questions of the researchers, the artists created works inspired by the presentations.
Tyrrell, who wrote a poem and created an art piece for this exhibit as well, said it was fun exercise. Her particular topic, the use of fire to manage vegetation, gave her insight into traditional use of fire and gave her the opportunity to experiment with a poetry form called etheree.
She said she has received feedback from several of the researchers who were pleased with how their work was interpreted.
For their part, the artists said it was a great experience as well.
"I've heard from several telling me how happy they were to participate," she said. "They learned a lot and had fun, too."
If You Go
• The exhibits for the "A is for Apostles" and Island Intersections projects are on display through the end of June at the Washburn Cultural Center, 1 E. Bayfield St., Washburn. The center is open weekdays noon to 5 p.m. and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. A virtual tour of the exhibit is available on the center's website www.washburnculturalcenter.org.
When Dora Diamond performed on the Ashland High School stage, she never imagined it would lead to singing in front an audience of thousands. But that's the crowd Diamond will have when she steps onto American Family Field the evening of June 14 to sing the national anthem as part of the Milwaukee Brewers Pride Night festivities.
Diamond's parents, Jack and JoAnne Dormady of Ashland, will be traveling to Milwaukee to watch their daughter perform.
"We're so proud," JoAnne Dormady said. "Dora's worked hard to become the performer she is."
The Dormadys already have purchased the pinkand-blue pride-color jerseys they will wear at the game, along with pride Brewers caps, featuring the Brewers logo in rainbow flag colors.
Diamond, who lives in Milwaukee and is a part of that city's close-knit drag and burlesque performance community, said the upcoming experience feels a bit surreal.
The Brewers asked her to audition after a friend who knows the Brewer's multi-cultural marketing director recommended Diamond as the perfect woman to sing the national anthem.
Diamond sent in a video of herself singing the anthem, and a few days later received the nod.
She said the experience is exciting on multiple levels.
"It's a very high honor to represent the trans(gender) community," Diamond said. "I feel a bit of pressure to do my best for them. And as a person who as a kid never felt safe in the sports scene, this is amazing to be welcomed and celebrated. I hope some other kids may see me and realize that it is OK to be who you are and express who you really are.
"It's also a personal milestone — as an individual, it's a huge, huge honor," she continued. "This is the year that I promised myself that I would prioritize my dream of becoming a professional entertainer and musician, and this is such an incredible opportunity to reach a wide audience. I hope that at the very least a few people in the music scene see me and realize I am a worthy member of that scene."
Diamond, who sews many of her own intricate drag costumes, has something special planned for the event.
"Oh, I'm going ridiculous," she said with a laugh. "I'm wearing a gigantic ball gown in the trans flag colors, with a big crinoline underneath. There will be rhinestones galore and matching vintage jewelry."
Since no heels are allowed on field (no divots, please!) she found a pair of rhinestone sandals.
Diamond, who said she wants to make her hometown of Ashland proud as well, said if she is allowed to speak prior to the anthem, she'd like to dedicate her performance to "anyone at home or in the stadium who is still figuring out who they are. It's not only OK to be who you are, but you need to know you are beautiful and you are important. I want to send a message that you deserve to feel safe and to be yourself."
See her sing
• Dora Diamond will performs the national anthem at 7 p.m. June 14, at American Family Field, Milwaukee, prior to the Brewers-Cincinnati game. Anyone with Spectrum or DirecTV broadcast services should be able to view the performance, which will also be live streamed on AT&T TV. You can also see Dora perform some of her original songs on YouTube – search for Dora Diamond.