Northern Wisconsin biologist makes rare finds commonplace, even in his own backyard
Wisconsin DNR naturalist Ryan Brady travels across northern Wisconsin looking after some of the state’s lesser-known and definitely lesser-seen creatures.
WASHBURN, Wis. — We were saying our goodbyes at the car when Ryan Brady’s eyes wandered, as they often do when he’s outside, away from our conversation and onto something distant.
“Monarch!’’ Brady interrupted.
“I haven't seen one for a couple weeks now. … This is going to be one of the last ones of the season. Pretty soon this one will be off to Mexico,” Brady said as we moved closer to inspect the butterfly.
It was just one of a plethora of insects, birds, amphibians and other critters we saw in a couple hours of wandering around Brady’s backyard — 14 acres of field and woods and wetlands on the hill above this Lake Superior shoreline town.
On a warm, mid-September morning, we flushed a snipe. Brady “phished” a flock of palm warblers into close view. We saw bumblebees and green frogs and mourning doves and chickadees, blue jays and a turkey vulture, grasshoppers, dragonflies and more.
In his job as a conservation biologist for the Wisconsin Department to Natural Resources’ Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, Brady travels across northern Wisconsin looking after some of the state’s lesser-known and definitely lesser-seen creatures. He serves as the statewide bird monitoring coordinator for the DNR. He’s also the science coordinator for the recently completed Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas and leads communications for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Partnership.
But it’s his own backyard, or at least close to home on the Bayfield Peninsula, where he often makes his most notable finds.
It’s unlikely most folks would have noticed that monarch, at 30 paces, as it sat mostly motionless in a crowded garden of native wildflowers. But that’s just how Brady is. He has an uncanny ability to see things other people miss, and it’s landed him a bit of fame in recent months. If they had a summertime all-star game for conservation biologists, Brady would have made the starting lineup:
In May, his Memorial Day sighting of an arctic loon became the first-ever confirmed appearance of the bird in Wisconsin. He and some birding buddies spotted the loon in Lake Superior, off Herbster. Once verified by a loon expert the sighting caused quite a commotion in the regional birding community until the bird — native to Europe and Russia — vanished about a week later.
In June, Brady identified a southern spreadwing dragonfly at one of two ponds on his land. It was the first observation in Bayfield County and only the second for northern Wisconsin.
In July, he came across extremely rare tiger beetles while swimming at a beach with his two sons. Brady's location of this endangered species has been added to the Natural Heritage Inventory, the database containing locations of rare species so they can be protected.
In August, he notched the northernmost record of the lemon cuckoo bumblebee ever in Wisconsin, also in his yard.
Brady has seen an incredible array of wildlife just watching on his own land. Since moving here 12 years ago, he has identified 206 species of birds here, more than 70 species of butterflies and is approaching 60 species of dragonflies.
The fall migration is a special time for bird lovers and Brady has had some very big birding days here. On one day, he watched as 6,000 yellow-rumped warblers flew over. On another day, he counted more than 13,000 robins.
“I usually keep a clicker in each pocket so I can keep track of two different things,” Brady said.
Even when there isn’t much migrating, as on a day with a stiff south wind that kept migrating birds grounded, Brady keeps looking.
“I can walk my trails every day and see something different every time,” he noted.
The rarest bird he’s seen here is a Say’s Phoebe, only the eighth Wisconsin sighting of the species ever. The rarest dragonfly so far is a red-veined meadowhawk, only the second time that species has been seen in the state. And he spotted western white butterfly, only the second time that species has been confirmed in Wisconsin.
We say so far because Brady is always looking, always on the lookout for something new and different. It’s a matter of when, not if, he will make more rare discoveries. Making nature finds is all about being in the right place at the right time. But you have to put yourself into the right place at the right time, over and over.
“That’s kind of my pet-peeve when people say I’m lucky. It’s not luck. … It’s knowing when to go and where to go,” he said. “I am lucky to live here. … This is really a great place to see nature. But you have to do a little research and then put in your time.”
Take the subarctic darner dragonfly. A native of northern Canada, they had never been confirmed in Wisconsin. Brady suspected there were some around, so he pulled out a map, found a likely looking black spruce swamp and waited until August, when dragonflies are most numerous. Then he waited for mid-morning when insects get most active, as the day warms, but aren’t moving as fast as they do in warmer afternoons.
“I went in and found them in the first place I looked,” Brady said. The first one was in Iron County. Then he found them in Ashland and Sawyer counties, too.
“Ryan is so good at finding those new discoveries because he’s so tuned in to what’s around him when he’s outdoors,” said Owen Boyle, who heads the DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation and is Brady’s boss. “But also because he spends so much time looking. Not just his work time, but his own time. That’s what he really loves to do.”
Walk slowly and carry a big lens
Brady allowed a big, open field on his property to revert back to forest. Slowly, it’s being reclaimed by willow and alder and white pine. He’s also planted dozens of species of native trees and wildflowers, including milkweed for monarchs, and had two ponds dug to create wetland habitat that birds and pollinators and frogs flock to.
“I like to walk right on the edge of the water. I walk in places most people don’t like to go because it's muddy or wet or there might be ticks around,” Brady said, revealing another of his nature watching tips.
Walk slowly. Be aware of what’s normally around. Look for something out of the ordinary. Maybe the timing is unusual, or the coloration, or the sounds being made.
We were seeing mostly common bumblebees on Brady’s wildflowers. But it was in this spot where he saw the lemon cuckoo. Closer to one of his ponds, Brady showed where he found the southern spreadwing.
“It wasn't so much its features. … Many of the dragonflies look really similar … but that it was out here in June. Usually, we don’t see our (more common) dragonflies until July,” he noted. “A lot of finding these firsts or unusual species is just knowing the norms. What should be here and when? If it’s outside the norms, you might have something new.”
Brady nearly always carries his trusty SLR digital camera with a powerful telephoto lens. That allows him to get crisp closeups of unusual critters that he can send to species experts to confirm.
“I have literally no formal training in insects. But I know the right people to send the photos to,” Brady said, noting that using photography to identify insects has been a “game-changer” in discovering new and far-flung species.
“We are really in the infancy of insect species identification, compared to birds which are pretty well documented. We have so many species of insects we’re just finding out about,” he noted.
Brady, 44, grew up in suburban Philadelphia but had enough exposure to nature to know that’s how he wanted to spend his life. He found environment-focused Northland College in Ashland, where he got his bachelor’s degree and then went on to graduate school studying raptors at Boise State University.
He made his way back to the Northland, counted hawks at Hawk Ridge in Duluth for a spell and eventually landed with the Wisconsin DNR in 2006.
“I’m so lucky to live here and to have this job where I can do what I love to do every day,” Brady said.
Lately, he’s spent a lot of time working on the new Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, pouring over years of field work that’s now being categorized in book form. He’s also been tracking down the troubled Connecticut warbler, which, other than Minnesota and a few places in Wisconsin, is rapidly disappearing for the North American landscape. The yellow bird likes upland jackpine stands and lowland spruce bogs for nesting, so that’s where Brady went to find them. He did, but not as many as he had hoped. The bird is now on a regional list of birds that need the most urgent conservation attention. As is often the case, it’s a matter of not enough habitat.
“Unfortunately, we’re just not finding very many nesting in Wisconsin any more, so it's kind of on the emergency list now region-wide,” Brady said.
Brady doesn’t have a formal list of suggestions to see more and different parts of nature. But he rattles them off as he walks through the woods.
Look for edges — the edges of water, or where a field meets the woods. Look for openings on the edge of deeper forest. Walk slowly. Bring a good camera. Always have binoculars around your neck at the ready. Wander. Meander. Walk in places other people might avoid. Go when the time is right. Go when you can.
“Today, there aren’t many birds moving because of the (south) wind,” Brady noted. “But for tomorrow, I’ve already arranged to have my wife take the boys to school so I can be out. It’s going to be a northwest wind and there’s probably going to be a big push of migrating birds. And I want to be out here to see it.”
DNR Natural Heritage Bureau
Ryan Brady is one of 80 DNR employees in the DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation (which in the past had been called Endangered Resources) most of whom are spread across the state. It may be the least known of the DNR’s divisions, compared to state parks or wildlife, fisheries or conservation wardens, but it is charged with conserving Wisconsin’s most vulnerable natural resources. The bureau also coordinates the state’s citizen scientist program.
Brady is the statewide bird specialist with the bureau, but he also tackles many other critters for far northern Wisconsin. There are mussel experts, mammal experts, bumblebee experts and others. The bureau also manages the state’s network of 687 state natural areas — more than 400,000 acres of the last, best habitat for about 90% of the state’s endangered and threatened species. Nearly the entire bureau budget comes from grants and gifts.
Brady’s bird blog
You can keep up with Ryan Brady’s statewide birding report at dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/birding.html .
Other species sites
Dragonflies and damselflies: wiatri.net/inventory/odonata
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .