The Ridges Sanctuary

Preservation, Education, and Research

Nature Notes: Fleeting Spring Blooms

By Jackie Rath

Spring Beauty

The Sanctuary has looked a little different over the last few weeks than if you visited this past winter. A delightfully slow spring thaw is taking place, and we are seeing signs of it everywhere we turn. Hidden Brook is rushing, birds are returning and calling, frogs are croaking, and the garter snakes are sunning themselves in droves.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica Photo credit: Jane Whitney

Just recently, sharp-lobed Hepatica, one of the first spring-blooming wildflowers, was spotted at Logan Creek by our sharp-eyed Jane Whitney! Its star-shaped flowers appear singly on upright hairy stems in early spring before the trees leaf out. Hepatica plants typically emerge in mid-April through mid-May and attract many pollinators as they bloom over the one month period.

The Ridges Sanctuary is internationally recognized for the incredible diversity of plant life found on our properties. Nearly 500 vascular plants find their home in this rich complex of boreal forest and wetlands.

I have been (not very) patiently waiting to see the first spring blooms of the season and for orchid restoration projects to start up again. And even more so for a particularly special group of wildflowers that play an important role in the northern deciduous forests, including our Logan Creek Preserve, and other places in Door County. That is the fascinating phenomenon of spring ephemerals and their time to shine is coming up.

Spring ephemeral refers to perennial plants that emerge quickly in the spring and die back to their underground parts after a short growth and reproduction phase. The word ephemeral means transitory or quickly fading (Williams, 2018).

Dave Charlton of the Tyler Arboretum takes the words right out of my mouth; the mechanisms that spring ephemerals employ to emerge, photosynthesize, flower, pollinate and reseed in the short spring season are absolutely astounding.

Most of the spring ephemerals are perennial. They have underground organs—bulbs, corymbs, etc.—that store nutrients to be used for producing leaves and flowers in the subsequent year (Steffen, 2018). They take advantage of the light conditions available from the deciduous overstory to quickly produce flowers and fruits and then die back into the ground until the following spring when the blooms play a crucial role for early spring pollinators.

I have recently read the book, 101 Wildflowers of the Ridges Sanctuary: A Field Guide for the Curious, by Frances M. Burton and Aurelia M. Stampp. I hope that I can memorize and identify what I’ll be seeing during this upcoming flowering season.

Some fascinating early spring blooms (late April, May and early June) of The Ridges Sanctuary and Logan Creek are:  

Trout Lily

Trailing Arbutus (Mayflower) is often the first flower to bloom each spring. However, the ground-hugging evergreen can be difficult to find because it hides under leaves to protect itself from the elements. Flower: White tinged with pink, in clusters, fragrant.  

Bloodroot blooms early in the spring when night temperatures are cool. Like all plants in the poppy family, the flowers are short-lived, often lasting only a day or two (ephemeral). It is named after the vivid red-orange sap that oozes out when the plant stem or root is cut. Flower: Large, white with gold center, 8-12 petals. 

Marsh Marigolds are one of the few wildflowers that can grow in the middle of a stream, and at times they bloom so profusely the stream has a yellow glow. Habitat: swales, wet meadows, along streams. Grows in the Ridges Sanctuary and at Logan Creek. Flower: Yellow, shiny, petal-like sepals.  

Canada Buffaloberry (Soapberry, Rabbitberry) a cool-climate shrub that grows in brush, open ridges and sandy soil at the Sanctuary. Flower: very small, yellowish. Fruit: Tiny red russet berries.  

Large-flowered Bellwort

Trout Lily (Fawn lily) ephemeral that grows in rich, moist woods at Logan Creek. Trout Lily takes seven years before the plant bears its first blossom. For the first six years, it puts out only one lead while it stores food in its bulb. Flower: Yellow, nodding.

Long-Spurred Violet is one of many species of violets that grow at Logan Creek and is borderline ephemeral, keeping its leaves for a while. Flower: Lavender/blue, 5 petals, lower petal forms ½" curved spur. Violets have five petals, two on top and one on each side with a larger one on the bottom. 

Spring Beauties (Fairy Spuds) carpet the forest floor at Logan Creek and are very delicate, each flower only lasting two or three days. They close at night or during cloudy weather. Flower: Small, pink with darker pink stripes.

Broad-Leaved (retains leaves for a bit) and Cut-Leaved Toothwort (Pepper Root, Wild Horseradish) patches grow along the trails at Logan Creek in the spring, but by mid-summer they have died, and all visible traces have disappeared. Flower: White or pale pink, 4 petals, in loose clusters. The difference between the two can be seen in the stem.  

Squirrel Corn is an ephemeral that grows in rich woods such as Logan creek. Flower: 4-8 hanging, greenish-white heart-shaped flowers.  

Wood Anemone (Wind Flower) blooms early in spring when few insects are present, using wind for pollination. With no need to attract insects, it has no nectar and little scent. Flower: White, 4-9 petal-like sepals. 

Big White Trillium

Big White Trillium like rich woods and grow in the Ridges Sanctuary, but they bloom most profusely at Logan Creek. It takes at least six years for a Trillium to progress from seed to flower. Flower: Large, white, 3 petals.  

Arctic Primrose is a Ridges ephemeral that likes to grow in shrubby swales, open ridges near the beach. Flower: Pink or lilac, yellow centers. 

Large-flowered Bellwort is a borderline ephemeral. Flower: Hanging yellow flower, 1-2" long with 6 droopy, narrow petals (tepals) that are somewhat twisted.  

Dwarf Lake Iris grows near the northern shores of the Great Lakes. Although abundant at the Ridges, it is considered a rare plant because it requires just the right mix of light, humidity, soil, moisture, and temperature to survive. Flower: Bluish-purple, 3 petals with notched tips, 3 sepals with yellow crests.   

 Remember, many threatened and fragile flowers grow along Ridges trails and Logan Creek. Please remain on the designated trails and boardwalk at all times, even for photos. These beautiful flowers will only continue to exist so long as we protect them.   

To see the spring blooms, join Naturalists Jane Whitney and Julie Knox on a hike at Logan Creek. Spring wildflower hikes are scheduled for Saturday, May 14, and Friday, May 20, from 1:00-3:00pm.  $13 Public, $10 Member, $5 Under 18.    

Sources: 

http://www.authenticwisconsin.com/ephemerals.html 

https://www.chicagobotanic.org/blog/plant_science_conservation/secrets_spring_ephemerals_woods 

https://www.schlitzaudubon.org/2019/05/10/spring-ephemerals/ 

https://doorcountypulse.com/spring-ephemeral-wildflowers/ 

https://tylerarboretum.org/spring-ephemerals-are-on-the-clock/ 

 

Nature Notes: Transitions

By Anna Foster

It may not feel like it outside this week, but last Sunday marked the Vernal Equinox, or the first official day of spring! Of course, spring has many faces in Door County. From snowstorms, like the dump of wet slush we had last week, to sunny, 45-degree days, watching the calendar isn’t exactly a reliable source for determining when to switch out your winter jacket for your spring fleece. If you’re anything like me, you get too eager during the first “false spring” that occurs, and you spend three weeks shivering while you wait for the next warm spell. 

Whatever the weather may be, the Vernal (Spring) Equinox marks a significant shift for the entire planet. On the Vernal Equinox, the sun is directly above the earth’s equator. This marks the change from shorter days and longer nights to longer days and shorter nights. Why? Because the earth is at the point in its orbit where the northern hemisphere tilts towards the sun. The days will continue to grow longer until the Summer Solstice in late June. Although it might not seem like it here in northeast Wisconsin, we’re on our way to warmer weather, and there are signs of spring all around us.  

Diagram of the Vernal (Spring) Equinox Image from Smithsonian (si.edu)

In the sanctuary, the first signs of spring appear in the swales. If you live by water, you’ve likely heard the chirps of Red-winged blackbirds coming from nearby trees or the tops of cattails. Their unmistakable “conk-la-ree" call is one of the first bird songs to return to the boreal forest. Another early arrival is the sandhill crane, whose strange trumpet-like calls can be heard starting in mid-March. Among other early spring migrators, Red-winged blackbirds and Sandhill cranes return to Door County to breed. In the sanctuary, Red-winged blackbirds nestle their nests between cattails and other sedges of the swales, while Sandhill cranes build their nests on the ground, using aquatic vegetation to make a mound for their nest.  

Another sign of spring appears in the swales in late March, and if you’re walking the trails towards dusk, you won’t be able to miss it. Earlier this month, I was sitting quietly in a grove of trees with a sixth-grade class I was leading at Gibraltar. As we listened to the snow melt, we were startled by a croaking noise coming from the swamp next to us. I gathered all the students a few moments later and had them listen to a recording on my phone of a Wood frog. We all agreed that the sound we observed must have been two wood frogs calling in the nearby swamp. The first week in March is very early for a Wood frog, and unfortunately, the frogs we heard were unlikely to survive the following freezes. However, a few weeks of weather can transform a landscape.   

Photo by J.D. Willson from SREL at University of Georgia https://srelherp.uga.edu/anurans/ransyl.htm

At the end of March when the snow melts and the forests begin to thaw, Wood frogs start to emerge from their frozen state in forest leaf litter. As soon as it’s warm enough for their bodies to thaw, they make their way to vernal pools to feed and mate. The distinct duck-like croaks of a pond full of male wood frogs, who croak to attract their mate, can be deafening. Wood frogs are the first frogs to emerge from winter hibernation. Following the wood frog, Spring peepers, then Leopard frogs, and American toads. Tree frogs and Green frogs don’t come along until later in the spring.  

Salamanders aren’t far behind Wood frogs, either. On the first rainy day above 40 degrees, some species of salamanders, like the Blue-spotted salamander, will emerge from hibernation and migrate to vernal pools, like Wood frogs. They’ll congregate in these temporary pools, mate, and then return to their solitary life in the forest. Unlike frogs, however, salamanders are mostly silent. If you’re driving home this spring after dark on a warm, wet evening, look out for salamanders crossing the road! 

My favorite sign of spring usually returns right around the end of March, when Green Bay finally melts, and we start to get some 40–50-degree days.  I’ve been scanning the sky for the last two weeks, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of a flock of White Pelicans gliding above me. Pelicans usually return at the end of March or early April, when there’s enough open water for them to populate small islands around the Door County Peninsula.  

Pelicans started appearing on the peninsula in the 1970s. There are some records of them in Wisconsin before the mid-1800s, but they were not considered a species of breeding birds in the state until they established breeding grounds here about 20 years ago. There are currently around 4,000 breeding pairs in the Green Bay area.  

Photo by Paul Hueber from Macaulay Library from All About Birds https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_White_Pelican/id

White pelicans are unmistakable once you learn to spot them in the sky. They often flock together and ride heat thermals, or columns of rising hot air in the sky. The effect is like a dance; the flock will glide for minutes, back and forth, before drifting out of sight. White pelicans are mostly white, but they have a black strip on each wing that is only visible when they're in flight. They’re very large in size, boasting an 8-foot wingspan and a large yellow bill. Look for them flying in flocks near the shoreline or out in the bay on a warm spring day.  

Whether it’s sunny and 60 degrees, snowing, or raining, there are changes happening all around us this month. It may not feel like it, but we’re turning the corner to spring!  

Sources 

 https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/id 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/lifehistory#nesting 

https://doorcountypulse.com/door-to-nature-american-white-pelicans/ 

https://www.eekwi.org/animals/birds/american-white-pelican 

https://www.wearegreenbay.com/news/local-news/american-white-pelicans-return-to-bay-of-green-bay/#:~:text=A%20plentiful%20food%20source%20that,DNR%20Wildlife%20Biologist%20Josh%20Martinez. 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_White_Pelican/id 

https://www.htrnews.com/story/life/2020/04/25/salamanders-wisconsin-what-know-secretive-amphibians/3010872001/ 

 

 

Nature Notes: Owls and the Subnivean Layer

By Jackie Rath

For the last few weeks, I have been serenaded to sleep by the hoots of a Great Horned owl sitting on a branch by my window. It’s nesting season here for the owls, and they are hooting with a whole new set of calls that I love to try and figure out when I am listening late at night. Mating season for owls in Door County occurs in late February to early March, and this Great Horned outside my house is marking its territory while looking for a mate.

This winter is my first winter here in Door County, as I moved to Ephraim early last spring. My first winter comes with a plethora of new information that I have never had the opportunity to learn about and see with my own eyes. One of the winter wonders that has fascinated me most is the subnivean zone that forms for creatures to survive the winter, especially from strong nighttime predators such as the owls. We often look out at snowy white fields and think about how serene and peaceful it looks. But underneath the snow, a whole other winter world is filled with animal activity that we can’t hear or even really see if you aren’t paying attention.

Think about how humans prepare for seasonal changes and what we do to stay warm in the winter months. We stock up for food, we turn up the heat in our living spaces, or we layer up to stay cozy. But what about the small creatures such as mice and voles that face harsh winter conditions and predators? How do they make it through to spring?

That is where the subnivean zone comes into play. It is a layer created by snowpack that is beneath (“sub,” Latin for under) the snow (“nix” or “nivis”). Snow of six inches or more creates a warm climate underneath that acts as a buffer from freezing weather and wind, and its temperature roughly stays around 32 degrees. The heat from the ground melts the snow which condenses against the snowpack, forming a thin ceiling of ice.  It also acts as a layer of protection for food stock and from predators. Normally, small critters lack winter camouflage against the white backdrop of snow. These tunnel systems allow them to duck down in their winter homes where larger predators cannot fit.

Subnivean Zone Illustration by Kristin Link (www.kristinillustration.com)

However, the subnivean layer does not cancel out predation for these critters. Predation in the subnivean zone can come from within, with predators able to follow the tunnels to their prey, such as a weasel or fisher. It can also come from outside of the layer, above the snow. Owls are one of the most fascinating predators in relation to the subnivean zone and one of the factors that make this winter formation so complex.

There are five species of owl (snowy owl sightings rare and only seen in January and February) found in Door County: Snowy Owl, the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, the Eastern Screech Owl, and the Saw-whet. These owls make for very strong predators, especially in relation to the subnivean layer, and here is why:

Vision: Owls have far-sighted, tubular eyes. Instead of spherical eyeballs, owls have "eye tubes" that go far back into their skulls. The size of their eyes helps them see in the dark, and their far-sighted vision allows them to spot prey from yards away. Some owls (Great Horned, Saw-whet) are crepuscular, which means they are active at dawn and dusk, and have yellow eyes. Nocturnal owls, like the Barred owl, have dark eyes.

Hearing: Owls have super-powered hearing. They are capable of hearing prey under leaves, plants, dirt, and snow. Some owls have sets of ears at different heights on their heads, which lets them locate prey based on tiny differences in sound waves. This makes hearing movement under the snowpack much easier and helps them locate their prey.

Talons: Owls have extremely strong and sharp talons and are strong enough to pick up larger prey and crush them. They can quickly break through snow or a layer of ice to retrieve their meal.

Feathers: Owl flight is silent. Unlike most birds, owls make virtually no noise when they fly. They have special serrated feathers that break turbulence into smaller currents, which reduces sound. Soft, velvety down further muffles noise, making prey vulnerable to silent owl attacks.

These captivating birds of prey are known for their distinct calls, nocturnal habits, and silent flight. Combined, these characteristics make predation of the subnivean zone an easy feat for them in the winter months.

Saw whet owl Coco, at Owl-O-Rama. Coco is a former avian friend at Open Door Bird Sanctuary.

The next time you are stepping or skiing through snow, think about the subnivean zone and watch for tracks/holes leading into their tunnel systems. Keep those little creatures' homes in mind when shoveling and plowing.

Animal tracks at the snowshoe trail leading to a hole at The Ridges Sanctuary

Join us for the 6th annual Owl-O-Rama at The Ridges, on March 4th and 5th! On Friday, start with our Owl Prowl: a presentation on owl species in Door County, followed by a hike on our Logan Creek Property to hear them calling to one another. On Saturday, head to our Workshop to build an Eastern Screech Owl nest box, and then stop by the Owl Meet & Greet with Open Door Bird Sanctuary at our Nature Center!

For more information on Owl-O-Rama events, including program times, locations, and fees, visit www.ridgessanctuary.org or call (920)-839-2802.

Sources:

Hooghuis, Sarah. “Birding at Home: Who's Hooting?” Audubon Vermont, 10 Feb. 2021, https://vt.audubon.org/news/birding-home-whos-hooting.

Lukes, Charlotte. “Door to Nature: Barred Owls and Barn Owls.” Door County Pulse, 7 Jan. 2020, https://doorcountypulse.com/door-to-nature-barred-owls-and-barn-owls/

Lukes, Charlotte. “Door to Nature: Christmas Bird Counts.” Door County Pulse, 19 Nov. 2021, https://doorcountypulse.com/door-to-nature-christmas-bird-counts-2/

Mattson, Craig. “Beneath the Snow: The Subnivean Zone.” Schlitz Audubon, 20 Jan. 2020, https://www.schlitzaudubon.org/2019/12/20/beneath-the-snow-the-subnivean-zone/

Nature Notes: The Impact of Ice

By Anna Foster

 

For Door County, the new year signals a return to ice in Green Bay and the cold days of January and February (and March, although we don’t want to admit it to ourselves just yet). The frozen landscape that the ice creates brings ice fishing, skating, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling to the forefront of outdoor activities. However, to the people who live here, the ice also indicates what the next summer season will bring.

Ice cover on the great lakes has varied greatly over the past 50 years. In 2021, the maximum ice cover was 33.3%, occurring during a polar front in mid-February. Variations in ice coverage can have both positive and negative consequences for residents of the great lakes and the ecosystems in which they live. For example, a polar vortex occurring in 2014 caused less water to evaporate over the winter and more significant snowmelt, which consequently led to water levels rising. In the summer of 2020, Lake Michigan's shoreline reached a record  high water level at 582 feet, 3 feet higher than its yearly average of 579 feet.

Maximum Ice Cover Percentage by Year for Lake Michigan Source: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Resource Laboratory

When the maximum ice coverage is low during the winter, more lake water evaporation occurs, decreasing the water level. Many factors contribute to changing  ice cover and lake levels, and science suggests that these variations have become more severe over time. While the range of water levels remains the same in the hundred years over which they’ve been recorded, the cycling of water between high and low levels has become much more rapid over time. Scientists believe this trend of extremes will continue, although it seems that one thing is certain: Lake Michigan’s water levels are unpredictable.

How does ice affect The Ridges?

The swales of The Ridges are fed by groundwater and precipitation. While colder temperatures cause the swales to freeze for longer periods of time, Lake Michigan’s freeze percentage is not directly related to the swales. Perhaps the most impact that freezing water has is at the shoreline of The Ridges; the place where the landscape forms.

Ice is a key agent of erosion. The most obvious example of this is the effect that glaciers have had on Wisconsin's landscape. Glaciers have the power to transport materials, as well as carve the landscape beneath them. The freezing of Lake Michigan’s surface also erodes the landscape, albeit at a smaller scale.

As water levels in Lake Michigan increased to record breaking numbers in 2020, newly formed ridges along the shoreline washed away. Along with the ridges themselves, newly growing plant species were also lost. The dynamic nature of the ridges and swales is vulnerable to severe weather events and high and low lake levels.

Ridges that have taken a hundred years to form can be washed away in a single summer of storms. These events serve as a reminder that this fragile landscape is ever-changing. With Lake Michigan’s water cycles becoming more severe in recent years, it’s hard to say what new ridges and swales will look like, and how water levels will impact the boreal forest ecosystem.

Animal Adaptations on the Ice

A frozen swale at The Ridges Sanctuary

The inland swales of The Ridges freeze over in the winter, usually once the temperature drops below freezing for two or more consecutive days. Frozen swales force the sanctuary animals to adapt their behavior to survive in the cold weather.

Some hibernating animals, like turtles, remain underground or under the ice. The Painted turtle can survive in hypoxic (low oxygen) environments for months at a time. They survive by lowering their body temperature and metabolic activity. To survive in the hypoxic environment of an ice-covered swale, turtles process a chemical called glycogen. This allows them to survive but creates lactic acid as a byproduct. Painted turtles change their body chemistry to counteract the lactic acid and survive until they can absorb oxygen again.

The Wood frog doesn’t burrow in ponds like some other frog species. Instead, they chose to bury themselves in leaf litter and allow their bodies to freeze. They do this by producing a chemical similar to antifreeze in their cells, then push water out of their cells to survive. While the water freezes, their cells do not expand and burst, and they are able to thaw and hop away to vernal pools in the spring.

Muskrats, one of which we frequently see off our swale overlook by the entrance to Hidden Brook Boardwalk, will stay in their dens and venture underneath the ice until the surface of the swale thaws. In contrast, the river otter family that lives near our Hidden Brook Bridge frequently comes out of their den and explores the snowy ridges.

Animal Tracks on a frozen swale at The Ridges Sanctuary

Frozen swales also provide highways of travel for mammals of the sanctuary. Fresh snowfall is the perfect canvas for animal tracks. We frequently see snowshoe hare, deer, coyote, and otter tracks scampering across the ice in the sanctuary.

The best way to view wildlife on the frozen swales is via the snowshoe trail that leaves from our Cook-Fuller Nature Center. After a lovely hike along Sandy Swale, you can explore the quiet, rustic trails of the sanctuary. Snowshoes are available for rent from our nature center for $5 Wednesday through Sunday. To get an in-depth experience, join one of our winter guided hikes on Fridays at 1:30pm and Saturdays at 10:30am and 1:30pm this winter.

Sources:

Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments. “Lake Levels.” GLISA: A NOAA RISA Team. NOAA, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, n.d. https://glisa.umich.edu/resources-tools/climate-impacts/lake-levels/.

Kelly, Mary Louise.  “Water Levels In The Great Lakes Approach A Record High.” NPR, June 16, 2020, sec. National. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/16/878852945/water-levels-in-the-great-lakes-approach-a-record-high.

US Department of Commerce, NOAA. “Ice Cover.” Accessed January 3, 2022. https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/#historical.

“Water Level Data.” Accessed January 3, 2022. https://www.lre.usace.army.mil/Missions/Great-Lakes-Information/Great-Lakes-Information-2/Water-Level-Data/.

Five Questions with Anna Foster, Environmental Interpreter

"I know I'm doing my job well when kids get into parents' cars and say

'Guess what we did today!"

We recently caught up with Anna Foster about her role as Environmental Interpreter and the "many hats" she wears at The Ridges!

How did you come to work at The Ridges?

I have been coming to Door County my whole life. My grandparents lived up in Ellison Bay, and I would spend the summers staying with them, riding my horses, and working at local businesses. The summer after my freshman year of college, I volunteered at The Ridges, working with the summer educators on summer camps. I was really interested in environmental education and was excited to gain experience in the field. In the spring of my sophomore year, I connected with staff there and learned about their summer internship opportunities. I was lucky enough to intern with The Ridges for two years. I was able to lead summer camps, work at the front desk, lead guided hikes, and work on interpretive signage.

After graduating from Lewis & Clark College with a BA in Environmental Studies, I came back to The Ridges as a year-round environmental interpreter. It’s been great to work with our interns for the past three years, helping them with their experience and realizing how much I’ve learned and grown since I was an intern. This summer marks my sixth year of summer camp there and the start of my third year as a staff member.

What do you do in your role as an Environmental Interpreter?

I wear many hats in my role. My main focus is to create educational opportunities - whether through events or signage – to connect people to our sanctuary. Educational programming is another part of my position. I help with our Dragonfly Nature Play program, run summer camps, work with middle school students at Gibraltar, and lead guided hikes. There’s never a dull moment!

What do you find to be most challenging about your job?

The most challenging part of my position is that everything is always changing. As with any small nonprofit, you have to expect the unexpected and step up when there’s no one else to do the job. A lot of the time, my workday consists entirely of things that are not in my Job Description. This can be especially difficult because our growing visitor base. We are always improvising and trying to create the best possible experience for every visitor. I think everyone at The Ridges does the work of at least two people, but we love what we do and can see the positive effect it has on our community!

What do you find to be the most rewarding?

Seeing someone’s face light up when they see a monarch butterfly hatch, watch pelicans fly overhead, learn the difference between a Red and a White pine, or notice a rare flower on the side of the trail. It’s rewarding to see the connections with The Ridges, or more broadly, nature. I see this most often in the children I work with. Many kids who participate in our summer camps or even our school year programming are uncomfortable outside when they first arrive. It’s inspiring to see them smiling while holding a garter snake or remembering what kind of tree they are sitting under. I know I’m doing my job well when kids get into their parents’ cars and say, “Guess what we did today!” I’m so glad I get to be the person who introduces them to all the cool things in nature, just as adults did with me when I was their age.

Another part of my job which is both important and exciting for me is trying to incorporate communities who are often underserved and excluded from environmental organizations, whether that be in the stories we tell or the opportunities we provide. For example, one aspect of The Ridges trail system that we have been trying to improve in the last few years is accessibility. Our newest boardwalk, finished in 2016, is ADA certified accessible for wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers. We have also tried testing tactile exhibit stations along our boardwalk that provide an experience for those who cannot read a traditional interpretive sign. We continue to seek out learning opportunities to make our organization a safe and accessible environment for everyone.

Do you have any advice to someone considering your career?

Working in the environmental nonprofit industry is difficult and requires sacrifice of personal time and energy. However, it’s an incredible opportunity to know that your work is making a positive difference, however small that may be. For example, I may lead a two-hour guided hike on any given morning. How big of a difference does that really make? If I can get someone in that hike group to appreciate why The Ridges is unique and worth protecting, that visitor might become a donor who will contribute to land acquisitions which will protect land for future generations. The more educational opportunities we can provide for the public, the better we are able to acquire, protect, and preserve land.

To anyone who wants to enter the environmental nonprofit industry, I would recommend starting at a small organization like The Ridges. I’ve been able to wear many different hats during my time here and learn skills that I never would have learned working for a large-scale, nationwide organization. Not only is it exciting to learn new things, but it’s great work experience for any future career opportunities. Not to mention, you’ll meet some of the most amazing ecologists, naturalists, experts, volunteers, and partners who work very hard to create positive changes in your community.

 

Meet Katie and Andy

In May 2021, The Ridges Sanctuary Board of Directors announced the appointment of our new senior leadership team, Andy Gill, Executive Director and Katie Krouse, Director of Operations. In this Q&A, Andy and Katie share thoughts about their roles and what they look forward to at the Ridges:

 

Tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you came to the Ridges:

K: Nature has always been my safe place. A place where I could guarantee comfort and easily find a frog or bumble bee that would listen to my silly ideas. As I grew up, I dreamed about what I would be when I was older. At one point it was a veterinarian, at another point it was an evolutionary biologist, or a biological engineer or a geologic oceanographer. At every point in life, nature was at the core of my interests.

I was lucky enough to join the Ridges family in April of 2015. Due to a few serendipitous connections, I connected with the executive director (Steve) and land manager (Brian) of The Ridges Sanctuary. I didn’t know anything about Door County, or the oldest Land Trust in the state but was instantly hooked and offered a job on the spot. Little did they know I’d be sticking around a bit longer than expected.

My position has grown throughout the last 6.5 years. Running camp, leading hikes, working the front desk, heading out orchid trekking with Tony, and more has led to where I am today. These incredible opportunities to work in most areas of the organization have allowed me to confidently move into my new position of Director of Operations.

A: I grew up just west of Milwaukee. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I spent four years working in the Wisconsin Legislature where I staffed a State Representative from the Baraboo area. Following that valuable experience, I moved to Austin, TX where I took on the role of Executive Director with Pease Park Conservancy.

My wife Katie and I were married in Door County during the fall of 2017 and moved to the county in early 2018. I spent about three years helping Katie open her restaurant, Heirloom Café and Provisions, in Baileys Harbor. During that time, I also became President of the Baileys Harbor Community Association and Secretary of Horseshoe Bay Farms, Inc. Since moving to Door County, I have always had an admiration for Baileys Harbor and central to that was my appreciation for The Ridges.

My parents always encouraged my sisters and I to be outside, whether that was at home, visiting my grandparents, or at their cabin in the Northwoods. Through those experiences, I grew an appreciation for the leaders who exercised great foresight by protecting our most vulnerable natural resources. I knew The Ridges was going to be a special place for my family and I.

How do you work together as a team?

K: Together Andy and I have the opportunity to grow the organization in areas we hadn’t had the capacity to do otherwise. Together we can provide support to the rest of the incredible Ridges staff and ensure that our mission is the foundation of all our activities. While Andy has the opportunity to focus on long term growth, I have the opportunity to focus on our day-to-day activities that lay the foundation for long term growth.

A: Katie is an incredible asset to The Ridges. Not only is she an expert naturalist, but she knows how to tell the stories behind everything that makes The Ridges special. We make a strong team because Katie really delivers on maximizing the visitor experience. I know that our programs and events are going to be of the highest quality so I can focus on other parts of the organization and our mission. I think what makes us an effective team is that we are both good communicators who appreciate honest feedback and can receive feedback constructively. We both want each other to be successful because if that’s the case then The Ridges is better off.

What challenges do you face?

K: On of the biggest challenges I will face is constantly comparing the present and future to the past. It will be important to recognize that The Ridges has evolved and comes out of the pandemic as a strong and empowered organization. People’s priorities have evolved, and we are seeing more individuals that wouldn’t normally hike trails, visiting the Sanctuary. We have the opportunity to educate more individuals now more than ever on the importance of preservation and stewardship.

A: The biggest challenge I see is how we meet the demand for our programs while remaining true the leaders that established this magical place. The history and culture around The Ridges will always be at the forefront, but the reality is Door County is changing – so how do we carry on the legacy of The Ridges while also overcoming the modern-day (and future) challenges?

What are you most excited about for the coming year?

K: I am most excited to take what we have learned over the last year and a half and deliver our mission through incredible programs. Through education and programs designed for individuals from age ‘walking’ to 100, we have the greatest opportunity to expand our experience to deliver our mission. One example is our Festival of Nature. In 2020, we rescheduled then cancelled the Festival, which pushed us to redesign the experience in 2021. Because of what we learned, we can enter 2022 with an even more robust and expanded Festival of Nature experience.

A: I am excited to see where we can take this organization. There is still so much potential to further our mission of education, outreach, and research as demand and support continue to grow. While it’s critical that we continue to preserve land where possible, I am increasingly motivated by where we can take our education, outreach, and research efforts. In my short time at The Ridges, I have seen how we play an important role in inspiring the next generation of conservationists.

What else should we know about you?

K: Being a part of The Ridges is truly a very special part of my life. I wake up excited to go to work and go home at the end of the day proud of the work we accomplished and ready to do it all over again the next morning. The hardest part about getting myself moving and to work is having to leave my furry friends at home. But never fear, my furry friends make sure we spend almost every waking minute outside. Hiking, visiting the dog park, or simply sitting on the front porch with my fifth cup of coffee for the day and a good book are where you will find me when I’m not at the office.

A: Right now, my life is consumed by being an expecting dad. My wife Katie and I are expecting our first child in October and are thrilled to begin that next adventure together. We like to spend time travelling and creating new experiences. In Door County, we keep it simple – lots of bike riding, time on the water, walking our dog Jerri Garcia Gill, and spending time with friends.

%d bloggers like this: