I received my first copy of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold for my birthday. It was a gift from my first boss. She said she thought the book was perfect for me. Little did I know that 25 years later, Joann and I would volunteer for a bird survey at the Leopold Memorial Reserve and we would meet his daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley.
Our first meeting for the volunteer work in 2005 was one Saturday morning at her home on the reserve. She was so excited to have a group of birders in her home talking about surveying the reserve for birds. The survey would also include some state-owned land and some private land. Joann and I were lucky enough to volunteer for and get the land of the reserve for our survey.
As we did our volunteer work, we would occasionally stop after one of our surveys to see if she was home. She would invite us in and ask us what we had found for the day. She was interested in what we thought were exciting finds from the day. I don’t think it was so much for what was on the reserve as it was for hearing our excitement over what we had found. It made her extremely happy to know what birds were using the reserve, and to know that people enjoyed being able to do the survey and share it with her.
She would record our findings in her journal along with her notes on the birds at her feeders and the plants she had observed. She told us she took a walk every day and observed the new plants in bloom. She had many wildflower locations that she knew by heart and visited them every year to observe their bloom time and recorded it.
She was a phenologist and kept a journal recording the return of migrating birds to her feeders, and the first bloom of spring wildflowers. Her father had kept records on the same land while she was growing up and they had made it into a family affair. Who would be the first to spot a returning bird or the first bloom of a wildflower species?
When Nina returned with her husband to the farm (now the reserve) in 1976, she began keeping the same records of spring occurrences. She collected data in her journals every spring. Records exist for this same location from 1936-1947 and again from 1976 until 1998. Those records are an amazing resource for scientists.
As Joann and I surveyed the property for birds that were using the land as they migrated through, and then later in the season for those nesting and raising young, we also enjoyed the wildflowers we came upon. Sometimes we would take note of the location and then return after finishing our birding for the day so Joann could photograph the flowers.
At the end of that survey, the staff at the reserve hosted a celebratory dinner near the Shack. The Shack was the weekend retreat of Aldo Leopold and his family in the 30’s and 40’s. It was an abandoned chicken coop when they bought the land, and they renovated it into their weekend retreat using found windows and a door, along with recycled wood planks. It has a fireplace made from local stone and the original beds were made out of snow fencing and hay. It is the only chicken coop on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the staff members of the reserve gave us a tour of the Shack and told us about the family and the times they stayed there. We also walked a trail that took us past the old farmhouse foundation and basement and on to the site of “the good oak,” from the February essay in A Sand County Almanac.
This spring, we again volunteered to survey the reserve for migrating and breeding birds. Sadly, Nina Leopold Bradley passed away on May 25, 2011 at her home on the reserve. As we finish up each of our birding trips, we’re disappointed that we can’t stop in to tell Nina what we found that day. But we were lucky enough to have known her and to have shared conversations with her on the land that she loved.