Living on the Lake: Drings reflect on a natural life
Readers of the Star Journal are familiar with Peter Dring, whose column, “The Natural Enquirer,” offers insightful and often witty comments on the natural world and its fascinating flora and fauna. Now, Living on the Lake readers will also enjoy his writing, as he is contributing a new column to this magazine, “Stories from the Shore.” Over the years, Pete has earned numerous honors for his work, among them Conservationist of the Year from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Chicago Audubon Society. He has also held offices in many organizations and published a number of scholarly articles. How Pete came by all this knowledge is a long and interesting story.
Years ago, when Pete was completing his higher education, he chose two fields of study: botany and psychology. Both have served to define his life in ways that were surprising and satisfying for him and his family over the past decades.
He and his wife, Carolyn, still consider themselves incredibly lucky that, in the late 1950s, Pete landed the job of overseeing a nature center within a 15,000-acre forest preserve just 20 miles from downtown Chicago. For more than three decades, they lived there, communed with nature, raised four children and hosted hundreds of thousands of visitors at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. In 1970, Pete was appointed director of the center, and he served in that position until his retirement in 1994.
“I was basically a teacher there,” he says. “I became sort of a jack-of-all-trades, talking about mammals, birds, fish, plants, weather…everything, really.”
“I think it was my training in psychology that led me to realize that people were fascinated with birds,” recalls Pete. “I decided to concentrate on that, and it soon became my life’s study.
“It’s one thing to see a photo of a bird, better yet to see one through binoculars,” he says. “But to hold one in your hand, open your hand and feel it flutter and watch it fly away…that’s really special.”
His efforts led him to attain a Master Bird Banding permit and become an expert in ornithology, which he still enjoys today at the couple’s home in Land O’ Lakes. For Pete and Carolyn, spring and summer days are spent keeping an eye on area tree swallows and loons on their lake, part of the Cisco Chain up on the Michigan border.
“Since 1960, I have trapped and banded several tens of thousands of birds,” he explains. “We want to learn more about their migration routes, especially. We wait for someone to find a bird, record its band number and report it back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
The tree swallow adventure began all those years ago on the Illinois nature preserve. “I was putting up some ‘no fishing’ signs along the shores of Long John Slough,” Pete recalls. “Then I thought, why not attach some nest boxes to the back side of the signs?”
When the nest boxes filled up with swallows, Pete added more boxes, then more and more. And he never really stopped. Now at home in the Northwoods, he and Carolyn head out in their canoe every May to pound in posts along the lakeshore and Helen Creek, setting a box on each one.
“We put up 40 boxes around nearby waterways for tree swallows,” says Carolyn. “Then we go back and check them for eggs and wait for the hatch, and then band the little ones.”
Pete also bands the adults, if he can catch them on the nest. “They get used to you,” he says. “I’ve noticed some come back year after year, almost to the same nest box. They’ll lie there in your hand, look up, like ‘Oh, it’s you again.'”
By July, the Drings’ tree swallows are grown and ready to head back south. “They congregate somewhere just before they leave,” says Pete, “but we don’t know where.” And by late summer, the nest boxes and posts are collected in the canoe, cleaned and stored in an old outhouse, ready for next spring.
In a roundabout way, it was birding that brought the Drings up north from Illinois. “Years ago, our oldest son, Tim, was studying loons in the Land O’ Lakes area for his master’s thesis,” says Pete. “We came up to help him lug all the school equipment back and just fell in love with the area.”
Ironically, after decades of living in the middle of a wilderness with no neighbors, Pete and Carolyn now share “their” lake chain with hundreds of other property owners. They wasted no time in making friends and getting involved in the area lake association.
“Our Cisco Chain is part of a watershed controlled by a dam system,” he says. “Our lake association is in the process of trying to purchase the dam that maintains our water level.”
It’s a complicated process, one that the Drings are anxious to see resolved. As a Loon Ranger (a volunteer who helps monitor loons), Pete knows how important a steady water level is to the nesting birds. “Last year it was black flies that chased the loons off their nests,” he says. “They’ve done better this year, but their nests are in constant danger from rising and falling water levels.”
One of the things Pete appreciates about living 300 miles north of his old stomping ground is the differences in the habitat. “We came from open prairies and oak forests to bog habitat in a boreal forest,” he says. “It’s entirely different and I’ve had to learn about 15 to 20 new species of plants, not to mention animals and birds. I love it, though, being outside and learning-that’s who I am, part of my being.”
And the bird banding hasn’t stopped, either. It’s an ongoing task for Pete, who has perfected the safe capture of birds. “I use three main methods,” he explains, “including wire traps or nets, large mist nets and, of course, lifting baby birds off a nest.”
Capturing and banding is done throughout most of the year, including in the winter time. “You just don’t know what you’ll get. You’ll have residents and migrants and a lot depends on the cone crop and other natural food available,” he says. “In the winter, I’ll trap and band woodpeckers, grosbeaks, chickadees, finches, pine siskins, whatever shows up.”
Winter feeding is important to attracting the birds into Pete’s nets. He offers suet, sunflower and safflower seeds (hulled or whole), white proso millet (not red), cracked corn for the doves, peanuts for the blue jays, and thistle seed for winter finches.
“We’ve had such mild winters lately, the birds have fared very well. With snow measuring 25 inches or less in the woods, it’s been pretty easy for all the wildlife.”
Deer have benefited from easy winter conditions, a fact that doesn’t necessarily please Pete. “I don’t like deer,” he says. “I remember when I spotted the first deer print at the preserve in Illinois. It was in the early 1970s, and things were never the same again. Now you walk through the woods and see the browse line four to five feet off the ground; everything below that was gone.”
“When the deer population continued to increase, we lost 70 percent of our wildflowers,” he says, adding that deer cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage each year, mostly due to vehicle collision damage and the destruction of ornamental plantings. He also notes that deer play a role in a number of motor vehicle fatalities in this state. In fact, in 2010, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 14 people died in 13 motor vehicle-deer crashes.
As autumn approaches, the Drings will enjoy the change. Being avid photographers, they appreciate the beauty. “The trees are much prettier here,” says Carolyn. “In Illinois it was mostly brown from the oaks. We like to see the cold weather increasing the water clarity in the lake, too.”
Pete will continue to write his nature columns, sharing what he’s learned. Teaching is another thing that hasn’t stopped for him. “All those years, having busloads of kids come out from the city,” he recalls, “they were scared of the woods. They didn’t want to go out there with all the wild animals. I’d lead the way and say, ‘I’ll chase them off, you just follow me.'”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer living in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Northwoods Commerce and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazines.