Ed Peartree on some of his many birding banding outings
By Rebecca Gilman
WSO Board Secretary
Fall is here and it’s a perfect time to visit our Honey Creek Preserve in Sauk County. The leaves are turning as our summer birds depart. Migrants drop down to refuel and rest before taking to the wing once again and our winter visitors – like the Dark-eyed Juncos and Tree Sparrows – are just beginning to arrive.
None of these visiting birds signs in to the guest books that always lie open in the Cox Nature Center, but they are most welcome. They are, of course, the very reason WSO has worked to preserve and protect this beautiful 372-acre property. Our guest books do bear the signatures and remarks of our human visitors, though, and these provide a vivid sense of the earliest days of the preserve.
The first Honey Creek guest book is perhaps the most evocative. It dates back to 1962 – two years after WSO purchased its first 30-acre parcel in the Baraboo Hills and almost a decade before the nature center was built. The opening pages are filled with the signatures and comments of the first families of Honey Creek: the Kruses, Coxes, Lukeses and Peartrees. These are the names of the conservation pioneers who ensured that Honey Creek was protected.
As many of our members know, the establishment of WSO’s Honey Creek Nature Preserve is largely attributed to Harold Kruse. In 1958, Harold began lobbying WSO to purchase the land along Honey Creek, and he and his wife Carla worked tirelessly to see the area protected (Carla and Harold Kruse pictured above). David and Hazel Cox owned the farmhouse adjacent to the property and were avid supporters of the WSO’s conservation efforts. Ed Peartree, WSO’s longtime field trip coordinator, also served on WSO’s Records Committee and banded thousands of birds at Honey Creek. Roy Lukes served as president and vice-president of WSO and he and his wife, Charlotte, were frequent visitors to the preserve (Charlotte and Roy Lukes pictured left).
To honor their work in acquiring the land that became the Honey Creek Preserve, Dave and Hazel Cox were awarded WSO’s Silver Passenger Pigeon in 1967. After Dave's death in 1970, the Cox Nature Center arose as a tribute to “their concern for an ever-growing understanding of our natural world.”
The first two entries in that 1962 guest book belong to Carla and Harold Kruse themselves. Next to her name, Carla wrote a hearty “Welcome to Sauk Co.!!” and Harold – as was his wont – wrote, simply, “Ditto.” The entries that follow give a vivid sense of the joy and wonder Honey Creek inspired in those first visitors:
“We’ll count the days till we’re back up here again!”
“Fun! Fun! Fun!”
“This is it.”
“Wish a weekend were longer.”
“Days we’ll never forget.”
Those early entries also tell us that every day wasn’t perfect:
“You can have the poison ivy.”
“Fish ain’t biting.”
“Awful weekend. Couldn’t go swimming.”
“Three bee stings and one snake bite.”
“Turn off the wind!”
But most of all, the entries reflect the adventure of discovery:
“Virginia Rail seen below house in marsh.”
“Caught a catbird – unbanded!”
“Today, my first pasque flower.”
“Today, my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.”
“Looking for chat in the rain.”
“Phoebe in apple tree and Ruffed Grouse in woods.”
“Banded Yellow-billed Cuckoo.”
“Barred Owls to call to. Bobcats screeching.”
“Banded a whip-poor-will. How about that!!”
Sixty years have passed since the Kruses put out that first WSO guest book, but the adventure of discovery is still alive and well at Honey Creek. This past June, visitors to the preserve delighted in observing Dr. Anna Pigeon and her team of students net and band birds during our annual birdathon/bandathon. Of the 32 birds netted on that Saturday, there were three recaptures. Two were Gray Catbirds – one of which was first banded in 2020, the other in 2021 – and the third was a Song Sparrow, first banded in 2020.
Both species of bird are common enough in Wisconsin, but recapturing a banded bird is decidedly uncommon and for observers, the recaptures were inspiring. They meant that these birds had found themselves a summer home and flown thousands of miles to return to it. Not for the first time, bird lovers wondered at the miracle of migration, but the overriding sentiment that day was gratitude -- gratitude for the many dedicated volunteers who have worked to maintain the preserve’s precious habitat, and for our members who have given so generously to protect Honey Creek and the birds who call it home.
As the natural world faces greater and greater threats from climate change and habitat loss, WSO is working hard to ensure that Honey Creek is not only a home, but – in the words of one early visitor – “a wonderful bird haven.” If you stop by this fall, please sign the guest book in the Cox Nature Center and tell us what you love most about Honey Creek. And listen for the birds, singing its praises.