The campus in the bog: UWM Field Station aids in research and outreach

A carpet of freshly-fallen snow lays over the Cedarburg Bog, and Liz Herzmann is thrilled. She’s leading a group of 18 hikers through the bog to look for signs of animal activity.

“Mammals are tough (to see) on a hike like this because they’re secretive,” she said. “But with fresh snow cover, it will be easier to see tracks.”

Herzmann is an educator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The hike she leads is sponsored by the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog, an organization that works to connect people to this natural area through various hikes, community service opportunities, and other outreach efforts.

The group wends their way down a snow-covered trail, eyes peeled for chickadees, juncos, tree swallows, and redpolls that are flitting from tree to tree looking for seeds to eat. “We’ve got a mating cardinal calling,” Herzmann observes when she hears a distinctive bird song. “You know spring is coming!”

Further down the trail, she stops the group to show them evidence of a rodent tunnel through the snow, and then again to look at a set of raccoon tracks heading towards a small stream. There are deer hoofprints too, and Herzmann points out the path the deer have worn through a field to and from the water.

The mammals might be hard to see, but they’ve left signs of themselves everywhere. Even in the middle of winter, the Cedarburg Bog is teeming with life.

The Field Station

The Cedarburg Bog, located outside of Saukville, Wisconsin, is home to stunning views and abundant wildlife. It’s also the home of UW-Milwaukee’s Field Station, which serves as a base of sorts for UWM students and faculty who are taking classes or conducting research that can’t be done in a lab.

“The UWM campus is right in the city,” said Field Station Director Gretchen Meyer. “It’s very important for researchers and students to have access to quality field sites, both for education and to do their research. We get a tremendous amount of use.”

Meyer oversees all of it. Previously the Field Station manager, she took over as the Director in 2019 after the previous director, Jim Reinartz, retired. She now fills both roles with aplomb. As director, Meyer coordinates, and occasionally teaches, any classes that meet at the field station. One class for conservation and environmental science majors makes use of the classroom inside the Field Station’s main building, and then use of the Bog and other natural areas as an outdoor classroom.

And what better place for an outdoor classroom than in a state natural area?

“State natural areas are areas that are … supposed to represent the best examples of natural communities in Wisconsin,” Meyer said. “We’re adjacent to the Cedarburg Bog, which is actually a State Natural Area. The woods on our property is the Cedarburg Beechwood State Natural Area. So our woodland here is an old growth forest … so that’s another significant natural area. And the university also owns the Sapa Spruce Bog, one of the southern-most spruce bogs in the state.

“So at the Field Station alone,” she said, “we’ve got these three very different state natural areas and we just have this high quality habitat that supports a lot of rare and unusual species.”

Research in the bog

Though the Field Station is located adjacent to the Cedarburg Bog, the bog itself is a protected area in Wisconsin. Parts of it are open to everyone, but the portion of the land that UWM oversees is closed to the public to help protect researcher’s experiments.

Meyer is the person who coordinates that research. Any faculty or students wanting to gather data or conduct experiments at the bog have to submit a proposal to Meyer before they can begin. She not only helps facilitate their work by storing equipment, cordoning off important work areas, or helping to gather data, but she also has researchers write a brief abstract of their work to include in a year-end report covering the Field Station’s activities.

“Erica Young works on carnivorous plants – the pitcher plants that are in the Bog,” Meyer noted. “For Rafa (Sevilla) we provide a site for him to come and collect his insects. In addition to the natural areas, we can also support researchers like Peter Dunn, for example … He needs a protected area where he can have arrays of (bird) boxes that bring in the tree swallows that he studies.”

Other UWM researchers who use the Field Station include biological sciences professor Jeffrey Karron, who studies pollinators; biological sciences associate professor Gerlinde Höbel, who works with frogs; and distinguished professor of geography Mark Schwartz, who studies phenology (indicators of the start of spring), among others.

Meyer also welcomes academics from beyond UWM to conduct experiments. One scientist from Florida has sent graduate students to work in the bog, Meyer said, and she’s gathered up oak leaves to send to a geneticist in New York interested in phenology.

Beyond UWM

Though the Field Station is closed to the public, Meyer still wants to make sure others can learn about the unique ecosystem of the Bog. That’s why she regularly organizes workshops where community members and students can sign up to learn about things like identiffying sedges (“which is actually our most popular workshop,” Meyers said) to herpetology, where participants actually get down in the grass to catch snakes.

She also works closely with the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog, which was formed as a support group for the Field Station. The FOCB works with both UWM and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to organize activities like hikes, birdwatching excursion, and Bog cleanup days, all of which the public can participate in.

“The Friends are great at increasing our outreach,” Meyer said. “They also make a donation to us every year, which is really, really valuable to us. They do things like invasive plant control, which is another thing which with our limited staff, we can’t manage as much as we would like.”

In fact, the winter hike that Herzmann is leading was organized by the FCOB.

Back on the trail, Herzmann points out a series of bird boxes – the same kind that UWM biologist Peter Dunn uses to study tree swallows – and describes what hikers might find inside.

“These bird boxes can produce multiple broods from multiple species,” she explains as they pass by.

Across the field, other bird boxes on posts dot the horizon. Birds flit between the tamarack trees in the distance. In the spring, Meyer said, sandhill cranes will return to the area to raise a brood. She’s seen bald eagles and heard barred owls, in addition to the many mammals that call the Bog their home.

Meyer smiles as she talks about the view from her office.

“I love working out here,” she said, “because I come to such a beautiful spot every day and I get to see so many things.”