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Hartung Park Sunrise

2021: The Year in Pictures

December 28, 2021  |  Topics: Spotlight, Stories

By Eddee Daniel

Photography has become ever more ubiquitous—especially online—and photographers as numerous as people who own cell phones. You’d think in the Instagram Age that photographs themselves would have become devalued as a consequence. And perhaps they have in some respects and contexts. But images retain their power to move and to persuade as well as to entertain. Our memories are visual and though we may see millions of them each year, some images linger in our minds—or, when seen, jog our recollections in ways that shortcut the written word.

Followers of The Natural Realm know that I am comfortable with the written word. But you also know that everything I write is accompanied by images. In fact, most of the time the photography precedes and drives the writing. So it is fitting, I think, that I offer you a selection of images in the time-honored tradition of a Year in Pictures. In previous years when I’ve done this it has been to use photos from the year’s stories as a way to refer to and remember the stories. Many of this year’s selections also do this. However, I’ve chosen to include quite a few images that have not yet been published as well.

I’ve used three (completely subjective) criteria in my selection of images. Some, like the sunrise at Hartung Park in the photo above, I simply find beautiful or visually striking and I hope you do likewise. Some represent important or particularly meaningful stories, events, or activities from the year. Other photographs I find meaningful in themselves and I want to share those insights with you. I present them to you in chronological order.

Links in the captions will take you back to the original stories and/or to the park or preserve where the image was taken. And, yes, there are captions because while a picture may occasionally be worth a thousand words, more often I find that a few judicious words can help frame what you are seeing, provide context, or elicit meanings that are not necessarily visually evident. And, in keeping with the mission of this project, I certainly always want to let you know where an image was taken in hopes that it will inspire you to seek out places where you can enjoy our wealth of nature.

Tall trees in the Brown Deer Park woodlot loom over cross country skiers enjoying the trails on January 2, 2021.
Although I’ve seen–and photographed–it many times, the view of the Milwaukee River Greenway from the Locust Street bridge never disappoints. Here looking south towards the low winter sun, the view is equally spectacular to the north. 2021 marked the second year of my stint as Artist in Residence in the Greenway for River Revitalization Foundation.
I don’t know how long these have been in place but I first came across this series of imaginative outdoor sculptures at Mitchell Park in Brookfield in January of this year. This is one of several wordplay sculptures that require the viewer to stand in just the right spot in order to read the word. A single image doesn’t do them justice so you’ll just have to go visit for yourself to get the full effect!
For the second year running COVID19 drove an unprecedented number of people out of their homes and into parks. Here, on an unseasonably warm spring day, we see the crowded Oak Leaf Trail in Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa, which is part of the Menomonee River Parkway.
In March and April, when the sap begins to run, I enjoyed my first tours of area nature centers that demonstrate maple sugaring. I’m not sure why it took me so long! Here we see volunteer Howard Aprill at Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park with a traditional method of boiling maple sap into syrup.
April also brought an historic event. I was honored to help guide a group of Menominee Water Protectors who came down from their reservation up north expressly to canoe down the Milwaukee River, the first documented river trip by Native Peoples since the North Avenue Dam was built in 1843. My personal favorite story of the year.
On a lighter note, a flock of (plastic) birds landed in Lakeshore State Park for a couple months over the summer. It was an art installation by an international collective known as Cracking Art.
On July 6, County Executive David Crowley kicked off the opening of Greenway 15, fifteen weeks of celebration for the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition.
On July 21, as part of my week-long contribution to Greenway 15, I led several hikes in the Milwaukee River Greenway. One of them was for the Green Team at Groundworks MKE. Todd Campbell, here, was a member of the team and totally unafraid of the camera!
Tall Pines Conservancy hosted a well-attended open house in July to celebrate the opening of a new Healing Nature Trail at their Oconomowoc River Conservancy in Merton.
I just love this time-lapse pair of images of pheasant back shelf mushrooms, which I was able to catch inadvertently when I led two hikes on the same trail in Estabrook Park three days apart.
I used my camera as an excuse for not joining in, but I could feel the joy and the power of dance as the Ko-Thi Dance Company led a free public workshop in Lincoln Park as part of the Greenway 15 celebration.
As followers know, I’ve made “urban wilderness” my mantra and theme for a long time now (over 20 years in fact), but it’s not always obvious in the images, which celebrate nature found in the context of the metropolitan region but often don’t overtly illustrate the proximity. Sometimes an image does that successfully, however, like this panorama taken at Emerald Preserve in the heart of Drexel Town Square in Oak Creek.
For pure spectacle there’s nothing quite like a good sunset. This one, taken over the west detention basin on the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa, was my favorite of 2021.
Have you met the Tosa turkeys? While the flock (there were 12 altogether on Honey Creek Parkway when I shot the photo on the left) has been around in prior years, in 2021 a few very assertive ones have taken to colonizing the parking lot at the Metro Market in the Village looking (usually successfully) for handouts. Ask my wife about the time she tried to break up a gaggle in the middle of a busy intersection that had traffic backed up in long lines in four directions.
One of the largest remaining oak savannas in Waukesha County is being restored by eradicating invasive buckthorn, thanks to the efforts of its private owners, Nature’s Classroom and Holtz Farms, as well as Waukesha County Land Conservancy, which owns a conservation easement. In this panoramic view you see an example of the success, with a yet-to-be-cleared thicket of buckthorn on the left and a restored area on the right. The properties were open to the public in October for WCLC’s annual Oaktoberfest special event.
I got lucky. When Barb Agnew and Cheryl Nenn asked me to post their story about bird kills around the buildings on the Milwaukee County Grounds in advance of proposed new buildings, I had no pictures to go with it. I got up early the next morning and went to look. Lo and behold, I found this Eastern meadowlark exactly where I’d hope it would be, next to the UWM Accelerator building. The story, “More glass buildings planned as dead bodies pile up on Innovation Campus,” became by far the most popular post of 2021.
On a beautiful October day at Retzer Nature Center I was fortunate to get a number of more conventionally striking shots of autumn color, but it was this image that captivated me the most and continues to do so the more I view it.
I have posted a number of photos and stories about the Monarch Trail on the Milwaukee County Grounds over the years, but this was the first time I ever witnessed the Friends of the Monarch Trail sifting seeds, which they do annually. The seeds are from milkweed and used to plant more milkweed along the Monarch Trail because the milkweed plant is essential to the monarch butterflies that roost here during migration season.
I don’t go out at sunrise very often. When I do I don’t see a photogenic one very often. That’s one of the reasons good sunrise photos are exceptional. I have a short list of 4 go-to parks that are near enough to rush out to when I think a sunrise might be worth the effort. Elm Grove Village Park is one. I particularly like the symmetry between the pond and the clouds.
Autumn, my favorite season. I could have filled this whole post with images from autumn, so I had to be painfully selective. However, if this one isn’t enough, you can see all of them in my “Thanksgiving Treat” post. So called because autumn came so late this year it wasn’t until late November before the golden glow petered out around SE Wisconsin.
It’s hard to beat an eagle, especially when you can get up close and personal, as you can once a year during Xtreme Raptor Day at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center! This eagle’s name is Valkyrie.
I had to include this shot because I’ve never before experienced what it shows. I was walking along the main dirt road running through New Munster Wildlife Area in Kenosha County when I caught up to this hunter. He turned and we were about to greet each other when a pheasant leapt into the air beside us. He swept up his rifle and shot. The dog went and brought the injured pheasant back, as you see here. (A few minutes prior to this moment I saw the DNR ranger drive in with a pickup loaded with crates full of pheasants to be released, no doubt including this very pheasant!)
Not being a biologist or naturalist, I had no idea what I was seeing when I shot this. I just thought it was a curious subject and striking visual composition. It got even more intriguing when I learned from a biologist that A) it was witch hazel, B) the yellow stringy things are its flower, and C) it’s one of the few species of tree that flowers in autumn. Seen here at Washington Park in Milwaukee.
After months of preparation and construction, a new crushed gravel trail and boardwalk, dubbed “Westabrook Trail” because it’s across the Milwaukee River from Estabrook Park, was opened in fall: The newest addition to the Milwaukee River Greenway trail system.
Red-tailed hawks are not uncommon, but this one was perched atop this birdhouse just a few yards from the Hank Aaron State Trail, near the 35th Street viaduct in the Menomonee Valley. I was pleased to be able to compose a shot with the structure of the viaduct in the background, a clear indication of the urban setting.

Related story: ARTservancy Year in Review

Eddee Daniel is photographer, a board member of Preserve Our Parks and curator of The Natural Realm. Friends of Hank Aaron State Trail, Friends of Lakeshore State Park, Milwaukee County Parks, River Revitalization Foundation, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, Tall Pines Conservancy, Waukesha County Land Conservancy, and Waukesha County Parks are all partner organizations to A Wealth of Nature (but that didn’t influence my choice of images for this post).