About three years ago, I took these pictures of an adult Great Horned Owl (above) and its nestling (below) at Seminary Woods, a 68-acre woodland a few miles south of downtown Milwaukee in the suburb of St. Francis. It was the first owl I ever photographed. I marveled at the young chick and chuckled as the adult sat calmly on a branch while crows cawed loudly nearby. It remains one of my most memorable birding experiences. We published the photo of the owl and crows in our December 2005 issue (page 54).
The site is well known among local birders. It's a great spot to find migrating songbirds on spring mornings. Matt lives nearby and loves to stop in to see what's kicking around.
The fact that Seminary Woods exists is remarkable. Its virtually untouched plant community of trees and flowers gives anyone who enters a glimpse into what Milwaukee's shoreline must have looked like when the first settlers arrived.
The land is owned by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and its Saint Francis Seminary, which is located along the edge of the woods and is the source of the name. The archdiocese has kept the tract out of development for generations but allows access to the public.
For years, the archdiocese headquarters was located in the adjacent Cousins Center building, but financial troubles forced the church to put the center up for sale. It vowed to protect the woods, as did St. Francis's city leaders, but no one really knew what would happen if, say, a wealthy developer wanted the land for condos.
So we were thrilled the other day when Cardinal Stritch University, a local Catholic college, announced its intent to buy the Cousins Center. The sale will include only a sliver of Seminary Woods, but all players say the forest will be preserved. "We have no intention to harm the woods in any way," said Linda Steiner, the school's vice president for public relations and communications. Stritch was founded by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, so the legacy of St. Francis, known to Catholics as the patron saint of the environment, is very much in the minds of Stritch officials.
But what about the rest of the land? "Preserving the woods has been the church's intent forever," said Jerry Topczweski, the archdiocese chief of staff. "I think we've done a pretty good job of that." He said that at this point, the sale of the woods is "unlikely" and noted that conservancy groups have expressed a desire to purchase the land. "The diocese has been part of those discussions," he said.
Ray Klug of the Friends of St. Francis Green Space says that local officials and conservation groups, such as The Conservation Fund, are applying for state and federal grants for money to purchase the tract. And the Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy has an online petition seeking support for state funds. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources may match any money that is raised to buy the land.
Klug is happy about the church's position on the sale. "They're in no hurry to sell it," he says, which gives preservationists time to put together an offer. All of the goodwill is terrific news for this delightful patch of prime birdwatching turf in our backyard. — E.M. and M.M.