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Teaching couple raises awareness about winged travelers

Patty and John Mueller are long-time environmental educators. Their newest mission is to teach people about the importance of preserving habitat for neo-tropical, migrating birds. (Hudson Star-Observer photos by Randy Hanson)1 / 3
Costa Rica is a small Central American country between Nicaragua and Panama. The Osa Pennisula, where many songbirds that visit the Upper Midwest in the summer spend most of the year, is near the border with Panama. 2 / 3
A Baltimore oriole eats grape jelly from a feeder in North Hudson. Orioles are one of the species of neo-tropical birds that fly thousands of miles from Central America to the St. Croix Valley each spring, and return in the fall.3 / 3

John and Patty Mueller will be traveling to Costa Rica for three weeks in July as a part of burgeoning effort to raise awareness about the countless songbirds that migrate between there and Hudson each year.

It’s a natural thing for the two Hudson schoolteachers to do. They were both environmental educators and naturalists, fresh out of college, working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, when they met 33 years ago.

“So we’ve always had this interest in the conservation of birds, and teaching people about birds and what they can do to have a smaller footprint on the earth,” says Patty, a ninth-grade science teacher and advisor to the Sustainability Club at Hudson High School.

The Muellers sat down for an interview on the shaded patio of their house near the high school at the end of a recent school day. They were asked to explain all the talk about neo-tropical, migrating birds that Hudson organizations and residents have been hearing and how they are involved in the effort.

Patty did most of the talking. John, a fifth-grade teacher at River Crest Elementary, had a cold that caused him to cough when he talked.

It all started a few years ago with an informal group of St. Croix Valley residents coming together to support the establishment of a sister parks relationship between 13 national parks in the Upper Midwest and seven parks and conservation areas on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.

The Osa Peninsula is where many species of birds that migrate to the St. Croix Valley spend the majority of the year. They include Baltimore orioles, thrushes, scarlet tanagers and numerous species of warblers and flycatchers as well as blue-winged teal ducks, osprey, hawks, sandpipers, cuckoos, swallows, catbirds and vireos.

Christopher Stein, superintendent of the National St. Croix Scenic Riverway, led the effort to establish the sister parks arrangement, which culminated in the signing of the agreement in Costa Rica a year ago.

In writing about the agreement, Stein noted that neo-tropical, migrating birds spend only about 25 percent of their lives in the Upper Midwest, and the other 75 percent either in Central or South America, or migrating between here and there.

“We must work with our Central and South American partners to protect habitat in their countries as well, so that neo-tropical migrants always come back north each spring,” Stein wrote a couple of years before the agreement was signed.

The purpose of the sister parks arrangement also is to encourage residents of the St. Croix Valley to do what they can to improve the habitat of migrating birds -- primarily by planting trees, shrubs and other plants that sustain the birds.

“It’s time to think of our gardens and landscapes as having another role: as places to sustain songbirds and other wild creatures,” says an Audubon Minnesota booklet that the Muellers gave to a guest. “As the human population grows, there’s less and less room for wildlife. Our gardens and landscapes now are vitally important to preserving and sustaining nature’s diversity -- birds, bees, butterflies and others.”

The key is native plants, according to the Audubon Society. The natives are adapted to local conditions, generally require less water and fertilizer than non-natives, and attract native leaf-eating insects that are a big part of songbirds’ diets.

“Ninety-six percent of songbirds raise their young by stuffing them with high-protein insects and spiders,” the Audubon Society says.

“Anytime you have native species of trees and shrubs you’re doing the right thing, because native birds have depended for centuries on the native trees and shrubs,” Patty added.

The Muellers' role

Last November, the Muellers became active in the Tropical Wings citizens group to help organize the Bird Migration Celebration that was held May 2-4 in communities up and down the St. Croix River.

The Phipps Center for the Arts also was heavily involved in the celebration, hosting the kick-off program and sponsoring learning stations at the art benches in seven St. Croix River communities, including Hudson.

John Mueller’s fifth-grade class wrote a song about migrating birds titled “There Are No Borders” and sang it at the opening program.

The celebration also featured a poetry contest, artwork by Costa Rican students and a host of outdoor activities related to birds.

One of the purposes of the sister parks relationship is to support resource management in both Costa Rica and the American parks, Patty Mueller said, “but there is also a big educational component.”

“That’s where we come in,” she added.

When they travel to Costa Rica at their own expense in July, the Muellers will visit with three teachers who came to Hudson last winter. They’ll talk about continuing to connect their students through the Internet and technology, and also plan for a group of Hudson High School students to visit Costa Rica in the summer of 2015.

“As teachers, part of the reason we got involved in this whole effort is that we are always looking at ways to bring interesting things into the classroom. The more that we can do things that get kids excited, the better,” Patty said.

She said they want to learn more about the birds and their habitat on the Osa Peninsula so they can be better resources not only for their students, but the Hudson community as a whole.

Long-time environmental educators

The Muellers have been involved in environmental education for much of their lives.

After college, each landed a job as a biology technician for the Fish and Wildlife Service, through a program funded by the Young Adult Conservation Corps.

They met in 1981 while working with sea birds on Adak Island, part of Aleutian chain.

After their one-year terms were up, John took a job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and spent two seasons with the Commercial Fisheries Division outside of Ketchikan.

The Muellers got married in 1983 and went to work at the remote Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Upon returning to the Lower 48 the next year, they led teens from the Twin Cities in outdoor activities at YMCA Camp Widjiwagen outside of Ely, Minn.

They came to Hudson in 1984 when Patty was hired to be the environmental education program director at YMCA Camp St. Croix. She started the program that now serves about 5,000 students a year.

John, who had a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from UW-Stevens Point, enrolled in graduate school at UW-River Falls to earn a teaching degree.

He went to work for the Hudson School District in 1987, beginning as a fourth-grade teacher at Houlton Elementary.

Patty, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota, later got her master’s degree in teaching from Bethel University. She’s been a science teacher at the high school for the past seven or eight years.

The Muellers have two grown sons, Andrew and Collin, who both of whom are musicians and reside in the Twin Cities area. Collin works at Schuster’s Music in downtown Hudson.

Overall objective

It’s a complex effort involving many facets, people and organizations, but the overall objective of the sister parks arrangement is to preserve habitat for neo-tropical, migrating birds, according to the Muellers.

“The common person can plant habitat in their backyard that could possibly be a stopping-off point for a bird on its way north or south,” John said.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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