Near Port Washington, in a former golf course clubhouse, photos of chimney swifts and nighthawks have replaced advertisements for Big Bertha and Callaway drivers. This is the headquarters and library of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, a small nonprofit birders’ group headed by Bill Mueller, an energetic, bearded man with flowing white hair. He recalls the time when, on a fall afternoon, he watched as about 175 palm warblers flew over the former course, small brown birds that often wag their tails to expose the yellow feathers tucked below. And there was the other day when he counted some 450 Eastern bluebirds with orange chests winging over the preserve.
As recently as 2008, the 142 acres surrounding the clubhouse made up the 18-hole, par 70 Squires Golf Club, owned by Bruce and Bonnie Bloemer since 1993. But between 2000 and 2008, the number of rounds played dropped about 40 percent, and the course was losing money. While not championship-caliber, it hosted about 100 corporate golf outings a year for businesses in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. The Wisconsin State Golf Association says at least 10 golf courses or country clubs have closed in the Badger State since 2011.
The Bloemers sold the land to an unusual consortium, that of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and a local real estate outfit, Lake Road Properties, for $2.54 million – money that came from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and private donations, including a large contribution from the Uihlein family. “Some golfers said we had left them high and dry,” Bruce Bloemer says. “But it was a business. If the revenue hadn’t declined, we’d still be there running a golf course.”
Shawn Graff, the former executive director of the land trust, says it spent another $600,000 to transform the course into a nature preserve – apparently the first conversion of its kind in the Midwest, he says. Two former golf courses, one in California and another in Florida, were converted to nature preserves, according to a 2013 story in Audubon Magazine, and about a dozen officials from around the country have since called Graff seeking advice on what to do with a closed golf course.
To turn the Squires Golf Club into the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, the land trust constructed 20 additional ponds and planted a variety of habitats – prairie grasses, a shrub land area and wetlands – and maintained a forest that contains a mixture of hardwood and conifer trees. For human use, the trust groomed four miles of hiking trails and constructed two observation decks and two bird blinds. “The goal was to provide food and rest stops for the widest diversity of migratory birds,” Mueller says.
Kim Grveles, an avian ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says, “It’s been a remarkable and quick response by the birds to all the work that they’ve done there.”
Not everyone is happy about the new preserve.
“We gained nothing. We only lost,” says Thomas Winker, the Belgium town chairman. “We lost a lot of golfers and a beautiful manicured golf course. Now we’re left with some weeds and some wild birds … I could care less about birds.” Because a nonprofit organization bought the course, local units of government (including two school districts, two towns and Ozaukee County) lost a total of $19,000 in property taxes.
As of July, 248 different bird species had been identified by preserve visitors, according to Mueller. Noel Cutright, a local ornithologist who died in 2013, believed that by constructing a patchwork quilt of habitats at the former golf course and eliminating the use of fertilizers and herbicides – not to mention the heavy watering needed to maintain a golf course – bird populations would soar. And they have.
The preserve is free to the public and open year-round for hiking, cross-country skiing and sometimes hunting in certain areas. “If you stop moving around, birds go back to their normal behavior,” Mueller says. “If you come out here, plan to be here two hours. If you take two hours, you’ll see a lot more.”