"OK, birders, what's that bird on top of the tree?"
Teacher Lyle Bradley, a fixture in Anoka for about 55 years, was guiding a recent field trip at the Coon Rapids Dam for another one of his sold-out ornithology classes. Along with his queries, he gave the 20 students a copied green sheet bearing his handwritten list of ducks, swans, cranes and birds seen on their last outing. After such trips, he jots down the species seen and how many.
"What I need from you people is, I am going to make a few mistakes, so correct me," said the retired Anoka High School biology teacher. Nobody offered any changes to 195 birds and fowl of 42 species on Bradley's list.
At 84, Bradley's memory is still pretty sharp. He disarmingly shares a wealth of detail about wildlife, dinosaurs and life.
"Do not take life too seriously," he advised his birders, mostly over age 40, "or you will never get out of it alive."
More on dinosaurs later.
Bradley, a former Marine fighter pilot, also has taught community education classes on World War II aviation, explorers Lewis and Clark, and attracting birds to your back yard, said Mischelle Squire, adult learning coordinator for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
"With Lyle, we put his name in [the class catalog] and people sign up even if they are not interested in the topic. People sign up just because Lyle is teaching it," Squire said. "It's word of mouth."
Bradley is a fascinating teacher with a range of interests, Squire said. "A few years ago, when the [NASA] shuttle blew up on reentry, his class had to be postponed because he was going to Texas to look for pieces of the shuttle."
One of Bradley's students is Anoka-Hennepin schools Superintendent Denny Carlson, who has taken his birding and other classes.
"Of all the instructors I have ever had, he is my favorite," said Carlson, 61. "He takes you out to Carlos Avery game refuge [in Columbus] and we listen for sounds, track [bird] speeds and shapes ... He talks about plants, the land and anything that moves. He has a supreme knowledge of the outdoors."
Bradley has an uncanny connection with nature, Carlson said. He recalled a Carlos Avery trip when Bradley asked what kind of big white swans were flying overhead. "Somebody said trumpeters. Then they [the swans] trumpeted. It is like he had them come in on cue," Carlson said.
Early infatuation with flight
Bradley said he has been watching flying things, including insects, kites and planes, since he was 5.
"Anything that flew," he said. His love of flying eventually led him to become a U.S. Marine fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War.
One of Bradley's favorite fowl is the wood duck. He has about 30 duck boxes erected amid more than a thousand pines and black walnut trees he and friends have planted on his 15-acre homestead along the Rum River. He and his wife, Carol, also raised five children in their hillside home overlooking river wetlands in Andover.
Bradley, a founder of the Wood Duck Society, said Walter Breckenridge, a former Bell Museum director at the University of Minnesota, taught him how to talk to wood ducks nesting in their boxes.
"You put the ladder up very quietly and you slowly talk to her. I tell them about the weather and that I hope they have 10 young'uns. If anybody was around they'd think I'm crazy," he chuckled.
"You do that for three or four days, or nights, depending on when she is on her eggs. Then you open up the box lid a bit so she can see you and associate your face with the voice. You do that a little longer each time and finally, you can put your hand on her back."
That gets the hen used to Bradley when he visits the box to gauge when she will hatch her brood, usually more than a dozen ducklings. He said when the peeping babies pop out of the box's round hole, they have fluffy parachutes slowing their fluttering descent to their calling mother on the ground.
It's a thrilling sight, he said, seated in his front yard near three wood duck boxes, two with incubating females.
But even more exciting was a once-in-a-lifetime find almost 40 years ago on a ranch ridge in Wyoming. Bradley led 22 fossil-hunting summer trips, from Arizona to Canada, for Anoka High students starting in the mid-1960s. On a 1970 trip, Bradley said he found a 10-inch toenail and other dinosaur bones.
He gave his finds to the Science Museum of Minnesota and suggested its experts visit the toenail site in the Poison Creek area near Buffalo, Wyo. Museum paleontology director Bruce Erickson led digs at the site for 13 years and unearthed the 60-foot diplodocus skeleton now on display at the museum in St. Paul, said museum spokeswoman Janine Hanson. The dinosaur lived about 150 million years ago in the Jurassic Period.
Bradley tries to keep his community ed classes small. He started with a 16-student limit, but people kept asking to squeeze in and now he says 24 is the max, Squire said.
"We could fill an auditorium with his class," she said. "But now there are 24 lucky people every time."
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658