Penelopedia: This & That in Northfield

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Rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder - as a Birder

Sun, 07/13/2014 - 3:40pm
I happily read Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series at least a couple of times as a kid and again as my children got to suitable ages. Recently, having encouraged Dave to read them since he never had, I picked them up again myself.

I find myself reading the story of this sturdy, closely knit pioneer family's travels and travails in the last quarter of the 19th century with new eyes -- the eyes of a birdwatcher, aspiring naturalist and conservationist who newly understands the role that grasslands have played in the North American circle of life and the sad fact that we have been plowing up more and more of them -- starting in the very times of which she wrote -- until native grasslands are almost gone from huge areas of the U.S. landscape.

Though Wilder, with the help of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, wrote these books decades after the times she describes, they are as close to a contemporary eyewitness perspective on the pioneer experience in those places and times as we have in our popular literature. While the focus of the stories is on family life, she captures a wonderful amount of detail of the world they inhabited.

1939 edition of By the Shores of Silver Lake,
illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle
Photo credit: Bramblewood Fashion blog


Here is one passage, so evocative of the land and its wealth of bird life. Imagine yourself in Dakota Territory in about 1880, newly arrived in a railroad shanty town where your father has taken a temporary job as shopkeeper while your family looks for an ideal homesteading site. Almost 13 years old, you are exploring the lakeshore with your sisters on a summer afternoon:
Laura and Mary and Carrie walked slowly along on the green shore by the rippling silver-blue water, toward the wild Big Slough. The grasses were warm and soft to their feet. The wind blew their flapping skirts tight against their bare legs and ruffled Laura's hair. Mary's sunbonnet and Carrie's were tied firmly under their chins, but Laura swung hers by its strings. Millions of rustling grass-blades made one murmuring sound, and thousands of wild ducks and geese and herons and cranes and pelicans were talking sharply and brassily in the wind.All those birds were feeding among the grasses of the sloughs. They rose on flapping wings and settled again, crying news to each other and talking among themselves among the grasses, and eating busily of grass roots and tender water plants and little fishes. The lake shore went lower and lower toward Big Slough, until really there was no shore. The lake melted into the slough, making small ponds surrounded by the harsh, rank slough grass that stood five and six feet tall. Little ponds glimmered between the grasses and on the water the wild birds were thick.As Laura and Carrie pushed into the slough grasses, suddenly harsh wings ripped upward and round eyes glittered; the whole air exploded in a noise of squawking, quacking, quonking. Flattening their webbed feet under their tails, ducks and geese sped over the grass-tops and curved down to the next pond. ...The soft, cool mud sucked around her ankles as she stood, and before her the little ponds glimmered among the tall grasses. She wanted to go on and on, into the slough among the wild birds, but she could not leave Mary and Carrie. So she turned back with them to the hard, higher prairie where waist-high grasses were nodding and bending in the wind, and the short, curly buffalo grass grew in patches.Along the edge of the slough they picked flaming red tiger lilies, and on higher ground they gathered long branching stems of purple buffalo bean pods. Grasshoppers flew up like spray before their feet in the grasses. All kinds of little birds fluttered and flew and twittered balancing in the wind on the tall, bending grass stems, and prairie hens scuttled everywhere. A few weeks later, it's autumn:
The weather grew colder and the sky was full of wings and great birds flying. From East to West, from North to South, and as far up into the blue sky as eyes could see, were birds and birds and birds sailing on beating wings.  At evening down they came endlessly from the sky, sliding down long slopes of air to rest on the water of Silver Lake.There were great, gray geese. There were smaller, snow-white brant that looked like snow at the water's edge. There were ducks of many kinds, the large mallards with a shimmering of purple and green on their wings, the redheads, the bluebills, the canvasbacks, and teals and many others whose names Pa did not know. There were herons, and pelicans, and cranes. There were little mud-hens, and the small hell-divers [grebes -- I had to look that one up!] that peppered the water thickly with their little black bodies. When a shot cracked, hell-divers up-ended and vanished quicker than winking. They went far down in the water and stayed there a long time.At sunset the whole large lake was covered with birds speaking in every kind of bird's voice to each other before they went to sleep for a night of rest on their long journey from north to south. The winter was driving them; the winter was coming behind them from the north.-- By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder  (c) 1939, renewed 1967.Wilder's writing puts you right there -- hearing the sounds of thousands of birds, and feeling the wind against your bare legs and the warm grass and soft mud under your bare feet. I'll leave you with those passages, for now, but I may be back with more. Though the books reflect some historical views on Native Americans by European settlers (held noticeably less by the main character, Laura, than by certain others around her) that can be disturbing from a modern perspective, they are well worth reading at any age.

Western Grebes, North Dakota 2014
Categories: Citizens

On the Fence: Birds on Fences and Fence Posts

Sun, 07/06/2014 - 9:57pm
An upland sandpiper standing tall atop a fence post became one of my favorite recurring sights on our June trip to North and South Dakota.

Upland Sandpiper, South Dakota
Fences and their posts are good resting, singing, observing, grooming and hunting perches for a whole range of birds. Here are some more birds on fences in South Dakota, where we had the photographic luxury of ample time, empty roads, lots of fences, plenty of birds, and some spectacular backgrounds.

Western Meadowlark, South Dakota
Northern Flicker, South Dakota
Swainson's Hawk, South Dakota

Western Kingbird, South Dakota
Western Meadowlark, South Dakota
Lark Bunting, South Dakota
And one more Upland Sandpiper, South Dakota
Categories: Citizens

Koester Prairie Dedication - with Henslow's Sparrow

Sat, 06/28/2014 - 2:34pm
This morning I was so happy to attend the dedication ceremony for the Koester Prairie site near Dennison in Rice County, Minnesota, as part of the new Prairie Creek Wildlife Management Area. This 460-acre tract of native prairie/grassland and dry hill oak savanna, grazed but never plowed, has been in the Koester family since the 1940s. They've cared for it as wonderful stewards of the the treasure it is -- "one of the largest expanses of grassland remaining in the region," according to the Trust for Public Land's Prairie Creek WMA web page.



After a nearly five-year process working with the Minnesota DNR, the Trust for Public Land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, and other groups and individual advocates, at last the land was purchased by the Trust for Public Land and transferred to the DNR, which will manage the land. Today's dedication ceremony represents the culmination of this lengthy process, ensuring the Koester family's dream that Koester Prairie will be maintained for future generations to enjoy as a source of inspiration and renewal, as I believe family spokesman Craig Koester put it in his moving remarks this morning.

Henslow's Sparrow
The rare Henslow's sparrow, decreasing in recent decades largely due to habitat loss, and listed as endangered in Minnesota, is resident here in the summer. The Henslow's sparrow prefers a large expanse of grassland, so you're not going to find it in just any old grassy field. And one thing I've learned as a birder is that when a bird prefers a certain habitat, that's exactly where you'll find it, and most likely not somewhere else. I spent about 20 minutes this morning with not another human soul in sight, watching this bird calling on its territory. Like clockwork, about every five seconds, it lifted its head to sing its quick, two-syllable, metallic-sounding song: "tsi-lick"!

Henslow's Sparrow singing
At Koester Prairie, if you climb the rise from the road and go down the other side, you are in almost a grass bowl, surrounded on three sides by a grassy expanse that climbs to the horizon. It's a wonderful setting for creatures like the Henslow's that are uncomfortable near large trees or human-made structures. Restoration work continues on the site, including control of buckthorn, wild parsnip, and Queen Anne's lace. The bird seen in the photos above was making good use of a buckthorn sapling today, though: With winds picking up, it was the sturdiest perch around.



I think it's very important to be aware that funding for this important conservation land purchase, and others like it, comes from the Outdoor Heritage Fund (one of the funds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 2008) as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, as well as from the Critical Habitat license plate program (more formally called the Reinvest in Minnesota -- RIM -- Critical Habitat Program).

Koester family members gather for a photo
Dedication attendees climb the hill for a prairie tour
More information about the Koester land's history and its notable wildlife and plant offerings is available here:
Dan Tallman recently posted some great photos of a Henslow's sparrow in Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum, where it has been regularly heard and seen on the restored prairie there. (I was pleased to be able to find it for a Carleton reunion group I accompanied on a bird walk last weekend.) His post discusses the population decline and notes the importance of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in its recent partial recovery.

CRP land itself is now in decline due to competing economic incentives, as I mentioned in my recent post, Musings on Grass and Economics. Thus, it is all the more important to support and facilitate land acquisitions like the one we celebrated today.

Categories: Citizens

Viceroy Butterfly

Thu, 06/26/2014 - 7:51am

When Dave and I saw a couple of orange butterflies flitting near us on the access driveway while we were checking the bluebird nestboxes on our prairie trail on Sunday, we were excited, thinking they were monarch butterflies. Monarchs, of course, have seen precipitous declines over the last few years due to a variety of factors including reduced availability of their essential food, milkweed.


Being the careful reporter I try to be, and knowing that there is another butterfly that looks very like the monarch, I did a little research before posting these photos. And it was a good thing I did, because this is a viceroy butterfly, not a monarch.


Here (below) is a photo of an actual monarch that was visiting the purple coneflowers in our front yard in 2010:

The monarch has more large light spots on the leading edges of its forewings and more small spots along the trailing edges of its wings, and the viceroy has a narrow line across its hindwings, which the monarch does not have and which is probably the easiest field mark to go by. The monarch also has pale lines across its body, while in the top photo of the viceroy, above, you barely even notice the uniformly dark body. The monarch is also slightly larger than the viceroy, but the difference is hard to tell without a side-by-side comparison in the field.
Viceroys feed on poplar, cottonwood and willow trees, and like the monarchs have (relatively recently) been found to be distasteful to bird predators, due at least in part to their bodies' retention of the salicylic acid found in their food. Their similarity to the monarch is now being argued to be a likely example of Müllerian mimicry, with each unpalatable species benefiting from its similarity to the other, rather than Batesian mimicry, where a palatable or nondangerous species benefits from its similarity to a unpalatable or dangerous species. (For more on the mimicry issue, see http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2011/05/mutual-mimicry-viceroy-monarch.)
In my research I came across a wonderful Minnesota nature blog I hadn't discovered before: Backyard Biology, authored by a mother-daughter pair (one a recently retired biology professor and the other a former biology major, nurse, and at-home mom). Their viceroy-monarch comparison appears here. They've recently been writing about the importance of prairies, as I have, with beautiful photos. Check it out.
Categories: Citizens

Musings on Grass and Economics

Sun, 06/22/2014 - 8:47pm
Dave and I attended the wonderful Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington, North Dakota, June 11-15, and then headed south and farther west to Pierre, South Dakota, and the Missouri River to do more birding on our own. I'll post separately about some of the great birds and other sights we saw. But first, I feel impelled to write about grass. Grass -- and economics.

Prairie and pothole country, central North Dakota
I've written before about our vanishing grasslands (for example, the fact that only two percent of the original, pre-European-settlement tall-grass prairie in Minnesota remains, in fragmented and isolated pockets) and the profound effect the loss of that habitat is having on grassland birds like bobolinks, meadowlarks, and many others. With that consciousness firmly in mind, this trip was both elating and sobering.

Site where we saw a Sprague's Pipit "skylarking"
It was exhilarating and reassuring to see that miles upon miles of empty, rolling grasslands do still exist in some places -- to look around and breathe the clean air and see almost nothing but prairie and sky in every direction.

A never-cultivated prairie area on "school land" in North Dakota
So it was elating, but it was also sobering. That's because although much remains in some areas, grasslands are being converted to croplands at a pace not seen for decades. Record prices of corn and other commodities are leading many landowners to take land out of grazing or out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Almost everywhere we went, we could see what we were told by our guides were newly cultivated and planted fields.

Abandoned houses are a common site in the Northern Plains
Once sprayed and cultivated, even if the land is eventually turned back to a more natural state, and despite any restoration efforts (helpful though they can be), it will never have the rich mix of native plants that once existed. A prairie plowed is a prairie lost. If one believes that the current demand for corn-based ethanol will be a short-lived phenemenon, as many do, it's particularly painful to think of these lands being converted for short-term gain, and their original inherent habitat and grazing value not regained in probably many lifetimes.

American White Pelicans in flight in prairie-pothole region, North Dakota
Grazing is another traditional economic use for grasslands, of course. We heard from our birding guides and workshop instructors -- including prairie expert Stephen R. Jones -- that grazing (ideally by migrating bison, but also acceptably by well-managed cattle herds)  is essential for the maintenance of healthy grasslands, as is fire. Without these controls, invasive species move in and you get an inevitable progression of the grassland ecosystem toward more shrubs and trees. 
Grass and sky, North Dakota
Grass-fed beef and bison are increasingly popular food choices these days, which is an encouraging development for the future of grasslands. However, we also heard from knowledgeable people that in the modern era it's just plain easier to be a crop farmer than a rancher. When you ranch, you are responsible for the well-being of the animals year-round, while crop farmers can go to Florida in the wintertime if they like. And in the Dakotas, some winter respite is quite naturally welcomed by many.
Bison above the Missouri River near Pierre, S.D.
So it's evident that economic benefit is a hugely important consideration in how land is used or set aside. We can't just wring our hands and wish people would nobly leave the grasslands unplowed. People who live in this important ecosystem still need to support their families and aspire to a decent quality of life. Economic incentives -- whether in the form of new or different subsidies, and/or the creation of new land conservancies, and/or the sale of conservation easements, and/or rising demand for grass-fed beef and bison, or other incentives -- will be an essential consideration in saving these lands, if they're to be saved. It's an issue I'll continue to follow closely. And I hope to return many times to this beautiful region.

High country near Pierre, S.D.

Categories: Citizens

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