Being in the flyway was truthfully neither among the criteria nor motivation for us when we decided to buy this farm situated just up the hill a-ways from Big Stone Lake. As we began carrying the buckets and boxes of discarded lath-work and crumbled plaster to the huge dumpsters we were often stopped by the skeins of geese, by both the sound and the beauty of flight as they moved from fields to frozen wetlands.
Then, on the drive back and forth from Rebecca’s house in Clinton, we watched as continuing populations of different ducks stopped on the way through. Redwing blackbirds soon took up negotiations in the cattails on the sloughs along the roadways, and in the grove, flocks of various songbirds came to rest and roost.
Every day became an adventure. Rebecca saw her first merganser, and my excitement in seeing my first curlew was duly noted.
Now, a year later and with the inside work completed, we await a new migration. Over the winter I purchased a photographic blind as part of that anticipation. Already the vees of geese are flying overhead, and a couple of nights ago we watched as two huge flocks of snow geese flew overhead reflecting the golden hue of the sunset.
Someone mentioned that the redwings, which for me have traditionally been the true sign of spring, were seen just south of here. In two days of travel through the area, though, I’ve not seen a single one although there are cattails along many of the roadways and highways.
For ten years we lived in the heart of the Mississippi flyway along the Little Vermilion River just east of Hastings. The Little Vermilion cut through town, then through the near wilderness backwaters parallel with the Mississippi from Hastings to Redwing, a distance of nearly 30 river miles. This land was swampy and wild, filled with trees and backwater lakes. After more than a decade of living in Colorado, moving into the flyway was thrilling every spring and fall as new species of birds continued to find the feeders just outside our dining room table. Hours were spent watching this bird life just inches away from our plates, and really, we catered to the birds with our landscaping and plantings … as did many of our neighbors.
Here in the Minnesota River flyway, which by most accounts is still part of the Mississippi, we see a much different grouping of birds. We certainly see more ducks, geese, gulls, terns and wading birds, along with the “usual suspects” among the warblers and songbirds, here than on the eastern side of the state. Last spring, by chance, one of us looked into the high canopy of the grove and suddenly realized what we were seeing wasn’t leaves but rather hundreds of birds resting from their flight.
Being outside this time of year is special, and especially for the sounds. Each sighting reminds one of that sense of comfort in greeting an old friend. “Welcome back to the neighborhood,” you want to shout. “You missed one hell of a winter.” Ah, yes, seeing them, one and all, is knowing spring is coming. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote, “A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.” I’d suggest the same holds for a March afternoon.
While it’s true the flyway was neither criteria nor motivation, finding an area where the very last less than one percent of the prairie pothole biome has yet to be shadowed by the plow or drained by plastic drainage pipe was certainly in our thoughts when we bought our farm. Just over the ridge to the east, and up the hill and across the road, are two beautiful wetlands, and although this area is definitely part of the sea of summer corn that has replaced big bluestem in the prairie pothole ecology, our county has in my estimation probably the highest number of the original potholes (wetlands, sloughs or whatever noun you choose to use) in Western Minnesota.
It’s these wetlands, my choice of noun, that attracts the geese, ducks, mergansers, gulls, terns, eagles and waders, and the old farm groves, remaining oak savannas and tree-lined edges of Big Stone Lake and a few of the gullies that haven’t been dozed into field configurations, and provides refuge for the song birds. Eliminating these last remaining few pieces of the ecology would likely divert the birds elsewhere.
For now the flyway is alive, although we’re well past the days spoken of by old timers my age who remember when the prairie skies were blackened by waves of migrating redwing blackbirds. These are stories that typically begin with, “When I was a kid …” Yet we can look skyward and see the skeins of geese, sometimes several at once, some with hundreds of birds, all making announcements of an awakening spring. It is up to us to keep our ears cocked and eyes skyward as March marches on toward April.
Earlier this week while Rebecca was gone for a meeting I sat with a cat in my lap on the couch in the solarium and watched a mass of birds launch from a treeline across the field from our farm, a mass that turned suddenly to fly directly over the house. Not a sun blotter, but an impressive number. Meanwhile, skeins of geese continued to pass between the lowering sun and my perch on the couch, enough so that I finally sat the cat aside and went for my camera. And I sat for almost an hour waiting as the sun followed a slow path, and finally a quick sink, as no more skeins appeared … although I heard several pass on the east side of the house nearer the wetlands.
Spring migration, when the sky is alive with sound and feathered fury, is my favorite time of year.