March Madness

One of the joys of living is learning from others their personal signs of Spring. Seems as if robin sightings are high among the signals of this refreshing break from the holds of winter, as evidenced at a St. Patrick’s Party last night, even if climate change has convinced these beautiful orange-breasted yard hoppers to stick around for most of the winter.

Everyone seems to have their own sighs of relief signaling the change of seasons. My late wife, Sharon, kept her eyes on the few wetlands of Chippewa County in search of great blue herons. When asked why herons, she said, “Because when they’re here it’s usually warm.”
Many of us also search the wetlands for redwing blackbirds, for they usually start perching on the area cattails in early March. They’re traditionally one of the first migrating arrivals, soon followed by the graceful flying Forster’s terns, which I spied for the first time this year on the wetland ice this morning. Courtships of wild turkey?

Birds are not the only hints given by nature. An appearance of pasque flowers is a signal of seasonal change for many. Pasque flowers are also called “mayflowers” by many, although they begin peaking out on the prairie hillsides much earlier. Even as early as March. Ramps peeking from the leafy carpets excites some, although the asparagus in the road ditches comes later … a sight viewed by some as a true sign of spring. How about morels? Dutchman’s britches? We’re all different, and have our own signals of change.

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Ah, but come March! Sports tournaments aside, nature’s March “Madness” is quite apparent in the countryside right now. Open rivers are corridors of multiple geese species and ducks that crowd the ridge ice along the banks. For years my friend, Tom Cherveny, and I canoed down the Minnesota River from Wegdahl to Granite Falls on the first weekend after ice out, usually in March. This year he made the trip in mid-February with another friend, Scott Tedrick, although Tom and I hooked up the first weekend of March on a 70 degree Sunday afternoon for a paddle down the Chippewa River and its confluence with the Minnesota. Again, we shared the river with squawking geese and ducks, with surprised deer running along the banks just ahead of us, and numerous eagles soaring aloft in the rising air currents.

On these trips we usually recall a trip we made several years ago, the year Sharon and I hosted Jinyoung Hwang of South Korea, which was also the virgin paddle on the river for Scott, a young writer then new to the area. We pushed off from Wegdahl in the early afternoon, and the trees lining the river were full of song of birds. Their chirping and songs were nearly deafening. Because of the high water we actually paddled across a field of native prairie to avoid the traffic sounds of nearby State Highway 7, and encountered hundreds of geese and ducks. We came around a bend down river where three mature bald eagles perched in a tree suddenly swept from the branches just yards in front of our canoes to take flight. “Wow!” screamed Jinyoung.
Wow, indeed. I cannot recall ever being closer to an eagle, and witnessing the vast wing spans as they glided off the branches was something you can’t easily forget. Count eagle migrations as another sign of seasonal change.

Scott surmised that this was a normal paddle on the river, and that he had come across an incredible slice of unexpected natural beauty. True, although the bird life on that paddle had not been equaled in our previous spring paddles, nor since. This was truly an special and actual moment of March Madness.

Here in the age old Prairie Pothole biome of western Minnesota, we often point to the near poetic choreography of the murmurations of redwings and other black bird species, or the skeins of geese venturing from the lakes, wetlands and Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge to feed in the untilled stalk fields. Spring is indeed a renewal of life in the natural world around us, and comes in many forms. It seems much of the awakening comes in the month of March. All of which brings a smile onto the faces of old men and women, for we have survived another grayish winter and so appreciate a reawakening of the natural world around us whether by wing or blossom.

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Truly, this is a March Madness that is so welcomed.

Trips in the Refuge

Yes, there are taxes to do. I could be bent over the jig building a spin fishing rod I had promised a friend for an upcoming fund raiser. Instead I’m looking out over the prairie where winds are pushing snows to a near whiteout and thinking of birds. In this wind-blown snow black shapes clamor for sunflower seeds or their turn at the pork fat, and none seem worse for wear in this intermittent blizzard.


Wild birds are a long time passion of mine, even if I’ve not been adept at keeping a running Audubon log of those I’ve seen over the years. Yet, until old age takes a grasp of my memory, I can still remember specific first sightings. My first curlew up in a wetland near Clinton three springs ago, slowly striding the edge of the water with its long, turned-down beak. Or the scarlet tanager at a park along the Concord River west of Boston. Perhaps my first cedar waxwings in the tree branches outside of an upstairs window of Java River Coffee House before a board meeting of an environmental group; of being surprised at how small they were. There was the excitement, too, of the brilliance my first red-breasted grosbeak perched on a branch, and unfortunately just passing through. I could go on. Maybe I’ve made my point.

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For the second time in my life my home is along a recognized flyway. The first was at our home across the highway from the Little Vermillion River east of Hastings. An area called Prairie Island, this land mass stretches from lower-town Hastings between the Little Vermillion and the Mississippi down to Redwing, and it’s a backwater, wooded paradise. A bird feeder just outside our dining room allowed us to sit for hours at the table watching the comings and goings of a vast number of bird species. Many new sightings along with obvious renewals of song birds I had seemingly forgotten on my 12 year Midwestern hiatus while living in Denver.

Those backwaters were tremendous gathering spots for waders like the egrets and herons. Seemingly every year a “Louisiana” heron hung around two large backwater “ponds” we visited across from the house. High spring waters left behind fish trapped in the pools.


After Hastings we settled into a small prairie town about two hours southeast of here where I ran a country weekly, an area lacking of much avian variety beyond red finches and house sparrows.

Then my now ex-wife and I bought this small prairie farm just up the hill from Big Stone Lake, on a “branch” of the Mississippi flyway, and once again there is an abundance of bird life. More varieties and numbers of geese than I could have ever imagined, and thanks to the last remnants of the pothole prairie, murmurations of red wing blackbirds, starlings and other “black” birds that are as frequent as they are mesmerizing each spring and fall. Terns drift in the wind currents on summer afternoons, and we’re serenaded by songs from the wetlands over the hill each spring. Swallows dart around over the prairie all summer, and gold finches mingle with grosbeaks, jays, brown thrashers and the many woodpecker species, and pheasants “bark” from the native prairie surrounding our house.

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One of the real treasures, and interestingly one that isn’t mentioned much to either newcomer or tourist, is the motor trail winding through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. What a birder’s paradise, and one that seems to offer a constantly changing population of winged characters depending on the season. Damming of the Minnesota River has created a swampy shallow stopover for hundreds of thousands of geese, swans, species of ducks, shore birds and waders in the spring and fall, and acres of prairie grasses create food and nesting homes for bobolinks, meadowlarks and other prairie grass loving birds that have been forced out of our lives (and their’s) by modern agricultural practices. Oh, there is also ample woody terrain for kingbirds, orchard orioles, warblers and others.

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Beyond the driving loop, owls, eagles and huge hawks perch and glide through the exterior of the nearly 12,000 acres of the Refuge. To break it down, nearly 1,700 acres of the refuge is in prairie grasses and other native plants. Some 4,250 acres of water are there for the birds thanks to the Highway 75 Minnesota River dam. Perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of the park are the natural outcrops … nearly 100 acres in all of granite mounds bared by the Glacial River Warren, washed out of the prairie earth by the aftermath of the breaking of the huge ice dam of the glacial Lake Agassiz. While naturalists are attracted to the rare and native ball cactus and the other narrow window of native plants specific to this rare and interesting ecology, the outcrops attract nighthawks and other birds.

A drive on the loop most times of the year will provide nature lovers and birders ample sightings, and it seems no two drives ever offer a diet of the same winged species. No one should be shocked at the chance surprises, such as a bald eagle crashing into the water before departing with a fish secured in its talons, or the sudden appearance and flight of the quite rare “upside down” bobolink. American avocets drop in temporarily, as do the yellow legs. I could go on and on.

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So the blizzard offers a partial white out, and the taxes and rod awaits. I can smell the pork chops and sauerkraut simmering in the crock pot, and despite it all I almost pine for a quick trip through the Refuge just to see what is there to see. My feeder, though, offers a warm refuge for the likes of this old guy, so most likely I’ll simply stay put.

Prayers for the Prairie

Ah, yes, the wind. Gales. Gusts. Lulls. Then, more of the same. All we’re missing is the popping of the sails. Rather, on this remote Minnesota farm, chimes dance beneath anchoring limbs, adding tingling percussion to the seemingly constant low roar.

This is the prairie, after all, where grasses once grew. And the winds continue to blow. In the near distance nowadays, a softness of color hangs along the low horizon just above farm fields. Especially in areas where the grasses are long gone and the fields were tilled bare months ago. Some fields were worked last July and August following wheat harvest, meaning they will have been exposed to the prairie winds for 10 or 11 months before a new crop emerges enough to protect what is left of the soil. Most of the ground was worked after corn, soybean and sugar beat harvests in November. And that softness along the horizon? Dirt, aloft in the winds, misplaced, adrift and gone. Forever.
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At a showing of my “Art of Erosion” images at the traveling Smithsonian “Water Ways” exhibit last summer, a man asked why he doesn’t see dirt along the ditch banks beyond the winter months. “It’s there,” I explained. “It’s the snow that provides contrast, making it easier to see.”

That contrast is an integral part of a showing of the “Art of Erosion” now displayed on the brick walls of Java River Coffee House in Montevideo, which will hang through March. An artist’s reception is scheduled for this Friday, March 10, with the wonderful women’s musical group, Homemade Jam, providing entertainment. We’re calling the event “Prayers for the Prairie.” This will be the first public display of the “Art of Erosion,” which has made the rounds at many sustainable and organic farming conferences, plus the Smithsonian exhibit at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, over the past three years. Common comments fall into the “beautiful but sickening” genre.
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Choosing to hang the 19 canvases and call-out boards came about with much thought and discussion, especially considering the political climates in both St. Paul and Washington, D.C., where a political party seems intent on loosening regulations without much concern for the health of the planet. Consider this a protest display, if you wish, for it is certainly meant as a statement. The “Art of Erosion” was made possible by a manifestation of failed farm policy and a neglect by individual farmers of healthy soil stewardship practices. The images were made on a Sunday, January morning after returning from a trip to Marshall the previous day and seeing the miles upon miles of “snirt” — a colloquialism describing the combination of snow and dirt — along the entire trip. All were made in an area of Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, Swift and Big Stone Counties, and beyond minimal cropping, were not enhanced in any way with computerized post production software.

Interestingly, this idea came on top of a longer drive home from Missouri the previous Thanksgiving when we witnessed snirt along the highways from Missouri through Iowa and into the former prairie region of Minnesota. Hundreds of million tons of dirt, all blown away. Online research showed that Land Grant universities in much of the Midwest, and even into Canada, were concerned enough to post instructions on how to protect our valuable croplands from being misplaced by the winds. Simplest and least expensive was simply holding off tillage until spring. Indeed, that is evident along our roadsides, where ditches along stalk fields remain quite clean.
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Thankfully there has been a lot of conferences and efforts since to convince farmers to plant cover crops, explaining multiple benefits such as a softening of the hard pan, better moisture retention and the addition of crop nutrition elements. All on top of preserving a key component of life … our soil.

Numerous soil experts such as Rick Cruise, professor at Iowa State University and the director of the Iowa Water Center, points that besides cover crops, no-till, terraces, grassed waterways and any number of practices can contribute to saving soil in row-cropping enterprises. He emphasizes that some landscapes are sustainable only under an agronomic system that includes perennial crops – trees, prairie and pasture.

David Montgomery, author of “Dirt—The Erosion of Civilizations”, points out that the earth’s “last frontier” of farmable lands are now being cultivated, and once that thin layer of life sustaining food production is eroded away, then what? Erosion has brought an end to man-made civilizations throughout history. Will snirt be end of ours? Does anyone care? Aren’t farmers and others aware of what is being allowed to happen to this soil?

After a recent Water Quality Conference, a Minnesota State Representative who has since introduced legislation to eliminate a soil saving buffer strip initiative, was quoted as saying that farmers in his district were “great stewards of the land.” A quick trip down Minnesota Hwy. 28, which was the likeliest route for his way home from the gathering in Morris, showed miles upon miles of blown dirt in the ditches and road banks, and several places where windbreaks had been dozed from the ground, eliminating even more protection for this “last frontier” of farmable soil.

Which led to a friend to ask, “What? I wonder which route he took on his drive back home?”