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.

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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.

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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.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

One thought on “Trips in the Refuge

  1. Loved this story and the pictures. I too love watching birds and I do feed them all winter long, then converting to black thistle seed to invite and encourage yellow finches. I hand orange cups filled with grape jelly to attrack orioles and thus far, it has worked. Doves help to keep the lawn clean under the feeders.

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