‘They’re Back!’

As I sauntered down the driveway toward the gravel road for my nearly daily walk, first came the “j-ha-weeep” call in the grove causing me to stop and scan the tree tops. Just as I spied them, two pair of Wood Ducks took flight. To no one but myself came my loudly spoken, “They’re back!”

Yes, this is a celebration of spring! How many of us are guilty of such excited exclamations? And, interestingly, this exclamation isn’t just about our feathered friends. Native forbs, and particularly Pasque Flowers, can create the same excitement. All signs of a changing of the seasons, and with certainty, winter is behind us!

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Yes, even the Pasque Flowers are back … although slower than in the past few years.

Shufflling off the shrouds of winter, especially when the expected joys of a warming spring are seemingly pushed back by April blizzards, can be so frustrating. So our shouts of “They’re back!” are perhaps more meaningful now we’re starting to feel and see that Spring is “sprung.” Warmth is once again soothing the soul.

And with it comes almost a daily welcoming of migrating birds with even the most casual of bird lovers thrilled of their first sighting of a Robin, or the sighting of an expected spring flower. For the past few weeks I’ve driven to a hillside that is kissed by the warming sun which promotes the arrival of purplish Pasque Flowers. Some call these “May flowers” because of the blooms were often noted in May because of the long, Minnesota winters. Climate warming changed this, and reviewing my files these past few weeks prove that I have taken Pasque Flower photographs as early as mid-March. On my hill the Pasques were nowhere to be seen even last Saturday. On Tuesday, though, the blue natives were erupting over the crest of the hillside. And, yes, I said it. “They’re back!”

We each seem to have our own sighting of significance be it bird or flower. When my late wife, Sharon Yedo White, would greet me with her, “They’re back!”, she was speaking excitedly about Great Blue Herons. Some go with the poetic, lazy and poetically looking flight of White Pelicans. Color me guilty. Recently, as I was leaving the bank, a flock of a dozen or so seemed to hang in a brilliant blue sky like a luxurious mobile above the mouth of Big Stone Lake, showing alternate brilliant whites and stark blacks against that deep blueness. I had to pull aside, get out of the car and watch for several minutes. “They’re back!” I said to a bank patron as he walked past toward his car. “They’re something to watch,” he said, turning momentarily to watch the seemingly effortless glide.

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Like a mobile in the sky, the White Pelicans seemed to hang in the air above Big Stone Lake.

Within the past few days a dear friend spoke of seeing her first Bluebird, and several of us have seen the spindly Yellow Legs. American Avocets are mentioned. Friends who share their wooded deck with wrens mark their return as a sign of spring. Loons are now appearing further north, and yes, one mid-morning last week walking over to the studio a group of five Sandhill Cranes flew over. I recognized the sound and looked up immediately, and there they were, just like we had seen them in the Grand Island, NE, area several weeks ago.

This year, with a lingering winter and what we now consider unseasonable late snows, it seems more than usual that we humans have our eyes pealed to the sky seeking individual sightings of an avian spring. Perhaps that was the impetus for taking in the awesome experience of the Sandhill Crane migration. We were among thousands, many of whom make this trip to central Nebraska an annual pilgrimage. For us it was a quick, three-day road trip, and one we’ll never forget.

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Although their favored nesting tree partially collapsed in a winter wind, the Wood Duck couple came to once again scout the grove for nesting sites.

We are fortunate in this part of the state to be part of the western edge of the Mississippi Flyway, and thanks to the many wetlands and the various prairie rivers, we have a field guide bonanza. Indeed, Big Stone Lake is simply a wide and long portion of the Minnesota River, as is Marsh Lake further downriver, and below that, Lac qui Parle Lake. Marsh Lake contains one of the largest White Pelican rookeries in the nation, so the pelicans we see around here have likely flown from that next widening of the Minnesota River.

And, we have enough restored native prairie around us that we can see two increasingly rare birds thanks to the demise of their grassland habitat, the Meadowlarks and Bob-o-Links … the upside down bird. And, yes, people have expressed their “They’re back!” for both species in the past few days.

Some bird species are simply passing through. That vast family of warblers among them. Others, though, are now here and seeking nesting sites. Several of the muskrat mounds in the wetlands have been scouted and claimed by paired Canada Geese.

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Many of the Canada Geese have paired up and searching the shallow wetlands for nesting possibilities.

Since the first sighting in the grove the other morning I’m now watching one pair of the Wood Ducks scouting the trees. Half of the tree they used in the past topped over in one of our winter winds. Perhaps enough of it remains that they’ll reclaim it for nesting. We’ll see. Moments ago a pair was standing on the bent trunk surveying the neighborhood. I can only hope.

Thanks to both the woody grove and restored prairie, we’re fortunate to have many species of birds and native prairie flowers both returning and staying for much of the summer. Prairie Smoke is perhaps our next debutante forb, and the leaves are just breaking through. Another sign of spring as we await the first sightings of the colorful Orioles and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks. For them all I can barely wait to say, “They’re back!”

War on Water

Apparently the war on water has escalated. On both surface and subsurface waters. This is a battle much time and effort has been spent in the past, and involves such tactics as canoeing with board members of the state’s corn growers association, being a 12 year board member of a river advocacy group, and even having been awarded the coveted Riverkeeper award … an honor I certainly don’t take lightly.

Now with the continued assault of our natural resources by the Republican Party on apparently all levels of government, mining and other industry, Big Ag and our so-called president, I’m asking for your help. For the past few months I’ve been trying to decide just when and where I should go to complete a photography project I began last summer, and fear I can wait no longer.

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Waters from a “protected” stream enters the muddy Minnesota River in Renville County, taken in the summer of 2017. 

This information came through on Tuesday: On Monday, April 16, the Minnesota House of Representatives voted 69-56 to pass a bill that will block the state’s Groundwater Protection Rule from going into effect without legislative approval. The rule would have regulated farmers’ use of nitrogen fertilizer in areas where groundwater is sensitive to nitrate contamination.

Followed by this from my state representative, the very same man who blamed goose shit as the main culprit  for polluting our troubled surface waters: “We also object to author Rep. Jeff Backer’s claims that agricultural producers were ‘blindsided’ by the proposed rule. The draft rule is the product of a planning and rule making process that began in 2010, and has been the subject of nearly unprecedented public outreach and engagement by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.” This was reported by Friends of the Mississippi River.


An aerial image of the confluence of the clean St. Croix River with the Mississippi, where most of the dirtiness comes from the Minnesota River upstream.

My project has a pre-published title of “Art of Impairment.” It is an effort to use photojournalism to highlight our state’s impaired waterways, and I’ve attached some of the images so readers can see where I’m headed with this.

This effort follows my earlier “Art of Erosion” project, which was jointly sponsored by CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) and the Minnesota Master Naturalist program. As a Master Naturalist, I was humbled that they would agree to partially sponsor the 20-canvas show with about ten “pull outs” explaining the cautionary story of what erosion is costing us. And CURE stepped up immediately to volunteer its sponsorship after viewing the initial images, an effort to portray the ugliness of the loss of life-sustaining top soils in an artistic and beautiful manner.

Big Stone County Wetland, 2017

Birds walk on the matted algae on a Big Stone County wetland adjacent to a small dairy. No, this is not a manure lagoon. 

The Art of Erosion has been hung at various conferences in two states, including meetings of the Sustainable Farming Association, at least three University of Minnesota Extension Service sponsored events, MOSES (the largest organic farming meeting in the U.S.), and others. It was also a part of the Smithsonian Institutes’s traveling Water Ways exhibit, and has hung in two one-person exhibits. Pieces of that display have been loaned for use in other educational exhibits. I can only hope that the Art of Impairment will reach as many people, if not more,  upon its completion.

My hope is to portray ample examples of impaired waters that are being polluted by runoff and drainage. Algae-choked waters, for example. Please address emails at jsjawhite@yahoo.com/ to explain what you have witnessed, and where, and I’ll make an attempt to get there as soon as humanly possible. One image I envision is an underwater closeup of micro-organisms of a lethal algae bloom.

Minnesota River Backwater, 2015

Algae chokes a backwater of the upper Minnesota River. 

Wholly a third to a half of the entire state of Minnesota’s waterways are impaired by unhealthy farming practices and urbanization. That includes all the rivers, lakes and wetlands basically south of I-94 to the Iowa border. Lethal algae blooms have killed pets, and few, if any, of the aforementioned waterways are safe for swimming. Many of the fish and game harvested from many of the waters carry advisory warnings. Yet, people like Jeff Backer and others are intent in continuing to reduce and/or prevent protective legislative actions to even halt the continued polluting of the waterways. Not just statewide, but nationally as well. Our natural resources are under attack, and as such, our existence on the planet is at stake.

Backer’s political party, and the nation’s president, seem intent (if not, content) on eliminating all safeguards for both our surface and groundwater sources. It’s as if they simply do not care.

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Algae found typically on a prairie wetland … this in Big Stone County. 

Mine is only a small part to hopefully bring these issues to light. I don’t believe humanity is ready to completely poison the planet, and most particularly the lifeblood of our existence … water. In so many ways we’re at war over our rights of protecting both surface and subsurface waters.

I’m asking for, and need, your help.

A Calming of the Sea

During our recent trip to Juneau, our host, Rob Murphy, spent considerable time watching the waves on the fjord just past the bay framed by their expansive living room windows. We had dropped crab pots into the surf in about 75 feet of water on our first morning, and on three of the six mornings the surf was too roiled to check the pots. Rob, however, had a bigger goal in mind.

On one side of one of the huge islands distant in the fjord was a sea lion rookery, and the former son of the prairie was intent on showing us a slice of nature we might consider unique. There seemed to be two constants involving their bay and the nearby fjord. Their immense collection of tide chart booklets (along with cell phone aps!), and the continued monitoring of the waves.

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A few hundred of the Steller Sea Lions nestled in a rocky rookery near Juneau.

Yes, we have waves of our bluestem prairies, and some hearty winds. Yet there on the visual fjord white caps ruled the waterways most of the week, and on some days the rollers were rougher than on others. Rarely did we see a sea without white caps. One afternoon we visited a popular beach where we sat to watch the deep rollers of the open fjord as the tide came in, smashing rocks with clarity and purpose, sending spray high in to the air. Earlier we had debated on whether to bring a picnic dinner to the beach, and thought we were wise in eating lunch before we set off for the jaunt up the highway.

On our last morning Rob and I headed into the fjord on calmer seas to check the pots and bring them back to his shop, and we happily caught three “dungy’s” that were of legal size. We would add steamed crab legs to our brunch, with the leftovers going into Kaye’s incredibly delightful and delicious Cioppino, a tomato-based fish stew.

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The sound was incredible, a cross between the loud murmur of a huge ball stadium and, oh, a Nebraska feedlot, with mooing and cooing mixed with barks. 

“I think we can go … if the seas remain calm,” Rob had said as we headed back from collecting the pots. Later in the morning we headed to his workshop to clear the path to his cruiser, which we would ease into the water a few hundred years distant.

Obviously I know so little about the sea. No, there weren’t whitecaps, yet the sea was in constant movement, rolling easily across the horizon. Rob took us on a long boat ride up the coast, bouncing from wave top to wave top, past the little island with the lighthouse, and even the beach where we had watched the rough seas the day before. “Some of this,” he said of the sea, “is residual effects from the roughness yesterday. It takes some time for it to calm down.”

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They were amazing climbers, crawling up the cliff face like legless goats. 

After a while, he turned the boat and headed more westward and away from the mainland before slowing the boat and pointing to the windy side of a steep and wooded island. It took awhile to realize we were not seeing tan and gray rocks. Ah, yes, the rookery. Using a zoom that reached out to 600 mm, it was nearly impossible to focus and shoot. We were rolling, up and down, even lurching at times, and some of my images were of sky, others of water, and yet still enough to have captured some of the Steller Sea Lions. These are more common in the northern waters.

My dear friend, Mary Gafkjen, Rob’s sister, suggested I crawl into the hold and stand up through a deck port for a freer view. We were a few hundred yards out from the steep little island, yet the sounds were incredibly unique, and windblown for a rather eerie effect. A few weeks ago we were in Nebraska to witness the annual Sandhill Crane migration, and the sounds of the birds was simply unforgettable. Years ago I spent a late afternoon and evening in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana and came home with memories of a deep, mental audio imprint. And, now, with the Sea Lions, I witness my third such imprint.

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Their climbing is much like that of a caterpillar, by raising their mid-body up on their front and back fins, then inching forward. 

Not to diminish this experience, but it seemed the overwhelming sound was almost like a cross of a huge Nebraska feedlot, with “mooing” or “cooing,” to the loud murmur of a crowded ballpark, all with intermittent barking. The “barks,” I’m told, were those of the California Sea Lions that have migrated this far north.

Then there was the visual, and especially seeing mammals that seemed so awkward out of the sea, climb so high into the rocks along the steep cliffs of the rookery. Apparently their climb is similar to a caterpillar crawl, where they lift themselves up on the front and rear flippers to scoot forward or up.

Here is some information gleaned from an Alaskan Fish and Game website:

“Steller sea lions use rookeries and haulouts on land to rest and suckle their young. Adult females must continue foraging while nursing their pups, and the pups’ bodies are well-adapted to fast while females are hunting prey during 1-2 day trips. By their first spring, pups are able to reach similar diving depths as adults but do not do so as frequently. As pups grow older, their swimming and diving patterns grow to resemble that of older sea lions. The behavior of older juveniles and adults appears to track the behavior of their prey; for example, deep diving as prey move deeper during daylight, a focus on night-time behavior while prey are shallow and the gathering of many sea lions at places with seasonal runs of forage fish. Foraging trips are usually within a few tens of miles off haulouts, but the longest recorded continuous foraging trip was 550 miles (900 km) into the Bering Sea. Older juvenile sea lions can dive to at least 1500 feet (500 meters) and stay underwater for over 16 minutes. When swimming, Steller sea lions use their front flippers for propulsion and their back flippers to steer. When moving on land, they use a “rolling walk” on all four flippers by pulling their hind flippers under their body. Steller sea lions are capable climbers, often found high above the water on cliff faces.”

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It’s impossible to capture the true magic of the moment, not from the sounds of the Sea Lions nor the roll of the sea.

Fortunately there was ample time for us to simply roll with the waves to watch and listen. The Sea Lions paid no attention to our smallish boat bobbing in the sea. This was truly a remarkable experience, and for me, one that was quite unique. Rob and Mary kept asking if I had captured anything, for focusing and shooting was a complete “crap shoot.” Honestly, I cannot take credit for how the photo imagery turned out, for many of the images were in sharp detail, thanks to advanced modern photography technology.

Sometimes such imagery is magical, and other times the images pale to an actual experience in the field. I can vouch that this was the case, for I cannot capture for an audience all of the true magic. Not from the Sabine. Not from the cranes along the North Platte. Nor from the sounds of the Sea Lions and the roll of the sea. Then, again, who can?