Moments of a Season’s Passing

First came the boulder, and after high stepping through the sedges and prairie grasses, there was a flattened space wide enough to simply sit. A glacial remnant perfect for meditation. I had come for my fifth straight day of easing through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge’s auto tour where presently an interesting and seemingly ever changing array of bird species are easing through in migration.

My meditative stone was surrounded by acres of prairie grasses, countless cattails and soaring gulls. When you feel a need to be “grounded” and back in touch with your inner self and nature, you do what you must do. Within moments of the yoga-like breathing the essence of the surrounding nature began to seep into the soul. On this afternoon the air was still. Grasses were stationary and the water surfaces mirror-like. About the only sound came from the gulls overhead as they seemed to soar effortlessly if not gleefully. If only I could see a gull smile.

It was time for the outer world to seep inward. Sounds. Smells. Sights. Interestingly enough, the sun that hadn’t seemed so intense before suddenly seemed to sear my exposed forearms, and then came the realization that my floppy old weathered hat was in the other car along with the small collection of artwork from the street fair from the day before. Perhaps it was the street fair that brought the necessity for this need of internal grounding. 

My five days afield in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge began with the unexpected sighting of this pair of sandhill cranes.

Moments later my walk began anew along a worn and grassy roadway. Perhaps I was on the long-discussed bikeway from the nearby town of Ortonville. About ten minutes later a lone bicyclist peddled past turning to ask if this area was open to hunting. “I haven’t a clue,” I said loudly enough in hopes he could hear my response in his passing. I wondered then what one might hunt for the only animal life I had seen was a yellow butterfly, a few grasshoppers and the gulls. 

At  one point I stopped to survey the possibilities of catching the gulls gliding over a distant wetland through the framing of leafless trees. The scene was quite distant, a bit hazy, and if the photograph worked, it might make a nice image. One of muted colors with a mix of life and death, of a gliding of life mixed with the weathering of death. After another quarter mile or more down the grassy lane I turned back. 

Once in the car I headed toward the circular tour road. Five days before a pair of sandhill cranes were in marshy grasses along the inner wetland across from the edge of west pool. My returning was in the ever hopeful event they might still be around although they had flown the next day. Within this near week I had captured some nice imagery, one of migrating great egrets resting on the canopy of distant trees. I was able to capture one coming in to perch with the resting flock thanks to an old friend, Bill McBean, who was along, and said, “Hey, look! There’s one flying in!”

One of the three adjacent trees where the great egrets had perched in the canopy.,

It was a perfect warning, for otherwise I might have brought my lens down and missed the arriving egret. Moments later we passed a log covered with perched and resting wood ducks in the wood-strewn Minnesota River. So much deadwood floats in the river that it is impassible for kayakers and canoers. Only one group of the “Canoeing with the Cree” paddlers to the Hudson Bay have attempted to paddle this stretch of river because of the deadfall. Since, most have portaged the Refuge via the highways.

On this afternoon of my latest circling of the loop, my first Western grebes caught my eye, along with dozens of ducks and cormorants. A pied-billed grebe dipped underwater just as I pressed the shutter and didn’t surface within my sight range, but its cousin, the Western, did so along with a youngster. My dream is to one day catch the Westerns in their “rushing ceremony” when two males vie for the courtship of a nearby female by skimming across the water, their necks curved and the bodies arched high as they rush across the surface.                                                          

The Western grebe and its youngster in the West Pool of the Refuge.

When turning at the big bend at the end of the inner prairie I slow to watch for shorebirds in the shallows at the foot of the pool. One year I caught several plovers coursing through the edging plants, although this year the growth between the loop road and the pool is much too dense and high for such an image. I’m ever hopeful to someday see an American avocet, and they’ve been spotted here numerous times before. Not by me, though.

Around the bend in the marshy wetland was a pair of great egrets and a lone great blue heron, and all seemed  willing to ignore my presence. The three birds quickly made up for the absence of the sandhill cranes, posing for both stalking as well as flying pictures. I couldn’t have been more blessed.

A great blue heron goes “hunting” amidst the resting ducks.

Sometimes I wonder if this loop around the Refuge has become much too common, too familiar, for I cannot count the number of times through the years that I’ve driven the loop. A few times I’ve walked the four miles, too, and always with a camera at hand. Over the years I’ve caught images of dozens of water birds, plus bob-o-links, yellow headed blackbirds, orchard oriels, the never quiet dickcissels and dozens of other birds in the prairie grasses and cattails. That familiarity never seems to tire for it seems as if there are rarely disappointments. Each time seems to offer a special treat, and over these past several days there have been many.

Sometimes I wonder, too, of those who drive up behind me, and while they seem to offer patience and kindness, once they pass by my car pulled far off to the side I will see them across the way speeding along. I wonder what they must see or experience, if anything, for I find myself slowed and curious, patient and watchful, always looking for some gem in the waves or leaves. 

Although it seemed as if the large flock had departed, this great egret was still hanging around.

Earlier in the summer I explored a flattened piece of bedrock so many times in search of a ball cactus bloom that even now, months later, my paths are still visible. So many times I’ve pulled to the side to capture the cone flowers, or sunflowers, or to follow the flights of rare bob-o-links across the prairie grasses. On this afternoon I crept from my driver’s seat to capture the Western grebes, then later, I spent at least a half hour of crouching to photograph the pair of egrets and the great blue heron. Thoreau offered thoughts of such moments: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

I’m game enough to believe my moment on the glacial rock adequately prepared me for those other moments afield, to make the time to see and feel and record the natural beauty around me for it felt so fleeting. Now is a time of change, of a season’s passage, and with it these birds are here only briefly then gone leaving behind silence and a promise of an oncoming winter. All in a season’s passing.

Travels with Tom

About two or three times a year we have a “dinner date,” Tom Watson and I. Generally we’ll select a nearby steak house that serves a decent wine, ribeyes or pan fried walleyes. The wine comes in small individual  bottles; just enough to almost fill a standard wine glass. This time, though, we chose a relatively new Mexican restaurant in his hometown of Appleton which has both his favorite el camarón and my blessed carnitas. And, we opted for margaritas as our choice of beverage. 

Tom is an outdoors writer who writes kayak-based articles for a paddling website, nature columns for weekly newspapers around the region, well-chronicled guidebooks as well as articles for various magazines. Having a nearby writer friend is a blessing, and besides our interests in silent water sports and the outdoors in general, we don’t need to highly define or explain what we have faced professionally. 

Most nights after our dinner we will end up either on my deck or his, although his has a huge hammock chair where he often sits with a cigar as classical music from the local MPR channel drifts across the driveway from his garage. We’re not so fortunate here. Prairie winds and whatever birds are available for song.

Our first stop was to capture native sawtooth sunflowers in the the rich, fading sunlight.

On our last dinner I asked if he would mind if we took a drive to the nearby “twin bridges” that crosses a narrows of Lac qui Parle Lake with my hope of seeing and photographing an American avocet wading along the muddy edges of the shallow waters. We were blessed with great light for imagery. As we left the restaurant he suggested a detour that turned out to be a narrow graveled, minimum maintenance road that cut between the Marsh Lake dam road and the Twin Bridges.

I don’t know if this graveled lane has a name other than perhaps “the short cut.” My river-based friends have called it that for as long as I’ve lived here. The Marsh Lake road is Ct. Rd 51, and 119 cuts across southwest from Appleton over the Twin Bridges and onward to Dawson if you don’t take the Madison fork. Dusk was on heaven’s door as we veered off the beaten path into a patch of near wilderness along the short cut and it was immediately obvious our little detour might offer some interesting possibilities. I reached for the camera as we entered the prairie’s edge and the marshy woodlands just in case. 

The heron flew from a marshy area to perch behind us on the limb of a dead tree.

I was immediately rewarded. First to beckon was a field of sawtooth sunflowers being kissed by the lowering sun. A couple of quick images were made just as the flowers went into the deep shadow of the oncoming nightfall. So on we moved, slowly, and it seemed every few turns of the wheels was like slipping past the layers of an onion with new sights being presented with each peal. A great blue heron lifted from a backwater slough, then turned to land behind us on a sturdy branch of a long dead tree. Again we stopped, and I leaned through the door for a couple of images. 

Then a stand of long weathered whitened trees stood tall and defiant against a timbered growth of younger trees, ghosts of an earlier time. And so it went, layer after layer, until we reached the Twin Bridges road. We then passed a small deer partially hidden deep in the cattails before moving onward to the marshy lake views as the light that made Monet famous descended upon us. As we neared the second bridge a sudden and unexpected sandhill crane crossed the sky over the marshes. A singular bird, and we couldn’t find its landing nor mate. 

I’ll admit being a sucker for the whitened skeletons of long dead trees.

Ornate views were offered on both sides of the bridges, to the east an afterglow glistening off distant clouds, and to the west, the fading remnants of the sunset. Although the afterglow was more colorful, you couldn’t help but take a deep breath to breathe in all the goodness of the surrounding nature and the beauty unfolding around us.

“Sometimes when I see a forecast for a Northern Lights display I’ll come down here to attempt a shot,” said Tom as we slowly rolled on down into the access point to turn around. “There isn’t much light pollution.”

The afterglow showing the “rainbow” sky above the lake at Twin Bridges.

Two nights later another old friend and I drove down in anticipation of the Aurora display, but the traffic was too heavy to safely stop for the long exposures seemingly necessary to capture the full array of the painted skies. We would quickly drive up the short cut road to the Marsh Lake dam where we were able to secure a decent half dozen shots before the flares died down for the night. If not for the short cut we would have missed the short display that lasted well under 30 minutes.

Taking car forays with the camera is something I frequently do, although it’s more commonly done around my Listening Stones Farm in rural Big Stone County. My little acreage is surrounded by beauty, by both prairie and woodland, and offers perhaps the last remnant of the original Prairie Pothole Biome left behind by the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. All but one percent of that biome no longer exists.

Tom had mentioned the bridges as a possibility of capturing Northern Lights, which led to this image two nights later at Marsh Lake dam … which we reached early enough by taking the short cut road.

Some might argue that the nature Tom and I witnessed the other night along the short cut road wouldn’t have existed back in time, for about the only trees native to the prairie were burr oaks within savannas on the northern slopes of the sometimes rolling terrain of the prairie or along the carved out banks left behind by the Glacial River Warren, or further toward the northeast of us, on the distant moraines and occasional esker … what is called the “glacial ridge.” Lake country. 

As we left the Twin Bridges to drive back toward Appleton darkness had settled over the prairie. At Tom’s place he built a brief bonfire and we shared a glass of wine before I headed for home. My short drive was accompanied with a smile in acknowledgment of a long and fine friendship along with those few unexpected images from the little shortcut he had suggested ­— those travels with Tom was a nice dessert not long after such a delicious Mexican dinner.

Mysteries of Migration

It was during one of those late summer, early autumn tea breaks on the deck when I noticed the swallows. How can you not notice swallows with their jet-like, acrobatic flying? Oh, what joy it might be to spend even just a few minutes of your life with such a freedom of flight! To think that the youngsters were emerging just weeks ago from the hollowed mud nests their parents like to mold to side of the house and wood shop, to now seeing them flying about like their parents. Actually it’s hard to tell them apart as the lessons and endurance of flight seems so important now.

Their flight from the studio elm into the adjacent prairie and back was the tipoff, for they would swoop off and make a loop or two around the studio, and maybe a short jaunt over the big bluestem, before heading back to perch and rest in the treetop. Not being privy into “swallow talk” they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. 

My deck almost seems like the center line of the flyway highway, and my old friend was here for a visit and had joined me for a glass of wine as we watched distant murmurations skitter across the prairie sky, then later as hundreds of distant birds careened across the farm fields with little hesitation and much determination. 

Swallows swooping over the canopy of the old elm mere moments before they suddenly disappeared on their autumn migration.

It is that time of year, and you can see it along the wetlands as well as the pools at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge with geese, ducks and even the wading birds. Especially with the geese, for they’re now making flights across the prairie as family units. Up at the North Ottowa Impoundment geese families are spread along the banks, one family platoon after another, all along the water. They’re now all equal in size, yet the parent geese have their necks stretched a bit higher supposedly in the watch for danger. They’re likely here for awhile yet.

So the fall migration is upon us, and began with the redwing blackbirds back in early August. It seems bird species are here one moment, gone the next. Mysteriously disappearing. Sadly so. Poof! Gone! I find it the opposite of springtime when each new arrival is a reason for joy. Up go the grape jelly feeders for the oriels. Then it’s to Google to recall the mix for the hummingbirds. My sunflower feeders are up all year making the nuthatches, sparrows and finches happy, and the new arrivals make it seem a reunion.

This once again was a colorful summer here at Listening Stones Farm. Goldfinches and oriels were joined by shy brown thrashers, wood ducks in the grove, a couple of yellow warblers and rose breasted grossbeaks all around. The swallows were here, too, although their flight is more remarkable than their addition of colorful feathery. 

Great egrets are gathering on the edges of wetlands in small groups. Is this a clue to a near migration?

Now autumn beckons and whether we’re here on the deck overlooking the prairie skies or, as we did on a recent afternoon at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where we sat as seeming hundreds of Franklin Gulls swept overhead in a steady stream of migration. We were seated on a comfortable, shaded bench next to a beautifully carved natural wetland surrounded by outcrops as the gulls navigated the flyway highway. Looking toward the north we could not see the birds, but as they came over us suddenly they became visible. And they kept coming and coming.

Driving around you’ll see the gatherings of great egrets on the edges of wetlands. Not just the singular bird wading in the mucky edges, but three or four. Perhaps they’re the quickly matured of the summer’s hatch. Who can tell? Soon they and the smaller shorebirds will all have headed south, and along with the ducks and geese, and the wetlands will be barren of bird life as we await winter.

Hopefully I’ll have one more trip this fall, on the first week of November, when sandhill crane enthusiasts gather near Baraboo, WI, for the fall gatherings of the beautiful birds. This will be along the Wisconsin River near Aldo Leopold’s sand farm that became a shrine with the publication of his book of essays, The Sand County Almanac. Last year when visiting his old farm on the bend of the Wisconsin and near the International Crane Foundation, we learned about the annual fall migration of humans to witness the concluding gathering of the sandhills. After a few visits of their annual spring migration in central Nebraska, this seems like a pilgrimage I’d love to join.

A small sampling of franklin gulls flying over the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge this past weekend, a steady stream that seemed to last forever.

Now, though, back home on the farm, murmurations sometimes land here in the grove as birds fly en masse from one set of treetops to another, back and forth, until suddenly they’re gone. Poof. Ah, yes! The mystery. 

It’s said all birds migrate. Some like the thumb-sized hummingbirds travel from these parts to southern South America. Others, like juncos and perhaps the snowy owls, from a colder region to one less chilly. There seems to be no concrete knowledge of why or when, and food supplies, moon phases, available light and any number of other human-based theories exist and are utterly unproven. 

For a few weeks now we’ve witnessed hundreds of swallows on the gravel roads, neatly rising when a car or pickup approaches, all safely gliding off in different directions. And here we were sitting on the deck watching as swallows glided around the old elm and the studio, coming and going, landing and swooping off again and again. I told my friend about such a moment years ago when another friend and I had been watching such a scene with the swallows, although those seemed more prone to land on the eaves of the wood shop and studio, on the clothesline or on the gutters above us on the lips of the roof rather then in the old elm.

Geese families are gathering in places like the North Ottawa Impoundment, feeding and practicing their flying before their huge fall migration.

“We had gone inside for a sandwich at noon,” I said, “then came back out here after eating. The swallows were still swooping and making their crazy racket when we sat back down to watch. We were still sitting there when my friend suddenly asked, ‘Hey, where did the swallows go?’” 

Our piece of the prairie was suddenly deafly quiet, and there wasn’t a swallow in sight. Not on the gutters nor on the eaves of our outbuildings. They had suddenly and simply disappeared, and that was that.

So here we were, the two of us with our respective glasses of wine, when my friend looked over at me and asked, “Like now?”

Looking around I suddenly realized that the mysteries of migration were still alive and well, and all that cheepy chatter was perhaps just “swallow talk” … that chatter of excitement we all seem to have before we embark on a huge journey. “Yes,” I said. “Like now.”