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.

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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.

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