Threshold of a Spring Forthcoming

Initially my reasoning for applying for memberships to birding social media sites from Missouri and Iowa was to enjoy photographs birders presented, and in particularly for Missouri Birders. A few years ago we had just visited the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Missouri where we saw hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese, hundreds of swans and enough eagles to grab your attention. Compared to our home Big Stone NWR, or even the nearby Sand Lake NWR in South Dakota, there was no comparison in the number of birds to see in this slough-ish backwater of the Missouri River near Forest City.

Last spring I added the Iowa Birding, also found on the social media site. Now, though, those two sites are adding something I simply hadn’t anticipated … a threshold of a coming of Spring. This began about a month ago near the calendar page of February as we were buried deeply beneath another blizzard. Images coming from Loess Bluffs and other areas of the Show Me state were offering a semblance of hope as the Snow Geese were offering blizzards of promises that in time this long winter would become the tales of woe for years to come.

Now a month later, similar images are being posted in Iowa Birding. We’ll be next.

So, yes, they’re coming. Spring is on the way even as we face another dismal forecast of snow and wind! 

Sandhill Cranes descending on a central Nebraska plan.

In anticipation, a few weeks ago I was able to secure a three day special package with Crane Trust in central Nebraska to once again photograph the Sandhill Crane migration. I simply couldn’t wait to see bare ground. Moving waters. Birds in migration. We’ll be guided in a special grouping of photographers around the Platte both before dawn and after sunset in search of pleasing imagery. 

This will be my third Sandhill migration. The first was truly an out of mind experience when the birds by the thousands landed in the shallow waters less than half a football field away from our plywood box of a blind. It  hadn’t begun that way for it seemed the birds were intent to fly downriver for another mile or so. My companion cautioned patience, figuring there were many more birds to the east that would most likely glide from the heavens to land in front of us. She was right, and the music they sang through the night was straight out of a distant  geological past. I count that night as one of three other-worldly experiences of my lifetime … the jungle-like sounds at the Sabine NWR in western Louisiana and the waling grunts of walruses at “haul out” rookery in the sea north of  Juneau, Alaska. All sounds you can’t forget.

With any luck with weather and migratory patterns, I may return home a little over a week from now just in time to see the huge Snow Geese migration right here in the western Minnesota prairie. A couple of years ago thousands claimed a near week-long stop over in the wetland just over the rise from my Listening Stones prairie to offer all sorts of wonderful imagery. There were a couple of promising attractions offered the huge flock at the time; that the wetland was thawed and the corn stubble my neighboring farmer had left standing to offer a promise of food.

Getting up close and personal is among the joys of the Sandhill migration. Especially in their courting jestures.

If not here, though, other nearby areas offer promise. About an hour north is a Red River Valley flood control project called North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County, a bit southwest of Fergus Falls, where the Snows  and other migrating birds seem to congregate every spring. A point for accuracy: I’ve actually never made it to the impoundment for the Snows because typically a massive flock will congregate closer to home. Someone described the ascent and/or descent of the huge flocks of Snows as a feeling of standing inside a snow globe, all with the cacophony of their special music. More trumpet like than of violins.

Back in February my nephew in NE Missouri posted photos of a huge flock in one of his harvested grain fields. A few years ago  he made prints of an early migration that hang in our family’s old farmhouse kitchen. I can only imagine how happy this would have made my mother, a lover of nature and wild things, and who is perhaps the one most responsible for my own appreciation of nature. 

A sunrise from my Listening Stones prairie of the Snow Geese in flight.

We’ve had a long, hard winter, and having the pheasants, deer and wild turkeys nearby in and near Big Stone Lake State Park have created a deep appreciation of their hardships and survival skills. One warm and sunny afternoon of late we drove up the hill from Bonanza onto the flat prairie to find a several deer lazing on a snowy meadow before we passed an enclave of wild turkeys meandering along, and just as we neared the state highway, a half dozen pheasants were hovering around a patch of grass in the roadway ditch. What a revered moment in the middle of February, a reprieve from a month of tremendous stress for all three species. And, it seemed as if on this one warm afternoon there was hardly a care in the world. Even our drive by barely caused a ripple of concern. It seemed for them, and for us, a prelude of seasonal change. It turned out to be little more than a cruel hint!

Now in the midst of March I can look back through my years of nature photography and find Wood Ducks scouting through the Listening Stones woodland in search of a nesting tree, and of seeing murmurations of Redwing Blackbirds causing red blurs on the wing. Thanks, though, to the birder sites in the states due south, there is ample evidence that Spring and the birds are on the way. The images of the Snows have mostly departed from the Missouri site and has moved north into Iowa. Hopefully in a few days or weeks the incredible bird photographer Wayne Perala, of Fergus Falls, and many others of us will be adding to the national birder’s collage of Snow Geese moments.

Ah, yes … taken in my backyard of the Snows flushing from the wetland.

As special as seeing the Sandhills in Nebraska, the inner umbrella sketchings of Snow Geese skeins will stretch across the heavens in all directions like a child’s drawing, and it all happens right here on our own backyard. All of it is wonderful, from the Nebraska Sandhills to the Snows and Redwings; all those species that simply drop in for a momentary stop at the feeder on their way through. Each, and all, are truly special and welcomed. 

As much as watching the sprouting of wildflowers in the Spring is thoroughly appreciated, migrating birds offer us both a special mystery and blessings with their arrivals. We’ll embrace them as much as hearing those first sounds of a trickling stream …  all sounds of life moving forward as our winter vanishes into a storied past. Joy rests on our threshold of a Spring forthcoming.

Hooking Arms With Gnomes

The “warnings” came early. Before 8 a.m., actually. All of which happened moments after a surprising visit in the grove while making my morning tea. A significant flash of red crossed the big plate glass window above the sink that caught my eye — my very first sighting of a Piliated Woodpecker here on my little prairie farm. Binoculars quickly substantiated the identity as the huge woodpecker bounced up first one tree trunk then another before skittering off into the deeper woods. It wouldn’t be my last “flash” of red before I returned to my bed!

How can a day begin even better? And, it would. With my tea steeped, it was off to the computer to read the online morning newspapers, which usually happens after a quick glance through my Facebook feeds. This is where I found my warning. It was in a personal message from my son, Aaron, living in Bergen, Norway, who had captured his very first images of the northern lights in his backyard, glistening high above in midst of city lights. 

This wasn’t all, for there were numerous postings of this incredible display from Scotland, Ireland and Norway as well as from friends in Ely and Nevis here in Minnesota. Now on heightened alert I quickly checked the NOAA Aurora Forecast site and watched as the circular donut of a forecast roamed over the northern hemisphere. As it came over Nova Scotia and eased over the Great Lakes region the greenish blob quickly went straight to red. Granted, we were early in the morning. Would we still have a chance sighting a dozen hours later?

My Labor Day image at the Marsh Lake Dam.

For me, this is almost as wonderful as awaiting Christmas as a child. Now in my seventh decade I still can’t use all my fingers to count the number of times I’ve seen the aurora borealis, let alone photographed them. Back in the 1940s, before our family moved up the road to what had been my grandparent’s house, there was such a display even as far south as Missouri that our mother woke us up so we could see the low lying magic in the sky. I couldn’t comprehend the specialness nor the rarity of the strange lights. That, though, took my first finger.

The next four “fingers” were not particularly spectacular, more of an undulating whiteness in the sky. And all here in the western Minnesota prairie. Two of those events were discovered when I ventured away from a group to find a tree to “relieve” myself. The first of those was well after midnight in Watson Lion’s Park on the banks of the Chippewa River when artist Franz Richter held campfire court with tales of Norwegian devilish trolls and gentle gnomes. That those lights, as unspectacular as they were that night, appeared in the midst of Richter’s tales was purely magical. And now my son, Aaron, who sat through the first of the tales back in the 1990s, lives now in Norway and photographed them makes the memory all the more special.

We now know the science behind the northern lights and have various ways of receiving accurate forecasts on our computers and cell phones, yet we can’t forsake the natural wonder shrouded in mysteries from the past; of how the auroras inspired myths, legends and folklore throughout the nations of the far north, from Norway to Sweden, from Finland to Iceland. They held special meanings to the marauding Vikings, too. In Norse mythology, we’re told the aurora borealis was believed to be Bifrost, the burning bridge connecting Åsgard (the realm of the gods) to Midgard (Earth). Popular myths and folklore also suggested that the lights were reflections of the bright shields of the mythical Valkyrie who would lead those who had fallen in battle to Valhalla.

A few nights ago on the wetland at the top of my prairie. After the “warning” from my son in Bergen, Norway.

Aurora borealis is actually derived from the Greek words with “aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “boreas” meaning “wind”. There must have been some incredibly strong solar activity for the ancient Greeks to have seen the lights because sightings so far south are almost unheard of. The Greeks held that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and moon respectively, and that she raced across the early morning sky in her multi-colored chariot to alert her siblings to the dawning of a new day. The Romans also associated the northern lights with a new day believing them to be Aurora, the goddess of dawn. And so it goes.

Then came the night in the BWCA, where we had rented a cabin at Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters on the shoreline of Lake One after my late wife, Sharon’s, knee operation. One night after darkness had fully settled in, the two teenage boys who worked at the lodge came knocking to see if I would join them for some night walleye fishing. Sharon said, “Go on. I’ll be fine.”

Having placed me in the middle of the canoe, they paddled out of the frontal bay through the narrow passage into the main lake and anchored us between two islands facing north. Yes, they brought a cooler of beer, and we leisurely jigged over the gunwales killing time and stringing fish. Sometime after midnight, Michael said, “Guys! Look up!” The lights, again minus those waving curtains and towering flares, entertained us for quite some time. 

Now we’re up to three fingers. Another night happened on the banks of Mound Lake near Gray Eagle. Number four.

While I missed the height of the display, the streaking star made up for it.

Since moving to Listening Stones Farm I’ve added another four sightings. This doesn’t count the week I spent with a former exchange student in Tromso, considered one of the best place in Norway to see the lights, when for nearly a week we headed into the surrounding coal black countryside reading the skies. On the next to last night we caught about a 15 minute sighting through tiny holes in the clouds. That didn’t count. And, twice now I’ve been up on the Gunflint Trail for special Northern Lights adventures and have seen nothing but dense Tromso-like clouds.

There is a small network of folks around Minnesota who sound the alert on Facebook should there be a possibility. Unfortunately my house is too far below the northern horizon to see the lights, although at the wetland at the top of my prairie there is a decent view. Here the display whispers along the edge of the horizon, something those in the more northern exposures would surely sleep through. Perhaps a view the Greeks saw back in time.

One night after an alert we had an incredible display plainly visible to the naked eye dancing cross the horizon. Several images were recorded with glee only to find out moments later when downloading that I had cranked the aperture on the lens completely opposite of the infinity setting so all I had were colorful blurs. I immediately rushed back but the moment had passed. A neat streaking star helped alleviate my pain.

My best effort came last Labor Day after being told by outdoors writer, Tom Watson, that he often headed to the Twin Bridges on Lac qui Parle Lake southwest of Appleton to capture the lights. Which prompted me to check NOAA, and we had a possible event. There, though, the traffic caused too much light pollution so we took a minimum maintenance shortcut gravel to the Marsh Lake Dam where I finally had a decent image of the lights. Finally, and it was wonderful. A Christmas-like morning, in fact!

My colossal error with my lens on what could have been a beautiful image.

Oh, a note about the warning from a day or so ago? Both NOAA and AuroraAlert were showing red, so we headed to the wetland above the farm to check the skies, and made a few images before heading to a site I had scouted earlier for a possible image on a small hillside oak savanna about three miles away. Unfortunately the oaks were too distant for my lens and the image I visualized, and we were too far below the horizon.

I now have my eighth sighting over my seven decades despite an almost daily check on the two forecasts. I simply cannot escape this much stronger and more mystical draw than the science behind the lights. I surely hope I never lose my love of such mystical magic, of standing in the universal darkness along with the trolls while scanning the northern skies for dancing lights in the heavens above. How could one live without that?