Tamarac Trails and Tales

Oh, Tamarac. Have you ever failed me? Not even once that I can recall. Be it summer or fall, and now, early in spring, when so little was seasonally correct thanks to our long and lingering winter and shortened spring. Yet you once again shed away the intricacies of life from your tree-filled valleys and hills, those rocky, reed blessed shores surrounding your placid and picturesque lakes; those sneaky reflection pools hidden in little pockets that surprised us with those bright yellow marsh marigolds! 

What a beautiful surprise, as if you had decorated the dining room table with a bouquet of beauty. You also offered us colorful dainty forest flowers within the tree leaf duff, just below the warblers and fleeting colors of that chorus of birds. Then you added the suspense of swan domination intermingled with such grace and style. Then there was the photographic “poetry” in the greening of the forest as a new spring came to life around us. 

We drove the three hour trip after setting an alarm for 5 a.m., which was somewhat shocking in itself. My partner, Roberta, had intended to wake me a few days earlier for this trip I seemingly just had to make. On this more successful waking morning when the alarm went off we both jerked awake from our pillows with shock in instant consciousness as did poor Joe Pye. My ever hopeful hound didn’t quite know what to make of it, looking from the blaring old clock radio to us. Although it took a bit to gather ourselves, including making our tea and coffee, we were out and on the road in about 45 minutes. Through Graceville, Herman, Pelican Rapids and finally Detroit Lakes. As we turned onto U.S. 34 we were mere minutes from our goal: Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

On the edge of Tamarac we caught perhaps a fight over a pecking order on a small wetland.

We were blessed even before we reached Blackbird Trail, the gravel thoroughfare through this North Woods paradise. We began passing swans huddled in stalk fields a few miles before the park entrance that included several on a small wetland that were in some sort of ritual, one that included a bit of a dust up followed by ritualistic rising and lowering of their necks. We guess we had witnessed an establishment of a pecking order of young, unattached swans for there were a couple already on nests. Their mating rituals are seemingly quite different for that occurs in water, with a beautiful neck and head movements between the male and female, an almost ballet-like ceremony of artful lust.

Yellow Warblers were amazingly common, although we also caught Yellow Rumped and Chestnut sided in the Refuge.

What we witnessed was decidedly less serene and beautiful. Nonetheless, swans provide us with one of the beautiful successful rebound stories in nature. The numbers have increased significantly over the years, for when I was young they were extremely rare. I recall being on a trip to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the 1970s where I kayaked through more black swans than of all the native white swans I’d seen in my lifetime to that point. Now they’re fairly common, including some that nest in our nearby prairie wetlands. Swans are such a beautiful bird. So elegant and figurant, so graceful and poetic in form. I never tire of photographing them. 

Moments later we pulled into a broad turnoff to pick up some literature, we lingered at the overview to look at the lake below. Suddenly we caught a flash of yellow and we were suddenly immersed in one of those hide and seek games with Yellow Warblers. Fortunately we were high above the trees for a change, making the game even more fun. While I was working for warbler images, Roberta had spied a large wading like bird in the shallows below. I could see it briefly and captured a few images, although reviewing the images both on the camera and later on the computer, the identity remained mysterious.

A little “photographic poetry” helps the soul …

Tamarac has usually offered a beautiful bouquet of flowers. While we didn’t see the beautiful blue flag iris blooms that have enchanted me in the past we saw numerous bellwort, hepatica, violets and wood anemone. A few years ago that five mile stretch took nearly three hours as I was constantly in and out of the car with the camera, bending over and actually laying on my belly in seeking different angles. Now, just months shy of reaching the ripe age of 80, I am feeling somewhat limited in seeking those same and similar camera angles. And it seemed that just as I was about to push the shutter there would be a nearby flutter, and my eyes would roam from the flowering offering to the nearby brush or canopy. Such joy. Such beauty. 

Between the warblers and forest-friendly wildflowers, it would be awhile before we came upon one of those “little pockets” of marshy waters and the jewel-like marigolds. What a startling sight! On the ridgetops of ankle to knee deep drops, they beckoned like stars in the night. Our stop there lasted long enough that a park ranger drifted in, the only vehicle and human we had seen in the nearly two hours of traversing Tamarac. She was soon out of the pickup and bending over with Roberta as they chatted about the wild range of hepaticas. Meanwhile, I was shutter happy. The marigolds were like icing on a cake, to use a metaphor. 

As we gathered ourselves another sense was awakened. That of sound, and the sound was the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of drumming Ruffed Grouse. Interestingly, although we had been in and out of the car numerous times we hadn’t heard the drumming until then. And, from multiple directions. The ranger said grouse were common and acted a bit surprised that we hadn’t encountered on our drive. 

Shortly thereafter we reached the gravel portion of Hwy. 29, and decided we should head back for the second third of our journey, one that would include Maplewood State Park and the rookery in Fergus Falls. There was some wonder if the rest of our day-long adventure would measure up to Tamarac, and although the other places were interesting in their own rights, Tamarac was once again inspirational and beautiful. Once again this sanctuary of wildness, here since 1938, was a special delight. It has yet to let me down whether I’m looking for wildflowers, feathery inhabitants or photographic poetry.  

Bucket List Birds

As we gathered for the potluck offerings for the launch of the 45th Salt Lake Birding Weekend, an older woman sitting across the table spoke of her drive out from Minneapolis to our far “west coast” of Minnesota. “For years,” she said, looking across at her birding buddies, “I’ve always wanted to see my first White-faced Ibis. We drive out here and they’re everywhere. I’m guessing we’ve seen 30 or 40 of them already … just this afternoon.”

The interestingly and colorful Ibis arrived in the area a week or so before. Initially after moving here 11 years ago I mistook them for Curlews, which I’d seen in the deep south. That first spring I spotted one in a wetland a few miles from Listening Stones, and I would eventually identify them as the Ibis after seeing and photographing them en route to the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge between Sisseton and Houghton, SD. A grouping of about a dozen seemed to congregate in the same flooded farm field each spring. 

Thanks to Rhyan Schicker I was able to find and photograph my first American Avocet just east of Marietta on the “annual” Salt Lake Birders Weekend.

Then, a few weeks ago, a flock found a flooded piece of shallow flood water within the Ortonville golf course, a spot they would alternate after rapid escapes to a slip of shallow muddy water maybe a football field away. 

Obviously the Ibis were on the woman’s personal birding bucket list. That caused me to wonder about my own bucket list of birds. One I’ve chased with no luck for years, even though my writer friend, Tom Watson, has sent me notifications of his sightings between here and his hometown of Appleton numerous times, is the American Avocet. Unlike the Ibis, a wader with a down-turned bill, the Avocet has a beautiful orangish head boosting an slightly upturned bill. It’s just a beautiful species, and often a favorite of wood carvers who favor waders over duck decoys. 

Another on my short list is the Western Grebe, a long-necked beauty of a bird known for its courting “rushing” ceremony where twin birds skim across the water surface on their feet in perfect synchrony. Although videos have captured the rush so many times, it’s something I’ve dreamed of seeing and hopefully photographing sometime.

A closer view of one of my bucket list birds. We saw the other, the Western Grebe, although it was too distant and dove underwater before I could capture an image.

So there you have it. Two birds. My bucket list. Over the years there have been other birds of interest including some real surprises. Take the Puffin. I never expected to see one before I encountered several on the western seaside cliffs of Ireland years ago. I even asked a guide if it was indeed a Puffin for I expected a much larger bird, and they were much smaller in stature than a Crow … perhaps the size of a Brown Thrasher. 

Many such sightings are unexpected. Take the time when an old and now departed friend, Greg Gosar, then an organic farmer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, asked if I’d like to see a large grouping of Sandhill Cranes that had landed in one of his wheat fields. We snuck up on them via a sandy, dry gulch before easing onto our bellies to crawl up the bank to see about a hundred Sandhills on a feeding frenzy. Although this was my first sighting of the birds that have captured my interest ever since, the highlight of the moment was actually seeing a single, tall and majestic Whooping Crane. Back then, in the late 1970s, Whoopers were nearly extinct with perhaps 60 total in the entire country. Greg was just as shocked and excited as I was. We talked about that moment for years afterwards, and always with awe.

For those who had never seen a White-faced Ibis, there were ample opportunities on the caravan.

Cedar Waxwings eventually came off the list while looking through a “boardroom” window on the second floor of Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo. An Indigo Bunting appeared a few years ago at a friend’s bird feeder in a Driftless forest near Cannon Falls, and the striking Scarlet Tanager was spotted while canoeing with friends on the Concord River near the historic town a bit west of Boston. How appropriate this sighting so near the shadow of Thoreau, and for a member of a family of birds that seemingly completely miss our prairie biome! 

And, so on it goes. From the high mountains through my years in Colorado to living along the Mississippi Flyway to now having my home in the depths of the former Prairie Pothole region of SW Minnesota, where a chain of river lakes annually brings birds I had rarely seen before, and sometimes, like the Snow Geese migrations and the immense murmurations, are absolutely stunning. While I don’t maintain a physical checkoff list, mentally the list is alive and growing.

The “annual” Salt Lake Birding Weekend has been on my radar for years and is anchored around the small alkaline, 20-acre lake just a few miles southwest of Marietta. Although the Covid years interrupted the string of consecutive years of these birder caravans, this was labeled as the 45th year. Otherwise it would have been the 48th, and apparently there are only a few of the original organizers still alive. One was Fred Eckhardt, of nearby Boyd, MN, who now uses a cane, and has a vivid memory and legacy in this area of Minnesota. A birder, through and through.

A chance sighting of a short-eared owl captured interest, for most had migrated north.

My hope was of perhaps capturing my two bucket list birds. At the Madison potluck gathering the night before I had mentioned my quests to the Lac qui Parle County SWCD director, Rhyan Schicker, who said she had actually seen a few Avocets at a temporary flooded wetland just east of Marietta. I made note and drove down early before the 7 a.m. meeting at the Marietta Legion Hall to see if my quest had come true. And, it had! There, stalking through the shallow, muddy waters was this beauty of a bird. The striking orangish head, black and white striped body feathers, long spindly legs easing through the muck and with that characteristic upturned bill. I was so delighted, so much so I could have skipped the next several hours! I’m glad I didn’t.

After capturing several images I sped over to the Marietta Legion Hall just as the caravans were organized and leaving, and was able to join with a birder buddy and organizer, Jason Frank, who started his group’s trek along the western shore of Salt Lake. This is the only alkaline lake in Minnesota and was created by runoff from surrounding alkaline soils in this unique and solitary watershed. There are no outlets, and this a briny body of water annually attracts all sorts of birds, especially waders like the Avocets, who are not native to the area, and has become a birdwatching mecca. It’s said that brine shrimp in Salt Lake can reach a couple of inches in length!

Birder leader, Jason Frank, center, knew the area like the back of his hand, and was amazing in his quick and accurate identifications.

Jason grew up on his family’s prairie farm just a few miles southeast of Salt Lake where many acres of prairie grassland, in cooperation with nearby neighbors, are now in permanent easements of prairie grasses and undrained wetlands. It’s an excellent resource where you can almost visualize how this part of the prairie looked before Euro-American migration. Jason knows the surrounding area like the back of his hand, and we traversed the country roads going past dozens of huge wetlands and abandoned woodlots in search of birds. 

And at one large wetland of what appeared to be about the size of Salt Lake, surrounded by prairie grasses, Jason pointed across to the far side of the windblown waters to my second bucket list bird. Raising the camera with the 600 mm lens, I momentarily caught sight of a pair of Western Grebes just moments before they dove underwater. Although I searched the surface for several minutes I never saw them resurface. Those long white necks with the silhouetted black head and neck gave their identity away. It made for an incredibly successful and fun day!

One of the original organizers nearly 50 years ago was Fred Eckhardt, who once again made his presence.

Later that evening, at the Sons of Norway Lodge in nearby Madison, the birders gathered for a fried chicken dinner with fixing that concluded with Jason and fellow leader, Steve Weston, conducting the official tallies for the day. One by one, all the way through the two-pages of five column lists, they worked to check off the sighted birds from the capacity crowd of birders, including Eckhardt who occasionally murmured, “Really!” with the name of the bird.

One woman had not only kept a detailed list of every single species she’d seen, but also a count of how many. When tally was complete, the birders climbed into their cars to head to their respective motels stretching across the Minnesota River valley, realizing that 139 total bird species had been sighted. Perhaps an all-time record, according to Jason — a list that included the two I had most wanted to see!