.......and Reflections

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Exploring Northwest Minnesota

The day started with pea sized hale and then, gail-force winds......all day. It was not ideal weather for birding. The good thing was that mosquitoes were NOT a problem. If a mosquito took flight today he soon found himself somewhere in South Dakota. In spite of the weather, I decided to visit prairie preserves about an hour south of Thief River Falls and a boreal habitat about an hour and a half north of Thief River Falls.

The Pembina Trail is one of my all time favorites. A few trips ago on a very early morning, I visited this parcel that runs from Canada south. From the road I saw a black dot out in the distant marsh. With my binoculars the dot was a Moose. I was delighted, since this part of Minnesota is not prime Moose habitat. I grabbed paper and pencil and made note of this surprising find. After making the note I looked up and standing 40 yards in front of my truck was a Timber Wolf! The wolf was looking directly at me until it decided I wasn't worthy of further interest. Then the wolf walked into the tall marsh grass and disappeared. The moose sighting wasn't quite as exciting as it had been. It is the only eastern Timber Wolf I have ever seen or may ever see. Pembina Trail is a very special place.

Today's tour of the Pembina Trail lived up once again to my expectations despite the persistent winds. As I drove along the unimproved gravel Trail, I flushed a grouse that flew about 100 yards away from me and disappeared in the grass. I got good looks at the tail, the flight pattern, color and size of the bird. The tail was round and the bird flew more and glided very little. The tail is diagnostic and the flight pattern helpful. One of the two possibilities was Sharp-tailed Grouse but this bird has an obvious "pointed tail". It was a Greater Prairie Chicken. Needless to say, I was delighted and surprised. I made notes and then I looked for a wolf.

I saw several birds along the trail drive and where I came to a place broken by the wind by brush or a poplar stand I found several birds. A new one was a Clay-colored Sparrow. This is the one we see very little during migration in Ohio and it always seems to be confused with a Chipping Sparrow to which it is closely related. From here to the Rockies the Clay-colored Sparrow will be common. Other birds that were a bit out of place in the wind brake were Great-crested Flycaycher and Willow Flycatcher.

I visited Nature Conservancy's Crookston Prairie Preserve, Foxboro Prairie, Pembina Trail State Natural Area and Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge. The birds here in this contiguously protected area, are in some cases abundant and unusually uncommon. These birds are sighted in literature and by signs as birds to be observed in these areas. The problem is that there is virtually no preserve access other than adjacent public roads. Whatever wonderful birds are in these places generally don't come to the roads. So the birding was as good as the birding conditions. I'm just griping. I am just glad the birds are there and protected.

My last destination was way up north along 2 roads that run through Lost River State Forest and Lost River Wildlife Management Area. The forest road is through prime boreal habitat around a huge bog. The Great Gray Owl population is more dense here than anywhere else in Continental America. It is a beautiful Place and the whole area is massive and the road cuts through 2 short miles in the middle. All the boreal species are in there somewhere but the opportunities provided from the road are clearly limited.

The second road cuts across wet meadows suitable for Yellow Rail, LeConte's and Northern Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Today the water was very high, too high for rails. However, there was some standing water ideal for ducks and shorebirds. Here I found four Marbled Godwits mixed in with an assortment of "puddle" ducks such as Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers. Northern Pintails, Mallards and a lone Redhead.

The highlight of the day, aside from the Greater Prairie Chicken, was watching Sandill Crane pairs with chicks. I found several pairs, all with one chick each. I would stop to watch them and to try to get a picture or two. Each time I would stop the truck and get out. By the time I got out of the truck the pair was gone and the chick was moving around as if nothing in the world was wrong.

When Sandhill Crane parents sense a threat they lay down and hide in the grass. The chick is rusty brown and less obvious than the adults. They lie in the grass until the threat is gone and then the three continue probing the grasses for food. Mom and Dad seem to know their detection would be the chick's greatest demise. Ain't nature great!

I'm back on the road tomorrow morning heading west to North Dakota and prairie potholes.

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