Flash of Serendipity
by Chel Anderson
A 21-year-old with intense curiosity about all things natural, I landed on Lake Superior's North Shore in 1974 to begin my first real job in natural resources. A couple of years into my exploration of my new home territory, I met a woman doing graduate work on rare plants—a suite of species not included in field guides. I eagerly enlisted as another pair of eyes in the woods and on the water looking for the seldom-seen plants. Among the most surprising to me was a dung moss, Splachnum rubrum, also known as umbrella moss or parasol moss. I was intrigued by her brief description of tiny plants whose ephemeral lives depended on a chance meeting with moose "gems." I couldn't wait to find it. But I didn't yet fully appreciate the role serendipity often plays in the pursuit of wild things.
MBS plant biologist Chel Anderson records GPS location and details of the native plant composition along the Kadunce River. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
Twenty-six years and hundreds of wetlands with thousands of moose gem piles later, my search ended on a sunny, warm June day, deep in an undisturbed area of boreal forests and wetlands in Superior National Forest. Accompanied by a host of blood-seeking flies, I high-stepped through deep sphagnum moss hummocks, crisscrossed by a moose trail or two and dotted with stunted black spruce. I scanned plants, recording herbs and sedges harbored in sunny openings between dense patches of blooming Labrador tea, pale laurel, leatherleaf, and bog rosemary. I admired the exquisite forms and patterns of this familiar community. Searching with an ingrained rhythm and a specific kind of focus—open to seeing everything but especially attentive to anything unfamiliar—I gazed slowly from left to right and back again. With an involuntary snap, my head and eyes returned to the right, attention snagged by something I couldn't describe and couldn't immediately find again.
"What was it? Was it anything?" I wondered, visually groping around, unmoving lest the view change. Suddenly, through shrub branches and a few inches above the moss carpet, I spotted them: Dime-sized, deep-pink to pale-pink parasols shimmered in dappled light near the base of a hummock. My delight erupted in a series of hoots, whoops, and laughter, even as I wondered if it was a dream. Feeling a mix of awe, gratitude, joy, and reverence I lay down, my face at their level. Carefully parting the surrounding sphagnum, I found the hidden, delicate leafy stems and essential decaying moose gems from which they grew—gorgeous, absurd, sublime, improbable.
Before my discovery that day, I had no conscious thoughts of Splachnum rubrum as I walked and watched. A couple of descriptive sentences and a line drawing were all I had to go on for a search image. But by virtue of showing up with a human mind evolved to notice and pay attention to its surroundings, I was poised to see pink parasols, no matter how long it took for a flash of serendipity to give me a chance and a deeply satisfying experience.
Wild Prairie Winds
by Crystal Boyd
As the newest member of MBS, I had my most memorable experience on my first day in the field. On May 14, 2013, I traveled to Chippewa Prairie in Lac qui Parle County to sample native bees. Native bees face many of the same challenges as honeybees do, so my experiments this summer would help MBS to monitor them in the future. If my protocols worked during this initial trial, I would use them all summer long. If they failed, I'd need to quickly scramble to find protocols that worked at Chippewa Prairie.
MBS entomomologist Crystal Boyd examines bees collected in soapy water-filled pan traps. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
It was sweltering hot when I arrived, with temperatures of 90 degrees and the sun blazing in clear skies. I set out for my first sampling area in a patch of recently burned prairie. The land was flat, crispy, and black, with tiny stubs of green grass just beginning to grow. I laid out my pan traps, which were colorful plastic bowls filled with soapy water. Bees attracted by the color would get stuck in the water until I collected them the next day. But would the bowls still be here when I returned? It was windy—so windy—and the gusts increased all afternoon. I worried that the bowls would scatter like milkweed seeds on the wild prairie winds.
Leaving the burned section, I headed into tall grass. Pale lavender pasqueflowers whipped all around, withstanding the hot gusts. I peered over a bluff and into a wetland below. Dry cattails stretched like a straw-colored river into Lac qui Parle, and sunny marsh marigolds seemed to smile up at me. It was a moment of peace and beauty.
The next day, however, I returned with a sense of concern. The wind had reached speeds as high as 35 miles per hour, and it would provide decisive evidence about the need to modify the traps. I let out a sigh of relief when I saw the red, orange, and yellow bowls dotting the black ground just where I'd left them.
I began collecting the specimens, and a large queen bumblebee flew heavily in my direction. She drew closer and closer—and landed on my side! My bright blue T-shirt must have looked like a large, nutritious flower. She tested for nectar with her long, black tongue and, after a few tries, flew away toward sweeter rewards.
It felt like a special greeting for a bee researcher to be welcomed by a queen. I thought about the new beginnings for Chippewa Prairie that seemed promising in so many ways: the recent burn, the early-season pasqueflower, and the gravid native bees. These changes echoed fresh beginnings in my own life, as a newcomer to MBS. My first day with Chippewa Prairie seemed like the initial meeting of two parties soon to become fast friends. May the future hold many more memories just as dear.
Birds of the Border
by Steve Stucker
My first look at the Roseau River fen was late in September 1990, during my first year of MBS bird surveys. This rich fen—a wetland dominated by fine-leaved sedges growing on a deep layer of peat—extends nearly 4 miles northward to the Manitoba border and more than 8 miles east to west. Uninterrupted by trees or any shrubs over waist height, the far horizon is lost in the shimmering, hazy distance.
MBS ornithologist Steve Stucker conducts a bird count during a survey at Roseau River Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
This remote site is on the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area at the edge of the aspen parkland region, a transition zone between prairie and coniferous forest. Extending from northwestern Minnesota north and west through the prairie provinces of Canada, aspen parkland is characterized by a mix of prairie, open wetlands, aspen groves, and oak savanna on nearly level terrain.
Returning the following May, three of us set off toward the Canadian border to investigate the fingers of black spruce and tamarack extending out of Manitoba. As we trudged across the spongy ground, a migrating peregrine falcon came sailing low overhead. When we finally reached the edges of the lowland conifers after a 2-mile hike, we spotted a great gray owl.
Back a third time in early June, MBS bird-survey technician Karl Bardon and I were heading out before sunrise to conduct point counts (an observer stands in one spot for a five-minute interval, counting all birds seen or heard) and search for rare birds specializing in sedge habitat, such as yellow rail, Wilson's phalarope, and Nelson's sparrow. A deep, water-filled ditch separated the dike's narrow, two-track trail from the fen. We hauled a canoe off our truck and down the bank, put it in the water, and paddled 3 feet to the other side. As we stepped onto the fen, water poured off it and into the ditch in a vast sheet.
I headed west, following a compass bearing and counting my paces so I could reconstruct my path. As this was before the time of GPS units, I had to determine my position by triangulation, sighting to three different points with my compass—the truck parked at the dike corner one-half mile to the southeast, a clump of tamarack 2 miles to the north, a clump of trees several miles to the southwest.
The odd clicking calls of yellow rails bounced across the sedges. A Nelson's sparrow sang softly from a small clump of thick vegetation, and sandhill cranes bugled in the distance. The yellow rail, a nocturnal, robin-sized, quite reclusive bird, remains on the ground and nests there under a canopy of dead sedges. Rarely observed, this species is highly sought-after by birders. Unlike most other songbirds, Nelson's sparrow frequently sings at night. This small, secretive songbird prefers the same sedge habitat as the yellow rail. It builds a cup nest on the ground in a clump of grass or sedge. While not overly secretive or rare, the 4-foot tall sandhill crane prefers to nest in remote wetland areas. Its loud calls can be heard for miles.
Circling far to the north, I sloshed along in my knee-high rubber boots, accompanied by a small cloud of mosquitoes and deer flies, which typically increase as morning progresses and bird activity dies down. Longing for shade as the sun climbed higher, I headed for a distant patch of tamarack and black spruce. There I sat down on a small tamarack log for a snack and a drink of water. After freshening up with a good dose of insect repellent, I began the long slog back to the truck.
Revisiting the fen late at night, we watched fireflies flash in numbers seeming to mirror the stars above, as the endless pebblelike clicks of yellow rails skipped across the sedges and Nelson's sparrows gasped their wheezing songs. These amazingly wild expanses of native vegetation make the aspen parkland region my favorite part of Minnesota.
On the Water Track
by Norm Aaseng
One of my favorite places in Minnesota is a large, sedgy, island-dotted wetland north of Upper Red Lake in the interior of the Red Lake Peatland Scientific and Natural Area. It is vast and wild, uncrossed by roads, as remote as any place in Minnesota. The only easy access is by helicopter.
MBS plant ecologist-botanists Norm Aaseng and Erika Rowe enter a GPS location for establishing a vegetation plot in a northern peatland. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
In August 2011, I flew in to the water track for the second time in my life. My colleague Erika Rowe and I helicoptered from the town of Waskish, 25 miles to the southeast. We wanted an on-the-ground look at the distinctive patterns (seen on aerial photos) that are created by sedges, shrubs, stunted spruce, and tamarack islands, which had developed over several thousand years under the influence of slow-moving water that flows through the peat. The area was also prime habitat for several rare plant species on our radar.
Approaching by air from the east, we saw an armada of small teardrop islands of tamarack advancing upstream into the horizon across a wavelike grassy plain. Alternating linear pools and vegetated ridges made up the plain. Into the distance, the islands diminished until just grasses and low shrubs remained. Light glinted off the water surface—evidence that the ground was waterlogged.
The pilot flew us to the midpoint of the water track and began to descend. Patches of color emerged as we flew lower. We made out orange-yellow circles of what we thought was some kind of rush or sedge and amoebalike bright-green patches, possibly shrubs, amid gray- and yellow-green swaths of wiregrass sedges. The pilot found the firmest place he could land and dropped us off. Before his return, we had several hours to cover the survey area.
We quickly found the rare linear-leaved sundew (Drosera linearis) and determined that the orange-yellow patches were another rare plant, sooty-leaved beak-rush (Rhynchospora fusca). We kept our heads down, probing the vegetation, recording plant species, navigating as best we could through quaking peat, sedge hummocks, and pools of water up to our knees.
When we realized it was time to return to our pickup spot, I paused to look at the horizon and remembered my first visit to the peatland in 1984. I had flown in with several other people to get a look at the water track, a candidate for inclusion in Minnesota's network of scientific and natural areas. We had reached the end of our visit that day, and the helicopter had already made one trip back to Waskish, carrying out everyone but me.
I stood alone in a sea of grass. Small clumps of trees, scattered here and there, receded into the distance; otherwise the land was flat, open, and grassy as far as I could see. Far off to the west, I made out a thin, dark line—the beginning of a tamarack and black-spruce forest that marked the end of the water track, maybe 10 miles away. No sounds, other than the wind rippling through the grasses in waves. No signs of anything human. I had no idea before then that a place like this existed in Minnesota. Living daily surrounded by buildings, power lines, roads, cropland, and forests, I seldom have a chance to see a horizon unmarked by human objects. It is easy to forget the vastness of the water-track landscape.
Standing with Erika on my return visit, waiting for the helicopter, I marveled once again that such a place still exists.
Cold Rock and Electric Wire
by Michael Lee
Now approaching 20 field seasons, I find that marking one day or discovery that stands above the rest becomes more difficult with each passing year. One that comes to mind is a day in a canoe with fellow plant ecologist-botanist Scott Zager on the South Branch of the Root River in southeastern Minnesota bluff country. It was my second summer and Scott's third with the Minnesota Biological Survey.
MBS plant ecologist-botanist Michael Lee scans a slope along the South Branch of the Root River. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
We were staying in a big, old farmhouse rented by MBS in Fillmore County. At dawn I was awakened by the sound of the hard-rock band AC/DC blasting through the TV speaker. Scott had rented the videotape of a live AC/DC concert from a local gas station the evening before. This got my heart pumping, and the events of the day kept it going strong until dark.
Our plan was similar to most days afield—to search for rare plants and assess the ecological condition of the landscape, in this case, the steep, forested bluffs and bottomland along several miles of river. That summer many of the county's small, normally shallow streams had been swollen enough by heavy rains to allow passage of Scott's whitewater canoe. Traveling by canoe, we could cover more area in less time than we could by hiking, the typical access method for MBS field ecologists.
As we had on several recent trips on other fast, winding stretches, we encountered barbed wire and electric fences across the water, usually just as we rounded a bend at breakneck speed. It was truly a memorable experience to be accosted by such a barrier. Scott received the worst of the beating as he was in the stern. In the bow I was usually able to jump out, pulling the canoe to shore, but the swift current often carried the stern around and into the fence before Scott could get out. Luckily, a few scrapes, scratches, bruises, and wet clothing and gear were as bad as we ever experienced. Also, I think I was tougher back then in my late 20s.
What stood out that day was the discovery of the state's largest algific (cold air) plant community and largest population of the endangered Iowa golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium iowense). This rare plant grows only on algific talus slopes, where cold air and water from underground ice caves emerge through rich, rocky soil and limestone talus on north-facing slopes. The ice caves are fed by precipitation entering through blufftop sinkholes and then freezing in winter.
Rare and localized, algific slopes are home to a number of plant species that occur much farther north and to several species of land snail that are understood to be ice-age relicts present nowhere else. Iowa golden saxifrage is a small member of the Pleistocene flora that dominated the blufflands 15,000 years ago when the climate was much colder and glaciers covered most of the surrounding region. Bluff-country populations of Iowa golden saxifrage are disjunct by hundreds of miles from the nearest ones in boreal Manitoba. We also documented populations of other uncommon plants in cold microhabitats in southeastern Minnesota.
Like most days afield, this one was long. It began early, and we were not strapping the canoe back onto the vehicle until after the sun had gone down. We were hungry, wet from intermittent rain, bruised from fence entanglements, tired from paddling a half-dozen miles and climbing steep bluffs many times. But we were exhilarated by our discoveries. We carried steaming bags full of plant specimens, many pages of data, and a greater understanding of some of the state's rarest plants. The complexity and huge size of the newly found algific plant community—maybe 10 acres, compared with most, which are less than an acre—helped us better understand how sinkholes and ice caves can have a dramatic influence on vegetation. All good stuff for an ecologist.
Is It Invasive?
by Derek Anderson
The day began like any normal day working on the Minnesota Biological Survey in southern Minnesota. It was mid-July, yet the heat was actually not too bad. I had planned to visit a few prairie remnants in rights-of-way in Dodge County. However, before heading out, I received a phone call from Ken, a landowner I met with a few weeks earlier, that would change my plans for the day.
MBS researcher Derek Anderson documents native plant species.
Ken owns a remnant prairie in Mower County, and he had really enjoyed learning about the plant species that grow on and near his property. Ken told me on the phone that he had discovered a clump of tall plants with large basal leaves growing along a stream bank a few miles from his home. He was concerned the species was nonnative and possibly invasive as he couldn't find it any of the books he had at his disposal.
I changed my plan for the day to meet with Ken. As we approached the location, we saw the plants towering 2 to 3 feet above the other vegetation along the stream bank. Getting closer, I could see the plants stood at least 12 to 18 inches above me, putting their overall height at 7 feet! I knew I had never seen this species before. But I did recognize the flowering heads as those of the Indian plantains (genus Arnoglossum) in the sunflower family Asteracea and I finally identified it as great Indian plantain (Arnoglossum reniforme).
This plant is rare in Minnesota and in 2013 was listed as a threatened species. It is restricted to just a few counties in the southeastern part of the state, existing in small populations in limited habitat.
Ribbon of Light
by Robert Dana
One of the great pleasures of summers spent doing fieldwork for the Minnesota Biological Survey is the escape this affords from the dull-orange nighttime glow that hangs over the Twin Cities, where I live. My daytimes are spent finding and documenting little swatches of Minnesota as it used to be, intensely pleasurable but always tempered by dismay at how little we have spared. But the view of the night sky away from the urban light-fog gives me unalloyed delight. The tiny blink of an airliner passing high overhead or the slow, steady progress of a satellite's point along its orbit even higher are not enough to mar the sense that I am in the full presence of the world our ancestors experienced. The constellations are so vividly evident, it is no wonder they gave them names and wove them into stories.
MBS researcher Robert Dana surveying plant communities in the aspen parklands.
When I was working up in the northwestern corner of Minnesota more than a couple of decades ago, I had a night-sky experience unlike any I have had before or since. Usually silent and serene, with the occasional brief streak of a meteor the only perceptible motion, the sky on this night became surreally alive. My first awareness of this came after a late supper as I was returning to the apartment we had rented as summer field quarters in the town of Karlstad. Even under the glare of the sodium-vapor safety lighting over the parking area, I sensed the presence of something unusually bright in the sky. Looking up, I was momentarily confounded by what appeared to be a sinuous river of light streaming across the blackness.
I had seen northern lights displays before, but this was brighter and more sharply defined than anything I had seen. Karlstad is a small town, but even so the town lights subtly veiled the sky, so I got back into my field truck and headed out of town for a better view. A short distance up the highway, along the crest of the Campbell beach ridge of Glacial Lake Agassiz, I pulled off in an open area within the Twin Lakes Wildlife Management Area and climbed into the empty bed of the pickup. From there I had an unobstructed view of the sky in all directions.
The ribbon of light had lost its definition, and now most of the sky was alive with curtains and streamers of light. It was August, when the sandhill cranes were assembling for their fall migration, and the marshes in the wildlife management area around me were crowded with roosting cranes. Every so often, a particularly vivid and energetic burst of light would appear, and immediately a murmur, like an expression of awe, would arise from the assembled cranes. Occasionally, a far-off wolf would add its piercing call to the commentary of the cranes.
I lay on my back in the bed of the truck for a couple of hours, sharing the spectacle with cranes and wolves, adding my expressions of appreciation to theirs. Eventually the bursts grew less frequent and energetic, and the extent of the lights shrank. The cranes had quieted, dropping off again to sleep before their next day's journey. My clothes were wet with dew, and though elated, I was beginning to feel chilled. So I drove back to town for some sleep myself before heading out for another day of searching out remnants of the former earthly world. For a while after this, I was less bothered by how few and small these remnants are.
Ecological Observation Skill
by D. Lawson Gerdes
With my back plastered against the cliff wall, I have an unobstructed view of the lake below and the churning storm clouds overhead. Moments before, I had tied off the canoe and scrambled up the talus slope, counting the seconds between flash … and boom.
MBS researcher Lawson Gerdes presses plants following a rainy day afield in the Border Lakes subsection.
Under the protection of a massive rock overhang, I catch my breath and begin a brief mental tally: How many times have my field surveys been interrupted by the onset of an intense thunderstorm? Are my datasheets and field notebook dry? How long before I am able to traverse this cliff feature, searching the abundant shelves and fissures for rare ferns, club mosses, and composites? Will I find a route to the red-pine, white-pine woodland where I will document the composition, structure, and quality of this rare native plant community? Will there be charcoal in the soil, fire-scarred trees, and other indicators of past disturbance events? Will I still have time to accomplish these surveys and paddle back to the camp before dark? Is this rain gear awesome, or what?
A tenacious focus on the details of the present is a fundamental trait of a well-trained field ecologist. The power of ecological observation is not only critical to the discovery and thorough documentation of species and communities, but it also often results in a substantially more holistic understanding of the ecological significance of the landscape. Synthesizing what we know with what we observe is one of the ultimate challenges and rewards of the profession.
My academic training in wildlife and forest ecology has bestowed the necessary scientific and technical skills. Three decades of public service with natural resource agencies has provided the socioeconomic context and a perspective on the challenges related to the conservation of natural resources. But competent field observation is the skill I value most as an ecologist and one that I continually aspire to improve. It validates and lends credibility to ecological interpretation and is a skill for which there is no substitute.
Proficient ecological observation is a quality I've also noted in many of Minnesota's citizen scientists. Whether collecting data on frogs and toads, breeding birds, exotic earthworms, rare orchids, water quality, or any number of other survey and monitoring projects, these competent volunteers, often trained naturalists in their own right, are indispensable ombudsmen for the conservation of biodiversity in Minnesota.
Rare Visits, Great Places
by Carol Hall
Though I'm not much of a shopper, a fashionista offering shopping tips on the radio caught my attention when she pointed out that she likes to shop at a particular establishment because it also has a specialty shop. She added that she rarely visits the specialty shop, but she was happy just knowing it was there. Her attitude reflects my own appreciation of wild places in Minnesota. I may not visit them often, but I am so glad they exist!
MBS reseacher Carol Hall weighs a juvenile smooth softshell turtle. Photo by Amanda Plain, DNR.
I've worked with the Minnesota Biological Survey for over 20 years, conducting surveys of rare amphibians and reptiles statewide. During this time I've explored the Minnesota River where timid smooth softshell turtles bask along the water's edge on expansive sandbars. In June I've watched gravid female turtles trek onto higher open reaches to lay their eggs in warm sand. I've waded into vernal pools surrounded by rich hardwood forests where I've searched for rare salamanders, while being serenaded by our native woodland frogs. I continue to be both surprised and exhilarated when finding bullsnakes in our sand prairies. The state's largest snake, this species inhabits one of our most threatened grassland habitats. This rare habitat is being further diminished due to development, mining, and lack of proper management.
For some people, it wouldn't matter if these special places exist in the future. For me, I find a kind of peace or sense of well-being knowing the plants and animals continue to function in a system that has developed over thousands of years. Glaciers advancing and retreating, rivers and lakes forming, prairies and forests dominating their respective landscapes based on climate, precipitation, and fire—these natural processes shape place. I'm thankful for the resource specialists who manage these lands so they will be available for future Minnesotans to appreciate— whether or not they actually visit them!
Looks Like a Swim
by Rebecca Holmstrom
After six years with the Minnesota Biological Survey, it is hard for me to select a most memorable day or experience. For me, each field day is an exploration with unknowns, challenges, and discoveries both big and small. Some days contain more unknowns than others.
MBS researcher Rebecca Holmstrom reaches for an aquatic plant during a field survey.
Last year I had the opportunity to spend a week in the field with a new coworker, Jeff Lee, helping to familiarize him with the Minnesota landscape and our survey process. I laid out the work plan and mentioned that our most intense field days would be early in the week.
On Thursday we spent much of the sultry day attempting to relocate a population of western Jacob's-ladder (Polemonium occidentale ssp. lacustre), which had been discovered in 1991. After five hours of searching, we left with many questions and without any evidence the endangered species was still present at this site.
We retreated to the dense shade of our other survey targets, which included old cedar swamps and wet ash forests. Just about the time of day that "the plan" suggested our field work would be concluded, I gave my air photos a quick review and announced that a series of nearby beaver ponds was just too intriguing to pass by without taking a peek. Jeff might have rolled his eyes, but he never complained. Instead, he just hunkered down and followed me into the mess of downed trees, thorny brush, and variable footing behind the first beaver dam. As I hoisted myself up onto the dam, any feelings of fatigue or frustration evaporated instantly. I yelled back to Jeff, "Looks like I might be going for a swim." Tiny white flowers floated out in front of me in the glistening water of the late-day sunshine. It was my first time seeing the small white water lily (Nymphaea leibergii) in nature and the first known occurrence of the threatened species in St. Louis County. The challenge would be collecting a good voucher specimen. While the population was quite large, with well over 1,000 individuals present, most plants were rooted in the mucky pond bottom at least 15 feet out from the shoreline.
Luckily, we found a downed log extending from the shoreline. It provided excellent access to a patch of flowering Nymphaea where I could collect specimens. No swim required today.
As we assessed the extent of the population, we also came across several other rare species, including a new population of the endangered species Caltha natans—an exciting and unexpected end to an already full day. We reached our truck just before sunset, exhausted but satisfied with our efforts. We'd be back for answers to the Polemonium questions.
by Jeff LeClere
Footing would have been difficult on the steep bluff slope even if I weren't preoccupied with finding a dark-colored snake easily hidden by the loose leaves covering the forest floor. I was at the top of a cliff that dropped to the Mississippi River plain, holding onto a branch to keep from sliding across the rocky soil and over the edge. Someone from the group I was with had searched this area already, but I decided for some reason to make another pass.
MBS researcher Jeff LeClere holds a ratsnake found during a survey in southeastern Minnesota. Photo by Carol Hall, DNR.
I was scanning the ground along the edge of the cliff, and my eye caught 1 or 2 inches of something black in the leaves and grasses. I knew right away what it was, and I had to keep from just launching myself and jumping on it. I usually capture snakes with a quick strike, leaping at them before they can dart. But if I'd done that here, we both would have rolled over the cliff.
Eyeing the small patch of scaly, black skin, I moved gingerly toward the snake, which remained motionless until I was able to place my hand on it. As I picked up the creature, the leaves fell away to reveal a writhing, 5-foot-long female ratsnake.
This was the first ratsnake we found at the site, and I realized at that moment we had the proof we came for that day in 2010. We were beginning a study to document how ratsnakes used the bluff, but it was a place I had been thinking about for the previous 10 years.
The first time I visited the site was in the late 1990s, in the blufflands of southeastern Minnesota. At the time we knew of only one ratsnake den site in Minnesota, another location in the blufflands, which had been found in the 1940s. On that first visit, we had agreed that the area where I later found the female snake looked great as habitat, but we really had no idea whether we would find them there. We had been walking the lower part of the slope and looked up to see snakeskins hanging from a giant oak tree. Some were tight against the branches and others were swaying in the wind. Ratsnakes can climb, and they spend a lot of time hanging out in trees. The shed skins were up too high to be identified with certainty. I looked around below the tree and found a single skin clinging to a piece of barbed-wire fence. It was clearly from a ratsnake. The number of skins in the tree meant that there had to be a den on the bluff somewhere. We were so close back then, but we didn't actually see any live snakes.
I didn't have a chance to come back for 10 years, when we were ready to begin our study. After years of preparation, securing a research grant and recruiting volunteers, I found the female snake, and the study was underway. This return visit was a new direction for the Minnesota Biological Survey, which is focused on documenting the locations of rare species such as the ratsnake and moving on to other sites and parts of the state. Now we had a chance to revisit the site over several years, to understand more about how these organisms live during the year and what they require to survive.
Since 2010 I've had the opportunity to return to the site many times to record the movements of the snakes and gather information about the size and makeup of the population. I've seen the bluff in spring and summer and fall and at different times of day. In April and May, in late afternoon, spring peepers begin calling in the river bottomlands below, increasing slowly in number until I've stood up from my work in the evening to realize that the air has become alive with the sounds of calling frogs.
One spring evening I decided to stay until after dark. In spring the snakes hang out in the branches of trees, and there is no good way to get close to them. I thought maybe they would return to the den at night, so I went to it, which is near the cliff, and waited. It became darker. The snakes never returned, but as it grew late the leaves started to rustle. Soon I was sitting at the edge of a cliff in complete darkness, surrounded by tiny creatures everywhere, rodents scurrying about and myself unable to move for fear of falling over the edge.
At that same cliff, I had once spotted a baby ratsnake—the first I'd seen during the study—on a branch hanging over the cliff edge. Ratsnakes will often freeze, allowing you to approach them pretty closely, and I decided to catch this one. As I reached for it, it reared back and launched itself into a free-fall over the edge.
I wound my way carefully down the slope to try to find the snake. A volunteer, Alex, yelled from above to guide me to the place it might have landed. I searched and searched but didn't have much hope of finding its tiny body. If by chance it had survived, I thought it likely would have slithered away. But I reached down and moved some leaves, and there it was. The leaf litter was thick and cushiony. My guess is that the snake hit the leaves and bounced. Whatever the case, it was fine. In my haste to get down the slope, I hadn't remembered to grab something to carry it in, so I cupped it in my hand and started back up the bluff. It took a long time with only one free hand to pull myself up the cliff, the other guarding the tiny snake. When I got to the top, I told Alex that I couldn't find the snake. Then I held out my hand and said, "But I found this!" She let out a scream of excitement.
During the course of the study, there were other surprises as the ratsnakes began revealing some of their secrets, and a great deal of information was gathered. However, the snakes did not tell us everything, so there are still stories to be told by studying ratsnakes in the blufflands of southeastern Minnesota.
Under the Duff
by Ethan Perry
The farther I get from the road, the softer the ground feels under my feet. Pulling away a few of last year's leaves exposes a pungent layer of older leaf fragments called duff. It is nearly an inch thick—more than back by the road where Eurasian earthworms were abundant, but thinner than in worm-free forests. If I find any thicker duff, I may look for rare moonworts, tiny ferns dependent on certain leaf fungi.
MBS researcher Ethan Perry stands on a rock outcrop above Cherry Lake during a field survey in the BWCAW. Photo by Lawson Gerdes, DNR.
I love exploring new places for this job. But today I'm excited to return to a place I know intimately: a study plot where, as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I spent four summers monitoring bird nests in a tract of mature sugar maples and basswoods.
Some surrounding areas, in contrast, look on aerial photos like a crazy quilt, each patch a clearcut with regenerating trees all the same age. In naturally functioning maple forests, trees usually fall singly or in small groups, allowing saplings to join the canopy. Many ages grow together—a pattern I target for survey.
Approaching a murky pool, I remember standing here years ago, patiently watching a least flycatcher flit through the lush foliage overhead until finally settling on a nest. This time I am looking down, scanning for moonworts in the soft duff. But my patience gives out and I opt to cover new ground.
Skirting the edge of a newly flooded beaver pond, I spy a fragment of blue flagging tape by an aspen log. In the study we used blue flagging to mark woodpecker nest trees. Could it be? Looking to the aspen's stump, I'm struck at once by two observations: A tag reveals that yellow-bellied sapsuckers raised chicks in a cavity here in 1993. And on top of the stump, set into the rotten wood, sits a veery nest.
This woodpecker tree provides a stump for a pair of thrushes 17 years later. And a place once filled with birds of the treetops will soon support a new suite of birds attracted to the beaver pond and its dead trunks. Some nearby trees may grow to hefty size, while others will fall, making habitat for salamanders or drumming logs for grouse. With appropriate management, the cycles of life and death will continue to follow ancient patterns. At least until earthworms shake things up.
Top-10 Lunch Spot
by Daniel Wovcha
In late August a few years ago, I went on an eight-day canoe trip with Minnesota Biological Survey ecologist Mike Lee. We traveled to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to look for rare plants and gather information on plant communities. On the last day of the trip, we made an epic trek from our island base camp on Brule Lake northward through Cam Lake, then east through the bush to Ida Lake. Mike had mapped out several promising sites along the route to scout for rare plants. Among the sites were a talus slope perched above a small wooded drainageway, a cliff along the north side of Cuckoo Lake, and the edge of a large, burned area that started near the lake.
A stream enters the west end of Cuckoo Lake near where the author found his top-10 lunch spot. Photo by Daniel Wovcha, DNR.
When I woke that morning, water was running off the tent fly and mosquitoes were crawling on the netting above my head, the same as the morning before. We ate breakfast during a lull in the rain and set off in our canoe. After we paddled north, stashed our canoe at the shore of Cam Lake, and crawled through steamy brush for the next 45 minutes, the inside of our raingear was soaked with sweat. Rain continued off and on, and we were confronted with the warm-weather bushwhacking dilemma: Is it drier to take the rain gear off or leave it on?
We reached our talus slope a little after noon. I remember looking down into the black holes between the wet, jagged, mossy boulders we were scrambling over and wondering how far my leg would disappear if I slipped. At the end of the slope, Mike saw a vulture chick dart into a small, dark cave in a cliff above the talus. We cautiously approached the cave, which smelled like a dead body. The chick hissed at us from the darkness. Mike tried to get a photo of it. It hissed some more. Mike noted it in his field book, and we moved on.
When we reached the cliff at Cuckoo Lake, we spent an hour crawling along the rock face looking for rare plants. The cliff was mostly dry, but water seeped down along several large crevices and over parts of the face. Mike began intently collecting mosses from the wet areas. At around 2 o'clock, I became hungry and lost interest in the cliff and the mosses. When Mike finally gave up searching, we chose a lunch spot on a ledge at the base of the cliff and sat down (lunch number eight in-a-row of cracker crumbs eaten from a sandwich bag with a spoon, salted nuts, a ribbon-like piece of beef jerky, and warm, filtered lake water). We ate looking out across the glassy surface of Cuckoo Lake toward a pink granite ridge on the other side covered with scorched tree trunks and small patches of bright green herbs. Mike declared, "This is one of my top ten lunch spots of all time."
After lunch, we wandered eastward, surrounded now by the burned jack-pine forest we had entered. We arrived atop a ridge about an hour before dusk. We posed in our wet rain gear for a photo, the camera balanced on a huge boulder upslope. I looked at the quiet, inviting lake and wondered if we had enough time to scramble down and jump in and still get back to our canoe before dark. We took the photo and turned back toward camp, swimless and sweaty, walking along a ridgetop that gave us a vantage to the north of the burned forest. Staring absently at the bottom of the slope below, I saw a small tree begin wobbling along through the brush. I watched the tree move several yards, then transform into a huge set of antlers, trailed behind by the broad, gliding back of a moose.
The moose, the largest bull I've seen, parted the tangle of burned logs and that we had twisted through on our way to Ida Lake. Within 15 or 20 seconds, the moose reached the top of the next slope and disappeared into the charred forest. I mentally computed how long it had taken us to cover the same distance on our way here and then understood what kind of creature it really was.
Just before lunch that day, I had taken a photo of Mike standing on a ledge below the cliff at Cuckoo Lake, scanning upward. I looked at it in the fall, back in my office recording data from the trip, and immediately remembered the discomfort of my sweaty rain gear and mosquito bites on my wrists. I recalled the vastness of the burned forest stretching away toward Canada in the dusk as we walked along the ridge above Ida Lake.
I went on other survey trips over the next two summers, and the Brule Lake trip receded in my memory. One afternoon I received an email from Mike with the unremarkable subject line "Moss IDs." The first sentence of the message read, "FYI, all three state records were from the last two years in Cook County." It didn't make sense at first, but as I read I understood that after our trip Mike had sent the moss specimens he collected at Cuckoo Lake to Minnesota moss expert Jan Janssens for identification. And Jan had just informed him that one of the mosses growing in the seepage areas on the cliff was Philonotis yezoana—a species not documented before in Minnesota.
After I read the email, I felt a little sheepish about being impatient to eat lunch when we were at Cuckoo Lake and losing interest in the mosses growing on the cliff. The food had not been good enough to place above the scientific discovery of Philonotis yezoana in Minnesota. The view across the silvery lake from the ledge where we sat, on the other hand, was beautiful. It was probably one of my top-ten lunch spots.
The People You Meet
by Nancy Sather
The agricultural landscape is a special place, and one of the best parts of working there is the people you meet—prairie indwellers who open their lands, their lives, and their doors. Our job is to document the landscape's biological treasures, but these are the people whose interest and engagement will ultimately determine the fate of the prairie.
MBS researcher Nancy Sather explores Prairie Coteau Scientific and Natural Area. Photo by Judy Olausen.
Here's to the first site manager at Jeffers Petroglyphs, her stubborn advocacy for what is now one of the state's best-interpreted prairie sites, her knowledge of local places, and her willingness to take me around to meet the landowners. And the nearby landowner who, at first meeting, greeted me with a wild licorice plant she'd been saving for identification "until you come."
Here's to the farm and ranch families who've walked the land with me in nine counties, showing me their fens and special plants or sharing their concerns about weeds, invasive trees, or soil accumulation on rock outcrops.
Here's to landowners and volunteers who've engaged in monitoring, and to 4-Hers and Scouts who grew up counting prairie bush clover. Here's to the babysitters of Jackson, Cottonwood, and Marshall counties and the farm families of Polk and Mahnomen who hired my teenage sons.
Here's to the senior citizens of Lyon and Murray counties, who welcomed me into their lives and taught me so much about the places where they live. Here's to prairie lovers in study clubs, garden clubs, churches, historical societies, and local watershed districts. Here's to photographers who've shared their secret haunts. Here's to the fellowship and hospitality—the ground cherries picked, the apples tasted, shared meals, free beds, dog sitting, and packets of seeds. Here's to the land knowledge, books shared, plants found, wetlands waded, and the swirl of hundreds of water birds cluttering the sky like confetti on the shores of Heron Lake.