Rescue proves a success as eagle takes wing

The feisty eaglet was ready to attack its rescuer.

The feisty eaglet was ready to attack its rescuer.

 

A rescue mission to save a downed eaglet this spring can now be called a success.

The young eagle has taken wing.

Brad Olson, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife office serving the Swift County area, spotted the eagle on one of its first practice flights earlier this week.

Yes, he was very excited to see the eagle take to the air.

Undoubtedly, Rick Bartz is just as excited. Bartz lives near where the nest holding the young eagle came crashing down during thunderstorms that rumbled through the area in mid-May. The eagle’s nest was located on a cottonwood tree branch near Murdock in Swift County. It stood 40 or more feet above surrounding farmland. Bartz investigated when he saw that the branch holding the nest had gone down.

He found the body of one eaglet below the tree, and the surviving, feisty sibling. It was ready to attack him.

He responded by calling around to see what could be done. Timing was important. The sky was spitting rain and a cold wind put the eaglet at risk of hypothermia if action wasn’t taken relatively quickly.

One idea was to bring the eaglet to the Raptor Center, but that would condemn the bird to a lifetime of captivity. Staff at the Raptor Center suggested the better option would be to try and build a new nest in hopes the eaglet’s parents would resume their care for it.

And that’s exactly what the two men did. They built a platform about 15 feet high on the cottonwood tree and re-assembled as much of the original eagle nest bowl as possible.  They placed the eaglet in it.

They stayed away for a few days so as not to disturb the parents. When Bartz returned to check on things he spotted the eaglet in the nest, and saw evidence that its parents were again caring for it.

Rick Bartz and Brad Olson teamed up to build a replacement home for the displaced eaglet.

Rick Bartz and Brad Olson teamed up to build a replacement home for the displaced eaglet.

Olson’s work area includes Swift and Big Stone counties. He’s been checking on the nest when his work schedule brings him near the area, and that was the case earlier this week.

Once again, timing was everything. He was there at the right time to see the young bird give its wings a try. Olson said the eagle will probably continue to practice its flying skills for a week or two before going its own way.

Chasing down a prehistoric predator

 

Curt Oien of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society gives chase to a dragonfly during the Simon Lake Bio-Blitz.

Curt Oien of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society gives chase to a dragonfly during the Simon Lake Bio-Blitz.

Dragonflies are aggressive predators that date to the age of the dinosaurs, when an oxygen-rich environment supported species that were larger than many of the common birds we know today.

Modern dragonflies prey on mosquitoes, biting flies and virtually any other insect they can devour.  In turn, many species of birds treat dragonflies like so many flying Big Mac’s and devour them voraciously.

Birds aren’t the only ones hunting down dragonflies and their smaller cousin, damselflies. Members of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society go after them enthusiastically with nets.  They’re not looking for dinner of course. The members of this state-wide organization enjoy capturing dragonflies and damselflies to identify and release them. Just as birders try to record the number of species they find, many of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society members are in the hunt for the 140 different species of dragonflies and damselflies, all part of the insect Order Odonata believed to exist in Minnesota.

A Halloween dragonfly

A Halloween dragonfly

Members of the group participated in the Simon Lake Bio-Blitz in southeastern Pope County, where we caught up with them last Friday. “We heard the word fen,’’ said Curt Oien, one of the organization’s members, when asked what brought them to the event. Dragonflies and damselflies are creatures of the state’s wetlands, rivers and larger water bodies. The Simon Lake Bio-Blitz included an area including the Sheepberry Fen, which holds a calcareous fen along with a natural marsh.

We’ve all had opportunities to marvel at the aerobatics of dragonflies as they whiz and zigzag like flying saucers devouring other flying insects. And every so often, we’re lucky enough to have a dragonfly land on our fishing poles or near enough that we can appreciate their amazing patterns and colors, including many neon-like hues.

Catch one in a net and really take a look at these creatures, and all of a sudden it’s easy to understand why there is a state-wide organization of citizen scientists chasing them. These insects are incredibly interesting and beautiful. “It’s easy to get hooked,’’ said Angela Isackson, one of the members. “Lots of people are really interested.’’

There’s good reason to be interested in knowing how dragonflies and damselflies are doing in Minnesota. They play an important niche in the web of life, and can serve as a canary in the coal mine to let us know how a given landscape is doing.

And how are they doing in Minnesota? That’s very much an open question, the society members said. Unfortunately, until recent times not many people bothered to catch and record the types of dragonflies and damselflies to be found in any given area. We have records to look back and see the diversity of birds or even butterflies to be found in many areas of the state, but not so with Odonata, according to Oien and Isackson.

They and other members of the group are now trying to make up for this by compiling records of what they find at locations around the state.

There remains much to learn. They pointed out that some species of dragonflies that are often believed to be rare may really be relatively abundant, but just unnoticed. Some of these species spend their adult lives as dragonflies in the tops or trees, or over the waters of wetlands where mosquitoes keep us away.

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Reno Risch of Appleton caught a common green darner.

Many in the society are interested in finding the species that are rare, and it’s not because they are looking to add trophies to their lists. If certain species are rare, it’s important to learn their habitat needs and try to protect those habitats, Oien explained.

Habitat is the overriding issue, and unfortunately we’ve lost much of it. The drainage of wetlands and declining water quality have adversely affected dragonfly and damselfly populations throughout southern Minnesota, according to Oien and Isackson.

The signs of the challenges were even apparent on the native prairie and wetland area where the Simon Lake Bio-Blitz was held. Hybrid cattails have infested much of the marsh in the Sheepberry Fen, and consequently degraded the habitat needed by the insects.

Yet the volunteers still found many dragonflies and damselflies to hunt, and considered the Simon Lake area an oasis of diversity in an agricultural region of the state.

To find out how easy it is to get hooked on dragonflies and damselflies, take a look at the organization’s web page: http://mndragonfly.org/

Dragonflies are best handled by holding the wings.

Dragonflies are best handled by holding the wings.

Unplugged in the wilderness still works best for all ages

Fishing remains as great as ever in the BWCAW.

Fishing remains as great as ever in the BWCAW.

We were an early witness to the changes taking place in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

It was probably two decades or more ago. We had just completed a week-long trip in the Quetico, the Canadian counterpart to the BWCAW.  We were waiting for a tow boat to pick us up on Hook Island in Lake Saganagons. We had covered a lot of miles during the week, and had been rewarded with fantastic fishing and the opportunities to encounter moose and enjoy scenery including a string of waterfalls. We talked excitedly about our adventure to four others also waiting for a tow boat: two fathers from a Twin Cities suburb and their sons.

Or at least, we talked to the fathers. The two teenage boys wore earphones and were listening to music. The two fathers lamented the fact that the sons had kept the earphones plugged into their ears throughout much of the trip, and didn’t really seem to appreciate the fishing or the adventure.

I have to wonder today: Are the fathers and their two teenage boys returning to the wilderness? The fathers are very possibly returning, but it’s an open question as to whether the two teenage boys with the headphones are following in their wake. A U.S. Forest Service study published in 2012 found that the age of visitors to the BWCAW is increasing, as aging baby boomers continue to return while the numbers of young people decline.

Fewer visitors come to the BWCAW for the fishing than once was the case, but those who do fish can only scratch their heads and wonder why.

Fewer visitors come to the BWCAW for the fishing than once was the case, but those who do fish can only scratch their heads and wonder why.

Sam Cook with the Duluth Tribune, Mark Neuzil with MinnPost, and other writers have been voicing the question raised by Robert Dvorak of Central Michigan University and his co-authors of the Forest Service study. Will there be a new rank of young people to replace the aging baby boomers who will continue to play a role as the stakeholders advocating for the preservation of this wilderness?

We all know that there are many reasons why young people aren’t as likely to take up outdoor activities. They have the diversion of electronics, and they are involved in more organized activities than ever was the case. The fact that our chat two decades ago on Hook Island occurred with visitors from the suburbs is also a telling part of the story. The Forest Service study found that the number of visitors to the wilderness has declined as we’ve become more urbanized.

The number of overnight visitors to the BWCAW has been slowly declining in recent years.

We just returned from a week-long trip to the BWCAW and can report that the changes are still evident, but hardly over-whelming. We met a number of young visitors and by all appearances they seemed to be having a great time.

We don’t see moose as often as we once did, but the scenery remains outstanding and encounters with deer and other wildlife are just as frequent as ever.

And, the fishing remains great.

The scenery and sites remain reason enough to make the trip.

The scenery and sites remain reason enough to make the trip.

The number of those coming to the BWCAW for the fishing is also in decline, which is really a head scratcher until you consider. It may just be that fewer young people are being introduced to fishing on their home waters.

There is a way to turn all of this around, and it’s easy. Take a kid fishing and take them to the wilderness as well. Our recent, week-long BWCAW trip included two young campers, ages 13 and 9. Their electronic devices stayed behind, replaced by fishing poles and books for leisure reading. We returned home as happy campers, talking about the adventure and planning our next trip, our youngest campers included.

Siblings Brynn and Owen Cherveny start the trip.

Siblings Brynn and Owen Cherveny start the trip.

A lifetime of fishing adventures starts here

 

Rylee Boen with her grandfather Chet Boen waits for a strike while fishing in Olivia's Pond Park.

Rylee Boen with her grandfather Chet Boen waits for a strike while fishing in Olivia’s Pond Park.

Fishing can lead us to some very wild and beautiful places, many of them far from home.

Yet most of us get hooked on a lifetime of fishing in our youth, where access to a local fishing spot that we can reach on bike or foot matters most. Lots of us got started by catching bullheads, panfish or even chubs from local creeks.

Jon Wogen of Olivia got started this way, catching bullheads in a shallow lake in northern Iowa, where he grew up. Now retired from a career in education, he pens a column in the Renville County Register called “Prairie Outdoors.’’ He’s been writing lately about the “free-range kid,’’ a concept promoted by Tom Fenton during an earlier visit to Bird Island and Olivia. Fenton is an active living specialist and Olympic speed walker.  He promotes activities that get kids outdoors.

Wogen is among a group of people who take that message to heart, and have done so long before Fenton’s visit to the area in May.

They went to work a few years ago to convince the City of Olivia that a storm water retention pond that was mandated by the state as part of a utilities improvement project was a blessing in disguise. They could make the most of this pond of water by having it stocked with fish and turning it into a local fishing spot.

Tom Kalahar (standing) and Jon Wogen (seated) watch as Rylee and Chet Boen try their luck in Pond Park.

Tom Kalahar (standing) and Jon Wogen (seated) watch as Rylee and Chet Boen try their luck in Pond Park.

Two years later, what is now known as Pond Park is everything they could have wanted and more. Along with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the volunteers and Olivia Park Board enlisted help from organizations such as Pheasants Forever. The DNR stocks the pond with crappies and panfish, and bullheads found their way into its waters all on their own. Pheasants Forever helped seed the area create 20-acres of natural prairie alongside the park.

City Administrator Dan Coughlin describes it as “making lemonade from lemons.’’ Kids can often be found fishing at the pond, where the DNR intends to install a fishing pier soon. Wogen knows of one 13-inch crappie taken this spring, obviously a survivor from the first stocking two years ago.

Adults are discovering this park too. Coughlin said if you drop by on a summer afternoon you are almost certain to encounter people strolling on the half-mile of mowed walkway along the pond’s perimeter. Swallows, wood ducks and even a resident goose family are part of the entertainment for those who relax on the benches the city placed along the walkway. Some people come just to enjoy a sunset over water, said Coughlin.

Have no doubt. The idea of introducing youths to fishing is what motivated Wogen to push for the community’s new asset. It’s among nine parks in the City of Olivia, and represents proof that there are many who know what makes for a kids friendly community.

Wogen’s love of fishing has led him to some of the most beautiful locations in the country. He loves to catch trout in mountains streams and the hills of southeastern Minnesota.  He once told this scribe that he likes trout because “they are found in beautiful places.’’

He knows the lake country of central and northern Minnesota well too, and ditto for the lakes of Kandiyohi County.

Yet he probably said it all when by way of introducing a visitor to Pond Park, he said simply: “This is a precious place.’’

Pond Park is the latest addition to Olivia's park system.

Pond Park is among the latest additions to Olivia’s park system.

High tech tracking revealing much about elusive plains hog-nose snake

 

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Jeff LeClere, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, holds a plains hognose snake on the Chippewa Prairie.

APPLETON — Finding a plains hognose snake amidst the knee-high foliage of the Chippewa Prairie in western Minnesota is a lot like buying a winning lottery ticket.

It takes some luck, unless you have the advantage that Jeff LeClere has in his search. He now has seven plains hognose snakes that carry surgically implanted transmitters.

He roams this 2,000 acre, native prairie along Lac qui Parle Lake with an antenna that can pick up the telltale beep-beep-beep of the transmitters anytime he comes within 400-feet of one. “You can step on top of it and not know it’s there,’’ said LeClere of how well the hognose snakes can hide.

LeClere is a herpetologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

He’s also lucky. He and his colleagues knew hognose snakes existed on this prairie when they began their search a few years ago, yet also understood how difficult it was going to be to find one. They put up sheets of wood and corrugated metal to provide the kind of cover garter and other snakes are attracted to, but without success.

And then one day they stumbled upon a hognose snake, caught her and implanted the transmitter. “She led us right to where all of the other snakes were,’’ said LeClere.

Now he and other colleagues come every other day to track their subjects like FBI agents shadowing suspects. Along with the seven with implanted transmitters, they have injected tiny, glass enclosed pit tags in over 100 other hognose snakes. They can scan any of these snakes when they come upon them and know their identity, and hence keep track of their development and movements.

More than snakes are at stake in this research. The Chippewa Prairie is the focus of a long-term study to determine whether we can manage and preserve our remaining, natural prairie lands through a process known as “patch burn grazing.’’

Each year a portion of the prairie is burned, and a small herd of cows is allowed to graze.  It mimics how the prairies evolved, only the herds that once grazed this land were those of bison.

The plains hognose snake is very much a creature of the prairie, specially adapted to this environment, said LeClere. If the patch burn grazing regime compromises this natural environment, the hognose snakes will serve as the canary in the coal mine to tell us.

The snakes are but one part of the mosaic that makes up this landscape. Other researchers are paying similar, close attention to the various prairie flora and grasses to see how this will work.

LeClere’s a natural for this work: When he was a young boy in Iowa he became fascinated by dinosaurs. “Lots of kids grow out of it. I never did,’’ said LeClere.

His interest turned to amphibians and reptiles when he was taught that they were the closest living relatives to dinosaurs. They were something he could touch, catch and keep in the backyard, unlike a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

As an herpetologist, he travels much of the state with the Minnesota Biological Survey program to assess the populations of reptiles and amphibians.

Jeff LeClere holds the antenna that picks up the  telltale beep-beep-beep from the radio transmitter implanted in the hognose snake.

Jeff LeClere holds the antenna that picks up the telltale beep-beep-beep from the radio transmitter implanted in the hognose snake.

He’s part of a team studying several different species of snakes in the Weaver sandhill dunes in southeastern Minnesota. And, he’s part of a group looking at the skink populations in Scientific and Natural Areas in this region.

The hognose snake research on the Chippewa Prairie has been his to coordinate for over two years. Funds allowed him or others to track the snakes every day during the past two summers, weekends included.

One of their first findings was a shock. During the first summer, female snakes with transmitters made their way into a large cattail marsh, a large backwater of the Minnesota River.  They spent the entire summer in its moist and apparently cooler confines.

“It really blew us away,’’ said LeClere. The conventional wisdom held that hognose snakes would never stray from the upland prairie with which they are so closely associated.

They spent some time in the marsh last summer as well, but not nearly so much. It taught the researchers that caring for the prairie by itself was not enough. Caring for the entire landscape is important.

They’ve also learned where the snakes like to hibernate, lay their eggs, and where many of the individuals prefer to hunt their favorite foods. They prey on frogs, toads, lizards, small rodents, and the eggs of turtles, ground nesting birds and even their small fledglings.

The snakes’ ability to avoid detection is their best defense, and they need it. LeClere said it is surprising how many scars are carried by the adults, which usually grow to about 2 ½ feet in length. Raccoons, weasels, raptors, coyotes and foxes are their main enemies.

The other “predator” is people who capture hognose snakes for the pet trade. Fortunately, many captive-bred hognose snakes exist and that has helped reduce the pressure on wild populations, he said.

So far, the research on the Chippewa Prairie has not shown the grazing cattle to be a threat to the hognose snake. One early captured snake was a victim.  It was accidentally trampled by cattle when it took the wrong escape route. The pit tags have also revealed that some snakes fall victim to the prescribed burning of the prairie.

LeClere cautions that due to the limited number of snakes that are transmitter equipped, it’s impossible to answer the larger, research questions that interest many.

Yet he points out that there are enough of the transmitter-equipped snakes to provide the needed answers to the program focused questions, such as the habitat needs and the effects of disturbances here.

Every time he or others track down the beep-beep-beep to an individual snake, they GPS the spot and record the type of habitat within one meter of it.

They’ve also been collecting tissue samples to provide an inventory of the population’s genetics.

Funds for this research come mainly from the nongame fund and the Minnesota Biological Survey. LeClere said he hopes funding can allow it to continue for years, as the patch-burn grazing study itself is intended to be long-term.

In the meantime, he feels like a lottery winner every day that he is on the prairie, doing what he enjoys. “This is definitely what I was meant to do,’’ said the herpetologist. “I feel like this is my place.’’

This is the third year of tracking plains hognose snakes on the Chippewa Prairie.

This is the third year of tracking plains hognose snakes on the Chippewa Prairie.