Returning pollinators to the farm landscape

 

Carmen Fernholz checks out a restored prairie on his A Frame Farm. He's recently added strips of pollinator-friendly habitat between row crop fields.

Carmen Fernholz checks out a restored prairie on his A Frame Farm. He’s recently added strips of pollinator-friendly habitat between row crop fields.

MADISON — Concerns about the decline of pollinators has led to efforts to plant pollinator-friendly habitat everywhere from the backyards of suburban homes to the grass ways along our interstate highways.

Some, like organic farmer Carmen Fernholz of rural Madison, are restoring pollinator-friendly habitat on the farm.

Its disappearance from our agricultural landscape has triggered much of today’s concerns.

Fernholz has been farming in Lac qui Parle County since 1971, committed from the start to organic production. He is among those who helped write the book on organic certification. A field next to his home on what he calls the A Frame Farm has been certified organic for over 40 years.

The loss of pollinator friendly habitat on farms has been subtle, he pointed out. The development of more effective herbicides and Roundup Ready crops has virtually eliminated milkweed from fields and their edges, for example.

Fernholz said the removal of fencerows has been a big factor as well. Fencerows provided a mix of pollinator-friendly plants, and not just for honeybees or monarch butterflies, the two poster insects of our concern about pollinators. Native bees- some of which nest in the ground- as well as a wide variety of other, native insects that are important pollinators thrived in the habitat once provided by fencerows.

To more than make up for this loss, Fernholz added two strips of pollinator-friendly habitat along fields on his farm in early July. Each is about 30-feet wide. In total they provide nearly three acres of habitat for pollinators.

He seeded these buffers between his fields and those of a neighboring farm with a mix of 20 different, native flowering plants and five native grasses. It will take a couple of years for the strips to fully establish themselves.

Monarchs feed in native prairie at Glacial Lakes State Park.

Monarchs feed in native prairie at Glacial Lakes State Park.

Once they do, the two strips will bloom in a sequence of early, mid and late season flowers to meet the needs of a diversity of pollinators.

A Conservation Stewardship Program compensates for the costs of adding and maintaining the strip and committing the land. The local NRCS office provided a seeder.

Even without the newly-planted strips, his farm outside of Madison would certainly qualify as a pollinator-friendly location.  There is an approximate 30-acre complex of restored prairie and wetland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program that offers and abundance of habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Organic farming is all about taking a system approach to farming, “seeing how one piece is connected to the other,’’ said Fernholz. Crop rotation is critical. With about 300 tillable acres, he devotes about one-third of the acreage each year to corn, another third to soybeans, and the other third to alfalfa, small grains, legumes and pasture.

He’s always been a student of how natural processes can be harnessed for crop production, and so his concern with pollinators is no surprise. “Just a natural thing for people like myself to pick up on it and find out what the issues were and how we might do something about it,’’ said Fernholz.

Yet he points out that planting strips of pollinator-friendly habitat alongside fields is something that can be done on any farm, conventional or organic. The strips of perennial vegetation also offer the benefit of reducing wind-caused erosion, he noted.

He makes no claim that having an abundance of pollinators on the farm will necessarily benefit crop production, although it might.

For him, the rewards of planting the strips are obvious even before they begin to produce the flowers that will restore beauty and color to a landscape of corn and soybeans.

His two, elementary-school age grandchildren were guests on the farm this past week. They are avid collectors and students of butterflies and other pollinators.

“Look at what they are going to mean to the future,’’ he said of their interest in pollinators. “This is what we always look for, the younger generation to carry on.’’

To learn more, Fernholz recommends two books by the Xerces Society:  “Attracting Native Pollinators” and “Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.”

A butterfly feeds on a purple coneflower on restored prairie on the A Frame Farm east of Madison.

A butterfly feeds on a purple coneflower on restored prairie on the A Frame Farm east of Madison.

Renville County parks will host second, special archery hunt in 2015

 

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Ben Trochlil arrowed this eight-point buck in Skalbekken Park during Renville County’s first special archery hunt offered in its parks in 2014.

OLIVIA — Responding in part to interest by bow hunters, Renville County opened five of its county parks in 2014 to a special deer hunt for archers chosen in a lottery.

The result?

“Very successful. The feedback we got was great,’’ said Mark Erickson, director, environment and community development for Renville County. Erickson’s comments were directed to the Renville County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. The county park’s commission is asking the board of commissioners to approve a second archery hunt in the parks for 2015.

This year’s hunt will be expanded to include Birch Coulee Park. It will join Anderson Lake, Mack Lake, Beaver Falls, Vicksburg and Skalbekken Parks.

All of the parks are located in the Minnesota River Valley, which goes a long ways to explain the pent up demand for opening them to deer hunting. The valley offers some of the best opportunities to pursue large bucks.

And yes, that seems to have been the motivation for those who participated in last year’s special hunt.

Ben Trochlil arrowed a nice, eight point buck on his sixth or seventh outing in Skalbekken Park last year. Trochlil said he passed up several opportunities for younger deer in hopes a large buck would give him an opportunity.

It came around 4:50 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 9. The rules of the hunt prohibited hunters from doing any tree pruning to open shooting lanes, so Trochlil had only a very narrow window to make his shot. What he estimates was a 30-yard shot was true to the mark.

“A very good experience,” said Trochlil of the hunt in the county parks. He will be among those applying for the chance again this year.

Erickson reported that 34 hunters participated in last year’s hunt, but only four deer were harvested. “Bow hunters like to watch and wait for the big one,’’ he told the commissioners. “All thought it was worthwhile.’’

Some of the hunters reported seeing as many as 30 or more deer at times, he said.

 

The parks were divided into 34 different zones, and each hunter selected for the hunt was assigned his or her specific zone. This year there will be 36 zones and hence 36 hunters with the addition of Birch Coulee Park.

The other change this year will be a rule change allowing hunters to place trail cameras in their zones. The cameras were not allowed last year.

The hunt is offered Nov.1 through December 31. Hunters need to apply by September 30. The lottery drawing will be held Oct. 2.

Hunters must attend an accredited bow-hunter education class to be eligible. Hunters must also attend an orientation meeting in Olivia on Oct. 14.

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.