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Blane Klemek column: Looking back on wonderful summers

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As many of you know, I spent three summers in a row -- from 1997 through 1999 -- working on wildlife research projects within the prairie pothole region of the Great Plains near Woodworth, N.D.

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My research involved recording observations and other academic information into field journals. The notes that I kept, intended to assist in my research, did indeed serve the purpose very well.

Still, the writer and naturalist within me would often deviate momentarily from scientific technicalities and jargon in order to allow myself the joy of writing simply or creatively. And so . . . it is these jottings that I wish to relive and recount for you.

For the next four weeks, my columns will be devoted to selected journal entries from those three wonderful summers.

Summer 1997

Working as a wildlife research assistant for a friend conducting his graduate work studying waterfowl nesting success on grazing regimes, I also conducted an independent wildlife research project studying nesting success and nest-site preferences of upland sandpipers on the same grazing systems.

May 11; windy (up to 30 mph), cool (50s), partly cloudy. Of all things to see, I startled a buffalo on plot #3. A lone animal, it spooked after I crested a hill and galloped on a southeasterly course and eventually disappeared. I was dumbfounded as I watched it top a distant hill.

May 13; rain, "cold" (low 50s) and very windy. Sun shined in a.m. Observed white pelicans and ring-billed gulls feeding on huge salamanders. It was quite the spectacle. Found a meadowlark nest on #4.

May 23; foggy, cool and light breeze. Later turned sunny and warm. Also was able to sneak up on an active sharp-tailed grouse lek. Crawled up to within twenty yards and observed firsthand the commotion associated with sharpie's dancing grounds. There were at least 11 birds in all -- most of which were dancing cocks.

May 28: Cool and overcast -- 50s, later sunny, light wind. Things are late greening up. Cattails in wetlands have barely started. Much of the area grasslands reveal the weathered bone-white color of last year's growth. Many of the trees are barely leafed out. Some hawthorn trees have only buds.

June 6: Partly cloudy, high 70s, light wind. Violets, hoary puccoon, strawberry, dogwood, vetch, prairie smoke, blue-eyed grass, and a type of false lily of the valley are now in bloom throughout the prairie.

June 7: Mostly clear skies, low 80s, light wind. Caught a jumping mouse on plot #4 -- genus Zapus.

June 11: Partly cloudy, 80s, light wind. Found a dead shoveler hen on plot #3 and a brown thrasher nest. Also saw a golden eagle and an orchard oriole -- first time sighting for both species (the golden eagle at one point was being harassed by a harrier).

June 16: Clear, light breeze, high 70s. Ruddy drakes are still trying to woo the ladies. Their clattering calls and surface skittering could be heard on a cattail marsh on plot #5. A marsh wren and its tinkling song, together with yellow-headed blackbird's discord, made for an interesting contrast of songs across the wetland.

June 20: Clear to partly cloudy, high 70s, light wind. Saw a gull choke down a coot chick on a wetland in plot #5. Found a chestnut-collared longspur nest with 2 cowbird eggs in it.

July 3: Rain, windy, cool. I wore my wool underwear three times this week!

July 9: Foggy in early morn, warm and windy and sunny later. I called a curious upland sandpiper to me today. He or she landed less than a few yards from me on top of a post.

July 17: Another hot one -- 90s, sunny, breezy. Snipe are still winnowing. Upland sandpipers territorial calls can still be heard as well. I'm also hearing Sprague pipits perform.

July 23: Mostly sunny, breezy and mild -- 70s. Took nearly two rolls of 36-exposure slide film today. Saw a coyote pup from only four meters away. Saw the little guy come out of its den from on top of #7 so I stopped and walked down the hill, got downwind of the den, sat down and waited. Fifteen minutes later out popped a coyote. It turned around and "click." It surprised me by rocketing out of the hole instead of going back down. I stood and took two more pics as it ran and when it stopped to turn and look back at me.

Blane Klemek is an assistant wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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