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Blane Klemek column: Journal entries show first solo project

Blane Klemek spent three summers in a row working on wildlife research projects within the prairie pothole region of the Great Plains near Woodworth, North Dakota. This is part two of a series of articles devoted to selected journal entries from those summers.

Summer 1998

My first summer conducting my own graduate wildlife research project. Working solo, I set out to study bird and vegetative species diversity within and surrounding restored and natural basin wetlands throughout the prairie pothole region of east-central North Dakota.

May 14: hot and muggy. Woodticks were horrific. I picked ticks for a solid fifteen minutes on Sweet Grass GDU. My pants were covered with them, I couldn't believe it. Never in my life have I seen more ticks on my person.

May 18: windy, 70s, clear. Lots of gadwalls. They are most definitely the dominant duck on the wetlands -- that and blue-winged teal.

June 1: sunny, windy, 70s. I'm seeing a lot of common yellowthroats and deer. Deer are red-coated. Bucks are sporting their velvety developing racks. Seeing more leopard frogs now. Anemones are beginning to bloom.

June 3: night survey, cool, mid-30s. I saw a couple of deer again, heard others moving through the grass, and listened to the prairie voices: geese, pied-billed grebes, soras, Virginia rails, owls, coots, ruddy ducks, blue-winged teal, unidentified quacks and calls, and of distant cattle. The grasses were wet, my fingers and hands numb from the cold. I enjoyed my walk at night--a different experience.

June 4: Night survey, calm, light breeze, overcast, 40s. Fireflies are out in force. It was pleasant walking in the dark with them lighting my way. I noticed that when a firefly would perch on top of a blade of grass or forb its glow cast a cone of green light, much like a yard light at a farmstead, in a circle around and beneath the insect. Remarkable, to say the least.

Coots do fly after all (ha!). They seem to fly mostly at night, however, as once in awhile I'd hear one squawk overhead.

June 5: Night survey, three-quarters moon, calm, low 40s to high 30s. A lone Virginia rail was very bold and vocal. I called him right to me and was delighted to catch sight of him. I shined my light into the cattails and continued to play the recording, rewinding when needed. When he revealed himself to me I was amazed at how small he was. His call at close range is surprisingly loud for such a small bird.

June 9: Raining, breezy, warm, high 70s. I jumped a sora out of the cattails and it flew across the wetland in its weak and pitiful way. I am perplexed as to how those awful little fliers can migrate.

June 17: light rain, 60s. I'm seeing coot chicks now. I noticed that common yellowthroats do aerial displays. An individual bird rose from the cattails on No. 1120 and sang on its ascent and, after staying aloft some 20 feet, dove to where it had left from.

I also enticed some interesting responses from a bittern on No. 1575. After my playback he responded with his call and eventually flew nearer to me. I watched in amazement the bird gulp air to produce its unusual vocalization. Snapping its bill while holding its head parallel to the ground, the bird gulped air. After enough air was drawn in, he threw his head backward in a violent thrust as the bird produced its unusual call. Each vocalization (three times each) was accompanied by the return of its head backwards, bill pointing skyward, and the telltale "onk-o-ronk!"

"My" bittern gave me another look when he landed at another upland location. His skulking demeanor, rigid posture, and deliberate movements bespoke of a certain nobility for such a gangly and basically homely bird.

June 22: Partly cloudy, 70s, calm. I saw three deer next to No. 215, including a little fawn that I dang near stepped on. The spotted little guy flushed like an adult, erect flag and all, and bounded in typical zigzag fashion and eventually disappeared into a stand of cattail. Mama taught the youngster well.

The aquatic plantain is beginning to flower now. Broods are becoming more abundant and drakes less so. Ruddy ducks are courting and bitterns are continuing to vocalize. Wrens and common yellowthroats are ever singing -- it will be noticeable when they cease.

June 25: Sunny, moderate wind, hot -- near 90. Needle grasses and porcupine grass is headed out and beginning to mature and prairie flowers are blooming everywhere.

I also put a sneak on two young bucks panting in the early summer heat. They were the color of pumpkins, sleek and lean, tails flickering and bodies fidgeting from pestering insects.

I was also dive-bombed by a male harrier and was amazed at how close he came to my head. In a few steps I jumped the female from her nest -- three white oval eggs in a neat and grass-lined nest bowl.

July 1: Sunny, calm, low 80s. An unusual sight as I walked through the wet cover on my way to #330. The sun, still fairly low in the early morning sky coupled with the heavy dew and last night's showers, shrouded the webs of orb spiders in a most spectacular fashion. Spectacular because, as I began to scan the field before me, hundreds upon hundreds of orb webs, clinging to grasses and forbs and alfalfa in various ways, blanketed the wet vegetation like so many snowflakes. They looked like bull's-eye targets, everywhere a man could see, waiting to harness the unwitting.

I saw a great horned owl, no doubt spooked from his perch, get mobbed by different species of blackbirds. He changed his perch three times. Each time he was safe from the mobbing until he took to the air. It was then that he was vulnerable to attack.

No. 10 contained a healthy number of birds too . . . and numerous courting ruddy ducks. Those little blue-billed drakes look and behave like wind-up toys.

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