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Blane Klemek column: Summers brought close exposure to wildlife

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


July 9, 1998: Hot, sunny, calm, 80s. I watched eight cowbirds sitting on a fenceline. They have a habit of posturing with their heads and beaks pointing skyward giving them a distinctive silhouette. It occurred to me that they were probably raised by red-winged blackbirds, yet they were all together with their conspecifics. Why, I wondered, don't they imprint with the species that raises them?

July 17: Hot and sunny. The yellowthroats and sedge wrens are still singing. A few red-winged blackbirds are hanging around yet.

July 21: Sunny, windy and mild, 83 degrees. It's also amazing to see the changes within the wetlands. Back in May one would have a hard time visualizing that same wetland in late July. No.170 is completely dry and choked with vegetation. In May, ducks used it.

July 23: Sunny, partly cloudy, light wind, 70s. I find it fascinating and mysterious to look into the waters to see what grows in the dark and quiet wetlands. I even squatted down and studied the water and was amazed by the insect life -- both micro and macro. Tiny round beetles, like small dark beads, were quite abundant and swimming in a senseless "whirlygig" motion, around and around. Water boatmen were on the hunt, darting from one site to another. I watched one, in lightning fashion, surface for an air bubble and then retreat to an ambush spot on the stem of a submerged plant.

July 28: Sunny, mild, and windy. Another interesting thing: a sound I've heard before, usually within cover at a wetland's edge, caught my attention again. I investigated the sound within a cattail stand on No. 1525 -- a loud, intermittent but persistent bird-like/insect-like distress call of some sort. Lo and behold, the source was a leopard frog, very much in distress. A garter snake had it by the back legs and was trying to swallow it. The struggle ended with the frog pulling free and escaping. But since that incident I heard the distress calls of other frogs, no doubt victims of other snake encounters.

July 31: Sunny, light wind, 60s to 70s. Its expansiveness, its beauty ... the sheer volume of the prairie captivates my senses -- all of them. I feel lucky to be alive.

August 5: Sunny, light wind, muggy, low 80s. I saw prairie onion; a unique native onion with a pretty umbel of pinkish, six-petal flowers at the end of a long and leafless stem ... so many plants, so many colors. The prairie is splashed with floral rainbows.

August 8: ?Sunny, humid, hot, stiff breeze. Sora rails are calling as I sit here writing this. I can also hear coot and the vocalizations of fully grown chicks. Hardly a blackbird can be found in the wetlands now. The only birds I'm seeing with regularity -- besides broods of waterfowl -- are eastern kingbirds. The marsh wrens and common yellowthroats are still calling as well. I'm seeing lots of raptors too. Especially harriers and red-tails.

Summer 1999

My final summer. I added 16 additional wetlands to my sample size. The number of survey wetlands included 32 restored wetlands and nine natural basin wetlands for a total of 41.

May 11: Sunny, windy, cool. I saw a huge Canada goose (gander) paired with another goose that I swear was half its size. They had a couple of goslings. When they got out toward the middle of the wetland, I could barely see the goose, but the gander was very obvious. Could it be that a giant Canada mated with a cackler? It sure looked like it.

May 12: Cool in a.m., sunny, windy, mild. Saw a buffalo rock. It sits in a mini-basin and its angular form is polished smooth and shiny like an agate. I sat and looked at it, touched it and tried to imagine the great beasts grunting and rubbing against it to satisfy itches. I tried to imagine the plains before me covered with the grazing animals.

May 13: Cool, foggy, cloudy, windy (40s in a.m.). I photographed a colony of cormorants north of Robinson. A great horned owl was nesting within the same colony. She had a half-grown chick. It looked as though she had a coot or a cormorant in the nest, too. I wondered if she ambushed any cormorants at night.

May 28: Sunny, windy, warm. I saw an orchard oriole on the east end of that basin. Its song is what attracted me first. It was oriole-like, but weaker than that of a Baltimore. He's not a large bird either. However, a very striking passerine.

May 29: Calm, sunny, 70s. I've also noticed that the northern shoveler has an identifiable wing beat when it flushes. Besides the "fit-fit" call the drake emits, its wings alone beat against the air differently from other Anseriformes.

An apple tree in the backyard bloomed this past week. Cedar waxwings have been raiding the petals.

June 2: 70s, clear. Lightening bugs, Lampyridae, were numerous on Hawks Nest. A beautiful sight. There were so many throughout the site it looked like a city of lights.

June 4: Clear, light wind, 60s - 70s. The rain that fell last night north of Woodworth must have been incredible. Hawks Nest received a hell of a drenching. Huge washouts from the newly planted wheat fields left behind wide swaths of soil and rocks. The "rivers" had to have been several inches to a foot deep because there was debris hanging on the bottom strand of the fence where the washouts passed beneath. The tall grasses of the WPA where these washouts flowed through on their way to the wetlands were laid flat and covered with soil, old sunflower stalks and rocks. Ruts on the field road were filled with sediment as well. I wonder what effect it had on nesting birds.

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