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Return to Weaver - Field Report

Fri, May 4th, 2001
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Monday, April 30, 2001

Early Spring 2001

Regular readers may recall my article on the Blandings Turtle research project at Weaver Dunes near Wabasha, Minnesota, which appeared in the August 14, 2000 issue of the Fillmore County Journal. As briefly mentioned at the conclusion of that commentary, a large number of questions important to understanding the regional management needs of this state threatened species still remain unresolved and research activities will be continued at least through the end of the turtles 2001 nesting season. Largely because of the generosity of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Non-game Wildlife, I luckily will again be able to participate in the study this year as well.

Since much of my time and attention has been focused on Weaver, making the region the topic of this months column would seem the most logical course of action. Doing so will hopefully convey at least some idea of the topography, wildlife, and ecological diversity of this truly unique portion of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. This is perhaps best accomplished by providing a field report of sorts, adapted and compiled from the somewhat hastily scrawled comments of my notebooks. And so it begins.

As is probably true of many northlanders, by mid-March I suffer from an acute case of "cabin fever," compounded no doubt by my growing anticipation of the forthcoming field season. Unable to restrain my enthusiasm longer, I toss binoculars into the Jeep Pickup and head off in quest of the years first glimpse of Weaver.

Upon arrival, it is clear that old man winter has yet to relinquish his icy grip. Rolling sand prairie dunes, some places perhaps 100 feet tall, are overlaid by a wavy blanket of snow. The many ponds and "potholes" remain ice capped and entombed. Our research trailer and the quarters of my colleagues are dark, desolate and deserted.

A flock of 25 or so Tundra Swans passing directly overhead banishes any thoughts of disappointment. At first, I think their raucous squawks are the barks of some distant pack of dogs. Coming closer, the noise sounds vaguely goose like, a riotous cacophony of weirdly garbled honking calls. When the massive birds finally emerge from behind the screening wall of "cultivated" White Pine their squadron-like "arrowhead" flight formation, gleaming white bodies and seven-foot wingspans dispels all doubts regarding their identification.

Having nothing better to do, I drive off in the direction the giant waterfowl are heading. My persistence pays off and I eventually find about 200 swans placidly floating in open water at the far edge of an otherwise ice covered Mississippi River bay. Here the swans will briefly rest, preen and feed, in what in effect is a convenient refueling station along the route to their artic breeding grounds.A plethora of other waterfowl species are present in prodigious numbers as well; Canada Goose, Coot, Merganser, Wood Duck, Redhead, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Mallard, Shoveler, Canvasback, and Bufflehead to name but a few. One or two Common Loon, Minnesotas state bird, also pop up on occasion. Like swans, these Loons are just weary travelers and will soon fly away to complete the last lap of their annual journey.

Nearby, in flat snow covered melon fields, stand small groups of Sandhill Crane. These majestic, nearly four-foot tall birds with their long necks and red crowned heads are becoming an increasingly familiar sight at Weaver. Unlike swans and loons, at least some of these Sandhill Cranes will remain in the area throughout the spring and summer.

Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawks soar overhead in ever widening circles. These species along with their smaller cousin, the American Kestrel or Sparrowhawk, reside in the area all year. Other regularly seen year-round resident birds include Wild Turkey, Great Horned and Barred Owl, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, and Red-bellied, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Unlike those who think spring officially begins on the day of the Vernal Equinox or the corresponding date on our calendars, I personally seek signs of winters final departure among more earthy, sometimes wet, and often down and dirty kind of things. Things like this solitary Tiger Salamander methodically plodding across a lonely township road in far northern Fillmore County on these first rainy and blustery days of Aprils second week. A determined, sex starved male bound for a secret rendezvous with perhaps hundreds of his kind in some nearby marsh or pond.

Oddly enough, I have yet to find a Tiger Salamander at Weaver, although the annual aquatic ritual of this animals silent courtship dance surely must now be occurring somewhere in the region. This lone salamander making its way across a Fillmore County road, however, assures me that winter is indeed retreating, that area wetlands are once again clear of ice and free.

Any day now area turtles will be moving too, and our traps must be in the water soon. While I know for certain we will catch turtles, perhaps this years return to Weaver we can turn up a Tiger Salamander or two as well.

Until next time, "Nuff Said" - JPL

John Levell

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