Bird Surveys in Renville County

Lessons in Monoculture Birding

By Bob Janssen, MRVAC Board of Directors 

Here’s my story of how I came to do bird surveys in one of the most intensely agricultural counties, Renville. If you check a map, you will see that the northern boundary is roughly Highway 7. The Minnesota River forms the diagonal boundary.

Common Yellowthroat, courtesy of USFWS

At the MOU spring meeting in St. Paul, I met an old friend, Steve Stucker, who is Director of the Minnesota County Biological Survey. Steve is one of Minnesota’s most knowledgeable birders because of his extensive experience with the geographical distribution of Minnesota birds. I mentioned that I was looking for useful work to keep me busy. Steve told me to get in touch with his wife who is looking for help doing bird surveys in areas in western Minnesota. It sounded exactly like what I was looking for, especially since it might get me back into working with birds.

Jennifer Stucker is the Research Biologist for West Inc who are Environmental and Statistical Consultants doing work in western Minnesota where wind generators are potentially going to be installed. I called Jennifer and was hired and assigned to survey 17 GPS locations in a township in Renville County. I can think of better locations to look for birds but it was work and best of all it had to do with birds!

Surveys were required at each location for 70 minutes once per month. I was trained in the field by one of West’s most experienced people. I thought I knew many things about doing bird surveys but I learned a lot of new techniques while doing these surveys. The surveys included observation of a Bald Eagle nest near to the points I was to survey. Who ever thought there would be a Bald Eagle nest in the “middle” of the corn and soybean monoculture in Renville County?

I have been doing the surveys since April and I have found that this monoculture of agriculture is a great lesson in the changing landscape of Minnesota. This monoculture extends for miles, as far as the eye can see, corn and soybean planted almost to the edge of the road and the ditches along the road where grass and other plants remain which is usually mowed for the hay it produces. Where is there any habitat for birds?

I was really discouraged but as time passed and I grew familiar with the landscape I found out how resilient birds can be. The main grassland habitat that remains is along the drainage ditches which are everywhere. Some of these ditches are 20 to 30 feet or more deep but they are full of grass and other vegetation “spills” out over the top of the ditches. Vesper Sparrows are common along the gravel roads where the ditches and grass occur, Horned Larks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats and even a few Bobolinks use the ditch grass for nesting. In addition to birds, butterflies are abundant in the sparse habitat along the gravel roads.

Another area that is good for birds in this intense agriculture area is the farmsteads. Most of the homes are surrounded by dense brush and many species of trees which provide excellent woodland habitat for Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers. Mourning Doves and Red-winged Blackbirds are probably the most common birds in the area, they are everywhere and an occasional Eurasian Collared-Dove can be heard about the farm houses. American Robins, Barn Swallows and House Wrens are present around each farm home. I have even found Least Flycatchers in a few of the woodlots. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seen along the utility lines.

The agricultural portions of Renville County, with their monoculture of corn and soybeans, is not the place to look for rarities but in spite of this, the area provides habitat for many Minnesota birds so there is hope for the species that I have mentioned above.

In a few areas of the county where I am working there are extensive areas of grassland. One Waterfowl Production Area covers almost a square mile and the birdlife here is amazing, Bobolinks and Sedge Wrens are everywhere and can be heard as you drive by this beautiful prairie area. I haven’t had time to study the area but it no doubt has many other species of grassland birds. It shows what the preservation of habitat can do for birds.

The bird that is missing from the whole area is the Western Meadowlark; I wonder what it would take to restore this species to Renville County? What a treat it would be to hear their song drifting over this landscape

Treasurer’s Report: 2016-2017

By Bob Williams, MRVAC Treasurer 

Our last fiscal year, June 1, 2016-May 31, 2017, was another successful one. We exceeded our income budget for our 3 most important categories of income i.e. Birdathon, Holiday Auction, General Contributions. This meant that we did not have to dip into our reserves to meet our budget.

On the expense side we had an unexpected expense for the new website, which was well worth it, but in other categories we came in below budget so it all averaged out in the end. Our total income for the year was $16,143.50 and our total expenses were $15,450.70. We still have 4 CD’s totaling a little over $20,000 and a nice cushion in our checking account so we can handle most surprises at least for the foreseeable future.

Our current fiscal year is off to a good start as well. We have received donations for Birdathon totaling over $2,000 and we expect a few more before the end of the calendar year. If you would still like to contribute, please send your checks to MRVAC at PO Box 20400, Bloomington, MN 55420 made payable to MRVAC or go to our page on GiveMN.org where you can use a credit card.

Since we are no longer sending the Trumpeter by mail to the majority of our members, our projected expenses for this fiscal year are lower than last year. This should allow us to make even more grants than we did last year to help fund the worthy programs of the organizations that apply.

Finally, I would like to let people know that I plan to resign as Treasurer at the end of this fiscal year, May 2018. If there is anyone out there who would like to take over this task, please let me know at bxwilliams@cbburnet.com or at 612-728-2232. It is not a particularly difficult task and I would be happy to help you with it during the first year; June 2018 to May 2019.

2017 Holiday Auction: November 16

Please think about what donations you could collect for the fundraising auction Thursday November 16.

We could especially use a few larger items like a boat trip, use of a cabin, a homemade dinner or a behind the scenes tour.

Please email the committee with your ideas or let us know in advance, ideally by October 1 if possible, about your contributions so we can mention them in our publicity:

Wild Ones Native Plant Tour: August 13

Join the tour of five Minnesota River Valley yards with native landscaping; get some ideas for your own yard and see how various plants look ‘in person’.

An Aug 13 tour of native plant gardens in the Bloomington/Burnsville area includes gardens belonging to MRVAC members Becky Lystig, Liz Stanley, and Pat Stevesand. A 4th garden is a woodland reclaimed from buckthorn. All 4 gardens support bird habitat. The 5th location, adjacent to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is a series of neighborhood curb cut rain gardens that mitigate water flowing into the Minnesota River.

For details go to prairieedge.wildones.org and click on Summer Tours at the top of the page. Then scroll to the bottom to Download the tour brochure. The tour is a fundraiser for the Prairie Edge chapter of Wild Ones.

Salt Lake Weekend Birding Recap

By Ken Larson – – PrairieMarshFarm@Comcast.net 

On April 29 over 100 birders from around the state searched the lakes, wetlands, woods and prairies of Lac Qui Parle, Big Stone and Yellow Medicine counties, finding 147 species of birds. Cold wet weather 2 days before and the later date for the weekend resulted in a good variety of waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, warblers and sparrows.

Some of the best birds of the weekend were the Black-necked Stilt at Lone Tree Lake and a Prairie Falcon in southwestern Lac Qui Parle County, both reported by Jason Frank. Scott and Marilyn Scott spotted a Golden Eagle near Big Stone Lake and three miles northwest of Madison, Rebecca Flood was the first to spot a large flock of over 648 American Golden Plovers. Nearby at Madrena WMA, three White-faced Ibis, 123 American White Pelicans and one Western Grebe were spotted. Two Ferruginous Hawks were seen as well as numerous Swainson’s Hawks. Altogether 23 shorebird, 15 sparrow and 5 warbler species were counted.

All the birders involved extend thanks to the City of Marietta and the American Legion Womens Auxilary for breakfast and lunch and to the City of Madison and the Sons of Norway for dinner. Anyone wishing a complete list can email me directly at PrairieMarshFarm@comcast.net or find it on the MOU web site: http://moumn.org/saltlake/.

Citizen Science Opportunity: Phenology & Changing Seasonal Patterns

The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge has recently mapped out a series of observation points to collect data on the effects of seasonal change for several plant and animal species. These observation points are connected in a series of three “phenology trails” along the refuge. These observations provide important information to scientists in the National Phenology Network, along with our own biologists, as they seek to better understand how species are effected by changing seasonal patterns.

Their research depends on people like you, the citizen scientists, to help collect invaluable field data all across the nation. The data collection is done through a citizen science initiative known as “Nature’s Notebook”, which utilizes a user-friendly website and mobile application to aid in simple and accurate data collection.

  • If you are interested in joining this campaign, please consider attending an upcoming (as yet unscheduled) workshop, where you will learn about the importance of phenology and how to use Nature’s Notebook to collect data, along with finding opportunities to get involved.

For more information please contact Cortney Solum at cortney_solum@fws.gov

Do You Remember When Turkeys Were Rare?

Do you remember when it was rare to see a turkey in Minnesota? I do. When I started my conservation career about 30 years ago, they were few and far between. Now, they’ve become a big nuisance.

“Turkey” is my theme for this year’s legislative session. Never in my 30 years’ experience have the results for conservation and the environment been so poor. Never. And, there was plenty of gravy for the special interests who came to feast on this turkey.

I don’t recall the election past being about subverting the will of Minnesota voters and shifting dedicated water clean-up funds to government salaries. Did I miss the promises to cut residents out of permitting processes for mining? How are we better off with the DNR prohibited from regulating lead shot…when there are effective alternatives? And, what has been so wrong about DNR wetland replacement decisions regarding mining – that they back-dated a law 26 years to 1991 to cover it up!?

I’ve heard that the 1% are getting ahead faster than most of us. That carried through into environmental permitting: companies with the means to pay to get to the head of the permitting line, can, to the detriment of other permit applicants. They also have the right to write their own Environmental Impact Statements…and keep their data and assumptions private. Don’t even ask: We won’t tell. Cities have up to sixteen years to comply with new clean water standards. Kicking the clean water can down the road.

Solar, wind and energy conservation programs were cut or repealed entirely. Residents who get their power from municipal or cooperative power companies lost the regulatory oversight from the state, leaving them open to excessive fees to hook up their solar or wind installations. Existing challenges to such charges were dismissed by law. Representative Gruenhagen from Glencoe, Minnesota, in a floor speech that was widely shared, said Global Warming, was “Global Lying” and that it was a United Nations plot.

We tied our hands when it comes to pesticide applications – Minnesota can’t require a “demonstrated need” before use of certain pesticides. Bees and other pollinators are to be researched with a little extra money, but we’ve already eliminated one possible way to help them. Finally, the rarest of wetlands, calcareous fens (groundwater-fed wetlands, with many rare plants) are now on a “Commissioner’s Choice” list. Because one farmer wants to irrigate corn near a fen and his Senator is in his pocket, our protective law dating back a quarter century is now permissive. A future DNR Commissioner may allow “seasonal drawdowns” of groundwater in fens…so that we can have a few more acres of crops. More “turkey trimmings” (and a few small edible bits) can be found in my full legislative report on our website: www.mnikes.org.

I have indigestion from this Turkey of a session, and so does Minnesota’s environment. We are moving backwards on our promise of clean water and our need to transition to clean energy. We are doing nothing to improve our state parks. Did I mention we barely avoided a freeze on further acquisition of public wildlife lands?

When you are out and about this summer in Minnesota’s Great Outdoors, look around you. Do you want to pass this along to your children and their children? If so, please tell every elected official that represents you: No More Turkeys!