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Klemek column: Minnesota is a natural wonder

Blane Klemek
The Gateway to Elk Country

The wonders of Nature are all around us. Blueberries are ready to pick. Many songbirds are busy caring for offspring or are incubating eggs that’ll become second broods of the season. And Comet NEOWISE is putting on a show in the pre-dawn and nighttime sky.  

Here at Lake Assawa the trumpeter swan pair that successfully hatched five eggs on June 10th have inexplicably lost three cygnets, likely from predation events. At this writing the two remaining month-old youngsters are about the size of a football and seem to be faring well.

Oh glorious summertime, so long in coming and so quick in going, nearly a month in now, is advancing. Everyday there’s something new to discover, some phenological occurrence that’s suddenly upon us once again . . . be it blooming prairie and woodland plants, wild berries and nuts galore, flocking red-winged blackbirds, growing goslings, and red-coated deer and white-spotted fawns. 

Last weekend I drove to Kittson County near the Manitoba border to explore the grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands of the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland ecoregion of northwestern Minnesota. Abounding of tens of thousands of acres of state wildlife management areas and lands owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC)—all available for the public to explore—are replete with native flora and fauna. 

Characterized by a variety of habitat types that include tallgrass prairie, aspen and riparian woodlands, and expansive sedge meadow wetlands, the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland is also an area where ancient sand beach ridges occur, leftover from when the landscape was a lake during the last ice age some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. Indeed, the enormous glacial Lake Agassiz once encompassed around 170,000 square miles throughout parts Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Canada. Today these remnant beach ridges are often where you will find oak savannas.

Bisected by the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail, which continues north into Manitoba from Warroad, prime hotspot birding areas along its route through Minnesota’s aspen parklands include Twin Lakes Wildlife Management Area (WMA) east of Karlstad, Lake Bronson State Park, TNC’s Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area, and Roseau River WMA.

During my hike on TNC’s 15,000-acre Wallace C. Dayton preserve and nearby Caribou WMA, I observed species that I don’t ever see at my home near Itasca State Park. As I walked through the vegetation to the observation viewing platform located not far from the parking area, I encountered blooming western red lilies, purple prairie coneflowers, and bottle gentian. I was also delighted to see sharp-tailed grouse and marbled godwit on other excursions nearby. 

Airspace everywhere throughout the aspen parklands was alive with birdsongs. Western meadowlark, upland sandpiper, sandhill crane, and a host of sparrow species that include savannah, vesper, clay-colored, song, chipping, and others. I also observed numerous northern harriers and turkey vultures as each of these species rode air currents on stretched wings in search for various prey. 

A highlight of my visit to this far northwest part of Minnesota was observing a species of animal that is exclusive to this unique ecoregion. While spending time on Caribou WMA, the second largest member of the deer family, a mature cow elk, stepped into my view and allowed me to watch her for several minutes before she ambled off deeper into the aspen woodland. 

Elk, which were once common throughout most of Minnesota, are now relegated to primarily this important region. And in recognition of this alluring animal, the nearby town of Lancaster with the financial support and enthusiasm of local resident and retired doctor, Dr. Roland Larter, who’s a strong advocate for the state’s elk population, has recently installed a billboard and elk statue advertising the region as a gateway to Minnesota’s elk country.

Minnesota is truly a remarkable place. Lucky we are to live and recreate in not only a land of 10,000 lakes, but also a land of hardwoods, pinelands, prairies, and aspen parklands, all teeming with floristic and faunal riches, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors. 

Blane welcomes feedback and stories from readers. Email him at bklemek@yahoo.com.