Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The elusive egret May 16, 2022

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Through blurred trees in the foreground, an egret that has just taken flight. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

FROM ONE HOLDING POND to the next, then to the next, they flew. The elusive egrets.

Pond walking. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent evening, I tried to photograph egrets at the Faribault Energy Park, place of dirt trails, ponds, creek, assorted trees, wildflowers and wetlands along Interstate 35.

A wildlife photographer I am not. But that doesn’t keep me from trying.

Wings so broad and white. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Randy spotted the egrets first, in the waterway near the small shelter just off the entry road into the park. I hurried toward the shelter thinking I would quickly get the shots I wanted. But, as I soon discovered, egrets are observant and evasive. Before I even reached the site or had adjusted my camera for action shots, the two egrets were in the air.

Either landing or taking off, I can’t recall which. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

They flew toward the nearest holding pond. I followed, stood on the dirt trail, zoomed from afar and clicked the shutter button multiple times. When I moved, the egret of my focal attention took off. I was intentionally trying to respect the birds and remain unobtrusive. But I suspect, even if I had simply been walking the trails minus my camera, their behavior would have been the same.

Hanging near the shoreline in the third pond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

By this time I determined that egrets are camera, or people, shy, preferring to just be left alone in their watery habitat.

This unfocused image shows motion as the egret takes flight, neck curved. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

They are an interesting bird. Long of neck, curved when they fly. Wide white wing span, which leaves me wondering how they possibly keep those feathers so snowy white. Thin black legs resembling sticks. Long, jolt of orange beak. And not exactly graceful in flight. Rather clumsy-appearing, in my opinion.

My final photo as the egret flies during the golden hour or sunset. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I wonder what those egrets thought of me, earthling far below or nearby. Without wings. And although my legs are long given my height, they are no match for an egret’s long twiggy legs. I can’t compete with their vision either. That I observed in the short time I attempted to photograph…the elusive egret.

TELL ME: Do you know anything about egrets and/or their behavior?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Transitioning into spring in southern Minnesota March 23, 2022

In one of two open ponds at Faribault Energy Park, geese settle in. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

AFTER WHAT SEEMED an especially long, cold winter in Minnesota, spring is emerging. And although the calendar confirms that with the vernal equinox on March 20, I need only look around me to verify this change in seasons.

Last year’s berries still cling to branches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Several days of gloriously warm weather, capping with 70 degrees on Monday, meant lots of time outdoors in the warmth and sunshine. And nature, mostly nature.

Dirt roads wind around ponds at Faribault Energy Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I especially delight in following the packed dirt roads at Faribault Energy Park. Even with its location next to busy Interstate 35, the park provides, for me, a preferred place to immerse myself in the outdoors. I love the wide sky, the prairie feel of this landscape.

Just a snippet of the blackbirds I saw in these trees. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I began my walk around the on-site ponds that attract waterfowl aplenty, I hear first the overwhelming chorus of birdsong. Red-winged blackbirds, perched high atop a cluster of trees, trill a song of spring. I welcome the music.

Canadian geese. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
An overview of the smaller pond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
A mallard drake and hen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On two of the three ponds, I observe ducks and geese—mostly geese—rippling gracefully across the open water.

This pond right next to the energy plant was mostly iced on the first day of spring. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The water on the pond nearest the energy plant remains frozen except along the fringes where an angler catches and releases bass and bluegills. It’s a good place to fish with kids, he says, or for someone like him, a kid. I laugh.

By the pond, evidence of a busy beaver. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I follow the paths and walk along main pond’s edge with camera slung around my neck, I notice the remnants of seasons past interwoven with signs of spring.

Nearly hidden, last season’s nest. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Sumac remnants. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
A dried milkweed pod. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Dried leaves, sumac, grasses, cattails, berries, milkweed pods, pine cones, even a bird nest tucked low in the crook of a tree, remain from months earlier.

Dogwood. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

But now, amid all those visuals of autumn and winter, spring pops. Red dogwood colors the brush.

Pussy willows just beginning to open on the first day of spring. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Pussy willow buds open, tracing a line of mini cotton balls along slender branches.

Last season’s pinecones. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I take in this seasonal change. With my eyes, then my camera. And I listen to those blackbirds in concert, interrupted by the occasional applause of geese against the background music of I-35 traffic.

A swan navigates across a frozen pond (near the Energy Park) by I-35. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

It’s good to be here, to experience the beginning of spring. To connect to the earth along muddy dirt roads. To feel, hear and observe the transition of seasons as we step into spring in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetic reflections from Faribault Energy Park September 14, 2021

Among the many beautiful wildflowers growing at Faribault Energy Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

DESPITE THE STEADY THRUM of traffic along adjacent Interstate 35 and the drone of the power plant, Faribault Energy Park remains a favorite place to walk. Not because it’s quiet—because it’s not, not at all. But because of the dirt trails that wind through 35 acres of wetlands and ponds.

Dirt trails ring the ponds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Here, when I put sneaker to ground, I feel connected to the land. There’s something satisfying and comforting about earth directly beneath my soles.

The foxtail, especially, remind me of the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo September 2021.

And although this isn’t prairie, the openness of this park appeals to me. It reminds me of my prairie roots, of the gravel drives and roads I biked and walked while growing up in southwestern Minnesota. Sometimes my heart hurts for missing those familiar wide open spaces and spacious skies.

The park’s single wind turbine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

At Faribault Energy Park, I pause occasionally to look skyward, to the expanse of blue. Or toward the churning arms of the wind turbine which, during my most recent visit, spun shadows across the land.

A view of the power plant from across the pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

It should be noted that I’m not particularly fond of wind turbine fields. I understand their importance, but don’t like their visual intrusion upon the landscape. Like visual pollution, they detract from the beauty of the land. They seem out-of-place, invasive to my eyes. I feel the same about massive solar panel fields planted on farmland. But here at Faribault Energy Park, only one wind turbine stands, across the road from a solar garden (not field).

Goldenrod, one flower I can identify. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I’ve always loved milkweeds from fluff to pods to how they are necessary for the monarch butterfly population. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Dainty wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Mostly, I notice the wildflowers and grasses. Goldenrod. Black-eyed Susans. An endless variety of plants that I should take time to research for identification. Rather, I settle for photographing them and appreciating their beauty. How they sway in the wind. How they appear in the sunlight. How they splash color into the landscape.

I especially love how these grass plumes bend and blow in the wind, like poetry. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Bold berries jolt color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I love the hue and texture of this grass, whatever it may be. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If my current photos were poems, they would write of Autumn and her floral dress flowing, billowing as she walks the runway of Faribault Energy Park. (My poetic interpretation of all those colorful wildflowers edging trails.) Audience applause rising. (My poetic interpretation of the droning traffic on I-35 and the noisy power plant.) I imagine that as easily as I recall prairie memories.

There is an abundance of cattails at Faribault Energy Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Faribault Energy Park, 4100 Park Avenue North, keeps drawing me back. To follow the dirt trails. To appreciate the landscape. To, for a short while, escape, even if quiet remains elusive.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Make way for goslings (and ducklings) May 11, 2021

Goslings huddle near pond’s edge at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

EVERY SPRING, I FIND myself drawn to pond or river’s edge to watch the goslings, the newborn offspring of Canadian geese navigating the shoreline and water.

Geese are fierce protectors of their young. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

They are just so darned cute. Downy yellow. Sometimes huddling in a circle of sibling closeness.

Swimming into the pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Still in the protective care of their parents. And, yes, geese can prove fierce when safeguarding their young. I steer clear of these young families, preferring to frame family photos from afar.

Prairie Pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
I love how the goslings are bookended in a protective line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A goose is barely visible in the dried grasses of Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The ponds of River Bend Nature Center (especially the one along Rustad Road) are good spots to spot geese and ducks. When I see young waterfowl, I am reminded of Robert McCloskey’s children’s picture book, Make Way for Ducklings. It won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book and tells the story of a duck family in Boston.

A duck pair in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While River Bend lies a long ways from McCloskey’s Boston Public Gardens pond setting, the universal appeal of ducklings spans the miles between Massachusetts and Minnesota.

A duck emerges among the grasses in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Whether in a city, rural area or nature center, downy babies in the care of their parents create, at least for me, a sense that all is well in the world. That no matter the worldwide challenges—especially during a pandemic—no matter the community and personal challenges, the cycle of life continues.

Geese nesting at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Every spring I make way for ducklings and goslings, celebrating their arrival by documenting their arrival. With my camera. But even more, by framing them in my memory during this season of spring.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling