Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Connecting with nature along the Cannon in Faribault July 7, 2022

A mallard drake in the Cannon River along the shoreline at North Alexander Park, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

NORTH ALEXANDER PARK in Faribault has become, for me, a place of refuge. A place to walk. A place to connect with land, sky and river. The park offers a paved riverside trail, part of the city’s inter-connected trails system, that bends into a tree-filled space.

A canopy of oak leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

When life gets especially stressful, as it has thus far in 2022, enveloping myself in nature allows me to temporarily escape reality. Who doesn’t need a break? Focusing on the natural world rather than struggles and challenges brings a sense of peace, of calmness and sometimes clarity.

A mallard hen sits on the riverbank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

This sprawling park on Faribault’s north side is home to many waterfowl, drawn to the Cannon River. I never tire of watching them, whether in flight over the water, in the water or beside the water.

A view of the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

Their numbers seem down this year, perhaps due to avian influenza. Still enough ducks and geese meander the shoreline and trail to make me watch where I step.

A pair of mallards huddle under the bleachers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)
Up close under the bleachers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

I even spotted a pair far from shore, under the bleachers at a ball field.

A mallard drake. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

While I’ve never been fond of winged anything up close, I certainly admire them (except bats) at a distance. Mallard drakes, with their iridescent green heads, practically shimmer with beauty. And the hens are lovely, too, in their mottled brown feathers.

A family of geese photographed about a month ago along the river. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

In the spring, ducklings and goslings draw my motherly eye. There’s something about a baby.

A pelican comes in for a landing atop the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

The Cannon River also attracts pelicans. And eagles. On a recent riverside walk, I saw an eagle trace the river, reverse course and settle low in a tree along the opposite shoreline. Too far away to photograph even with my zoom lens. It just sat there. I was hoping it would swoop down to grab a fish. But, when I left, the eagle still perched in that tree. Quiet. Still.

A snuggling mallard hen, defined by mottled feathers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

There’s something to be learned from observing waterfowl. How they sit. How they glide. How they navigate wind and water. How they adapt.

So I will continue these riverside walks, immersing myself in nature, discovering the peace and quiet that comes from connecting with ducks and geese, pelicans and eagles at North Alexander Park in Faribault.

TELL ME: Do you escape into nature? If yes, where’s your favorite place to go and how does being in the natural world benefit you?

© Copyright 2022 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

 

Duck, Duck, White Duck February 23, 2022

A cluster of ducks, including two white ducks, follow the partially frozen Cannon River in downtown Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

“DUCK, DUCK, GRAY DUCK!” If you’re not a native Minnesotan, you might stop me right here and protest. “It’s Duck, Duck, Goose!” you likely would correct. And then I would protest.

Ducks border both sides of the Cannon River on a February afternoon in Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

A few years back, in October 2017 to be exact, a tight end for the Minnesota Vikings initiated a game of Duck, Duck, Goose following a touchdown. Ohio native Kyle Rudolph was quickly corrected. Here in Minnesota, we term that children’s game Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Not Goose. But Gray Duck. That set off a storm of conversations in which many a Minnesotan defended our name for this game which involves participants sitting in a circle, tapping each other on the head and calling out “Duck” or assorted versions thereof. The child pegged as the “Gray Duck” then tries to catch the person who is “It.”

Nearly camouflaged against a snowy backdrop, an uncommon white duck. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Duck thoughts fly through my head as I consider a scene on the Cannon River in the heart of downtown Northfield Sunday afternoon. There, among the drake mallards with brilliant iridescent green heads and the hens in their unassuming shades of brown, were four white ducks. All white with brilliant orange beaks and webbed feet.

Looking the other direction from the pedestrian bridge offers a view of ducks edging the open river. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I was thrilled to finally see these white ducks Randy has previously spotted flying over Northfield on his way to work. These, he said, are not domestic ducks given their propensity to fly just like any other wild duck.

I watched this pair for awhile and they appeared to get along just fine. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

We can only guess at their origins since we are uninformed, except when it comes to Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Perhaps the white ducks resulted from a genetic mutation. Or the mixing of wild and domesticated. Whatever the reason, these waterfowl drew our interest.

Ducks hang out together on the frozen Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I wondered if the other ducks would exclude/shun/avoid the white ducks. As I watched them walk across the ice and swim in patches of open water, I observed no ostracization. We could learn a thing or ten from those ducks.

© Copyright 2022 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

 

Obviously ducks can’t read May 2, 2016

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Ducks at a squirrel crossing, 178

…but they are smart enough to realize that words mean nothing to squirrels either. And if there’s corn available, as in this front yard along Fifth Street in Faribault (across from Trinity Lutheran Church), they will partake.

My question, though, is this: How did these ducks find this food? The house is not located anywhere near a water source. Did one of them fly over, spot the corn and call the family? I can never figure out this ducks wandering away from water thing.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling