This is very long and detailed, so I’m going to try to put in a cut tag.
All right, I can't get that to work, not if it was ever so. I'm sorry.
On Tuesday Raphael and I went to Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. The forecast was for a sunny, almost windless day with a high of 87. The air quality was moderate. I complained about this the day before and Raphael asked if I'd prefer not to go. But Sherburne is actually a good place to go on a less than perfect day, because there's a seven-mile wildlife drive with stopping points for viewing whoever happens to be around; also a tiny oak savanna (1/10-mile loop) trail and a prairie trail with an oak grove in the middle with a bench (1/2-mile loop). And it's September; hiking season will be over at some point.
We got a late start but arrived with about five hours of daylight ahead of us. Sherburne is near Sand Dunes National Forest, and its soil is also sandy. It's a lightly rolling landscape full of marshes, pools, and prairie, broken by lines and clumps of trees. You drive through a short stretch of mature restored prairie to reach the actual wildlife drive. It was awash in blooming goldenrod and blue and white asters and rich brown grasses.
We stopped at the Oak Savanna Trail and had a sandwich, read the list of plants presently blooming (six kinds of goldenrod, four kinds of white aster, two kinds of blue aster, rough blazing star, and boneset) and then walked out on the tiny boardwalk. We examined what looked like an abandoned bald eagle's nest through one of the spotting scopes provided, and then started looking at spreadwings (yet another kind of damselfly) in the tall grass that the boardwalk runs through.
Here is an image of a spreadwing that one might see in Minnesota, though I don’t know if that’s what we did see.
A flicker of motion in the distance caught my attention, and I looked up to see three sandhill cranes landing across the prairie near the road we'd come on. "A family," said Raphael, looking through the binoculars. "See the juvenile?" I did see the juvenile, which did not have all its red in yet but was almost as large as its parents. The cranes started walking through the grass, not unlike herons stalking through shallow water; occasionally they would bend their long necks down and poke around in the grass roots, and occasionally one of them would make a sharp dart and come up with food and swallow it.
It was hard to decide whether the cranes were more awesome through binoculars or just as tall shapes against the pale road and prairie, bending and straightening, wandering apart and together again. If you didn't look through binoculars you could also see meadowhawks darting around, the spreadwings rising to catch tiny insects and settling again to eat them, the unexpected wind shaking the oak leaves and the grass and the asters. From time to time a darner moved across the larger prairie, veering after prey or just powering along.
At last a truck came fairly fast along the road, raising a cloud of dust, and the cranes paused, considered, opened their huge wings and rose up, gawky but graceful, and flew away low over the grasses. We went back to looking at smaller wildlife
I was trying to spot a spreadwing through the binoculars when I saw what looked like an animated tangle of brown grass. I said to Raphael, “There’s some kind of mantis there!” and when Raphael expressed astonishment, I added, “It’s very stick-y,” which allowed Raphael to come up with the actual name: It was a stick insect. It took a few moments for me to describe its location and for Raphael to see it, and then I had trouble finding it again through the binoculars, but it was busy clambering around against the wind, so we did both get a good look at it. It was only the second stick insect I’d seen in Minnesota. The other was at Wild River State Park. That one was much larger and was rummaging around in a pile of leaves at the edge of the parking lot. This one was fascinating because its camouflage was so great, and yet it did have to move around, so you could differentiate it from the grass if you worked at it.
We’d arrived in the deep of the afternoon when smaller birds are quiet. We heard a few goldfinches murmuring, and a phoebe carrying on, and a chickadee. We left the boardwalk, admiring the asters waving in the non-foreseen but welcome breeze, and walked around the oak savanna loop. The little oak saplings tangled among the other shrubbery were already starting to turn red. White asters poked their flowerheads through leaves belonging to other plants, to startling effect. Autumn meadowhawks floated and hovered and darted, snatching up gnats from the clouds around them. We had seen a monarch butterfly in the asters while we were eating our lunch, and also a dark-phase swallowtail wandering over the grass; now we saw a painted lady butterfly.
We made an attempt to leave, but a darner landed on a drooping dead branch of an oak tree right in front of the car. The sun was behind it and we couldn’t get a good look without tramping heedlessly into the prairie, so we didn’t, but its silhouette was lovely against the brilliant sky.
We drove on, past tall browning and reddening grasses, clumps of goldenrod, clouds of asters. Darners flew up from the sides of the road and zoomed away. We found at the turning that the refuge had reversed the direction of the wildlife drive since we were there last, which was momentarily confusing; but we found our way, and stopped at the Prairie Trail. I pointed out some thoroughly spent plants of spotted horsemint. We’d seen it in bloom, if you can call it that, at William O’Brien. It’s a very weird-looking plant. Here’s a photo:
This observation continued my inability to accurately provide the names of things; I’d just called it horsemint and Raphael reminded me that that particular weird plant was spotted horsemint. There are other horsemints, but they don’t look so strange. As we stood looking over the rise and fall of the little prairie, with folds of alder and sumac, and lines and whorls of different grasses and goldenrod, all truly starred with the blue and white asters, I said that I loved how big the sky was at Sherburne. Raphael noted that it was a slate-blue just now; we assumed that was the haze of the wildfire smoke all the way from the west coast, a somber reminder of far too many things.
We took the grassy path, startling small grasshoppers out of our way and stirring up meadowhawks from the tall plants and shrubs. We saw a monarch; we saw a painted lady. Passing through a little grove of young alders, on almost every tip of the dead trees intermingled with the living there was a meadowhawk perched. They swept upwards, snatched a gnat or fly, landed to eat again. Raphael showed me how to identify a female autumn meadowhawk: they have a definite bulge just below the thorax, which was easy to see against the sky. Darners zipped past from time to time. If it was a green darner we could usually tell even from just a glance. The others were mosaic darners, but harder to identify in passing.
I think it was as we approached the oak grove that we started seriously trying to identify the grasses. We’d known big bluestem, aka turkey-tail, for years. After seeing it labelled repeatedly here and there, I could pick out the charming clumps of little bluestem, just knee-high, with their pale fluffy flowers lined up and catching the light. We’d looked at an informational sign at the trailhead, but its drawings of Indian grass and switch grass didn’t look right. Raphael pulled up the photo of the sign about grasses at the visitor center at Wild River, which had struck both of us at the time as much more informative than other attempts to depict native grasses; and we could suddenly identify Indian grass after all. It has a long, narrow rich brown seed head with varying degrees of spikiness; some are quite streamlined and others are tufty and look as if they need combing. And we felt more confident about the switch grass with its airy spreading seed heads.
Raphael pointed out a beetle on the path, maybe a Virginia leatherwing, and then realized that it looked like a moth. A little research when we reached the oak grove and sat down showed that it was a net-winged beetle, and the entry even mentioned that it looked quite a bit like a leatherwing.
The bench we were sitting on was made from boards of recycled plastic. At some point Raphael had had enough sitting and went ahead a little way just to see what was there. I’d noticed when I sat down that there were verses from the Bible printed on the back of the bench in some kind of marker. On the left was the passage from Matthew that begins, “Come unto me you who are weary and heavy-laden,” and on the right the passage from John that begins, “For God so loved the world.” These might have been written in different hands. But the passage in the middle was definitely in a different hand, and began, “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine.” The ending of the passage was a bit smeared and I couldn’t read all of it, but at the bottom the name “hunter s. thompson” was clear enough. I followed Raphael and relayed the beginning of the passage. “Hunter s. thompson!” said Raphael, going back to the bench with me. “It’s from <i>Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas</i>.” Raphael looked this up too, and showed me the unsmeared passage on the cellphone.
Giggling a bit, we went on our way. We were now well around the loop and into the straight stretch back to the car. From the other side I’d pointed out a lovely layering of grasses, goldenrod, a narrow cleft of willow scrub, and a candy-red line of sumac. Now we came to the sumac from the other side. On the path in front of us was a butterfly. “What is that?” said Raphael. “It’s a Red Admiral,” I said confidently, but it wasn’t. It was another Painted Lady. Raphael consolingly told me that they were both Vanessa, very closely related, but the Red Admiral is very common in Minnesota and I was chagrined that I’d misidentified something else as that.
We came to a little stretch of boardwalk over a marshy area. On a shrub was a shimmery amber-tinged odonate. I pointed it out to Raphael. It turned out to be another autumn meadowhawk, though it looked as if it ought to be an Eastern Amberwing, or at least a Band-Winged Meadowhawk. It had perched on a bit of red-stemmed dogwood, just to be extra-cooperative. We went on through the cattails and willow, past a minute patch of open water and up onto the grassy path again. Raphael pointed out that where the path climbed back out of the tiny marsh there was a nice view over the rest of the open water and the winding marsh with more willow, and cattails, and a shrub we should have known but didn’t. (I briefly misidentified it as more red-stemmed dogwood, because it was my day to misidentify everything; but it had deep purple stems and leaves just starting to turn reddish.)
On our right for the end of our walk was the brilliant sumac and the cleft of alder saplings, all their leaves fluttering and twinkling in the wind and sunlight; on the left a long slope of prairie grasses interrupted by goldenrod and asters. More darners sailed by. The sky had lost its smoky cast and was a fine late-summer deep blue. We came back to the car and Raphael began to drive away, but I exclaimed at the sight of a big clump of stiff goldenrod covered with pollinators. We didn’t get out, but looked our fill from the car. Big bumblebees, a Ctenucha moth, beetles, ambush bugs. Once Raphael started reading it, I had to edit this entry to correct the Ctenucha moth's name and type, so have another link, since they are very handsome:
There’s one more trail you can actually walk along, near the end of the wildlife drive, but there was a sign at the beginning saying that it was flooded. Before that we drove past long stretches of marsh, open water, and rolling prairie, all patched with clumps of trees. From time to time there would be a wider spot in the road, sometimes a formal space big enough for three or four cars, with a bench or two, or a platform over a low spot with spotting scopes and some informational signs about the wildlife; others just a metal platform with railings, where you could stand and look over the water. We tentatively identified the spot where we’d once common moorhens, which are not so common that we weren’t deeply excited. We’ve also seen muskrats and various ducks in these locations, and once there was a gigantic cloud of mosaic darners all brown and yellow – I seem to recall that some of them were lance-tipped darners, but I may be wrong. This time we heard water birds making a ruckus, but couldn’t see them. Darners came by in about the density that they had been all the while. Over one platform we saw what turned out to be a northern harrier; these guys have an amazing acrobatic flight, and they’re reddish on the underside and bluish on the back. I excitedly called this one a kestrel, which would be smaller and have the colors reversed: bluish on the underside and red on the back. We also very clearly saw a nighthawk with its white wing bars, though the sun was still up.
We also saw some cedar waxwings fly-catching from a tree with a dead top, and heard a yellow warbler.
At last we came to a stretch of water, islands, and snags so large that it had two separate viewing-spots. From the first we saw several groups of large white birds. I thought the first were swans, but they were white pelicans. There were also some swans, however. We came finally around a curve of the gravel road to an observation station in a little oak grove, overlooking the far side of this large sheet of water. This is where most of the dead trees are, and here, to our delight, we saw as we’ve seen before several times a very large number of cormorants. The sun was setting by then, off to our right. The sky was pink and the water reflected it. Many cormorants were roosting already, but some were still coming out of the water; they would land on a branch, sometimes settling and sometimes glancing off several different trees before finding one that suited them, or one in which the other cormorants accepted them. It was hard to be sure. Then they would spread their wings out to dry, looking as if they were practicing to be bats for Halloween.
We found the swans and pelicans we’d seen from the other viewing station, though it was getting pretty dark by then. Cormorants still flew up into the trees and spread their wings. Through binoculars you could see the ones that had folded their wings now preening their breast feathers. Some of them had pale necks and brown fronts rather than being entirely black. I mentioned this to Raphael, who looked it up in Sibley and confirmed that those were juvenile cormorants.
It was getting quite dark by then and the mosquitoes were starting to think about biting us in earnest. We drove past two more pools; beside one two groups of people we’d seen pass earlier, a third car I didn’t recognize from before, and a man using a wheelchair were standing and gesticulating. We pulled up and got out. The water and trees were lovely in the twilight, but we didn’t see any wildlife. The solitary man went away in his wheelchair, the unfamiliar car left, and we followed, watching the varied texture of the grass and flowers fade away into the dark.