Watch where you walk

So much to see with your own two feet.

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6 minute read

Marsh marigold (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

April is over — somehow. Now it’s getting green. Restlessness reaches new heights.

This quiet world hums with energy, and I find myself needing to blow off some steam by letting it power me down a few miles of trail. I could sit and observe nature at home, but I need to walk more than I want to walk. So I strike out through the west side of William O’Brien State Park, two miles from the river.

Here, the woods and the prairie collide. Wetlands nestle between rolling hills of grass and trees. The landscape gently slopes toward the St. Croix.

I hope to find flowers and birds, like usual, and let them guide me to less expected discoveries.

The sky is expansive, touching the horizon over distant corn fields. This big world makes me want to wander.

O’Brien prairie. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

I first cross some prairie, my boots crunching satisfyingly on the dry dead grasses, with the year’s first green shoots poking up between. Suddenly I’m buzzed by the first dragonfly I’ve seen this year. It’s a common green darner, which is always the first species seen around here because it’s one of the few dragonflies that migrates.

This insect likely flew hundreds of miles to cruise this prairie, picking off other flying insects.

It doesn’t perch or pause, and it’s gone as quickly as it arrived. No photo opportunity.

Dragonflies are always cause for wonder. They are aerial predators perfected — quick and agile and beautiful. My wondering about its path to arrive at this patch of prairie excites me. This wondering leads me to a larger question: what else does nature have in store today?

I walk on to find out. Wonder sparks wonder.

I’m turning 40-years-old on Sunday. It hardly seems like a noteworthy milestone at the moment.

Last week I noticed I had reached 32 bird species observed and photographed so far this year. I figured I could hit 40 species by my birthday. It shouldn’t be hard during this prime time of migration and nesting.

The day after setting the goal, I stepped in my yard and spotted a white-throated sparrow, #34. It was quiet and appeared to be trying to rest in our bushes. I surmised it had flown in last night. I heard it give one melancholy and feeble call, which famously sounds like “Ooooooh, Canada, Canada, Canada.”

This hike helps me along on my quest. I crest a hill and notice movement in the brush near some birches. A little bird with an orange beak, orange-brown back, and light gray breast perches and looks around, letting me photograph it. It’s a field sparrow, and it loves this kind of habitat where small trees and brush mingle with grasses.

That makes #34.

Field sparrow (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The other sign of the season is fresh burrows and dens. Prairies are pocketed with holes sporting thresholds of freshly-excavated soil, as some species prepare to give birth and raise their young in the safety of a bunker.

Most of the burrows I see I think may be badgers — a creature I’ve never spotted, but I know inhabits many places I go. They are low enough to be invisible in the grass, and nocturnal. I’ll keep looking. These could be something else.

I have also recently see a larger burrow which I figured to be fox. It makes me want to set up a ground blind and wait and watch.

Everywhere, creatures are getting ready to bring the next generation into the world.

Underground maternity ward. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The rhythm of my hiking boots is always reassuring. As I thump along the firm-packed tread, it sets a steady pace for my thoughts.

Homo sapiens are a walking species. No other creature does it like we do, and it’s perhaps what set us apart and gave us evolutionary advantages some millions of years ago. We can travel a long ways on our two legs.

And we can do it with our heads turning one way and the other, detecting minor movements, hearing spring songs, and trying to observe our natural neighbors as they busy themselves with spring rituals.

I’m lost in my footfall-tempo thoughts when bird song slowly seeps into my consciousness, some new sound I haven’t heard since last year. My mind is gently drawn back to the here, and the now.

This time it’s a bluebird. I saw my first of these early arrivers a month ago. A little farther along, a lingering dark-eyed junco is pecking in the trail in front of me.

I’m looking at the junco when I hear a strange sound right above my head. It sounds like water swirling down a stream between a couple rocks. I look up and see a pair of tree swallows perched a few feet apart, with one of them jutting its beak toward the other and letting loose this strange song.

Bird species #35.

I meet a few other folks on the trail. Everyone seems friendly, everyone smiles, everyone keeps their distance.

The field sparrows also prove very friendly. One of them pecking away at path keeps letting me get within 10 feet or so, before flying 20 feet up the trail and repeating the dance.

Walking back across the untracked prairie, a rustle in the grass next to me catches my attention and I stop to look. Then I hear scratching from 20 feet away in the other direction, in some brush near a tree. Somehow I know immediately what it is.

Almost every photo of an eastern towhee looks like this, with the bird in its natural habitat on the ground. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

I saw my first eastern towhee (or as it was previously known, rufous-sided towhee) years before I became serious about birds. I was hunting for morels, and saw it scratching at leaves on the forest floor.

Now they nest around our house and summer nights are filled with their unique songs — calling out “drink your tea,” with tea a rapid trill.

When towhees arrive in the spring, they always get busy scratching at the dead oak leaves around our property. This is their grocery store.

Other birds also feast on the insects that live in the leaf litter, but somehow I know this scratching. A few minutes of careful stalking confirms my hunch. There is a pair of towhees filling their bellies here.

#36.

I have hiked about three miles, and seen three new species. Yet the numbers capture very little of what made the walk wonderful.

Gold and green on the St. Croix at sunset. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

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3 responses to “Watch where you walk”

  1. Peggy Hayden Avatar
    Peggy Hayden

    Loved your story and pictures! We live in a beautiful world!

  2. Kristin Tuenge Avatar
    Kristin Tuenge

    Thanks for all the bird sightings and pictures! Birds are the world’s best buddies.

  3. Martha Gerkey Avatar
    Martha Gerkey

    Enjoyed reading this, thank you. The Marsh marigold flower photo is beautiful. We are frequent hikers at William O’Brien too. Watching the skunk cabbage unfurl it huge spring green leaves is another great sign of spring.

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Watch where you walk