Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

Where to begin after such a long absence?

The logical place to begin would be to start where I left off but I left off with an overview of where I have been.  Since, much time has passed since then I will return to the open spaces of Southwestern Minnesota.

A warm December after a cold November in an area and biome that I am quite unfamiliar with and some free time to explore.  So, what did I do?  I looked at a map and found the refuges and scientific and natural areas, then looked at the websites for these areas and then the satellite imagery of these areas to help me decide where I was going to explore.  I found several places to explore but the first was Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge outside of Ortonville, MN, near the headwaters of the Minnesota River.

The refuge has a mix of terrain with marshes, groves, prairie, and river.  Many parts of the refuge get flooded in the spring, with the refuge staff regulating what areas get flooded by diverting water to chosen parts of the refuge for optimum habitat for species dependent on wetlands.  When I was there the waters were low and the snow pack was slowly melting.

While this area was new and foreign to me it was quite interesting and left me wishing to be able to experience the seas of native prairie that now longer exist.  It is in these space that you get a taste of what this area was once like.

Big Stone is an interesting place with cattail wetlands giving way to riparian forest.  If you look at the lichens growing on the trees you can see that they grow down to the river’s normal flood level.  In other areas there are large patches of sumac that the refuge staff is managing.  The sumac’s uniform size gives this away.  Sumac can be quite invasive if left untouched.  The prairie fires that once would have controlled the sumac are now rare due to the lack of prairie and the dangers of wildfire to human settlements, so other methods are used to control the sumac.

This area is also a part of what is known as the the Northern Tallgrass Prairie.  So, of course there are grasses here and in the winter they are warm strands of gold.

Then there are the “stones” of Big Stone NWR.  These “stones” are actually bedrock that was exposed when Glacial River Warren drained Lake Agassiz, and carved what is now known as the Minnesota River Valley.  Big Stone is actually named for the Big Stone Moraine and not the bedrock.  From the tops of some of the bedrock you can look through the tops of the maples and oaks that grow on the floodplain below.

On this particular day, with the camera safely stowed away in my backpack.  I made my way back to my vehicle.  On my way, I was briefly serenaded by a Great Horned Owl.  Then as I begin walking up the hill to the parking lot, I spot a coyote running.  It reaches a rock ledge where it pauses, momentarily frozen in silhouette, then it dashes down the to the bottom of the hill and into the woods.

EAK, January 2017