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My birding pals David Astin and Frank Wilebski kept telling me that I had to visit the wildlife paradise Frank's brother Larry was creating back home in Lancaster. Where's that? Kittson County. Where's that? Clearly I needed enlightenment.
So last April, Dave and Frank arranged for us to spend a weekend at Larry's cabin to prove that all the wildlife stories I was hearing were true.
"I guarantee we'll see Short-eared owls," Dave said.
What did I see? Seventy-eight species of birds in one weekend, including black-billed magpies and gray jays, unusual in Minnesota. Three elk herds. A mother bear and her cubs. And few homo sapiens, who average only two per square mile throughout the county. But what people. Remnant tribes of hardy Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, Irish, Polish, English, Ukrainian. I felt like we were on safari. I have never seen such varied wildlife in such a brief period of time in a setting that wasn't an African plain or the Minnesota Zoo.
Kittson County scratches North Dakota on the west and Canada on the north, as far as a body can go and still speak Minnesotan.
Its flat western upland prairie rubs softly against eastern aspen parkland as glacial Lake Agassiz imperceptibly slopes west toward the Red River. After crossing the county line, we passed through Karlstad, population 794, whose church sign proclaimed, "The Bible said it. I believe it. That's final!"
Larry's place is a few miles outside of Lancaster, population 363, near the geographic center of the county and not far from the collection of Polish farms where he grew up.
Down a gravel road we passed a mailbox fronting a vanished farm house, then an occupied roadside badger burrow, before turning onto a two-track to enter Wilebski's Evergreen Acres, a life's work in progress. Beyond a resting tractor and sleeping snowmobile, the two-story cabin floated on a concrete slab, spartan but warm, with two bedrooms plus a loft for sleeping, a refrigerator for food and beer, and windows, lots of windows, from which to observe the wild world parade by.
A pothole pond abuts one side of the cabin. The other sides are studded with 150 bird-houses, numerous critter feeders, trails running through the woods and a stream babbling through fields waiting to burst into flower.
Settling in, Dave aimed his camera through sliding glass doors toward nearby feeders, "passive birding at its best," he said. But our first visitors were not birds, rather Big Time Birders up from the Twin Cities who had stayed here the night before. With them was Larry Wilebski.
While Dave and one of the visitors traded birding tales, I thumbed a book of wildlife photographs Larry had taken here, including one of a bobcat. For Larry, a father of five who builds buses in Pembina, N.D., this land is "his retirement." He buys 80-acre parcels whenever he can, digs ponds, restores wetlands, plants trees and wildflowers. He's happy to share it with anyone who wants to come.
Birds and birders thrive
After the others left for home, Dave drove into the flat countryside in afternoon light. At another of Larry's ponds, we observed shoveler ducks, pied-bill grebes and a Northern Harrier hawk loitering on a sand knoll, accompanied by the song of an Eastern meadow- lark. Stopping by another pond, we caught great views of greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs and a pair of wood ducks, and at yet another, we saw ring-necked ducks, mallards, and a hooded merganser, among others.
In Lancaster, we made a lazy U-turn on the main street and glided to a stop before Dean's Family Diner, one of two restaurants in town, for an early dinner -- and glances from the regulars wondering who these strangers could be.
After dinner we drove gravel roads with the sunlight behind us. A pair of marbled godwits stood on their long blue legs in the middle of the road. The ditches rattled with the songs of American chorus frogs, like a comb being stroked with a thumb.
As the light began to fade, we made a final stop along a roadside hay field to observe male Sharp-tailed grouse gathered in a lek -- a display ground where males strut their stuff in hopes of attracting passing females, like a singles bar on Saturday night. A clump of 14 males vied for center stage, sharp tails up, wings cupped down, bodies parallel to the earth, feet stomping like pistons, shaking their booties. Unfortunately for them, only the birders were mesmerized.
Like birds, bears evoke awe
Dawn at Wilebski Acres began like this: At first light, a ruffed grouse drummed his wings against his chest at increasing speed, his mating call, on a log not 5 feet from the cabin. At 6:30 a.m., the much-anticipated black-billed magpie arrived near the feeder, followed by three gray jays.
Later we watched the courtship flight of a male Northern Harrier bobbing above and below the tree line, demonstrating for a female his strength and grace. A male Wilson's snipe performed an even more dramatic mating flight, as if he were strung on a yo-yo.
In golden morning light we watched a pair of sandhill cranes perform their courtship dance. She suddenly broke forward, dipped her beak into a bunch of grass, threw it wildly up over her head, leaped up off the ground, turned toward him, they both leaped, crouched, leaped again, heads back together facing the sky, joyfully calling. She looked like "a flamenco dancer throwing a rose," Dave said. Up ahead, a coyote dashed across the road and bounded through the neighboring field, his pointed ears bouncing above the grass.
As we finished breakfast at Dean's, three farmers wearing overalls and feed caps regaled us with their own back-yard wildlife stories, of cougars sleeping on the railroad tracks, a bear playing with a deer spine, and elk grazing spring wheat, "a herd can do a lot of damage."
Then we were back on the road. A Wilson's snipe stood on one pale leg on a fence post and, as he turned his head, surprised us with his out-sized bill.
Then we caught our biggest surprise -- a mother bear and two cubs grazed a roadside field. She glistened silken black, 300 to 500 pounds. When she caught our scent, she reared up on her hind legs and put her front paws together as if in prayer, saw we were far enough away to make us all comfortable, then shuffled off with her cubs into the brake.
Three elk herd roam area
Returning to the cabin, we found a wild turkey wandering the yard and two river otters swimming upstream in the creek. I logged a blissful midday nap in the sun next to the pond, serenaded by choral frog comb strokes, bull frog bass drums and a yellow-bellied sapsucker hammering the power pole -- a mating symphony at full volume.
Back on the road later, we encountered an elk herd feeding in thick grass, one of three herds that now roam the county. A massive bull watched over his harem of 14 cows, all with buff-colored butts and oddly inconsequential tails. His velvet antlers glowed in the sun.
The next day Frank joined our wanderings. At Dean's again for breakfast, we imbibed more of his locally flavored stories. "The Polish were from the wrong side of the tracks, and the Wilebskis farther than that. Now they're all bled together, Polish married Scandinavians, Scandinavians married Poles."
Our last afternoon, we traveled County Road 4 west and north to a town called Caribou, the caribou population now zero, the human population nearly that. But we located what we were looking for, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church glowing against the tree line along the Roseau River, the Canadian border spitting distance on the other side. The padlock on the door revealed that it closed in 2005 after exactly a hundred years of service. Still, the graveyard and grounds were carefully mowed, the church freshly painted, the domes gilded and glistening. A flock of magpies flew by.
Only one critter we never did see-- a Short-eared owl. Dave guaranteed that, the next time we visit Kittson County, we'll see "a truckload."
James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer at the Star Tribune.