State of Wonders: A wild world blooms in northwestern Minnesota

Life rebounds with fanfare as winter melts away in Minnesota’s northwest reaches.

The northern prairie stirs to life early. Even before the sun lines the horizon in red, birds trill and chirp.

I am at the edge of a vast grassland in west-central Minnesota, waiting for a sign of spring’s long-awaited return.

Last fall’s green carpet has turned brown. Winter’s snow has melted, enveloping seeds in reviving moisture. This is the Bluestem Prairie Preserve in May, and I am sitting in a bird blind created by the Nature Conservancy. I had arrived in the dark, walked 10 minutes in fading starlight and the distant glow of Fargo, opened the windows of this simple wooden structure, settled onto a narrow padded bench and hoped the greater prairie chickens would come.

Like all the joys of springtime, this outing requires patience.

At first, I see little more than my own breath. The temperature hovers in the mid-30s. A duck floats on a glassy pond, occasionally diving down for breakfast. A red-winged blackbird perches on reeds. A Canada goose honks overhead. Hopeful songs of bobolinks and meadowlarks build slowly. Then a loud, sustained, baritone rumble joins the cacophony.

The prairie chickens begin their springtime dance.

Outside the window, a few of the white-and-brown striped grouse appear on a patch of short dried grasses under an indigo sky. Nearly a dozen others follow quickly, flying from their nests in tall grasses to their own small territories in the open field, strutting and cackling and making a show. The sudden convergence reminds me of teens descending on a shopping mall on a Friday night — and the purpose might not be too divergent.

For the male prairie chickens, it’s all about wooing a female.

To hold their ground and try to expand it, males face off at territorial lines, fly over one another’s backs, claw in midair. They stutter-step in a kind of prairie tap dance. When a female approaches, they hoot and bound into the air to get noticed.

Amid the spectacle, a moaning coo resounds across the prairie and amplifies in the confines of my small blind. It’s called booming, a trademark of the courtship display. The sound is made when males raise their neck feathers and blow air into a pair of orange neck sacks until they become as round as balloons.

The flamboyant glowing orbs make a good stand-in for the sun, until the real thing, too, lights up the prairie and begins to warm the day.

“It’s nice in spring when the sun angle really gets up there,” said Brian Winter, program director for the Nature Conservancy. He has lived on this native prairie for nearly 30 years. The heat of the sun is only one sign that the seasons are shifting. “When I step out my front door early in the morning and I can hear these prairie chickens booming, to hear that call, I know it’s spring.”

Another sign of spring 100 miles east: a hushed but insistent chirping coming from a crook in a tree. Dusk was approaching in Itasca State Park as I hiked along the park’s namesake lake. The sound stopped me in my tracks. I peered at the tree to see what bird might be calling, but then realized I was picking up instead the murmur of a tree frog.

In the stillness, other sounds grew more pronounced. The rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker boring down on bark to release a juicy insect. The buzz of a chickadee’s wings in flight. The chatter of young boys fishing off a dock.

Just part of the thrum of the northern forest in springtime.

I craned my neck for a better angle, hoping to spy the tiny frog, which can climb trees and change color to camouflage itself. I saw nothing.

Luck had been with me earlier. I had rented a bike to pedal around Itasca State Park’s Wilderness Drive. When I hopped off to get a closer look at a cluster of yellow lady’s slippers, their cupped petals veined with purple, a rustle in the dried leaves caught my attention. A frog with speckled brown skin paused before it bounded into the underbrush.

Though the thermometer approached 80, the ground held firmly to spring. Ponds swelled. Wet paths turned shoes soggy. On my hikes that day, I often heard frogs plopping into water.

Louder splashing came from the park’s famous Mississippi River headwaters. Visitors often attempt to walk across the low-lying dam of rocks built to mark the river’s beginning. In spring, though — especially this spring — the rocks are mostly submerged and wet with the spill that will flow 2,552 miles before it enters the Gulf of Mexico.

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