In spring, Ken Larson is fond of jumping in his truck and taking a country cruise in search of all manner of migrating birds. Armed with binoculars, spotting scopes and a camera, he traverses the prairie pothole-rich landscape near his family’s farm in Lac qui Parle County.
More often than not, Larson ends his meandering trek at Salt Lake, the nationally recognized bird-watching destination and the only alkaline basin in Minnesota. For avid birders like Larson, it doesn’t get much better.
“It’s a peaceful place that I’m constantly drawn to,” said Larson, 69, of Minnetonka. “The bird life at Salt Lake, from shorebirds to waterfowl, over the years has been extraordinary. It’s a special, unique place.”
As spring unfolds in the coming weeks, (ice-out on Salt Lake typically occurs near the end of March), hard-core birders from across Minnesota and elsewhere will descend on Salt Lake and the Lac qui Parle area to spy the spring migration.
Events like the 43rd annual Salt Lake Birding Weekend (which begins April 28) will showcase the region as a birding hot spot. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union and the Audubon Society have even classified Salt Lake an “important birding area.” All of which makes Larson happy.
“As a destination, Salt Lake is kind of isolated from the rest of the state in extreme western Minnesota,” said Larson. “When there’s a rare bird sighting there and word gets out, you’ll see more people show up. Hardcore birders know about it, but it’s not as popular a destination as, say, the North Shore. Most people don’t see it as a prairie Disneyland. But I know one thing: It’s a great place to see all different kinds of bird species and it’s underutilized.”
Salt Lake sits on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. The 312-acre shallow alkaline basin (a small portion is in South Dakota) is considered a sort of gateway to the American West, where shallow lakes and wetlands dot the Dakotas, Montana, and other states and provinces farther west. During dry years, exposed wetland mud flats are streaked in white, which is actually a layer of salt.
The water in Salt Lake is one-third as salty as the ocean and often supports plant and animal life not found in Minnesota’s freshwater basins. Salt grasses grow along the water’s edge as well as in the lake itself. The briny water is a byproduct of the naturally occurring alkaline soils surrounding the lake.
Each spring, Larson said shorebirds, waterfowl and other water birds — many of which are more closely associated with western saline prairie basins — stop at Salt Lake to rest and refuel during their migration to their northern breeding grounds. Many species feast on sago pondweed and brine shrimp, among other aquatic treats.
Larson said roughly 150 bird species have been identified at Salt Lake, where spring birders show up to spy a variety of shorebirds in particular — an entertaining show, he said, that includes avocets, willets, sandpipers, yellowlegs and others.
“The shorebird migration is impressive and popular, but that’s only part of the show,” said Larson of the spring migration. “If you want to see geese, there are Canada geese, white-fronted geese and snow geese. Tundra swans and pelicans stop there, too. Thousands of ducks like canvasbacks and others. I’ve even seen a cinnamon teal, which is rare.”
In the cycle
Like other prairie basins, Salt Lake has a natural history of wet and dry cycles. Such basins dry out (completely or partly) once every decade or so. But the last drought at Salt Lake dates back nearly four decades, which has some state officials concerned.
“The last complete drought was in 1981-82, and that’s a long time ago for that body of water,” said Curt Vacek, Minnesota DNR area wildlife supervisor in Appleton. “Most people think that wetlands and shallow lakes always have water, but that’s not the case. Without drought, these waters become stagnant and less productive for bird life. They need drought.”
A protracted wet cycle and the region’s history of wetland drainage have kept Salt Lake (which is less than 5 feet deep) from drying out, which could raise salinity counts to toxic levels. “We have to keep a close very eye on that, that’s for sure,” Vacek said.
With the backing of birders like Larson, Vacek is planning a “feasibility” study to draw down Salt Lake. Vacek would like to mimic what nature should be doing. Such a process — from securing permits to drafting a management plan to community outreach — could take awhile.
“Downstream landowners, and for good reason, worry about getting more water, so this type of project has to be planned carefully, and that takes time,” said Vacek, adding the earliest a drawdown could happen is summer 2019.
Vacek said the process would allow Salt Lake’s sediment to dry and consolidate, kill any rough fish (to reduce turbidity), and stimulate emergent vegetation (hard- and soft-stem bulrush) to grow. The goal is to increase water clarity and food production (insects and vegetation) for wetland wildlife — particularly birds. When alkaline basins like Salt Lake are drawn down, salt forms a crust on the soil and the wind eventually blows it away. Such a happening has been mistaken for plumes of smoke of a prairie brush fire.
“Reducing salt concentrations is critical,” Vacek said. “We will lose a year of nesting for some water birds, but a drawdown would ensure better future nesting.”
As for Larson, he can’t wait for the spring migration. He spends parts of every other week from March to November at the family farm, six miles southeast of Salt Lake. During the April birding weekend, Larson allows participants to camp for free at the farm, a tradition started by his father many years ago. Larson said he can’t wait to take a country cruise and perhaps he’ll peer through his spotting scope and witness eared grebes nesting on floating mats of vegetation — one of his favorite Salt Lake spectacles.
“The one constant of birding is that you really never know what you’re going to see from year to year,” said Larson. “But that’s why you show up.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.