Think about your go-to natural areas. You might head there because of proximity or a specific interest. A new book published by University of Minnesota Press wants to broaden people’s boundaries and grasp, so you’ll recognize that six-spotted fishing spider in a wetland or the bright yellow breast of an eastern meadowlark in the prairie grass.
Two Minnesotans steeped in the natural world have set their focus on the Twin Cities — that is, the 3,000 square miles and seven counties shared by 3 million humans and thousands of species of animals, plants and insects in a fragile coexistence.
“A Field Guide to the Natural World of the Twin Cities” is a combination of their knowledge and talent. Writer John Moriarty is the senior wildlife manager for the Three Rivers Park District. His friend and collaborator, Siah St. Clair, used to run Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. St. Clair photographed the teeming world that Moriarity writes about.
In general, their guide gives order to a natural world that’s wild in breadth and diversity, profiling things you’ve never heard of and might never see. But you’ll have learned something.
The book chronicles, by chapter, the habitats alive in the metro, including prairie, oak woods, savanna, fens and bogs, wetlands, and more. And within those, Moriarty and St. Clair suggest four places — all public lands — that reflect the habitat, shown with detailed mapping. For example, the Big Woods destinations are Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, Wolsfeld Woods Scientific and Natural Area in Long Lake, Miesville Ravine Park Reserve in Cannon Falls, and Carver Park Reserve in Victoria. Owing to farming of the 19th century and urban development, less than 1 percent of the original Big Woods habitat remains in the metro.
There’s a lot of ground covered, and much that isn’t covered, the co-authors said.
“I could have just done a guide to the invertebrate world of the Twin Cities,” quipped Moriarty, who doesn’t see the book as an all-encompassing tome so much as a foundation for newcomers and for muddy-booted regulars interested in branching out.
In a recent interview, Moriarty and St. Clair talked about the breadth of the project, and what they are seeing — and not seeing — in Minnesota’s outdoors. What follows was edited for length and clarity.
When did the idea hit to collaborate on a field guide?
Moriarty: The seed had been sitting there for a long time. I started thinking about it some more. I’ve known Siah for 47 years, and as I started thinking about this I approached him (about five years ago) with a long shopping list, asking if he would be willing to do the photos. Instead of going out and getting different people taking photos, I gave the task to Siah to get them all.
A lot of these things in the guide are not things you can see. The birds normally will tell you if they are around. A lot of the stuff you have to look for. A lot of the things that are common are under rocks and under logs. It is more the full spectrum.
St. Clair: John had the idea of setting this up with habitat chapters, and then having destinations that have that kind of habitat with representative pictures. Not just the things everybody sees, but to get down into the nitty-gritty. In order to have prairie habitat, you really have to have all of these things interrelating for everything to function.
How demanding was such a rich project?
Moriarty: It was in spurts. You could get through a lot of these species accounts; they are not research accounts. Between Siah and I, we have many years of experience of seeing these things and knowing the natural history of the animals. It wasn’t an over-dramatic time of putting this together. It was many years of gaining the knowledge and being able to put it down.
St. Clair: The pictures were full-time for 2 ½ years. One of the real challenges was John gave me this list with 260 species. Monarch butterfly? Sure. But there were a number that were difficult to find. And some were difficult to get close enough to get a photograph you could use.
How does this book fit among other field guides?
Moriarty: This is more for the public, not in-depth into a subject. This is kind of a sampler: Get out and look at things. As you go out and want to know more about birds, we have a resource section that tells you what Minnesota bird books to get. When I go out into the woods, I don’t go out just to look at birds or just to look at trees. I look at everything. This is an introductory field guide. All the birds in the book are year-round residents or summer residents. So, now you see juncos out in yards; they don’t nest here in the Twin Cities, but they are a common bird. There are things that are common that are going to be missed in the guide. I hope this is the first step into getting people into field guides and getting into nature. There are a lot of guides of places to go. This is merging multiple different kinds of guides. Regional parks are in here, so are state parks, so are (scientific natural areas), so are wildlife management areas.
St. Clair: It’s not entry level from the standpoint of how complex some of the species are that are in here. The thing people who are buying this are excited about (is the book) as a destination field guide other than a regular field guide. I’ve heard, “I’ve always wanted to see that, but I never knew where to go. And here’s a book that shows me exactly where to go to find it.”
What did you learn?
Moriarty: What you think is common to see is difficult to get that photo of. There are a lot of things that aren’t included in this book that are very specific to certain habitats. An example is pasque flowers on the prairie. That’s the first flower of the spring. Why didn’t we include that? We already had all of these others, and we didn’t want to make it too thick a book to carry. Figuring out what we could keep and what we couldn’t keep.
Are we affecting nature with climate change? Yes. And we touch on that a little bit when we talk about northern habitats in Minnesota. There are still pockets of tamarack and pine trees, and those will disappear as things dry out. Savannas will get a little bit bigger. We also talk about how we can restore things. Most of the prairies listed in this book are restored prairies over time.
St. Clair: I was forced to go a lot of places I’ve never been to before in order to get pictures of very specific things. There are some really cool places. One of the things about places is you tend to go to ones you are familiar with.
There are microhabitats I wasn’t aware of. I’d get pictures of things that weren’t in the book and send them to John and say, “Look at this. Look what I found.” The ones that surprised me the most were the species found near poison sumac. I wasn’t looking for poison sumac, but in the fens and bogs (section), I was looking for a butterfly or moth specific to the area. I am in hip boots, and (the subject) would fly 20 feet and it would take me 30 minutes to get those 20 feet. When you are back in these places, it so hot and so humid. And you are thinking, “What’s different about this than 100 yards over there?” You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you can feel it and you can see it just in the plants and insects that are living there. It was really amazing to me.
What area would you like to go back to you?
Moriarty: I luckily get to take a lot of deep dives. If I could only take people to one, it’d be Crow-Hassan (Park Reserve in Rogers). The rest of my career that would be the one place. Even though we highlighted it as the prairie, there a chunks of old-growth Big Woods, there are oak woods, there is some savanna, there are some wetlands. It’s one of the least known in Three Rivers Parks because it doesn’t have playgrounds and picnic areas. It is a destination to see and enjoy nature.
There are some areas that are sensitive enough that they are not in the book. I had some people say, why did you tell them to go to the fens? Well, they are scientific natural areas, they are public sites. There are designated areas where you can go into these sites, and it is a cool habitat to see. Are most people going to slog through Savage fen? No. But we didn’t want to keep it out of there. There are bigger-scale habitat issues to worry about.
St. Clair: There are so many places. If I want to get pictures of prairie, I am going to go to Crow-Hassan. If I wanted to do a bog, I would go to Otter Lake in White Bear Township.
What about continued stories about the demise of species and habitat in the context of doing this book?
Moriarty: It scares the heck out of me. You don’t hear June bugs bouncing off your screens all night anymore. The lack of lightning bugs. They’re gone. The number and quantity of insects that you would find or even things like toads and tiger salamanders — they are here, but in nowhere near the numbers they used to be.
St. Clair: I started doing a survey last summer of all the different native wildflowers because I’ve got a number of prairie gardens in my small yard. I think I now have 75 species, and I am surveying pollinators, too. I’m convinced: I’m not spraying anything anymore. I don’t care if clover comes up, because there are pollinators on them and they need them. Photographing some of the invasive species reminded me of just how hard it is going to be to contain them. They are so mobile.
Moriarty: Minnesota had the wherewithal to pass the Legacy Amendment, which has helped tremendously doing the management and restoration of these metro areas. There are about $2 million to $5 million a year that goes into conservation projects in the metro under different levels, and we are a good consumer of those. But you have to break down the political walls and get people to realize that in order to keep these habitats going you need to spend money on them.
St. Clair: I had to connect with people who knew where I could find things, and they were usually people working for municipalities, county governments, the (Department of Natural Resource), the federal government, or volunteers who are really into this. There are really smart people out here. They need to know all these species. So if you ask them where a Sprengel’s sedge is or some kind of algae, they can tell you where to go. And they are working hard to make sure they exist in habitat that is going to sustain them.