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Venturing out during COVID-19 for the joy of seeing trumpeter swans, fairy shrimp — and a few people

This year more than others, I’ve been yearning to hear spring frogs, see pond life, wade into water.

Como Park, St. Paul
Como Park, St. Paul
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date

In this dark time of unrelenting isolation, deep despair, and social distancing, I have been driving down to Como Lake some afternoons, one time seeing six glorious trumpeter swans, then Canada geese, and, recently, mergansers cruising and diving down like loons to feed, confirmed with my binoculars. I’ve parked my car facing the path in view of diverse people, prancing dogs, a smiling, sturdy guy on a unicycle, and an older man pedaling a low three-wheeler with a huge American flag mounted at the back. I’ve read environmental reports or a novel while sitting in the car, and taken very short walks, keeping a good distance from people, stepping onto the grass to give space. Is it safe to walk the labyrinth up on the hill? Might I have to step out if others enter? One day, a black, antique car with a happy woman in the open rumble seat rolled slowly through the parking lot as she played her ukulele. I smiled, clapped, and thanked her.

This year more than others, I’ve been yearning to hear spring frogs, see pond life, wade into water. But at my age, I’m more leery of lurching around in a wetland in waders while sweeping my dipnet to capture water creatures, then rinsing the net into a tray I’d filled with water for viewing on shore.

I’ve been walking in the nearby Falcon Heights Park just north of the University’s St. Paul campus, tramping on the muddy dirt trail past the ponds near Cleveland Avenue, then around the loop where big blue stem will grow and blue bird boxes stand. From there I can see the St. Paul campus of the U. I mourn not having access to much-needed gym equipment and time at my favorite small Natural Resources Library on the hill where I hole up to write, read, and access university collections. From a crumbling book of Thoreau’s journals, I found his quote that swamps are holy places:

When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature. The wildwood covers the virgin mould, and the same soil is good for men and for trees … A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it (Thoreau, 1862).

Recently, chorus frogs were going at it midday in the smallest pond in the Falcon park — the temporary wetland that dries down each year. Leave aside that chorus frogs are called “weedy” species because they tolerate more urban ponds, I enjoy their ratchey calls. I chat with other walkers (at a distance); some call them peepers, I say they are chorus frogs, Pseudacris triseriata.

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I yearn to hear spring peepers, but will have to drive away from the cities to hear them — to Bayport Wildlife Management Area, Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge; Crow Hassan Park — or, a bit risky, park by the now gated Warner Nature Center and walk down the wooded dirt road to Warner’s delightful Peeper Pond.

Years ago, I had seen fairy shrimp swimming in the small Falcon pond. These awesome, inch-long, ancient crustaceans swim on their backs by paddling their flappy, undifferentiated appendages. Some call them a “fossil” species, having evolved around 400 million years ago. They need temporary ponds that are not only fishless, but also dry down. They are called “obligate species” of vernal pools, and must complete their life cycle in a short 2-3 months, depositing their eggs in the moist pond mud before the pond dries down.

Judy Helgen
Photo by Deborah Rose
Judy Helgen
In Massachusetts, citizens and high school students (part of the Vernal Pool Association) can certify these wetlands for state protection if they document fairy shrimp or other obligate species that need them to survive. Yet in Minnesota, where many temporary ponds are 3,000 years old, formed by ice block depressions from retreating glaciers, they are rarely if ever protected from development.

One afternoon I went to hear the chorus frogs again, and saw a young family at the shallow frog pond — two kids with yellow dipnets were sweeping the water and hopping around, their dad crouching down to help, their mother standing near the path with stroller and baby. “What are you finding? This pond has had fairy shrimp in the past,” I said.

He swung his son’s net toward me, pointing to a tiny orangish, soft creature. “What is this?” he asked.

“A baby fairy shrimp!!!” I exclaimed. What a gift — seeing evidence that fairy shrimp have survived there, and young kids getting to know a pond. The dad said he’d seen Daphnia (tiny filter-feeding crustaceans) in the larger pond. That astonished me, because I’d assumed that pond was polluted with runoff, and Daphnia need clean water. I told him how Square Lake is kept clear by Daphnia (water fleas) that sweep algae out of the water, that the water quality in recent years has declined because DNR had stocked rainbow trout there and the trout ate the Daphnia. Today there is a moratorium on stocking trout and the clarity in this clearest of lakes in the entire area is beginning to improve. He’d scuba-dived there! He knew the water was clear.

I walked back to my car with a big smile in my heart and a load of gratitude that life goes on.

Judy Helgen lives in Roseville. She is a retired wetland biologist from MPCA and author of “Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist’s Quest.”

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