Nature Notes: Singing Sandhills

Last weekend I took a road trip to south-central Nebraska to try to catch a glimpse of the migrating Sandhill cranes, a task I thought would be much more challenging than it proved to be.  Once you’re there, they’re extremely hard to miss! I’ve always been fascinated by migration events, and I could have died happy last year after taking a once in a lifetime trip to Africa and witnessing the wonders of the Wildebeest Migration. But I have good news! You don’t have to travel that far to see a spectacular migration event! The Sandhill crane migration was far more remarkable than I could have ever imagined. It’s often referred to as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent. The sheer number of birds and the noise they produced were both astonishing. I had no idea we had anything like this left in our country. It was beautiful. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

So what makes this event so spectacular? First, it’s the place. The United States is divided

sandhill crane northern migration

Sandhill Crane Migration Route

into “flyways” or main migration corridors for birds. The Central Flyway is home to the Platte River in Nebraska, which is an important feeding ground for migrating Sandhill cranes and waterfowl.  This extremely shallow, slowly meandering river provides the perfect resting place; extra security and all-you-can-eat buffet included! The cranes and many other birds spend the day feeding on leftover grain in the nearby agricultural fields and return at night to sleep in the protected shallow waters and numerous sandbars of the river, offering a reprieve from predators. Sunrise and sunsets along the Platte River offer magnificent views of hundreds of thousands of birds taking off from and returning to the water. There is something very Mary Poppins-esque about the way they come in for a landing!



Sunset on the Platte River

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Sunrise on the Platte River

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The cranes begin arriving in the region in February and leave by mid-April, staying four to six weeks as they busily feast in fields to build up their energy reserves.  The number of cranes typically peaks in mid-March, and this year was no exception! The weekend of March 18th & 19th, the Crane Trust estimated the Sandhill Crane count to be roughly 406,000 cranes in the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska! The energy they gain at this stopover fuels the rest of their migration to their breeding grounds, which may be in the northern US (like our region of Minnesota), Canada, or even as far as Siberia! Without this important stopover, the cranes would arrive at their distant breeding grounds in a weakened state, putting their ability to successfully reproduce at risk.


If the sight of them alone wasn’t impressive enough, the sounds they make are astonishing. Sandhill cranes have trachea shaped sort of like a saxophone, allowing them to produce a harmony of mixed pitches. No matter what the pitch, these “rattling bugle calls” are very loud and can be heard up to two and a half miles away!

In addition to their vocals, Sandhill cranes communicate with a wide-range of body language.  They pick their life-long mate through dancing displays and continue to use the displays to release stress and strengthen pair bonds between mates.  There is a long list of Sandhill crane dance moves that include stretching their wings, pumping their heads, bowing, leaping into the air, hop-turns, and even picking up debris in their beaks and throwing them around the field!

The morning after we watched the cranes take off, one of the volunteers at the Rowe Sanctuary mentioned the weather was perfect for the cranes to start leaving. Temperatures were supposed to reach 80 °F that day, and the rising thermals were actually visible as you looked out across the barren fields. Sandhill cranes are incredibly efficient fliers, riding the thermals high into the sky and gliding for miles. If the wind is right, they can fly nearly 40 mph and can cover up to 500 miles per day! The next day, I drove home from Nebraska to central Minnesota, and sure enough, about an hour from my house, I saw a pair of Sandhill cranes.

North of the Platte River Valley in the Central Flyway is the prairie pothole region. This prairiepotholeregionregion, including parts of Minnesota, hosts an abundance of shallow lakes and wetlands in depressions left behind by the last glacial retreat. Some of these wetlands are temporary in the spring, some remain all year long. All of them are part of one of the most important wetland ecosystems in the world, providing critical habitat for nearly 50% of North American migrating waterfowl. The habitat also serves other bird species, such as migrating songbirds and raptors. Unfortunately, due to human modification and agriculture expansion, approximately 40-50% of this critical habitat has been lost.  Many of the remaining wetlands have been degraded in quality due to human interactions. Protecting important freshwater habitats like the Platte River and the Prairie Potholes are crucial to sustaining our wildlife populations, making it possible for future generations to witness the same spectacles we can today. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the cranes – I would highly recommend the trip!

So keep an eye out in the upcoming weeks for some of our returning waterfowl and other birds! In addition to the Sandhill cranes, here are some other birds I’ve recently seen heading north again. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!!




A flock of thousands of snow geese (and maybe Ross’s Geese) flying through Iowa.




You can sometimes find American Kestrels perched on power lines, looking for prey in nearby fields.


Water Water Everywhere, Why Bother Conserving?

#WorldWaterDay is today, March 22. This is a day where we take a closer look at our water consumption habits and see what we can do to increase reduction (that makes sense, right?) However, looking at my driveway currently covered under a foot of snow and ice, I can make a general statement that we are nowhere near using up our allotment of earthly freshwater (less than 1% of all water, btw). Therefore, I declare that we must drink and use up as much water as we can.

In fact, since there is an abundance of water (an…overflow, if you will) I decided to see in what ways I could increase my family’s water consumption. Drinking more water equals less water (snow up here) that will fall on my driveway. Here’s a couple ideas that could help. Feel free to use them, too!


Low-flow showerheads can conserve lots of water.

Let’s start at the home. My kids are limited to ten minute showers. We definitely want to stay away from those low-flow shower heads that average only 1.5 gallons per minute. That would only use up 15 gallons per shower! If we want to get anywhere, we’ve got to use an average shower head, which run at 2.5 gallons per minute. That would equal about 25 gallons each shower. Just imagine the water used if I allowed longer showers! 

That’s a good start but I think we can do better.

Looking at the low cost of tap water, I figure we need to start drinking from bottles exclusively. I stumbled on the answer to the question: How can I get my family to drink more water more expensively. There is a company that offers up a “bottled water of the month” club where you can buy by the case. But, that’s not gonna do it for us! I want to buy by the pallet! 


You can have this 24 .5 liter case of water for the low low cost of 88 liters to make.

Since I have eight people in my family, and each person will drink 1.9 liters per day, I’m thinking that to fill our needs for drinking and cooking, we’d need 38 cases for the month (and, of course, we’d prefer sparkling!) At approximately 70 cases per pallet, we’d be going through one every two months. The monthly rate is $30 per case per month which totals approx. $1,140 a month before shipping. That’s a huge difference when considering the miniscule costs of using mere tap water.

At a rate of $.0025 per gallon, we’d spend a measly thirty cents a month if we drank only tap water. So! Not only can we drink bottled water from the Scottish highlands (shipped to us across the ocean), but we also get to pay much more than regular old tap water.

This is a fantastic opportunity for me, I realize. Not only do I get to drink the beautifully spring-fed naturally derived concoction, but I can take into consideration the water used in the creation of the bottles! Three numbers can be added together to give us a better look at how much water I’d be using. First, the make the bottles themselves (we’ll use plastic), it can take around 6-7 liters to make a liter bottle. Let’s stick with 6. A much smaller amount of only 1.39 liters of water is needed to complete the bottling process. If we add the water to be actually drunk by my family, you’re looking at 8.39 liters for every liter consumed in my house. That sounds like a sure way to use up more water! 

But, I think there’s more I can do to increase my water usage.

I know! I’ve heard of people suggesting that harvesting rainwater to water their lawns and flowerbeds. That’s rubbish. I’ve got my very own sprinklers and water hoses that can do the trick. I bet if I left my sprinkler on all night (and all day and all night, etc.) I’d have the most lush, the most soft, and the most walkable lawn in south Brainerd.


You can see the berms (and swales) that HDT put in their yard. They follow the contour of the landscape, increasing water retention which keeps more water on the property.

Never mind that collecting rain water through rain barrels and high berms on your property will essentially negate the need for extra water for your lawn and garden. We’ve got water to use up, remember!

With these methods in place, I think we can clean off my driveway. It will take a concerted effort from everyone, but in the end it’s worth it! So, please ignore the pleas from those leftist hippies who argue that there is only so much drinkable water on the planet. Ignore the gripping pictures of those children that must lug filthy unfiltered water for hours instead of going to school.

Just remember that if we all do our part, there will be clean driveways for everyone. No more will we have to suffer through a winter (and snow!), even this far north.

TedXGullLake is April 22 at Madden’s On Gull Lake

Advocates, innovators, entertainers, and thinkers will take the TEDxGullLake stage to present their “ideas worth spreading” on April 22 at Madden’s on Gull Lake.

Presenters will include experts on climate change and lake health in Minnesota, a developer of nano-capsule technology used for cancer treatment, teachers who innovate to make science and math real to middle school students, and the winner of National Public Radio’s 2016 “Tiny Desk” Concert competition. In addition, topics during the day will range from the impacts of computer light on our brains, to the challenges of midwifery in rural areas, to what it means to be a man in rural America. A transplanted east coast writer and entertainer will share her discoveries after moving to small-town Minnesota. And the creator of the DocuMNtary video series will talk about Minnesota’s innovative technology scene, past and present.

“Variety and balance is a hallmark of TED Talks,” said Kate Hunt, curator for TEDxGullLake and a 2014 TED Fellow. “When you sit down for a day of short presentations, you never really know what to expect. You might hear something familiar approached from an entirely new direction or you might be inspired by a new idea or topic you never knew existed.”


The Minnesota Harvest Lunch features food locally produced in the area.

Registration for the all-day event is now available at The cost is $70, which includes a “Minnesota Harvest” lunch on site at Madden’s.

TEDxGullLake is licensed by the national TED organization and is patterned after the famous TED Talks, a series of short presentations and performances designed to enlighten and inspire. It is being organized by local volunteers with funding by local sponsors. TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, although TED Talks have grown to include all sciences, human behavior, public policy, and any topic that informs and inspires.

“We want to highlight important ideas that resonate in rural Minnesota and around the world,” Hunt said. “We hope these ideas will leave everyone not only with new concepts and knowledge, but also with the desire to take action for the betterment of our communities.”

The day-long event will include 16 speakers and performers on a wide variety of topics, providing their stories, ideas, and art in concise, meaningful ways.


Nick Roseth 2017 Presenter for TedXGullLake

Nick Roseth has been working in the high tech world for 15 years. As producer for DocuMNtary, he created a video series looking at the fast-growing technology environment in Minnesota. “We have an incredible community, we are growing, we need tech talent, and we don’t do a very good job of telling our story,” he said.

Dr. Peter Sorensen, fisheries professor at the University of Minnesota, didn’t just stand by and watch the quality of Minnesota lakes degrade over the last couple decades. He took notes, conducted the tests, and studied the impacts. Sorensen argues that lake restoration is urgently needed, but not realistic, “so our best hope of saving these ecosystems and their fisheries lies in selectively preserving portions of them.”

In 2016, when Gaelynn Lea won NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” competition over 6,100


Elise Korenne – 2017 Presenter & Musician for TedXGullLake

entrants, it was a catapult into the musical fast lane. A national audience learned what the people of Duluth have known for many years: something magical and hypnotic takes place when she combines her unique violin style with her mesmerizing vocals. In addition to performing, Lea will talk about the pursuit of “enrichment” rather than “progress” in setting life goals.

Brainerd teachers Jim Reed and Cory Olson will talk about their “High Altitude Balloon” class for students at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. They developed this highly popular class to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) concepts in rural areas where traditional STEM resources are not easily found.


Laura Brod – 2017 Presenter for TedXGullLake

Laura Brod, of Rovermed BioSciences, will talk about how the tiniest of technologies – nanocapsules – can deliver medicines directly to cancer cells.

Like the national TED Talks, all TEDxGullLake talks will be limited to 18 minutes or less. More information about the event can be found at

The second TEDxGullLake is made possible by the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA) in Staples, along with help from Ascensus and Glynlyon.

Get to Know the HDT Board – Molly Zins

Happy Dancing Turtle has been around since 2007 and we’ve had many board members. Some are locally famous while others prefer to work in the background. The goal of our board is to give our team a direction in which to point our efforts. With each board member coming from many different backgrounds, we are fortunate to have many different knowledge bases to draw from.

We were thrilled to learn that Molly Zins accepted our invitation to be a member of our board of directors. As the executive director of the Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (CRSDP), Zins has a direct connection with the University of Minnesota Extension program and a deep understanding of the breadth of sustainable practices throughout the region. We sat down with Zins to talk about where she sees HDT currently sitting on the sustainability field, and where she sees it heading into the future.

For a video of the interview, head on over to our YouTube page!

“All the work that goes on here is very closely aligned, if not spot on, with my personal priorities.”


Zins during an interview recorded on November ’16.

“The work with the board and my personal priorities align in a way that let me get the inside scoop on how do all these really terrific education programs take shape? These are some of the resources that my family or my kids could tap into, maybe I could grab a chance to talk with Quinn to see how these programs could be duplicated in a different community. I love seeing the nuts and bolts of it and how it all begins and where it goes from there.”

Zins added, “The priorities I’ve seen exemplified working with your staff…are early childhood and K-12 education as well as the sustainable agriculture. Another piece that permeates all that is how those two feed into community resilience as a whole. Fostering vital healthy community members.”

Molly ZinsBoard

Zins Board Photo ’14

Taking a look at what CRSDP has done to leverage and promote sustainable practices in the region, Zins knows that it takes diverse ideas from many different sources to create a region that is ready to handle all that the future has in store. Take for instance, the Cows for Clean Water initiative (CFCW), supported through a CRSDP grant. This initiative strives to leverage the proactive management of local ranches to support economic development in the region. Zins believes that through the work of HDT and other organizations, we can help maintain water quality throughout the area.

CFCW is the brainchild of HDT Food & Water Security Manager, Jim Chamberlin. The premise of CFCW is to support ranchers in the Pine River Watershed that are implementing practices that build soil health and preserve water quality by connecting them to consumers interested in purchasing high quality beef.

“All of Jim’s work with food & water security that are near and dear to his heart. . .are examples of best management practices on the land that increases soil health [and] are the very foundation of protecting our waters. Jim and I have had this conversation many times, but we’re preaching to the choir!”

It’s programs like this that Zins believes can be transplanted to other communities or even larger regions. Moreover, it’s not only the funded programs like CFCW that Zins thinks can be replicated. HDT’s Eco Camps, four weeklong day-camps, held in the summer and Tiny Turtles, an educational program for 4 and 5 year old children, have activities and a framework that can be shared and potentially implemented by organizations in other areas.

Zins explains, “Time and resources are limited, so you can’t clone your team. Until we can and put them in every community across the five county region, maybe there’s an opportunity to capture some of these case studies or a step by step guide [or] start some of these programs in Little Falls or Pierz.”

That’s high praise for someone who has such a large purview over conservation and environmental education programs in Minnesota.

Zins concluded, “Fostering healthy sustainable human and natural communities, the answers lie in that body of work, that research and demonstration, experimentation, and ultimately the education and awareness that stems from all of that…I think you’re onto something.”

Back to Basics 2017: A Review

Around early September, we start getting anxious around her. The care-free days of summer begin to shorten. The happy giggles of Eco-Campers are in the rear-view mirror. The CSA shares offer up their tremendous bounty. It’s not because of these occurrences that start to get anxious. No, they’re simply a reminder for us that the seasons are beginning to change to winter, and for us, winter is focused on one thing: making Back to Basics the best event it can be.


B2B 2017 

First things first, the crew needs to pick a theme. What makes a theme so robust as to make it the central idea on which the event revolves? There are countless avenues to go down. Should we highlight healthy eating? Homesteading? Sustainability basics? The “best” event must have a theme to bring the crowd in.

Or perhaps it’s HUGE vendor area that needs to be focused on first? Do we have the largest sustainability fair in northern Minnesota as the draw to encourage attendees?

Or is it to secure a dynamite keynote speaker? Is that what makes B2B an annual draw? Certainly having well-known, well-spoken leaders in the sustainability field is the key, right? We’ve had educators, restaurateurs, city-planners, and even environmental activists in our keynote position.

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Birds, Bugs, Water & Agriculture

How can we have more birds, cleaner water, better food, and a healthier planet? That seems to be the questions a lot of people are asking now days. You can watch one documentary after another about all the environmental problems we face, many because of or food system. What’s harder to find is examples and stories on how agriculture can provide the food we need, for some nine billion people, and protect the natural world we so enjoy and need.

The good news in agriculture is out there, and you don’t need to go far. Self reliant and self educated farmers are implementing practices that build soil health, diversify the landscape, and protect their pocketbook. The farmers, ranchers and resource professionals implementing these restorative practices are new age pioneers, leading the way in conservation agriculture.

Gabe Brown, of Brown’s Ranch, farms 5400 acres in central North Dakota and has led the way in innovative cover cropping, livestock integration, and other soil building practices. In doing so he provides habitat for pollinators and predatory insects, game and songbirds, small mammals, and the microorganisms below ground that fuel the whole system. He protects water quality by increasing soil organic matter and water holding capacity, mitigating runoff and restoring hydrology. This type of agriculture functions as an ecosystem, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further protecting water, soil, and our children that eat the food he grows. And Brown’s Farm generates greater profits, allowing him to bring his two sons and their families back to the farm, creating the rural economic development everyone wants to see.

Mark Shephard of New Forest Farm, located in the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin, is restoring the land with perennial woody crops, agroforestry and innovative water catchment. Purchased in the 1990’s as a degraded corn and soybean farm, Mark first installed keyline swales to capture water in the valleys where it concentrates and move it slowly across the slope to the drier ridges where it can infiltrate into the soil and feed his crops. Where the water concentrated he brought in equipment and dug out “pocket”


Restoration Agriculture – by Mark Shepard

ponds to hold yet more runoff. Below the swales he planted highly productive cultivators of trees and shrubs that are native to the surrounding landscape; raspberries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, apples, plums, cherries, and other edible perennial crops. In the areas between these planting he grows vegetables and grazes livestock. I first was able to visit New Forest Farm in 2004, about a decade after Mark purchased it. The trees and shrubs were well established, but just starting to produce. Several years later I heard him speak at a conference. He had increased the size of his pocket ponds and he was seeing frogs and snakes around these areas. Biology students from a nearby college had completed a bird count and in one weekend counted well over one hundred species of birds in this once degraded farm field. Since, he has started a hard cider brewery to use apples and other fruit that wasn’t marketable, adding value to his product and diversifying his income stream. He’s developed equipment and facilities to handle nuts and other products. And has been instrumental in the growth of Organic Valley food cooperative. During extreme rain events, while neighboring farms are having their soil washed off the slopes, he is soaking up water and storing it for the next drought. He has restored historic springs on his property and returned wildlife to the landscape. All this on a working, productive agricultural landscape.

Max Alger works for the Missouri Department of Conservation as a grassland specialist. After many years working to restore natural prairie lands they began to notice that when a landscape was returned to prairie there would be an initial influx of game and songbirds. But after six or seven years the populations would level off, and eventually start to decline. Looking to nature for solutions, they wondered if the lack of large herbivores, which would have been prevalent in large numbers of buffalo historically, was playing a role in the decline of bird populations over time. They brought in livestock to mimic the buffalo. Using cattle in conjunction with controlled fire, they have developed a burn patch graze system that increases landscape diversity and provides the various successional prairie stages that are needed for the vast number of species, and the individual life cycles, of wildlife that is native to prairie grasslands. Studies are showing that the areas disturbed by this approach are seeing more nest sites and greater survival rates for gamebirds such as the bobwhite quail. The ranchers they contract with are glad to have access to additional grazing lands and the resource professionals charged with managing these public lands can do so more cost effectively, improving native habitats while saving taxpayer dollars.

But it’s not just farmers and land managers driving this revolution. Consumers are demanding better diets and want to know where their food comes from and how it is grown. They are driving these changes with their pocketbook. Farmers that are using holistic methods are increasingly being backed by governments and research institutes. The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service as a soil health initiative and the National Association of Conservation Districts has resolved to promote soil health as an agency. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization held a world symposium in 2014 exploring Agroecology and how it can provide food security to developing nations. The Green Lands Blue Waters Coalition is a group of land grant universities and other organizations in the Mississippi River watershed researching and promoting methods to


Improving soil health can increase water retention.

keep agricultural landscapes in living cover year around. Focused on the soil health principles, they promote perennial forage, agroforestry, cover crops, biomass, and perennial grains as strategies to keep the land green, and the water blue. One of the more promising hallmarks is the perennial grain Kernza, which is planted once every five to six years and can be harvested annually for grain. They are finding that rotationally grazing this crop in early spring or fall, after harvest, appears to increase the grain production, increasing profitability. Genetic technology has increased the speed at which this grain is being developed and is the type of technology that will help to fuel the agroecological revolution.

Scientists are delving into soil ecosystem research, trying to understand the complex interactions of the soil food web. We now can show that it is diverse, fragile, specialist species and groups of organisms that fuel a healthy soil. They need good soil aggregate, a substantial soil carbon pool, living roots in the ground throughout the year. We know they can’t withstand excessive soil disturbance or prolonged periods of flooding or drought. It is clear that overuse of agricultural chemicals and synthetic fertilizers degrade the soil biota, and without healthy soil we cannot expect more birds, clean water, abundant nature, or healthy food.

Presenters Highlight The Power of Change at Back To Basics

Spaces are continuing to fill up for the 11th annual Back to Basics. The theme this year is “The Power of Change” and highlighting this theme are a few of the presenters.

One Back to Basics 2017 presenter, Dawn Molaison of Swatara has taken a different route that emphasizes change. After owning and operating a farm in rural MN for years, it’s only recently that she and her husband have embraced online sales as a way to supplement their local operation. It was only a few years ago that Molaison’s niece introduced the idea of expanding their operation into the online world. Boondock Farm morphed into Boondock Enterprises.

Molaison said, “She began taking us through the baby steps of internet sales and we have been riding the wild waves since, but, I try to keep the foundations sure and solid, while introducing flashes of trendy, unusual, and new. There has to be a balance and it is a continuous juggling act.”

Boondock Enterprises offers over 80 different jams, jellies, syrups, teas, and herb mixes.


Boondock Enterprises has a large catalogue of homemade wares.

Reaching out through online avenues allowed Molaison to realize how difficult it can be to get tread the line between tradition and the new & trendy.

Molaison said, “Traditions are the old recipes and hearing my grandmother’s voice as she teaches me the art of jelly making or listening to my grandfather as he tells me where to find the best berries.”

Molaison will be giving two presentations on February 11. One will be the basics on making your own homemade jellies and jams while the other will be focusing on the ins and outs of creating a successful online business out of your home. Selling online has only highlighted the importance of adaptation to Molaison.  

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J. Drake Hamilton to Keynote 11th Annual Back to Basics

keynoteb2b2015Happy Dancing Turtle will host the 11th annual Back to Basics sustainability event on Saturday, February 11 at the Pine River-Backus School. It’s a day that features workshops, demonstrations, and a vendor fair all designed to increase awareness around sustainable living.


Hamilton – Science Policy Director for Fresh Energy

This year, keynote speaker J. Drake Hamilton will be talking on the importance of communities working together to build a more prosperous future. As the science policy director at Fresh Energy, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis with the goal of speeding the transition to clean energy, Hamilton is responsible for policy development and analysis of clean energy solutions that maximize opportunities for the Midwest.

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