Wildlife Makes Adjustments During Oct/Nov

Submitted by Art and Barb Straub

Frances, the indefatigable Ford Focus, experienced a major event in her ten. years of autohood this week, that is, 200,000 grueling gravel road miles. In that she is a life-long learner, it has been an exciting week, in that animal/bird migration and winter preparation are at a hectic pace, especially after the six to eight inches of heavy snow the afternoon of October 21st. Frances was caught on Highway #169 during the storm’s height, the incident was scary and hairy, as (honest,) she broke a belt the very next day! Yet, she was up and ready to go within twenty-four hours, anticipating another adventure.

Picture this: A father and son were pursuing pheasants to the west of Henderson and came across a salamander…a salamander in October on a plowed field. Being the curious dudes that they are, they brought the amphibian to none other than Vern Bienfang, contemplative caretaker of geese, ducks, rabbits, peacocks, chickens, etc., and Spike, the faithful guard/yard dog. Vern provided food (worms) and water to the spotted Tiger creature, and sent it on its way to safety.

Minnesota has six members of the salamander family, the two most common in the Henderson/LeSueur area are the mudpuppy and Eastern Tiger Salamander. Mudpuppies live their entire lives in water, their major adaptation being beautiful purplish fragile gills on the OUTSIDE of their bodies; while the Tiger salamander mates in water, lays its eggs in the same, yet skitters ashore from its pond environment to search out insects, snails, plus slugs. They are cannibalistic, eating their own kind. Mudpuppies are often caught in late autumn under the LeSueur/Minnesota River bridge, where they gather to mate. Vern’s temporary Tiger pet will search out a gopher hole or some other mammal channel, and sleep the winter away. It is not unusual to find Tigers in urban window wells. Thus, Vern’s lads went hunting for feathers and returned with an amphibian. Edible? Not for humans! In fact, they exude a skin substance that may irritate human skin. Careful when handling!

A perfect home for salamanders would be a quiet little human-developed marsh north of Ottawa on what locals call the “Ottawa Road.” Where 329th Street meets the Ottawa Road, a marsh has been developed, attracting waterfowl, water birds and various species of blackbirds, plus others. As the sun set last Friday the 30th, a flock of Wilson Snipe had set down, along with a few Yellowlegs… not certain whether Lesser or Greater yellowlegs…chowing away on we assume were water insects and wee mud creatures. (See photo.)
With able assistance of a professional birder and ornithologist, Chad Heins of Mankato, we’re pretty certain the bird were Wilson’s snipes. It is in this Ottawa farming area where one also finds nesting sandhill cranes plus migrating meadowlarks. It’s a great area for birders and sightseers, other than the speed demons who use the straight-away as a drag strip. Since the pond does not dry up during the summer, it should be a perfect Eden for salamanders.

As to the Wilson’s snipes, in summer, they are mistresses and masters of camouflage, but they become more obvious as frost kills protective foliage. According to the MNDNR, they may be hunted from early September into November. The birds resemble miniature hens, brown to buff, have a long straight bill, and inhabit marshes from Canada into the United States. Some overwinter in southern Minnesota, but most move south as far as Mexico and South America. The small covey of 30 or so near the Ottawa Road were interesting to observe as they continually bobbed their heads and foraged in the mud flats of the marsh for small aquatic creatures.

We thought it odd that muskrats haven’t taken a fancy to the shallow Ottawa Road pond, but Frances discovered that a muskrat watering hole must NOT freeze to the bottom in the winter. This may also account for the lack of muskrat dens/lodges on the Coachlight Pond, due to shallow water depth. Recently one could observe great blue herons standing in the middle of those slate-gray waters just up to their knee caps! Often one will see a muskrat with a mouthful of plant material steering into holes under the steep banks bordering highway 93. Are they called ‘bank muskrats” as in “bank beaver?”

Lynn Poole, former Main Street LeSueur Employment Poole Inc., recently photographed a muskrat in full flight. Usually muskrats keep their thin scaly tails flat and use them as auxiliary steering mechanisms, but this one was ‘get your tail up and move on out!’ We’ve observed cattle and deer with their tails up, but never a muskrat. Thanks Lynn, for your keen observation and photo! The Coachlight rats had best get THEIR tails up, as ice has been prevalent on all three ponds in that area. Plus, next year’s Trumpeter swan family will need a nesting/resting pad by May first of 2021.
Do readers know why a muskrat is called a muskrat? Think of that for a moment. Well? It seems that a muskrat is ‘smelly.’ Anal glands near the short-haired mammal’s tale mark the territory of the critter. Also, the dark brown hair sometimes appears red, the Algonquin Indians term for ‘red’ was “muscas cus,” thus, red rat…musk rat according to Wikapedia. Henderson gentlemen and ladies once competed in the number of muskrats they trapped in a season, and they could tell you easily why a muskrat is a ‘musk’ rat. Be SAFE rather than sorry, heed Covid precautions, please.