Mary Bailey
Mary Bailey
Monitoring: Not just good for the birds.

"One of the rewards of being a good land steward is to have birds to hear, see and count - they grade us, in a way, and like all good teachers, help us see what needs doing better on the land. What is good for the birds is good for all, us included," said Caroline Van Schaik, of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP).

She added that it is important to keep track of winged friends, a sentiment that fellow bird watchers and monitors Mary Bailey, an avid bluebirder, and Tex Hawkins, a sustainability advisor at Winona State University, both echo as they keep count of the songbirds in southeast Minnesota.

Van Schaik related, "Back yard and field observers pay attention to birds for their beauty and song, yes, but also because they tell us much about our environment. This is a lesson in harmony that requires nothing but practice and a little time. We hope people learn a little about what to look for as our prime birding - and farming - season approaches."

Van Schaik knows that Hawkins and Bailey are two people who have the knowledge of birds - or bird-mindedness - to advise people who'd like to know exactly what problems might be encroaching on the success of a healthy environment.

LSP is offering a workshop on how to count birds - "Bluebirds! Why Birds, and How to Count Them" - later this month in Spring Valley and Hawkins and Bailey will be the presenters.

Van Schaik explained this is the third of a trio of LSP Root River winter workshops organized "to engage farmers and landowners in management practices that benefit the land and people." She also said the event is being held in Spring Valley because the town is part of the Root River watershed that the LSP "hasn't had a presence in yet."

"Birds are traditionally harbingers of spring, but they also tell us a great deal about the well-being of our land from an environmental perspective," she said. "Learning the relation between birds and water, grasslands, our forests, the availability of insects, and how farming decisions impact these variables makes for better decisions. Besides, who doesn't enjoy a bird in song, whether perched on a back yard feeder, or on a pasture fence post?"

Chatfield resident Bailey always has blue in her eyes, no matter what color they really are, as she loves to spot a bluebird flitting from trees to fences and to nesting boxes.

The Indiana native fell hard for the eastern bluebird when she was just 5 years old - her fascination was nearly smothered by her brother's insistence that that bright bird was actually just a robin and nothing more. She refused to believe him, thankfully, as after she'd grown and moved to Minnesota with her late husband, Leonard Suttinger, she established a thriving bluebird trail which she monitors daily during bluebird season. She counts hatchlings and surveys the weather conditions and the effects of farming practices on neighboring land as related to her beloved bluebirds.

As coordinator of the Fillmore and Olmsted counties' Bluebird Recovery Program (BBRP), Bailey swears that bluebirds make the best neighbors because they're neat housekeepers, they have "sweet little babies," and they're always willing to share a song.

Tex Hawkins' bird watching obsession actually began with his father.

"My father, who died of a heart attack several years ago at age 93 while enjoying a spring bird hike on the family farm north of White Bear Lake, was introduced to bird feeding and watching when he was about 14 years old by a woman on his paper route in Batavia, N.Y.," Hawkins shared. "We found the illustrated bird guide that she gave him among his treasured possessions."

He added that his father studied fisheries biology and did trout stream surveys at Cornell. He later became Aldo Leopold's research assistant in Madison, and had a wonderful career pioneering waterfowl research and management with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

"I followed in his footsteps, picking up some bird awareness by osmosis, but didn't get obsessive about birding until Dr. Duane Warner at the University of Minnesota took me on some fabulous ornithology field trips," Hawkins explained. "My career as an interpretive naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and watershed biologist for the last 25 years with the USFWS on the Mississippi River gave me unique opportunities to experience nature."

Currently working half-time as WSU's sustainability advisor, planning and implementing the 2014-15 all-university "Sustainable Futures" theme year, Hawkins' and his colleagues' long-range goal is to introduce every student, and eventually every citizen to important concepts of sustainability, and the skills and responsibilities that go with them.

He's also served on the boards of the LSP and Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center and said, "The work of these organizations helps build ethical stewardship for community resilience and sustainability. Our work builds on the conservation efforts that were started right here in the Driftless Area by Aldo Leopold, my dad and many others during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s - the last time we faced a converging climate and economic crisis."

Van Schaik stated that Hawkins "has a compassionate understanding of birds, people and the land we both need."

Hawkins added, "What I tell grade school kids is that the biggest book and the best teacher available to every person is nature. I have found that experiences and discoveries outdoors provide important life lessons. We learn about habitat requirements and threats, predation, pollution and disease, population limiting factors and carrying capacity - what it takes for all creatures to adapt and survive. These are keys to sustainability."

Van Schaik explained the bluebird workshop will look at many of the region's birds from a habitat and food point of view with the goal of teaching people what they must do and not do to keep the birds coming back.

"Mary is an expert in bluebird care in particular and will speak about maximizing nest success," she continued. "Bluebirds and other native songbirds of our region require certain characteristics in a good life just as we do - Mary and Tex will shed light on what birds need for habitat, water, and food here in the Driftless region. We'll be learning a bit about the relation between how we manage our land - farm field, forest, back yard - and the bird populations those decisions influence. We'll also do some bird identification, and spend some time focused on our region's famous bluebird population, which typically begins migrating in at about this time."

Hawkins plans to start the workshop with "just a few birding basics for those who are new to it," then share a few words about "monitoring and journaling to track bird presence and absence, seasonality or 'phenology,' and nesting activity, success and failure...then we can move on to bluebirds!"

He also said, "I would like people who don't already know about birding to be aware of the joy and satisfaction that this most popular national obsession can bring. At the same time, I want workshop participants to know that understanding and caring about birds and their habitats entails acceptance of ethical responsibilities."

Hawkins feels that exploring the great outdoors is akin to getting an education without knowing it. "Nothing can equal spontaneous shared experiences in the wild, whether it's back yards, wooded bluffs on the back 40, the backwaters of the Mississippi, or back-country wilderness like the Boundary Waters," he concluded. "What I hope to motivate in the workshop is a desire to get outdoors at every opportunity to enjoy birds and nature."

The Land Stewardship Project's bluebird workshop is set for Wednesday, March 19, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the Spring Valley Community Center. The free workshop is open to the public.

For further information, contact Caroline Van Schaik at the Land Stewardship Project, (507) 523-3366, or e-mail her at caroline@landstewardshipproject.org.