Want a crash course in what nature has to offer in the Brainerd area? Take a Tuesday hike at the Paul Bunyan Nature Learning Center, where naturalist Ben Bangert explores the wildlife found in our wetlands, forests and remnant prairies.
Tours are conducted every week and take just more than an hour to complete. The theme of Aug. 17's hike was "Changing Environment." Bangert started by pointing to an aspen tree, where black bears had left claw marks.
"Don't worry, the bears that left these marks no longer live here," Bangert said. "They got tired of the noise and moved on."
Indeed, the nature center's location off Wise Road and within proximity of Highway 371 subjects it to levels of traffic noise that are too much for bears, which tolerate only so much human encroachment. As many as five bears lived on the 94-acre nature learning center as recently as seven years ago.
"These markings," Bangert said, "show the hierarchy of the bears that lived here. It's a way for them to meet before duking it out. If a bear comes along and can scratch higher, he knows he's the top dog in these woods."
Seldom will you see more than three bears together, Bangert said. Males (boars) are solitary and will attack their own offspring to mate with their mother. A bear's world is a tough world, Bangert said, and sometimes when he shows tourists the markings they get nervous.
"But if you see a bear it's already seen you," Bangert said. "So just turn around and go back where you came from. If the bear hightails it away, make noise as you go on."
Beavers are doing well at the nature center. A daily chore each spring is cleaning a culvert that drains water from the property. Beavers by nature want to stop water flow and plug the culvert with debris. Once, Bangert said, they found a dead beaver that other beavers had used to their benefit by packing debris around it. No place for burial ceremonies in the world of the beaver. And at least one less place to live. An active beaver den was removed to make way for the parking lot at the new Reed's Sporting Goods, Bangert said.
The water in the pond behind Reed's is low at this time. Panfish were stocked so Reed's could use the pond to teach kids how to fish. But Bangert said low water will make it impossible for the fish to survive the winter, when oxygen levels drop under the ice.
"This pond is dying," Bangert said. "There's 45 feet of muck on the bottom. Without serious dredging there's no way it will maintain enough oxygen to keep fish alive."
The pond is home to two resident swans, which unfortunately did not have a successful nesting season.
"That's too bad because this was the first time they nested," Bangert said. "Last year there were two females and we brought in a male for breeding, but they wanted nothing to do with him. Then this year one of the females drove off the other and they nested."
Dead trees are unwelcome in some people's yards, but at the nature learning center they're a valued member of the ecosystem, providing feeding sites for downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers.
"They can hear ants in the dead trees," Bangert said.
The nature learning center's grounds are covered with red osier dogwood, which adapt well to wetlands. Native Americans used alder to make peace pipes, which they called "nick nick," Bangert said. Speckled alder also are prevalent. Bangert said efforts will be made to remove buckthorn, an invasive species.
"We need to get it under control," said Bangert, who expects it will take up to five years to eradicate the buckthorn. "If not it will choke out native trees. We'll bring in the Boy Scouts and probably use chemical applications. But we have to be careful. Whatever you spray Roundup on will die."
A project still in the works is found on an island surrounded by swamp. An Eagle Scout got his merit badge by making a floating bridge that connects the island to the mainland. The bridge was built by laying down 300 logs and weaving them together with a fabric that allows water to flow through. When the water rises, the bridge rises. When the water goes down, the bridge goes down. For an added attraction, Bangert said one day a porcupine might be released on the island.
Down the path was a man-made snake hibernation pit, constructed by digging a hole 5 feet deep, filling it with logs and branches and covering it with dirt. Natural pockets created by this process are used in winter by as many as 500 garter, northern red belly and blow snakes. As many as 20 curl up in a ball and over the winter the snakes on the perimeter die from the cold while those on the interior survive, another example of survival of the fittest. Or in this case perhaps "death to the tardy" would be a better description, for the last snakes in the pit are those that die.
The footpath passes numerous plants, including purple loosestrife, jewel weed, honeysuckle, horsetail, mushrooms (21 different species are found on the property), Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, boneset, sensitive ferns, bracken ferns, lady ferns, wild rose hips, mint, wild bergamont and purple asters.
The newly bloomed asters are a signal that summer is nearing an end and that time is running out to enjoy a hike at the Paul Bunyan Nature Learning Center.
VINCE MEYER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5862.
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