Monday, April 15, 2013

Rusty’s River Ride: A Story About Eagles

Fishing on the Mississippi River, January 9th, 2013. 
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.

By Sage Passi

Eagles have had my number for a few years now, especially the pair that nest in a cottonwood tree on the shore next to Keller Lake. Since I drive by their nest fairly often on Highway 36 in Maplewood, I’ve instituted the tradition of waving at them whenever I see them perched in their nest high up in a tree or standing watch on a branch stretched out over the sparkling waters. I call out enthusiastically, “I love you!” whenever I catch a glimpse of them at this juncture. It’s a small gesture for such majestic birds that are making a triumphant come-back after decades of diminishment.

Catch of the day. April 3rd, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.
"Above the water, the eagle circles……Below the ice a dark pool of dreams lies still in limnion layers…..she knows there is a fish there……..her eyes can see through the black holes of time.”  
-Three Sightings, from my journal entry in January 2011.

Such eagle sightings would certainly have been an anomaly a few years ago. In 1963 only 417 pairs of eagles were known to be nesting in the lower 48 states. The population has rebounded with protections provided by the Bald Eagle Act (1940), the Clean Water Act (1972), national bans on DDT* and PCBs** (1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Today, nearly 10,000 pairs nest in the lower 48 states, including 1,300 in Minnesota.

A spring helicopter count last year, cited in an April 13 article by Minneapolis Star reporter, Jim Adams, found 36 active nests in the 72-mile stretch from Elk River to Hastings that makes up the Mississippi National River Recreation Area.

Chuck Turning's video for GTN, highlights the eagle's return
to the Northeast metro area.

"The eagle population is increasing and highly productive" in the area, said Bill Route, an eagle project manager for the National Park Service. Aerial counting isn't precise, but the 36 nests counted in late March are up from 28 last year and 30 in 2010, he said. The aerial surveys, begun in 2006, when 11 active nests were sighted, have documented the dramatic comeback in the metro area of the bald eagle, which was on the federal endangered species list from 1967 to 2007.

I got my own first-hand sense of this good news during a boat ride last spring on the Mississippi River, south of Red Wing. It was a spontaneous decision to buy a ticket for one of Rusty’s Red Wing River Rides on one of those rare early spring days in mid-April, with temperatures soaring in the lower 80’s that heralded my spirit of adventure and hopefulness that had been all but

extinguished by the latest intimidating round of Minnesota not so nice winter. Descending into this 55-foot low-riding river cruise boat, the Sight-Sea-Er-II and gliding downstream, I felt ten layers of winter malaise slip off me into the waves.

Rusty Mathiasmeir, Captain of the
Sight-Sea-Er-II with Skipper and Tipper
    As he steered us along, Rusty Mathiasmeier, the boat captain launched into his local narrative, transporting the other cruise spectators and me into the alternate reality of the eagles that inhabit this stretch of the river. I got the feeling he was driving me home to see my relatives. There they were - my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles including Bernie, Henriette and Ol' Baldy, Heckle and Jeckle, Connie and Harry – a cast of characters who have taken up residence over the years in these back forty waters. Rusty, a river boat pilot for over 40 years, is on a first name basis with the eagles. Several times a day he travels this beat with his crew, Skipper and Tipper, two wire-haired fox terriers who stand watch at the wheel by his side. On weekends his wife and first mate, Deanna joins him.

“I know every inch of the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans and I will say that this is the most beautiful stretch of the river,” he comments. As we circle around several islands in the river during the two hour ride, I stopped often to aim my binoculars at their nests, but I can't help but be awed by someone with as much familiarity as this captain has with the day-to-day life of eagles. He’s got a special knack for seeing the nuances of their personalities. And when I got back to the Cities and looked at his Facebook pages, I couldn’t take my eyes off his dramatic eagle glimpses.

Squabble over a branch?
A shot taken by Rusty in late March, 2013.

I suppose you could say I have my own version of these kinds of glimpses. I’ve often noted that eagles appear out of nowhere either when I am on my way to or returning from some “dedicated” mission to teach kids or adults about habitats or water quality. I can’t help put a spin on these sightings. It’s grown uncanny how they make their appearances out of the blue, especially when I seem to be in some special need of affirmation. Recently, after a month and a half of working on the designs for several signs for Lake Phalen, including one about foot traffic damage to the shoreline restoration plantings, I was driving off in a hurry from my house in urban Minneapolis after a pit-stop lunch, on my way to look at the unveiling of one these signs at a graphic arts company. As I pulled away from the curb, an eagle flew in above the trees, as if from nowhere, soaring above my car, circling around twice. Coincidence? It’s happened too many times for me to think it is just that.

So what messages are coming through the eagles these days? For the most part it’s been an encouraging story, but is it all good news? If you read the State of the River Report’s chapter on eagles published by Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service in late 2012, you have to dig a little deeper to zero in on some of the less than ideal details about the status of eagles in our metropolitan community. So what is posing the greatest threat to their well-being on a local level?
Left: Henriette feeding her baby on a log in front of the SIGHT-SEA-ER II during an eagle viewing cruise on July 8, 2012.
Right: A shot taking on April 19, 2011.  Photos courtesy of Rusty's River Rides, LLC. 

From 2006 to 2011 the National Park Service visited up to 30 nests each year and assessed the health of 124 nestlings in the metro stretch of the river, taking blood samples and measuring their levels of targeted contaminants. Their findings indicate a well-nourished and productive eagle population, with an average of about two nestlings per nest each year. As a general trend the average PFOS*** levels in eagle nestling blood samples have declined. Levels of PCBs and DDT are generally below values considered critical for eagle health.

However, PFOS contamination remains elevated in sections of the river between the Ford Dam and the confluence with the St. Croix River. There have been multiple instances of high lead exposure in nestlings from Pig’s Eye Lake in St. Paul. Recent research on mercury accumulation in loons and fish shows an increase in recent years, suggesting the need to continue monitoring. In addition the loss of critical habitat along the river poses potential long-term threats to the eagle population.

Rusty Mathiasmeier cites excessive boat speeds as a cause of large wakes that uproot the cottonwoods and other large trees that provide habitat for the eagles.

Tree uprooted along the Mississippi River. 
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.

The State of the River Report advocates for continued monitoring of PFCs**** (including PFOS and its substitutes in the south metro portion of the river) and additional research on record levels of DDT at the Durham Island nesting site in Minneapolis and high lead levels in the Pigs Eye Lake area. The lack of regeneration of cottonwoods and other nesting trees along the river necessitates planning now to phase in succession plantings to avoid significant loss of large trees necessary for eagle nesting and perching. 

On the morning I saw the eagle on my way to the advertising firm, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine. He sent a story passed on to him by his friend. The synergy of its arrival, like the eagle’s appearance out of the blue above my car, gave me pause to ponder about its synchronous message. Coincidence? You will have to decide. Here is his story:
Freedom and Jeff

Freedom and I have been together 11 years this summer. She came in as a baby in 1998 with two broken wings. Her left wing doesn't open all the way even after surgery. It was broken in 4 places. She's my baby. When Freedom came in she could not stand and both wings were broken. She was emaciated and covered in lice. We made the decision to give her a chance at life, so I took her to the vet's office.

From then on, I was always around her. We had her in a huge dog carrier with the top off, and it was loaded up with shredded newspaper for her to lie in. I used to sit and talk to her, urging her to live, to fight; and she would lay there looking at me with those big brown eyes. We also had to tube feed her for weeks. This went on for 4-6 weeks, and by then she still couldn't stand. It got to the point where the decision was made to euthanize her if she couldn't stand in a week. You know you don't want to cross that line between torture and rehab, and it looked like death was winning. She was going to be put down that Friday, and I was supposed to come in on that Thursday afternoon. I didn't want to go to the center that Thursday, because I couldn't bear the thought of her being euthanized; but I went anyway, and when I walked in everyone was grinning from ear to ear. I went immediately back to her cage; and there she was, standing on her own, a big beautiful eagle. She was ready to live. I was just about in tears by then. That was a very good day.

We knew she could never fly, so the director asked me to glove train her. I got her used to the glove, and then to jesses, and we started doing education programs for schools in western Washington. We wound up in the newspapers, radio (believe it or not) and some TV. Miracle Pets even did a show about us. In the spring of 2000, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I had stage 3, which is not good (one major organ plus everywhere), so I wound up doing 8 months of chemo. Lost the hair - the whole bit. I missed a lot of work. When I felt good enough, I would go to Sarvey and take Freedom out for walks. Freedom would also come to me in my dreams and help me fight the cancer. This happened time and time again.

Fast forward to November 2000, the day after Thanksgiving, I went in for my last checkup. I was told that if the cancer was not all gone after 8 rounds of chemo, then my last option was a stem cell transplant. Anyway, they did the tests; and I had to come back Monday for the results. I went in Monday, and I was told that all the cancer was gone. So the first thing I did was get up to Sarvey and take the big girl out for a walk. It was misty and cold. I went to her flight and jessed her up, and we went out front to the top of the hill. I hadn't said a word to Freedom, but somehow she knew. She looked at me and wrapped both her wings around me to where I could feel them pressing in on my back (I was engulfed in eagle wings), and she touched my nose with her beak and stared into my eyes, and we just stood there like that for I don't know how long . That was a magic moment. We have been soul mates ever since she came in. This is a very special bird.

On a side note: I have had people who were sick come up to us when we are out, and Freedom has some kind of hold on them. I once had a guy who was terminal come up to us and I let him hold her. His knees just about buckled and he swore he could feel her power course through his body. I have so many stories like that. I never forget the honor I have of being so close to such a magnificent spirit as Freedom."

Six bald eagle visitors in tree near Gervais Lake, Little Canada.
Photo courtesy of Steve Simmons

We are deep into April now and spring is nowhere in sight. The few signs of spring I glimpsed the week before are coated with yet another layer of winter. I drive down Highway 36, wondering if Keller Lake will ever thaw. As I glance up at that cottonwood tree, I see two eagles, each perched solidly upon their own branch, staring out into the middle of the lake.

I take a quick right off the freeway, and head south on Highway 61.

Somewhere down that highway, past all this urban winter sprawl, on the Mississippi River is a free boat ride I’ve been offered. Maybe my spring fever will finally break. Rusty reports there are 21 eagle nests waiting for me on his beat.

Look closely!  Hundreds of eagles roost near Red Wing steam plant.  January 22, 2013. 
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.


*DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichlorethane) is an insecticide that was often used in agricultural settings prior to being banned. It was found to have negative effects on human health and wildlife, particularly birds.

**PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were often used as a coolant/insulator for transformers and capacitors. They are also a byproduct of coal tar used to seal driveways. It has been recognized that they are toxic, carcinogenic, and build up in the environment. Many uses have been banned.

***PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) was a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other stain repellents. It was found to be accumulating in wildlife and humans at levels that were considered concerning.

**** PFCs (perfluorinated compound) are often used to make materials resistant to water, and have been found to be a persistent organic pollutant.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

April Mystery of the Month

Photo courtesy of Przemek Bajer

This month’s mystery is another visual puzzler. One of our staff thought it looked kind of like a wing. Another said it reminded them of tree fungus. Does it help at all if we tell you that this is a 40x magnification? Probably not too much…

Once again our mystery involves the fish we love to hate, the common carp. This interesting ringed structure is a carp otolith, which anyone but a fish biologist would call the earbone. And just like the rings in a tree trunk, the rings, or “annuli” in the otoliths of many bony fishes are a cue to the age of the fish.

In the otolith shown above (courtesy of Przemek Bajer of the Sorenson Lab) the light areas correspond to periods of rapid growth (summer) and the dark areas reflect periods of relative inactivity (winter). This particular carp appears to have been 11 years old when it met its fate.

A freshly-extracted otolith from a young carp.
Preparing an otolith for reading is a bit more complicated than cutting into a tree to count the rings. Carp otoliths are quite small and located deep within the fish's cranium. Removing the otolith can be a messy process, particularly for the inexperienced (yes, you are hearing first-hand knowledge). Once the earstones are removed they are thoroughly cleaned and mounted in resin for handling. After the resin has cured, very thin sections are cut with a diamond blade. These sections are examined under high magnification, the rings are counted, and the apparent age is
recorded for the fish.

An otolith from a very old carp.
The otolith pictured at the top of the page is pretty easy to read; the light areas are wide and the dark bands spaced well apart. In older fish, otoliths can be much more difficult to read, however – in this fish, for instance (image to left). The Sorenson lab accounts for this by having three experienced researchers interpret the rings independently and then compare results.

One of the plain coolest pieces of information to come out of this work is just how long-lived carp can be. The oldest fish pulled out of Lake Gervais appears to be 66 years old; and is accompanied by several others aged 60 and older. Understanding the age structure of a population of fish can be incredibly powerful information. One of the most helpful discoveries made by the Sorenson lab is the association between the age groups of carp and the years that egg predators – bluegills – endured a winter-kill. Current research is connecting carp ages and genetics to historical changes in the watershed; more on that to come!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Introducing our new Board of Managers Members

Jen Oknich (left) and Marj Ebensteiner (right) come in to meet the staff.

The Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District would like to welcome two new Board of Managers members to our organization. Jen Oknich and Marj Ebensteiner were sworn in at our last Board meeting on April 3. We are excited to be able to draw on their wealth of experience, skills, ideas, and new perspectives. We asked each of them to tell us why they were interested in serving on our board and to share some things about their background, the experiences they bring to this position and their interests and hobbies. Both of these managers live in the District in the City of St. Paul. Here’s what they had to say:

Jen Oknich

“I am very excited to be a part of Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed District's Board of Managers. I believe that sound public policy enables us to protect and improve our community and environment. Over the past twelve years, I have worked in water resources management at various levels of government (federal, state, county and watershed) and the private sector. I've administered wetland, shoreland, floodplain and water quality programs, and have experience in environmental permitting, environmental engineering, conflict resolution, prairie restoration, shoreland restoration, stream morphology, GIS, erosion control/best management practices, website development, and data and project management.

For fun, I love anything outdoors: native landscaping, canoeing, camping, hiking, cross-country skiing, and inline skating. I volunteer with the Wetland Health Evaluation Program (you should too!), and on the Wetland Professionals Association Board. I'm also a member of the Minnesota Native Plant Society, Society of Wetland Scientists, Association of State Floodplain Managers and Minnesota Association of Floodplain Managers.

RWMWD staff has done amazing things in our community, and I'm happy to contribute my service and expertise.”


Marj Ebensteiner

Marj’s experience in the field includes 34 years working with Mn/DOT as a Management Consultant and Project Manager, as a Supervisor at the Ramsey County Conservation District, as a Chair at Eastside Seniors (50+) and as the longest serving member on the Sales Tax Advisory Board (STAR). She has been appointed by 4 mayors of St. Paul for the position on the STAR Board and will review $17 million in projects for this coming year.

“I enjoy things of beauty – gardens, streams, farms, trees and backyards. The position of Manager on the Washington/Ramsey Watershed District Board affords me the opportunity to work with others preserving what we now have while creating new initiatives to clean our water and also improve the aesthetics of the land that surrounds us.”

Marj concluded her introduction with this poem:

Water creates music as it tickles over my feet
Water feeds the vegetables that we eat
It is crystalline, pure and so not concrete
Protecting it is quite a feat

We are excited to have them aboard!

Friday, April 12, 2013

District Schools Rev Up for Action

By Tracy Leavenworth
District consultant Tracy Leavenworth uses a sand filter model to show L’Et oile du Nord students how phosphorus binds to iron filings to prevent it from getting into lakes and streams.
Ask a 4th or 5th grader at L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School about phosphorus and how it affects our watershed, and you will likely need to pull up a chair. They have a lot to share! And as the weather warms, along with dozens of other students across the district, they will be going above and beyond learning about watershed issues to taking action! In preparation they’ve explored their school’s rain garden, hillside erosion project and the woodlands behind their building and had fun learning about the stormwater features recently installed at Maplewood Mall. They’ve also performed hands-on tasks that solidified their learning about run-off, phosphorus content in soil, and how sand filters work like the ones at the Maplewood Mall and near Kohl’s. 

Left: Justine Koch, graduate student from the University of Minnesota demonstrates the use of radio tracking during the carp seining at Lake Gervais. Right: District Senior Water Quality Technician, Eric Korte explains the process of collecting data about water quality at Gervais Lake using monitoring equipment.

Sixth graders in Anna Dundek’s room and fourth graders in Karen Mueller’s class at Farnsworth K-4 also have a lot to say about the detrimental effects of phosphorus, especially in the hands of carp. They set out to watch the drama of the carp seining at Lake Gervais in late February before the spring rains cut ice fishing off for the season. Despite all of our best intentions, the carp outsmarted everyone including these students who had to leave before they got to witness the 850 carp being reeled in with a sein nets (the other half of the catch escaped due to the nets getting snagged and damaged from rocks under the water’s surface). Even though they missed the most dramatic part of the process, a good time was had by all as students watched the commercial fishermen prepare for the "arrival" of the carp. They also learned about water quality monitoring equipment, performed various water quality tests on lake samples and heard Justine Koch, graduate student working in Dr. Peter Sorensen’s lab describe the role of radio tracking in the University of Minnesota’s research project in the Phalen Chain of Lakes.
Fouth graders at L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion School stratify seeds in vermiculite, preparing them for germination.

A hands-on task that has become an annual ritual for the District’s work in the schools is growing native plants from seed collected at many of the schools’ demonstration gardens. Over the years, thousands of native plants have found their way into school yard gardens, neighborhood rain gardens, shorelines and wetlands that were germinated under grow lights in the classrooms. The district is teaming up again this year with Ramsey County Master Gardeners and classrooms throughout the district to grow an array of native plants for springtime planting. 

Left: Farnsworth 4th graders plant seeds as Ramsey County Master Gardener Megan Finney shows them a picture of the native wildflower the seeds will become. Right: Future home for seedlings grown by Mounds Park Academy in a spring renovation project in the school’s courtyard garden.
 What are the destinations for these plants this year? 

Some are intended to help re-make a courtyard at Mounds Park Academy or serve as additions for this school’s large wetland buffer and three large rain garden basins. Farnsworth 5-8 has plans to embellish its front yard renovations begun last year with woodland seedlings grown from seed purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery and prairie seeds gathered from its sister school. The lower campus of Farnsworth plans to rebuild its large side yard native demonstration garden in response to damage from summer vandalism. They’ve got three light racks filled with seedlings and will be providing plants for many different projects around the District. French Immersion will be putting the finishing touches on a Peace Garden before they embark to a new site at the former Ames Elementary campus where they will re-open next fall. St. Peter’s is continuing to add to its award-winning LEAP site. And the rest of the hundreds of plants – they’ll likely find homes at several church rain gardens and other residential sites that infiltrate stormwater before it hits the streets. 
So what’s in store for April and May? 

It’s time for classrooms to take their learning to a deeper level as they prepare for spring service learning projects that will address watershed issues. High school students at Harmony Learning Center in Maplewood, 6th graders at Farnsworth Aerospace Magnet School in St. Paul and 4th graders at L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School in St. Paul recently completed lessons that immersed them more deeply in specific issues, and acquainted them with real people who are involved with addressing these issues. Taking on the roles of real life characters in “If I Were You” stories like “History Mystery" and “Phalen Shoreline Foot Traffic,” students gained different perspective about local issues around the District. Thank you to Green Corps intern Nicole Soderholm, Master Naturalist Bev Blomgren and St. Paul Community Ed Service Learning expert Ginny Newman for assisting with these sessions.
Sixth grade students in Anna Dundek’s class at Farnsworth 5-8 present
their role play from History Mystery: A Story about Lake Phalen. They will
be working on creating the content for a website linked to a QR code on a
history sign that is being installed at Lake Phalen.

This month each classroom will choose a particular issue and create an action plan to address the issue, complete with timeline. In May students will implement their projects, and in June they will present their projects and celebrate at WaterFest! 

A warm thank you to these dedicated teachers and students who choose to make a positive difference in their communities through service learning. We look forward to seeing the positive outcomes of your efforts!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The True Costs of Maintenance

A beautiful looking (and functioning!) rain garden.
By Nicole Soderholm, Green Corps Intern

RWMWD is partnering with the cities of Maplewood and Little Canada this summer to conduct a pilot program for rain garden maintenance.

The project will include two designated pilot “sites” –the
Maplewood ‘Living Streets’ project located near Stillwater Road and Minnehaha Avenue, and 62 additional rain gardens installed by the City of Little Canada. We will be collecting data on time spent and materials used to perform routine rain garden maintenance on a large scale. We hope to use this data to estimate an average annual cost of maintenance per rain garden. We will then be able to present this information to cities so they can factor these maintenance costs in to their future budgets. 
A rain garden in need of a little TLC.

After reviewing several options, we have contracted with Minnesota Native Landscapes, a local landscaping company that is experienced in rain garden maintenance. Throughout the summer, a work crew will make several visits to the approximately 95 rain gardens involved in the pilot program. RWMWD will work with Minnesota Native Landscapes to compile specific data on time spent and materials used at each rain garden.

For residents in Little Canada and Maplewood that this pilot program may affect, the District would like to stress that while all maintenance costs will be covered this summer, the pilot program is temporary. We encourage residents with rain gardens included in the pilot program to continue with regular routine maintenance.

We look forward to this project and the valuable information it could bring! For more information on the pilot program, please contact Paige Ahlborg (paige.ahlborg[at]

If you are looking to build your own rain garden or looking for some help with one already in your yard, there are free classes you should know about!  Go to the News & Events tab on this blog (or link to the information on our website here) for more information.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

WaterFest Volunteer Needs

WaterFest is coming up soon and we still need several volunteers to make this the fun and exciting community event that it has been in the past.  If you have some extra time on June 1st (or May 31st if you're available to help set-up), we could use a few good folks. 

Below are some of the tasks we need help with.  If one or more of them sound like your calling, please sign up here!

Pre WaterFest Volunteer Needs

  • May - Deliver WaterFest 'Save the Date' business cards to cities, libraries, coffee houses, etc
  • Mid-late May pick up displays and costumes
  • Friday, May 31 transport WaterFest materials and and help set up tables, displays and post signs

WaterFest Volunteer Needs (unless otherwise posted shifts are 11 am-1:30 pm or 1:30-4 pm)

  • 8-11 am  set up assistants
  • Information table
  • School information table
  • Parking lot attendants
  • Discovery Hunt assistants
  • Raindrop Mystery Tour assistants
  • Voyageur canoe assistants (must be 16 or older or with an adult)
  • Canoe instructor (must be 16 or older)
  • Kayak instructor
  • LEAP exhibit assistant
  • Wetland pool assistant
  • Water display assistant
  • Kid’s fishing lessons assistant
  • Fishing contest assistant
  • Putt Putt golf assistant
  • Recycling & composting assistant
  • WaterFest guide
  • Solar pontoon assistant
  • Parking lot assistants
  • Volunteer refreshment area greeter
  • Cleanup crew (4-5:30)
We'd love your help, but either way, come on out with your family and friends for a great day on Lake Phalen!