Monday, July 25, 2016

Through a Summer Lens

By Sage Passi

Grass Lake in Shoreview

Summer has a different feel. It’s a time to slow down, look at things through a different lens and enter a different rhythm. As Summer Solstice approached I knew I’d be crossing the divide into the true essence of summer, so to celebrate the emergence of this season, I signed up to take a Nature Photography tour sponsored by the Wild Ones Big River Big Woods Chapter. I’d wanted to connect with this newly formed chapter of Wild Ones in the East Metro area ever since I learned of their existence earlier this year, so this seemed like a great way to make contact. I was ready for a summertime adventure and they were holding the tour at Grass Lake in Shoreview. I’ve never really explored that area to any extent, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get to know a place that has recently been added to our watershed district.

The Nature Photography Tour gathered at the lookout for Grass Lake.

We gathered in the parking lot and walked along a short path through the woods to a viewing area surrounded by a circle of large stones. As we approached the look-out, I soon became filled with awe for the stillness, the brightness, the expanse of sky-painted water and the gold-tinged olive mats of vegetation anchored in the wetland. As we gazed in the distance, we could see the slow movement of water fowl on the horizon. Eventually a heron strolled leisurely along the edge of the marsh. Our photography guide, Susan Chaplin, a retired biology professor advised us to focus in on a small area for an evocative photo, but I found myself mesmerized by the great expanse and beauty of the complete panorama. This was, after all my first real introduction to Grass Lake.

There are no watershed district managed water bodies in the Grass Lake subwatershed. Grass Lake is a sixteen-acre Minnesota DNR public water wetland located in Shoreview. Grass Lake is entirely surrounded by the Grass Lake Nature Preserve and Snail Lake Regional Park, which are owned and operated by the Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Department. The parks include parking areas and trails, although there is no direct access to Grass Lake. While commonly referred to as a lake, Grass Lake is not actually a lake. The entrance to Grass Lake Nature Preserve is at 470 Gramsie Road, at the intersection of Gramsie Road and MacKubin Street in Shoreview

Susan offered us several options for exploring the park and practicing our photo shooting, but the group consensus settled on a hike to an osprey-viewing spot accessible by traversing across the park to another part of the wetland so we could have a closer vantage point. We set off down the road, stopping briefly at its edge to learn about the county’s efforts to restore a prairie where farm fields had once been. We stopped to notice the wildflower bergamot and discovered some of the invasive plants that pose challenges for the native species planted in this prairie restoration.

Ramsey County has been working on restoring prairie in Grass Lake Nature Preserve.

We soon left the road and began our journey by cutting through the tall grass along a make-shift trail. 

Heading toward our destination to see the osprey nest.

The pungent air of the summer evening captured our sense as we headed toward a swampy part of the park. Some people paused to snap photos of the wetland through the tall bushes.

Eva Ecola, Wild Ones Big River Big Woods Chapter
 President, stopped to research a plant on her phone.

After taking a route through a shaded woodland area we came around a bend and headed down a damp path to the wetland to reach our destination for setting up the spotting scope. Far off across the water on the top of a platform we could see a nest piled with sticks perched high above the water. Our guide focused the scope’s lens on the nest. We each took turns peering through the eyepiece at the mother osprey perched on the nest. 

The osprey, also known as fish eagle, sea hawk, river hawk and fish hawk, is unusual in that it is a single living species that occurs nearly worldwide. Its diet consists of almost entirely fish.

An osprey in flight
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I learned from our hike leader that the mother osprey almost never leaves the nest. In the heat of the day, the female stands on top of the nest and spreads out her wings to shield and shade her young. Her mate brings food to her every twenty minutes or so we’re told. I imagined the male osprey in its constant search for food, diving down to catch its prey in the sparkling water of Grass Lake. I kept taking turns at the spotting scope often, hoping to catch a glimpse of the osprey’s arrival with a fish in his talons. But instead I watched the female, constantly turning her head, watching anxiously in all directions for signs of her mate. Their lives are intimately connected. If I stayed a lot longer I know I would eventually witness this exchange.  

I had no telephoto lens of my own to capture the majesty of these marsh birds’ dedicated life to raising their young and their strategies for survival. But I have stories in my head and images in my mind’s eye that will last for a long time. And sometime, perhaps on another summer day, I will return for another glimpse of the wild beauty of Grass Lake.

Shadows and sun setting in Grass Lake Nature Preserve

Join us on October 27, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. when Big River Big Woods, in partnership with Wild Ones Twin Cities and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, will screen the 90-minute film, Hometown Habitat, Stories of Bringing Nature Home, at Ramsey County Library, 2180 North Hamline Ave in Roseville. This film shows how and why native plants are critical to the survival and vitality of local ecosystems and tells the stories of seven different communities and how they succeeded in creating native landscapes.

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