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Odd-named creatures thrive in amazing Minnesota landscape

SWEDES FOREST, Minn. - Everyone came looking to meet up with some odd-named characters, and found them.It's the five-lined skink, aka "blue devil,'' that brought Katie Leuenberger to the Swedes Forest Scientific and Natural Area on land in Yellow...

A pair of redbellied snakes were among the first specimens caught, weighed, measured and then released by Katie Leuenberger of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources during the Swedes Forest bioblitz on June 17. This the male of the pair; the female carried eggs. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service
A pair of redbellied snakes were among the first specimens caught, weighed, measured and then released by Katie Leuenberger of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources during the Swedes Forest bioblitz on June 17. This the male of the pair; the female carried eggs. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service
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SWEDES FOREST, Minn. - Everyone came looking to meet up with some odd-named characters, and found them.

It's the five-lined skink, aka "blue devil,'' that brought Katie Leuenberger to the Swedes Forest Scientific and Natural Area on land in Yellow Medicine and Redwood counties. She surprised the speedy, blue-tailed reptiles by lifting wood and tin covers she keeps scattered about the granite outcrops on this site. They love hiding underneath them.

Chad Heins weaved his way through the underbrush to hunt for pirate wolfs and other spiders, including crab, running, orb weavers and mesh weavers.

Curt Oien and Mitch Haag swung mesh nets to snag racket-tailed emeralds and other dragonflies with names like eastern foxtail and blue dashers.

Rare and endangered prairie plants, like Wolf's spikerush and yellow-fruited sedge were the targets for Rhett Johnson and John Valo.

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"Nice catch,'' said Valo as Johnson spotted a bearded birdfoot violet.

They were among 21 participants in the first ever bioblitz held at this 202-acre site placed in the protection of the Scientific and Natural Area Program in 1995. The June 17 event was an opportunity to bring together experts in a variety of plant, animal and insect disciplines to document the diversity of life protected there, as well as to offer public education and outreach to those interested in tagging along with them, according to Brad Bolduan with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' ecological services office in Windom.

Along with those mentioned above, other participants set traps to catch and identify small mammals. Another searched for beetles and butterflies. Others strung fine-meshed nets and placed audio recording gear in strategic locations. Their goal was to identify the bats that frequent the site.

"This is our snapshot in time,'' said Mark Cleveland, statewide management coordinator with the Scientific and Natural Area Program. The data collected during the bioblitz will provide baseline information to help monitor how a variety of plants and creatures are doing on the site over time.

The site is dominated by Minnesota River Valley gneiss outcrops. Prickly pear and brittle cactus thrive on the harsh, desert-like environment created by the granite mounds. They emerge like islands amidst a green landscape of oak savannah, native prairie and small wetlands.

Its is one of the few sites where it's still possible to appreciate the original landscape that was western Minnesota, although there is evidence of past disturbance. Some of the granite had been quarried, and left behind are a few piles of cut rock as well as water-filled pits.

The rock star of it all is the blue-lined skink. The site was originally acquired with the intent of protecting this rare reptile with the vibrant blue tail, Cleveland said. In Minnesota, this skink is found only in isolated areas of the upper Minnesota River Valley and the bluffs of Houston County in the state's southeast corner.

"It's probably our best site,'' said Leuenberger of the five-lined skink population found in the Swedes Forest Scientific and Natural Area. Leuenberger is with the DNR's ecological services, and the Minnesota Herpetological Society. She visits Swedes Forest twice a week during the warm season to monitor the skink population by checking the wood and tin covers she placed to attract them.

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Johnson and Valo found the plants they sought on both the outcrops and open prairie. Johnson is with the Minnesota DNR's ecological services. Valo is with Minnesota Seasons, which offers nature-based tours around the state.

Bioblitz participants Oien and Haag are members of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society and were making their first visit to the site. They devote many weekends to helping identify the species of dragonflies and damselflies to be found at various locations around the state, but said they could not help but be impressed by what they found at Swedes Forest. They notched a number of "county records'' by identifying species of these winged insect eaters that had never been officially documented in Redwood and Yellow Medicine counties.

The fact is there is not necessarily a well-documented record of species distribution or abundance in many areas of the state. Yellow Medicine County has only 11 species of spider known from the literature, Heins told the Tribune in an email. He wrote that he expects that nearly 400 species could actually be found in the county over time.

The goal for managing the Swedes Forest Scientific and Natural Area is to protect the native plant, animal and insect populations it holds, and that is a challenge, according to Cleveland and Bolduan.

Decades of fire suppression had made it possible for eastern red cedar to expand on the site and shade out many of the sun-loving prairie plants. An aggressive effort to remove the cedar has again opened up wide swaths of the area. The information collected during the bioblitz will help tell if native species are able to reclaim those areas, noted Cleveland and Bolduan.

Today there are also many non-native species competing with the natives. European buckthorn has been a difficult invader to control. It is being targeted with an ongoing removal campaign, Bolduan said.

He worries also about a long list of invasive grasses - such as reed canary - and non-native flowering plants that are gaining toeholds as well.

Despite these challenges, the bioblitz confirmed that Swedes Forest continues to hold diverse populations of native plants, insects and animals that play ecological roles far more important than many would imagine. Consider the lowly spiders sought by Heins. While many people shy from them, he points out that "they are our allies against many pest insects that can spread disease and cause crop damage.''

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And, he added, "(they) show an amazing variety of beautiful forms (once you get past the extra eyes and legs of course).''

A scientist's eye for beauty wasn't needed to appreciate the beauty of this site. "Amazing,'' is how Oien and members of the Dragonfly Society termed the landscape they discovered.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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