Happy 2017!

Happy 2017, nature lovers and River Bend friends! My name is Katie, and I am one of the four School Year Environmental Educators at your awesome local nature center. We have decided to become more active in the blog, and that means bringing you wonderful people cool information and facts about River Bend and nature in general! We will cover topics from trees and fungus to stars and survival, and much more, so keep an eye on this blog and our Facebook page for posts throughout the winter and spring!

In this introductory post, I am just going to give you some quick details about us 4 Naturalists, our passions, and fun facts!


From Left to Right: Kara, Stephanie, Elsa, and Katie!

Kara, our Education Program Specialist, loves turtles, ants, and skiing. She coordinates the Creciendo Juntos program and Waste Education programs for all 3rd and 4th graders in Rice County! She is always smiling and loves to chat about all things nature, especially turtles.

Stephanie is a STEM School Specialist, which also includes coordinating the many amazing field trips that local schools get to take to River Bend. Stephanie skis to work almost every day, and loves talking about the stars, geology, and just about anything about animals.

Elsa is our other STEM School Specialist, and half of her week is spent at the Cannon River STEM School, helping students and teachers alike incorporate nature into their daily studies. Elsa loves all kinds of bugs, and especially enjoys teaching about edible plants and how to survive in the woods!

And lastly, I am the Community Outreach Specialist, and my coordinating focus is on our Homeschool programs, Birthday Parties, our Animal Ambassadors, and Science Club. I love talking about animal behavior and habitats, growing plants, and citizen science!

Thank you so much for reading this blog, and we’ll see you next week!


Spring is Springing!

Spring is Springing!
One of my favorite things about living in Minnesota is that we get to have seasons. I like all the seasons for different reasons – fall for the colors of course, winter for snowshoeing, skiing across the snow and snow in general, summer for being able to just walk outside without a jacket on…I could keep going. But one of my favorite seasons (they’re all my favorite seasons) is spring. Every year I get excited by all that happens in the spring time! Here are just a few of my favorites:

Timberdoodle Dance Parties!
One of the earlier migratory birds that returns to Minnesota also knows some sweet dance moves! Timberdoodles, also known as American Woodcocks, return to the prairies and fields of River Bend and Minnesota in the spring to breed. Male timberdoodles put on an elaborate courtship display to attract females starting at dusk and continuing until the morning. The male starts out on the ground and walks in a circle, all while making a “peenting” call that can be heard across the prairie. After a sufficient number of turns around his dance floor, he suddenly takes off high into the sky and performs some complicated aerial acrobatics and flight maneuvers, ending with a steep dive back to the ground. Then the dance begins again!

Maple Syrup
One of my favorite smells of the whole year is maple sap boiling down into syrup! Maple sap in the spring is a mostly watery substance with a little tiny bit of sugar – around 98% water and 2% sugar. Usually, temperatures below freezing at night followed by above freezing temperatures during the day cause maple sap to flow through the sapwood of trees in the maple family. The sap flowing through the tree helps the trees get ready for spring. On trees that are large enough, we can collect some of that sap by tapping into the sapwood of the tree. This year at River Bend we had just over 60 trees tapped during the month of March. We had some days of great sap flowing weather, and others of not so good sap flowing weather. But we still collected hundreds of gallons of sap that we spent multiple weeks boiling in our evaporator. As the sap boils, the water leaves as sweet smelling steam, and the sugars stay behind, concentrating the solution eventually into delicious maple syrup!

Making maple syrup

Evaporating maple sap into delicious maple syrup!

Woodland Wildflowers
Once the snow melts, small green leaves begin to appear on the forest floor, hinting at the show that will come later. After awhile and lots of hunting and scanning the ground, a small flower or two may appear. The next day, maybe another flower or two appears, and then all of a sudden one day, flowers are everywhere! This flower show has many players that take turns blooming throughout the season. Already at River Bend, we have been seeing False Rue Anemone, Sharp Lobed Hepatica and Spring Beauty blooming, and lots and lots of baby trout lily leaves, and some trout lilies blooming too! Many woodland wildflowers take advantage of the full sunlight reaching the forest floor at the beginning of spring and bloom before the deciduous trees grow their leaves. Some flowers bloom for a week or two, others for a month or more, but by summer most woodland flowers have had their turn. Enjoy them while they’re here!

White Trout Lily

White Trout Lily blooming at River Bend (Erythronium albidum)

A long history of crazy cold adventures…

Throughout the most recent cold snap, I have watched as countless cross country skiers have braved the winter chill. I strapped on my first pair of skis about one year ago while living on the North Shore. I instantly took a liking to it despite some undignified crash landings. I hadn’t really paid much attention to skiing before last year, and only now have I begun to recognize how much it means to people across Minnesota. Of course, I knew that our passion for skiing can be attributed to our strong Scandinavian heritage, but what role has skiing played beyond recreation? The answers are remarkable.

Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence about the exact origin of Nordic skiing, although current research shows that the first skis may have been developed as far back as 10,000 years ago in the Lake Baikal region of Central Asia. The oldest Scandinavian ski remains date back approximately 4,500 years. For reference, that means skis were being used in Scandinavia before the development of alphabetic writing (1800 B.C.) the domestication of the horse (2000 B.C.), and the completion of Stonehenge (2200 B.C.).


Depiction of the Norse god Ullr from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript

Skis were originally used as a mode of transportation, especially when hunting. They did not look anything like the composite skis we see today. In fact, they weren’t even the same length! One ski was short and acted as the “kick” ski, while the other longer ski (up to 15 feet long) was used to glide over the snow. Early skiers also used a single pole. Why you ask? To carry their bow! Early Norwegian hunters were incredibly skilled at hunting moose and elk while on skis. In 1274, the practice of hunting on skis had to be limited to prevent the elk herds from being totally wiped out.

This is only the tip of the pole on skiing’s long history. What lessons can we learn from all of this? For one, we humans are hardy creatures! We may no longer be in the depths of negative high temperatures for now, but rest assured, they will return yet again. Next time, we will be ready with skis on our feet and poles in hand. See you on the trails!

Stubbornly Optimistic

Having spent two years on the North Shore, surrounded by mostly aspens, birches, and evergreens, I was delighted to find that River Bend was full of oak trees. I love all trees, but oaks are among my favorite. One reason I enjoy them is that they stubbornly cling onto their leaves throughout the winter, providing a little splash of color (even if it is mostly brown) in an otherwise drab and naked winter canopy.

But why do oak trees hang onto their leaves? Don’t they know that they’re deciduous trees, and are supposed to lose leaves in the fall? I set out to investigate this mystery.

I discovered that oak trees, along with beech, ironwood, musclewood, and witch hazel trees, have adapted to be somewhere in between evergreen and deciduous trees on the evolutionary scale . Evergreens, like pines and spruces, are the oldest type of tree. They retain green needles all year long so that they can photosynthesize year-round. However, it’s a lot of work to maintain needles, which are subject to frost damage and water loss, and so deciduous trees evolved to combat these issues. They also gained the advantage of having broad leaves to increase their photosynthetic ability in the summer, when the most sunlight is available. In the fall, they remove the green chlorophyll out of the leaves (hence the color change) and drop them when there isn’t enough light to make photosynthesis worth the energy expense.

Most broadleaf deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall voluntarily. When the weather shifts and the trees deem it a proper time (I’m not privy to the trees’ exact process, but it involves having less daylight), they release enzymes into their twigs, and an abscission layer forms between the leaf petiole and the twig, severing the leaf.

Oak trees and their counterparts tried for the best of both strategies. They don’t photosynthesize year-round like evergreens (except for the live oak and tan oak in the south, which are unique broadleaf evergreens), but they don’t drop their leaves either. This leaf retention is called marcescence.

Scientists have multiple theories as to why oak tree marcescence occurs. For one, marcescence is more common on younger trees or on the lower branches of an old tree. It is possible that the leaves protect the twigs and buds from snow and frost. They may also provide protection from browsing because the buds are hidden from deer. However, a study in Denmark discovered that, when offered a marcescent oak twig compared to a marcescent beech twig, deer preferred the oak, probably due to the leaves’ low lignin content, which is hard to digest. So perhaps oaks don’t rely on their leaves to deter animals as much as other marcescent trees.


Marcescent leaves may protect oak buds from frost.

Another thought is that oaks are preparing for spring. The leaves may help trap more snow in their branches, and when it melts in the spring, all the melt water will end up directly under the tree, giving it a boost of moisture. In addition, when the oaks finally do drop their leaves in the spring, the decomposition of those leaves may provide nutrients at a key time, allowing the tree to outcompete others even in poor soil.

Whatever their reason, oaks and other marcescent trees are a symbol of determination in the face of howling winter winds. They remind us that if we optimistically hold on through the winter, spring will come again.


Northern Woodlands Magazine:


Penn State Extension:


Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂


Drunken Birds

As part of the festive past  few weeks I’ve noticed some animals also getting in the “holiday” spirit. By the time we have experienced a freeze and thaw cycle, many of the crab apples or other berries that were left on the trees have fermented. Many of us are a little too aware of the consequences from consuming fermented plant matter and actually a bird’s reactions to consuming fermented fruits are very similar to human’s-they become intoxicated. One of my early college intoxication experiences happened with a tree…… and Cedar Waxwings! While I was walking home from class (sober I might add; I was a good student!)  I noticed several crab apple trees full of Cedar Waxwings. I wasn’t as familiar with my bird species or bird behavior so I attempted to get a little closer and the birds didn’t take off. So I got a little closer and still nothing. Eventually I ended up so close that I reached out and touched one of the birds that was perched on a low branch. The little Cedar Waxwing just cocked its head and blinked at me a few times.  I may have been a first year biology student but I knew enough to know that that was weird!

As it turned out those strange Cedar Waxwings had gone a little overboard with the fermented crab apples and were just really really drunk. This last week I have noticed several species of birds hanging out in the trees munching on berries including American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and even a Ring-Necked Pheasant!


If you look really closely you can see a few tiny Black-Capped Chickadees eating the crab apples right outside of the Interpretative Center!

This is the closest thing I’ve seen to a Partridge in a Pear tree-A pheasant in a High Bush Cranberry!

So maybe the phrase “party animal” isn’t so far fetched! Happy 2015  and remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Wait, what month is it??

This week was a little bit disappointing…. IT WAS TOO WARM! With an average temperature of 29⁰ it was practically tropical outside. Just to give you a little comparison, last year the average temperature for the 2nd week of December was 10⁰. Regardless of the yucky warm weather I still saw some pretty amazing things and those things were owls!

Now if you’re familiar with River Bend’s programming you know that we have an OWLS (Older Wiser Livelier Seniors) program once a month and although I would also consider them full of wisdom I am talking about the feathered, silent, nocturnal type of creature.

One of our extremely amazing River Bend volunteers also happens to be an amazing birder and he took us out for an owl search and we had really good luck! We found a barred owl and a great horned owl! We accidentally scared both of them from their perches but it was still pretty awesome!

One of the coolest things about discovering where an owl perches is what the owls leave behind…their pellets!

These are two owl pellets found at River Bend. The one on the left came from a barred owl and the one on the right is a long-eared owl. Long-eared owls have a much darker, dense, and elongated pellet

So keep looking for that winter wildlife! You might find something surprising! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Weight Gain

On Monday December 1st if you had exposed skin for more than 12 minutes outside you were susceptible to frostbite! Luckily, I had very minimal skin exposed and just got a little frosty!!

Seasonal staff member Emily’s frosty eyelashes after her bike ride at River Bend

What a wonderful and perfectly Minnesotan week! Our average temperature was 17 ° but the beginning of the week had a -20° wind-chill! Gotta love Minnesota!

I got to experience the balmy -20° weather for the first time in a long time and with that cold snap I was forced to adapt! The first adaptation I made was weight gain. This was the first week that I wore ALL of my winter clothing. Which means wool socks, heavy snow boots, snow pants, winter jacket, neck gator, mittens (with hand warmers), and my rabbit fur-“can’t hear a thing” hat. I was not prepared for the amount of mass I put on when I am fully geared up for the winter. By the time I had made it to the Interpretive Center, I was tired! This got me thinking about the creatures living at River Bend that aren’t able to take off their heavy winter coats until spring.

Most humans are pretty good about knowing when to put on their winter coats (with the exception of middle schoolers who would rather be cold than “uncool”) but what triggers an animal to start growing its winter coat?? The answer is sunlight. Animals living in cold winter climates have evolved to grow thicker coats as the amount of daylight decreases. Many people would think that they are developing a thinker coat as a result from the dropping temperatures but as Minnesotans are well aware, our weather is very unpredictable. The development of a winter coat is based on sunlight rather than temperature so that the animals will be ready for any winter weather that gets thrown at us!

So put on some layers, head outside, and get to know Minnesota in all its snowy, cold glory! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Amber Brossard is the Education Coordinator for River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Snow Stories

November 15, 2014

One of the views exclusive to winter mornings

Another view of the prairie and woods in the distance. Notice the sparking snow 🙂

Spending time outside is an essential part to most people’s well-being. I am lucky in the fact that my job consists of daily outside time but I wanted more so I started walking to work. My 25 minute walk is not only a great way to start the day but it also provides me with the opportunity to see nature at its most incredible moments. I have been contemplating starting a blog to share my experiences with the community for several months but for me facing the elements on a daily basis is much less intimidating than committing myself to sitting at a computer indoors once a week.

This week’s walk contained several new experiences.  With an average weekly low of 10⁰ the biggest change from last week is the snow and single digits temperatures.  IT WAS GREAT!! Snow is something we really take advantage of and tend to complain about but for the handful of us that have grown to appreciate and accept Minnesota for its longest season we know that winter is something to be treasured. Besides the breathtaking beauty (and cold) that comes with winter, there is also what I like to call snow stories.

Animals aren’t able to communicate in the way humans can but their tracks easily tell stories.  Snow stories tell you a little bit about what the animals are up to when we are spending our time drinking hot cocoa and sitting under blankets. This week I saw one of my favorite snow stories: The bird and the mouse.

A little rodent highway right into their hole

Another well traveled mouse path into a hole. Mice and other small rodents will spend a lot of their time digging tunnels under the snow. This protects them and also helps keep them warm.

Tunnels under the snow can’t always protect the mice. Many predatory birds (such as owls) have an excellent sense of hearing and can detect their next meal from under the snow! That is exactly what happened here. You can see the marks from the bird’s wings and the area that the mouse was grabbed from. My favorite type of snow story 🙂

Please take some time to admire this underappreciated season! Bundle up, bring a warm drink and take a little time to discover (or make) your own snow stories! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Amber Brossard is the Education Program Specialist for River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

The NEW Outdoor Adventures Program

By Garrett IMG_6382Genereux, Outdoor Adventures Coordinator

Summer is getting closer and closer every day, and this means that we are getting closer and closer to the start of Outdoor Adventures programming here at River Bend. The Outdoor Adventures Program (OAP) is a new and exciting area of programming that seeks to engage people in the outdoors through outdoor recreation activities. The OAP is a resource for beginners and experts alike. We will be offering programs in camping, climbing, slacklining, archery, fly fishing, and canoeing. The OAP will also be renting out gear related to those activities.

Our programs are designed for participants with a range of experience. If you or your family has never tried a specific activity then we will do our best to make sure that you have an exciting and enjoyable first experience. Even if you have some understanding of an activity, you are still going to have an awesome time with us.camping

Our camping program takes place here at the nature center. Learn how to set up a tent and talk about some basic camp craft. After setting up camp, cook a delicious meal that is easy to make while camping. Of course we’ll roast s’mores over a relaxing campfire before we hit the sack. In the morning we will have an awesome breakfast before we break camp. The food, tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are provided.

Our climbing program is the perfect opportunity for you and your family to try outdoor rock climbing in a safe and fun environment. Staff will provide basic climbing instruction and will belay you as you reach for the top! Our climbing programs take place at Barn Bluff Park in Red Wing, MN. The climbs are typically about 40 feet in length and on a top-rope setup. Participants will mYoung Man Rock Climbingeet us there in the parking lot and we will get you on the rock! Climbing shoes, harness, and helmet will be provided. We will also be offering climbing programs that are for adults only.

Slacklining is a relatively new sport that involves walking on a length of webbing that is stretched between two fixed objects. For our programs experience does not matter! Come join us and we’ll give you tips and tricks of how to walk on a slackline. It is a great way to work on balance and core strength. There will be plenty of time to practice and have a blast on the lines.

Come try the challenge of shooting a bow and arrow with the archery program. Staff will give instruction on shooting technique and safety. The bows we will be usarcherying are compound bows suitable for all sizes and strengths of archers. We will leave plenty of time to practice! Who knows, maybe you will become the next Legolas or Katniss! All necessary equipment is provided.

First the beautiful casting motion, then the effortless landing of the fly perfectly on the water. Ever wonder how people do it? Come to our fly fishing programs! We will start by going over some fly casting techniques and practice on dry land. If time allowsfly-fishing, we will head down to the river and see if we can lure any fish into biting. Fly rods, reels, and flies, are provided.

This is going to be an awesome, action-packed summer! I hope to see you out for one of our programs. We are going to have a great time!

For program dates, times, registration and more information, please check out the Outdoor Adventures Program website at www.rbnc.org/outdooradventures.

New Courses, 10K at River Bend’s Fun Run

Zach Hudson

By Zach Hudson, Intern Naturalist

As skiers begin to mourn the vanishing snow our thoughts at River Bend turn to maple trees and the production of maple syrup. In recent years, our maple syrup season has culminated with our Maple Syrup Fun Run 5K run and 1 mile walk event. This exciting gathering has become one of our fastest growing fundraisers, with over 200 participants last year. The year 2013 brings some exciting changes for the Maple Syrup Fun Run, with a new race distance and new courses, as well as real maple syrup for every participant.

Sumac Trail

Sumac trail on River Bend’s south side is part of the 10K course.

Walnut grove's run spectators

Walnut grove’s run spectators

As a runner myself I was especially excited about the prospect of creating new courses and adding a 10k distance to our event.  We decided early on to try to make our new 5k course slightly easier than in past years to make it more appealing to casual runners.  We quickly realized that you can’t make an easy course using River Bend’s trails, but I think what we came up with will be a fun course that should be doable for anyone.  Our 5k will leave from prairie pond and cross the prairie on raccoon to a crossing of Rustad Road.  From there the course will descend to the river along Cherry and Dairy Lane before returning to the road via Rabbit and Teepee Tonka.  Runners will cross the road and complete a rolling final kilometer overlooking upper pond before returning to raccoon to head back to the start/finish line.  A full map of the course is at this link: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/188158516

Dairy Lane Bridge

Dairy Lane Bridge looking to the south side of River Bend.

Since we made our 5k course mellower we decided to use the 10k to take full advantage of all of River Bend’s challenging terrain.  Much of the 5k course is included in the 10k, but with some added bite.  The course opens with a grueling climb up Maple to the walnut grove.  After following Walnut around to the paved section of Raccoon, racers will cross Rustad Road and descend to the railroad tracks via Cherry  and continue on Teepee Tonka to Dairy Lane.  Runners will then cross over the Straight River for a challenging climb to River Bend’s south entrance and a hilly run through the south side of the Nature Center.  After crossing back over the river runners will follow Rabbit under the railroad tracks and around to Arrowhead and Deer before rejoining the 5k course at Rustad Road.  The 10k concludes the same rolling finish stretch as the 5k.  The full course map is here:  http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/188171998

One-mile walk starting line

The starting line of the one-mile walk course.

In addition to our new running courses we have also moved our 1 mile walking route. We tried to create a walk that minimized overlap with the running courses while providing walkers with great scenery and views of the running courses. As we were developing the course we realized that moving the walk to the paved trails would make it more accessible to people with mobility issues or parents wanting to push strollers. The route also takes in some River Bend favorites such as Honor Point and Turtle Pond and offers views of the 5K course as the runners climb up the final hill. A map of that route is here: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/177012142.

Maple Syrup Fun Run

Runners coming over the prairie finish line in last year’s Maple Syrup Fun Run.

One sad byproduct of the Maple Syrup Fun Run’s rapid growth is that we have outgrown our capacity for serving pancakes at our annual Pancake Brunch out of Trailside Center. As a result the brunch will take a hiatus this year while we work at finding other facilities for the future. It is possible that a separate pancake event will be held at another time this spring. Since runners won’t get to sample maple syrup on their pancakes the day of the race, we have added sample bottles of Anderson’s Pure Maple Syrup to participant gifts. We are excited to welcome Anderson’s Maple Syrup and Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, RoadID as new sponsors of our event, along with returning sponsors District One Hospital and Reliance Bank. Thank you to our sponsors for helping us make our race possible!

Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup

Participants will get bottles of Anderson’s Pure Maple Syrup as part of their run gift.

Come join us at River Bend Nature Center to celebrate maple syrup and the coming of spring at our Maple Syrup Fun Run 10K/5K/1M. We are excited to see this event continue to grow and improve as River Bend moves into the future, we hope to see you there!

Zach Hudson is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact River Bend at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.