Growing up Monarch – 2

“Growing up Monarch” is an on-going segment in the River Bend blog that follows the lives of several monarch butterflies as they grow from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult. We’ll be updating with photos and fun facts and observations throughout the summer!


It’s been a week since we last looked at the monarchs that River Bend is raising, and a lot has happened in those seven days! In the life of a caterpillar, change happens quickly, and with just about a month to go from a tiny egg to a full-fledged butterfly, there’s no time to waste in putting on those growth spurts, and our resident royalty has been doing just that.

1The smallest of the three caterpillars remains a “1st instar”, though its larger cage mates have already molted. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Ever since day one, these larvae have been professional eating machines—spending most of their day chowing down on the provided milkweed leaves. You’ll recall from our last post that monarch larva feed exclusively on milkweed—refusing any other offered vegetation. They do, however, start their lives off with a slightly different meal: their own eggshell. And unfortunately, in some cases, the eggshells of other caterpillars. Such was the case for our River Bend monarchs.

Skin clings to the back of a newly molted 2nd instar caterpillar.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Last week we had a total of three caterpillars and one ready-to-hatch egg, but since then we’ve dropped by one, as one of the caterpillars made a meal out of the last egg before it could hatch. This cannibalistic behavior may be another reason for why female monarchs lay only one egg per plant, as the larvae appear to have no qualms about siblicide. With that being said, we now have a grand total of three healthy caterpillars, and all danger of competition between them has passed. Since then, they have continued to feed voraciously. They no longer eat in the characteristic circle pattern of newly hatched caterpillars, instead they now chew all the way through the leaves, creating small holes as they do so.

While nearly the same size, the caterpillar on the left is a recently molted 2nd instar, while the caterpillar on the right is still a 1st instar, preparing to molt—indicated by the dropped head capsule and the white silk holding it in place. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

With all that eating, it’s no surprise that they’ve already increased in size. As of Tuesday May 30th, one caterpillar had already molted into its 2nd instar stage, with another preparing to do so as well.

4Rearing its head may help this 3rd instar navigate its surroundings. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

The third caterpillar is slightly smaller, and took longer to be ready to molt its skin. This molting, or “ecdysis” as it’s referred to by scientists, will occur several times during the caterpillar stage and can be predicted by several behaviors as well as physical changes—the most obvious being a lack of appetite. Our caterpillars would stop eating and stop moving completely as they prepared to shed their skin. Prior to molting, the caterpillars will lay down a layer of silk that helps hold them in place.

5Upon completing its molt, the caterpillar’s new skin is soft and light colored—obvious in this photo as seen by its yellow head and legs. These parts will darken over the next few hours, but until then the larva is at its most vulnerable, similar to a crab without its shell. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

By Saturday, June 3rd, all three caterpillars had shed twice, and were officially “3rd instars”—the largest even preparing to molt again to become a 4th instar.

The smallest of the three caterpillars was once again the last to prepare to molt, though on Saturday it was in search of a location to do so as it roamed its habitat, occasionally rearing its head up—which may assist sensing its environment, as well as start loosening the older skin and head capsule.

Two third instar caterpillars, with the individual in the foreground preparing to molt. Note the dropped head capsule, with the newer, lighter colored skin above it. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

It takes caterpillars roughly two weeks to go from 1st instar to chrysalis, and our three caterpillars, having hatched on Friday, May 26th should be preparing to pupate late this upcoming weekend. They still have some growing to do however, and will continue feeding every day in order to do so.

“Frass happens”
This 3rd instar expelled some of its waste during observation. Caterpillar poop is known as “frass” in the scientific world, and this caterpillar displayed an odd behavior as it promptly turned around, and picked the frass up, moving it around several times before leaving it behind.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Today, Monday the 5th, all three caterpillars have shed their skin and are officially 4th instars. They have bold stripes along their bodies, large banded heads, and front antennae that droop down past their head capsules—all key characteristics of 4th instar caterpillars. Within the next few days they’ll shed again to become 5th instars, and then finally, they will shed their skin a final time in order to transform into a chrysalis.


unnamedA view of all three caterpillars as viewed on Monday, June 5th. All three are considered “4th instars” at this stage, despite the differences in size. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack


Want to learn more?

Stop by our interpretive center this weekend to talk to a naturalist and see the monarchs for yourself! The monarchs will be viewable  as follows:
Fri 8:00-4:30
Sat 9:00-4:30
Sun 9:00-2:00

Interested in getting more involved?

River Bend will be offering MLMP trainings to teach interested members of the community to become certified MLMP volunteers! Monitor at home or at River Bend, and help save this amazing insect from extinction.
Register online to attend the training scheduled for June 10th from 1:00-4:00pm.

For more information, see our website at:


Growing Up Monarch – 1

In 2014, monarch butterfly populations reached an all-time low—having declined approximately 90% in the last twenty two years. This sparked a Nation-wide effort to help preserve and protect the once common insect and its incredible 2000 mile migration. Now, studies have shown a potential rise in numbers, ending with the 2015-2016 annual overwintering count which reported the highest population since 2009. This increase in population was predicted by experts due to ideal weather conditions during the breeding months, as populations are widely effected by changing weather. For example, in 2002, a single storm killed an estimated 500 million monarchs. Statistics like this solidify the fact that monarchs need a very large population size in order to be resilient to threats. In other words, there must be a surplus of individuals in order for the species to endure.


In addition to weather, monarch butterflies face numerous threats to their overall survival, many of which involve humans. The true difficulty in protecting this species also lies with the fact that it spans across three countries and two distinct “sites”. Monarch butterflies require a breeding and feeding site as well as an overwintering site. In search of these sites, a monarch butterfly may travel from Canada through the United States to Mexico. This large expanse of land covered makes it difficult to protect the entire range. These two specific sites also present their own unique threats; for example, loss of milkweed due to new agricultural practices. Monarch butterflies go through a 3-5 generation cycle during the breeding season, and the caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. It has been shown that nearly half of the migrating monarchs are produced in the U.S. “corn belt”, and yet with new agricultural practices, the milkweed found in this region is being eradicated, particularly due to modified crops that are herbicide-tolerant, allowing for wide-spread use of chemicals that eliminate all other vegetation.

Even after surviving through the summer months, monarchs face a whole new set of challenges, including the actual act of migrating up to 2,000 miles (a daunting task, even when you’re not an insect that weights half a gram). Once at the wintering grounds, the butterflies rely entirely on the microclimate provided by the forests of central Mexico. Due to this unique need, monarch butterflies are at special risk throughout the winter. One of the largest threats is deforestation (both legal and illegal logging practices) which removes roosts, as well as threatens the delicate microclimate. However, the nature of how the monarchs overwinter is a risk in and of itself. The butterflies are concentrated into one small region which makes the entire population vulnerable to a single storm or any other disaster such as fire and disease. Ecotourism also poses a threat to the integrity of the winter refuge, along with many other pressures. In short, people compete with monarch butterflies, not only for space, but also for food and water, and the needs of the people who live in this region must be balanced with the needs of the butterflies. And while many of these difficulties may seem far away and difficult to manage, especially for those living in the Midwest, there are many ways that anyone can make a difference in protecting monarch butterflies. The first and potentially most impactful way you can make a difference is through education. Many people are still unaware of the plight of the monarch butterfly, and even more don’t fully understand the effects of their actions, such as removing milkweed or spraying herbicides/insecticides. For this reason, it is important to not only remain up to date on developing research, but also to educate others as well. This can be as simple as planting a native plant garden in your yard, participating in citizen science, or attending one of many monarch butterfly events throughout the nation. River Bend Nature Center will be hosting one such event on June 10th—a program offering community members a chance to become certified citizen scientists for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Program. During the course of the program, participants will learn details on monarch life history, including their migration, before heading outside to get hands-on experience in searching for monarchs and collecting data.

River Bend will also be playing host to several monarchs in the Interpretive Building as we watch them go through their incredible life cycle. Stop in to see them transform from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult, and finally, if you’re lucky, help us release them back into the wild!

Our current monarchs were laid on Tuesday, May 23rd. Adult female monarchs in Minnesota in late spring are most often “2nd generation” butterflies, meaning that they are the children of those individuals who overwintered in Mexico. They were hatched in the southern states and flew the remainder of the migration to the northern states and Canada where they breed, lay eggs, and die. This would make the eggs we have “3rd generation”, or the grandchildren of the butterflies in Mexico.

1 egg layingWhen laying their eggs, a female will cling to a leaf and bend her abdomen underneath so that the egg will be on the bottom side. This placement would potentially help moderate heat and moisture, and also reduce predation rates. The female will generally only lay one egg per plant in order to decrease competition between larva, but multiple eggs per plant are not unheard of if multiple females visit the same plant.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

2 egg
Monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. When the eggs are first laid, they’re often a creamy white, and will become more yellow in appearance as they age.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

The eggs are minuscule in size, and it takes a trained eye in order to spot them. However, they can be easily identified as monarchs by their pointed top and the distinct ridges that run vertically all around the egg.

It will take about four days for the eggs to be ready to hatch, though the process may be sped up or slowed down by temperatures. Colder temperatures will slow down the hatch rate, while warmer temperatures will speed it up.

3 egg
This photo, taken several days after the egg was laid, clearly shows the ridges that run up and down the outside of the shell, distinguishing it from other insect eggs as well as milkweed sap.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Three of our four eggs hatched on Friday, May 26th and the fourth is scheduled to hatch some time today.

4 eggs
These two eggs side by side allow a clear distinction in age to be seen. The egg on the right is several days old, but is not yet ready to hatch, while the egg on the left has become translucent and allows the viewer to see the black head capsule of the caterpillar inside. This change in appearance indicates that the caterpillar could be emerging anywhere between hours and minutes.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

5 egg
Another view of the egg preparing to hatch.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
River Bend’s last monarch egg shows signs of being ready to hatch today, and we are eagerly waiting for it to emerge. Meanwhile, the other three caterpillars have already completed their first meal (their own eggshells) and have moved on to feeding on the provided milkweed leaves. As a species, monarch larva feed EXCLUSIVELY on plants in the milkweed family. Pictured here is the plant “common milkweed” which can often be found growing along roadsides and in prairies.

6 larva
When monarchs first hatch, they are roughly the size of the egg they were in, and their coloration is vastly different than their older counterparts. While older larva will have the distinct black, yellow, and white banding, these younger caterpillars are light gray with minimal banding, and have a large, black head.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

After feeding on its eggshell, monarch caterpillars will immediately begin to feed on the milkweed plant they were laid on. These youngest larva are known as “1st instars”, indicating that they have not yet molted their skin. After feeding almost nonstop, they’ll be ready to molt in several days. River Bend’s caterpillars are all currently 1st instars.

7 circleFirst instar caterpillars will feed in a circle around themselves until they’re large enough to not be at risk of drowning in milkweed sap.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

As our caterpillars start eating for the first time, they feed in a very distinctive circular pattern. Many scientists believe that this is to decrease sap flow in the leaf. While the sap is toxic to almost every other animal species except the monarch, these tiny caterpillars could easily drown if sap were to start flowing out of the cuts they make as they feed. To prevent this, the caterpillars feed shallowly, and create a safe “island” for themselves.

Want to learn more?

Stop by our interpretive center any day during the week to talk to a naturalist and see the monarchs for yourself! The building hours are as follows:
Mon-Fri 8:00-4:30
Sat 9:00-4:30
Sun 9:00-2:00

Interested in getting more involved?

River Bend will be offering MLMP trainings to teach interested members of the community to become certified MLMP volunteers! Monitor at home or at River Bend, and help save this amazing insect from extinction.
Register online to attend the training scheduled for June 10th from 1:00-4:00pm.

For more information, see our website at:

All About Archery

With summer knocking on the door we at River Bend are getting excited to start our summer camp program season! One of my favorite camps last summer to teach and one of our most popular was our four whole-day camps Adventure is Out There! The kids in the camp get to do a wide variety of things like canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, fishing, zip-lining, low ropes courses, archery, and more! Archery is one of my favorite hobbies in this line up of activities and I loved teaching it to kids and adults over the last year of working at River Bend Nature Center. So below is a blog post to help all of you get pumped up for doing archery in our summer camps and to encourage you to sign up for these or pre-register for our basics of archery public program Saturday, June 17th from 10:30 am to 12:00 pm. Here is the link to the River Bend Public Programs page ( ) and the link to the summer camps page ( ). I even have included some tips at the bottom to help improve your archery skills or impress the instructors when you come to the programs. So read on to learn some of the cool history and things all about archery!


Adventure is Out There Summer Camp!

What is Archery?

Very briefly archery is using a bow to propel arrows toward something you aim at. Archery was traditionally used as a way to hunt animals for food. Later it was used as a weapon of combat, to fight and wage wars between opposing forces. Today it is still used for hunting but also as a recreational and competitive sport.


Parts of an Arrow 1) Arrowhead/Tip: point that pierces target 2) Shaft: body of the arrow 3) Feathers/Fletching: creates drag helping arrow spin and fly straight 4) Nock: opposite end where string rests and is pulled back


Parts of a Bow A) Limbs: upper and lower that the string is attached to B) Nocking Point: a knot where the arrow is attached under on the string C) String: attached to limbs is what is pulled back to send the arrow D) Grip: where your hand holds the bow E) Arrow Rest: where the arrow rests on the bow

Early History of Archery

The first records of archery date back to 10,000 to 9,000 B.C. and bows and arrows were made out of wood usually and the arrow had a stone tip. Bows and arrow artifacts eventually replaced the use of spears on every continent except Australia. Archery was used as a weapon for war throughout the world for thousands of years. Archers played a major role in armies and war strategy from classical civilizations like the Greeks all the way to the mid-late 1800’s; when their use as a weapon of war slowly came to an end as guns and other weapons became quicker to reload. The Romans owed much of their military superiority to their archers and even though the bow is no longer a weapon of choice for warfare it still makes appearances into the 19th and 20th centuries in smaller conflicts throughout the world.



Men getting ready to fire arrows using an English longbow.

Archery as a Sport

Archery was revived in the 1800’s as a competitive sport for men and women. Although the earliest Archery Societies began in the 1600’s and 1700’s in England with the oldest archery tournament still going today is the Ancient Scorton Arrow which was started in Yorkshire in 1673. The first Olympics to have archery was the summer Olympics in Paris in 1900 and this was the second Olympics held. In the 1920’s engineers started developing the modern recurve and compound bows making archery a more accessible sport. Additionally there is now a competition called the World Nomad Games that has different traditional archery skills for competitions. The World Nomad Games started in 2014 in Kyrgyzstan with mostly countries from central Asia competing and was again held in 2016 at same place and it looks like it will take place every 2 years with the 2018 location still to be determined. Look below for pictures from the competitions that involve some amazing archery skills!


A girl in traditional dress perform and impressive display at the World Nomad Games. Image by Viktor Drachev/TASS/Getty Images)


Hungarian Natalia Suarez Friedrichs participates in women’s archery at the World Nomad Games (RFE/RL)

Bow Hunting

Today archery is still used as a technique for hunting animals similar to its use in the centuries before although a more modified tool made of metals and plastics. In Minnesota you can hunt a variety of animals using a bow and arrows everything from deer and turkeys to carp and rabbits, the ones you may be more familiar with are the spring and fall turkey hunt and the fall deer hunt using bows. However, before you go out hunting it’s best to check the DNR hunting regulations book to make sure you are following the rules and to check out the DNR’s bow hunter education webpage if you are new to bow hunting or maybe looking to get you kids involved!

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Archery in Modern Culture

In the last 10 years archery has become popular in movies and tv shows in American culture. Mostly with super heroes like the Green Arrow on the TV show Arrow, Artemis on the TV show Young Justice, and Hawkeye in the Marvel Avengers movies. We also can’t forget about Merida from Brave and her awesome archery skills from horseback and Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books and movies. All are great examples of gifted archers in addition to hundreds of other who show that even in the movies and TV shows you don’t need super strength or speed to save the day. In fact you don’t even need arms to do archery check out Matt Stutzman aka the “Armless Archer” a real life person who shows that archery is an accessible activity for even the most unlikely people. I would even go as far to say he is a bit of a super hero since he originally took up archery in 2009 not to become a famous athlete but to help feed his family. In a typical American story he went from depressed, unemployed, and a stay at home dad and by putting in the effort to learn how to shoot with his feet to help provide for his family; he then took that same desire and determination to become a professional athlete and make a living doing archery! So I highly recommend to watch him compete at the next Paralympics, or maybe even the regular Olympics!


Matt Stutzman, 29, of Fairfield and formerly of Kalona (Iowa), is competing for the U.S. Paralympic team in next month’s Paralympics in London. Stutzman, who was born without arms, came within one point of breaking the world record in archery during the Paralympic trials in April. (Josie Hannes)

How to improve your archery skills!

  1. Practice. Practice. Practice. It cannot be expressed enough that the more you practice the better you become at something. In fact, there was a study done that found evidence that people who became experts at something only became experts after at least 10,000 hours of practice!
  2. Make sure you are shooting with your dominate eye. It will be much easier and your accuracy will improve much quicker when using the eye that is stronger.
  3. Proper form will increase your accuracy and power. So before you shoot make sure your feet are a little less than shoulder length apart and perpendicular to the target your hip should be pointing at the target. Also you should be using your back muscles to pull with equal force on the bow string to the pressure you put on the bow to help the arrow fly straight and smooth.
  4. To improve your aiming there is a lot of advice out there. So here is one for erring on the side of caution before even lifting your bow look at your target and then don’t focus on what you are aiming for until fully drawn and then only give yourself 3 to 5 seconds to aim before releasing the arrow to help prevent over aiming.
  5. Follow through is where a good archer can become a great archer. By follow through we mean keeping your eye on the target and holding your stance until the arrow has hit the target to help create muscle memory and prevent you from dropping the bow too soon.
  6. Lastly take breaks and know when to quit. Practicing archery is only beneficial as long as you have good form and the strength to help create muscle memory. So know when you are done for the day to rest up for the next practice.

Adventure is Out There Summer Camp

Wild Kids? Kids in the Wild!



The exciting entrance to Kids in the Wild

Every group of students we have at River Bend walks by Kids in the Wild, looks down at the valley full of obstacles and awesome shelters and says: “Teacher, can we go down there and explore?”


A bench overlooking Kids in the Wild

This natural play-scape at River Bend Nature Center is the perfect place for kids of all ages (even the ones who are commonly referred to as adults) to safely explore, play, and have fun in nature. It is located between Owl and Oak trails, easily accessible from the interpretive center.  The entrance is marked by a wooden arch with decorative vines. The arch leads to stairs that help you get down the steep hill. If you have a stroller or wagon, the south Owl hill leads right to the backside of the play area, bypassing the stone steps.  There is a bench and a picnic table in the play area as well for those who would rather sit back, relax, and supervise the fun.

What is the best options for clothing?

Tucked away from the sun, it’s a nice place to hang out and stay cool on a hot summer day while still enjoying nature.  Be sure to wear the right clothing though, so that way you can ward off the mosquitoes; long sleeves and long pants are ideal. Bring some bug spray as well to help. The Off! mosquito fan works great to add some additional defense.  Make sure you also wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, because it can get muddy in there, but that is half of the fun! Closed-toe shoes are the best option for shoes as they are the safest in the wild. If you get too muddy or dirty, feel free to come up to the interpretive center and use the hose on the side of the building to rinse that mud off!


So how do we use Kids in the Wild? What are the best activities to do?

1. Shelter Building

Pretend you are lost in the middle of the woods and you have 10 minutes until the storm hits. What is the first thing you should do? Build a shelter to keep you dry. At River Bend, our phrase to remember what materials to collect is “Dead and Down.” Remember that its a public space, so be respectful of other shelters in hopes that others will be respectful of yours. Also, don’t forget to leave no trace and clean up after yourself.

unnamed (1)

Shelter building!

2. Games

Flash flood: When someone yells flash flood, participants have 10 seconds to find a place where they can get their feet off of the ground (to stay safe from the flood). Students love this game because they get to climb trees, rocks, logs, etc.

Hide and Seek: A basic game, one person tries to find everyone else who is hiding. Hide behind trees, in shelters, or somewhere else that will be tricky to spot you

Camouflage: Similar to hide and seek, one person (the predator) closes their eyes and lets everyone else (the prey) hide. After 10 seconds the predator opens their eyes but stays in place. Anyone they can see is eaten, so they are out. After they call out who they can see, the predator yells out “Camouflage” and the first person to tag the predator wins.  The predator should always stay in the same place.  The winner becomes the new predator.

3. Stream Play

Build a dam or try to divert the stream. There is a natural spring at the top of the hill that flows down the valley; it is what has been creating the valley for the last couple million years. There are plenty of “dead and down” sticks or other treasures that are great for creating a dam. Explore what happens down stream when you try to create a dam. This is a great example and scale model of what happens on larger rivers when humans build a dam; playing and hands-on-learning combined. Make sure that when you are done, you take apart your dam and leave no trace.


Lots of visitors have tried to divert the stream and build dams.

4. Enjoying nature

Maybe you would rather sit by the side and just enjoy the sounds of nature. Many animals visit kids in the wild. The quieter you sit, the better chances you have of seeing some wild life. Birds and squirrels are the most frequent visitors to the area, and the most fun to watch. Take some time to meditate, relax, and take in the natural beauty surrounding you.

Baby Animals

Written by Stephanie Rathsack, Environmental Educator


A sure sign of spring: a Robin’s egg! Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

All around River Bend, signs of spring have been popping up—trees are leafing out, spring flowers are in full bloom, frogs are calling, and the next generation of many species are being born. With these new little additions to the woods, fields, and ponds however come another sign of spring: daily phone calls of concerned citizens wondering what to do about the baby -insert species here- they found injured or abandoned. This blog post will focus on the most common animal babies around Faribault, and what you should do if you happen to find one of them while out enjoying the beautiful weather.

  1. Turtles
    Common scenarios:
    Finding a mother turtle laying eggs in a less-than-ideal location
    Solution: Do not disturb the mother turtle while she is laying eggs, let her complete the entire process, including burying the eggs herself. This is a natural process that should not be interrupted. If the eggs are laid in a location that could be dangerous for the hatchlings, the best solution is to fence off the nest site with orange flagging and signs so that it can be avoided and the eggs will not be disturbed. If the nest is in a location that is scheduled to be dug out (such as a construction site) the nest may be carefully dug out by hand and relocated as close as possible. Keep note of how deep the nest is, how much sun it receives, and what type of soil it is, as all of these factors may affect the ability of the eggs to properly incubate and hatch.
    B. A baby turtle (hatchling) is crossing the road!
    Solution: Stop your vehicle if safe to do so, and alert others of the crossing turtle. No matter the species, all baby turtles will be walking instinctively towards water, so if you do attempt to help the turtle along, be sure to carry it to the side of the road it is trying to get to. If you place the turtle on the other side, it will merely attempt to cross the road again. Do not lift turtles by their legs or tails, but carefully by the back of the shell. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling.
  2. Deer
    Common scenarios:
    Finding a baby deer (fawn) lying on the ground without its mother
    Solution: Leave it alone. Do not approach the fawn or attempt to move it. Mother deer leave their young alone in order to protect them from predators. A fawn’s coloring allows it to blend in, and they will remain perfectly still no matter how close you get in order to keep blending in. They also lack any scent, which keeps predators from smelling out their location. If you approach, you will create a trail that predators can follow. Any fawn that you see lying down on the ground alone is doing exactly what it needs to do to survive.
  3. Rabbits

Common scenarios:
A. Nest of rabbit babies (kits) found in yards and gardens with no mother in sight
Solution: Leave them alone. Almost every baby rabbit found alone, is not abandoned at all, but is simply waiting for its mother to return. Female rabbits only nurse their young for a few minutes every day, usually under cover of darkness. For the majority of the day, they will stay far away from the nest in order to reduce the chance of predators finding it.

  1. Rescued from a pet dog or cat
    Solution: There are times when pets can cause havoc for wildlife. The best solution for this scenario is prevention, namely by keeping all cats indoors and by always having your dog on leash when outside. If you do find an injured rabbit, the best thing to do is bring it to a wildlife rehab center.
    C. A baby bunny is hopping around alone
    Solution: Leave it alone, do not attempt to catch it. Any young rabbit that is hopping around is old enough to fend for itself and is already weaned from its mother.
  2. Squirrels
    Common scenarios:
    A tree has fallen over, and there was a nest of squirrels inside
    Solution: Only move the nest if absolutely necessary to do so. Watch for signs of the mother returning to nurse her young. If the mother returns, she will move the babies to a new location. If the mother does not return, be sure the site is left alone, and that there’s nothing preventing her from returning. If the female still doesn’t return, collect the young and transport in a small dark container to a wildlife rehab center.
    B. Finding a baby squirrel on the ground, alone
    Solution: Check for signs of a nest nearby. If possible, return the squirrel to its nest and leave the area to avoid scaring the adults away. If the baby squirrel is in a dangerous location, carefully move it out of danger, but not so far that the mother won’t be able to find it.
  3. Songbirds/waterfowl
    Common scenarios:
    Fallen nest
    Solution: Try to replace the nest back where it came from. If unable to reconstruct the nest, use strawberry containers, or another small basket to create a new one and secure it firmly before placing eggs/nestlings back inside. Immediately leave the location, but watch for returning parents.
    B. “Abandoned” baby bird
    Solution: If you find a baby bird on the ground, it may have fallen from its nest. Take a look around so see if you can locate the nest, and place the baby back inside. If you cannot locate the nest, watch from a distance, as the mother may still return, but move the chick if it is in a dangerous location. Keep in mind that birds have a poor sense of smell, and that the chick will not be instantly abandoned if you touch it. If there’s no sign of an adult returning for the chick, bring it in to a wildlife rehab center.


General information:

Most baby animals that are found by humans have not been abandoned by their parents. The best thing to do in almost every situation is to leave the animal where you find it. Do not attempt to move or help them unless necessary to do so.  Do not attempt to raise the animal yourself either, as this can be dangerous for you, and the animal as well. Animals that are raised outside their natural habitat require immense work and most often suffer from improper care.

River Bend Nature Center is not equipped to take in animals of any kind, and will be unable to accept any that are brought in. Please refer to the above guidelines if you find a baby animal in the wild. If the animal is injured or must be moved, they can be taken to the wildlife rehab center:

9am-8pm M-F
9am-6pm Sat/Sun


Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota
2530 Dale St. N. Roseville



Taxidermy: Tools & Techniques

unnamed ggl

Last Saturday, about a dozen people filed into River Bend Nature Center to learn an ancient art—taxidermy.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

For centuries, people have developed ways in which to preserve animals: however, whether you’re doing taxidermy  to learn a new skill, to show off a trophy, or record scientific data, specific steps must be taken in order for the specimen to remain in life-like condition. This blog post is dedicated to outlining several common techniques used both in the past and the present to preserve animals.

Taxidermy may be performed on all vertebrate species, including all mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. And though the steps taken to preserve these different species varies slightly, the tools required are all fairly similar, and depending on your skill level and the purpose of the mount, can be quite easy to procure. Any project will require at the very least, the following items:

  • Protective Equipment (Gloves, safety glasses, etc), if done correctly taxidermy is fairly clean, but steps should still be taken to keep yourself safe
  • Sharp scissors or scalpel
  • Medical probe
  • Pins
  • Cardboard or foam
  • Buckets/plastic containers
  • A drying agent such as borax or cornmeal OR a tanning agent
  • Needle & thread

These are the basic supplies that will be required for almost any type of mount you are attempting, but as different animals and different techniques will vary, so will the materials required. As you gain experience, you may also find that you prefer specific brands, or specific tools over others.

Taxidermy is a mix of science and art that has been developed since the mid-1700s, and possibly even earlier. And though the number of methods and purposes are limited only by imagination, this blog post will cover those that are considered “tried and true” by taxidermy specialists, and are by far the most common.

  1. Mounted skin on manikin

This is the most common method of preserving a trophy animal and is what you’d expect for such projects as mounting deer heads, or creating life-size mounts of bears, cougars, and other large animals. In short, the animal must be skinned (the skin preserved by either drying or tanning) and then placed over a sculpted manikin of the specific species. These manikins are painstakingly created by wildlife experts in order to be as anatomically accurate as possible, but once created, they can then be mass produced. In the early years of taxidermy this would not have been possible, and even today there are some taxidermists who choose to sculpt their own models (in order to use the specific animal as a comparison) or create a model using the Victorian-era method of winding the body shape out of string as depicted in this image of William Hornaday.


William Hornaday. the father of modern taxidermy, creating a lion mannequin by winding string around a wood base.

Once the skin is placed over the manikin, finishing touches must be made, such as repairing shrunken sections, restoring natural colors, placing eyes and teeth, etc.

But like any taxidermy method, the process will vary by specimen, the taxidermist’s skill, and materials available and a taxidermist may even use multiple methods on the same specimen to achieve the best results.

2. Preserving Skulls and Bones

Depending on the purpose for preserving the animal, the most interesting piece might actually be inside—ie, bones, skulls, and teeth. The methods for preserving these parts are in some ways much easier than attempting to preserve other softer parts (bone is far more forgiving than delicate skin, hair, or feathers), but care must still be taken to avoid damaging them. The first step in this method, is to skin the animal (the technique will vary depending on whether you would also like to preserve the skin in addition to the bones), and then to de-flesh it. There are many ways in which to clean the bones of flesh, including: burying in the soil, macerating in water, treatment with chemicals, exposing to flesh-eating insects/bacteria, boiling, or by hand. No one of these techniques will work one hundred percent of the time for every specimen, and often, best results come from using a combination of several. But regardless of the methods used, once the skull/bones have been cleaned of all flesh, they will need to be dried thoroughly before being whitened by letting it soak in hydrogen peroxide (never bleach!) and sprayed with a clear acrylic to protect the surface from dirt and oils.

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The steps of cleaning a skull as performed on a red fox skull. In this case, de-fleshing was performed with a combination of by-hand removal, and simmering in hot water.
Photo and taxidermy credit: Stephanie Rathsack

3. Tanning Pelts

One of the earliest methods of preserving an animal: In 19th century England, there was an increased demand for leather, which meant tanning (turning an animal’s skin into preserved leather) became commonplace. The methods for doing so have changed throughout the years (you won’t find many taxidermists relying on pig or horse brains to turn skins into leather anymore), but the practice is still variable, and depending on your experience and abilities, there are several different methods:

  • Tree Bark
  • Brain (both brain and bark are more natural, but very difficult),
  • Alcohol/turpentine
  • Salt/alum
  • Purchasing a ready-made tanning solution

By far, the easiest and most reliable method is purchasing a tanning solution, but taxidermists have had great success with all of the above methods and more. Basically, the tanning solution is meant to preserve the hide and prevent it from decomposing.

To prepare a hide for tanning, the animal must be skinned, either as a flat cape (think bear skin rug) or a tube (think hand-puppet), and all flesh/fat must be removed. The use of a sharp knife or de-flesher is a must, and great care must be taken to avoid puncturing the skin itself. It is also essential that the hide is de-fleshed quickly before bacteria have a chance to grow, especially if you intend to keep the fur on, rather than making leather.

Once all the flesh is removed, the hide has to be completely dried out. The easiest way to do this is to salt it by placing a generous layer of non-iodized salt over the flesh side of the hide, replacing frequently until all moisture has been drawn out. At this point, you would apply a lime solution to remove the hair if your goal is to make leather, but this step may be skipped otherwise. Afterwards, the hide must be ‘’thinned’, which means more scraping with the knife or de-flesher to make an even and easier to manage skin, removing all pieces that were missed the first time it was fleshed. Once the hide is thinned, it must be soaked in an acidic solution (pH of 2 or lower), then neutralized completely before the tan is applied. Depending on the method of tanning to be used, the process will vary, but generally the hide must be either soaked in the solution, or it must be brushed on in an even coating for several days. Once the hide is tanned, it is considered a stable hide and can be left indefinitely. But to finish the process, the hide must be ‘’broken’’, in which the fibers in the leather are pulled apart, leaving it soft and flexible. There are machines available for this process, but firmly stretching the hide or scraping it works well for small hides, and takes relatively little time. Once finished, the leather will have a lighter white appearance, and will remain pliable.

4. Study Skins


This final method is almost entirely used by museums and collectors interested in preserving as much scientific data on the specimen as possible, while also saving space. Generally used for birds and small mammals, the specimens are worked into a round tube shape in order to more easily fit side by side in drawers, although they can be worked into other shapes as well.

In order to perform this technique, the animal must first be skinned, by creating a small vertical ventral incision and then carefully teasing the hide away. If done correctly, the casing containing the internal organs will remain in one piece and thus keep the entire process relatively clean. If the visceral mass is punctured, or bleeding occurs, you may use a drying agent such as borax to keep your work station clean as well as protect the skin from staining. Once the hide has been removed, it can either be pinned flat as a ‘’rug’’, or stuffed with medical cotton and sewed back together before being pinned into the desired shape. After the animal has been pinned, it must be left to dry for several weeks, up to several months depending on the size, though once dried it will remain fixed in this position.

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A participant in Saturday’s class works patiently to pose her mouse in just the right shape.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Over centuries of improvement and experimentation, taxidermy is an art and a science that has truly come into its own. Where once even the most skilled taxidermist struggled to preserve small animals, today both experts and amateurs alike can create beautiful and long-lasting specimens. It is a rewarding process, whether you’re looking to save a trophy, or simply to acquire a new skill. If you do plan to try taxidermy on your own, it is important to keep in mind that many species are protected under law, and possession of any parts of those species is illegal, regardless of how they were collected.

Patience pays off in taxidermy, as participants in Saturday’s class found out after their mice were completed in about three hours. 
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Interested in learning more or trying it out for yourself? River Bend Nature Center will potentially be offering more courses on taxidermy! Stay-tuned for announcements on our facebook page, website, and newsletter.

The Heroes of River Bend Nature Center Part 1: Early Heroes


“Share a Dream”

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Orwin Rustad sharing his knowledge with students on a hike


It now has been almost a year since I started working at River Bend Nature Center and over the last year I have learned a lot of the facts about the history of River Bend Nature Center. Information like when it was founded, when its first building was built, and the names of the people who helped make this Nature Center a reality. It wasn’t until my last blogpost about quiet places at River Bend Nature Center seeing just how many plaques by trees and benches we have honoring people, which made me realize just how many people helped create this place we all love so very much. I began to wonder more about the people who worked to make this place a reality. What were they like? What dreams did they first have for this place when it was still old farm land? What things had we forgotten with time that the people who had come before us had done to make River Bend Nature Center?

Before white settlers the land was natural prairies and forests, and the Wahpekutey band of the Dakota lived here in Faribault with some possibly have been living where Rustad Road is today. Then after Alexander Faribault created a town here and the Dakota were moved to a reservation as a result of the Treaty of Mendota in 1851 the land was divided up to farmers and one farmer sold his land to the state and the Faribault Regional Center was created. The residents of the state hospital farmed this land from the late 1800’s to the late 1960’s this farm land provided food for all their residents as well as some of the other state institutions in the surrounding area. Through the 1970s until it was founded in 1978-79 and in 1980 when the opening and dedication of River Bend Nature Center and the Trailside Center building happened is when the story and the dream of the land becoming an Environmental Learning or Nature Center really began and is still being written.

If you are interested in learning more about all the steps that happened between 1970 and 1980 to make River Bend Nature Center than I highly recommend you check out chapter thirty of Orwin Rustad’s book “A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota” the chapter is titled River Bend Nature Center Early History . This chapter is written by Kay Janky who was one of the early people along with Orwin Rustad and so many others who worked to make River Bend Nature Center possible. From this chapter I actually found the title of one of their earliest publications a brochure called “Share a Dream” that was created to help build support for creating a nature center in Faribault. I decided to use it for the title of this blog in part because after reading a lot of the bios and history of these early River Bend leaders you could see how they all shared a dream for this place and worked together to make it possible. Share a Dream seemed appropriate for both the past and now the present because as River Bend Nature moves to celebrate our 40th Anniversary year from 2018 to 2019 we have done surveys with the community there have been a lot of discussions with the staff and the Board of Directors about what River Bend is and what we hope it will continue to be and become in the future.

Our Executive Director, Breanna Wheeler, has talked about gathering more of the history of River Bend and the stories of all the people who helped make River Bend whether they were an early founder, staff, board member, volunteer, or people a part of the River Bend community who have a story to share. So I decided with this week being Earth Week and to celebrate Earth Day today that it is an appropriate time to start a series of posts remembering the people who have made this place River Bend Nature Center. My intention is that this will be an on-going series of blog posts as we find more history and more people who have been a part of the River Bend story because we don’t know every single person who has been a part of River Bend Nature Center right now. Kay Janky had a great quote from the book about this “To begin to list all those who gave significantly of their time and support would most assuredly mean I would miss an important person.” So we ask that you please share the stories you know about the people who helped make River Bend Nature Center with us so that we can share the history accurately on our next blog posts and throughout our 40th Anniversary celebration. We also would really appreciate contact information to be able to get a hold of them in the future. So let us begin this series by learning about some of the early heroes of River Bend Nature Center.


Orwin Rustad, founder, ribbon cutting ceremony in 1980

Orwin Rustad – “The Father of River Bend Nature Center”

Orwin Rustad had been a native of Faribault and had grown up outdoors. Even before graduating from high school he was fascinated by birds and got his master bird banding permit while still in high school and did bird banding for 40 years recording what birds migrated through Faribault. He then went on to get a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in biology from St. Olaf College in 1942 and then a Master’s degree in biology and science education from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and did further studies at Cornell University and Oslo University in Norway. He then went on to teach biology and filed biology collectively for 42 years between Breck High School, St. Olaf College, and Shattuck St. Mary’s and was also Shattuck’s Naturalist after his retirement in 1988. In fact he first tried to get a nature center on Shattuck’s campus before turning to the land he loved to hike on. He was one of earliest founders of River Bend and he spent hours hiking on the land when it was still a part of the Faribault Regional Center. Before there were any committees for the Faribault Bicentennial and Nature Center he led the Faribault Area Committee for Environmental Quality (FACE-Q) on nature hikes. FACE-Q then became the Faribault Naturalists Club and then the core of this group became the group of people who ran and were a part of the committees and campaigns to start River Bend Nature Center and then the Board after it was started. Although Orwin was not well known for being active in committees as Kay Janky states he helped share the dream as the first dreamer and visionary for what River Bend could be. “However, his dream, his influence, his knowledge, his perseverance, his foresight, his unswerving devotion to the dream of a nature center kept us going.” This quote was from Kay Janky in the chapter of Orwin Rustad’s book about River Bend Nature Center. It is because of this and how even after retiring he continued to lead students and adults alike on nature hikes that he became known as “The Father of River Bend Nature Center” and is why the road leading into River Bend Nature Center was named Rustad Road. Orwin  was fascinated by birds and plants and the recording of natural events which led to his book “A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota” and thousands of dollars from the proceeds from this book went into River Bend’s Educational Endowment fund. Orwin Rustad received over the years many different rewards and recognition in honor of all the work he did including the Cum Laude Society at Shattuck-St.Mary’s, the Service to Mankind Award from the Faribault Sertoma Club, the Bicentennial Hall of Fame Award from the City of Faribault, WCCO Good Neighbor Award, and the Meritorious Service Award from the Association of Interpretive Naturalists to name a few. He passed away July 6th, 2008 but his legacy lives on in much of what River Bend is and still does today and all the people it has affected and will affect.


Charlie Turnbull from a recent editorial about his book “The Lean-To Boys of Bigfork, Minnesota”

Charlie Turnbull – The Organizer

Charlie Turnbull was the former Executive Director of the Faribault Regional Center and a co-founder of River Bend Nature Center.  He helped acquire the land from the State where the Faribault Regional Center used to be to create River Bend Nature Center on it. As Kay Janky said he “used his political savvy and organizational ability to help spearhead the dream.” In addition to Orwin Rustad, Turnbull was also credited by Kay Janky as being one of the two people who really made River Bend Nature Center possible. Charlie was a local citizen leader in Faribault with a lot of influence that he used to help get River Bend created.  Charlie helped lobby the Minnesota Legislature for River Bend Nature Center.  He also was the first do serve as 1st Vice-President for River Bend Nature Center from 1979 to 1980 and then was elected President and served from 1981 to 1983. During his time as President Charlie along with Ron Osterbauer one of the early Executive Directors of River Bend started the Endowment Funds which to this day insures the continuation of River Bend Nature Center. Additionally it was partly due to increasing these funds that he helped grow the employed staff at River Bend Nature Center from a single Executive Director to also including a secretary and a naturalist. In addition to helping found River Bend he wrote the book “The Lean-To Boys of Bigfork, Minnesota” about deer hunting in Northern Minnesota. Charlie still is alive today and lives with his wife in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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Kay Janky

Janice Kay Janky – “The Heart of River Bend”

Janice Kay Janky who went by Kay Janky was according to fellow River Bend co-founder and Kay’s friend Pat Rice: “Kay was really the heart of River Bend. Orwin Rustad had the original vision for River Bend and he sought out other people to carry his vision forward.” Orwin Rustad had the vision but he sought out people to make this dream a reality and just like Turnbull, Janky was one of these visionaries whose constant work made River Bend a reality. She put in many hours lobbying the Minnesota Legislature along with Charlie Turnbull and Greg Carlson, and reaching out to the community working over the years on different committees and positions to start River Bend. She was known for doing all the little things in between to the monthly meetings that added up and made River Bend possible. Then when River Bend Nature Center was created she served as 2nd Vice-President for the first Officer Board alongside Greg Carlson and Charlie Turnbull.  She spent years into the 1980s first creating the volunteer naturalist program that is still around today and then creating some of the earliest curriculum at River Bend Nature Center for teaching the children of Faribault. She also was a part of the first cohort of volunteer naturalists at River Bend Nature Center. Her friend Pat Rice has commented on how Janky was such a natural when it came to working with children. “She had a good eye to learning for children, could get down to their level and that made her a natural for developing the curriculum.” said Pat Rice in letter about Kay Janky. This letter was written when River Bend was looking for more information about Kay Janky to dedicate a memorial for her. The memorial that was dedicated to honor Janky and all the work she had done at River Bend Nature Center is the Big Woods Amphitheater which became the Kay Janky Amphitheater.

Gregory Carlson – the Adventurer

He was originally from Illinois where he also got his Law Degree before moving up to Minneapolis and then Faribault to work for the Rice County Attorney’s Office and then soon after opened up his own practice. He originally developed a love for rivers on the Mississippi in his Illinois and then continued this love in the Faribault area with all its rivers which was part of what drew him to the area. Greg was a passionate environmentalist. He volunteered on many projects to better the environment and community and it was because of all the work he did over the years for the years that earned him the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota Conservation award. He was involved with creating River Bend Nature Center from the beginning by helping build community support and lobbying the Minnesota legislature. Greg was instrumental in the land acquisition from the State of Minnesota for the River Bend Nature Center working with Charlie Turnbull to make this happen.  He served on the different committees Pre-River Bend and the River Bend Board throughout its inception until he died on February 13th 2017. Greg was the first President of River Bend Nature Center and served as president many times after that as well as other roles over the years on the Board. In his first letter as president he addressed the future members explaining what the new board hoped River Bend would become what they were working on and invited them at the end of his letter to “Come Grow With Us. Share Our Dream.” During his tenure as president he used his legal background to help create the bylaws, contracts, and handle other legal problems. He loved exploring the property at River Bend Nature Center and alongside Orwin Rustad and Charlie Turnbull helped cut and make some of the trails that we still use today. He was an adventurer going on many trips with his wife, Suzanne Gagnon Vininski, family, and friends. “Together they shared a common bond of enjoying life and nature to its fullest while raising their combined family. They loved to adventure travel to many unique destinations to experience nature” it was written in the pamphlets they had at memorial at River Bend Nature Center remembering and celebrating Greg Carlson.


Louise Wright, an active board member and volunteer naturalist

Louise Wright – Founder of the Prairie

Louise Coffey Wright was a member of the Board since its inception, serving as Chairperson for the Dedication and Grand Opening Committee in 1980, second vice-president from 1981 to 1983, secretary from 1984 to 1986, and president from 1986 to 1988. She also was an active volunteer naturalist, sharing her knowledge of nature with thousands of school children putting in hundreds of volunteer hours. She was a mentor and friend as well to many of the volunteer naturalists and teachers who came to River Bend Nature Center. Her friend Bev Finholt described the passion Louise had for educating children, how much knowledge she possessed and shared easily, and how she was never too busy for answering questions. “Louise had a special way of instilling in children, and adults, the desire to learn about our natural environment.” It was while she was president that the prairie was started she helped plant seeds, transplanting native wildflowers, collecting and sorting seeds, assisted with prairie burns, and provided educational materials about prairies for school children. As her friend Ron Osterbauer put it “Louise was at home with the prairie.” She was instrumental in creating the prairie at River Bend Nature Center and because of this in 1990 that the prairie she helped create and care for was dedicated in her honor. To this day a plaque and a bench honor her on the prairie loop trail. Memorial gifts that were received when she past went to her two passions at River Bend the “prairie and educating children about nature.”

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These are only a few of the people off a list of countless people I have to do more research into to recognize the people who help built River Bend and to hopefully record the history accurately. So once again I would like to invite you to share any information you have about the people included above or anyone else you know who should be recognized for the work they did helping make River Bend Nature Center. I gathered my information from a sources listed below which includes RBNC publications and newsletters, articles, memorials, and obituaries. Please let us know if anything should be corrected because we were not using accurate information. So I hope you join us in the coming 2 years as we get ready to and celebrate River Bend Nature Center’s 40th Anniversary and all the people who made River Bend Nature Center possible we could not do it without all your help and support!


A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota – By Orwin Rustad

Memorial Pamphlet for Greg Carlson Memorial at River Bend Nature Center

Kay Janky Memorial Service & Amphitheater Dedication Press Release

Taking Prescribed Fires off the “back burner” at River Bend Nature Center

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Or at least, that’s the idea.

2017 shapes up to be a successful year for prescribed burns at River Bend Nature Center. This grassland/forest mix behind the interpretive center was one of the first locations burned this last Saturday.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

In a world where fire is often seen as a danger to life and property, it’s easy to forget that fire is actually a natural part of a healthy ecosystem, and that in some cases, it is necessary for the survival of native plants and animals. This leads many to ask how this could be possible, when the landscape after a fire looks as far from lively as you can get: shriveled and blackened grass, charred stumps, and an ashy sky. It doesn’t exactly look appealing. It takes a closer examination to discover the real benefit of allowing fire to move through our prairies and forests.

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Immediately following a fire, the ground is left dry and charred. But it won’t stay like this for long.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Underneath the burned ground, an incredible change is taking place—nutrients that were once trapped inside plants on the surface are now recycled back into the soil. In this way, nutrients are not locked away, but become available for new plants to utilize. This becomes especially true in prairie ecosystems, where grasses are prevalent, dying back every winter and holding nutrients in their dead stalks above the soil line. Perhaps even more amazing after a fire, some seeds buried in the ground begin to stir and show signs of life after what could have been years of dormancy.

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Large, healthy trees remain undamaged when a prescribed burn moves past. The removal of competition around it will even help it to thrive.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

In some cases, seeds are even coated with flammable oils to encourage hotter fires. These fire-dependent species require high heat for germination to be triggered, when otherwise it would not occur at all. Plants developed such traits in order to exploit the lack of competition following a fire. With other species removed, new plants that germinate quickly afterwards do not have to fight for sunlight or water with any nearby neighbors. A famous example of this is the Lodgepole pine, whose cones are sealed with a special resin that melts away in the high heat of fire and releases the seeds. There are many ways that plants have evolved to make use of fire—species may rely on fire, smoke, or a combination of both in order to prosper.


This knowledge flies in the face of years of misunderstanding—that ecosystems are always moving towards a state of equilibrium, where nature and all of its components end in harmony. The reality is far different—nature not only utilizes, but requires frequent “disturbances”, whether this be in the form of fire, flood, or landslide. And so rather than thinking of a forest or prairie as a linear progression towards an endpoint, it is better to think of them as a cycle, where plants grow, die, are recycled back into the system, and begin again. This mindset is known as ecological succession—old growth forests will inevitably become disturbed sites where new, younger individuals will emerge and age. In the end this results in a healthier ecosystem, which is easy to see when comparing pre-settlement forests to modern forests. Before human intervention, forests often had fewer but larger and healthier trees. Now, forests have far more trees, but they are overcrowded, smaller, and generally less healthy.





Ironically, it is the modern, “protected” forests that pose the greatest threat, both to humans and wildlife. When fire is prevented, forests mature beyond the point of being prosperous—food/water amounts and space lessen, and wildlife suffers as a result. Additionally, dead plant matter builds up, which creates more fuel. Eventually, the amount of fuel present in the forest may allow for a larger, hotter, and more dangerous fire to occur.

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Prescribed burns prevent fuel from building up in a forest or prairie ecosystem–the result is more frequent but smaller fires that are less likely to get out of control.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

And so it all comes down to word choice. Many of us may remember the famous Smoky the Bear phrase “only YOU can prevent forest fires”. This was a great and catchy slogan for a world where fire could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, both to buildings and natural areas. But as we began to learn more about this land we were trying to “protect” by putting out every fire we could find, scientists began to realize that our “help” was actually causing harm. And so rather than advertising a negative image on “forest fires”, Smoky now reminds us to stop “wild fires” instead—that is, fires that are unintentional or out of control in a region where lives and property could be lost. This change of heart helped reduce the misconception that all fire is bad—and that any forest or prairie fire is a villain in an ecological sense.

Nutrients are recycled back into the soil when dead vegetation is allowed to burn. Even greener patches along the river are able to be burned, as Emily Greger, Resource Manager, helps it along with a torch.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

But what does this have to do with River Bend? There is one more benefit from fire that River Bend will be utilizing very soon, and that is to use fire as a tool to remove invasive species. While hours of work every year go into removing invasive species from the property, pulling, cutting, and treating, it is not the most effective way to prevent the spread of non-natives. Fire works much faster and far more thoroughly than any “by hand” methods of removal, making it the most effective tool at our disposal. And while historically, prescribed fires have been used sporadically and on small sections of land, we plan to increase the area covered, and also begin burning on a regular rotation. One burn is not enough to bring a habitat back to “pristine” condition—it takes several burns in addition to other treatments, and the entire process might go on for years. However, in the end, after a lot of planning and work, the goal is that eventually we will be left with forests and prairies that resemble pre-settlement—healthy ecosystems filled with a large variety of native plants and animals.


Visitors can expect to see signs of burning through the end of April, and sites on the list of potential burns are the rain garden, the large prairie by the Interpretive Center, ditches along Rustad Road, the gravel pit, and the prairie on Teepee Tonka.

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Tall grasses burn readily–moving very quickly across a prairie landscape. A “back burn” will prevent fire from spreading to undesired locations.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Dates and times of burns are all weather dependent, and all burning will cease before May in order to protect ground nesting birds. Helping us with this process is the Faribault Fire Department, who has been donating their time and equipment for decades.

4357Fire creeps up to the banks of the Straight River which acts as a perfect fire break.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

And while we cannot ask for volunteers from the public to help with burns, there are several things you can do to help make this process as simple and safe as possible:

Take note of any and all signs posted notifying the public about potential burns. When burning, there will be a large sign posted by the park entrance asking that people stay away from the areas that are being burned, both for their safety as well as the safety of the staff—distractions can lead to dangerous situations. Another way that you can help is by attending several events that River Bend has coming up—the first is an OWLS (Older Wiser Livelier Seniors) presentation given by River Bend’s Resource Manager Emily Greger. The presentation will focus on invasive species, going beyond buckthorn and touching on lesser known species and methods for controlling them. Additionally, River Bend hosts Restoration work days where members of the public can come out and assist with a variety of restoration projects, including removal of invasive species. For more information on these programs and other opportunities please see our website:


Restoration Work Day –

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Fire will drastically change the appearance of a landscape, but in just a few weeks, this same location picture in both photos will be green with new and healthier growth.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Springing into warm weather!

Hello again, River Bend friends! As you have probably noticed, Spring has sprung and we are really enjoying all the changes that are happening here. Many snakes and frogs are waking from their winter naps – if you walk by Prairie Pond or Upper Pond, you can hear the frogs croaking!  There are so many new birds out and about, and they are all singing at the top of their lungs and hurrying to make nests in the forest, prairie, and pond alike. We have even seen Turkey Vultures, and though they neglect to sing, they are another sign that the warm weather is back.

Spring is a wonderful time to look up and take notes of the phenology of our area. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, and is really cool to discover – here at River Bend, we have a monthly Phenology board, where our visitors can come and write what they saw while out on the trails, and then this gets recorded and we can compare to several previous years. We also have a great book written by our founder, Orwin Rustad, which is a recording of 50 years of natural events!

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Orwin Rustad’s A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota, a fantastic phenology read.

To give you an example of phenology, I’ll tell you what his book says about the timing of Turkey Vulture spring arrivals: over 12 years of recording their comings and goings, the earliest they arrived was March 12th, and the latest was May 30th! Their average though is April 14th-17th, so they are a bit early this year.


Turkey Vultures are a fun bird to spot during the spring and summer; they spend their time soaring high, looking like they are rocking back and forth in the wind on their  V-shaped wings.

One of the reasons phenology is important is that it helps us note changes through time. The reason I chose to look up the Turkey Vulture (other than the fact that they are amazing birds!) was that they were not very common birds in this area 50 and 60 years ago. Most of their sightings started in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps indicating that Turkey Vultures were expanding their ranges in that time frame to include this area! If you are ever in the interpretive center and want to know more about the natural history of this area, check out this interesting book.

You can also take advantage of the gorgeous weather forecast and come for a hike and see the spring changes for yourself. Just today, school groups spotted Garter Snakes over by Honor Point, a Bald Eagle over the Strait River, and saw the turtles that have come out at Turtle Pond too! There are also tons of frogs and birds to see and listen to, so come to River Bend, explore, and then come contribute to our Phenology board.

phenology board

As you can see, River Bend visitors have already seen some amazing sights, and we’re only a week in to April! Come add your own observations!

After hearing the frogs start up around town or here at River Bend, are you curious to learn more? Then come to our awesome program on Saturday, April 15th: Fabulous Frogs! Hop on over to learn about what’s jumping around River Bend’s ponds – We’ll be learning about what makes Frogs so unique, creating our own frog chorus, as well as meeting our two froggy Animal Ambassadors! The program fee is just $5/person, $15/family ($3/member, $10/member family), and it runs from 10-1130, so come make a day of it here at River Bend – see the program and then go for your own hike!

Hope to see you soon!



Come learn all about Leopard Frogs and others at our Fabulous Frogs Program on Saturday April 15th from 10-11:30!

Waste Not, Want Not!


Reduce, reuse, recycle. We have all heard those words, and we know what they mean, but are they really important? YES!

Every household, every business, every school…everyone creates waste. In this day and age, it is really hard to avoid that. However, there are things we can do to minimize our waste and dispose of it responsibly. I’ll even let you in on a little secret, however first I need to explain where our waste is currently going.  

 Here at River Bend Nature Center, we have a winter educational program that brings us into the elementary schools throughout Rice County. We discuss the importance of managing our waste and practicing the “3R’s” both in school and at home.  This program serves as a good reminder, not only to the students, but to us Environmental Educators as well.  It’s easy to forget how big of an impact we can make. Rice County is not the only county with a landfill, nor is it the only county that produces waste. This information is important to all of us, no matter where we live.  

whats in the landfill

The average landfill has many unnecessary materials. How many of these need to be in the landfill?


The landfill that serves the entire Rice County is located in Dundas, at the Solid Waste Facility.  All of the garbage we put at the edge of our cub, or into our dumpsters, ends up at the Rice County landfill.  Our landfill is a way to safely dispose of our waste, and when landfills follow regulations, the environmental impact is minimized. However, it is definitely not the perfect solution. We are still disrupting habitats of animals, and using valuable land for our garbage. So what is the ideal solution?


Recycling is the easiest of the 3R’s, especially in Minnesota. Rather than putting waste in the garbage can, we put our recyclable waste into a recycling bin, and someone else does all of the work.  Our recycling is single sort, which means all we have to do is put it in one bin, similar to our garbage cans. A truck will come and pick up those recyclables, and the facility they are taken to will sort them into the different categories: Plastics, Metal, Glass, and Paper. At the recycling center each of those materials are shredded, melted or broken apart. Then they are sold off to companies that make new items from the broken down materials. The profits from selling the materials helps to cover costs of the recycling center.  Are you questioning if something is recyclable? Check the bottom, and specifically look for a recycling triangle; recycling triangles with any number (1-7) are recyclable, as well as anything made of metal, glass, paper, paperboard, and cardboard. If you still have questions, visit the Rice County recycling page:


Make sure you know what materials are recyclable!


The numbers in each triangle explain what kind of plastic it is made up of. In rice county, all plastics are recyclable.

Reusing is the second easiest of the 3R’s.  Reusing involves a little bit of creativity. Rather than sending waste to the landfill, you can create something new from it. In the classrooms we visit, we take toilet paper tubes and make bird feeders. We spread vegetable shortening on the tube, roll it in bird seed, stick a popsicle stick through the base, tie a string on it, and call it a bird feeder. This is a very quick and simple reuse project. The list of possibilities goes on and on and on.  bird feeder.png

Reusing is the second easiest of the 3R’s.  Reusing involves a little bit of creativity. Rather than sending waste to the landfill, you can create something new from it. In the classrooms we visit, we take toilet paper tubes and make bird feeders. We spread vegetable shortening on the tube, roll it in bird seed, stick a popsicle stick through the base, tie a string on it, and call it a bird feeder. This is a very quick and simple reuse project. The list of possibilities goes on and on and on.

Reducing is the most difficult of the 3R’s. It takes thought, time, and planning ahead. This is also the hardest to conceptualize because it is not tangible; it is a thought process.  The main idea with reducing is just that: to reduce, or to lessen, your waste. For example, when you go to a fast food restaurant and order a meal for a child, you get a plastic toy. I remember being so excited when I got those toys because it was new and shiney. But the excitement never lasted, and when I was finished with a toy, or even more often they broke, where did they end up? The landfill. My father often encouraged me to not take those toys, even though they were awesome, because they were just food for the landfill. Another way to think about reducing waste is thinking about a picnic. Packing paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper napkins is very convenient because there are no dishes involved; we can just throw them away and forget about them. But where do they end up? The landfill.  Rather than using those disposable materials, we can use cloth napkins, metal utensils, and plates that we can wash and put back in the cupboard. In that case the only waste we create is food waste which leads us to…

Composting is the bonus word for waste education. 14% of what goes into the landfill is food scraps, which can all decompose and be returned to the soil as nutrients.  However, in the landfill, engineers have discovered that decomposition creates excess gas (methane) which can create explosions and cause serious problems to the landfill.  Because landfills are packed so tightly, there is no air or space for decomposers to break the food down. Compost is broken down by worms living in the soil; they slowly eat things we throw into compost bins, and then they defecate the nutrients, returning them to the soil to be absorbed by plant life.  Rather than throwing food into the garbage and sending it to the landfill, we can put it in our compost bins, and then use that soil in our gardens to help our plants flourish.

Finally, my secret for you: the landfill in Rice County, the landfill that all of our garbage goes to, is going to reach full capacity in 20 years.  In 20 years, we are not going to have any place for our garbage to go. Up until this past year, it was estimated to last about 5 more years. Luckily, the engineers have come up with a solution to extend the life of the landfill, but I am sure we all still plan on having waste in 20 years. And at that point where will we put our garbage? Just about all of our land is currently being used for homes, schools, parks, and farms.  

Here is my challenge for us all: let’s start thinking about what to do with our waste now. Why wait until we have no more room for garbage to create a solution? Let’s focus on what we are doing with our waste now, so we can extend the life of our landfills even longer. This earth is our home, and we need to take care of it.  


For more information:

Rice county solid waste facility:

Rice county recycling: