Addicted to Whale Watching

Would you pay $50 to go out on a ship, possibly get seasick, stand in the cold and get soaked for 3 hours, just to get a glimpse of a whale? It turns out there are millions of people a year who did precisely that (13 million in 119 countries around the world – (data from 2008)). Not only that, whale watching brought over 2 billion dollars into local economies (world wide).

Fin Whale
Justin Thomson

“Whales watches are exciting because you never know what you are going to see. Seeing a blue or a fin whale you realize the immense size of these creatures. With humpbacks they have so many different types of behavior like bubble feeding and breaching, so every time you go it’s a chance to see something different. Living in New York we are never immersed in nature but when you are out in the ocean it is so vast and the whales are so big, it really helps you let go of all your stress and just experience something totally different.
 Sarah Sable, Brooklyn, New York.

Humpback surfacing   –      Robert Sable

Whale watchers live to see a whale surface right off the bow. You hear the sound of the “blow” as the whale surfaces. You hear screams of joy and the permanent smiles on people’s faces. The “people watching” is almost as much fun as watching the whales.
L Wade

Humpback Fluke-up

What unique creatures whales are:
They are up to 3 school buses in length.
They have baleen which helps them filter small creatures (zooplankton)
Their flukes (tail)  propel them in the water.
Whales are like something you read about, but never get to see.
L. Wade

Blue Whale
John Calambokidis
Cascadia Research

I have been hooked on whales for over 40 years. The first blue whale I ever saw was in 1973. I was working with a group of whale researcher in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The whale surfaced right in front of us. It was dead quiet until someone whispered, “It’s a blue”. Then we started jumping up and down, like little kids, and screaming with pure joy.
L. Wade

Fin Whale Surfacing
Justin Thomson

“It’s exciting, it’s fun. You get to go out to the open seas like people of yore and you get to see these amazing large creatures that you couldn’t see otherwise.” Justin Thomson, Brooklyn, New York


The shearwaters and terns feed on the same prey as the whales. Many of these birds circumnavigate the Atlantic Ocean each year. The Great Shearwater nests on Tristan da Cunha Islands deep in the South Atlantic. While the Sooty Shearwater nests at the southern tip of South America (Tierra Del Fuego).

Humpback Whale just starting to “blow”
Robert Sable

“I like to see the whales spouting in our face”  Emeline Thomson-Sable ( 3 ½ years old)

This whale is named “Echo”. The pattern on the lower edge of the left fluke was made by a killer whale. To learn more about how individual humpback whales are identified go to:
photo by Robert Sable

There has been a world wide ban on whaling for over 40 years. Sadly, Norway, Iceland and Japan still murder whales. Once you have seen a whale in the ocean, it is unimaginable to think of killing one.

Fin whale struck by ship
Cascadia Research

For the most part, whale populations world-wide are increasing. However, ship strikes are the leading cause of whale deaths. Other threats include, water pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear. This summer (2017)there have been 13 endangered North Atlantic Right Whales killed by ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.

Posted in Nature Notes, Whales & Oceanography | Leave a comment

Smart Phone Naturalist

Steven Barnier is a senior at Hopkins High School in the Minneapolis Area. He has already completed AP Biology and Chemistry and is possibly interested in a career in forestry. Steven shared his photos with me during the Hopkins Field Biology class at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in July 2017. All of Steven’s photos were taken with a Samsung S8.

All text and photos by Steven Barnier

These mushrooms were so perfect that they almost looked fake growing out of a dead tree branch.

This was our camp-out at Eagle Bluff. I put the lens exposure as low as it could go. I really liked the glow of the coals below and the way the fire jumped.

That was very early in the morning at Eagle Bluff. The background was blurred out and created a mysterious image.

I found this green tree frog resting on a propane tank at Eagle Bluff. I bet it was eating the bugs on the tank. I thought it would jump away when I used the flash, but it stayed right there.
Nighttime sunset at the Grand Tetons, Jackson, Wyoming.

I love the way the pine trees form a frame around the bear which was less than 40 yards away (Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Photography allows me to get a close-up view of the workings of nature. It helps me see how creatures live in the natural world.


This shows the artistic design of a spider web. The photo was taken at night. When you put the flash on them it reflects the web back. It was hard to shoot because the strands of the web would shake, making the other photos I took blurry.

This was a very unusual type of fungus. It was super puffy and looked like a plastic bag growing out of a down tree.

There was a hailstorm two years ago in Northern Minnesota and trees were damaged, like this aspen leaf that was torn from the tree.

Coneflowers at midnight, Eagle Bluff.
The flash created the unusual light on the flowers.

It was after a rain storm and I liked the water droplets that were suspended above the Jewelweed flower. It was so beautiful in the morning with the light on it.

Blue Dasher, Northern Minnesota, mid summer

I was attracted to the contrast of colors between the red mushroom and the patch of green moss. It really made the mushroom stand out.

This is the underside of some type of shelf mushroom. I slid my phone underneath the mushroom and it was backlit with the light shining through the gills.

A shelf mushroom growing upside down out of a tree. I thought it was phenomenal.

Skiing at sunrise in Salt Lake City Utah. I thought the beauty of the sun rising over the mountain was very special. The wind blowing the snow at the summit, was illuminated by sun.

Steven Barnier is in the foreground with Alex Patridge and Ben Johnson.

Posted in Photography/Art | 2 Comments

Changing the World – One birdwatcher at a Time

Posting and photos by Amy Simso Dean

I want to change the world. But how can one introverted, bird nerd from Minnesota inspire world environmentalism? I am no John Muir or Rachel Carson. My answer (or at least I hope it is): Kids.

My story starts in Minneapolis… ventures toward Azerbaijan… and ends who knows where.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
In 2015, I had the crazy idea of starting a youth birding club for 4th and 5th graders at my daughters’ school in South Minneapolis.

Luckily the school principal (“You want to start a what?”) gave me the go ahead. Julie Brophy and Amber Burnette, local birders, heard about my idea and stepped up to help.

We make poster and build our own birds.

Now each fall, winter, spring we spend 4–6 weeks introducing kids to birds. This fall, we’ll have grown to 5 sessions at 4 locations. MYBirdClub (MN Youth BirdClub) is a club, not a class, so learning happens organically as we wander or play indoor games and activities.

The kids play a game called “field guide race”, where they learn how to use a field guide to ID birds.

If you ever run across us in the field, be ready for high-energy, explosive enthusiasm. They point. They shout. They run. They battle with dandelions gone to seed. (And yes, they amble, quietly oblivious, engrossed in conversation.)
But when one birder spots a downy woodpecker, all the binoculars snap up. These birders run to see a Blue Jay teed up on a treetop, shouting, “Where is it? Where is it?” and “I see it! I see it!”

And the interest is contagious. They soon start pointing out birds to their parents and siblings. Suddenly an entire family is scanning the skies, lakes and trees; I have the email and texts to prove it.

I believe that once you notice something, you start to care about it. And once you care about something, you want to protect it. So, while I might not be able to change the world, maybe, just maybe, one of these kids will.

Youth in Azerbaijan
This summer’s rather harebrained scheme is gathering used binoculars to send to Nature Friends, a program in Azerbaijan that also hopes to inspire the next generation of birders and conservationists.

Bird Camp Besh Barmag,Azerbaijan. April 2017    © Emin Mammedov/Nature Friends


Minnesota birders, a truly generous flock, have rallied to the cause and donated more than 24 new and used binoculars. My next challenge is getting them there—a task that is proving to be much harder.

Transportation costs, customs, distance… I now have to figure out how to bridge these gaps. But if a Ruby-throated hummingbird that weighs as little as a penny can cross the Gulf of Mexico, I know I can get these binoculars into the hands of the next generation of Azerbaijani conservationists.

Who knows, maybe some day, one of them will team up with one of my Minnesota birders and set the birding world… or the entire environmental community… on fire.


Amy Simso Dean is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. She volunteers at The Raptor Center, runs MYBirdClub afterschool youth birding clubs and does a little stained glass on the side.
If you’d like to learn more about MYBirdClub, you can contact her at
Youtube video about bird camp in Azerbaijan: Bird Camp Besh Barmag documentary, Azerbaijan 




Posted in Birds, Nature Guardians | 2 Comments

Make Your Heart Sing

80 teenagers for a week in the woods Hopkins Field Biology class. Sound a little scary?…… No cell phones or electronics, just being in the woods with kids who were totally open to the beauty that surrounded them…..  it made my heart sing.

Lorie Regenold



Marbled skies peek through the branches
Like black veins leading to a rooted heart
Leaves shield raindrops like hands cradling children
From the earth as a fire lights the sky
Impatient with lust for a night as black as coal.
Ada Turman

Lorie Regenold

I see a fork in the road
Wondering which path I should take.
The dark woods with owls and raccoons
Or a bright green meadow, with flowers and bees,
I took the path to beauty and nature
A path I’ll never forget
Vienna A.


Hundred Year Moment

Don’t breathe
Don’t speak,
Don’t get lost.
Four hundred years of history all covered in moss
I tiptoe through the bushes – there’s a deer
Stranger danger!
There’s no time to hide
Or to call the park ranger
So I turn on the dime and slip into the mud
Awakening the frightful beast with a sloppy wet thud
I try to run away but my foot gets
Caught in brush and Bramble
I tear away from nature’s grasp in a desperate mad scramble
The deer charges
I loosen my feet and sprint away
Under the shade of oak
I couldn’t tell night
From day
I broke away
The deer was gone; silence reigned
Through the mossy scape
A bed of mushrooms lay in wait
I knew I’d made my escape
So don’t breathe
Don’t speak
And don’t get shaken
Just because the forest is quiet
Doesn’t mean it can’t awaken.
Alex Patridge

Wolf spider
Lorie Regenold


Rushing, bubbling down my bed, 
Going faster the farther I head
Over rock and tons of sand,
Traveling all across the land.
Past frogs that leap and croak,
And snakes that slither and gloat.
For I am the creek that rushes past
Bubbling and spraying everything in my path.
Helena Mitchell

The peaceful sound of the stream flowing
Flowers, trees and greens growing.
Footsteps are wandering
On the quiet, peaceful path.
Take it all in
The grass, trees, flowers and greens.
As each one has its story
Mother nature in its glory
Gracie Sundell

Lucy’s Nature notes

Thick underbrush grasps for pale sunlight
From thin stems reach fans of young leaves
A gentle bed, fit for a bumblebee
From shy sprouts spills royal bells
And bright yellow blossoms reach to the trees
Whom sit lifeless, waiting for a breeze
Songbirds twitter furiously in the branches
At the clouds, at the sky,
At the squirrel that skitters by

Lucy Smith



Steven Barnier


I see animals running and jumping on the ground

I hear many unique sounds in the woods
Everywhere I walk I see trees
and emerald green leaves

I see lots of flowers
and feel like I have lots of powers
I hope you know nature is everywhere.
I love nature

Danielle Lee

Nature Notes –  Hannah A.R.



The Senses of the World

Dobsonfly – photo  byLorie Regenold

I see the brown tree
I see the hollow river
I see that little bee
Mother Nature, the giver

I feel the sun
I feel its heat
When the sun is done
The crickets make a beat

I hear a caw
That comes from a crow
That’s what I saw
It’s a present without a bow

I taste the woods
I drank from a well
Its like a house without a head
The birds sing like a bell.

Joey K.


Great Spangled Fritillary
Vienna A.


Animals on Parade
Ants are wondrous, like plants all around
Stars at night, animals do not have fright
Songs heard by ear are quite clear!
An owl lays there, yes right there in the air
All around the river not a sound
So keep right there – Animals are always around

Henry Risser

Old Naturalist portrait
Ben Johnson















Night Hike

Vienna A.

Walking in the woods
Listening to the birds
Hearing the sounds of nature
Looking up at the trees.
Walking on the path
Pointing out things to eachother,
swatting gnats
In our faces.
What a beautiful night.

They are beautiful just like you and me!

Calais A.


Fungus – photo by  Steven Barnier

Fire in the night
The birds are singing
Squirrels are chattering
Water is flowing
Crickets are humming,
bugs are buzzing
Rustling leaves,
toads are crossing
People are walking
No more city lights
Just endless woods

Brody Hendershot




12th grade camp out –   photo by Trey Waterman


Posted in Connecting to Nature, Nature Poetry, Photography/Art | 1 Comment

Lessons Learned at the Prairie – Year 22

Lessons learned at the prairie: 
” Nature can balance the rough places inside you.”

Cup Plant
The leaves of the plant form a “cup” that birds and insects drink from.

Lessons  learned at the Prairie:
“Let the beauty go deep into your bones”.

Pale Coneflower

Lessons learned at the Prairie:
“Do as much as you can to help the prairie thrive, but remember your limitations.”

Mountain Mint
An August favorite of my types of pollinators.

Lessons learned at the Prairie:
“Be appreciative of the life that is around you”.

Queen of the Prairie
A wetland plant in the rose family with beautifully scented flowers.

Lessons learned at the Prairie:
” Life is so much better when your hands are digging in the Earth.”

Rattlesnake Master
A favorite of pollinators in July. The plant is a a northern type of agave .

Lessons learned at the Prairie:
Respect the weeds, they are teachers too.
(vetch, thistle, canada anemone, and European Spurge).

Lessons learned at the prairie:
“Say “good morning” to the plants and to the people walking by on the trail”.


Lessons learned at the Prairie:  “Work with others whom you care about.”

Friends of the Prairie
22 years later

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Fifteen Rays of Hope

Note: The video can only be seen by using Safari.
Last week I participated in an ArtStart* project  that focused on African biomes. For four days I was blessed to be among 15  creative young adults. Students researched their biome, created murals, and recorded information about creatures in their biome. The murals became interactive when they were wired for sound.

Leah Terry  15 years old
I have been with ArtStart* for more than 10 years. Maddie and I did our project on the deep ocean biome. This is a really important one for me because I have always loved the ocean. I am a swimmer and water is vital to me. Learning about the endangered species has always been concerning for me, but I think that ArtStart* camps have helped me connect more and learn about all the issues the oceans are facing today.

Leah Terry
Doing this research has really hit me that there are so many beautiful animals becoming endangered because of how humans are treating our planet. I hope that when people see this art that they will connect with it too. If they listen to the research we did and to the problems that ocean animals are facing, maybe they will be inspired to learn more and to help out, at the very least.

Check out the intensity of the class as they are wiring their interactive boards. This video can only be seen on Safari/not Firefox.

Carter Anton – 14 years old
I envision that I could go into any type of art: cooking, dance, music, sculpting, painting and drawing. Ideally I would like to have a career that I could mesh several of those together.
Kate Lindeman – 13 years old      In the class I learned a lot about all the animals and it helped me realize that I should be doing what I can to help. It was really fun to work together as a group; to make decisions and to paint together.

Isabel Lev – 17 years old. I have trouble focusing in school and always try to take an art class because I can relax and bring the tension down. This camp is very important to me. I can’t even remember how old I was when I started here. It is really nice to teach other kids that art is something that you don’t necessarily have to be good at, but use it as a means to express yourself and express things that can be taught to other people.

Carol Sirrine is the director of ArtStart, and with her vision she has given thousands of young people an opportunity to express their art in camps, festivals, and in schools.

To learn more about ArtStart,  go to:


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Good-bye Blue Whale

photo by Cal Academy of Sciences

In May 2017, a blue whale was struck by a ship off the coast of Northern California. A few days later the creature washed up on a beach in Bolinas, CA. Do incidents like this mean that the endangered blue whales could become extinct in the near future? We will examine this question, but first, one of our readers, Lancey Williams, went to see the dead blue whale with her family and shared a first-hand account of her impressions:


” It was totally surreal seeing a creature so large. Also, I was shocked that it was decomposing so quickly, because the whale had been struck by a ship only few days before. It was very sad to realize that so recently the whale had been living its life in the ocean and now it was decaying on a beach. As my son Harrison said, “There is no way that whale is coming back to life.”


Coming to see this whale, reminded me how interconnected all the beings of the Earth are. All creatures are born, they live their lives and die. I am just sorry that this whale’s life was taken from it before its time. We humans try to separate ourselves from nature. Nature is a part of us, but way beyond the reality of our everyday life.


The boys were really taken aback by the smell from its decaying flesh. We could smell the whale from a long way away. They also really wanted to touch the whale, and figure out where the eyes and other parts of the body were.”

Blue Whale – Monterey Bay, CA.
(L. Wade)


World-wide blue whale numbers could be as low as 2 % of their pre-whaling populations. In Antarctica, 1931, 29,000 blue whales were killed. Conservationist Scott McVay, once said about whaling, “Nothing is wasted except the whale itself”. Sadly, less than 1% of the original Antarctic population (250,000) exists today.

Japan, Iceland, and Norway are still hunting a limited number of minke, humpback and fin whales. But all other countries banned whaling over 30 years ago.  Whales today are threatened by getting entangled in fishing nets, ship strikes, and pollution.

To protect blue whales migrating up the California coast, ship captains have been asked to cut their speed in half as they enter the shipping lanes heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge. In spite of all the potential problems, the future for North Pacific blue whale population is bright. The current population estimate for North Pacific blue whale is 2800 whales, roughly 50% of the original population. In fact the North Pacific Ocean has the largest concentration of blue whales in the world.

Would you like to learn more about whales?  This is a very comprehensive book about whales. It was written by a whale biologist for young people who wish to be whale biologists. To learn more about this book go to:



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Fifteen Minutes with Nature

What would happen if you turned off your phone, iPad and other devices and spent time listening and observing nature? This is the challenge I offered up to 4th graders at Cedar Ridge School in Eden Prairie, MN. The students were spread throughout the school forest and recorded their observations. Below is some of the students’ poetry and art work that they completed back in class.

Student Handout for download:




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A Sense of Place – Journey to the Center of the Earth

To see the video of the river, you will need to use your Safari browser.

This is the third in a series of stories about a “Sense of Place”, where a person can feel the wonder on nature. This story takes us to Niagara Cave and Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. The caves are located within miles of the Iowa border, only 2.5 hours from the Twin Cities.

Courtesy of Niagara Cave

Caves are unknown, mysterious, and have their own beauty.
You are deep inside of the Earth now. There are dark passageways, strange sounds, and the oxygen is pure. This cave is relatively untouched by humans and the rawness of nature is all around you.

Walking through a cave is like walking through the insides of your body: bones, organs, and blood.  You are inside of the cave, but at the same time you can feel the aliveness  and beauty inside your own body.

Courtesy of Niagara Cave

Are you walking through your blood vessels now or a passageway at Niagara Cave?  A river ran through this cave carving passageways and now it is dry.

The energy at this pool was pure and serene. I felt a calmness wash over me. I took it in, like a  camel drinking in the desert.

The subterranean waterfall was breathtaking. I could hear the roaring from far away, as I walked through the passageways.  Just two days before, the cave flooded due to a torrential rain and the cave was closed to visitors .


This is what geologist call “karst” country. The land of sinkholes, disappearing rivers, springs, and, of course, caves. Both Niagara and Mystery Cave appear out of nowhere hidden in the corn fields of Fillmore County, MN.

Niagara Cave was discovered in 1924 when 3 pigs went missing at a local farm and the searchers discovered a crack in a nearby sinkhole. They lowered themselves down 50 feet into the cave and found the pigs (alive) and vast rooms and passageways.

Horn coral, 400,000,000 years old – Courtesy of Niagara Cave

If you love geology, both Mystery and Niagara cave have a fascinating history. This area was part of the great inland sea that covered much of North America roughly 400,000,000 years ago. There is fossil evidence in both caves of gastropods, cephalopods and horn coral.

Mysterious formations are around every turn…


To contact: Niagara Cave go to:   507-886-6606
Mystery Cave:   call 866-857-2757.

If you would like to share your story, where you feel the closest to nature, send me your text and photos. It may one or two paragraphs or an entire posting.

Posted in Connecting to Nature, Photography/Art | Leave a comment

A Sense of Place – Spring ponds

Note to Readers: The audio can only be heard using Safari. Turn the volume to its highest setting.
This is the second in a series of stories about places where we connect to the Earth. Where our hearts are open and the sound of the earth becomes our sound.
In the previous posting, Dale Antonsen shared his story about the land at Big Woods State Park. To read his beautiful story and see his photos  go to:

To experience my sense of place open up your windows at night and let the trilling of the toads seep into your bones. When I hear that call, I know it is time to don my waders and find the nearest pond.

Trilling of the Toads

American Toads began calling in mid April this year

When I am within 10 feet of a singing toad, I can feel the vibration of its call going into my body.

Gray tree frog resting on cattails (notice suction cup toes).

When I  first enter a pond, there is an adjustment period that occurs. I feel unsteady, and wonder if  I am going fall into the muck. The toads and chorus frogs stop calling, wary of my intrusion into their aquatic home.
Then I see a tree frog hiding in the cattails, a lonely chorus frog starts calling at the other end of the pond. A primeval feeling creeps into my body.





The rawness of nature is in that pond. You can’t feel it unless you physically enter the water. This is when the magic occurs. I become another pond dweller and the creatures that are there return to the business of mating.

An American Toad orgy. Males on males. Males on females. Hormones unleashed.


 Leopard frogs hang by the edge of pond. They are the jumping kings of the frog world.

Leopard frog rests on the shoreline.

Leopard frog mating call


Chorus frogs are about the size of a stone. They can be calling all around me and I can not see them until I  finally enter their world and am not just an observer from the outside.

A chorus frog calling in early spring


Wood frogs are early visitors to the pond. When they are at the height of their mating season, the hormones are raging. I have had them approach me, trying to protect the territory that they have established.

Wood frog calling with inflated calling sacs on it abdomen.

Their call is extremely unique, reminding me of a flock of chickens.

This is the place where I feel the most connect to nature. 

If you would like to share your story, where you feel the closest to nature, send me your text and photos. It may one or two paragraphs or an entire posting.




Posted in Photography/Art, Seasons, Spring | Leave a comment