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Blueberries and dragonflies the focus of a recent outdoors excursion

A plant laden with blueberries stands out against a sea of green vegetations in Minnesota’s Beltrami Island State Forest. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service

Norris Camp, Minn. - Blueberries and dragonflies generally don’t come up in the same conversation, but they were prominent topics of discussion during a recent rainy morning here at the historic headquarters of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area.

Turns out the WMA and adjacent Beltrami Island State Forest have an abundance of both this summer.

Blueberries had drawn me to Norris Camp; the dragonflies were a bonus.

A small but dedicated crew of insect enthusiasts had gathered at Norris Camp – some for a couple of days, some for more than a week – to survey dragonflies as part of a three-year study that began last summer in the WMA and Beltrami forest, public lands that cover parts of Lake of the Woods, Beltrami and Roseau counties.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, little is known about these often seen and usually overlooked insects and the benefits they provide. Listening to Curt Oien and Mitch Haag, founding members the year-old Minnesota Dragonfly Society, the enthusiasm they shared when talking about the insects was contagious.

“We do it because we’re passionate about it and we love it,” Haag said.

No wonder, then, some 20 people had participated in a field survey the previous day collecting dragonflies and nymphs in Beltrami forest. The fieldwork is a follow-up, of sorts, to a study called the Minnesota Odonata Research Project that started in 2006 and wrapped up last year.

Odonata is the scientific name for dragonflies and damselflies.

Chance meeting

Norris Camp became headquarters for the latest dragonfly study through a chance meeting between Haag and Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake WMA, at a conference of the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society.

The location is perfect, Haag said, because the area is so vast. They’d already found seven “county records” – first-ever recorded sightings – of various dragonfly species in Lake of the Woods County to go with the 18 they found last year.

“It would take you a lifetime just to survey this one chunk of the Beltrami Island forest,” Haag said. “There could be anything here. We have so many different habitats.”

Minnesota has 149 known dragonfly species. Less known, perhaps, is that dragonflies spend five to seven years of their lives in the water as nymphs, emerging as winged insects for only a few months to breed and repeat the cycle.

“Dragonflies have been around for 300 million years so basically they saw the dinosaurs come and go,” Oien said.

Their reliance on quality water also makes dragonflies an indicator species.

“The nymph stage is what really gets me – how these things can survive under very low oxygen conditions and very acidic water,” said Haag, who with Oien works for the Three Rivers Park District in Plymouth, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb. “All these other predators that are potentially feeding on them – birds, fish, everything – and somehow they survive.”

Baseline data

It might not be the high-profile research of, say, a moose or deer study, but the research Haag, Oien and other Minnesota Dragonfly Society volunteers are conducting provides baseline data on the insects where, in some cases, none previously existed.

“There were a lot of counties that had zeroes,” Oien said. “Nothing had ever been recorded. It’s not that (dragonflies) weren’t there, it’s just that nobody had ever looked.”

The abundance of bog and peatland habitat makes Beltrami forest and adjacent lands an especially attractive venue for the dragonfly research. Oien and Haag even had arranged to have a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helicopter drop them off in the remote expanse of the Red Lake bog to sample dragonfly species.

The pair, who arrived at Norris Camp on July 25, said they’ll literally be dropped into the bog because the helicopter can’t land in the spongy terrain.

“We’ll hover above the bog and jump out” of the helicopter, Haag said. “Everybody benefits from the data we collect. This all goes to the DNR. The managers know what’s in their region as far as rare and endangered species and how they can protect the different wetlands in places where these things are coming out. That’s the important thing is the water quality issue. We need the water to be protected for the nymphs. We can swoop up all the adults we want, but we’ve got to figure out where they’re coming from.”

Next up: Blueberries

As the morning rain subsided, Haag and Oien and a handful of other dragonfly hunters headed to a boggy part of Beltrami forest called Brown’s Lake to see what they could find. Mehmel, the WMA manager, and her husband, Jeff Birchem, a retired DNR conservation officer, guided the crew to the dragonfly lair.

Of special interest was a creek with cold, fast water where the dragonfly crew hoped to collect nymphs. For others, though, it was hard to ignore the blueberries that in places covered the ground in a brilliant blue, a striking contrast to the green that dominated the landscape.

So, while Haag and Oien waded the creek for nymphs, the rest of us shifted gears and headed for higher ground and blueberry country. The rumors were true: There’s another good blueberry crop this year.

As manager of Red Lake WMA, Mehmel says she gets a lot of calls this time of year from people looking for blueberry reports. The tasty wild berries grow best in openings adjacent to jack pine stands or related areas.

Blueberry pickers by nature are a secretive bunch, but Birchem suggests focusing on “edges” – in this case edges of jack pine stands with shorter vegetation. Find those areas, and this year you’ll find blueberries, as well.

Mehmel said abundant snowfall this past winter helped protect blueberry plants, and ample spring rainfall provided plenty of moisture to jumpstart this year’s crop.

Just as important, perhaps, was the lack of a killing spring frost; the result is the second good blueberry crop in as many years.

Joined by son Joshua, 15, and daughter Johanna, 9, Mehmel and Birchem collected a couple of gallons of blueberries in a relatively small area. In some places, the best picking was right in the middle of the trail.

We also encountered lots of berries either green or just beginning to ripen.

“It’s just starting to get prime,” Birchem said. “This is going to be good for three or four weeks.”

A downside – and it was a big one – was the bumper mosquito crop triggered by all the rain. The blood-sucking insects were vicious, at times, especially in areas protected from the breeze. A 40 mph wind would have been a blessing.

On the upside, the dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes, won’t be going hungry anytime soon.