NORTHLAND NATURE JOURNAL: In search of ghosts on the prairie

A black swallowtail on a wood lily. (Photos by Dallas Hudson/For the Enterprise)

We are now on the downward slide of summer and my list of “first sightings” is almost complete for the year. I’m mostly now monitoring for “last sightings.”

I’m seeing autumn meadowhawks and migrating monarchs. Berries are now ripe, and the wild rice is blooming and starting to form heads. Soon canoes will be hitting the rice beds.

It is a really good year for butterflies, with high numbers of most species and several species I hadn’t seen in several years and was beginning to wonder if I ever would again – like the banded hairstreak I last saw on July 26, 2015 and that somehow this year showed up in fair numbers. How it can be gone for several years and then just show up scattered across the countryside I’ll never know, but it gave me hope that this would be the year of ghosts – and why not? For as crazy as this year has been, why not some good news?

So I went in search of the Poweshiek skipperling, a small butterfly of native grass prairies that covered the weastern part of this state. It was last seen near Fertile by John Weber on July 10, 2013 and then seven years earlier by him. Prior to that, the Poweshiek had fair numbers, but now it is most likely extinct from the state and most likely soon from the planet.

So, with a hand-drawn map from John, I gassed up the truck and headed out on my wild ghost chase on the prairie.


When I arrived at what was left of the prairie, I found mostly crop fields and waste lands – lands too wet to farm and starting to be overgrown by brush and trees due to fire suppression and the extinction of the bison.

But I was instantly greeted by king birds, brown thrasher, veery, catbird, meadowlark and a curious white-tailed fawn came running up to me.

The meadow was in full bloom with Indian hemp, brown-eyed Susan, lead plant, wolf berry, bergamot, larkspur, Culver's root, milkweed, thistle, purple and white prairie clovers and many others I don’t know. So it was a feast for the senses!

I instantly started seeing butterflies as well – lots of common wood nymphs flushing out of the grasses and flowers as they have for thousands of years and as I walked where once there were herds of bison as far as you could see.

I was seeing silver bordered frits, meadow frits, great spangled frits, northern crescents, acadian hairstreak and black swallowtails. But the closest I could find to the skipperling was several pecks and delaware skippers.

I did see a couple big rocks, like ghosts of bison past. I stopped and asked one for its wisdom and knowledge, for it has seen all that has gone on since the last glacier, including the bison, passenger pigeon, the Poweshiek skipperling and the destruction of man, but unfortunately I still don’t speak rock, so I went on my way.

I never did see what I came to see…or did I? No Poweshiek skipperling, so I don’t have to deal with the moral dilemma of whether or not to report it, for I saw several areas that had been sprayed. What’s more damaging to a rare insect? The spray or what was being sprayed? I think I have the answer to that after the power company sprayed the highline corridor through a vernal pond by my house three years ago, and to this day, the frogs no longer call from it.

An outdoorsman all his life, Dallas Hudson grew up in Akeley. He tracks the birds, animals, insects, plants of northern Minnesota in his daily journals. Hudson shares his nature observations and photos with KAXE’s Season Watch, the Minnesota Phenology Network and the Park Rapids Enterprise. He works at an official field camp of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on Shingobee Lake, near Akeley.


What To Read Next
Get Local