From: Winona Bird Club members, including president Richie Swanson
The Winona Bird Club (WBC), 57 years old in Winona, has formed a committee to contribute a conservation vision to the plan for Winona’s city parks. We’re not finished yet, but in regard to Winona’s bluffs we have preliminary recommendations.
The Great River Bluffs State Park management plan can enlighten Winona’s park planning. It designates dolomite and sandstone cliffs as “high priority areas for protection from disturbance or development of any kind.” Rock and cliff sites are crucial habitat all year long in a greater ecosystem that includes wildlife as well as humans. Peregrine falcons (state-threatened) investigate cliff-nest sites in late winter, and cliffs serve as winter dens for timber rattlesnake (state-threatened), racer and gopher snakes (state-special-concern).
Recommendation: Manage bluff and cliff habitat at all parks in accord with the Great River Bluffs plan. Recognize that developments such as ice-climbing walls usurp sensitive habitat and may weaken the city’s chances of finding conservation grants.
The state-endangered flower discovered by J.M. Holzinger in 1889, Montia Chamissoi, and the state-threatened Sullivant’s coolwort have been currently documented in bluff habitat about 20 miles from Winona.
Recommendation: Include a search for these and other rare plant species and wildlife in park funding and planning.
The Minnesota State Biological Survey found cliff and forest sites at or very near Bluffside Park to have “High Diversity Significance ... containing occurrences of the rarest species” and “landscapes of strong potential for recovery.”
Recommendation: Include in the parks plan and funding an inventory, conservation plan and restoration plan for all Winona’s natural communities.
WBC President Richie Swanson has bicycled extensively through habitat throughout North America since 1977, and has also conducted breeding bird censuses in mature oak forests in bluff habitat at Perrot State Park. He claims 40 years of bicycling and birding experience and a deep intuition of how bicycling disturbs birdlife. He says Winona’s bluff land forests constitute a rare reservoir for forest birds and neo-tropical migrants who face habitat degradation and contamination all along their journeys from South and Central America.
One neo-trop, the wood thrush, symbolizes bird declines in the eastern forest, a 60 percent population drop for the species during the last 50 years, according to “Smithsonian Insider” magazine, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Bluff land forests provide the solution, a large block of contiguous forest. But disturbance from bicycles and habitat fragmentation created by trails can impact birds negatively.
Ovenbirds nest and feed on the ground in the bluffs. Yellow-billed cuckoos, indigo buntings, rufous-sided towhees and ruffed grouse nest and feed low in the bluffs. These species and others will face reductions in breeding success if too many bicycles flush them and 1) reveal nest sites to predators; 2) disrupt food-gathering for young or migrations; 3) ride off trail and create scars in vegetation that degrade habitat long term, encouraging garlic mustard and other invasive species.
Recommendation: Ensure that trail plans prioritize specific local habitats, inventories, and invasive species issues. Adopt habitat-specific conservation goals in regard to bicycle trails. Research Minnesota state park standards and create as much undisturbed contiguous habitat as possible.
The Minnesota Biological Survey also identified 16 dry bluff prairies and dry cliff communities owned by the city of Winona, rare remnants from prairies mostly gone, according to Mathew Schulz, prairie conservationist. Dakota County received $800,000 through two grants from the Conservation Partners Legacy Program for bluff and other prairie restoration that began in 2017. Similar grants could be available to Winona. The city of La Crosse has a restoration and land management program that includes projects to help create habitat for pollinators such as monarchs and rusty patch bumble bees (federal-endangered).
Recommendation: Prioritize conservation opportunities like these as much as recreation. Restore biodiversity where it has previously been degraded. Create education related to parks that encourages world-views that value miracles of nature alongside miracles of humanity.
Dave Palmquist, retired Whitewater State Park naturalist, quotes Aldo Leopold as a guide to planning for Winona’s parks: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” We need to know what rare plants and animals inhabit the bluffs, so we can plan to keep them and their natural confines in place. “Sometimes plans need to change, and occasionally we need to say ‘no’ to inappropriate development proposals,” said Palmquist. “Let’s plan carefully now, so our grandchildren can appreciate and enjoy the work we did to conserve the cherished resources within Winona’s parks.”
The Winona Bird Club greatly appreciates the opportunities the city has created for planning input and encourages all park lovers to take part.