Bird Life on the Avian Superhighway

By Leslie Pilgrim

Historic Pilot Knob: Perfectly Perched in the Fast Lane

Historic Pilot Knob is located within one of the world’s amazing bird migratory routes: The Mississippi Flyway. Every year, over 325 bird species migrate via the flyway from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States to their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, or beyond, to Central and South America. About 40 percent of all North American waterfowl and shorebirds use the Mississippi River corridor as a migratory flyway. And overall, the Mississippi Flyway is the approximate migratory route for nearly half of North America’s birds.

Located on the bluffs above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, historic Pilot Knob is perfectly perched in the fast-lane of this avian superhighway. Its bluff-top location in the flyway means great opportunities to spot a wide range of birds—from seasonal migratory visitors, to birds that remain year round. While peak migration takes place in May, September, and October, birding on this bluff is rewarding in any season.

The adult great blue heron can have a wingspan of up to seven feet in length. In the winter, these birds migrate to ice-free coastal areas and waterways in the southeast United States, as well as the Caribbean. Photo courtesy of Travis Bonovsky

The adult great blue heron can have a wingspan of up to seven feet in length. In the winter, these birds migrate to ice-free coastal areas and waterways in the southeast United States, as well as the Caribbean. Photo courtesy of Travis Bonovsky

The Flyway of Centuries Past

The present-day network of dams, levees, and locks has reduced the Mississippi floodplain to less than ten percent of its original size. It is estimated that 19 square miles of wetlands in the southern delta area of the United States disappear each year. Loss of habitat has greatly diminished the number of species and quantity of birds from what traveled the flyway in centuries past.

“Before the Mississippi River was dammed, the river valley was a vast floodplain,” explains Chase Davies, society board secretary for the St. Paul chapter of the Audubon Society. “Because of the close proximity to water, vegetative layering, diverse habitat and food sources, there was an incredible diversity of bird species and numbers of birds in this area.” Davies believes one can get a small glimpse of what the floodplain that existed in the Twin Cities metropolitan area may have been like by visiting Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin—a 6,500-acre refuge that offers robust, biodiverse avian breeding habitat. Having experienced the relative lushness of the Trempealeau refuge, Davies understands why historic Pilot Knob, with its bluff prairies overlooking the floodplain and the confluence of two rivers, and the accompanying abundance of wildlife, were so attractive to the Dakota. “This area must have been a hotbed of activity in so many ways,” she surmises.

The U.S. is comprised of four distinct migratory flyways that are used by birds to travel from breeding to wintering grounds and back. Click here to watch the tracking of 118 bird species migration patterns in the Western hemisphere. Note that some birds do not fly south the same way they fly north. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The U.S. is comprised of four distinct migratory flyways that are used by birds to travel from breeding to wintering grounds and back. Click here to watch the tracking of 118 bird species migration patterns in the Western hemisphere. Note that some birds do not fly south the same way they fly north. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

An Important Bird Area

While the flyway may not have the bounteous wildlife that it once had, the corridor that passes through the Twin Cities remains an important area for birds. In fact, an “Important Bird Area” (IBA), is an area that has been specifically identified by the national Audubon Society as crucial in order “to identify, monitor, and protect the most important places for birds” so that areas vital to birds can be conserved. Audubon has “identified 2,758 IBAs covering 417 million acres of public and private lands in the United States. Among these are high-priority Global IBAs—places like New York City’s Jamaica Bay, areas within Alaska’s Arctic Slope, and coastal bird sanctuaries in Texas.”

Historic Pilot Knob lies within one of the 57 Minnesota IBAs identified by the Audubon Society (in conjunction with Audubon Minnesota). It is located on the border of the Mississippi River Twin Cites/Lower Minnesota River Valley IBAs. These IBAs are situated in the most densely populated and highly urbanized portion of Minnesota. (See map for IBAs in the Twin Cities as well as Minnesota.) Lying within an IBA, as well as the flyway, adds another layer of importance to the ongoing restoration and stewardship work taking place on “the hill much visited.” Shorebirds and waterfowl—which include geese, swans, herons, egrets, eagles, dabbling and diving ducks, coots, grebes, kingfishers, cormorants, terns, and so many more—need the river for sustenance or breeding habitat. While these birds rely primarily on the river, Pilot Knob offers a great vantage point for viewing birds that ride thermals (such as bald eagles), or water birds that pass overhead (such as egrets, herons, or a variety of ducks and geese).

Many terrestrial (land) birds (96 percent of which feed only insects to their young) that feed fully or partly on insects, enjoy the bounty of insects that are attracted to the native vegetation on Pilot Knob’s restored prairie. Many birds are also attracted to the seedheads of fall native prairie forbs and grasses. Migratory visitors also take advantage of the habitat, food sources, and biodiversity of Pilot Knob’s restored landscape. In the fall as these migratory birds prepare to depart on long journeys toward warmer climates, they enter a state of increased appetite known as hyperphagia, which compels birds to bulk up to create reserves of fat. The 25 acres of historic Pilot Knob make their offering of insects, seeds, and small rodents so that these travelers can, hopefully, make successful journeys to their wintering grounds.

The trademark white head and tail feathers of the bald eagle do not appear until it reaches age four or five. Bald eagles can often be seen soaring above and near Historic Pilot Knob. Photo courtesy of Travis Bonvosky.

The trademark white head and tail feathers of the bald eagle do not appear until it reaches age four or five. Bald eagles can often be seen soaring above and near Historic Pilot Knob.
Photo courtesy of Travis Bonvosky.

A Birder’s Paradise

Historic Pilot Knob is but one part of a “birder’s paradise” in the immediate area. A short hike on the river flats below historic Pilot Knob lies Gun Club Lake. Across the river on the river bottoms is Fort Snelling State Park. And the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge lies slightly downstream southwest of Pilot Knob. All of these sites lie in the IBA/Mississippi Flyway and offer rich opportunities to enjoy birds of all types: waterfowl, migratory visitors, and year round residents. Fort Snelling State Park has compiled a great birding list for this IBA. For more information on the importance of IBAs, click here.

Goldfinch with seeds of the meadow blazing star. Historic Pilot Knob is located within an Important Bird Area (IBA). The goal of the IBA program, according to the National Audubon Society, is to “ensure the survival of wild bird populations through the identification and protection of their most important habitats.”    (photo courtesy of Travis Bonovsky)

Goldfinch with seeds of the meadow blazing star. Historic Pilot Knob is located within an Important Bird Area (IBA). The goal of the IBA program, according to the National Audubon Society, is to “ensure the survival of wild bird populations through the identification and protection of their most important habitats.”
Photo courtesy of Travis Bonovsky.

Leave a comment

Oȟéyawahe/ Pilot Knob Now Listed on National Register of Historic Places

On March 14, 2017, Pilot Knob was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the official federal registry of historically significant sites worthy of preservation. For centuries, Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob has been a sacred indigenous burial ground and gathering place, earning its Dakota name “Oȟéyawahe,” meaning “a sacred place much visited; the place where people go for burials.” It continues to be a Dakota ceremonial site and a place where people can learn about history and culture that predates Minnesota statehood. The view from Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob was frequently referenced in early explorers’ and settlers’ writings including Lt. Zebulon Pike in 1805. The Treaty of 1851 was signed here, ceding 35 million acres of land to the United States.

Of the designation, Darlene St. Clair, associate professor at St. Cloud State University and a citizen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, states, “I am thrilled that Oheyawahi [Oȟéyawahe] has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, not only because of its importance in Dakota and Minnesota history, but because Dakota people still cherish this place, as we always have done. I hope this new protective status will also usher in a time when Dakota peoples’ efforts to maintain our relationship with this place is supported by the wider community.”

The 112-acre site on the Register comprises both public and private land in Mendota Heights. People can experience spectacular views by visiting Historic Pilot Knob, a 25-acre natural area owned by the City of Mendota Heights. From the parking lot at the north end of Pilot Knob Road, a trail leads through a prairie restoration to three overlooks. Views include the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, Historic Fort Snelling, and the skylines of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob played an important role in Minnesota’s early territorial and state history. The formation—or “knob”—atop the hill (removed in 1926), was an early prominent natural landmark for travelers and steamboat pilots. Because Pilot Knob was such a distinctive landmark, Senator Stephen Douglas in 1848 proposed it as the site for the territorial capital. Overlooking Pike Island, the property is believed to have served as a burial place for some of those who died in the island’s fenced Dakota internment camp during the winter of 1862-63.

The stunning vistas from the bluffs of Pilot Knob take in a panoramic view that reflects much of the early history of the state itself. Across the river valley lies the historic Fort Snelling military post, completed in 1825. To the north is the Church of St. Peter, the oldest church in continuous use in Minnesota. Seen across the valley in the west horizon is the Minneapolis skyline, and to the north, downtown St. Paul. Below the bluff lies the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, known as “Bdote Minisota” to the Dakota, which later led to the naming of the nearby village of Mendota, a bustling fur trading center in the early 1800s. Mendota became the home of the state’s first elected governor, Henry H. Sibley, originally a fur trader for the American Fur Company. In a letter to a newspaper Sibley noted he “was much impressed with the picturesque beauty of the spot and its surroundings, when seen from the high ground overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and especially Pilot Knob.”

In 2002, a private developer had plans to build high-density housing on the northern portion of the historic site. In response to the proposal, Dakota and Ojibwe communities, historians, archaeologists, religious institutions, environmental organizations, and area residents raised objections and urged the City of Mendota Heights to purchase the acreage slated for development and to permanently preserve it as public open space. From 2006 to 2008, the city of Mendota Heights acquired 25 acres through a combination of grants and funding from governmental entities, organizations, the city, Dakota County, and individuals.

Over the past decade, the city’s 25-acre parcel has been undergoing restoration to oak savanna by Great River Greening, a non-profit that leads community-based vegetative restoration efforts. The oak savanna restoration at Historic Pilot Knob is believed to reflect the native vegetation that existed at the site before European settlement. A simple trail system, which includes interpretive signage, allows visitors to experience the site’s impressive historic vistas. Two overlooks incorporate public art works designed as tributes to the Dakota heritage of the area. A third overlook is a sculptural work of art by local artist Seitu Jones—seven blocks of carved stone set in a circle, engraved with the names of the seven council fires of the Dakota Nation. Additionally, Historic Pilot Knob is situated within an Important Bird Area of the Mississippi Flyway—one of the world’s crucial migratory corridors.

Today, the acreage owned by the city of Mendota Heights that lies within the overall 112-acre historic site is stewarded in collaboration with the Pilot Knob Preservation Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The city of Mendota Heights recognizes this jewel in its midst.
“The residents of Mendota Heights are honored to have such a historical site within our beautiful city,” says Mendota Heights Mayor Neil Garlock. “Our residents are greatly encouraged to visit the site and take advantage of this educational opportunity.”

For directions to Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob and for more information, visit pilotknobpreservation.org. Brochures are available for download from the website, at City Hall or at Pilot Knob.

Contact:
Gail Lewellan
glewellan@comcast.net
651-457-4652

Leave a comment

Oȟéyawahe: A new spelling for an old name

By Dawi Cofer

The natural feature known to Americans as Pilot Knob has a long history as a mystical site, highly regarded by numerous nations of indigenous people. It was known to the Hochunk, Ojibwe, Dakota, and Meswaki, as well as others. The significance of this site is high, as it was a place where sky burials would take place, commonly known as scaffolding of the dead. It also was a site where the multinational medicine lodge ceremonials would occur. The medicine lodge is a congregation of traditional medicine people, from many different nations. This ceremony was known to all the aforementioned tribes, as well as others. During the time of the medicine lodge, multiple nationalities would appear and work together to perform the ceremonials. This ended in a large dance where all the members would take part. Pilot Knob was such a place that it was easily accessible by river travel, and was up high where all of creation could witness the events. These are the reasons it was chosen.

According to the oral history of the Dakota people, Pilot Knob had great significance to the spirit of the waters, Uŋktéȟi. It was said that the formation of the land had been created by two Uŋktéȟi chasing one another down the river, and one bashed into the hillside which caused it to raise up. These beings were of great size, depending on their own whims, as they were mystical in nature and had many powers, such as changing shape and size. Nearby to Pilot Knob, along the Mississippi river, are many other sites that are regarded as belonging to the Uŋktéȟi; Coldwater Spring, which was a trail into the places under the earth for them, the literal Dakota name Mní Owé Sní signifies it is a cold water trail. Nearby, where the VA center stands, was known as Táku Wakháŋ Thípi, signifying “where the mysterious being dwells.” Even further upriver, at St Anthony Falls, it was known to be a den of this great spirit, underneath which was a nest filled with metals. Many ceremonials took place at St Anthony Falls, to request assistance from this great being. Downriver from Pilot Knob, we have Pig’s Eye Lake. Pig’s Eye Lake was known to be the dwelling place of one of the greatest water spirits, known amongst the Hochunk as Traveler. Somewhere around the area of Pig’s Eye Lake, along the white bluffs of St Paul, (which St Paul was known as Imníža Ská or “White Bluffs”) it was recorded by Jonathan Carver that the Dakota residents camped along the river had painted a great effigy of the water spirit. In his journals he sketched it and spoke of it. Thus this span of the river has a great history to the Dakota and neighboring peoples, especially in regard to the water spirits to whom we were very fond.

As for the name of Pilot Knob in Dakota, it is currently misspelled in Dakota, on most signs and references. They say it is Oheyawahi, but this isn’t phonologically correct as a spelling for the Dakota name. The phonologically correct spelling would be Oȟéyawahe. This spelling can be found in the Dakota – English Dictionary, authored by Stephen Riggs, under the entry “Oȟé” Stephen Riggs said that the name signifies “the hill much visited.” This is not an exact translation, as it is more of a connotation of the place. If we break down the words to create a more literal etymology, we can take oȟéya and explain it as the place where they build mounds – a reference to the burial practices there. The ending of -wahe is commonly attached to places with significance, such as thiwáhe, which signifies the household and family, and othúŋwahe (more commonly said as othúŋwe now in minnesota, but in Lakota country the full word is still said) which signifies a village or city, more literally a place where the people are born. Thus the name Oȟéyawahe implies that it is a place where the people go for burial practices. That is why it is much visited.

 

Leave a comment

A surprising find: Imperiled rusty patched bumble bee discovered at Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob during survey

By Leslie Pilgrim

In recent years, the once-common rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) has vanished from almost 90 percent of its historic range. Experiencing declines so dramatic that the species may be on the brink of extinction, Bombus affinis was recently listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Amazingly, in July, 2016, a single rusty patched bumble bee was detected during a bumble bee field survey at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob. The find was thrilling for the partners participating in this ongoing monitoring project—The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Great River Greening—as well as the citizen scientist volunteers who helped with the “catch and release” effort that day.

An elusive rusty patched bumble bee on a bee balm flower, in a photography by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

An elusive rusty patched bumble bee on a bee balm flower, in a photograph by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

Minnesota’s Bumble Bees in Decline

While the non-native honey bee is the bee most people are familiar with, an estimated 400 bees native to Minnesota provide important pollination services.  Among these native bees, 20 species are bumble bees—about one-fourth of which are struggling to survive. According to Sarah Foltz Jordan, pollinator conservation specialist with the Xerces Society, bumble bees are a priority group to examine at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob for several reasons. “In addition to their well-documented declines and high conservation need, bumble bees are unique among bees in that they can be identified, species in hand, without having to collect them and place them under a microscope,” says Foltz Jordan. “They are also very charismatic—the Teddy bear of the insect world—and people get really excited about looking for them and doing things in their own yards to help these bees.”

The Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob surveys, made possible with support from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, were designed to educate citizens in bumble bee identification and conservation strategies. They will also help in understanding the range, relative abundance, and foraging preferences of Minnesota’s bumble bees.

Oheyawahi, the hill much visited (by pollinators)

The restoration objective of Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob was to reintroduce the native vegetation that was most likely present before European settlement, as respectfully as possible given the sacredness of the site. Now, with over a decade of stewardship, Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob has become a crucial refuge for pollinators. “Pilot Knob is a restored prairie with high quality forage, which provides large amounts of nutrition to several pollinator species, including bumble bees,” explains Sean Wickhem, Great River Greening’s project manager for bumble bee surveys. Because Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob runs alongside the Minnesota River Valley, its location is key in helping maintain and repopulate natural areas along the river’s path. “The next question is,” continues Wickhem, “why haven’t we consistently documented the rusty patched bumble bee on this site, and how can we alter our restoration and management of Pilot Knot to increase their presence?”

Reversing the decline

The combination of habitat loss, pesticide use by homeowners and farmers, climate change, and the proliferation of pathogens and parasites has threatened the viability of many bee species worldwide.  Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob offers wildlife an insecticide-free environment, nesting habitat for a wide range of pollinators, and an abundance of native floral resources. Wild bergamot, asters, and goldenrods are among the bumble bee favorites growing at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob.

Citizen scientists, like the ones who volunteered the day the elusive rusty patched bumble bee was observed, are invaluable in aiding this research. Volunteers are always needed to help with surveys around the Twin Cities metropolitan area.  Another great way to help bumble bees is to participate in Xerces’ Pollinator Citizen Science Projects, including Bumble Bee Watch, or The Minnesota Bumble Bee Survey. “Before we can help these bees, we need to know where they are, and we need more information,” states Elaine Evans.  Evans is an entomologist who helped identify the rusty patched bumble bee at Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob, and is founder of the Minnesota Bumble Bee Survey, an organization dedicated to monitoring rare and declining Minnesota bumble bees.

Citizen scientists at work; photograph by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

Citizen scientists at work; photograph by Sarah Foltz Jordan, Xerces Society

 

“Everyone can help bees, right now,” says Foltz Jordan, who suggests the following:

1) Plant native wildflowers, including species that bloom spring through fall.

2) Plant native shrubs and trees for early season bloom.

3) Leave brush, logs, and unmown grasses around the yard to create nesting habitat.

4) Avoid raking whenever possible. Leaf litter is important for overwintering queen bees.

5) Avoid pesticide use.

6) Display pollinator habitat signage, and talk to neighbors about what you are doing for pollinators.

Click here to watch a brief video describing the discovery of the rusty patched bumble bee at Pilot Knob.

1 Comment

Mendota Heights receives $75,000 grant for removal of overhead power lines on Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob

National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express announced on November 10, 2011, that Historic Pilot Knob will receive a Partners in Preservation grant for $75,000 to help restore the natural landscape of the hill. The money will be used to remove utility poles and powerlines that bisect the site. This restoration work will be managed by the City of Mendota Heights, which maintains the land as a public open space site.

It is not anticipated that any of the original soil of Oheyawahi will be disturbed. Utility poles and lines that brought electricity to houses formerly on the hill will be removed. Lines that feed the lights on state Highway 55 will be buried 2-3 feet deep under the road that was once paved and is now vacated. The lines will be laid in aggregate material brought in when the road was constructed, and will run parallel to the water main under the old road bed. Removal of the power lines will be done in 2012.

Twenty-five historic sites in the Twin Cities metro area competed for a portion of the $1,000,000 grant from American Express. A voting competition was held on Facebook for three weeks earlier this fall. In addition to the voting results, an advisory panel of civic leaders and preservationists considered a site’s needs and role in its community. Twelve other historic sites received significant funding for restoration.

Leave a comment

Pocket Guide to Oheywahi/Pilot Knob Has Been Published

The Pilot Knob Preservation Association’s new Pocket Guide to Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob has been published and an interactive, digital version is available on this website. Work and expenses for the pocket guide were supported by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant from the Minnesota Historical Society earlier this year. The small brochure will introduce the cultural, historical, spiritual and ecological importance of this Dakota County landmark.

Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants are made possible by the Minnesota Legislature from the Arts and cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. The fund was created with passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution in November 2008. The grants are awarded to support projects of enduring value for the cause of history and historic preservation across the state. PKPA also thanks the City of Mendota Heights and Dakota County for their support.

A pdf version of the guide, which can be viewed or printed in Adobe Acrobat Reader, is available here. Paper copies of the guide can be ordered by emailing info@pilotknobpreservation.org with your request.

PKPA received the grant from the Minnesota Historical Society in the spring of 2010. Through the summer and fall project director Chris Soutter, historian Bruce White, and other members of PKPA worked together to gather the information and write the guide. Below (from left to right) PKPA members Cher Fields and Jeanne Hollingsworth discuss the guide, onsite, with Chris Soutter.

As vegetation is restored on Oheyawahi, the hill provides opportunities to see many beautiful sites, which were documented by PKPA during the summer of 2010. In July an admiral butterfly perched in a field filled with wild bergamot and black-eyed susan.

Leave a comment

Chief Arvol Looking Horse leads pipe ceremony

Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, 19th generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, led a pipe ceremony on Pilot Knob on October 3, 2009. Chief Lookinghorse has spent his life working for religious freedom, protection of sacred sites, and cultural survival. He was aided by Sheldon Wolfchild from Lower Sioux, Chris Leith from Prairie Island, Melvin Grey Owl from Crow Creek, and Melvin Lee from Santee, who all spoke about the importance of preserving Dakota sacred sites. Chief Looking Horse stated that sacred sites are the “power points, the grid,” for Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples. After the ceremony there was a feast/lunch and wopida (a “thank you” giveaway) in which the speakers and visitors were honored. It was a cloudy day, but at various times the sun shone brightly on those gathered and two eagles flew overhead.

Pilot Knob, October 3, 2009, including from left to right, Sheldon Wolfchild, Chris Leith, Arvol Looking Horse, Melvin Grey Owl, and Melvin Lee. At the time the picture was taken, Melvin Lee was speaking eloquently about the effort that it had taken to prevent development on Pilot Knob and the need to do the same for other sacred places.

Leave a comment

A Message from Gail Lewellan and Linda Brown, Co-Chairs of PKPA, October 2009

Dear Friend of Pilot Knob/Oheyawahi,

We are filled with wonder at the accomplishments since the Pilot Knob Preservation Association was formed six years ago:

–a proposal for building 157 townhomes on the hill was defeated;

–the 25 acre development site is now open to the public and owned by the City of Mendota Heights;

–the ten-year site restoration to an oak savannah ecosystem is underway with thousands of flowers in bloom, eleven oaks and 2,000 acorns planted;

–two interpretive signs tell the story, in Dakota and English, of the unique history and sacred significance of Pilot Knob/Oheyawahi;

–an overlook that recognizes the seven council fires of Dakota people will soon be installed by the City of Mendota Heights and Great River Greening.

When Chief Lookinghorse was last on Pilot Knob, he and Chris Leith gave the hill a new name: Wotakuye Paha, the hill of all the relatives. Please join the relatives in celebration and thanksgiving for the remarkable events that you have contributed to.

Sincerely,

Gail Lewellan and Linda Brown

1 Comment