Shards of jagged ice floated between dried stalks of grass as biologists Lisa Reid and Brian Pember forcibly lifted their hip-high rubber boots from the hummocky bottom of a wet meadow in southeastern Minnesota. The crash of the biologists’ hip boots cut a path through the thin sheet of ice spanning in front of them. The commotion created by the two Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge employees caused crowds of birds in the area to lift from their resting places and fly into the crisp, cloudless sky.
Reid and Pember made their way around a line of trees, when Pember silenced his suctioned boots beneath the water and looked to his left, pointing out two Sandhill Cranes. The biologists—constant observers of nature and wildlife— took in the sight of the large birds as they rose, circling the perimeter of the meadow and releasing their trumpeting calls.
Reid spends the majority of her time planning and coordinating, while seated at a desk on the second floor of the refuge’s offices on the corner of Fourth and East Howard streets in Winona, Minn. But she and Pember yearn for the workdays they spend out in the field.
On March 25, Reid and Pember set out to record the water levels of wells in a wet meadow; observe the activity of six eagle nests throughout the refuge; and raise a song meter—a device that measures climate and wildlife activity in the area—an extra five feet in the backwaters of the Mississippi, where river levels were nearing flood stage.
Biologists Brian Pember and Lisa Reid raise a song meter in the backwaters of the Mississippi River Friday, March 25.
After arbitrarily wading to and checking the levels of the nine water wells in the meadow—a simple read that helps the refuge monitor the area—the biologists began to leave. Reid alerted Pember to the time: 12:56 p.m. The song meter posted in the middle of the meadow, which records the bird and amphibian calls in the area, turned on at 1 p.m., leaving Reid and Pember only four minutes to slosh out of the meadow and let the wildlife resettle.
They hiked back to their truck, pointing out possum tracks in the snow and observing small black spiders as they scurried over the white ground.
Both biologists chose to enter a line of work connected to wildlife and their habitats after developing an attraction to nature and the environment at a young age.
Reid, a wildlife biologist, grew up in northern Illinois neighboring a prairie. Reid had always enjoyed being outside and was shocked when a housing development replaced the open grassland.
“That was kind of irritating to me,” she said. “I couldn’t believe they took that away.”
Reid involved herself with the National Wildlife Refuge system, traveling around the nation and working on various refuges.
“Even if you don’t know that there’s wildlife…out your back door, it still needs to be there,” she said.
Similarly, Pember, a biological science technician, grew up in a new housing development. As a child, he watched the stream running through his neighborhood deteriorate with the addition of each new house.
”I always had an affinity for water,” he said.
Now that both biologists apply their lives to protecting the land and its voiceless population, they see the necessity of a natural world.
“Even human life wouldn’t be what it is if all the other biological processes have imploded on themselves because of stuff we did,” said Reid.
As Pember continued north on Highway 61, a woodchuck stepped its small foot from the center median into oncoming traffic.
“Look out little woodchuck,” said Pember, to himself, as he sped past the rodent on his left. “Keep going, keep going,” he continued down the road while looking back in his rearview mirror.
In a “motherly kind of way,” Pember said he feels a sense of protection over the 261-mile river refuge, which spans from Rock Island, Ill., to Wabasha, Minn.
En route to another location and another task, Pember drove his white pick-up truck down a straight stretch of road flanked by vast fields. Hundreds of birds rested in collected ponds of water. Pember stopped the engine and rolled down the windows of the truck.
“God, I’d love to live next to that,” said Pember, as he and Reid absorbed the sounds of varying birdcalls.
Biologist Brian Pember examines a possible eagle nest location Friday, March 25 along the Mississippi River.
As the biologists drove further north through the refuge, Reid consulted a worn burgundy binder labeled Eagle Nests. Pages of colorful maps marking the locations of the birds’ possible homes were clipped inside. Reid opened the binder as they approached the fourth nest to be observed that day.
Surrounded by a wooded area, a large stick and debris-constructed nest rested in the arm of a leafless tree. Inside the nest sat a hunkered down eagle, protecting its eggs. Several yards away, Pember held binoculars to his eyes as he leaned out the driver’s side window of his truck on the shoulder of the highway. Through magnified eyes, Pember detected the bobbing white head of a bald eagle.
“This one’s active,” he said to Reid, in reference to the presence of the bird and its resultant eggs. Reid, who sat in the backseat of the truck, recorded the finding.
The biologists used the recorded data to track the eagle activity on the refuge. Although the bird is no longer endangered, it’s still of high interest in the upper Mississippi River—the densest breeding area for the bald eagle.
At a final stop in Alma, Wis., the biologists slid out of their hip boots, which they had worn the entire day. Two men, who had parked behind them, stopped Reid before she could remove her boots as she hung out the passenger-side door.
“Can we take your picture?” asked one of the men. Reid complied and stood next to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge shield decal on the side of the white pick-up truck. As the man snapped her photo, she smiled and the late afternoon sun hung heavy over the nearby river.
After removing their boots, Pember and Reid returned to cab of the truck and exchanged contagious yawns as they continued to converse about the area and the wildlife they observed.
“(Nature) is how we’re going to survive,” said Reid.
“It’s quality of life,” added Pember. “It’s peace, it’s diversity, and without it we will not survive,” he said.