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Ben Douglas—2018 Big Half Year


Donate to Ben’s Big Half Year HERE

1) The goal of my Big Half Year:

My full year goal is to visit every state park in MN to find as many species of birds as possible. I’ll also visit as many State Recreational Areas and State Waysides during this big year as I can fit into my schedule. I’m keeping a blog at bigdouglas.blogspot.com that will chronicle my adventures the entire year. I can’t think of a better way to add value to my own adventures this year than helping raise money for FOSZB.

2) My history with Sax-Zim Bog and why I think it is worth supporting FOSZB:

My first big adventure upon moving to MN was to attend the Sax-Zim Bog birding festival in 2014. I found an amazing diversity of birds and immediately understood the value of preserving as much of this amazing northern bog habitat as possible. The efforts of FOSZB have been inspiring and I want to help bring awareness and funding to those efforts.


Scenic State Park – Weather Finally Breaks

January 20, 2018

The weather reports all agreed that Saturday the 20th would be warm all over the state and without snow/rain fall. I initially thought I’d look at a north shore 2 day circuit, but Sunday was much more up in the air weather-wise so I committed to a single day effort.

I had previously cancelled plans to investigate Scenic and McCarthy Beach so I put them back on the schedule for my “off” weekend.

My alarm ripped me out of sleep at 4AM and I quickly hit the road by 4:20AM looking to get into Scenic State Park sometime just after sunrise. The plan worked as I rolled into the entrance driving along Scenic Highway about 30 minutes after sunrise.

I snagged a map at the entrance station, but had an idea that I would likely hike and check out Chase Point due to the peninsula between Sandwick and Coon Lakes.

Chase Point Trail I hiked.

I first drove the length of the main road all the way to the final boat launch and parked to get a view of the foggy and quiet lake.

Coon Lake at Scenic State Park

The spell of quiet was broken quickly as a stream of ice fishing people rolled in via a caravan of cars to the lot looking to off-load a snowmobile and equipment.

I hopped back in the car and set my sights on the Chase Point Trail parking lot. While pulling on my Yak Trax I heard multiple Common Raven causing a stir nearby and noted a persistent machine noise from off property. It wasn’t hyper pervasive, but it definitely sounded like a logging operation was going somewhere in the adjacent National or State Forest land. Just after getting on the main stretch of trail I paused and quickly heard at least a couple Red Crossbill calling overhead. They sounded as though they were moving to a new tree and attempts to record the flight call were fruitless, but I already had a new State Park bird after the 4 hour drive.

As I looked around I noticed some bare pine branches down slope that looked like they had been stripped of bark. I suspected immediately Porcupine and was rewarded with 2 North American Porcupine casually starring at me while they lounged on the branches. This was excellent, my first personally found Porcupine and a great add for the big year Mammal list.

One of 2 Porcupine.
A sure sign of Porcupine activity is stripped branches on only the top sides.

A short ways down the trail I noticed a tree showing some bark flaking that elicited thoughts of Black-backed or American Three-toed Woodpecker. Though no such bird was found I made note of the flaking and took some pictures to share. I eventually found 3 different types of debris around tree bases that lent a great opportunity to reflect on how much you can add to your knowledge over time. Below are examples of bark flaking, chewed up pine cone pieces, and wood pulp pieces along with thoughts on what likely caused each of them.

Notice these bark flakes right at the base of the tree and that they are not pieces of things like Pine Cone. They are simply bark pieces.
Then observe the tree itself and see a patchwork of bark pealed off, but not really any fresh holes like we would expect from other Woodpeckers. Being on top of the snow it would indicate this activity was fresh in the last week from either a Black-backed or American Three-toed Woodpecker.
Now notice this debris cast off and what it appears to consist of, instead of bark flakes. As we zoom in closer you can see they are scales from a pine cone. The most likely culprit being Red Squirrel, as these little dudes can make large piles or wide cast off areas like above when shredding pine cones to get at the seeds.
This final cast off is localized to the base of a tree and you can tell even from this distance it is made up of bark pieces and also pulp pieces. This is a sure sign of more woodpecker activity, but more likely one of the larger boring woodpeckers. Pileated, Red-bellied, and Hairy. Though considering how far north I was Red-bellied is less likely.

My hike went well as I strolled along the ridge (lakes on either side of me) enjoying the solitude and natural setting. At the end a fresh set of stairs led down to the lake level. I found the distant fire tower and noted my future desire to make the Tall Pines hike and add the tower climb to my efforts. I briefly thought about returning on the trail, but decided instead to slog across the frozen lake so I could add more trail space to my hike. A large boardwalk is set below the main campground and I was able to pick up the trail back towards the parking area. I had Red-Breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches making a racket during this time along with Hairy Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee.

In total I hiked just about 2.5 miles in 6″ to 10″ snow pack, but this park offers a minimum 14 miles of trail space so I just can’t imagine not coming back when the snow is gone. I feel like this is one of those seriously under birded spaces with several trails being a long trek in one direction. I look forward to exploring more of this space in the warmer months.

Having a second park on my list for the day I counted the effort good and headed out to McCarthy Beach state park next.

The Great: Chase Point trail was a lot of fun and had some nice interpretive signs along the way. Finding my own Porcupines was super awesome and the views in the park were very nice.

The Meh: A constant din from logging was a bit off-putting and the winter map available at the entrance station does not match the one seen online. The website maps shows all trails as hiking and not groomed in winter, but the onsite printed map showed all of them as Cross Country Ski or Snowmobile. It wasn’t a big deal though since very few people use the trails in this park. In fact I did not find another non-fishing person in the park the entire morning. It is worth noting that no bird feed station is setup and the park appears to run at minimal staffing during the winter and no trail grooming exists for any of the winter sports.

The Verdict: I completed my hike with Yak Trax, but in a normal snow year I bet it would have been a herculean hike to do so. With much of the major hiking being large far out loops I might council waiting until spring and summer to hit this park. It is a true adventure though and I would not trade the experience for anything.

McCarthy Beach – Min Maintenance Yard/Road?

January 22, 2018

Google maps directed my path between Scenic State Park and McCarthy Beach. I was given an option for a forest road route of 59 minutes or a larger highway road of 1:10 and promptly chose the longer duration road. I’d rather not find myself stuck on a forest road in the middle of a national forest. As it turns out the move was smart as I quickly found a Bald Eagle sitting on a deer carcass in a clearing. As I rolled by a Black-billed Magpie lifted and moved off as well. I love finding Magpie as this area is effectively the farthest East population of them in the United States.

Shortly after the entrance sign I was trying to keep an eye on the turn so I could setup for a hike near the hiking club trail noted as Big Hole Loop and Pickerel Lake Trail. While doing so I nearly ran over a flock of 8 Red Crossbill sitting in the middle of the lane gritting on the road. I had to jam on the brakes and they cleared at the last second. I’m sure the negative karma of hitting a Crossbill with the car would have been enough to make me drive home so thankfully that was not the case.

I seemed to miss my turn though as I ended up at a split in the road I didn’t expect and figured I was already deep into Link Lake Forest Road. Totally feel like a newb in the north woods as I just expect all season maps found online to depict what is open and not open in each season of the year. Eventually I found a split from the road that seemed to indicate the Minimum Maintenance Road was what I wanted. It felt like a driveway and in a way it was as a home owners driveway split off and the forest road followed their property line tightly for a while further and then opened to a larger parking area advertising lake access and trail access.

I found the snow much deeper than Scenic State Park and put on my snow shoes. For the first 1/2 mile I trekked along the unplowed road as did 1 prior hiker. I got the feeling quickly that the majority of the trails in this area go unused by hikers and snow-shoe users.

This segment of trail showed I was blazing my own path for a good distance. Someone had perhaps hiked this when just a few inches were present, but the present snow pack was only broken by White-tailed Deer prints that I could see.

The map showed miles of trails leading off to the north and west, but I saw little indicating humans had been using them with any regularity.

I followed the hiking club trail and eventually had to truncate the hike. A fresh pack of 10″ of snow was present and I was burning serious calories just trying to lay down my own track as my snow-shoes still dropped several inches deep. Despite that I found myself covering over 2 miles with some excellent elevation changes.

Birding was quiet, but as I dropped near the edge of Pickerel Lake I heard the chatter of a couple White-winged Crossbill. The calls were easily different than the Red Crossbills I heard in the morning and I was satisfied with the calls as they moved between some trees overhead. Getting views or pictures proved impossible all day on Crossbills as I struggled to even see them in my bins. This was my second crossbill species of the day in a State Park and turned out to be my personal #300 species for the state of Minnesota. I later noted some relatively fresh beaver activity on the shore of the lake and wanted to note it for a location to return for a possible State Park mammal add later this year.

The base of this Paper Birch was well chewed, and is a prime sign that Beaver are present in this lake. I look forward to a future effort and finding the species for my mammal list.
A view of Pickerel Lake at McCarthy Beach State Park. It was a beautiful 40 degree day as I finished my hike along the lake side while hearing White-winged Crossbills.

After my exhausting hike I drove back to the beach parking area figuring I could sit down in the near 40 degree weather at a picnic table and have some lunch. As I sat and nibbled on a sausage, cheese, and cracker pack I heard more Red Crossbills moving about the canopy and even got a few second glimpse of them before they moved away. Red-breasted Nuthatches also made sure to talk over the Crossbills as much as possible to ensure an audio recording wasn’t going to be happening either.

Mature trees on slopes and a couple good sized lakes have me looking forward to a return trip to scope for ducks and maybe find a species in the woods on territory. Even if that fails I see some excellent distance hikes extending to the North along with the Taconite Trail that runs through the park.

The Great: This park is offering a solid amount of distance hiking and finding both species of Crossbill on a single 2.5 hour effort tells me that a lot of good stuff is hiding in this park. The park is not overflowing with amazing vistas or rock formations that I saw, but is an incredible natural space I look forward to exploring. I’m betting the beach area is tourist heavy, but I imagine the hiking will get a person well away from that business in the summer months.

The Meh: The winter shuts down a lot of parking options and forest roads appear to turn into trails this time of year, even if they aren’t noted as such on the maps. You will want to be very flexible on a visit in the winter. Based on what I saw, you will want to be a serious snow-shoe or ski user to enjoy much of the trail space in this park when it’s cold. Also be prepared to hear snowmobiles the entire time you are out hiking. This area appeared to be a nexus of such activity as I noted at least 10 groups during the time I hiked or sat and ate lunch.

The Verdict: Getting both Crossbills made this outstanding. I can see the spring/summer value of this park and the extended trails. I’m not sure I would recommend this park in the winter beyond a stop at the beach lot to try for Crossbill. Beyond that the little used trails will make it a next level effort to hike and enjoy.

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