BEN DOUGLAS BIG HALF YEAR—BIRDS IN MINNESOTA STATE PARKS
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.
EXCERPTS FROM BEN’S BLOG (LINK ABOVE)
BEN’S BIG YEAR STATS (as of March 1, 2018)
I will admit that I kind of didn’t look forward to Fort Snelling. I only made it a location on Saturday the 10th because I didn’t want to drive any long trips in the continued brutal cold and it was one of the closer parks to me that I haven’t visited yet this winter. I have made a few stops at Fort Snelling before, but it was always to make a run at Barred Owl. The reason I think I don’t hold the highest opinion of the site is because of the air traffic (directly adjacent to MSP airport) and a number of high volume roads including the Mendota Bridge high over the visitor center, parking, and Picnic Island.
I can tell my preference has always been solitude and seclusion as Fort Snelling screams the opposite of that with the added feature of being a higher traffic park with it’s proximity to the heart of the metro area. I was determined though after my weekend off last week to look at my big year a little different. It was becoming easy to talk myself into this big year being nothing but a bird checklist year trying to get all the species I can while touching all the State Park bases in the process.
That is not the main intent though and I wanted to bring back that sense of adventure, wonder, and not knowing what I was going to find around the next corner. I resolved to view Fort Snelling as that louder urban oasis waiting to find out what species are carving out an existence right in the midst of major human activity.
Selfie shadow with the entrance sign.
I pulled into the entrance near 8AM and quickly shot an entrance sign picture and stopped near Snelling Lake as I knew a spring feed keeps a portion of water open all year. As expected up to 30 Trumpeter Swans dotted the open pool as steam wafted above the water. I noticed some large chunks of matter on the ice ring, but nothing that looked like smaller ducks sleeping.
I continued on and figured on parking at the visitor center lot and perhaps hiking back for the loop around Snelling Lake. I had never done this segment mostly because it is in direct line with a major runway as well as being just down a hill from highway 5 for a good portion of the hike. I was immediately rewarded though as I crossed under the Mendota bridge to find 4 Wild Turkey still roosting in the trees soaking up the early morning sunshine in the 0 degree temps. I’ve rarely been able to see them still in trees in the morning so it was a treat to see these bulky birds perched up in the high branches away from danger.
Wild Turkey sunning high up in the trees.
Further down the mixed use trail (hike, bike, and ski) as I neared the open pool of spring fed water I noticed some tracks below me that could only be River Otter in nature. I could see where the creature had let it’s tail drag in the snow in places and where it would often slide it’s whole body along the snow track as well.
Otter tracks and body sliding marks in the snow.
Bullhead parts left behind after feeding, likely by a River Otter.
I figured these tracks were heading right to the spring feed opening and was proven right, not by sight of the Otter itself, but by the noted chunks of matter on the ice ring. Turns out they were bullhead fish half-eaten and left on the ice. At least of dozen of these were present and were another great sign of a very active Otter in the area.
At the pool the Trumpeter Swans eyed me warily, but generally didn’t stop feeding or act as though they were truly put off the limited open water.
Trumpeter Swans feeding in the open spring fed water on Snelling Lake.
As I sat near some icy steps I heard and then saw a Belted Kingfisher fly by and land in a tree over the pool of water.
These old stone steps seemed to indicate a long lost water access or swimming location of the past. I sat on them and listened to the Trumpeter Swans honk while jets came in to land overhead.
Every year I realize even more how hearty the Kingfisher really are as they seem to overwinter in these tiny open water spaces looking to gain some advantage in claiming choice breeding territories come spring.
With the Turkey and Kingfisher both adding to my State Park 2018 list I was very happy with this urban adventure, even with the large Delta jets ripping by overhead. I continued my hike and eventually was put on the edge of the river. Well frozen the Minnesota River is narrow with steep dirt walls in this space with little open water in the main park itself. At about the time I was to cross over a road back towards the lake I heard a single chip note and eventually sighted an American Tree Sparrow working the grass heads along the trail. Just a bit further up as I paused to listen further I heard the distinct high pitch call of a Brown Creeper. This type of deciduous forest in river lowlands seems to be a great place to find them overwintering also. I heard the bird for several minutes, but finding it proved a bit impossible as it moved from tree to tree never really getting louder or quieter in the process.
My 3rd state park year bird and I was only about 1.5 miles into my hike. I spent time on this hike stopping regularly to look into the trees for Barred Owl, but they appeared to be hiding from me on this day. As I got back to the parking lot I knew I had plenty more in me and I grabbed a snack and walked up to the entrance of the visitor center to find a hidden feeder setup behind a wall and just adjacent to the doorway. This space provided a platform feeder and tube feeder and I quickly saw Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, and House Finches in the area. Fort Snelling was offering a lot more than I bargained for and I was eager to hike Pike Island for another shot at Barred Owl on the day.
Going for the roughly 3 mile added loop I quickly noticed the woodpeckers reigned supreme on the island as I easily spotted double digits in Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied on the trail. The tree bark in some spaces was amazingly decimated to a level I have not seem before. Nearly every tree of the type shown in my pictures looked like someone had stripped the outer layers off with some type of knife.
Nearly every tree of this type (species?) was heavily stripped of the outer layer of bark.
Looking at this close-up you can see small claw marks from the woodpeckers doing the excavation work.
As I hiked I stopped every 100 yards or so looking into the trees for Owls and up in the air. I spotted a quartet of Common Merganser on one stop and a few later I picked up my 4th State Park year bird with a Peregrine Falcon flying high in the air not far off the Mendota Bridge. I believe this was my first Peregrine Falcon in a state park ever and it was certainly a first February bird for me as few over winter beyond sky scrapper birds in the heart of the cities.
My hike continued under constant woodpecker sounds as I neared the end of the island and soon realized it was possible to out-hike the city noise. I soon found I was in a relative solitude all the way out on Pike Island. At this point where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers combine I could see some open water a ways off and was able to get my Nikon to snap a few pics of the distant Canada Geese and a few Common Goldeneye.
The hike back offered more of the same and I found I was finally running out of juice as I finished 6 miles of hiking and birding. My urban adventure was a great surprise as I had low expectations and quickly found that even in winter Fort Snelling had a lot to offer. I will save a hike up to the old fort ruins for the summer, but the way looked well cleared for anyone wishing to do so in the cold.
One goal for the spring/summer/fall will be to hike the other side of the Minnesota river and take the extended trail all the way to Cedar Avenue and Black Dog Road. This 6 mile stretch one way is a beast, but may provide some seriously under birded territory that is all still within Fort Snelling park space. I’m sure I’ll need to bring a meal for such a hike and plan to be out most of the day with plenty of water and time for a break.
The Great: Fort Snelling yielded 21 species of birds on a zero degree day in February so this park has some game when it comes to birds for sure. The hiking space was well kept and compressed with dual use in many spaces to allow hikers to exist with skiers. This made me very happy that I wasn’t shut down from 80% of the trail space. I was surprised and happy to find some solitude out on Pike island as well.
The Meh: Man that air traffic is something else. If you go into this park with the right mind set you will be in a nice natural space knowing man had encroached all around and it is the last wild stronghold before the dense cityscape.
The Verdict: I seriously under appreciated Fort Snelling for birds as well as hiking space. I really look forward to hitting the far side of the Minnesota River for a big hike this year and feel like I may add several trips before the year it out to fully explore the space in multiple seasons.
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.
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.