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Ben Douglas—2018 Big Half Year

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 April 23, 2018)

State Parks Visited 2018: 25

SP List 2018: 114 species
MN List 2018: 127 species (302 Lifetime)

SP Life List: 174 (2017) / 201 (Total)

Miles Hiked 2018: 92 (4/23/18)
Hiking Club Trails Completed: 13

County Tics: 2148 (2017) / 2484 (4/23/18)

March Tics: 127 Before / 129 After
April Tics: 174 Before / 175…

RECENT BEST STATE PARK YEAR BIRDS 2018

  • Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s) (4/22 Shetek)
  • Winter Wren (417 Afton)
  • Golden Eagle (4/12 Afton)
  • Merlin (3/28 William O’Brien)
  • Golden Eagle (3/3 Myre)
  • Barred Owl (3/1 Afton)
  • Long-Eared Owl (2/5 AFton)
  • Northern Saw-Whet (1/21 Afton)
  • White-winged Crossbill (1/20 McCarthy Beach)
  • Red Crossbill (1/20 Scenic)

State Park Roulette – Minneopa

 April 24, 2018

On Saturday the 21st of April I got up before the sun and headed out to Afton north prairie hoping to catch American Woodcock before they head back into the woods for the day time. This plan didn’t work out, but I was treated to a great soundscape at sunrise with Wild Turkey, Ringed-neck Pheasant, and Great Horned Owl talking all at the same time. After about 10 minutes I had the great fortune of hearing a Wilson’s Snipe sound off from near the trail. A likely migrant that had set down in the prairie grass for the night prior to finding a better destination.

After a long and beautiful day guiding at Afton State Park for the Hastings Earth Day Bird Festival as well as presenting on the subject of birding gear I was certainly tired and ready for sleep. April had been so terrible though that I knew I wanted to put a big day in on Sunday and try to get to a couple State Parks.

So I set my alarm for 5AM and got on the road within minutes of my alarm, ready for what ever was to come my way. I was on the way to the gas station before I realized I had no idea what park I was heading towards. My general though was west and then perhaps south. After getting gas and some iced tea I landed upon Minneopa for no particular reason at all. I didn’t build up with a ton of research laying down the best possible location for species X, while plotting out perfect timings, etc… I just picked a park and drove.

I’m actually pretty brutal when it comes to being spontaneous so this was a huge change for me. I want this big year to also be about surprise. Going into a situation and just happening upon the world doing it’s thing. Yes, it would be awesome to have the entire year plotted out for max species count, but what really seems to inspire me now is the thrill of the unknown. The idea of showing up and finding a trail that looks fun after I arrive and see what is at the end of that trail.

At about 7:15AM I rolled into the entrance and snagged a quick sign selfie and quickly spotted a fly over flock of Tundra Swan on the move.

Only later did I realize my head was literally over the falls in the sign.

Notable to me was the limited structures and non-paved roads in the park. I also found that a large chunk of the park was actually an enclosed buffalo paddock. The drive was closed, but I later found the hiking trail completely circles the enclosure and a few buffalo were spotted grazing in the prairie. Much of the entrance area and land space leading up to the trailhead parking area had gotten an invasive removal effort so it looked a bit clear cut in areas. These fringe areas looked as though they were thick with buckthorn, sumac, and cedar trees. The cleanup though had the area looking fresh and the dirt roads seems to be well kept and new trail signage was in place along with really new pit toilettes that had the lumber smell fresh from the yard.

I do find a lot of value in being the only one present at a park. The lot was wet, but didn’t appear to be crazy soft or anything so it held well.

I soon found myself on the trail enjoying the constant chatter of Dark-eyed Junco and Fox Sparrow that were both in great supply. The trail skirted the noted Buffalo enclosure and also the treed ridge line above a set of railroad tracks and the Minnesota River. From the vantage point I was able to catch some view of the winding river, but few waterfowl moved about on the muddy river and swift current. I stirred up a small flock of Gadwall sitting in a flooded pool off the one marshy area near the parking lot as dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds tried to lock down some territory.

The open prairie still melting off the snow. This is the main feature of the park and dedicated to the Buffalo herd with the exception of a drive through the paddock.
One of maybe 5 or 6 Buffalo I saw from a ways off.

By and large the trail sat just on the wooded edge of the greater prairie space as I found Hermit Thrush kicking around the leaf litter, having survived the winter storms or perhaps just arriving after they were gone.

Hermit Thrush playing hard to get along with 4 others on this stretch of trail.

I saw my first State Park rabbit of the year as an Eastern Cottontail scampered down the trail in front of me.

I found a small stream running along the prairie and flowing over trail. It took me a while to find a crossing as it eventually turned into a flooded forest zone with many thorn bushes protecting the wooded edges. When I found something narrow enough I was keenly aware I could make the jump, but the wet edges threatened to dunk my gear if I were to slip at all. I found a stout branch near my height and used it to pole vault over the gap so I could just push off and ride the gap.

Back to the trail I eventually looped back and decided against the 2 mile plus add-on for the entire loop. I could see an old wind mill over on that side, but also noted a county highway adjacent as well and felt the habitat wouldn’t likely add much on this day. Perhaps a return trip would have the entire hike around and maybe even a drive through the Buffalo pen.

The historic mill that beckons for further exploration in the future. Maybe a combo of this park with Fort Ridgley would be a good day trip with my wife as we both enjoy history.

For what it offers Minneopa State Park is a decent hike and pretty much 1 long loop trail or a couple options to strike out and return on the same section. The habitat is limited, but I can see enjoying the space an potentially pulling in a rarity from time to time. As I left the lot I realized a sign was pointing me to the parks “Falls” area and that I hadn’t even realized potentially the best feature was in a detached portion of the park.

I rolled into another dirt lot and found a well kept picnic and shelter area with a nice bridge over an initial drop in the falls putting it on top of the main falls. After crossing over you are shown a great view of the entire falls, which was moving very well with the higher water levels.

A view of the upper (pre) falls while standing on the pedestrian bridge.
The main falls as seen from the walkway showing the pedestrian bridge over the falls as well. It was a nice add for a park after a couple hour hike.

I could also see a path moving away from the falls that seemed to cross back over the canyon and back to the picnic area. I had an Eastern Phoebe singing a bit at the falls as I grabbed photos of my little sidebar adventure and made a note to return to the park with my wife for a fun day of waterfalls, Buffalo, and perhaps history by visiting the old mill I had seen.

The Great: Impressive Buffalo enclosure that provides an opportunity to see an animal we don’t often get to see in nature settings. A trail that loops the entire area is nice and provide plenty of distance to cover. The falls when flowing strong were outstanding and certainly a draw.

The Meh: The largest feature could actually be the drawback for birding. A giant prairie you can only discover on the edges and by car might limit options for getting close to some bird species and leave you constantly pressed against a fence line squinting for species. Limited wet lands provide a very limited habitat mix so the park isn’t likely to fill out a county species card super fast.

The Verdict: Considering a great waterfall and a unique draw of Buffalo, the park is a excellent visit location. From a birding standpoint I wouldn’t see it being a must visit every year, but I did just get a 2 hour slice of time. Might be this prairie offers some insane birding post migration and it a must see all the time. Being honest, I likely only return this year if my wife is interested in the falls as a chance to get out of town for the day.

Lac Qui Parle – Waterfowl Bomb – Spring Release

 March 18, 2018

No doubt coming into the St. Patrick’s Day weekend I was grumpy and just ready for winter to be done. It was very easy to avoid serious birding efforts with iffy weather and other things on the list to do. This one felt different though as the weather was turning at the right time and temps were looking to finally hit normal for this time of year.

Mid-week or so Garret Wee in the western part of the state posted up a note about serious waterfowl building up at Lac Qui Parle State Park. With open water confirmed I didn’t hesitate to call this my target location for Saturday.

I was so jacked I set my alarm for 5AM and woke up at 4:15AM instead and got going eating breakfast and packing up my RAV4. I was out the door by the original 5AM alarm heading west out of the cities. I made great time rolling into Lac Qui Parle upper segment just before 8AM.

The look of a man who just slayed it on waterfowl for the last couple hours. Determination and  satisfaction reined supreme on this great outing.

I could see thousands of waterfowl on the open water and opted to drive to the end of the open water zone and pulled off on a nice overlook. Tundra Swans were immediately visible as I quickly started ticking off State Park year and lifetime birds in this historical hotbed of great waterfowl. Minutes after arriving Alex Sundvall pinged my cell phone telling me I had best get to Lac Qui Parle soon with the massive number of birds present. He, Liz Harper, and Kathleen MacAulay were at the south end of the lake doing the same as I was. Pegging every species they possibly could.

I later joined up with them while we ticked off species after species as I ended up pulling 23 species of waterfowl and effectively finishing the vast majority of likely waterfowl in a single day. Any missing birds I had picked up at Myre-Big Island a couple weeks ago and this day had me take in single birds like Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, and Canvasback. A single Killdeer called from overhead with it’s high volume single piercing call. It is never spring for me until a Killdeer calls overhead looking for some mudflats to feed upon.

A bit into the effort another birder friend Gary Reitan stopped by looking to also add some birds to his list after seeing Garret Wee’s post. It is something how influential a single social media post really can be at this time of year for people looking to get out of town and get a start on spring waterfowl searching.

First of year waterfowl aside, several were also lifetime State Park birds for me moving my life total to 196. (Adds of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater & Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Duck.)

Eventually I had to leave the massive waterfowl grouping and checked out the main office feeders that had been hosting an Evening Grosbeak all winter. That bird was not present, but 4 Purple Finches made it a pleasant stop all the same.

The much coveted duo of Purple Finch and House Sparrow. Well, maybe the first half of that anyway.

I soon checked out the lower unit area of the park on the other side of the lake and found little moving around and wasn’t ready to engage in a hike for the day so I quickly moved on and targeted Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

A signage selfie with Upper Sioux, a park I’ll have to come back and hike in the future. The ground just wasn’t good enough for a proper hike this day. I could see a lot of good sloping terrain that would make it iffy at best.

(I’ll likely skip much of a write-up on this park at this time though as the roads were very spongy and all trails looked heavily iced and steep.)

The Great: No doubt about why this park has a waterfowl reputation for this time of year. The open water at the south end of the lake creates a great early staging zone in an area of the state with little open water. I left the day missing only American Black Duck and Red-breasted Merganser for the earlier arriving waterfowl. I will of course need to target Grebe in the near future along with Scoter and Long-tailed Duck in the fall, but for the time being I’m well ahead on these birds being found in a State Park. This should give me flexibility in the coming weeks in deciding locations.

The Meh: Given what this park has to work with, I can see it being a specialist in waterfowl. I look forward to another scoping visit as the spring moves on to see if a rarity can be pulled out of the lake. I didn’t see much for additional habitat or long secluded hikes, but every park can’t be everything.

The Verdict: This is a must visit for anyone looking to rack up a serious waterfowl total. The high overlook areas and platform viewing zone all provide great looks at the lake. I will be back, even if it is just a scope and go type of effort. I totaled 51 species in my time at the park and blew the doors off even Afton State Park, which I’ve visited 11 times already this year.

Myre-Big Island Sky Watching Odyssey 

March 16, 2018

Several days in advance of Saturday the 3rd of March friends had been calling Saturday our first solid window of opportunity for spring waterfowl movement. Specifically Peter Nichols noted the very strong SE winds in the 15+ MPH range and warm temps that it was very possible we would get our first serious flights of Snow Geese and Greater White-Fronted Geese.

I thought about my options for the day and consulted the snow coverage map that I have linked on the main page of this blog with the DNR. This gives a weekly view of what snow coverage looks like all over the state. Additionally Garret Wee out in the western portion of the state mentioned that the latest snow storm had them sitting on a wall of snow likely to dissuade birds from continuing any type of serious flight beyond their area.

Using all of this data and eBird current year species details for Great White-fronted Geese I guessed that something straight south and right on the Iowa border would give me the best option on the day. This ended up being Myre-Big Island State Park.

I can’t state enough the importance of being able to pick out a viable location in advance of efforts like this. Of course with a less restrictive year that would put me in any location I could be a bit more granular in my approach, but ranking my options I put Myre as number 1 with a few options along the Mississippi as secondary options.

I didn’t get rolling really early considering we would need some time for the sun to get things cooking a bit and really get the birds moving. I drove south on I35 and saw a few casual flocks of Canada Geese along the way, but few other flocking birds of note. My eBird list started at 9AM and I figured this put me right where I wanted to be timing wise for setting up at a viable location.

I did not plan for the typical winter state of a State Park as Myre had most side roads closed and pretty much had just limited plowing done into the camp ground on the Big Island itself. This island was surprisingly dense with large deciduous trees and presented no direct view of the lake that I could see. I eventually bounced over rutted road to a parking spot in the middle of the island and put on some Yak Trax and hiked with gear along a single trail to the far south end of the island. It was wooded all the way to the shore line and I eventually set up shop on the ice to get some type of view to the South and East. In my haste though I had left my sun glasses in the car and the view over a snow covered lake was like looking directly at the sun still low in the sky. This plus the 20MPH wind made it almost impossible viewing from this position. I made the quick call to get off this spot and perhaps setup near the entrance station with a good segment of prairie between me and the island tree line.

I hiked on the ice around the east side of the island and found no viable views for the island that was much more wooded than I expected. (This is ultimately a good thing as many tree cavities begged for possible owl habitat.) I worked a rough trail in the woods back to my car and eventually had a Big Year avatar Pileated Woodpecker make some noise for me in addition to the full sweep of winter woodpeckers for the area. (Downy, Hairy, Red-Bellied)

Driving back to the entrance parking I noted a first of year Song Sparrow on the roadside along with some American Tree Sparrows. Shortly after I heard a flock of American Robin and Eastern Bluebirds starting to work back north for the year. These more hearty thrushes certain portent spring and much warmer weather.

Back at the entrance I spotted a small feeder setup next to the entrance building that seemed to be supporting the local Chickadee population at best.

A Fox Squirrel hanging out under the limited feeder station at the park entrance.

I hopped on the Blazing Star State Trail segment that is paved and was starting to clear in the open prairie spaces. I figured I’d start this hike and setup shop for sky watching at a prime high point. Within minutes I had a Red-winged Blackbird fly by looking to get in on some breeding territory nice and early. Then the flights of geese started in earnest as I soon had 400+ Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese fly over in varying sized flocks. I eventually was able to pick out key oddities in both Ross’s Goose and Cackling Goose from the flocks to get them on my State Park list for the year as well.

Wind and light made it hard for my super zoom to get any really good flight pictures. Greater White-fronted Geese in the upper left and then various Snow Geese in the remaining pictures showing White and Blue Phase.

In total I would finish the park sky watch adding 11 birds to my State Park year list and several to my all time State Park list, now at 188. My hike added all the geese in such a short period of time I decided to hike the full trail noted as the Hiking Club trail and also picked up a couple Sandhill Cranes calling over head at one point and a quick view of a Ring-billed Gull as well.

I even had a Kinglet of some type call really quickly, but play hard to get. I couldn’t lock it down to species so I had to leave the bird unidentified. Spring was definitely starting at the south end of the state with some excellent early season birds to be found and a really nice boost to my big year.

The Great: Several options for hiking at this parking including some nice prairie tracts and some great mature forest on the island. I also noted several pieces of swampy/marsh habitat that evoked some good possible marsh bird stop over potential. The sheer amount of lake adjacent hiking also presents a ton of possible hidden spots to see ducks on the water in migration. (Once the water melts anyway.) I really think this park in migration could provide some insane bird counts.

The Meh: The big island surprised me in not really having much in the way of lake viewing from what I could tell. A single trail may lead around the island giving you a chance to try to find some views from the shore. If you want to scope for ducks it may end being a bit more of a hike to drag your scope to viable points on the trails. This could also be good in a way, but it is not readily apparent that a convenient single location exists. Though the picnic area was blocked off to road traffic so I did not get a view of that at all. It is apparent that much of this parks facilities are shut down in the winter and contrast heavily with parks like Afton and Fort Snelling that strive to keep as much trail space and buildings open as possible. I wanted to note also on the western portions of the park the highway noise of I35 is very apparent as it was up north of the cities for places like Moose Lake that is also adjacent to the highway.

The Verdict: The park provided what I was looking for though I ended up needing to focus on being in the prairie instead of on the island looking over the lake space. That was a minor issue though and I can see this park being seriously dense with birds on migration and I look forward to another spring trip to this park for ducks on the water and other migrants. Though not a massive park the amount of trail space that edges the large sprawling lake provided some really serious potential for water birds. I may have to lug a lot of gear on such a trip with my large scope, but it would be worth such an effort.

Fort Snelling – Underestimated Urban Adventure

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.

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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