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Friends of Sax-Zim Bog: I have committed to donate and raise money for this great organization as part of their big half year for the bog. My big year is of course finding birds in the MN state parks. Follow this link to my page if you wish to donate and help fund their excellent work in preserving bog lands for future generations to enjoy. Big Douglas Bog Link.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Nerstrand - Big 'Windy' Woods State Park

On Sunday the 18th of February I set out south for Nerstrand looking to hike to the frozen water fall of the park and likely complete the hiking club trail of the park. As I dropped further south it became apparent the wind was picking up and beginning to rip something fierce.

It was also apparent that Horned Larks had been on the move north despite winter still being set in place. As I passed the Randolph Great Western Industrial Park I saw several groups of them scamper from the road shoulder, fleeing into the farm fields.

Further south in a small creek valley I saw a flock of Wild Turkey (20+) dotting the woods and a short time later a group of Ring-necked Pheasant was flying across the road from the yard of a farm home. All the while the wind pushed harder and harder creating small drifts on the road and a constant ribbon of white moving over the pavement.

It grew calmer as I entered into the large deciduous woods of the 'Big Woods' park. The contrast is stark from the open fields to the east and the large wooded property of the park.

My apparent sneer was only due to the wind still being able to find it's ways into the woods and across my face. Picking deciduous tree leaves for the park sign seems appropriate for this park.

Only park vehicles were present as I made my way to the main parking lot. Black-capped Chickadees were bouncing around the entrance station bushes and trees, though it appeared the numerous feeders present were empty and unlikely to have been getting much feed this winter.

In the parking lot as I opened my door, I quickly heard the call of a Pine Siskin from a nearby tree. Yet again, my knowledge of the calls of birds became important as I could not find such a small bird in the waving tree tops. This certainly was not the first time this year that my identification of a species would be limited to just a call instead of a visual as well.

I then put on my Yak Trax and found the trailhead for the Hiking Club trail that quickly starts to drop down to the creek valley. Along the way of the well packed trail I heard a number of Hairy Woodpeckers and a single Red-bellied going about their business. The Black-capped Chickadees were as pervasive as ever during my entire hike along with the expected White-breasted Nuthatch. The frozen falls crept up quickly providing an interesting look, but certainly nothing to inspire awe. The roughly 7' high falls were nothing but a curtain of ice dusted with some snow and showing barely a patch of stone behind.

The woods were littered with the sounds of tree limbs jostling for position in the high winds above. From time to time a partially downed tree complained against another as it sought to complete it's fall to the forest floor. After a round of photos at the falls I continued on across the stream as I sought to follow my selected path.

The frozen wall of the falls with just a hint of rock remaining behind.

A change of angle and it is just a long 7' tall wall of ice found deep in the woods. This is probably a very peaceful and wonderful place in the early spring morning as Wood Thrush sing their song.

The remaining hike went as suspected with only a few Chickadees and Woodpeckers to remind me I wasn't totally alone. At one point I saw a creek valley widen showing a marshy grassland at the bottom of heavily treed slopes. I made a note of this location for the warmer months, thinking that it would be of interest for migrants less inclined to enjoy the woods. My study of the park map has revealed I've not seen a great deal of the park and I look forward to scouring all of the trails in hopes of extending my Nerstrand Park list from the paltry 13 species to date.

As I rounded my last corner and saw a truck travelling down the road I knew I was nearly back to the parking lot. I thought to myself that it would be sinful not to pick up a Pileated Woodpecker in such a large wooded expanse. As if on cue a Pileated rang out with a volley of calls just as I crossed by the entrance station. I've come to think of the Pileated as my State Park Big Year avatar bird. I'm not sure why, but they have always fascinated me. Considering they can be found all year around, they make for a fun bird to keep track of as a mini game inside of a much larger effort. Additionally they range over the majority of the state so finding one at each state park is certainly not impossible.

Checking my statistics, I've seen/heard one at 9 of the State Parks I've visited this year. This reminds me of another fun part of this year long effort. Getting a first hand introduction to the distribution of bird species in the state along with the pervasiveness of each compared to their expected range. I really look forward to tracking statistics and occurrence over this time period and drawing my own conclusions to compare with the accepted or assumed state of things.

The Great: Big Woods lives up to the name. These woods are not choked up with invasive species like Buckthorn and are a great example of what a large woodland should look like. The well packed trails are open to hiking and I greatly enjoyed the solitude of this hike as I regularly dipped down to zero cell coverage and saw nary a soul the entire time I was out. Even the high winds could not steal away the enjoyment of the day, in fact this might be a great respite on a windy day.

The Meh: My only real comment would be to know what to expect at this park. It is a park with a deciduous forest. During many times of the year, birding will not be a massively diverse experience. I don't imagine shore birds have ever really made much of a showing at this location, but I really look forward to exploring deeper and longer trails. I see some listed that perhaps show some habitat diversity towards the edges. I think getting myself to 100 species in this park could be an outstanding goal. The falls in a frozen state as I noted did not really inspire much as they are barely taller than myself. A fun hike for a family though or person looking to bird watch and you get a small payoff with a hidden water fall.

The Verdict: This pristine woodland was a blast in the winter on a poor weather day, so going back is at the top of my list. I can't wait to get out and see this in the spring or early summer. The extra bonus for me is driving from the east metro I take highway 52 south and then 56 so that you can skirt the west edge of Lake Byllesby. This means you can run by several nice (non-state park) hot spots on the way or return. (180th street marsh in Dakota county off 52, Randolph Great Western Industrial park off of 56, Lake Byllesby West end access, Lake Byllesby Goodhue boat launch.) I'm pretty sure you can also get to Koester Prairie not far away, which is part of Prairie Creek WMA. This location hosts Henslow's Sparrow and Bobolinks in the summer. Watch for ticks, but this can be an excellent location for prairie birds.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

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.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Winter Birding Motivation Reaches Zero

I've been thinking about a concept lately I'm calling bird watching activation energy. I imagine a scale of numbers from zero energy to maybe 100 with bird avatars for each level on this scale. Perhaps a sleepy owl (Eastern Screech) in the daytime for zero and something like a Black-capped Chickadee at the top of the scale seemingly always moving making noise in every weather type possible. I feel like everything in life affects this activation energy and I would define it simply as the amount of pooled effort/energy needed by a person to get them out bird watching or exploring the outdoors on any given day. Many daily happenings impact this theoretical number or pool of energy and every person has a different value at which they are able to motivate themselves to get out and explore.

In my case I have a pretty low general activation number, meaning that it doesn't take much to get me out the door and birding/hiking. Though that does come with limits as I'm pretty sure I have more than 1 number. I have my general, get out the door number, and I have my travel multiple hours number. Additionally because nothing in life is simple, these numbers all change value based on the time of year, conditions, life circumstance, personal health, etc...

I constantly struggle with being two people in life. I nearly always present myself as either a homebody that would prefer to stay close to home near a base of operation and comfort or as an adventurous spirit that wishes to roam far and wide for hours, even days at a time.

After a long week of work driving the 30 miles each way to the office several days a week my activation pool is often running low for trips, but high for near location efforts. This is why I thrived in 2017 doing a big year in Washington County, MN. With drives limited to 30 minutes or so in any direction it was easy to get out the door even with a low activation energy knowing I wouldn't have some crazy 4 hour drive back home in insane weather.

When it comes to trips though I often have to talk myself into executing my plans every single day until the weekend just to keep myself on that task. When winter is in full swing, with snow on the ground and extreme cold present, my activation energy coming into the weekend can absolutely plummet to the depths of nothingness. This last weekend I had general plans to take Friday off work and execute a 2 day north shore State Park trip. I would hit 8 State Parks in 2 days in a super loop to explore as much as possible in these spaces. As the week got on my Friday went from 1 work meeting and a viable day off to 5 meetings and taking it off was not going to happen. I then shifted to a Saturday/Sunday plan and quickly found that Saturday was going downhill quickly in the way of snow predictions and once I saw 3 to 5 inches forecast in areas I knew I was unlikely to make the trip. (Nothing drops my activation energy faster than snow falling as I hate taking risks on the road, especially when driving distances in unfamiliar areas.) I soon realized the overnight temps were looking to drop back into negative double digits and yet another massive hit to my activation energy occurred. I can often overcome one of the 2 factors, especially in the pursuit of a major goal such as my 2018 State Park Big Year, but even I have my limits.

I quickly found myself desiring a weekend in and relaxing on the couch, watching movies, playing games, and spending time with my wife. So that is what I did, the entire weekend. I have travelled every weekend up to this point since New Years and hiked many miles of trails in tough conditions spanning -16 degrees to roughly 30 degrees. I've had 3 or 4 layers on my legs and 5 on my body while also using snow shoes or Yak Trax, but when enough times come together at once it is not difficult to moth ball the entire set of plans and hunker down like a squirrel waiting out a break in the weather.

My hope is that the relaxing weekend helped recharge my energy reserves and the weather cooperates this coming weekend so I can get out and beastmode the north shore. I envy some people as they appear to have an infinite reserve when it comes to getting out and ignoring or making peace with the winter weather, but I'm just not at that point yet in life. Spending 10 years in central Illinois I was always the guy out longer and more often than those native to the area because it never seemed like winter in IL. We rarely had cold for long stretches and some winters the snow pack was non-existent or melted off after each fresh snowfall.

This long ramble really is in hopes others can identify to some degree with their own activation energy to get out in the long winter months and struggling to make it happen. I plan to focus on myself and listen to what I need. In January I visited 15 State Parks and outstripped the needed pace of visits by greater than 2 to 1 (6 average needed each month) so I definitely made some hay, but it didn't come without a cost. I spent a lot of energy and that coupled with typical deep winter weather had me so unmotivated that I couldn't summon up the desire to swing by even Afton State Park for a visit. My wife summed it up really well when she said of my desire to stay in for the weekend, "That's why it is a big year, not a big month." She was right, I have an entire year to visit all of these parks and find birds. I'm not going to complete the whole year in a single month so I shouldn't be to hard on myself when it is time to take a weekend off when the weather is poor.

I'm looking forward to the warm months. My activation energy barrier is typically very low when it is warm as I will often bird watch every day of the week for a few months straight in spring/summer.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Glacial Lakes State Park - Transition to Serious Grasslands

Upon entering Glacial Lakes State Park the most notable change was hilly grasslands. This place immediately had the vibe of being a serious Sparrow haven at the right times of the year. The American-Tree Sparrows the fled from the road edge right after I entered seemed to want to validate that for me as well. From a scouting perspective this was important and I almost immediately figured I would be back once the spring Sparrows were back on territory.

This serious pained expression is perhaps me knowing I'm about to get into 4.5 more miles of hilly hiking. Or I was trying to find a new look for my third park of the day.

I also rolled along the entrance road thinking the landscape would be good for Northern Harrier and related birds of prey that enjoy the open prairie landscapes. The elevation was a real treat as I didn't realize the extent of glacial influence that would be present at this park. For the third time on the day I picked the hiking club trail as a way to get a strong introduction to the park features.

After 4.5 miles of hilly hiking tacked onto my already 5 miles of hiking I definitely felt the elevation changes this morning when I woke up. The winds as I peaked the highest point in the park at 1352' were easily over 20mph and even 30 degree temps didn't help much to suppress the bitterness of such a wind. The lowland portions of the hike though were not very breezy and I often had my stocking cap pulled up to vent off excess heat from the strenuous hiking effort.

The rolling landscape and hidden ponds/lakes are so inviting to me. I love a good forest, but I find myself appreciating open prairie grasslands much more than ever before. I just imagine this space filled with Field and Vesper sparrows in the summer.

More of the view from the high point of the park. Though I don't imagine walking in the tall grass is advised considering the number ticks that await.

One of the lowland marsh areas that I look forward to listening to in the future. The habitat features of this park were diverse enough that you could do some reasonable waterfowl, marsh, and grassland bird watching in a single day.

I enjoyed every bit of the hike and I could tell this park will offer some really fun birds in the breeding season and I can't wait to come back. Another longer trail segment off the horse camp referenced in Robert Janssen's book, Birds of Minnesota State Parks would seem to be the next great adventure for me on this property. His notes on potential for Forster's and Black Tern having me excited as well as the possible western birds like Western Kingbird.

I did have my first State Park Red-tailed Hawk of the year on my hike this day, but the location scouting indicated to me that many great things await.

The tail end of a Red-Tailed Hawk zooming by on the brisk winds in the prairie. I hoped for this to be an overwintering Northern Harrier, but it was nice to see the hawk anyway.

I did get a note from birding mentor Kevin Smith that ticks are a factor in this park in the summer and that will remind me to ensure I have my insect defender socks on as well as a sprayed pair of pants (Permethrin) and boots prior to any large hikes on the grassland trails.

I took my large hike and didn't see another person the entire time, which is something of value to me after long days in the office. I sent a picture to my wife at the peak elevation point and you can get a true sense of being out in a unique space a good distance away from others.

The Great: Awesome elevation hiking coupled with unique habitat made this a great hike with some much warm weather potential that I want to go back soon after things warm up and migration begins. The trail space in this nearly 2000 acre park is ample and I feel like another 2 or 3 visits would have me covering new ground on each effort. I have a keen interest on the birds that might setup territory in small ponds and wetlands at the bottom of these glacial landforms.

The Meh: Knowing what to expect is always key and this park is loaded with grassland so I expect summer will prove to be a tick haven. Prepare for such an issue and you won't be surprised and put off by the numbers. Beyond that this park is a choice selection of habitat and will speak to the right person that can enjoy open grasslands with limited forest spaces.

The Verdict: Must hike more of this park. Cresting tall hills and looking for grassland birds is something I look forward to greatly. I could even see doing this park in the cold months again, though for a hard core birder trying to use their time to the fullest this is not likely the best use of time in the winter. All other months though I'm betting this place is prime sparrow habitat.