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.