Recent News

Article for MOU Newsletter: I wrote a new piece on Blue Mounds State Park and birding in rough weather. MOU members only.

Article for St. Croix Lowdown: I wrote a piece on the bird soundscape of William O'Brien State Park. Hope you enjoy.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Finding Migration - Part 18 - Jay Cooke and the BTBW

I started my "follow migration" trip on May 10th by driving to Kilen Woods SP and then hitting Blue Mounds SP. In the week that followed I birded and hiked in 20 state parks with Jay Cooke being a toss in final stop on my way home as I wanted to see it in multiple seasons as opposed to my first visit at -16 degrees on January 1st.

Just wanted to add this Rose-breasted Grosbeak to the post. As common as they are to find, they are a wonderful bird to have visit for the summer months in MN.

I had some target birds for this trip, but most of all I thought I was going to be lining up for my favorite warbler, Black-Throated Blue. My first sighting of this species was a wonderful adult Male I found at Afton State Park while hiking. This turned out to be the bird that connected me and Pete Nichols as he needed it for a State life bird and contacted me soon after I reported the bird. Within 40 minutes he was on the bird having hiked down to the river and up to the valley I had found the bird in earlier. He later invited me over to his home to chat and bird watch and we found ourselves to have many similar interests and goals in birding and we've been friends ever since.

This particular bird resonated with me and I was keen on seeing it at Tettegouche SP during this trip sequence, but if you've been following the blog post titles I went from "Following Migration", to "Outrunning Migration" as I got to the north shore. I had not estimated the progression of warbler migration properly, not realizing that the Black-throated Blue might be lagging behind as much as it was. So during my entire Northshore run I found copious amounts of Black-Throated Green, Ovenbird, and Northern Parula, but my target was missing in action.

Fast forward to the end of my trip and May 18th I had felt that Black-Throated Blue just wasn't going to be a thing on this trip and that I would likely need to come back soon for another shot at the bird in Tettegouche SP.

My target trail "Ogantz Trail" is closed on a longer term basis from the massive flood a couple/few years back. I really liked that as a possible hike and was soon just sitting in the parking log staring at my map wondering what I could do that would still allow me to get back home and rest a bit from such an arduous hiking schedule. I then remembered making a note to myself that I wanted to check out the trails near the Hemlock Ravine SNA at some point in the future, and this was indeed the future. I moved to that dirt parking near Forbay Lake and found some trail space for Greeley Creek and soon found myself on the Willard Munger paved space as well. I did a couple loops along this stretch and had some nice thrush species singing in the ravines along the way. As I was nearly wrapping up I walked the Willard Munger trail back towards county road 151. Only about 100 yards short of the road intersection I caught sight of some warbler movement just off the trail.

I've had some nice chances to see migrant and breeding Chestnut-sided Warblers this year and really enjoy them both in breeding and juvenile plumage since they are so different.

As I locked on a Chestnut Sided Warbler I also heard an interesting buzzy "I'm so lazy" call that I knew immediately to be my target bird from much further north. I finally locked on an adult male feeding along the trail edge and was able to snag a few pictures of this amazing bird. I had travelled the entire north shore for 4 days only to come back south and find the bird working his way north still. You truly can outrun migration for some species and timing is everything as I've no doubt demonstrated very well at this point.

What a stunner. I love this bird and finding one is always a treat.

It was super cool to have one in nice light I could enjoy without having to try viewing it in a dark woods while bouncing around the tree canopy.

It was an outstanding way to finish my week long, 20 park circuit.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Outrunning Migration - Part 17 - Chasing Waterfalls (Temperance River)

For any park I visit my ultimate goal is to find an adventure or at the least create memories that will stick with me for a long time. When I rolled up to Temperance River State Park and found some roadside parking along the highway I knew I was in for yet another outstanding round of water falls at peak flow rate. What I didn't know is that the pair of Common Raven I immediately heard were going to be some of the most cooperative I've ever seen in my life.

My energy stores were low, but moral was high. This was my 8th north shore park in 4 days! Man what a trip to be able to do them all and hike them in the same span of time.

Once I donned my full gear and jumped on the trail that would hike up river I quickly became aware of this Raven pair circling the area as they eventually settled mid-way up a Spruce tree and began issuing a number of fun vocalizations to each other. After a short period of time they started picking pieces of the branches off and dropping them to the ground, raining spruce needle clumps down onto the trail and river below. I still don't know precisely what I was seeing as they did this as different levels of the tree from one another. If they were creating better perch points for themselves with a nest near by or something else completely, it was fascinating and afforded me outstanding photographic opportunities at close range using my Nikon P900 camera.

For the first time my photos were able to show me the nice extra shaggy throat feathers, the massive bill with robust nasal bristles and just the overall size and unique features that make them Ravens instead of the smaller American Crow. As I noted at the start it is these type of situations I'll remember for a long time. The chance to hang out and get a true feeling for how a pair of Ravens behaves and interacts is a wonderful lesson and was totally unexpected as I started my hiking.

Under appreciated, the Common Raven is a legend if you ask me. They bring such an amazing vocal range to their calls from hoarse croaking to a near liquid gurgle and many elements in between the two. I love their size and habits and how you most often find a pair spending time together.

Look at the throat feathers and size of that bill.

Man that side profile really shows off the bill size and how elongated the face seems on a Raven. The sleek feathers on the head and neck show very different from the shaggy throat.

One more, because damn that is a beautiful bird.

Of course it was very quiet in the morning and I had the trail to myself as I made my way up river over ancient water fall rocks that led the viewer to realize the size of the falls had been much larger in the distant past. The smooth rocks showed imprisoned agates that had been built by mineral deposit in the air bubbled volcanic rocks.

The hiking path showing smooth rock that was long ago all part of a large waterfall during glacial periods.

These white spots show mineral deposits in the volcanic rock are the birthplace of agates.

As I followed the river trail I was shown cauldrons of roiling root beer colored water forced into a narrow canyon of falls running down towards Lake Superior. This park immediately evokes thoughts of Cascade River State Park though they each have a different character or vibe to them, I can feel them starting to merge together in my memories a month or so later. Many excellent photographic opportunities were available along the river and the birding was very quiet with the running water drowning up much of the adjacent bird song.

Low key day and hike, but always beastmode.  What a beautiful place to visit.

As you can see the river presents a multitude of views and intriguing roiling pools of water.

Looking back on my pictures I realize how little many of the trees were leafed out at the time. Spring is very different on the north shore from the twin cities area and it was very educational to see it first hand.

This type of view shows that in mid/late May you still don't have a ton of vegetation in place this far north. Leaves are still trying to get out and open on the trees and the understory is still starting to develop the first plants of the year.

As much as it pains me to say I was running out of juice at this point in my trip circuit. I had hiked over 2 marathons of distance in 10 days while visiting 20 state parks (20th was my next stop at Jay Cooke) and driving a lot of miles. I had guided a warbler walk at Frontenac during this time as well and still had to return home and do guide work all day for an event held in conjunction with national park service ranger Sharon Stitler at Grey Cloud Dunes SNA. I would likely guide 2 or 3 times during the day and put on up to 10 miles. All of this being the case I knew I had to cut short this park outing so I could give myself some measure of recovery time. I hiked 2.5 miles in just under 2 hours moving relatively slowly during that time and really enjoyed the water falls and beauty of the park.

Looking at the map again now I see many great distance hikes off river that beg for discovery. With Carlton and Tofte Peak being connected via Superior Hiking Trail I can see another single park full day of hiking in my future. This place with the terrain could really put together some outstanding and memorable hikes for those more interested in that aspect of the outdoors. I get the feeling making a point of doing those hikes will make me one of the few to do so while primarily birding.

As noted I cut short my hiking for the day and started the drive south so I could make a stop at Jay Cooke and still get home for some much needed rest and relaxation prior to doing the Grey Cloud event that has already become a fixture in my life in it's 3rd year.

The Great: The river canyon and falls is straight up amazing and even with just 19 species of birds I truly enjoyed the birding with Common Raven stealing the show for me. I can't imagine a future in which I don't come back to hike this park in serious beastmode in the future.

The Meh: A section of trail spaces are very near the river or highway 61 so you should be prepared to still get some noise that will limit birding for those less mobile and able to seriously hike the space. This is likely why from a birding community standpoint the park is very under appreciated. I will seek to change that over the coming years as I feel I'm the right person to attack big hikes and birding at the same time.

The Verdict: Easy return park for me. Great scenery for anyone that wants to see slot canyon style falls in the spring and wonderful natural space. Couple that with the prospect of quality elevation hikes and I'm ready to go back right now. I had virtually never heard of this park for birding and now look forward to building my park life list and maybe even do some snowshoeing in the future.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Outrunning Migation - Part 16 - Chasing Waterfalls (Cascade River)

Still feeling pretty good on the day I decided I would head back towards my hotel in Tofte after a great hike at Grand Portage State Park, but I would divert and begin to explore Cascade River State Park first. This would give me 3 parks on the day and put me a bit ahead of schedule so I could maybe do something a bit extra on my way back to home the next day.

That is a dude, just having fun like he's a kid again.

This decision did mean I would end up short changing Cascade River State Park a little bit. I ended up looking at trail segments so I could chase the waterfalls a bit as well as the lake edge. Beyond that I didn't wander a lot of trail space only clocking in about 2 miles in roughly 2 hours of slow hiking. I really enjoyed the park and found myself mostly alone during my entire visit. I got a nice look at the mouth of the river dumping into the lake along with a pair of Common Merganser hunting close to this area as well.

This pair of Common Merganser was working the mouth of the river as it dumped into the lake. Presumably fishing was really good in this spot.

The river itself produced some excellent falls to view and the narrow slot canyon this river flows on makes for some fun roiling/boiling water as it drops down into pothole after pothole on the way to the lake. To be honest I really did short this park as miles of trails with a few good looking overlooks were skipped in favor of making my trip down shore much easier. My bird list was just 10 total species as much of the time the falls drown out bird song and I was using the afternoon hours that would typically be quiet anyway.


This view appear to be the one on the entrance sign itself.

My best find was a Northern Harrier flying over the landscape at one point, which seemed a bit out of place because I was standing in the woods at the time so likely a bird just riding some wind currents while looking to move back to a swampy open area for true hunting grounds.

I also see a number of trail segments that are a nice big loop off river so the presumption is that some outstanding birding and habitat await in this park. I'll chalk it up to a future exercise and look forward greatly to visiting this under mentioned park in the future for some next level hiking.

The Great: The waterfalls on the Cascade are excellent and a bit more unique than the others you see on the north shore due to the narrow canyon like look of the river space. Birding was a bit weak, but again I stayed close to noisy waters and was out front of peak migration for this part of the north.

The Meh: I don't have much to be say towards the drawback side because it wouldn't be fair without doing a much larger hiking effort in the park. It was quiet, even with several trails near the road, though I suspect the lakeside trail that is between the highway and lake might be a bit loud so something to think about.

The Verdict: I must come back in the future. I left way to much on the table to not come back for a bigger hiker. I look forward to doing so in the future.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Outrunning Migration - Part 15 - Grand Portage, Beastmode Pinnacle

Once my Devil's Kettle experience wrapped up I quickly hit the road to complete the last state park on the north shore. My strategy was to hit the last 2 of them so that on my return to home day I would be travelling back down the shore a bit for Cascade River and Temperance River State Parks. That being the case I enjoyed a nice drive up the shore with fewer and fewer cars moving about. It really was a joy driving up the shore and seeing the elevations rise a bit as the area got more and more wild with fewer small towns dotting the road.

That smile is something I like to see on myself. It is how I know I'm doing things I love and that fill me with joy. I need adventure in my life. 

I was prepared for a short hike to the main waterfall (High Falls) as the most tourist accessible location. The rest stop and grounds were well maintained and the paved trail in back lead towards the falls viewing area. Along the way I was able to make out Pine Siskin and several Golden-crowned Kinglets as well. I noted some viewing of the Pigeon River and planned to examine the waters more closely upon my return hike.

The Pigeon River and rocky edge of Canada. It is something with all of this talk of building a wall to the south and even with a good flow of water this river crossing would have been easy for most anyone really.

Some fun rock layers along the rivers edge I spotted. I always try to take time to the see the small things beyond just birds. The world is filled with wonder.

The paved segment eventually split towards the main falls and the middle falls hike. I followed the wooden decking to the right and quickly found Winter Wren singing on territory as I made my way toward some stairs that would position me for a great view of High Falls and Canada on the other side.

The water flow was excellent and the falls did not disappoint as the highest in the state. This short stroll is definitely viable for most all parties and was a lazy amble through some nice forest and river habitat.

High Falls showing some quality.
A bit of a different view showing the secondary rapids area as the water drops and then is pushed through a narrower area along the Pigeon River. Pretty awesome location to visit.

My species list was still a bit thin, but by this time I was sitting at May 17th and as far north on the shore as I could get without changing countries. I had out run migration for many species and actually later began to supplement my list with waterfowl with 9 total species.

After some pictures and a snap of the hiking club signage I returned to contemplate the middle falls hike I had read about online. The sign at the split indicated the trail was not an easy one and should be avoided by children for sure. With 1.75 miles each way and at least 300' of elevation gain and loss each direction this was certain to be a fun hike.

A sign I'm sure many skip over and as you will read below I came upon several that seemed to do just that. I may be short selling others, but don't do this if you don't regularly exercise and have the ability to go for 3 or more hours.

I got myself into full beastmode and started at a brisk pace. The trail was loaded with roots, muddy spots, some stairs of native rock and in other cases just a scramble up a steep slope with a few rocky perches to help along the way. I saw no others along the way and assumed if they were present I would have passed them rather quickly considering the challenge of this hike and my swift pace.

Yes, the shot on the left is the trail. At this point when coming up I was on hands and feet to keep from falling. The trail was loaded with these kinds of views or just a pure root laden section. Very little was just level ground with packed dirt.

After what felt like at least a mile or more of hiking I reached what appeared to be the peak elevation of the hike showing a view back to the south of the lake area. It was beautiful and even knowing you technically were facing a direction with a large road it was invisible in the view. 

The excellent view of the lake from the peak of the Middle Falls trail. Well worth even just this distance honestly. It was a good workout and a nice payoff.

I quickly found what 300' of elevation gain feels like when done in just .5 miles. The sign I found just past peak indicated I had 1.25 miles to go until middle falls. Determine not to take a beating I threw myself into the next segment ready for downhill effort. This was easier going for the most part however at a relatively low point the forest trail turned into a soft muddy mess like making my way through the swamps of Mordor. Once segment went for at least 200 yards as I picked my way along the edges, hopped really soft sections, moved into the thicker woods in others, and generally zig-zagged the entire way. Soon things straightened out as I birded by ear for long segments, rarely pausing, knowing I needed to make time and ensure this hike didn't last 4 hours.

I was utterly alone in the wilderness of northern MN, though just a mile or so from humanity at any given time. These types of hikes really fill me with excitement and wonder. I'm a safety conscious kind of dude and don't feel I really enjoy solitude to the point of being the only human around for dozens of miles. I want to know that if something happens I'll be able to figure my way out within the day so this hike fit a lot of my personal criteria. I arrived to the falls after what felt like an eternity of hiking. It was fascinating with a challenging trail can really feel like when you toss in elevation fluctuations on the order of what this trail offers. It is important to know that High Falls will fill you with awe and Middle will seem very tame by comparison. It might be best to do Middle first and then come back for the big dog honestly.

The first view of Middle Falls after a nice long hike. Looks inviting until you read the signage closely posted above that the river is filled with bacteria and likely to make you sicker than a dog. 

The view from the falls edge.

The middle falls trail is really more about the hike than anything. I did find it really funny when I arrived I could see a road and pull off on the Canada side of the border as if to say you just hiked over rough terrain when you could have just crossed and driven to the same point.

I rested for a short while making sure I was hydrated though the weather was mild enough that I was not sweating much out at the time. When I was ready to get back I for some reason decided it must be at a world beater type of pace. I put my camera away strapped the bins down and really tightened up the backpack and began to trail run. I have no idea why other than to say I really wish I could still run on a regular basis. More specifically I would love trail running and bouldering I think. My back has been doing very well since stopping full time running, but every now and then I just have to let the horses loose. I moved swiftly along the trail watching close my footfalls, grinning as I was sure I looked like a yeti moving about the north woods. I found myself slowing only for the swampy Mordor region and generally put some serious time down. Arriving back at the peak in what felt like a fraction of the time on the trip down. I was about to begin the trail run down when I happened upon an older gentlemen sitting on a rocky step. Asking if he planned the full hike he said it was the plan. I noted to myself he had zero water with him and the path was not friendly. I relayed what I could about the trail and recommended he reach the peak just behind me and look at the sign noting 1.25 miles left to go still. He was surprised by the distance remaining and I told him it was surprising and that anyone doing the trail should seriously consider if they have that much juice to do it all again when complete. I moved on and quickly found a group of 4 with a dog. Younger this time, but generally wearing beach/picnic attire and not a bottle of water amongst the group. I provided the same information and suggested a stop at the peak for a look at the view and then assess what they thought they could handle. Arrogance aside I told them was in peak condition with plenty of water and food should things go wrong. I also noted that I saw nobody else the entire time and doubted many hiked to the end this early in the season with the iffy trail conditions.

I set off down the mountain and began a rocky root laden run on par with one I loved at Harney Peak back in South Dakota. That hike and run down with Dave Bon was easily the best I have ever taken in my life. It was at my absolute best when it comes to running strength and I did that effort just 2 days after having hiking the entire peak for birding as well. (That hike is 1,100 feet of gain in 3.5 miles.) Perhaps the only other trail to match in quality and perhaps outstrip due to view was one Melissa and I took way back on our honeymoon while at Yosemite National Park. We did the Lower Yosemite Falls trail that gained about 1,100 feet of elevation and then returned due to time issues and opted to forgo the full 3,000 foot elevation gain over a 9 mile round trip hike. Just thinking about something that beastly stirs something deep within me that yearns to go back for those master level hikes. I must go back soon for some ultra beastmode.

Anyway, I moved very fast down the hill as I quickly came back to the trail split and flat ground finding myself making the return trip in just 35 minutes for a total of about 2 hours of hiking the trail. I was ravenous with hunger at this point having only snacked most of the morning after breakfast. I setup for a meal on the picnic tables off the parking lot and put as many calories in as I could thinking I could probably add a 3rd park on the day and ease my efforts for the next day. As I ate I noticed everyone I passed on the way back coming back to the parking lot. They had in fact turned around realizing the trail was more than they were prepared for. I was happy to perhaps saved them the trouble of getting in deeper than they could handle honestly.

After the meal with an American Crow watching me for cast off snacks and a Merlin making a racket from a nest nearby I wanted take a look at the Pigeon river and see if any birds were moving about in the slower segments of the river. Using my Nikon P900 a few times I pulled out both Teal species and even an American Black Duck hanging out with some Mallards. Belted Kingfisher seemed to be establishing ownership of the area as well as I continued to add county and park birds for my all time lists.

My visit to Grand Portage was certainly met with a couple of great quality waterfalls, but the greatest boon was the outstanding hike I was able to get from a park with very few trail segments. You never know what you're going to get and this park gave me more than I hoped for at the time. I have tried to balance extreme research with just enjoying the moment and surprise value of some locations. I knew the Middle Falls hike from a distance standpoint and I always prep beyond what is needed for a situation to ensure I stay safe, but it was still filled with surprise and fun.

The Great: I needed a serious hike and really loved the Middle Falls trail. Don't take this if you don't have the juice for a multi-hour hike with elevation changes and some rough trail scrabbling conditions. Worth it by far, but not for everyone. This is the kind of trail that is a 10 of 10 for me and like a 0 of 10 for my wife. You don't want to be tripping over your own feet or roots on something like this.

The Meh: Important to realize that this park has only a couple trails to take. You get the easy road to the high falls or the challenge route to the Middle Falls. With a bit of a stroll along the Pigeon River to finish you are not looking at a network of options to keep you busy all day.

The Verdict: At least visit this park for the High Falls. Birding is good and I'd like to see it at peak time frames to get a gauge for what kind of game it brings then. Just a great option for those wanting to go on an adventure and see the highest falls in the state. May be a relatively small park, but as day visits go this is pretty solid.