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.