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.