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MOU Members: The first half of my article A Big Year in Washington County is now available to read in the January/February edition of MN Birding News.

Fellow birder and local celebrity Birdchick (Sharon Stiteler) wrote an article on some Common Redpoll behavior I observed and photographed recently in Lake Elmo.



Thursday, January 18, 2018

Afton Owl Effort & New Gear

Afton Effort:

With a beautiful weather day offering temps 50+ degrees warmer than last weekend I got out to Afton State Park after work hoping to examine some secret spots for possible owl species. Afton is a massive area to cover and I easily know of a dozen spots I'd like to look for a variety of owl species, though many are a serious hike in deep snow. Pete Nichols and I have discussed Afton at length and continue to review Google Maps for viable evergreen stands that we wish to check.

On a big year like this one it pays to think about some of the more challenging birds and figure out opportunities to look for them. Most birds of course will cross paths with you at some point while on territory or while migrating assuming the habitat it correct, but Owls really make you work for it and I consider myself a rank amateur in finding them.

We hiked a few locations that have been on our short list without any results beyond some whitewash that showed something was definitely present this winter in one location. Again, I'm a newb when it comes to finding and looking for owls, but it is a skillset I'm working on actively and in the pictures below you can see the signs you may wish to look for when observing evergreen stands for the presence of owls.

Near center on this image is a spot of white easy to miss in the tangle of branches and background snow, but if you look closely and really focus on branches just out from the trunk...

...you will often see this type of white wash sign from potential roosting owls. This seems like a good sign of a potentially active location.

Though owls did not show themselves this day we did have a vocalizing Common Raven that seemed to be in a tangle with some crows. It is a flagged bird for this area, though we always seem to find one or two in the county each winter. This very well could be the farthest south Raven in the state at this point considering they generally don't push beyond the main body of the north metro. It seems the St. Croix River valley may provide a suitable corridor for them to dip a bit further south than normal. This is my second St. Croix River Common Raven this year with another coming on my hike at Wild River two weekends ago.

Gear Notes:

I also wanted to add a quick note about a new piece of travel safety gear I bought for my State Park Trips. One thing I always think about is going to some of the out of the way parks up north and then having my car battery die. A friend (Craig Mullenbach) had posted about the Noco Genius.


This lithium ion battery has a set of jumper cables allowing you to jump your own car if the battery dies with protections if you do it wrong so you don't destroy the car or your device. In addition the USB in and out ports allow you to charge it off a wall socket or a car lighter port and then use the device to recharge your phone and other USB devices multiple times over. In addition it has built in LED lights that have 6 modes including a strobe if you are stranded along the road. Really cool device that as I read reviews on Amazon I couldn't find any negatives. I'm not getting paid to shill product or anything like that, I'm just a dude trying to stay safe when I travel and this seemed like a great device that will ease my mind when travelling to far flung locations in MN. Give it a look if you see any value for your own adventures. Even as a campsite phone charger this seemed like a great value along with the built-in flashlight.

Amazon link to the GB40 version that I bought.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

TUDU Lists - Extreme Cold Continues

The entire week leading up to this weekend I had planned to put together a trip to the north shore for some much desired birding of the State Parks in that region. The forecast continued to look worse by the day as extreme cold was on the docket as well as some areas of snow.

A birding friend John Richardson shared a -37 reading on his car on Facebook Saturday morning and I knew my aborted trip to the north was correct. I later talked with another friend Kevin Manley and he noted he cancelled a trip to Sax-Zim bog as well due to the extreme cold.

Instead I made plans to venture a bit south with Peter Nichols to see if we might have some luck looking for the Tufted Duck being seen around the Red Wing, MN area. It has been an on/off type bird ranging open water along a pretty good stretch of the Mississippi River. This potential first county record When we arrived at Colvill Park a score of photogs and birders were present. At first we thought it was on considering the number of cameras pointed at a bay area. Little did we realize the pure drawing power of over 100 Bald Eagles collected in the area. The trees were lined with them showing every possible plumage variation and age. It was hours later when I realized how desensitized to Bald Eagles I've really become. That many eagles in one location and I scanned them quick, but did not take a single picture as we desired to get searching for the Tufted Duck.

Though in my defense, who is thinking photographic opportunity when it is -10 and a breeze blowing off a frozen river? The cold bit deep into our feet, hands, and face as we looked to scan some nearby rafts of Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser. Only an additional Greater Scaup was present along with the expected Mallards hanging around in the shallows.

We repositioned multiple times along the river checking birds as many other parties did the same, but to no avail. We eventually made the call to try for the a prior reported location that was part of Frontenac State Park. Of course this worked out really well for me since it is a big year in the State Parks for me.

The property is one of the separate sections from the main park land divided by private property. I had heard of others using this in prior reports, but the park map says little about proper access points and parking. After a Google Map investigation though I realized that Google Street View showed the gated access points for these properties and now knew where we would be heading.

Hill Avenue runs along the bluff area right into the main entrance of the park, but a few miles prior to that you will find the furthest north and west segment noted by signage as parking and access for units numbered 21, 22, 23 I think. This turns out to be a long standing access point for hang gliding with a picnic table and flag pole setup on the bluff overlook.

The hike up is strenuous with several rises and falls before getting to the bluff edge. This is a really cool hike location since it is so far off the main park property. I'm looking forward to this and another further south and east in the spring or summer. I like these kinds of locations that are not heavily marked or accessed due to being less convenient. Pete put on his snow shoes and I added Yak Trak's for the hike up the bluff and to the river.

As we crested the top a small flock (5) of Common Redpoll added themselves as a state park bird for me on the year. It was extra fun to snag these without having a bird feed station or something like that present. I always enjoy birds when they are feeding naturally on various seed heads.

After the long and cold hike we made the bluff edge as I dropped down to the picnic location for some pics and quick scanning. The extreme cold looked like it had sealed up a lot of the open water so my best scope views were pretty long.

The cold expanse of river seen from the hang glide launch site within a section of Frontenac State Park off Hill Avenue in Goodhue County.

In addition to the Common duo of Merganser & Goldeneye I was able to pick out a female Bufflehead. Beyond that though most open water was north towards the small town of Wacouta, a place not really available to birders at this point.

Pete and I turned back eventually happy with a nice hike a fun little side exploration. I can't state enough how much I love these kinds of hikes for this big year. I like adventure and new territory and this section seems like a lot of fun to see during spring migration. The overlook itself feels like it could be an outstanding spot for a hawk watch and I will have to keep it on my short list. My frozen beard after the hike showed the depth of the cold, but I like to think the smile showed the enjoyment level despite such cold.

Me after a fun elevation hike at Frontenac State Park.

We rolled through the old town of Frontenac looking for Tufted Titmouse. We finally broke Pete's Titmouse curse with a single bird at a feeder in town so he could add it as a county tick for Goodhue. This feeder knowledge was thanks to Kevin Manley, whom we ran into doing the same as us at this point, hiding from the cold of the far north. The same appeared true of Micheal Stack and Dana Sterner out patrolling the Frontenac area for birds and adventure when we ran into them for the second time on the day.

We even did a short ag road route back in Washington County after lunch and had some good results with Horned Lark, Common Redpoll and Multiple Hoary Redpoll.

Horned Lark on Neal Ave in Washington County.

These 2 birds showing all the needed characteristics for Hoary Redpoll in a super flock of 200 along Neal Avenue also. Seems Hoary has become pretty easy to find in the metro area this year.

On the day I picked up some state park birds since the waterfowl were all adds for me from State Park property. So on a bad weather throw away day I still added 4 birds and my 10th location of the year. I'm writing this now on Sunday wanting to get out, but snow is coming down and it was still below 0 this morning with more cold tomorrow in the works. The forecast is a bit more viable next weekend and perhaps I'll be able to force a trip in then and snag a number of north shore parks for my efforts.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wild River - Interstate Subsitution

The plan was simple. Leave William O'Brien and visit Interstate State Park for the first time. Just up the road on highway 95 is the small tourist town of Taylors Falls. As 95 merges up with highway 8 you find yourself along steep river valley walls and a sliver of park land on the rapids laden St. Croix River. This location is prized for tubing, rafting, and kayak users and the park seems to be designed for those purposes with Scenic Boat Tours offered near the main parking lot.

The problem is that in the winter this park is shut down pretty hard. I first came upon what I thought was the main entrance, but turned out to just be a south parking lot. Main signage was not present so I just rolled past and found the lots offered were not really plowed so much as they were driver over into a crust of glazed ice.

I browsed the park website and saw the main lot to the north, but it was noted as closed in winter and no office hours at all. Like I said, this is a tourist town and the park seems to fit a specific purpose to provide natural space as a drop in for using the river.

I decided to just move on and spend my time farther north at Wild River State Park. I have visited on a few prior occasions and they all produced some excellent birds like Ruffed Grouse, Lark Sparrow, Hooded Warbler, Harris's Sparrow and Mourning Warbler.


I first stopped at the entrance station to discuss hiking routes and was put on the Amik's Pond Loop and the River Terrace Trail. These both seemed like good winter routes keeping distance from getting to unreasonable in the snow by foot.

I hiked a nice segment from the Trail Center parking with excellent in door flush facilities and seating that acts as a nice respite for hikers and skiers alike. I covered some new ground on this hike and saw some habitat I'm eager to investigate in the summer. I found a hidden group of Trumpeter Swan using a backwater open stretch on the hike and later had a Pileated Woodpecker patrolling the woods not far from the visitor center.

Trumpeter Swans hiding in a back water open stretch that either has a really nice current or is spring fed since it was well off river.

After this hike I thought I'd take a look at the River Terrace trail as I still felt like I had energy for more trail time. I drove up to the trail head parking and started a hike down to the Nevers Overlook. This segment drops down to nearly river level quickly and has you walk along the old road/dike the dam was attached to at one point. Though no dam structure exists you are afforded an acceptable view of the river as you turn to parallel the water for a stretch of time. As I arrived at the overlook I heard the wonderfully odd popping calls of a Common Raven moving up river just above the trees. It was like hearing a strange alien language as it intently went about it's business. This has actually been a good location for me to get Common Raven and has to be one of the more southern State Park locations to pick up the species on a regular basis.

This whole stretch of river is rich in logging history and provides many opportunities to read about life logging the river.

The remainder of my hike was low key and provided few birds, but a nice workout to finish the weekend.

The Great: Wild River has a lot of trail space will take a number of trips before I can say I've hiked all of them. As noted the southern regular range for Common Raven is in this space and seems to be a viable location for Ruffed Grouse as well. Considering other birds I've seen in my limited visit I really look forward to hiking more of this park. A serious northern segment of the park is also available dotted with the Sunrise Loop and Sunrise Trail. This northern portion has at least a dozen miles or more of river adjacent hiking. I doubt many have deeply birded this portion of the park and I intend to change that this year. I was also happy to see a nice balance between ski trail conversion and hiking/snow-shoe trails. With so much space available I still ran into many people out enjoying the first warm day in a long stretch.

The Meh: At this point I don't have anything that bums me out about this park. It is excellent and about the only thing I've noticed is that the St. Croix River in high water stages is likely to eliminated a fair amount of trail space until it drops. I know in a couple summer visits the River Trail was not an option as the backwater areas filled all low areas.

The Verdict: This park is plenty large to sustain many different kinds of effort. For my birding and hiking time this park is just what I need some days. It is close enough to the cities that a day trip won't have me feeling like the drive is a hindrance and it has so much to explore I expect I can get many a good hike in before looking for new spaces to explore. I'll be back this year looking to carve out some new species for the park list and my own.

William O'Brien - Light Day, Well Sort of...

At the last minute I decided against adding Scenic and McCarthy Beach on a Sunday route for birding and hiking. After the elevation heavy hikes on Saturday at Carley, Whitewater, and John Latsch I needed sleep. Driving 4 hours north with an hour in between the two parks followed by the 4 hour return wouldn't be viable. Work the next morning at 6:30AM said I needed to sleep in a bit and think about something closer to home.

I "lazily" got up Sunday morning at 7AM and crammed down some homemade yogurt and strawberry syrup along with some Almond Granola. I wanted to hike the lower area of William O'Brien that is actually closed off in the winter to road traffic. I figured this would afford me some relative peace and quiet in the generally active park.

I visited this park about 15 times last year, but until this visit I scarcely noticed the nice sign with painted Red-shouldered Hawk. Funny how an effort like this one has me paying attention to signs that had melted into the landscape before.

Few birds stirred on the hike as just a single Trumpeter Swan flew up river while I rounded the river stretch of trail along the St. Croix River. The hike was very quiet and welcome for lack of elevation beyond the steep hike down and back up to the main winter parking lot.

Riverside trail with the St. Croix River on the left. This trail is a favorite if you can do it early enough in the spring and summer. The campground is surrounded by this trail so it can be a high traffic affair at many other times of the day.

I'll dig deeper into reviewing William O'Brien as spring and summer approach with the bounty of trails available to explore. I know most of them well and look forward to sharing what I find hidden deep within the massive park. This time of year the park is converted to a good amount of cross-country ski space and generally isn't available to the hiker/snow-shoe type person.

For now I'll just say that William O'Brien in the non-winter months is super worth the effort. I have had good quality birds like Prothonotary Warbler nesting in the river bottoms and the park has some history of hosting some quality species like Kentucky Warbler some years back. I just know I can add some great birds this year.