Recent News

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

MPR Radio Segment: My appearance on MPR for a segment on bird watching. Podcast link.

Friends of Sax-Zim Bog: I have committed to donate and raise money for this great organization as part of their big half year for the bog. My big year is of course finding birds in the MN state parks. Follow this link to my page if you wish to donate and help fund their excellent work in preserving bog lands for future generations to enjoy. Big Douglas Bog Link.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Follow Migration - Part 10 - Gooseberry Adventure

By 5:30AM I was framing a picture with the Gooseberry entrance sign.

I was so excited to begin this trip so that I would finally get to bird watch in all the north shore state parks. My single prior visit to Gooseberry was a short stop to look at a falls that was tapped out in late summer. Just a trickle of water was falling that day and Gooseberry Falls was a bit more like Gooseberry Faucet. On May 15th that was not a problem as I could hear the falls from some distance away as I found myself hiking along the River View Trail. The views at Agate Beach and the surrounding area were amazing as I watched Common and Red-breasted Merganser swim about in the early morning light.

Agate beach at Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Stone pylons and chains at Gooseberry keeping visitors from just walking off a cliff into the lake.

I was once again one of very few out and about early enough to enjoy the first bird song of the day. I soaked it in with Black-throated Green Warblers on territory. White-throated sparrows sang their cheery morning best as the winds picked up a lot from the night before making it feel relatively chilly.

An Eastern Phoebe bounced about near one of the park pavilions as I set my sights on the falls before any of the other humans got moving. Bird song was relatively thin, but I could hear the falls getting louder with each step and beginning to peak through the tree lined ridge I was hiking along. As the trail descended to the bottom of the falls more White-throated Sparrows scampered across the boardwalk trail.

A peaceful stroll at the river bottoms below Gooseberry Falls.

I soon found the bottom and was provided an outstanding solitary view of the falls as it cascaded down towards the lake.

I snapped my pictures and eventually climbed back to the top of the river valley heading towards my car.

Gooseberry Falls close up.

Upper Falls at Gooseberry, just as stunning as the main iconic falls.

A few more birds were awake and moving about by this time, but it was still relatively quiet. I repositioned my car to the main lot looking to see the top of the falls and begin a hike towards Upper and Fifth Falls as well. This hike put me on some great views of previously unknown to me falls and also some great backcountry land I didn't realize was a part of the park.

Hiking bridge over Fifth Falls at Gooseberry Falls State Park.

The trails were well maintained and it was a relaxing hike filled with several drumming Ruffed Grouse, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker intent on drumming out a message on a metal trail sign, and several more Black-throated Green Warblers.

A semi-cooperative male Black-throated Green Warbler working over a cedar tree and singing the entire time.

Though my visit only had 34 species total, the 4 miles of hiking over a 4 hour visit was outstanding. I noticed the landscape was not as densely forested as something much further north, but it was a great place to explore and the map shows miles of additional trails waiting to be hiked in the future. This may not be a pure birders park, but it is something to experience.

The Great: At the right time of year 3 sets of waterfalls really sing with a high flow of water. It was so peaceful to explore the space alone and intersperse bird song with moving water. With mild temperatures all morning it was a wonderful start to a north shore journey. I would highly recommend the park as a place to explore nature and pickup a few birds along the way.

The Meh: The 34 count was a bit lower than I expected. Though that in itself was instructive helping me to get to know the landscape of the area how it changes along the shore, it was still a tough lesson to learn. Somehow in my head warbler density would be sustained all along the north shore and that somehow I would be hearing birds sing from every corner of these parks. So far anyway that was not the case as it I suppose educational in the process.

The Verdict: Regardless of what species counts were it is hard to knock a beautiful landscape on one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world coupled with waterfalls and great hikes. Miles of trails await future trips and I look forward to taking them and exploring the park in several seasons. We were made to enjoy natural spaces such as these, go explore them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Follow Migration - Part 9 - The Setup

With a few days of intense birding already in my pocket I needed to get myself setup for an 8 park 4 day swing of the north shore. This meant I had a flex day built in to drive up highway 35, maybe bird a bit in Duluth and finally get to my hotel in Two Harbors.

I had a few pins in mind that I wanted to return to both Banning State Park and Moose Lake State Park so this was my best shot I figured. I got rolling a bit slow in the morning and arrived at Banning State Park about 8AM or just before that. My interest was hiking the Skunk Cabbage trail that would put me adjacent to the river area, but also not have me listening to the rushing water the whole and unable to hear birds in the area.

This trail was a bit moist, but generally was an outstanding morning hike that offered some very peaceful surroundings as I had 2 hours of trail time to myself. This being May 14th and a Monday I was getting the park at it's attendance low point I'm sure. (Other than my middle of winter visit I had on New Years Day of course.)
A relatively calm portion of the Kettle River at Banning State Park

Spotted Sandpiper working the Kettle River edges and a small stream I was crossing. The bird largely ignored me and walked right under the small bridge I was standing on at the time.

The river bottoms area provided me a quiet stroll where I encountered a very surprised Raccoon that I just missed getting a great picture of as it froze while looking at me from between 2 tree trunks before it scampered into a den at the rivers edge. I found 37 species on this hike that was dominated by Least Flycatchers (16) and Ovenbirds (22) while also offering me a nice selection of migrant or resident warblers such as Golden-winged, Orange-crowned, Nashville, and Yellow-rumped. A good selection of Thrush were present also with Veery, and Swainson's filling out in good numbers also.

What struck me most on my walk was that migration was in what felt like later stages given that Flycatchers were in strong numbers at this point and Warblers were in good supply with resident birds like Ovenbird being well established. This had me confident in finding waves of them to the north yet, but I would soon find an education about what migration looks like in the north vs what we see in the south at the metro level.

By 10 AM I came upon Moose Lake and wanted to check out the wetland that I had seen during my New Years Day effort which had me find a Black-backed Woodpecker. This wetland was as expected with Sora present along with Pied-billed Grebe, Canada Goose, and wetland edge bird like Swamp Sparrow and even a Sedge Wren.

I rounded off this first hike as I also wanted to check the main lake area out and hit a trail I had noted during the winter. I again found some decent warbler action with Golden-winged, Orange-crowned, Magnolia, and even a Canada Warbler. Of additional note on these 2 further north parks I found White-throated Sparrow which had all but exited the metro by this time. With little experience of how far north they retreat it is always interesting to get to know the spaces they inhabit after moving further north for breeding.

A pair of Trumpeter Swan moved about feeding on the lake also as I assume they are nesting in the area as well. My only tough miss of the day was seeing a flock of peeps moved over the water (likely scared up by me approaching) and eventually disappear and never return. Would have been nice to add a shorebird or two for the State Park list considering the lake of opportunities I've had this year inside the parks. I'm sure the flock had Least Sandpiper present, but without some ground time I really couldn't lock them into a species for sure or tell them from even Semi-palmated Sandpiper.

I wrapped up 3 miles and about 2 hours of work at the park and looked to keep moving north and get some lunch in me. The 2 park combo had me add just Canada Warbler to my State Park year list, but both were well worth the follow-up visit and effort.

I had 2 coolers stocked with food supplies and drink, but I hit a restaurant to save my provisions for when I was a bit more off the grid. I had my eyes on some stops in Duluth just to stay casual, but still get some bird watching in on the day. Provided I didn't add many more true hikes on the day I would be well positioned to hit Gooseberry and Split Rock in the morning.

After lunch I started at Canal Park and worked the break water areas seeing Horned Grebe, Common Tern, and the expected Gulls. (Herring and Ring-billed) I moved along Park Point and made regular stops eventually getting to the rowing club location and found 15 White-winged Scoter present in breeding plumage. Later this number would grow as Clinton Neinhaus would spot 19 birds present along with some Lesser Scaup, Redhead, and Ring-necked Ducks. I also pulled out a Surf Scoter in the bunch before I moved along. This was so fun though to finally see breeding plumage Scoter as I'm so used to fall plumage birds that are in their most drab plumage possible.

Horned Grebe that had been hunting close to the break water wall at Canal Park.
A young Bonaparte's Gull that was with a mixed flock feeding just off the end of the Canal Park break water walk.
This was a bit of a mixed group of birds diving on some bait fish or something. I had Bonaparte's Gull and Common Tern in this picture for sure. Pretty sure I saw a Forster's Tern in the group also at one point.
Just one of the many adult White-winged Scoters seen along Park Point on the bay side on this day.

By the time I got to the Dune Bridge area I realized my Facebook post on the White-winged Scoters had gained some comments about me needing to get on the Whimbrel that were present at the sanitation department off of 4th street in the city. I pressed for some extra details and got them from Alex Sundvall and Liz Harper. Eventually John Richardson who spotted them from their count station up on the hill added a map pin for me to follow. When I pulled up and set my scope the birds were hard to miss as I found 13 Whimbrel standing tall on the sandbar along with hundreds of Terns and Gulls. This moved my lifetime MN list up to 304 as I picked up a super lucky life bird on my off day. Minutes later Clinton and Kristina pulled up as well for a look at the Whimbrel. I decided to hang out in case something else was found. Kristina spotted a Green Heron flying by, which turns out to be a really nice county bird that can be a challenge this far north.

The Whimbrel in flight from a bit of distance away. I was never really able to get my camera to focus well on them, but it was great to see this life bird as a bonus on the day.

After some time I started north catching some stops along the way and finding several Horned and Red-necked Grebe along the way on what would end up being the calmest water day I would see the remainder of the week. It was like glass all afternoon as I was afforded great chances to spot birds at places like Brighton Beach, Lakewood Pumping Station, Mcquade Harbor, and finally Two Harbors Lighthouse area. Pretty much every location I stopped at had Red-necked Grebe and finally in Two Harbors I found rafts of Long-tailed Duck also present along with very active Bonaparte's Gulls.

The water at Two Harbors was like glass and a bit of a marine layer started showing up later in the evening. It was a great day by the lake and I only spent a few hours around it on this day.

I even remembered at this point just north of town that Flood Bay State Wayside would count for my big year and picked up official State Park Long-tailed Ducks (8) and a Red-necked Grebe while also meeting Jim Lind out checking the site before a night survey of American Woodcock. I remembered him as my wife and I had stopped at his parents property a couple years prior to see about getting a look at a massive flock of Bohemian Waxwing that had been feeding their for a couple weeks. We saw all 200 of them that day for about 3 seconds as they left the property for the night. It was great to meet Jim for the first time and talk about the area as he noted a lot of great finds at Flood Bay and also some things to check for in future visits with the adjacent wetland that often hides fun birds like Northern Mockingbird.

My day was about done at this point as I retreated to my hotel in Two Harbors looking to rest up and get started nice and early in the morning. My setup day was outstanding, punctuated by Canada Warbler, many Long-tailed Ducks, Red-necked Grebe, and of course lifer Whimbrels as well. Duluth just has that kind of vibe to it that something crazy is going to happen every time you visit for birding in the spring.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Follow Migration - Part 8 - Mille Lacs Kathio Ice Palace

The strangest feeling I've had in a while is leaving Crow Wing State Park completely fried from the heat and air quality only to roll up on Mille Lacs and find massive ice floes still present. The air temp dropped double digits from about 1/4 mile away as the huge lake impacts the weather all around it's border.

My first view of Mille Lacs coming in from Crow Wing State Park showed me no matter the heat wave we were in ice was still a factor on this giant inland lake. Temps dropped 12 degrees by the time I got to this point.

This area certainly experiences a whole different level of migration as I was able to find a number of duck species hanging out that had long since left the metro area. As far as these birds knew ice was the winner any further north so they stuck to the open bay areas and adjacent waterways that were open.

I had waffled on hitting this 4th park on the day, but ultimately decided I would take it easy while still getting some time in at the park to check it off the list. I expected dense wooded areas as my research had basically indicated limited water access save for Ogechie Lake and perhaps the Rum River. The actual lake of Mille Lacs was not really in the picture for this park, which is sort of a bummer with highway 169 running along the lake as well as county 35. Though many access points and viewing areas dot the border of the lake, Mille Lacs Kathio is not really one of those so picking up big water sea ducks and the like is not going to happen from the State Park itself.

My selfie pics were a bit rough, but mostly they didn't do this massive cool sign any justice. The large arrowhead with Osprey were unique and a very cool way to embrace the history of the park and area. Probably one of my favorite signs so far this year.

I was happy though to see Common Raven on my hike along the Landmark Trail and then was able to pick out a nice selection of birds on Ogechie Lake including Caspian Tern, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Bufflehead. Warblers again seemed a challenge as I scratched out just 4 species on the 2 mile effort. I started to get the feeling that parks over in the central part of the state just weren't getting solid migratory movement yet and that I may be in front of their bulk numbers at this point. Though I reminded myself that the next day I was heading up the east side of the state to scour the north shore for several days and I would have many chances to prove out what was happening in the migratory cycle.

I did enjoy my time at Mille Lacs Kathio and realize I had only scratched the surface of hiking in this 10,000 acre park made up of a lot of mature hardwood forest mixed with evergreens. Though I don't imagine this is the greatest breeding diversity park available I have to imagine it has many secrets for an avid hiker to explore and areas that can put you well outside of range of the average human visitor. I'm looking forward to a future trip dedicated to hiking this park. I also believe I'll need to tag on several key lake stops on Mille Lacs itself as that size of a lake has to hold some great migrant birds at the right times of the year.

At worst I was given a crash course in massive inland lakes and how they change the local temperature all around them. I was scorching hot just a couple hours prior and now I was seeing an ice covered lake on fishing opener weekend and wearing a jacket.  With additional historic locations and plenty of Native American heritage I feel like this park has a few trips in it for me in the future. I really think it is the type of space that deserves attention and deep hikes even if they are to prove out how large of a population the area can hold of regular nesters like Ovenbird and Red-eyed Vireo. This might be the kind of place you hike for 6 or 8 hours and set the state record on species like those simply because you can cover 1,000s of acres in one day.

Near the end of my hike I was running seriously low on calories as I hadn't found a place to eat between Crow Wing and Mille Lacs Kathio. Not even a gas station presented itself and I'm not much for stopping at random bars to snag food so I just drove to the park and hiked, but I was low on everything at this point. This had me decide that even with light available I was not going to drop into Father Hennepin State Park on the way home to tag on yet another park for the day. Had I known though that just 1 mile from the entrance in the other direction was a gas station and Subway I might have done things a bit different. I pounded a sub and liquids, but by this point I knew I needed to head home and try for some sleep because I was about to do 11 more parks in the next 5 days and was planning some next levels hikes in places like Tettegouche State Park.

This of course leaves Father Hennepin for another future effort and I'll perhaps have to use it for fall migration and see if I can do it and another effort at Mille Lacs Kathio sometime around September or October depending on bird needs and potential.

The Great: This park is massive and even on hot days might benefit from the big climate changing lake it is adjacent to. If you like nice wooded parks and long hikes this is probably the kind of place to visit. I also noted some nice historic locations and signage to describe the area so this is the type of place you can scratch more than one itch. Having it so close to the big lake also adds value for day trippers looking to extend their birding value, even though the park trails don't lend views to the lake itself.

The Meh: From what I saw the habitat is primarily forest so that had best be your interest as you aren't going to get a mix that includes prairie for sure. I did see on the mapping that wetlands are noted as part of the space so given other trail features the park might offer some great diversity I wasn't able to experience in my very short trip.

The Verdict: This is an easy return recommendation space. Nothing this large can possibly be properly explored in a short outing and I love hiking so this is my kind of park. I will be back and I hope I can shoe horn in another effort this year yet when I have to return for Father Hennepin park which is just miles away to the east. The two parks together form a nice combo also as the small Father Hennepin park appears to offer a good amount of trail space that edges Mille Lacs giving a chance to pull in some deep water ducks and terns.

Follow Migration - Part 7 - Crow Wing Heat Death

After some fun and success at Charles Lindbergh I knew I needed at least another park on the day to stay on track for my goal of 20 parks in 10 days. Looking at my map, Crow Wing State Park was the next closest that I could start to loop back towards home afterward if I decided on another stop of some sort.

As I got close to the park I noted an air quality drop that appeared to be from nearby grass fires (maybe controlled burns) in the general area. The winds were not up much and the whole area had a haze about it that didn't look great. When I jumped out for my sign selfie the heat was stifling and brutal. It was just past midday and the area bird song had bottomed out completely.

Hot and oppressive, but still getting another park on the list.

After finding a trail head I figured with limited options I would try out the hiking club trail. The area had a nice look to it with the Crow Wing and Mississippi Rivers adding water to the park features. It was a very strange vibe though as it seemed like all life had been sucked out of the area and migration had nearly skipped the park to this point of the year. It did not have a fly way vibe to it at all and I would have expected even in the doldrums of a hot day for something to be bouncing around and feeding after a night of migration. I recall at this time a birder on a Facebook group begging for migration to start in this county as they had seen almost no warblers on the year to this point. This really drove home for me the disparity you can see across the state as the east side of the state can just be unreal, while the central to north-central areas might be complete dead zones in some areas.

I ended with 21 species in about an hour of hiking the 2.5 miles in the park. Only 4 of those were warblers with Ovenbird, Black-and-white, Palm, and Pine making up those members. It was all very strange and likely generated an unfair assessment in my mind of the park. This is after all another space on the Mississippi River that should have some pretty extreme potential during migration.

I did note some fun historic buildings on my hike complete with signage for those looking to explore the roots of the area and how it formed portage opportunities across the river for settlers in the area and Native Americans.

One of the historic structure along the Red River Oxcart Trail adding some nice historical flavor to the visit.

Given nice weather I think this would be something to come back for with my wife and give myself another chance to see what the park has offer in the way of bird species.

The Great: With many historic locations in the park this is a great place to explore a park, but also see a bit of state history. I can see a number of extra trails along the river providing hiking value and I think on a better weather and air quality day this would be a much better visit.

The Meh: A number of the signs did seem to be near end of life and in need of repair or replacement at the park. Of course the heat and air quality had me a bit off most of the time and it was already my 3rd park of the day on a loop that never really felt like it had a ton of awesome going for it so it is perhaps likely that Crow Wing simply got short changed on this trip of just barely 1 hour.

The Verdict: I really need to come back in the future and give this place a chance with some real hiking to see what it can offer. The problem some days with hitting over 70 parks in one year is something has to give and a park will not get a serious effort that may deserve full attention. For now I won't likely make it back this year, but I'll have it on my list of locations to revisit down the road.