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More coming soon on 2019 goal of 10K County Tics in one year.

Friday, October 12, 2018

2018 Grind & 2019 Goal Planning

So…yes, I’ve kind of gone dark lately on blog posting and updates. I’d say it’s for a good reason, but that is likely up to the reader to decided. The fall season does get very busy with birding events and efforts as I finally completed 2 different presentation efforts that required a combined 40 to 50 hours of prep time that included building new PowerPoint presentations and scripting, not to mention mock presentation efforts. Once those were in the bag I also had several sample stationary count efforts that led up to the 2nd annual Carpenter Nature Center/MOU migratory hawk watch at the end of September. After pilling all of that effort on the list I still got out for regular birding efforts of my own interests.
This included me starting to research in earnest an even more ambitious goal for 2019 that would likely press me orders of magnitude more than the State Park effort did this year that I’m still far behind on recounting in this blog. Though I haven’t 100% committed myself to going after this new goal of getting 10,000 county tics in 1 year in Minnesota I’m working very hard putting several hours a day into the research and discussion needed for something like this to be possible while holding down a full time job. I even drove to Duluth for a day of birding and discussion with Alex Sundvall to get some perspective on what is possible and not possible in such a massive goal. I have another meeting planned with the very well-traveled Liz Harper to further discuss this plan and the level of complete lunacy that it contains. I sat down for a period of time with good friend Peter Nichols to talk about this lunacy as well.

At the core I’m trying to super-charge my own experience in MN birding in hopes to propel several elements of my interests in birding; covering writing, presenting, and educational platforms. I feel like extending my state-wide knowledge to the next level will help add credibility to much of the platforms that have opened up to me in the last 2 years around guide work, presenting, etc…

I still want to get my writings completed for the remaining state park efforts that I engaged in this last year, but they will probably continue to trickle in slowly as I put a serious amount of effort into this goal research and preparation. Not to mention the number of new State Park stops that will be included in a year such as this one I’m proposing as many State Parks are basically super collectors for given counties that can help warp the effort needed in some counties. At an average of 115 species per county it almost seems possible, until you realize while staring at a State map that there are 87 counties to do that in during the year. Many problems exist with this plan, but I’ve gotten a number of pledges for help in counties that others know really well so it starts to seem more and more possible if you can count on those support efforts during the entire year. This may be my chance to extend out my birding efforts to include birding with online friends that come together in various Facebook groups.

This all seems like a grand adventure that can add to what I started with the State Park Big Year. More to come as I’ve continued to bird at a heavy pace while brain storming new ways to do something epic.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Glendalough – Cube Thief

It was mid-afternoon by the time I pulled into the prairie grass entrance of Glendalough State Park. It had past the peak temperature of the day, but the heat was still radiating down in this open space. I jumped out of the car for my customary sign selfie and set up my mini Rubik’s Cube that has been coming along to each park. I went and set the cube on the sign in a conspicuous location only to hear it fall. I looked behind and saw nothing and suddenly realized the massive metal fabricated sign was actually hollow. My cube had fallen several feet into the inner structure of the sign and would not be coming back out again. This was my second such cube claimed by a park sign and finally put me off bothering to include a trip avatar on my journeys.

As I cursed a bit under my breath I heard the unmistakable stuttering of a Dickcissel, followed by several others. They had made their way north and helped soothe a rankled spirit. Undaunted by my lost avatar I examined the map a bit and decided with many miles under my belt on the day I should limit my distance and take a couple of mini routes to get a feel for the park. I would start with Sunset Lake Trail a nice short loop around a small lake. The area had adjacent prairie showing at least a couple Bobolink moving about as well as some Oak Savanna that promised potential for Red-headed Woodpecker, but didn’t deliver on that this day. I hadn’t even realized at the time I was nearly halfway done with my first visit to the State Parks before seeing a Great Egret in one of them. This small lake must have been close to a rookery of some kind, but I couldn’t see it on property if it was. Though to be fair I didn’t take the large hiking club hike around Annie Battle Lake so that might have held a hidden rookery.
This park was one of the early points where I noted just hatched Wood Duck young swimming around with their mother as they complained anytime she out distanced them by more than a few feet, often scampering to her before striking out for something tasty on the surface.
After my short lake loop I drove further, avoiding the west side of Annie Battle Lake showing many cars at the campground area. I landed on the trial center at the south end of Blanche Lake hoping to check some back water areas along the Beaver Pond Interpretive Trail. Avoiding the beach area I struck off through the woods towards the biggest lake and found it clogged with leisure and sport boaters. I angled towards the wooded areas that would loop me into some backwater areas. At a short boardwalk I had my first State Park Yellow-headed Blackbirds of the year, likely nesting in the swamp area I was viewing. A Marsh Wren chatted briskly from the reeds as I made my way along the trail back towards the parking area. I stumbled upon a pet cemetery near this area that took me off guard.

Of course I snagged a pic and sent it home to my wife as we had just recently watched the Stephen King film Pet Sematary. (Yes, the title is spelled that way.) Apparently the area was a hunting club retreat many years ago and this was the resting place of many faithful hunting dogs that came with their owners to the retreat to help. I’m sure it has it’s charms, but was a creepy thing to run into in the woods when you don’t expect something like that in a State Park.
All other birds I would say were expected and nothing really crazy presented itself during my hikes in the park. I put up 45 species in 2.5 miles of hiking, which for the time of day wasn’t terrible. I know a good amount of hiking is left in this park, but honestly I did not find the space very inspiring. It was a decent space with some reasonable hiking, but many people drove all the way into the park looking to use the beach creating a sort of bustling atmosphere. I never got the feeling I could steal away from the humanity for more than a few minutes while hiking. Though I do feel I need to get a shot at the Lake Emma Trail and the floating blind that is provided. Perhaps as a spring (post thaw) or fall effort. My small slice in time for the park likely wasn’t adequate enough to make a serious determination on the quality of birding.

The Great: The park provides a nice diversity in habitat in a relatively small space. With most of the park taken up by lakes it does compress the natural space a bit, but it was nice to find Yellow-headed Blackbird and I would do well to return at some point to see what kind of waterfowl stage on the lakes either heading north or south.

The Meh: The solid dose of humanity does turn me off to some spaces just because they often don’t handle the crowd very well for the size of the space. When I have to look for a parking spot at a trail center that typically tells me it is not going to meet my primary goals. The saving grace was that the majority of the people were hanging at the beach area away from my primary hiking locations.

The Verdict: Given time I can see using this as a stop point to check out the Emma Lake area as it has Wildlife Protection zone around it that might provide some interesting spaces to explore as a birder. It might also be a lot better in the pre-vacation periods before humanity starts running into the park at a higher clip.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Maplewood - Welcome to the jungle.

I rolled into Maplewood State Park at nearly straight up noon on June 9th

My camera pretty much stayed glued to my shoulder the whole time, with a grinding hot hike of 4.5 miles. 

Certainly well into the breeding season and beyond migratory windows so the majority of birds should certainly be setting up shop so to speak. The day in the NW portions of the state was an order of magnitude hotter than in the twin cities. Back home it was 74, but in Maplewood State Park and the surrounding areas it was in the mid-80’s with a blasty sun shining down. I pulled into the trail center that is a sort of nexus for the entire park trail system with options sprawling off in all directions.
At 9,200 acres I really didn’t know how much to bite off on this trip considering I had just done 3.5 miles at Buffalo River and the heat had already set in on the prairie for that hike. I settled on some portion of the hiking club trail and some edge prairie that would loop me around and between a couple lakes (Grass, Bass, Beers). This section of the park lives up to the name and was loaded with nice forest area. The lakes provided some nice water and edge marsh habitat, but the trail segments were pure forest hiking like I used to prefer exclusively many years ago. The air was still though and the forest was nearly suffocating in the heat.
It was a non-ideal situation for bird noise, but I did find Yellow Warbler and American Redstart in droves filling in every forest and lake edge space possible. Ovenbirds filled in any remaining gaps giving at least a non-stop cacophony of song in the dark wooded spaces. Elevations rose up and dropped down regularly and I found the hike to be enjoyable and filled with solitude. Later in the hike I found a Chestnut-sided Warbler foraging in the open heat on a snag and singing from time totime as well. I had gotten onto a bit of a horse trail by this time and the more sandy path was radiating a slow burn.
I put up 52 species during the hike, a respectable number considering I was forcing a mid-day hike in the heat. With the nice forest plus lake/pond habitat I heard a Red-Shouldered Hawk calling out along with a couple Broad-winged Hawks on territory screaming in the forest.
Nothing in the effort really surprised me, but I did enjoy what I did see of the park. I kind of feel bad looking back on the park map and seeing the entire ‘West Park Area’ loaded with even higher hills (topping 1,560’) and having not gotten into that space at all. A second visit would have me explore this space by hiking and driving to the South Lida Lake areas. It seriously looks like another park left to visit and I put 4.5 miles into Maplewood in the crazy heat of the day.
With over a mile left to the car I had mis-calculated water use and was already empty. My thought was I really needed to pick up the pace back. Knowing myself I didn’t want to slow roll that mile and risk dehydration before getting to my next park on the day. I passed by the horse camp loaded with people sitting out the heat with their horses tied off in the shade. During this time I crossed few hikers on the trails and enjoyed the time alone, despite seeing a full campground and horse camp on this East Park Area.
The Great: The park is massive, didn’t feel crowded, though of course I hiked in the middle of a hot day so perhaps may more people would be moving on other days and times. I’m encouraged by the prospect of more habitat and evenelevation on the west side so this place has a lot to explore. The nexus point for a trail center really seems to provide a point to get to a large majority of the parks trail system and could easily show up at this spot and do several large loops withoutreally doubling up on any given trail.
The Meh: Beyond hitting some nasty temps, this park has a great level of available options for the hiker/birder. I’d love to see a morning effort in spring and what you can put together. Perhaps a single limiting factor is that this park is not sitting adjacent to a major river so it’s not really on the flyway in a normal sense. That can limit boom cycle bird fall out, but even in the heat over 50 species is pretty respectable.
The Verdict: This is an easy return at some point, as long as I don’t have a secondary agenda. This large of a space needs time to explore and enjoy all the elements. The prospect of some serious elevation change is exciting and I’d love to check this out in mid-May.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Blog Update and Events Coming Up...

Some readers might be surprised to find that I have actually completed my State Park Big Year already. I got myself to 73 State Parks and State Recreational Areas before the end of July. It was a feverish pace that had me grinding out awesome trip after trip with Itasca State Park being the last one on my list.

With a family reunion on my wife's side at Itasca it was always a plan to hit that park during the family event, but as it turned out I was able make it the very last planned location for my big year. I decided to at least put this up now as the date details in my posts have been pretty disjunct from the actual current date due to the massive (~30) park back log of posts I need to write.

Having also written multiple articles for publication during this time and now starting 2 different presentations coming up this month for birding programs. (Teaching Birding 101 at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis coming up on the evening of 9/12 and then presenting at the MRVAC meeting on 9/27 on the subject of finding rare birds. Open to the public!) I felt I should at least get word out on what the hold up is with getting blog posts out for these parks I've long since explored and enjoyed.

I'll also be providing count support and identification work for the 2nd annual fall raptor count at Carpenter Nature Center, which will be co-hosted by the MOU with early morning hours providing passerine count and identification. This event will be 9/29 starting at 9AM. This event is one we are quickly getting tuned up and primed for with our first sample count already happening back on 9/3 with a few good raptors like (7) Osprey moving south along with a Coopers Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle (4), and an amazing array of Warblers along with an early Lincoln's Sparrow and Purple Finch (2). I personally plan to complete multiple pre-count efforts this month to get a feel for how migration of Raptors is progressing.

Not to be out done by myself I'll be co-running a Fall sea duck route trip for the MOU with Peter Nichols in the East and North metro areas in November on the 10th. You can pick up details on MOU Facebook page and I would expect in the next published newsletter for MOU members.  

Donation update on my Big Half Year for the Bog. As that program wrapped up at the end of June I was knee deep in planning for my last segments of State Park visits. I decided to donate $73.00 of my own money to Friends of Sax-Zim Bog and just found out my donation match request with my company was approved so FOSZB can't expect another $73.00 coming by the end of the month. I know they just finished construction on a bog boardwalk a few weeks ago, which will be super exciting during all times of the year. They have a donate button on their website and I would love to hear of others giving to them so more bog can be preserved and opened up for birders and naturalists to explore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Buffalo River and the Spotted-Eastern-Hybrid Towhee

After a couple weeks of rest (hard to believe you can actually rest when trying to hit every state park in a year) I got on the road on Saturday morning June 9th nice and early. I pulled into Buffalo River SP just a few minutes past 9AM, though I was hoping for earlier than that honestly.

I see a Greater-Prairie Chicken on the sign, though I didn't get one on this trip it is very high on my get list for the state soon.

I had heard great things about Buffalo River SP in the sense of it being a western edge park with rarity potential (Western Wood-Peewee last year) and some outstanding prairie space bordered to the south by Bluestem Prairie SNA just to bolster those creds even more. In the shade of the Buffalo River segment not far from the parking and swim pond I picked up plenty of American Redstart and Yellow Warbler staking claim to prime sections of habitat. The same area had an active Scarlet Tanager and the area acted more like a nice forest than anything resembling prairie.

That changes very quickly though as you cross the river and pickup the segments of the Prairie View Trail that runs a couple large loops out to the west and south edges of the park property.

The prairie masters quickly made themselves known as Western Meadowlarks perched and Grasshopper Sparrows issues their insect-like calls. A few Bobolink let out their robotic calls and chased around the open spaces. This is true prairie space that began to heat up very quickly on the day and made the open area feel several degrees warmer than it might actually have been at this point in the morning. I really needed that extra hour or more of morning time to avoid the high heat of the day.

Several low areas had Alder Flycatcher claiming their own space as thickets of bushes dotted the moist areas. As I arced around towards a river overlook I heard a call I did not recognize and my heart jumped. This happens less and less these days and I was keen on figuring out what new single phrase call I couldn't immediately identify...

I got closer and closer to the woodline and the call was repeated the entire time. I soon made the treeline just south of the river and still it persisted. I was having trouble finding the bird that seemed to be calling from the tree tops so I circled the area even cutting into the brush line hoping to change my viewing angle enough to pick up the bird.

After nearly 10 minutes of this I finally set eyes upon a Towhee! Well, I knew for a fact this was not an Eastern Towhee call note. Even with their tendency to issue several calls and also modify/shorten their signature "Drink-Your-Tea" call I knew this voice was not an Eastern voice. I immediately jumped to Spotted Towhee. A rarity, I was almost ready to send out alerts for any that might happen to be in the area and want such a bird. I paused though wanting to snag a photograph showing the spotted wings and eventually was able to do so.

My angle finally shows me a spotted wing pattern I had hoped would be the final clincher for Spotted Towhee and a new rarity to report for my State Park big year.

As soon as I got my photo, confident I had gotten my bird even though I'd never heard this call before, the bird did something that was at once amazing and disheartening. It began to sing...the entire normal "Drink-Your-Tea" song of an Eastern Towhee. This bird had I not seen it would have gone down as an Eastern on this song alone and if the song had never started would have been an easy call for Spotted for me with an assumption that I just didn't know all of their call notes.

Now I knew where I was and that was bird limbo. I had found an Eastern/Spotted Hybrid that all at once was super cool and a bit sad since it would not have an official count on my life list. The educational value though far outweighs the indeterminate tick of finding a hybrid. I popped out to Facebook after a Google search showed me an article on the hybrids and I even found a short description that indicated such hybrids often have a call type not matching either bird, but a song matching Eastern Towhee. In my post I made short joke of "That moment when" meme of thinking you have one thing, but it turns out to be another. Not long later Bob Dunlap (MOU President) commented that the same bird was present last year as well playing the same games with birders.

I was happy to have not completely fallen for the ruse and worked through the identification using my own skills, some quick article research on hybrids, and photographic evidence. It was a great education and a story I won't soon forget.

A nice White-Admiral butterfly that I was able to photograph while hiking one of the trails.

The Great: Finding a unique hybrid and getting to work on the identification was as special moment that lasted for nearly 30 minutes. The park has a great section of prairie and being bordered by an SNA helps to make it an even bigger preserved natural space. The river valley helps to ensure this area has some diversity of species and I certainly look forward to keeping this location on my NW MN tour stops for birding.

The Meh: Beyond the Hybrid I wasn't astounded by the birding I encountered, but I was already into June at this point and finding some additional unique prairie natives likely takes a lot more than a couple hours in a single loop. One area I hiked had a recent burn so a swath of my effort was basically a bird dead zone. The park seemed to have a huge influx of humans by the time I finished my first loop showing dozens of cars in the lot looking to use the swim area, making the park seem more crowded than I would have expected.

The Verdict: Getting native habitat like this is a thing to treasure. Were I closer to this park it would be an easy monthly or more visit type of place looking for errant rarities. I'd also expand efforts into the adjacent SNA and the regional science center land to the east. I'll be back at some point I'm sure when I want to expand my park or county life list or simply look for things I've never seen before in the state.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Code 10 - Roseate Insanity

It was going to be an off day. I was going to spend most of my time working on an upcoming presentation for the MRVAC monthly meeting, kicking off their fall speaker series by talking about finding more rare birds and goal setting. My wife and I rolled into Starbucks around 10AM and I snagged on of the few remaining tables, while she got in line to order for us.

Seconds later my phone started ringing. I get very few phone calls these days simply because messaging is the way things are typically done, but my friend Pete Nichols and I have a system. If it's a serious find, it's a phone call and the one getting the calls picks it up ASAP.

Pete: Dude!
Me: What's Up?
Pete: Are you ready for a code 10 in our county?
Me: Uh, yes?
Pete: Dude, Kevin Smith just found a Roseate Spoonbill at the sandbar!
Me: ....what?
Pete: Yes.

Me up at counter in line with my wife.

Me: We need to go, now!
Her: What?
Me: Roseate Spoonbill at the sandbar.
Her: I'll get it to go then.

I quickly told Pete we are on our way. He was getting a pickup from Larry Sirvio and would be in bound also. Not only was this a big deal for Washington County, but it would be a first state record for Minnesota. We raced down to Hastings crossing the river and I could see gulls and one big light/white bird on the sandbar. It would turn out though that shortly after getting the word out the bird had lifted along with the gulls. The gulls returned, but the Spoonbill did not as it flew north over the lock and dam.

Talking with Kevin Smith now and a few others that started to trickle into the boat launch parking a plan started forming. Greg Jahner was already working from the lock and dam along with Kevin's wife Cindy. Pete and Larry showed up and did the same along with looking at Lake Rebecca and the dike area. Soon Tom Bell showed up as well looking to add this State Record. Jenn Veith arrived with her husband on her birthday no less and they plotted a possible boat trip from their home to the backwater areas around Spring Lake to search.

Alex Sundvall arrived and we agreed that Schaar's Bluff would be a good place to look as well now with plenty of backwater areas to observe from high up on the river bluffs. The group dispersed quickly with Greg noting he was going to be checking Hazen P. Mooers Park as well as the gravel pit on Grey Cloud Island. The hunt was on.

I talked my wife into a run to Schaar's Bluff and she was game as we pulled in and starting looking at the river in various locations. Kevin had noted the bird likely would be looking for more Great Egrets as it had been associating loosely with the one I had seen while crossing the bridge. The river from Schaar's Bluff had plenty of Egret's and hundreds of Ring-billed and Franklin's Gulls, but nothing remotely pink could be found. Liz Harper showed up as well at this point while 7 or 8 of us scanned various sections of river without luck.

Many of us dispersed at this point while others like Liz Harper stayed in the area searching various locations. My wife and I ended up getting lunch and returned home. I started working on my MRVAC presentation again and figured the day would end with Kevin Smith notching a first state record in 2 counties along with his wife and nobody else would have the fortune of seeing such a great bird. At 2:45PM I got a message from Pete the "likely bird" was refound at Old Cedar Avenue in Hennepin County now, 20 miles away! Had someone searched this whole time and thought to check another section of river 20 miles away from the first sighting?

Pete was keen on another run at this bird and offered a ride if I made it down to his place. I thought for a few seconds and realized state records don't show up every year so this might be my only chance in MN ever. I got in the car with my gear and got to his place. We jumped in his car and quickly made our way towards Old Cedar.

The effort wasn't drama free as we arrived to find Old Cedar Ave in the worst shape I've seen it to date. The city/county has continued at a glacial pace in rebuilding this area for 2 years now. I used to go to this place regularly and finally stopped when they started the pedestrian bridge project. Now the road itself to the new parking area was utterly destroyed. This hill down is daunting and certainly wasn't something Pete should be hiking in the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. So we drove down the single choppy dirt lane the last stretch of navigable road and turned around. Pete jumped out with the gear and I drove it back up the hill and rushed back down on foot. It was then at least a half mile further down the road and out to the boardwalk. Signs were good though as we ran into Greg Jahner fresh from seeing the bird and rushing back to his daughters softball game. Birders will find a way to wedge a chase into any personal/family event possible when it is this singular in nature.

Once on the platform the sleepy Roseate Spoonbill was easy to spot just a couple hundred feet away. Kevin's comment from earlier resonated as I eventually counted 25 Great Egret in the area and it became pretty apparent this bird was looking for rest and food and wanted to associate with a bird species as similar to itself as possible.

The next hour became a who's who in birding as people streamed in from all corners of the metro and even state to get a sight of this wonderful rarity. Off the top of my head I talked with or recognized, Dana Sterner and her mother, Michael Sack, Bob Jansen, Julie Winter-Zempel, Tony Lau, Amit Kulkarni, Richard Gotz, Travis Bono, John Jonas,  Bill Litkey, Erik Collins, Becca Engdahl, Alex Burchard, Bob Dunlap, William Marengo, Alex Sundvall, Joe Lindell, Liz Harper, Brad Abendroth, Larry Sirvio, Joey Sundvall, a large contingent of the Hosch family (Ezra, Isaac, Jackie, and I think Caleb).

On the way out Kevin Smith and Alex Franzen were coming in giving Kevin a wild 3 county ticks in one day for the first state record bird. Unreal and super awesome. While hiking up the hill I ran into Karl Isley and even Kim Eckert whom I assume had driven from Duluth. Many more beyond those I knew were coming into the platform area and streaming down the rubble of a road to add this bird to their list. Rare bird chases are something of a wonder of human nature. I had noted on a Facebook post that birders "flashmob" better than almost any other group in existence. With todays light speed reporting avenues the word gets out so insanely fast that even leaving immediately upon finding out you are likely to be the 30th or so person to arrive when it's near the heart of the cities such as it was yesterday.

I later saw reports of the bird out to 8PM with more names I recognized like Josh Wallestad having been in the cities by some stroke of amazing luck with his wife for a conference starting on Monday. Jenn Veith was able to get the bird as a birthday bird and this time her son Vincent was with to see it as well.

From the highest high of a morning call from Pete to the lowest low of heading back home after a fruitless search, to the redemptive chase at Old Cedar, the day was an awesome rollercoaster to get a sighting and picture of a first state record. In the end it will stick with many of us how many friends we quickly got to see and talk with over this bird. Conversations of congratulations in person for other birds people had found recently like Dana Sterner finding a first county record Blue Grosbeak in Ramsey County. These moments in time can be critical to reinforcing friendships and making new birding contacts with friends of friends. The birding melting pot is as diverse as our quarry and always exciting to see again. Soak it in everyone, life is good.

Friday, August 24, 2018

"Relaxing" Local Birding

After an insane 20 park circuit with over 70 miles of hiking and touching the southwest corner of the state and the northeast corner I arrived back home on 5/18, went to bed and promptly got up at 5AM for the Grey Cloud Dunes Big Watch event. This event, now in it's 3rd year, is an all day event coupling a stationary count along with guided efforts on the properly for small groups. I have guided all 3 years and always enjoy the opportunity to see what migrants are present and how many sparrow species we can check off on the day.

For 15 and a half hours I watched, hiked, counted, and socialized at the event. It is a true endurance test that brought us all the day to dark when we moved to another parking lot to pickup the call of at least 3 Eastern Whip-poor-will. I checked off 82 species during the day (10 sparrow species) and guided multiple groups around the property helping to identify birds and even a few flower species.

A nice Grasshopper Sparrow, one of the regular breeders of Grey Cloud Dunes SNA.

Eastern-wood Peewee from Grey Cloud Dunes SNA also. This one must have been tired as it sat on this log just 8 feet away while we observed.

After the Grey Cloud event it would be hard not to admit I was gassed and in dire need of some relaxation time. I mostly birded locally all the way until 6/9 giving me plenty of time off from longer distance travel. I visited Afton State Park along with William O'Brien State Park multiple times each to keep myself in State Park mode and good hiking condition. Afton State Park can really hold the fort pretty well on quality birding options as is evidenced from my pictures of Hooded Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat. The first has been a summer breeder in the park for several years now making it one of the few reliable spots in the state for this species. The second has shown up at Afton State Park 2 years in a row and been one of the few individuals identified in the entire state each year.

My first run in with this bird was shrouded in foliage and tough shots. I came back after a long hike and it decided to set up shop above me and sing for a few minutes. My best looks and pics of Hooded Warbler ever.

This was my first confirmed Lark Sparrow for Afton State Park so it was nice to see potential nesting efforts for the species that is very tough to find breeding in Washington County.

I had this bird on my radar to track down in 2018 hoping for a redux on the bird found last year by Kevin Manley. Another birder beat me to it and refound the bird in the exact same spot. I would go on to see this bird in 4 different months of 2018 trying in vain to call for a mate.

Mostly I wanted to get this post together so I retain knowledge of what I did between large birding trips for the big year. It was important as I finished large circuits to take some time off, but still get quality birding efforts in during the weekdays. Afton is such an amazing place considering it is bereft of any swamp spaces or lakes/ponds it brings an amazing diversity of birds that can rival most other state parks. Being only about 15 or 20 minutes from my home it is a great place to go after work and get a nice strenuous hike or setup for a sky watch in the spring/fall for migrants.

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.