Recent News

Hastings Earth Day Festival: I'll be guiding at Afton State Park in the morning and presenting on gear in the afternoon at Carpenter Nature Center. Check it out this weekend!!

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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Afton Lifetime Statistics Tracking

Considering my desire to use Afton State Park as my "bulk birding" location for this years state wide big year I wanted to get a stats tracking post up for the park. This is where I'll keep my visit statistics for Afton to give me an idea of my trip count, miles hiked, species seen, life birds, etc...

This will be posted on the side of the main blog webpage along with my overall statistics post that is also continually updated.

Lifetime Bird Species Count:

146 at end of 2017
162 as of 4/17/2018

Single Year Count: 74 species (4/18)

Total Trips in 2018: 21 (4/18)
Total Miles Hiked in 2018: 46

Total Day Ticks: 321* (4/16)

January: 20 species seen
February: 21 species seen
March: 42 species seen
April: 56 species seen

All Time Best Bird Species:
1. Bell's Vireo (2016)
2. Black-billed Cuckoo (2014)
3. Black-throated Blue Warbler (2014)
4. Common Raven (2018)
5. Golden Eagle (2018)
6. Henslow's Sparrow (2014)
7. Hooded Warbler (2015)
8. Horned Grebe (2016)
9. Long-eared Owl (2016)
10. Northern Saw-whet Owl
11. Ruffed Grouse (2017)
12. Short-eared Owl (2015)
13. Townsend's Solitaire (2016)
14. Western Kingbird (2017)
15. Yellow-breasted Chat (2017)

Mammals: 5 [White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Grey Squirrel, Red Squirrel, 13-Lined Ground Squirrel]
Reptile: 1 [Snapping Turtle]

Flowers: 0










*Total number of species seen by day. Meaning you can tick a Chickadee once per day every day of the year.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Pure Gold at Afton

With radar lighting up to the south overnight I wanted to get out right after work. Prior to yet another spring storm coming to town I needed to get out and bird watch as much as possible.

Afton was again my target with it being square in my view as a big year within my State Park big year. I figured even with large numbers being blocked to the south that southern Washington county would still be able to put a few new species on the list for the year. I was not disappointed on a nice 48 degree evening with light winds that eventually died down to almost nothing.

One thing I love about going to the same location repeatedly is you get to know the machinations of nature. You get a feel for how things flow and change over time and you begin to notice minor shifts in habitat utilization as migration ebbs and flows. This evening I quickly got a look at the relatively small patch of open water on the river from the top of the bluff. This puts you about 1500 feet away from the water and elevated well above it as well. This patch I've seen briefly inhabited by a flock of Hooded Merganser, but beyond that activity was limited as it is a stretch of water bordered by long runs of ice in the center of a high current river. I quickly found a number of Mallard were setup resting on the ice and paddling around the pool. While doing this a number of Bald Eagle were squabbling over what looked like a large carp that had been pulled onto the ice. (Imagine being a species that must rest and eat within a 100 feet of the thing that constantly tried to eat you for dinner.)

I started scanning the entire pool and soon landed upon a couple Blue-winged Teal, an odd duck so to speak for the middle of a river. Quickly I found some Common Goldeneye that had been joined by a raft of Lesser Scaup. I wanted to ensure I didn't miss anything so I started my hike down to the river edge so I could shrink the distance to the birds and pull in some Nikon shots of what ever else might be moving around. On my way a FOY (First of Year) Hermit Thrush pair popped up from the wooded edge and picked at some wrinkled berries.

One of 4 I saw on my hike, this Hermit Thrush was near the picnic overlook.

Further down I picked up a chip note of sparrow level interest and gave a small low volume phishing noise. A Fox Sparrow popped up into view and put on a show in perfect light for me for a couple minutes. I had wanted to snag one from Afton for a while now to make sure I got one on my year list for the parks.


This Fox Sparrow was so cooperative I had to put two pictures in the post. 

Finally at the bottom I slogged over the flood plain forest section towards the open pool. Fortune smiled as a walker with a dog kicked up a few ducks from the Trout Brook out flow and into the middle of the river. That contained a pair of Green-winged Teal, a bird I would typically rule out of Afton State Park on the account of being very limited desirable habitat even for a  migrant Teal. (Getting both on the same day together was a nice treat and added 2 Afton State Park life birds for me.)

Male Green-winged Teal on right and Malr Blue-winged Teal on the left. Both lifer Park birds for me. 

A FOY Belted Kingfisher also rattled off a few salvo's of calls during this time adding to the wonderful audio layers of a nice spring day. I moved about in some wooded spaces after this and found a couple more Hermit Thrush working open patches of forest. I like adding the hilly sections of Afton as they provide awesome accidental exercise while birding for extended periods. (4 hours on this day)

Making it back to the top of the river valley I figured I could setup for a sky watch at my favorite overlook spot just south of the visitor center by about a 1/4 mile. On my way 3 FOY Vesper Sparrow popped into a tree to give me an eye. This is a nice bird for the park as they don't seem to nest at Afton and they were again a life park bird for me.

Lighting was tough, but still got a nice picture of this tougher to get Park bird. Vesper Sparrow.

 Shortly after I also picked up a few Tree Swallow working up the river valley for yet another FOY bird on the day. In some cases I had to watch really closely to get some of these birds as they streamed up river at a moderate altitude. At the same time I could see even higher up Ring-billed and Herring Gulls working back down river. Apparently they did not like what they saw in the north or they were returning a roost site further down river.

As I neared my overlook location I locked on a Peregrine Falcon moving like a bullet down river along the ridge. It was crazy to see the speed with which this bird moved. Everything else appeared to either labor against a cross wind or attempt to soar on updrafts and thermals. Not this Peregrine though as it pulled wings in tight and moved with purpose.

During my sky watch an Eastern Meadowlark let out a volley of song behind me in the prairie. A few days back I had my first 3 in this area begin to make some noise. Prior to that I had a single bird near the entrance station giving contact calls only. You can get a vibe for these changes the more you get out in the same space and really track the arrival of a species, it's transition to song, and eventual claiming and winning of a coveted territory that causes others to move onto another location.

My day wasn't done yet though as I started to see some Turkey Vultures working a thermal together to the south. It started with 4 or 5 and as I looked back a minute or two later saw they were joined by many more and the tornado expanded to 35. This is always fun to watch the formation of such a flock looking to spend as little energy as possible.


Watching Turkey Vulture soar in a large kettle is mesmerizing.

Something interesting happened though as this flock overtook my position I noticed another couple behind them and a pair of American Crows came out of the Pine ridge to give chase and started making a racket. I was confused why on earth they would care about a Turkey Vulture. It dawned on me that wasn't the case and I next assumed they were giving chase to one of the many Bald Eagles in the area. That made little sense either as I've rarely seen a Crow work over an Eagle. In fact I had just watched them hang out with the Eagles at the river looking to get in on the Carp that had been landed. It finally dawned on me that I was seeing something else completely and I got my binoculars on a Golden Eagle (juvenile/2nd year). the white tail base and small patches of white at the feather bases on the winds sealed it very quickly. I was able to see a golden sheen on the head and neck, which showed a distinctly shorter projection that you would see on a Bald Eagle. Fortune smiled as I had my camera already on and the zoom fully extended and I just had to get it in frame as the bird started to come out of a soar and switched into a gliding dive looking for the next thermal. The bird flew directly over my head no more than 100' above me. What an amazing moment and one I finally was in the position to snag a picture. As you can see below I had terrible lighting so the post processing is rough, but shows this amazing bird as it quickly exited to the north a mere 30 seconds after the American Crows pointed it out.


First rule of identification shows is to just get the picture. 30 seconds is all I had and as you can see a lot can be done in post to get a good enough picture for identification and documentation. 

I'd go on to add a Sharp-shinned Hawk and many fly by Mallards along with a few more days birds before I topped out at 38 species in 4 hours of after work birding time. What a great evening of bird watching for the spring.

The great finds added 6 all time Afton State Park birds for me and moved my Afton year list up to 65 species while ticking the State Park list up to 93 species. I even added 13-lined Ground Squirrel to my mammal list on the evening.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Fabricating Fun

As we continue the spring cycle of freeze, snow, wind, repeat I have been evolving my goals a bit. State Park Big Year is still happening and I'm not giving that up for anything. However with a stall in that action for the time being it has allowed me to bring into greater focus other sub-goals in this year of focused effort.

This Sandhill Crane from a recent William O'Brien SP seemed to be less than excited about foraging in a frozen swamp in April. Spring is coming dude.

Already well into my participation in birding events, article writing, and radio efforts I started to consider what additional closer to home goals could sneak into this year without being a major hindrance on my larger goal.

The first of which is micro listing with Afton State Park being my target. Considering it is a State Park I figured it would play a key role this year for weekday efforts and close to home outings when family events demanded my time. What I didn't expect is that by the first week of April I would already have visited the park 15 times and scratched out 53 species in a terrible migration year. My owl species in the park are at 5 with hopes of finding at least 1 more this spring. (Eastern Screech) Last year Afton had a pretty sick list of birds that are super tough if not impossible in the rest of the county. (Ruffed Grouse, Western Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Hooded Warbler, Townsend's Solitaire, and Common Raven all immediately come to mind.)

My goal then tacked onto my year is to Big Year at Afton State Park. I'm not even sure what is possible in the park by myself, but it would be fun to see if I could get to 170, which is roughly the number of species identified in the park since January of 2017.

This goal also helps me mentally to plug into the effort fully and not think about the fact that I'm missing out on a trip to another State Park or something. Now it will be interesting to see how my weekends go once the weather gets nice. I'll need to get my out of town trips in, but perhaps this is where a few days of vacation come to play where I can get out of town for a 2 or 3 park swing and then have another day for pure Afton. Then have a day of vacation to recover/relax so it's a 3 day weekend and not beastmode every day while trying to work all week.

A bit blurry as I also had to push the color/brightness up on this backlit photo of a Red-Shouldered Hawk. In the top you can see a fresh snagged mouse/vole in the left talons. The bottom cut was a throw away shot that ended up showing the tail really well of this species.

I have had a couple Afton trips recently with poor weather that is suppressing migration a lot, but I was able to scratch out some good species anyway. During the week I was able to get decent pictures of a Red-Shouldered Hawk hunting in the open prairie and yesterday I found a Brown Creeper working near Trout Brook loop. This hike from the north end was a bit snow and mud laden but I really needed the trail time and some hills to flex my legs on a bit. Of interest on the hike at Trout Brook Loop was a single bat flying around. I'm pretty sure I've never seen a bat flying around with snow on the ground before. I'm not even sure if it can be identified to species with just an aerial view, but I've recorded it at least as a mammal species for my list.

My long Brown Creeper working the trees down in the Trout Brook Loop. I was hoping for maybe a drumming Ruffed Grouse, but I'll take this and bat on the trip.

I actually wanted the hiking to try for a Fox Sparrow at the park, but only Dark-eyed Junco and Song Sparrow were interested in showing up on this day. I realized this morning while writing this post that I'm 30 species behind my count from last year already. It is amazing how far behind the migrants will get when you have these challenging weather patterns that suppress movement.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Terrible Spring & Great Experiences

Over the weekend I was able to present along with my friend Peter Nichols on county birding and increasing your species counts. We each put in 20 hours of research and prep time to create the slides and content. It was very well received by the audience of just over 100 people.

I was very happy with how it went and humbled to be able to present to such a large audience and along with notable birders such as Bob Janssen, Kim Eckert, and John Richardson. Additionally found great education in listening to Karla Bloem and Steve Stucker during the day.

This build up to the presentation along with nasty spring snow storms coupled with an Easter Weekend heavily restricted my bird activities for State Park visits. I'm hoping to get out this coming weekend, but even that is in question with barely tolerable weather on the back side of the current snow storm that is dropping inches on us as I write this post.

My patience is nearly at an end, but I can at least say on presentation day last Saturday I was able to squeeze in some birding at Carpenter Nature Center and nearby spots to pick up several FOY birds like Fox Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird, Wilson's Snipe, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, and Pied-billed Grebe.

The wind was insanity out of the north stealing the warmth from your very soul, but still several of us birded anyway. It wasn't a State Park to contribute to that year long effort, but we still snagged some species tried to eek out an existence.

I'll be looking forward to this weekend but with snow blanketing many areas I'm not sure what I'll be able to get done. I may have to target the next weekend and hope the weather shifts enough to get some melt going. I need open ground and hiking time to build up my long hike endurance. Getting into May with the plans I have for 20+ parks in a week or so is not going to go well without some endurance built up.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Radiosavant & Weather Limited Birding

Link to MPR Segment Podcast:

Last week on Tuesday night I was making dinner with my wife (grilled bacon and cheese sandwiches on Pretzel Buns) and my phone started blowing up. I quick checked and was being asked by 2 birding friends if I was available to do an MPR spot on Thursday morning.

Now, complete honesty out front, anything after that was completely unnecessary as I'm the type of guy that can't refuse such an opportunity. The idea of fear in this type of situation doesn't really exist, just nervous excitement at the opportunity to talk about birds to a large audience. I knew I could clear my schedule and work would understand my need to be a part of this activity.

It was interesting to see the approach each friend took as one simply related the opportunity and gave an encouraging word while the other lobbied heavily with quality reasons why I should do such a thing. As I said, I was already sold so they both forwarded my details to the MPR producer and the wheels were in motion.

That evening I got an email from the producer giving me some minor details and checking to be sure I was interested. We arranged a morning call to quick review my background and qualifications. (Probably a general vetting process to make sure I wasn't completely off the wall or in some way likely to lose my mind while on radio.)

Just like that it was set and I would be in studio by 10:15AM for a 10:30AM segment. My wife volunteered for moral support and came along to keep me calm and ready to rock. We sat in the parking lot a bit having arrived early and I did what I always do, identified birds in the lot by sight or call. I noted a Male House Finch singing away from one of the limited trees in the center of St. Paul.

We got into the building shortly after and were moved to the Green Room with about 10 minutes to spare. Just like that it was time to go on as I grabbed my notepad with a single sheet of notes in case I should vapor lock live on air. I was quickly introduced to Mike Edgerly (filling in for Kerri Miller) and found my place across the console from him. The producer adjusted the mic for me and we all talked about the flow of the 30 minutes, etc... It came up that this was my first radio opportunity and Mike was quick to point out it would be a conversation between the 2 of us and we'd talk to a few people on the phone. This relaxed me a lot and given a natural abundance of confidence I was ready to rock.

We spanned many topics, often driven by the callers, which kept the whole thing in conversation mode and impromptu. I really feel like I excel at such banter and never felt like I was out of my element the whole time. The closest though would have to be the nerve wracking bird call identification piece I wasn't aware was going to be a thing....(I found out 30 seconds before going on air actually.)

Fortune smiled though as the first call played I literally had heard in the parking lot and had spent time getting to know the last few years. The complex musical song of the House Finch can actually be a serious challenge for bird watchers. So I got the first one and was at ease. Then they decided to move into insane mode with the alarm call of a non-singing species that almost never makes the sound. To the deep croaking noise I answered Great-Blue Heron's potentially at a Rookery. The answer was Great Egret and I felt find with the result considering the 2 alarm calls are no nearly identical that I would venture most wouldn't detect a difference except in the tone. Many birding friends and experts told me online they did not get the call correct either.

All told though, this was a tremendous experience and I loved every minute of the limelight. The caller subjects were great and insightful leading to excellent topic expansion. I really can see doing this again in the future and it bolsters my desire to work on a podcast.

----

On the big year business we had a massive snow storm in the southern part of the state that bombed out 13" on many areas. I avoided such calamity, but also stayed in most of the day working on finally getting taxes done as well as pouring many hours into a presentation I'm slated for on the 31st with good friend Peter Nichols. We will be talking on County Big Year Birding and how to increase your own lists. This is a program put on by the MOU that filled up quickly.

I did get some Sunday morning birding wrapped around more family activities with a few hours of sky watch at Afton State Park in the cold winds. I was able to add State Park year birds of both Sharp-shinned and Coopers Hawks along with Herring Gull and Turkey Vulture.

Later after family lunch I went back out to non-SP locations with Peter Nichols and we targeted Wilson's Snipe at a boat launch near Stillwater and instead were rewarded with a great kettle of Bald Eagles that included a Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, and amazingly an adult Golden Eagle. This was a county life bird for both of us and a great opportunity to witness a challenging bird to pin down during migration.

Weather is not looking that great this week and beyond so we will see what State Park Birding looks like for the next 2 weeks as we sputter trying to get spring started in earnest.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fort Ridgley - History and Hiking

I decided to run to this park on a whim after finishing Upper Sioux Agency limited visit. Being that I had a sweet bird list already, I decided to see if Fort Ridgley could offer me a quality hike to finish the day.

The great entrance sign showing the history of the park as you enter.

I eventually found the parking area near the historic fort site and monument. This high bluff type area certainly provides a strategic position at the top of a few valleys. I quickly spotted several Bald Eagle moving on the wind currents and both a light and dark morph Rough-legged Hawks moving back north.

After reading some signage and taking a number of historic site pictures I found the hiking club trail nearby.

One section of many building foundations that are all that remain on this location. The mixed in signage paints a good picture of the history.

Any time the sun is right with an obelisk type setup I get one of these blocked illumination pictures for some reason. This monument was erected to commemorate the site and likely provide some much needed eye appeal to what is otherwise a pretty flat historical location.

Deeper into my hike this view shows the museum building and the monument near the old fort foundations.

Much of it appeared to be in the upper prairie and Oak Savannah so I figured it would be a nice hike with limited ice and snow cover.

That was true with a few slope runs that were a bit treacherous as I had to navigate melt water runs as only a few winter hold overs were heard moving about like Dark-Eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow.

American Tree Sparrow giving me the eye while hiking the trails.

I completed the near 3 mile loop and never saw the Hiking Club password sign so I'm not sure if I just straight missed it or if the sign was not present. I caught all the directional signs, but never saw a password sign so I'll have to see what I can do about that in the event I decide to buy the hiking club trail packet.

My list of birds was thin, but I had a great hike and noted some good prairie, lowland river/stream, and Oak Savannah habitat in the relatively small park. I would like to come back to this location with the wife for the historical value when the museum is open to enjoy the full experience of the state history on display.

The Great: Good trails, nice diversity of habitat though limited for waterfowl along with a great historic element that helps add extra value to a park. I can see coming back at some point when the wife is interested in seeing the fort grounds and museum, though it may not be during this years effort unless I make an attempt to find Red-headed Woodpecker or something on the spring/fall migration.

The Meh: Not finding a password sign sucked and I noted a couple times where the hiking club trail was actually just paved road taking you right down the heart of the campground section so I could see this trail being very people heavy during the warm months. It was still very nice and worth the effort.

The Verdict: I'll come back and enjoyed the relative solitude the location offered while I hiked. I just don't see a ton of bird value during most time frames that would force me to return for some kind of specialty, but we'll see.

Lac Qui Parle - Waterfowl Bomb - Spring Release

No doubt coming into the St. Patrick's Day weekend I was grumpy and just ready for winter to be done. It was very easy to avoid serious birding efforts with iffy weather and other things on the list to do. This one felt different though as the weather was turning at the right time and temps were looking to finally hit normal for this time of year.

Mid-week or so Garret Wee in the western part of the state posted up a note about serious waterfowl building up at Lac Qui Parle State Park. With open water confirmed I didn't hesitate to call this my target location for Saturday.

I was so jacked I set my alarm for 5AM and woke up at 4:15AM instead and got going eating breakfast and packing up my RAV4. I was out the door by the original 5AM alarm heading west out of the cities. I made great time rolling into Lac Qui Parle upper segment just before 8AM.

The look of a man who just slayed it on waterfowl for the last couple hours. Determination and  satisfaction reined supreme on this great outing.

I could see thousands of waterfowl on the open water and opted to drive to the end of the open water zone and pulled off on a nice overlook. Tundra Swans were immediately visible as I quickly started ticking off State Park year and lifetime birds in this historical hotbed of great waterfowl. Minutes after arriving Alex Sundvall pinged my cell phone telling me I had best get to Lac Qui Parle soon with the massive number of birds present. He, Liz Harper, and Kathleen MacAulay were at the south end of the lake doing the same as I was. Pegging every species they possibly could.

I later joined up with them while we ticked off species after species as I ended up pulling 23 species of waterfowl and effectively finishing the vast majority of likely waterfowl in a single day. Any missing birds I had picked up at Myre-Big Island a couple weeks ago and this day had me take in single birds like Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, and Canvasback. A single Killdeer called from overhead with it's high volume single piercing call. It is never spring for me until a Killdeer calls overhead looking for some mudflats to feed upon.

A bit into the effort another birder friend Gary Reitan stopped by looking to also add some birds to his list after seeing Garret Wee's post. It is something how influential a single social media post really can be at this time of year for people looking to get out of town and get a start on spring waterfowl searching.

First of year waterfowl aside, several were also lifetime State Park birds for me moving my life total to 196. (Adds of American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater & Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Duck.)

Eventually I had to leave the massive waterfowl grouping and checked out the main office feeders that had been hosting an Evening Grosbeak all winter. That bird was not present, but 4 Purple Finches made it a pleasant stop all the same.

The much coveted duo of Purple Finch and House Sparrow. Well, maybe the first half of that anyway.

I soon checked out the lower unit area of the park on the other side of the lake and found little moving around and wasn't ready to engage in a hike for the day so I quickly moved on and targeted Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

A signage selfie with Upper Sioux, a park I'll have to come back and hike in the future. The ground just wasn't good enough for a proper hike this day. I could see a lot of good sloping terrain that would make it iffy at best.

(I'll likely skip much of a write-up on this park at this time though as the roads were very spongy and all trails looked heavily iced and steep.)

The Great: No doubt about why this park has a waterfowl reputation for this time of year. The open water at the south end of the lake creates a great early staging zone in an area of the state with little open water. I left the day missing only American Black Duck and Red-breasted Merganser for the earlier arriving waterfowl. I will of course need to target Grebe in the near future along with Scoter and Long-tailed Duck in the fall, but for the time being I'm well ahead on these birds being found in a State Park. This should give me flexibility in the coming weeks in deciding locations.

The Meh: Given what this park has to work with, I can see it being a specialist in waterfowl. I look forward to another scoping visit as the spring moves on to see if a rarity can be pulled out of the lake. I didn't see much for additional habitat or long secluded hikes, but every park can't be everything.

The Verdict: This is a must visit for anyone looking to rack up a serious waterfowl total. The high overlook areas and platform viewing zone all provide great looks at the lake. I will be back, even if it is just a scope and go type of effort. I totaled 51 species in my time at the park and blew the doors off even Afton State Park, which I've visited 11 times already this year.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Incremental Spring - Afton

The days keep ticking by and we've already run past Daylight Savings time. Winter has had it's icy grip upon us for what feels like an eternity. With all of this many of the waterfowl are waiting to our south pressed against the snow and ice line in Iowa waiting for the farm fields to open up and the lakes. Until then we have to be satisfied with a few harbingers of spring.

Over the weekend I was limited on bird watching and wasn't able to attend a new State Park. Saturday had a scattered mix of snow to the south over the entire state that I wasn't willing to navigate and plans on Sunday to visit my parents moth balled any remaining options to find a new adventure.

That being the case I was able to get down to Afton after work a couple days ago on a breezy, but sunny day. It was remarkable in that not even a single flock of Canada Geese was to be found flying over the park or up the river. All of the usual resident woodpeckers and song birds were present along with a few American Tree Sparrows working the feeders behind the visitor center.

As I entered the park a Red-tailed Hawk could be seen working close to the road. On a short mile long walk on the paved trail I soon found an American Kestrel, my first in a State Park this year.

American Kestrel working the prairie and roadside areas of Afton State Park.

Given my 10 visits to Afton this year I'm sure this bird was not present all winter so it was perhaps an early raptor migrant starting to move north.

Little else presented itself to me as I walked in the chilled breeze. After about an hour and a half I headed home thinking we really are on the slow incremental path to spring this year compared to some prior years. It was only 2 years ago we had 70 degree days in March with open water and no snow on the ground.

On my last 1/4 mile out of the park a group of American Robins was seen working the exposed road edges for food. At the exit station a lone Northern Shrike was also working for a meal.

Northern Shrike perched low to the ground looking for a meal.

I'm so ready for open ground, green leaves, and long hikes in the parks in relative comfort. Soon.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Rice Lake - Scouting Effort

Finished with a solid hike and sky watch at Myre-Big Island I figured I would make a stop at another new to me park in Rice Lake. I didn't have much in my mind for what I could see at the park on the day, but wanted to at least add another stop and scout for possible habitat.


The entrance sign showed a Bittern (Least?) and I hoped this was indicative of the lake habitat. It certainly was. Though the park had basically shut down the entire road network space except for a single plowed dirt lot off the lake edge and a pit toilette.

I checked the lake out from a dock that was pulled up and sitting high on the banks. The lake has a very large ring of cattails and other emergent vegetation and the space looked perfect for Least Bittern habitat and related birds like Sora, etc... (I could see renting a canoe and really working the lake edges for birds at some point, maybe making a serious attempt for something like Common Gallinule to really spice up the year list.)

I picked up another Song Sparrow starting to sing and some Dark-eyed Juncos were chattering a bit as well, but the park was pretty quiet overall.

I only ended up staying for about 20 minutes as I did not have another crunchy uneven snow hike in me on the day and I had failed to stop for lunch by this time and it was already getting on towards 1PM.

I'll reserve any other comments on this park until I get a chance to really explore and look for key target species after the water melts and we get some more serious migrant action.

Myre-Big Island Sky Watching Odyssey

Several days in advance of Saturday the 3rd of March friends had been calling Saturday our first solid window of opportunity for spring waterfowl movement. Specifically Peter Nichols noted the very strong SE winds in the 15+ MPH range and warm temps that it was very possible we would get our first serious flights of Snow Geese and Greater White-Fronted Geese.

I thought about my options for the day and consulted the snow coverage map that I have linked on the main page of this blog with the DNR. This gives a weekly view of what snow coverage looks like all over the state. Additionally Garret Wee out in the western portion of the state mentioned that the latest snow storm had them sitting on a wall of snow likely to dissuade birds from continuing any type of serious flight beyond their area.

Using all of this data and eBird current year species details for Great White-fronted Geese I guessed that something straight south and right on the Iowa border would give me the best option on the day. This ended up being Myre-Big Island State Park.


I can't state enough the importance of being able to pick out a viable location in advance of efforts like this. Of course with a less restrictive year that would put me in any location I could be a bit more granular in my approach, but ranking my options I put Myre as number 1 with a few options along the Mississippi as secondary options.

I didn't get rolling really early considering we would need some time for the sun to get things cooking a bit and really get the birds moving. I drove south on I35 and saw a few casual flocks of Canada Geese along the way, but few other flocking birds of note. My eBird list started at 9AM and I figured this put me right where I wanted to be timing wise for setting up at a viable location.

I did not plan for the typical winter state of a State Park as Myre had most side roads closed and pretty much had just limited plowing done into the camp ground on the Big Island itself. This island was surprisingly dense with large deciduous trees and presented no direct view of the lake that I could see. I eventually bounced over rutted road to a parking spot in the middle of the island and put on some Yak Trax and hiked with gear along a single trail to the far south end of the island. It was wooded all the way to the shore line and I eventually set up shop on the ice to get some type of view to the South and East. In my haste though I had left my sun glasses in the car and the view over a snow covered lake was like looking directly at the sun still low in the sky. This plus the 20MPH wind made it almost impossible viewing from this position. I made the quick call to get off this spot and perhaps setup near the entrance station with a good segment of prairie between me and the island tree line.

I hiked on the ice around the east side of the island and found no viable views for the island that was much more wooded than I expected. (This is ultimately a good thing as many tree cavities begged for possible owl habitat.) I worked a rough trail in the woods back to my car and eventually had a Big Year avatar Pileated Woodpecker make some noise for me in addition to the full sweep of winter woodpeckers for the area. (Downy, Hairy, Red-Bellied)

Driving back to the entrance parking I noted a first of year Song Sparrow on the roadside along with some American Tree Sparrows. Shortly after I heard a flock of American Robin and Eastern Bluebirds starting to work back north for the year. These more hearty thrushes certain portent spring and much warmer weather.

Back at the entrance I spotted a small feeder setup next to the entrance building that seemed to be supporting the local Chickadee population at best.

A Fox Squirrel hanging out under the limited feeder station at the park entrance.

I hopped on the Blazing Star State Trail segment that is paved and was starting to clear in the open prairie spaces. I figured I'd start this hike and setup shop for sky watching at a prime high point. Within minutes I had a Red-winged Blackbird fly by looking to get in on some breeding territory nice and early. Then the flights of geese started in earnest as I soon had 400+ Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese fly over in varying sized flocks. I eventually was able to pick out key oddities in both Ross's Goose and Cackling Goose from the flocks to get them on my State Park list for the year as well.

Wind and light made it hard for my super zoom to get any really good flight pictures. Greater White-fronted Geese in the upper left and then various Snow Geese in the remaining pictures showing White and Blue Phase.

In total I would finish the park sky watch adding 11 birds to my State Park year list and several to my all time State Park list, now at 188. My hike added all the geese in such a short period of time I decided to hike the full trail noted as the Hiking Club trail and also picked up a couple Sandhill Cranes calling over head at one point and a quick view of a Ring-billed Gull as well.

I even had a Kinglet of some type call really quickly, but play hard to get. I couldn't lock it down to species so I had to leave the bird unidentified. Spring was definitely starting at the south end of the state with some excellent early season birds to be found and a really nice boost to my big year.

The Great: Several options for hiking at this parking including some nice prairie tracts and some great mature forest on the island. I also noted several pieces of swampy/marsh habitat that evoked some good possible marsh bird stop over potential. The sheer amount of lake adjacent hiking also presents a ton of possible hidden spots to see ducks on the water in migration. (Once the water melts anyway.) I really think this park in migration could provide some insane bird counts.

The Meh: The big island surprised me in not really having much in the way of lake viewing from what I could tell. A single trail may lead around the island giving you a chance to try to find some views from the shore. If you want to scope for ducks it may end being a bit more of a hike to drag your scope to viable points on the trails. This could also be good in a way, but it is not readily apparent that a convenient single location exists. Though the picnic area was blocked off to road traffic so I did not get a view of that at all. It is apparent that much of this parks facilities are shut down in the winter and contrast heavily with parks like Afton and Fort Snelling that strive to keep as much trail space and buildings open as possible. I wanted to note also on the western portions of the park the highway noise of I35 is very apparent as it was up north of the cities for places like Moose Lake that is also adjacent to the highway.

The Verdict: The park provided what I was looking for though I ended up needing to focus on being in the prairie instead of on the island looking over the lake space. That was a minor issue though and I can see this park being seriously dense with birds on migration and I look forward to another spring trip to this park for ducks on the water and other migrants. Though not a massive park the amount of trail space that edges the large sprawling lake provided some really serious potential for water birds. I may have to lug a lot of gear on such a trip with my large scope, but it would be worth such an effort.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Afton - Weekday Redux

With limited light after work, but weather improving I got out to Afton 3 days in a row this week. My first day has already been related in the prior post, but it was the second day that really stole the show.

I decided that even with minimal birds moving into the area that I needed a good elevation hike and figured down to the river bottom from the main picnic lot and then a full loop of the back country camping zone would be perfect. As I began the hike I thought to myself that these hikes would be important to try and lock down a couple more owl species in my secret side quest for the year.

That quest being the totally unofficial single year owl species high count. I had already locked in 3 very challenging species in January and February with Short-eared, Long-eared, and Northern Saw-Whet. Amazingly I was short both of the common species for this area in Barred and Great-horned. With nesting and mate selection in full swing by this time I figured this hike would give me a least a shot at one of them, though to be honest I had never had Barred at Afton before.

It was quiet at the park as I made my way to the river bottom on a well packed set of stairs that didn't really present much concern in the way of quality footing. A few small aircraft moved overhead as it seems the St. Croix River valley draws in such craft bouncing between the states. Beyond seeing a person or two gearing up for some x-country ski time at the parking lot I wouldn't see another soul during my entire hike.

Shortly after hitting the lowest point of the trail and crossing the outflow of the partially open trout brook I began to climb back up the hillside towards the campground area. Barely a 100 yards into this as I scanned the trees around me and locked on a ghost of a bird starring boldly at me with inky black eyes. A Barred owl was out early on the hunt for something to eat.


Barred Owl pictures from my 2 encounters with the same bird at the start and end of my hike at Afton State Park. Easily the most cooperative Barred I've had before.

I was surprised at how it only seemed to be casually interested in me moving through it's territory. I snapped a number of pictures that I later realized showed a partially blood stained beak, indicating a meal had occurred at some point not long ago.

This was a great moment as I just stood and watched the owl observe the area around it's perch looking and listening for a wayward mammal. I eventually moved on and made the top of the hill and the relatively open setting of the campground sites. I spent a bit of sky watch time picking up flocks of Canada Geese moving about and at one point I saw a large flock (25+) of American Robins flying into the park from Wisconsin at a pretty high elevation. As I neared the north end of my loop I found a flock of American Crow setting up shop for the night in a stand of trees. The lifted as my footfalls got closer and I saw it to be at least 100 strong. They circled a few times complaining of the interruption and I presume eventually got back to roost.

My climb turned back into long winded descent as I wound my way back down towards the river with light fading fast. I stopped every 100 yards or so to listen to the solitude and hope for some additional owl action. I wasn't disappointed as a Great-Horned Owl let loose a volley of low soft hoots from behind me. Excellent, my 2nd species of the night and 5th this year at the park. My only hope now is that I can be fortunate enough to track down an Eastern Screech at some point this year and make it a solid 6 species.

As I hit bottom again and started making my way past the beach area and back to the climb up to the parking lot I bumped a Barred Owl from the trail edge and it flew forward and perched just over the trail again. I was able to get another series of pictures and confirmed later the same blood stained beak had it as the same Barred I had seen earlier. I figured the Barred and Great-Horned were perhaps a 1/4 mile away from each other at the most.

It was an outstanding late winter hike with temps in the low 40's and dipping to the mid 30's by the time I was done. So nice to be able to hike without a dozen thermal layers on and being able to go without gloves for much of the circuit even.

My follow up day on Wednesday had me on another trail circuit attempting an older spot known for Eastern Screech, but I didn't see anything of the sort as I spent a fair amount of time looking for potential tree cavities. This location is in the shadow of Afton Alps ski slope and I suspect if it does host a regular owl, that most likely this space is filled during migration as opposed to being an overwinter location. Time will tell as I'm sure I will grab several more attempts at this location in the future.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Afton - Busy Weekends and Stealing a moment with the sky.

This last weekend a double whammy was in play as we got yet another snow storm on Saturday with 5 or 6 inches of snow and terrible conditions. I opted to use the morning hours to get started with Peter Nichols on our presentation for the MOU Spring Primer being held March 31st at Carpenter Nature Center. This event is in it's second year and I had the good fortune to spend a few minutes last year in encouraging people to use eBird. This year Dr. Nichols and I will be talking about our Washington County Big Year in 2017 and specifically looking at ways to help others increase their County Bird Lists. Very fortunate and humbled honestly to be on an agenda featuring the likes of Kim Eckert (Highest State Species List), Bob Janssen (Highest County Tick Total), and John Richardson. Peter and I spent about 3 hours talking about details and a possible framework for our presentation and ended up talking on the phone on Monday night for another hour and a half working out more details.

Sunday we had plans to host Melissa's family for a post birthday celebration. With that going down at noon, it really locked down any chance to get out to any further flung State Parks on the day. Additionally the joys of home ownership came to town needing to install a few new curtain rods for our bedroom.

Even beastmodebirding yields to weather and domestic responsibility. So on Monday after work with the sun shining and low 40's I raced home from Plymouth and got some gear and on and drove down to Afton State Park intent to see something with wings.

I set up shop near the visitor center and worked the paved path along the upper picnic and prairie spaces that overlook intermittent views of the river valley below. My interest was to see if any waterfowl were moving around this evening and maybe work on snagging flight pictures of these potential birds to work capturing viable shots when it would count the most a few weeks from now. The moon was out early over the river and I stood on a bench for many minutes looking hard at the horizon and scanning for birds.

A large bright moon hanging over the St. Croix River Valley.

Me standing on a flat bench facing the river valley and being drawn upon a Cedar Tree by the sun.

The action was predictably slow, but I did spot many area Canada Geese moving around and was eventually rewarded with some fly by groups of Trumpeter Swans likely moving to their night time roost locations from day time feeding grounds.

A few flight shots from my Nikon P900, that is definitely not an ideal camera for birds in flight. Canada Geese on top and 2 groups of Trumpeter Swan below.

This upper prairie area is a nice area to watch bird flight as it does have a lot of open sky available and the river valley shared with Wisconsin presents a generally South and East view ideal for migration. I'll look to use this space again during the weekdays this spring as a way to snag at least some fly over waterfowl at a park that has little viable landing habitat for such birds.

A few woodpeckers and nuthatches also put in appearances with a Pileated flying past at one point making sure I got another sighting of my big year avatar bird.

White-breasted Nuthatch working for some seeds along the trail.

I'm starting to mentally gear up for some serious spring action as I'm nearly at the end of my rope for how much winter I can put up with. Part of me thinks I need some additional northern trips for specialty birds, but my brain has checked out of winter pretty hard lately.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Nerstrand - Big 'Windy' Woods State Park

On Sunday the 18th of February I set out south for Nerstrand looking to hike to the frozen water fall of the park and likely complete the hiking club trail of the park. As I dropped further south it became apparent the wind was picking up and beginning to rip something fierce.

It was also apparent that Horned Larks had been on the move north despite winter still being set in place. As I passed the Randolph Great Western Industrial Park I saw several groups of them scamper from the road shoulder, fleeing into the farm fields.

Further south in a small creek valley I saw a flock of Wild Turkey (20+) dotting the woods and a short time later a group of Ring-necked Pheasant was flying across the road from the yard of a farm home. All the while the wind pushed harder and harder creating small drifts on the road and a constant ribbon of white moving over the pavement.

It grew calmer as I entered into the large deciduous woods of the 'Big Woods' park. The contrast is stark from the open fields to the east and the large wooded property of the park.

My apparent sneer was only due to the wind still being able to find it's ways into the woods and across my face. Picking deciduous tree leaves for the park sign seems appropriate for this park.

Only park vehicles were present as I made my way to the main parking lot. Black-capped Chickadees were bouncing around the entrance station bushes and trees, though it appeared the numerous feeders present were empty and unlikely to have been getting much feed this winter.

In the parking lot as I opened my door, I quickly heard the call of a Pine Siskin from a nearby tree. Yet again, my knowledge of the calls of birds became important as I could not find such a small bird in the waving tree tops. This certainly was not the first time this year that my identification of a species would be limited to just a call instead of a visual as well.

I then put on my Yak Trax and found the trailhead for the Hiking Club trail that quickly starts to drop down to the creek valley. Along the way of the well packed trail I heard a number of Hairy Woodpeckers and a single Red-bellied going about their business. The Black-capped Chickadees were as pervasive as ever during my entire hike along with the expected White-breasted Nuthatch. The frozen falls crept up quickly providing an interesting look, but certainly nothing to inspire awe. The roughly 7' high falls were nothing but a curtain of ice dusted with some snow and showing barely a patch of stone behind.

The woods were littered with the sounds of tree limbs jostling for position in the high winds above. From time to time a partially downed tree complained against another as it sought to complete it's fall to the forest floor. After a round of photos at the falls I continued on across the stream as I sought to follow my selected path.

The frozen wall of the falls with just a hint of rock remaining behind.

A change of angle and it is just a long 7' tall wall of ice found deep in the woods. This is probably a very peaceful and wonderful place in the early spring morning as Wood Thrush sing their song.

The remaining hike went as suspected with only a few Chickadees and Woodpeckers to remind me I wasn't totally alone. At one point I saw a creek valley widen showing a marshy grassland at the bottom of heavily treed slopes. I made a note of this location for the warmer months, thinking that it would be of interest for migrants less inclined to enjoy the woods. My study of the park map has revealed I've not seen a great deal of the park and I look forward to scouring all of the trails in hopes of extending my Nerstrand Park list from the paltry 13 species to date.

As I rounded my last corner and saw a truck travelling down the road I knew I was nearly back to the parking lot. I thought to myself that it would be sinful not to pick up a Pileated Woodpecker in such a large wooded expanse. As if on cue a Pileated rang out with a volley of calls just as I crossed by the entrance station. I've come to think of the Pileated as my State Park Big Year avatar bird. I'm not sure why, but they have always fascinated me. Considering they can be found all year around, they make for a fun bird to keep track of as a mini game inside of a much larger effort. Additionally they range over the majority of the state so finding one at each state park is certainly not impossible.

Checking my statistics, I've seen/heard one at 9 of the State Parks I've visited this year. This reminds me of another fun part of this year long effort. Getting a first hand introduction to the distribution of bird species in the state along with the pervasiveness of each compared to their expected range. I really look forward to tracking statistics and occurrence over this time period and drawing my own conclusions to compare with the accepted or assumed state of things.

The Great: Big Woods lives up to the name. These woods are not choked up with invasive species like Buckthorn and are a great example of what a large woodland should look like. The well packed trails are open to hiking and I greatly enjoyed the solitude of this hike as I regularly dipped down to zero cell coverage and saw nary a soul the entire time I was out. Even the high winds could not steal away the enjoyment of the day, in fact this might be a great respite on a windy day.

The Meh: My only real comment would be to know what to expect at this park. It is a park with a deciduous forest. During many times of the year, birding will not be a massively diverse experience. I don't imagine shore birds have ever really made much of a showing at this location, but I really look forward to exploring deeper and longer trails. I see some listed that perhaps show some habitat diversity towards the edges. I think getting myself to 100 species in this park could be an outstanding goal. The falls in a frozen state as I noted did not really inspire much as they are barely taller than myself. A fun hike for a family though or person looking to bird watch and you get a small payoff with a hidden water fall.

The Verdict: This pristine woodland was a blast in the winter on a poor weather day, so going back is at the top of my list. I can't wait to get out and see this in the spring or early summer. The extra bonus for me is driving from the east metro I take highway 52 south and then 56 so that you can skirt the west edge of Lake Byllesby. This means you can run by several nice (non-state park) hot spots on the way or return. (180th street marsh in Dakota county off 52, Randolph Great Western Industrial park off of 56, Lake Byllesby West end access, Lake Byllesby Goodhue boat launch.) I'm pretty sure you can also get to Koester Prairie not far away, which is part of Prairie Creek WMA. This location hosts Henslow's Sparrow and Bobolinks in the summer. Watch for ticks, but this can be an excellent location for prairie birds.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fort Snelling - Underestimated Urban Adventure

I will admit that I kind of didn't look forward to Fort Snelling. I only made it a location on Saturday the 10th because I didn't want to drive any long trips in the continued brutal cold and it was one of the closer parks to me that I haven't visited yet this winter. I have made a few stops at Fort Snelling before, but it was always to make a run at Barred Owl. The reason I think I don't hold the highest opinion of the site is because of the air traffic (directly adjacent to MSP airport) and a number of high volume roads including the Mendota Bridge high over the visitor center, parking, and Picnic Island.

I can tell my preference has always been solitude and seclusion as Fort Snelling screams the opposite of that with the added feature of being a higher traffic park with it's proximity to the heart of the metro area. I was determined though after my weekend off last week to look at my big year a little different. It was becoming easy to talk myself into this big year being nothing but a bird checklist year trying to get all the species I can while touching all the State Park bases in the process.

That is not the main intent though and I wanted to bring back that sense of adventure, wonder, and not knowing what I was going to find around the next corner. I resolved to view Fort Snelling as that louder urban oasis waiting to find out what species are carving out an existence right in the midst of major human activity.

Selfie shadow with the entrance sign. 

I pulled into the entrance near 8AM and quickly shot an entrance sign picture and stopped near Snelling Lake as I knew a spring feed keeps a portion of water open all year. As expected up to 30 Trumpeter Swans dotted the open pool as steam wafted above the water. I noticed some large chunks of matter on the ice ring, but nothing that looked like smaller ducks sleeping.

I continued on and figured on parking at the visitor center lot and perhaps hiking back for the loop around Snelling Lake. I had never done this segment mostly because it is in direct line with a major runway as well as being just down a hill from highway 5 for a good portion of the hike. I was immediately rewarded though as I crossed under the Mendota bridge to find 4 Wild Turkey still roosting in the trees soaking up the early morning sunshine in the 0 degree temps. I've rarely been able to see them still in trees in the morning so it was a treat to see these bulky birds perched up in the high branches away from danger.


Wild Turkey sunning high up in the trees.

Further down the mixed use trail (hike, bike, and ski) as I neared the open pool of spring fed water I noticed some tracks below me that could only be River Otter in nature. I could see where the creature had let it's tail drag in the snow in places and where it would often slide it's whole body along the snow track as well.

Otter tracks and body sliding marks in the snow. 

Bullhead parts left behind after feeding, likely by a River Otter.

I figured these tracks were heading right to the spring feed opening and was proven right, not by sight of the Otter itself, but by the noted chunks of matter on the ice ring. Turns out they were bullhead fish half-eaten and left on the ice. At least of dozen of these were present and were another great sign of a very active Otter in the area.

At the pool the Trumpeter Swans eyed me warily, but generally didn't stop feeding or act as though they were truly put off the limited open water.

Trumpeter Swans feeding in the open spring fed water on Snelling Lake.

As I sat near some icy steps I heard and then saw a Belted Kingfisher fly by and land in a tree over the pool of water.

These old stone steps seemed to indicate a long lost water access or swimming location of the past. I sat on them and listened to the Trumpeter Swans honk while jets came in to land overhead.

Every year I realize even more how hearty the Kingfisher really are as they seem to overwinter in these tiny open water spaces looking to gain some advantage in claiming choice breeding territories come spring.

With the Turkey and Kingfisher both adding to my State Park 2018 list I was very happy with this urban adventure, even with the large Delta jets ripping by overhead. I continued my hike and eventually was put on the edge of the river. Well frozen the Minnesota River is narrow with steep dirt walls in this space with little open water in the main park itself. At about the time I was to cross over a road back towards the lake I heard a single chip note and eventually sighted an American Tree Sparrow working the grass heads along the trail. Just a bit further up as I paused to listen further I heard the distinct high pitch call of a Brown Creeper. This type of deciduous forest in river lowlands seems to be a great place to find them overwintering also. I heard the bird for several minutes, but finding it proved a bit impossible as it moved from tree to tree never really getting louder or quieter in the process.

My 3rd state park year bird and I was only about 1.5 miles into my hike. I spent time on this hike stopping regularly to look into the trees for Barred Owl, but they appeared to be hiding from me on this day. As I got back to the parking lot I knew I had plenty more in me and I grabbed a snack and walked up to the entrance of the visitor center to find a hidden feeder setup behind a wall and just adjacent to the doorway. This space provided a platform feeder and tube feeder and I quickly saw Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, and House Finches in the area. Fort Snelling was offering a lot more than I bargained for and I was eager to hike Pike Island for another shot at Barred Owl on the day.

Going for the roughly 3 mile added loop I quickly noticed the woodpeckers reigned supreme on the island as I easily spotted double digits in Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied on the trail. The tree bark in some spaces was amazingly decimated to a level I have not seem before. Nearly every tree of the type shown in my pictures looked like someone had stripped the outer layers off with some type of knife.

Nearly every tree of this type (species?) was heavily stripped of the outer layer of bark.

Looking at this close-up you can see small claw marks from the woodpeckers doing the excavation work.

As I hiked I stopped every 100 yards or so looking into the trees for Owls and up in the air. I spotted a quartet of Common Merganser on one stop and a few later I picked up my 4th State Park year bird with a Peregrine Falcon flying high in the air not far off the Mendota Bridge. I believe this was my first Peregrine Falcon in a state park ever and it was certainly a first February bird for me as few over winter beyond sky scrapper birds in the heart of the cities.

My hike continued under constant woodpecker sounds as I neared the end of the island and soon realized it was possible to out-hike the city noise. I soon found I was in a relative solitude all the way out on Pike Island. At this point where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers combine I could see some open water a ways off and was able to get my Nikon to snap a few pics of the distant Canada Geese and a few Common Goldeneye.

The hike back offered more of the same and I found I was finally running out of juice as I finished 6 miles of hiking and birding. My urban adventure was a great surprise as I had low expectations and quickly found that even in winter Fort Snelling had a lot to offer. I will save a hike up to the old fort ruins for the summer, but the way looked well cleared for anyone wishing to do so in the cold.

One goal for the spring/summer/fall will be to hike the other side of the Minnesota river and take the extended trail all the way to Cedar Avenue and Black Dog Road. This 6 mile stretch one way is a beast, but may provide some seriously under birded territory that is all still within Fort Snelling park space. I'm sure I'll need to bring a meal for such a hike and plan to be out most of the day with plenty of water and time for a break.

The Great: Fort Snelling yielded 21 species of birds on a zero degree day in February so this park has some game when it comes to birds for sure. The hiking space was well kept and compressed with dual use in many spaces to allow hikers to exist with skiers. This made me very happy that I wasn't shut down from 80% of the trail space. I was surprised and happy to find some solitude out on Pike island as well.

The Meh: Man that air traffic is something else. If you go into this park with the right mind set you will be in a nice natural space knowing man had encroached all around and it is the last wild stronghold before the dense cityscape.

The Verdict: I seriously under appreciated Fort Snelling for birds as well as hiking space. I really look forward to hitting the far side of the Minnesota River for a big hike this year and feel like I may add several trips before the year it out to fully explore the space in multiple seasons.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Winter Birding Motivation Reaches Zero

I've been thinking about a concept lately I'm calling bird watching activation energy. I imagine a scale of numbers from zero energy to maybe 100 with bird avatars for each level on this scale. Perhaps a sleepy owl (Eastern Screech) in the daytime for zero and something like a Black-capped Chickadee at the top of the scale seemingly always moving making noise in every weather type possible. I feel like everything in life affects this activation energy and I would define it simply as the amount of pooled effort/energy needed by a person to get them out bird watching or exploring the outdoors on any given day. Many daily happenings impact this theoretical number or pool of energy and every person has a different value at which they are able to motivate themselves to get out and explore.

In my case I have a pretty low general activation number, meaning that it doesn't take much to get me out the door and birding/hiking. Though that does come with limits as I'm pretty sure I have more than 1 number. I have my general, get out the door number, and I have my travel multiple hours number. Additionally because nothing in life is simple, these numbers all change value based on the time of year, conditions, life circumstance, personal health, etc...

I constantly struggle with being two people in life. I nearly always present myself as either a homebody that would prefer to stay close to home near a base of operation and comfort or as an adventurous spirit that wishes to roam far and wide for hours, even days at a time.

After a long week of work driving the 30 miles each way to the office several days a week my activation pool is often running low for trips, but high for near location efforts. This is why I thrived in 2017 doing a big year in Washington County, MN. With drives limited to 30 minutes or so in any direction it was easy to get out the door even with a low activation energy knowing I wouldn't have some crazy 4 hour drive back home in insane weather.

When it comes to trips though I often have to talk myself into executing my plans every single day until the weekend just to keep myself on that task. When winter is in full swing, with snow on the ground and extreme cold present, my activation energy coming into the weekend can absolutely plummet to the depths of nothingness. This last weekend I had general plans to take Friday off work and execute a 2 day north shore State Park trip. I would hit 8 State Parks in 2 days in a super loop to explore as much as possible in these spaces. As the week got on my Friday went from 1 work meeting and a viable day off to 5 meetings and taking it off was not going to happen. I then shifted to a Saturday/Sunday plan and quickly found that Saturday was going downhill quickly in the way of snow predictions and once I saw 3 to 5 inches forecast in areas I knew I was unlikely to make the trip. (Nothing drops my activation energy faster than snow falling as I hate taking risks on the road, especially when driving distances in unfamiliar areas.) I soon realized the overnight temps were looking to drop back into negative double digits and yet another massive hit to my activation energy occurred. I can often overcome one of the 2 factors, especially in the pursuit of a major goal such as my 2018 State Park Big Year, but even I have my limits.

I quickly found myself desiring a weekend in and relaxing on the couch, watching movies, playing games, and spending time with my wife. So that is what I did, the entire weekend. I have travelled every weekend up to this point since New Years and hiked many miles of trails in tough conditions spanning -16 degrees to roughly 30 degrees. I've had 3 or 4 layers on my legs and 5 on my body while also using snow shoes or Yak Trax, but when enough times come together at once it is not difficult to moth ball the entire set of plans and hunker down like a squirrel waiting out a break in the weather.

My hope is that the relaxing weekend helped recharge my energy reserves and the weather cooperates this coming weekend so I can get out and beastmode the north shore. I envy some people as they appear to have an infinite reserve when it comes to getting out and ignoring or making peace with the winter weather, but I'm just not at that point yet in life. Spending 10 years in central Illinois I was always the guy out longer and more often than those native to the area because it never seemed like winter in IL. We rarely had cold for long stretches and some winters the snow pack was non-existent or melted off after each fresh snowfall.

This long ramble really is in hopes others can identify to some degree with their own activation energy to get out in the long winter months and struggling to make it happen. I plan to focus on myself and listen to what I need. In January I visited 15 State Parks and outstripped the needed pace of visits by greater than 2 to 1 (6 average needed each month) so I definitely made some hay, but it didn't come without a cost. I spent a lot of energy and that coupled with typical deep winter weather had me so unmotivated that I couldn't summon up the desire to swing by even Afton State Park for a visit. My wife summed it up really well when she said of my desire to stay in for the weekend, "That's why it is a big year, not a big month." She was right, I have an entire year to visit all of these parks and find birds. I'm not going to complete the whole year in a single month so I shouldn't be to hard on myself when it is time to take a weekend off when the weather is poor.

I'm looking forward to the warm months. My activation energy barrier is typically very low when it is warm as I will often bird watch every day of the week for a few months straight in spring/summer.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Glacial Lakes State Park - Transition to Serious Grasslands

Upon entering Glacial Lakes State Park the most notable change was hilly grasslands. This place immediately had the vibe of being a serious Sparrow haven at the right times of the year. The American-Tree Sparrows the fled from the road edge right after I entered seemed to want to validate that for me as well. From a scouting perspective this was important and I almost immediately figured I would be back once the spring Sparrows were back on territory.

This serious pained expression is perhaps me knowing I'm about to get into 4.5 more miles of hilly hiking. Or I was trying to find a new look for my third park of the day.

I also rolled along the entrance road thinking the landscape would be good for Northern Harrier and related birds of prey that enjoy the open prairie landscapes. The elevation was a real treat as I didn't realize the extent of glacial influence that would be present at this park. For the third time on the day I picked the hiking club trail as a way to get a strong introduction to the park features.

After 4.5 miles of hilly hiking tacked onto my already 5 miles of hiking I definitely felt the elevation changes this morning when I woke up. The winds as I peaked the highest point in the park at 1352' were easily over 20mph and even 30 degree temps didn't help much to suppress the bitterness of such a wind. The lowland portions of the hike though were not very breezy and I often had my stocking cap pulled up to vent off excess heat from the strenuous hiking effort.

The rolling landscape and hidden ponds/lakes are so inviting to me. I love a good forest, but I find myself appreciating open prairie grasslands much more than ever before. I just imagine this space filled with Field and Vesper sparrows in the summer.

More of the view from the high point of the park. Though I don't imagine walking in the tall grass is advised considering the number ticks that await.

One of the lowland marsh areas that I look forward to listening to in the future. The habitat features of this park were diverse enough that you could do some reasonable waterfowl, marsh, and grassland bird watching in a single day.

I enjoyed every bit of the hike and I could tell this park will offer some really fun birds in the breeding season and I can't wait to come back. Another longer trail segment off the horse camp referenced in Robert Janssen's book, Birds of Minnesota State Parks would seem to be the next great adventure for me on this property. His notes on potential for Forster's and Black Tern having me excited as well as the possible western birds like Western Kingbird.

I did have my first State Park Red-tailed Hawk of the year on my hike this day, but the location scouting indicated to me that many great things await.

The tail end of a Red-Tailed Hawk zooming by on the brisk winds in the prairie. I hoped for this to be an overwintering Northern Harrier, but it was nice to see the hawk anyway.

I did get a note from birding mentor Kevin Smith that ticks are a factor in this park in the summer and that will remind me to ensure I have my insect defender socks on as well as a sprayed pair of pants (Permethrin) and boots prior to any large hikes on the grassland trails.

I took my large hike and didn't see another person the entire time, which is something of value to me after long days in the office. I sent a picture to my wife at the peak elevation point and you can get a true sense of being out in a unique space a good distance away from others.

The Great: Awesome elevation hiking coupled with unique habitat made this a great hike with some much warm weather potential that I want to go back soon after things warm up and migration begins. The trail space in this nearly 2000 acre park is ample and I feel like another 2 or 3 visits would have me covering new ground on each effort. I have a keen interest on the birds that might setup territory in small ponds and wetlands at the bottom of these glacial landforms.

The Meh: Knowing what to expect is always key and this park is loaded with grassland so I expect summer will prove to be a tick haven. Prepare for such an issue and you won't be surprised and put off by the numbers. Beyond that this park is a choice selection of habitat and will speak to the right person that can enjoy open grasslands with limited forest spaces.

The Verdict: Must hike more of this park. Cresting tall hills and looking for grassland birds is something I look forward to greatly. I could even see doing this park in the cold months again, though for a hard core birder trying to use their time to the fullest this is not likely the best use of time in the winter. All other months though I'm betting this place is prime sparrow habitat.