Recent News

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

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

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Afton Owl Effort & New Gear

Afton Effort:

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

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

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

Near center on this image is a spot of white easy to miss in the tangle of branches and background snow, but if you look closely and really focus on branches just out from the trunk... will often see this type of white wash sign from potential roosting owls. This seems like a good sign of a potentially active location.

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

Gear Notes:

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

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

Amazon link to the GB40 version that I bought.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

TUDU Lists - Extreme Cold Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me after a fun elevation hike at Frontenac State Park.

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

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

Horned Lark on Neal Ave in Washington County.

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

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

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wild River - Interstate Subsitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

John Latsch - One Trick Pony

After a calorie loading in the city of Winona I ran north to John Latsch State Park to complete my day long circuit of parks in the south-eastern portion of the state. I knew as I arrived what to expect from this park. It is a small parcel of land just off the highway and the Mississippi River and had limited space and limited hiking.

My 7th park of the year and 3rd of the day would close out with a single short trail with a gain of 450' of elevation.

At 600+ stairs this climb would be strenuous in any weather and certainly had potential for treacherous with snow covering the steps. Having already hiked several miles on the day I took these stairs a bit slower than I might normally and paused a few times to look about the woods and keep my breath.

At the top I was rewarded with a great view of the river valley stretched over to Wisconsin. I saw and heard only a few birds with a Blue Jay causing a racket a ways off and a Hairy Woodpecker chiming in from time to time. The elevation doesn't really eliminate the highway noise so the greatest value of this park and hike is a wonderful view of the river and surrounding bluffs. Downriver one can see Lock and Dam #5 and a small patch of open water below the dam itself.

The bluff, river, and Wisconsin view looking north from the bluff top at John Latsch.

The view south of Lock and Dam #5 from the bluff top.

I found myself thinking that a seriously dedicated birder could lug a large scope up to the top of the bluff and scan for waterfowl in the spring and fall while also executing an epic hawk migration watch. It would be lonely and the bathroom is another 600+ stairs down, but you really could add some fun birds to a park that is seriously limited due to the size and configuration of land. The DNR site indicates 1,600 acres, but with some measure of that being bluff face and slope I'm not sure a person could really explore even half of that amount of space. (Though the bluff top did appear to have some deer trails leading along the crown that might provide some extra hiking space.)

After snapping some pics and relaxing for a few minutes I headed down the stairs being sure to watch my foot falls carefully. Any slip on the way down would surely ruin a persons day in a heartbeat. On the way I saw a tree bumped up tight against the railing and starting to merge with the wood. Someone had scrawled "Nom Nom" near the point and I laughed out loud a bit. Not a fan of random graffiti, but it was worth a chuckle and it was certainly a minor offense to the wood rail.

The Great: Man, what a view and certainly for the exercise minded adding this 600+ stair climb on the day ensured I had gotten my share of exercise for the day. I was around 2,000 stairs on the day after this effort. Many times expectation is the important factor in reacting to something new and I didn't expect a lot from such a small property. That being said it gives what it can and the view in fall colors must be amazing.

The Meh: As noted this is a small and wicked steep park. Assuming low traffic a bird watcher could easily move up slope on the stairs progressively and listen for migrating warbler flocks. Beyond that options are very limited if you don't have the juice it takes to hike up that many stairs. I would be hard pressed to recommend this park beyond the view at the top. I made the top and back down with a 10 or 15 minute break at the peak in 45 minutes so I'm not thinking it would entertain beyond and hour or two at the most.

The Verdict: Do this if you need a short challenge and want to say you climbed 600 stairs. The serious bird lister might grind out species in this park, but it is not likely capable of a very diverse list considering the footprint and lack of habitat. Me, I'll be back. It's such a convenient stop and I love a challenge so maybe I'll do this 3 more times and hike it in every season so I can get some bluff top comparison photos. I've already done the hard part and I love to exercise.

Whitewater State Park - OMG

Leg number 2 of my Saturday morning (January 6th) was a short hop over to Whitewater State Park.

I just didn't know I was about to be transported into a hikers heaven. I first rolled into the visitors center as I wanted to get some guidance from park rangers on which trail(s) to hike given a timeline and 4 mile or less distance.

Visitor Center in the valley with great bluff views all around.

The ranger working was extremely helpful and suggested the Chimney Rock hike just down the road and then around the top of the bluff to Inspiration Point and then down the bluff and back to the lot. Better heading out I stopped by the visitor center bird feeder station as I had heard many reports from other birders stopping in just to see the feeders. It was a great resting area with a nice toasty wood stove fire going, piped in audio from the outside of the birds, seating and a small amphitheater of ringed steps. Just type of place that would be outstanding way to finish a day of hiking. I picked up a lot of nice birds at the feeders in the scant 5 minutes I looked them over including Purple Finch and White-throated Sparrow.

Crackling fireplace and active feeders out back. Really cool setup for those looking to relax a bit while at the park visiting.

Antsy to get out and see what a serious hike was like I drove down the road to the Chimney Rock trail head parking. The Whitewater River was open and steamy as it ran under the bridge to the trail steps. Everything adjacent to the river was frosty given the low temps and abundant moisture in the air. When I saw the stairs leading up the side of the bluff I knew I was going to be having some fun on this hike.

First leg of stairs leading up to Chimney Rock.

Only the Chickadees seemed to be chatting on this morning as I labored up the winding stone stairs. At the top I headed to my left to get a quick look at Chimney Rock. This 40' tall spire of stone was topped with a Juniper tree and a couple sassy Chickadees. The view was already outstanding of valley below and adjacent bluffs.

Chimney Rock

A nice stretch of hiking followed as I moved along the bluff top trail that at times was a bit like a goat path on a mountain. (Narrow and steep.) Having Yak Trax on my boots was key with the snow and ice creating a few spots of slippery terrain. I can see this being the type of trail to avoid in serious deep snow pack or at least bringing snow shoes at that point.

I wasn't prepared for Inspiration Point that came up just as the trail at bluff top ran out and required a hike down. This point is named appropriately and requires a bit of courage to step out to the furthest extent. It was an awesome feeling to have the valley below on 3 sides as you are afforded a long view of Chimney Rock and the Whitewater River far below. Check the Instagram feed (@hj70ft) for a video of I shot from this perch high above the valley.

The final steps out to Inspiration Point.

A distant view of Chimney Rock seen from Inspiration Point, this taken with a lot of zoom on my Nikon P900 camera.

A cell phone pic using voice activation to capture me on the edge of Inspiration Point. It was truly exhilarating seeing such views during a hike.
The trail dropped down a series of steep wooden steps (again, traction is a must in the winter) that deposited me on the valley floor next to another segment of the Whitewater River. The quiet valley was shrouded in shade from the surrounding bluff. Getting on to 11:00AM at this point sunlight still hadn't found the bottom just yet. This area looked like an outstanding hike in itself with another long segment following the river along the valley floor and one I plan to take in the spring or summer looking for Louisiana Waterthrush and other woodland species.

A bridge crossing of the Whitewater after descending from the bluff top near Inspiration Point.

This hike closed with a quick sighting of a Coyote looking to avoid me as it slunk away into the long grasses and forest at the valley floor. A Pileated Woodpecker rattled off a couple calls letting me know it owned the trees.

It can't be said enough how invigorating such a hike was and how much it can do to help stave off the winter blues as we wait for spring to bring warmth and comfort. This more than anything clarifies my deepest desires for this State Park Big Year. Birding is key for me and a great past time, but adding amazing views and hikes helps to tie it all together and make it feel like I'm doubling up on the value of the hobby itself.

The Great: The views and quality of hiking facilities are amazing. I don't know what else to say that wasn't said above. This park is amazing and I will be back this year for more hiking and bird watching.

The Meh: None. Really, I personally have nothing to say about this park that detracted from my visit. It makes even more sense after the visit why Carley is idled during the winter. Sink the limited resources into a park like Whitewater due to the proximity of the two and bring Carley back up to full steam in the warm months.

The Verdict: This park has reasonable minor elevation hikes for those needing a less robust effort. The feeders bring their A game for those looking to relax and enjoy the day. The park really shines for hiking I think and I can't wait to come back. I can easily see myself just travelling to this park in the future to take a big day of hiking even without a bird watching agenda. It is that good.

Carley State Park - Negative 16 ReDux

I checked the weather apps a few times last week. I finally aborted a run all the way north to Scenic State Park (4 hours+ away) based on predicted -20 or more at first light. I knew hiking wasn't going to happen at that temp and soon found Carley to the south would be around -10. I had just spent some holiday money on a new polar base layer from Cabelas with a hoodie built in to the body. Coupled with a fresh package of hot packs I figured I could handle the temps well enough.

On my way to Carley as I got onto some back roads off of highway 52 I spotted a flock of Snow Bunting lift from the road shoulder and head down a dirt road. I made the turn and followed them to get a better look. This lead to finding a Merlin a ways down the road and then eventually some Horned Larks as well. It may be a big year in the State Parks, but no need to ignore fun ag road birds in the process.

I pulled into Carley SP just after 8AM and saw my vehicle indicating it was -16 yet again. (Same temp as last week in Jay Cooke when I started the big year.) I was determined to get a hike out of the deal though.

I pulled into the entrance road and quickly noted the cedar grove and pines looked good for a potential wintering Townsend's Solitaire. The adjacent private land looked like an open prairie and was of interest except it was very hilly and provided for limited views of things like Short-eared Owl or Northern Harrier.

I wasn't very far into the park when I reached a blocked off road. It would turn out that the majority of the park road was not plowed or maintained at all. What was left was a small parking and turn about area with a good pit toilet.

A few trails started off at this point so I geared up best I could and started a hike.

Stairs leading down into the river valley area.

I eventually found the partially open North Branch Whitewater River and the associated river bottom area. I decided upon a truncated hike that would loop a section of the river and the bottoms hoping for lingering birds that were using the open water. Crossing the river a few times on the unique stone steps I snagged some pictures the river and relatively quiet surroundings. An American Goldfinch called while flying overhead helping break up the river noise.

Even with the -16 temps the water moved enough to stay open in spots.

The step stones were large enough to be easy to cross for most people and were a novel solution to low maintenance bridge crossing, though I imagine with even a moderate rise in water level a large section of trail in this park would not be accessible.

A bit of road noise was present due to my proximity to the entrance, but generally was a peaceful hike. A few birds could be heard over head perhaps moving between nearby home feeders in the area.

Nearing the end of a loop I heard a loud single note ping type call. A few seconds passed and I heard the same single note again. I knew from recent experience I was indeed hearing a Townsend's Solitaire from somewhere adjacent to the park to the East or South. I moved out of the woods back to the entrance road and hoped to catch a glimpse, but the calls stopped and did not return. A fun find for a park that in my research has never been eBirded in January.

It is amazing how much bird watching and reporting is done and yet how many locations go untouched during the years. This is part of the fun for me on this adventure, finding a location that at certain times is nearly invisible to the world of birding.

I soon wrapped up my effort, eager to see Whitewater SP for the first time.

The Great: The river bottom area I hiked made me think of another river bottom and creek area called Miesville Ravine in Dakota County. This location is outstanding for a number of migrant and nesting reasons and I'm hopeful Carley is a hidden gem in the same regard. I enjoyed my short hike and can see another hike in the future. Though I'll have to see if that happens during this 2018 Big Year.

The Meh: From the standpoint of having a large list of birds I can see Carley being limited on habitat diversity mostly because it's not that large. The river does add some serious value along with the mature tree stands so it may be that this location is just waiting for an intrepid birder to explore every square inch. With the winter shut down the park felt like a county or city park more than a state park, but it would only take driving down the road to Whitewater to realize why state resources are poured into that park during the winter instead.

The Verdict: Carley needs a spring or summer visit for sure. Given the proximity to Whitewater I can see making it more of a priority to spend a couple hours at this park to put up a good list. It is not an all day kind of park in my mind for hiking and birding, but I don't think it would fail to produce a respectable list if I were to give it a good quality hiking effort.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Afton - Weekday Trips

I expected given my eagerness that I would need State Park trips during the week whenever possible in order to supplement my big year. Given the proximity to Afton, William O'Brien, and Fort Snelling I hope to hike every trail possible in all of them this year even if that is not a viable goal for all the other parks in a single year.

Getting done at 3PM gives me a small window of time to race to a park and get a quality hike in before dark, at least in the winter months anyway when we drop as low as 4:30PM for sunset.

On the 4th I started these day trips at Afton State Park, a location I know very well at this point. After stopping by the entrance sign in dire need of repair I headed to a "secret" parking location to hike the Trout Brook Loop.

I say secret only because it is not listed on the official park map. The official park map for winter indicates the Trout Brook Loop hike is a 5.7 mile super hike as the trail head is listed as the main parking area. This is a great segment and I highly recommend all the hikes at Afton if you have the juice and the time. The actual loop section of the trail though is only 1.5 miles and still a strong gain and loss of elevation and you can drop into this loop using St. Croix Trail (HWY 21). North of the main park entrance road you would pass by the Afton Alps downhill ski facility and then a section of homes. At about 1 mile you will find a wider shoulder and a small bridge that spans Trout Brook itself. Parking just before this bridge while heading North will provide direct access to the trail no more than 20 feet or so off the road ditch.

I put on my Yak Trax knowing the low snow pack wouldn't dictate a need to snowshoe on the trail at this time. (To be honest size 14 winter boots on a yeti are nearly snowshoe sized anyway.)

Woodpeckers could be heard drumming already with Red-bellied, Hairy, and Pileated being present. As I crossed over Trout Brook for the first time (walking north from point of entry) I could see the speed of movement was plenty to keep the stream open, which was encouraging.

Only a few hundred yards later I came upon an additional spring feed area that had a large flock (20+) of American Robin feeding in the leaf litter around this spring flat as well as in the buckthorn berries. A nice location to find American Robin in January anyway and I scanned the birds well on the off chance a Varied Thrush was mixed in with the birds, but it wasn't to be.

On this loop trail you cross or come in contact with the Trout Brook at least 4 times when travelling the lower valley portion of the trail. The road noise from St. Croix Trail soon disappears as you move around the backside of the large hill with steep rock walls that the brook circles and the steady sound of the bubbling brook takes over and provides the calm described on the Afton map for this loop trail. (I have a short video on Instagram.)

One thing not mentioned though is the potential for noise coming off the Afton Alps ski area that you will invariably creep closer to as you wrap around the hill and move back south on the valley floor. This day I found that loud speaker announcements were regular, likely from a school Alpine Ski competition of some sort. A normally serene and silent valley was transformed into a 0 degree outdoor event. I don't get the impression this is a regular situation as I've hiked this trail in winter at least 6 other times and had no such PA system noise to contend with so take it as you will.

At the closest point to the ski hills you turn and ascend a good portion of wooden stairs built into the hill side to aid in the climb. Once you top out on those though the climb is only about half finished as you continue to gain elevation and a great work out. You will eventually lose all of that elevation as you are returned back to St. Croix Trail running along this Western edge of the Afton SP property.

The Great: This trail is always a nice hike and as noted can be cut down based on the parking used. In spring, summer, and fall this trail is a hot spot inside an amazing park. Ruffed Grouse, Blue-winged Warbler, Wood Thrush, and Summer Tanager have been present annually for at least 5 years now. Winter Wren love this area in spring and fall for migration refueling. I love Afton State Park and this trail is a special location.

The Meh: Bird diversity is limited in winter and Afton Alps noise can be a drag at times. Early morning hikes can likely avoid that particular issue.

The Verdict: If you love hiking and birds, you really need this trail in your life. I've also had Red-shouldered Hawk making a racket in the air over this loop on multiple occasions. Hiking from the St. Croix Trail spot or from 50th street (to be covered later) or the main park body all provide amazing value based on your time and ability.

Banning State Park - A Novel Solution to Highway Noise

It is a very short trip between Moose Lake and Banning State Parks. Just 20 miles by interstate 35 separate the two and both hug the highway tight on the east. I half expected the same vibe from Banning that I got from Moose Lake, but ended up surprised at how different they really were.

I had marked my map of Banning with a boat launch near the Kettle River on highway 23 near the east edge of the park. I figured it would be frozen as well, but wanted to check it first before digging into the trail structure of the main park. This proved fortuitous as just a few hundred yards past the entrance a few birds flushed from the road shoulder into the trees. They looked large enough to be above Redpoll size so my curiosity was piqued. The boat launch was just a half mile away and the only safe turn about available. One glance at the river from the bridge said the current was not strong enough to maintain open water, but it might be a smart place to stop in the future to listen for birds.

I zipped back up the road and pull onto the widening shoulder near the local school complex and across the road from the flushed birds. Fortune smiled as they were still present and I was able to get a good look at a few of the 6 Pine Grosbeaks grabbing berries off some trees just a few feet into the woods. Another great bird species to pick up randomly and another excellent reminder of why I was doing this bird watching year the way that I was.

Happy with the Grosbeaks I entered the park and saw another beautiful welcome sign. This one a large wooden sign with carved out butterflies and a rock outcropping. The Kettle River worked in at the bottom of the sign showed white water rapids over blue.

My mapping had me taking the left hand fork in the road knowing that any trail heads did not provide parking near the campground of the park. (I would later find specific signage at the campground indicating day use traffic was not welcome in the campground itself.) I had potentially figured on hiking the Skunk Cabbage Trail based on it's proximity to the river and potential woodland habitat. When I arrived at the parking area I saw the signage for the Teacher's Overlook and figured I'd take a look. The Kettle river could be heard over all else running strong over the rocks and narrow valley. Any remains of highway noise at this point were drowned out and it was just the river and myself in an empty lot. When I crossed the Skunk Cabbage trail I noted the relative snow depth and lack of travel thinking my snow shoes might need to come out. With the day getting on though I figured perhaps I would look at the Quarry Loop Trail of just about 2 miles total. I'm grateful that I did as the hike was outstanding and beautiful in the blistering hot 6 above temps that had crept in since the early morning.

I started learning a great deal about the area on this interpretive trail showing a wonderful past as a rock quarry with building shells still present along with the main quarry showing dramatic rock ledges and frozen water. In several locations the snow was interrupted with hoarfrost likely from the water vapor in the air and extreme cold. Every twist and turn was a wonder showing dramatic views of this unknown to me gem.

A short stone staircase leading to the lower portion of the Quarry Loop.

Remnants of the past.

Marked as the main quarry location this entire wall was a waterfall frozen in time. A special sight one could not get during the other seasons.

I even found a lone Hairy Woodpecker and pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoying the slight warmth during this hike. My pictures show a large shift from Moose Lake just up the road with the Kettle River defining the park in a dramatic way. Many trails and a waterfall down river await a future hike that I greatly look forward to taking.

Hairy Woodpecker giving his best pose.

After exiting I had a couple map points that still touch State Park property, but were reached by heading to the city of Sandstone. Both of my selected locations did not pan out however as one was down a dead end road that appeared to get less and less attention as snow fell eventually leading to a single track without signage that I did not feel comfortable taking in a 2 wheel drive vehicle. This Big Spring Falls Trail area noted on the map is something I'll look at taking in the future. My second location was from a city park (Robinson) that acts as a southern route to approach Wolf Creek Falls, but this local park also seemed to get little attention and it wasn't obvious to me where to park and an additional single wheel track moved off to another section of the park I wasn't sure I should drive on or what. I'm sure if I were a local it would be obvious, but I'm so used to heavy signage at parks that it wasn't clear what proper protocol was beyond the signs indicating camping was not allowed north of that location. I'm sure the spring/summer would iron that out easily enough. I'll likely make an attempt on Wolf Creek Falls from the main body of the park during a future hike and perhaps leave Robinson park for some other unrelated effort.

The Great: Even wrapped tight to the highway 35 corridor, Banning State Park was it's own world. Driving a good distance to the first parking keeps a hiker well away from that commotion it seems. I see a lot of trails begging to be hiked and look forward greatly to that opportunity to see what beyond Pine Grosbeaks can be found in this area.

The Meh: Limited parking was interesting to me and seemed to indicate that if you are not prepared to stay in the campground then you will have extra distance to cover to see the map labeled water falls. In prep I read some hiking reviews that noted the same thing that you will have to combine a couple trails in order to get to the more distant locations.

The Verdict: This ended up less about birds and more about the river and quarry. It was a great education, while also being an outstanding hike with beautiful views. I'll gladly come back and hope to be able to bring my wife along for at least the Quarry Loop hike in the spring or early summer.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Moose Lake - The Highway Solitude

Leg 2 of my New Years day exploration was to be Moose Lake State Park. I got on down the road from Jay Cooke State Park using Highway 23 west and dirt roads to approach from the east. A pair of Common Raven held court on a deer carcass along the way and I contemplated a shoulder stop for some close range pictures, but I kept moving towards the unknown.

Coming from the east I didn't realize the proximity to highway 35 until I got out at the entrance road to snag a picture of the entrance sign. The din of traffic was pervasive and hard to ignore I must admit. The entrance sign though was a beautiful cut metal sign showing a loon, heron, hawk/eagle, butterfly, turtle, and fish above and below the park name. A bonus of these first two parks is that I didn't realize some might have a special sign beyond the standard expected brown router cut signs common for state properties.

They seem to hold secrets of some sort if I looked close enough. Or maybe they were just a welcome diversion from the din of traffic.

I had very low expectations for the park coming into this day. My research showed it to be mostly overlooked by birders and the general size showed it to have enough trail space to warrant a visit or two, but not likely to hold attention much longer.

I could tell that the park gets little attention in the winter months as the roads were not very clear. I had marked the Tall Pine Trail as a potential short hike, but soon found the nearest parking was actually just the boat launch area and I wasn't sure if I was welcome to park or not at such a location. Any additional road to the campground was barred for the winter and I soon turned around. Looking out on the frozen Echo lake I saw a lone ice shack standing vigil over the white expanse.

I next drove towards the picnic and dock fishing area and found a single car in the lot and little else stirring. Looking over the map I had printed I thought perhaps to at least look out over the Wildlife Pond area on the north side of the park across county road 137. I was curious at least to scout out what wetland areas looked like so that I might make an additional stop at the park in the spring or early summer.

I parked in sight of the closed entrance station and slipped my balaclava over my head in addition to my stocking cap. The going was better than I thought as the woods closed in around me and buffeted me against the light breeze. It was still below zero, but didn't threaten to rob me of my breathe. The pond and nearby wetlands showed great promise as it appears open water and ample cattails are present in addition to likely emergent vegetation.

The highway was as pervasive as ever though and I wondered how well a person could lose themselves in this place. A half mile or more down the trail I stopped listening to the highway noise and started hearing the world around me. The crunching of snow under my boots, the light chatter of some chickadees, and then my first Red-Breasted Nuthatch calling out from a nearby pine or spruce tree. I began stopping every 100' or so just to listen to the world a bit and heard a gentle rapping before long. The pitch and cadence reminded me of Hairy Woodpecker and I began trying to pinpoint the sound. Maybe I could get a picture before the cold robbed my camera battery of life. I stepped a few paces off the trail and located the sound from the top 1/3 of a dead spruce tree. That was when I realized this "Hairy" had way to much black on it's body and back. A bit of magic just then as I realized I had found a Black-backed Woodpecker on my own in a location one had never been reported before. I checked eBird and soon realized I was the only person to ever submit an entry for January. MOU rarely has such specific details beyond county and those were limited to just 22 reports going back to 1985 with many being the same bird/nest found back in 2008/2009.

Me catching a break in a trail side shelter a few minutes after finding the Black-backed Woodpecker. 

This was what I hoped for when I started planning this adventure. I wanted to bird watch and explore at times and places many have not. I wanted to see what the world offered me when I took a chance. I found just 3 species at Moose Lake during my hike and drive time, but I wouldn't trade that one moment for anything. I forgot about the traffic noise in a heartbeat and wasn't aware of it's existing again until I crossed back over 137 to the parking lot.

Walking the trails at Moose Lake SP. 

I'll be back to Moose Lake this year I think even if it's just to see what the wildlife pond has in the way of marsh birds. If not, it will hold a place in my mind waiting for exploration, waiting for another moment like the Black-backed Woodpecker going about it's business.

The Great: A park capable of producing Black-backed Woodpecker is capable of a great many exciting birds and the trail space I did cover has a lot of potential. Coupled with a nice looking Echo Lake I'm excited to see what Moose Lake has to offer in the spring and summer.

The Meh: Man, that traffic noise though. If you can easily tune out the white noise this park is just fine. I'm used to some parks having some type of constant noise so it really wasn't that bad despite me mentioning it several times. Fort Snelling to my memory is nearly non-stop jet airplanes landing and taking off so by comparison Moose Lake is silent. This park appears to get little attention in the winter, but that could work to your advantage in low snow years. Otherwise you are likely to need snow shoes or better for any type of adventure.

The Verdict: For me Moose Lake is a viable destination and probably seriously under bird watched. I have the feeling with 3 trips I could easily add a number of species to the eBird list which sits at 103 now after I added the first Black-backed Woodpecker. I get the feeling that trail variety will peter out after a while, but that doesn't mean this land shouldn't be explored.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Jay Cooke - The Beginning

At 6AM in the morning on the first day of the new year I grabbed my Starbucks Trenta black iced tea with 2 pumps of classic and hit the road north to Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton County. I of course had a ton of other materials with me, but the tea got me going for the drive.

So on a big year in all the MN State Parks, why did I pick Jay Cooke as my first visit? I asked myself that question a number of times and really couldn't come up with a single solid answer. I just knew that I wanted to visit the park in every season of the year so I wanted to get started right away. I want to see how it changes from the depths of winter (it was -16 when I arrived this morning) to the first warm days of spring and into the lush days of summer. I wanted a park big enough that every experience would be different no matter how many times I stopped and a place where I could pick a new trail to hike during each trip. I felt in the end that Jay Cooke had the adventure I so deeply crave.

With a short stop for gas in Carlton I arrived at the park at 8:19AM.

I saw just a single car in the main parking area that appeared to have been there over-night. As noted -16 F is stupid levels of cold and I learned that very quickly. I parked in front of the new swinging footbridge over the St. Louis River and got bundled up best I could. Taking some pictures and video in the first light I saw a spectacle of frozen water below set against rapids too quick to freeze while the morning light bathed the ends of the river valley.

The most boisterous of northern mammals, the Red Squirrel, was already actively raiding the generous feed stations in both the front and back of the main park office. My hands quickly went into a deep freeze as I made the mistake of thinking I could take a glove off while walking over the footbridge for a video segment. I raced back to my car and warmed up and thought better of taking gloves off the remainder of my stay.

I was happy to see both Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers show at the feeders in numbers while joining the Black-capped Chickadees (1st bird of the year for me) and White-breasted Nuthatches.

Part of me thought about hanging out at the feed stations for an hour or so to stay warm and snipe birds from such a bountiful food source, but I decided against it in the end. I want this year to be about adventure and lingering at bird feeders doesn't really say much in the way of adventure.

I drove down the road with nary a car in sight finding my second marked location, a historical marker and trail head for a potential hike on the Ogantz Trail. One of the few designated for hiking/snowshoeing in the winter months. An overlook was available and I made the hike to that spot for some pictures and additional looks at the river valley below.

Despite the distance from the river I could hear the rapids even with 90% or more covered in a crust of ice. A single Raven gave a hoarse call from a nearby grove and I stumbled upon my 4th Pileated Woodpecker of the morning. I decided that with double digit negative temps still in control that a hike on the Ogantz Trail was going to have to wait. This would just be a sample visit and I could be happy to have seen some wonderful sights while staying close to my lifeline. (My Toyota RAV4.)

I eventually made my last main park stop at the trailhead and water access point for the Grand Portage Trail. Mother Nature was still sleeping though as I heard little bird chatter and the river valley was silent still.

On the way from the park I probed down a couple side roads inspecting them for warm weather possibilities. I happened upon a parking area / trail for the Hemlock Ravine SNA and noted it for future exploration. Near the same location was a bit of parking and a view of a well frozen retention basin (Forbay Lake) perched above the river valley.

On the way out of the park on 210 I stopped quickly at a river side green space called Chambers Grove. I marked it on my map on the off chance it had swift enough water to be open, but the deep freeze had claimed it as well. This spot is fun though in that it is a location you can look directly west into Wisconsin from Minnesota, which is typically not a thing. I was able to get a bit more humor from the gag driving out of the grove on 23 west while my Google Map narration said, "Welcome to Wisconsin" and then a half mile later said "Welcome to Minnesota".

Just down the road I had marked a stop for a Historical Marker that proved a bonus in an outstanding view back up the river valley of the State Park all the way to the Carlton water tower, just visible with my super zoom camera. (Nikon P900.) This also ended up being a the spot I was able to snag a couple passable flight shots of a Common Raven.

My time at Jay Cooke was nearly at an end as a Bald Eagle could be heard calling in the distance. It was still near -10 on the thermometer as I left the park behind thinking I would like another shot at it in the winter. I didn't even see/hear a Red-Breasted Nuthatch while in the park.

The Great: Jay Cooke has an amazing arsenal of views, enough to satisfy any photographer or person that appreciates great scenery. The main office near the swinging bridge has an above average bird feeder station that is in both front and back of the building. I would expect any bird watcher visiting this park would give it at least a few minutes to see what might visit.

The Meh: From my own standpoint the park is limited on winter trail space for hiking. I of course understand this since MN is a ski loving state, but I personally don't wish to do so and that does limit options for winter hikes. One trail is the 3.3 mile (Carlton Trail) one way along the river back towards the city of Carlton and noted as treacherous in winter. This is the kind of situation I would personally avoid in the winter. A one-way 3 mile trail unlikely to be hiked by anyone else seems like a way to find trouble if an injury occurs. 

The Verdict: Despite the cold on this day, the park was everything I wanted it to be and more. I can see this being a place I visit for years to come looking to explore every inch of trail possible. I may limit my deep winter visits, but with little hiking today I would say enough meat is on the bone to warrant another trip or two for winter birding.