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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.

Monson Lake State Park - that the end?

This park is 346 acres in size and that is noticed pretty quickly while using the 1 mile trail that is available. While viewing the map you can see much of the land mass is broken up by the large bodies of water in Monson Lake and West Sunburg Lake.

Entrance sign selfies were not something I planned at the start of this effort, but it feels like therapy for being proud of who I am. When I see my own smile I'm reminded of how happy these adventures make me. I'm a big (6'7") hiking/birding geek and I love being able to share this adventure with others and explore the depths of my own needs of fullfillment.

As I was nearing the edge of park land I did see my first Red Fox of the year scamper across the road and disappear into a den hidden somewhere in the tall grasses. I pulled down the relatively narrow entrance road to a parking lot with some limited signage on the history of the park and a couple of out buildings for bathrooms and picnic shelters. The single trail was easy enough to pick up and after putting on my Yak Trax and larger winter boots I quickly headed out on the trail.

This signage was my first indication of the historical significance of this park and I plan to do some additional reading on the location and it's preservation.

The trail quickly loops back over the dirt road that brought me into the property and edges along West Sunburg Lake with some nice view of the water. A short time later it jumps back across the road to edge along Monson Lake as well. Several ice shacks were present in the lake and I noted a good amount of native vegetation on the edges of the lake. This means it should be good for dabblers as well as divers, and that coupled with the location means potential nesting Grebe (Western & Red-necked) making this limited space park essential during open water months.

That won't be hard to pull off as I could imagine stopping at this park as an in-between location and only needing an hour or so to fully scan the prime lake locations. Given the time a canoe rental and double lake effort could be a really fun and unique way to experience the park in the spring and summer. The woods I hiked in were limited in that they seemed to be heavy in deadfall and gnarled under brush. Elevation was not really present and you wouldn't likely hike the woods with much fulfillment, but I can see taking the trail with scope in hand in order to check both lakes properly for migrant and resident waterfowl.

Reserved Judgement: I will wait to say much more on my thoughts of this park. It is hardly fair to go to a park in the winter that is dominated 80% by 2 frozen lakes. This very well could end up being a place I visit for years to come for Grebe or some other resident waterfowl. That being said it isn't much for hiking for sure and I found just 2 species of birds active on this day so it is also not a spot to go birding in the cold months as no open spring fed water was available and the woods just aren't that large to sustain much of any overwintering birds.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sibley State Park - Managing Expectations

Leading up to the weekend of the 27th of January I didn't really have locations nailed down for the mild weather that was being predicted. I wasn't feeling another 4+ hour one way drive to the far north nor was I thinking about an overnight for something like a mega-northshore run. After friend Josh Wallestad had noted to me around mid-week that snow was not present in his neck of the woods (Willmar) I decided I might like to hike a bit without a massive snow pack in place.

This led me to selecting Sibley State Park as well as Monson Lake and Glacial Lakes. This cluster of parks would give me a chance to explore the parks and effectively scout for future birding efforts. I knew the first 2 were directly in the deciduous forest biome and would look pretty similar to home parks in the cities so I would expect much in the way of birds.

Yet another in my long series of entrance sign selfies and attempting to fit into a shot of a large sign.

I arrived at Sibley just a bit after sunrise interested in being able to use the hiking club trail that would give me a good cross-section of the park as well as offer some elevation as it crests Mount Tom, Little Mount Tom, and Badger Hill on it's way down to Andrew Lake.

As I arrived in the parking lot I immediately heard a Pileated Woodpecker establishing forest dominance and quickly found an out of season pair of Eastern Bluebird atop a Cedar tree just off the trail center parking lot. It is always great to pick up a Bluebird in January as eBird had it flagged rare for the county.

One of two Eastern Bluebirds hanging out at the main parking area for the trail center. I love getting flagged birds on eBird, to me it means I'm testing seasonal limits for species and helping expand our understanding of bird habits.

Once on the trail I lamented not adding my Yak Trax as the dense woods kept full melt from occurring and the trails quickly became a patchwork of ice and crusty snow while moving up and down erosion control steps on the 3.3 mile long loop. The hike was really great though and I found several views worth the effort as the Mount Tom location featured a long standing brick structure as well as a viewing platform at the top.

The structure and viewing platform at the top of Mount Tom at Sibley State Park. A neat way to crest the high point in the park. It is worth noting that in the warm months a road and parking lot appear to bring you to the base of this hill so you could get this view with relatively minimal effort if needed.

The view down to lake Andrew that you can just barely see an edge of below the sky line. With my super zoom I could see a single ice shack on the lake and would eventually hike all the way down to the lake edge on the trail.

A hazy shot showing the morning light and distance you could see from the top of Mount Tom. I liked the layers of different wooded stands in this and I think a professional version of this shot with proper exposure likely could be pretty cool.

Few other birds presented themselves beyond the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Downy/Hairy Woodpeckers. The hike showed me a number of interesting Cedar Tree groves that have potential for migrating or resident owls and I looked a few of them over while taking a break, but found no evidence of active roost sites.

Having managed my expectations of finding any rarities or unique birds I found the hike to be a great way to start the day and the Eastern Bluebirds ended up being more than enough to sustain birding interests. When I got back to the trailhead I peaked around the back of the trail center building and found 2 active feeders with some deer suet and black sunflower seeds present. The Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers were very happy so if any odd birds decided to overwinter this would be a good place to check for feeder visits.

The Great: I really enjoy long wooded hikes as they remind me most of growing up and hiking the Chippewa River in Wisconsin when I was young. This park has a lot of potential and appears to have a good amount of habitat allowing for a waterfowl stop in the early spring, and likely being a nice Warbler stop in spring/fall. The elevation changes in the hiking were very nice and the views from Mount Tom likely are a great show in Fall color change.

The Meh: Managing expectations did prove important as this time of year in a deciduous woodland at this latitude isn't likely to produce much of a serious list of birds. I ended with 9 species of birds and 3 of them were immediately out of the car in the lot so 6 total were seen or heard while hiking 3.5 miles in the park.

The Verdict: This park looks like an excellent spread of habitat and land for this park of the state and plan to come back even if it's to do a waterfowl check off of Andrew Lake. I'd like to come back for some hiking/birding in the spring/summer with Josh Wallestad also to get his thoughts on the park and favorite locations to visit. I know he has interest in trying to find Summer Tanager and Northern Saw-Whet Owl for his county list so those could be fun efforts to collaborate on in the future. This one is likely well worth the effort, but unless you just straight up love hiking probably not one to go out of way to visit in the winter.

Monday, January 22, 2018

McCarthy Beach - Min Maintenance Yard/Road?

Google maps directed my path between Scenic State Park and McCarthy Beach. I was given an option for a forest road route of 59 minutes or a larger highway road of 1:10 and promptly chose the longer duration road. I'd rather not find myself stuck on a forest road in the middle of a national forest. As it turns out the move was smart as I quickly found a Bald Eagle sitting on a deer carcass in a clearing. As I rolled by a Black-billed Magpie lifted and moved off as well. I love finding Magpie as this area is effectively the farthest East population of them in the United States.

Shortly after the entrance sign I was trying to keep an eye on the turn so I could setup for a hike near the hiking club trail noted as Big Hole Loop and Pickerel Lake Trail. While doing so I nearly ran over a flock of 8 Red Crossbill sitting in the middle of the lane gritting on the road. I had to jam on the brakes and they cleared at the last second. I'm sure the negative karma of hitting a Crossbill with the car would have been enough to make me drive home so thankfully that was not the case.

I seemed to miss my turn though as I ended up at a split in the road I didn't expect and figured I was already deep into Link Lake Forest Road. Totally feel like a newb in the north woods as I just expect all season maps found online to depict what is open and not open in each season of the year. Eventually I found a split from the road that seemed to indicate the Minimum Maintenance Road was what I wanted. It felt like a driveway and in a way it was as a home owners driveway split off and the forest road followed their property line tightly for a while further and then opened to a larger parking area advertising lake access and trail access.

I found the snow much deeper than Scenic State Park and put on my snow shoes. For the first 1/2 mile I trekked along the unplowed road as did 1 prior hiker. I got the feeling quickly that the majority of the trails in this area go unused by hikers and snow-shoe users.

This segment of trail showed I was blazing my own path for a good distance. Someone had perhaps hiked this when just a few inches were present, but the present snow pack was only broken by White-tailed Deer prints that I could see.

The map showed miles of trails leading off to the north and west, but I saw little indicating humans had been using them with any regularity.

I followed the hiking club trail and eventually had to truncate the hike. A fresh pack of 10" of snow was present and I was burning serious calories just trying to lay down my own track as my snow-shoes still dropped several inches deep. Despite that I found myself covering over 2 miles with some excellent elevation changes.

Birding was quiet, but as I dropped near the edge of Pickerel Lake I heard the chatter of a couple White-winged Crossbill. The calls were easily different than the Red Crossbills I heard in the morning and I was satisfied with the calls as they moved between some trees overhead. Getting views or pictures proved impossible all day on Crossbills as I struggled to even see them in my bins. This was my second crossbill species of the day in a State Park and turned out to be my personal #300 species for the state of Minnesota. I later noted some relatively fresh beaver activity on the shore of the lake and wanted to note it for a location to return for a possible State Park mammal add later this year.

The base of this Paper Birch was well chewed, and is a prime sign that Beaver are present in this lake. I look forward to a future effort and finding the species for my mammal list.

A view of Pickerel Lake at McCarthy Beach State Park. It was a beautiful 40 degree day as I finished my hike along the lake side while hearing White-winged Crossbills.

After my exhausting hike I drove back to the beach parking area figuring I could sit down in the near 40 degree weather at a picnic table and have some lunch. As I sat and nibbled on a sausage, cheese, and cracker pack I heard more Red Crossbills moving about the canopy and even got a few second glimpse of them before they moved away. Red-breasted Nuthatches also made sure to talk over the Crossbills as much as possible to ensure an audio recording wasn't going to be happening either.

Mature trees on slopes and a couple good sized lakes have me looking forward to a return trip to scope for ducks and maybe find a species in the woods on territory. Even if that fails I see some excellent distance hikes extending to the North along with the Taconite Trail that runs through the park.

The Great: This park is offering a solid amount of distance hiking and finding both species of Crossbill on a single 2.5 hour effort tells me that a lot of good stuff is hiding in this park. The park is not overflowing with amazing vistas or rock formations that I saw, but is an incredible natural space I look forward to exploring. I'm betting the beach area is tourist heavy, but I imagine the hiking will get a person well away from that business in the summer months.

The Meh: The winter shuts down a lot of parking options and forest roads appear to turn into trails this time of year, even if they aren't noted as such on the maps. You will want to be very flexible on a visit in the winter. Based on what I saw, you will want to be a serious snow-shoe or ski user to enjoy much of the trail space in this park when it's cold. Also be prepared to hear snowmobiles the entire time you are out hiking. This area appeared to be a nexus of such activity as I noted at least 10 groups during the time I hiked or sat and ate lunch.

The Verdict: Getting both Crossbills made this outstanding. I can see the spring/summer value of this park and the extended trails. I'm not sure I would recommend this park in the winter beyond a stop at the beach lot to try for Crossbill. Beyond that the little used trails will make it a next level effort to hike and enjoy.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Afton - Owl Finders Edition

After my prior post on Afton and hunting for owls I decided Sunday the 21st was a free day. The weather had shifted leaving the day warm and without any rain/snow looking to come down. I slept in after my 9 hours of driving and 5 hours of hiking the day prior, but still got to Afton about 11:30AM.

My plan was to return to a couple spots previously searched with plenty of owl sign. I began working a grove again finding good signs of owls. Below is a picture showing a couple groups of pellets from an owl, likely a small one considering the size of the pellets.

The pellets shown were found under a pine tree and on close examination showed bones and hair from mice in them. Judging by the size they likely came from a Northern Saw-whet, but I'm a newb on such things I can't say that for certain.

Encouraged further by the pellet finds I slowly worked the tree grove looking for white-wash and then visually looking up the tree to the highest reaches possible. I did this for well over an hour just silently staring at pine trees and looking them over for anything aberrant. Eventually I found the below image presented to me that at range looked like a pine cone 30 feet in the air.

Yes, an owl is in this picture. I was zoomed a little bit, but this shows roughly what I first saw when I looked up this tree. The darkish lump left of the trunk just above center on the image is the owl.

Looking a bit closer with my Nikon P900 super zoom though I saw feathers. This Northern Saw-whet Owl was hiding as high as possible and relatively oblivious to my existence as a bird could get at this point. In fact while working for another angle I never saw the bird even both to lift it's head up and take a look at me except when a crow flew over the grove making a general racket. Beyond that this bird was content to while away the day high up in the branches nearly invisible to the world.

With all of my 83X zoom I was able to see the feathers on the back of the bird huddled tight to the trunk of the tree.

Moving around the tree I was at least able to see some of the belly color on this very sleepy predator. It was pretty fun finding one especially considering the height and how well it blended in with the tree. I can feel the skillset expanding and gaining more confidence in finding these elusive birds. 

It was a great add to the big year bird list and one that felt extra sweet as a return visit to a site that produced no finds just a days earlier. Owl hunting is super challenging and has required me to change my methods to adapt to the problem at hand.

It is also worth noting I was able to add Cedar Waxwing and Ring-necked Pheasant to my State Park year list while hiking other portions of the park. It was a great day and another roughly 3 miles of trail time for me.

Scenic State Park - Weather Finally Breaks

The weather reports all agreed that Saturday the 20th would be warm all over the state and without snow/rain fall. I initially thought I'd look at a north shore 2 day circuit, but Sunday was much more up in the air weather-wise so I committed to a single day effort.

I had previously cancelled plans to investigate Scenic and McCarthy Beach so I put them back on the schedule for my "off" weekend.

My alarm ripped me out of sleep at 4AM and I quickly hit the road by 4:20AM looking to get into Scenic State Park sometime just after sunrise. The plan worked as I rolled into the entrance driving along Scenic Highway about 30 minutes after sunrise.

I snagged a map at the entrance station, but had an idea that I would likely hike and check out Chase Point due to the peninsula between Sandwick and Coon Lakes.

Chase Point Trail I hiked. 

I first drove the length of the main road all the way to the final boat launch and parked to get a view of the foggy and quiet lake.

Coon Lake at Scenic State Park 

The spell of quiet was broken quickly as a stream of ice fishing people rolled in via a caravan of cars to the lot looking to off-load a snowmobile and equipment.

I hopped back in the car and set my sights on the Chase Point Trail parking lot. While pulling on my Yak Trax I heard multiple Common Raven causing a stir nearby and noted a persistent machine noise from off property. It wasn't hyper pervasive, but it definitely sounded like a logging operation was going somewhere in the adjacent National or State Forest land. Just after getting on the main stretch of trail I paused and quickly heard at least a couple Red Crossbill calling overhead. They sounded as though they were moving to a new tree and attempts to record the flight call were fruitless, but I already had a new State Park bird after the 4 hour drive.

As I looked around I noticed some bare pine branches down slope that looked like they had been stripped of bark. I suspected immediately Porcupine and was rewarded with 2 North American Porcupine casually starring at me while they lounged on the branches. This was excellent, my first personally found Porcupine and a great add for the big year Mammal list.

One of 2 Porcupine. 

A sure sign of Porcupine activity is stripped branches on only the top sides. 

A short ways down the trail I noticed a tree showing some bark flaking that elicited thoughts of Black-backed or American Three-toed Woodpecker. Though no such bird was found I made note of the flaking and took some pictures to share. I eventually found 3 different types of debris around tree bases that lent a great opportunity to reflect on how much you can add to your knowledge over time. Below are examples of bark flaking, chewed up pine cone pieces, and wood pulp pieces along with thoughts on what likely caused each of them.

Notice these bark flakes right at the base of the tree and that they are not pieces of things like Pine Cone. They are simply bark pieces.

Then observe the tree itself and see a patchwork of bark pealed off, but not really any fresh holes like we would expect from other Woodpeckers. Being on top of the snow it would indicate this activity was fresh in the last week from either a Black-backed or American Three-toed Woodpecker.

Now notice this debris cast off and what it appears to consist of, instead of bark flakes. As we zoom in closer you can see they are scales from a pine cone. The most likely culprit being Red Squirrel, as these little dudes can make large piles or wide cast off areas like above when shredding pine cones to get at the seeds.

This final cast off is localized to the base of a tree and you can tell even from this distance it is made up of bark pieces and also pulp pieces. This is a sure sign of more woodpecker activity, but more likely one of the larger boring woodpeckers. Pileated, Red-bellied, and Hairy. Though considering how far north I was Red-bellied is less likely.

My hike went well as I strolled along the ridge (lakes on either side of me) enjoying the solitude and natural setting. At the end a fresh set of stairs led down to the lake level. I found the distant fire tower and noted my future desire to make the Tall Pines hike and add the tower climb to my efforts. I briefly thought about returning on the trail, but decided instead to slog across the frozen lake so I could add more trail space to my hike. A large boardwalk is set below the main campground and I was able to pick up the trail back towards the parking area. I had Red-Breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches making a racket during this time along with Hairy Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee.

In total I hiked just about 2.5 miles in 6" to 10" snow pack, but this park offers a minimum 14 miles of trail space so I just can't imagine not coming back when the snow is gone. I feel like this is one of those seriously under birded spaces with several trails being a long trek in one direction. I look forward to exploring more of this space in the warmer months.

Having a second park on my list for the day I counted the effort good and headed out to McCarthy Beach state park next.

The Great: Chase Point trail was a lot of fun and had some nice interpretive signs along the way. Finding my own Porcupines was super awesome and the views in the park were very nice.

The Meh: A constant din from logging was a bit off-putting and the winter map available at the entrance station does not match the one seen online. The website maps shows all trails as hiking and not groomed in winter, but the onsite printed map showed all of them as Cross Country Ski or Snowmobile. It wasn't a big deal though since very few people use the trails in this park. In fact I did not find another non-fishing person in the park the entire morning. It is worth noting that no bird feed station is setup and the park appears to run at minimal staffing during the winter and no trail grooming exists for any of the winter sports.

The Verdict: I completed my hike with Yak Trax, but in a normal snow year I bet it would have been a herculean hike to do so. With much of the major hiking being large far out loops I might council waiting until spring and summer to hit this park. It is a true adventure though and I would not trade the experience for anything.

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 Michael Sack 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.