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.