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Archive for the tag “Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge”

A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

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A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

H. Bradford

7/29/18


This past weekend (+Monday and Tuesday), I visited three state parks as part of my goal to see all of the state parks in Minnesota.  As it happens, all three state parks were not terribly far from National Wildlife Refuges.  Thus, I also visited three National Wildlife Refuges during my mini-vacation.   National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the purpose of conserving…well, wildlife!  I will admit that I am not as familiar with NWRs as I am with state or national parks.  From my limited experience, it seems that NWRs that I have been to differ from state parks in that they typically do not charge a fee or requite a sticker.  At the same time, camping is not typically allowed and there are fewer amenities, programs, and regular staffing.  They also seem less busy or tourist oriented than state or national parks.  On the other hand, some allow hunting and trapping, which is not always allowed at state parks.  My general impression is that NWRs are less family and tourist friendly, but great for bird/wildlife watching and a variety of independent outdoor activities.  There are 13 NWRs in Minnesota, which are among the 550 spread across the United States.  This is a review of three of them.

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Sherburne NWR:


Sherburne NWR is located near Zimmerman, MN and about a half an hour south-east of St. Cloud, MN.  I visited the refuge with my brother as a Saturday excursion during my weekend visit.  The park contains oak savanna, wetlands, and prairie ecosystems and offers hiking, but also a wildlife drive and opportunities for fishing and hunting.   My brother and I mostly partook in the wildlife drive, which provides a few opportunities to stop for short hikes.  The primary purpose of the visit was birding.

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The wildlife drive took us through a variety of landscapes, including the three mentioned on the website: prairie, wetland, and oak savanna.  We took a short hike in the prairie area, which unlike the state parks I had visited over the weekend, was devoid of bothersome insects.   While it seems that woodland wildflowers peak in the early spring, the prairie wildflowers were in full bloom, creating colorful fields of orange and yellow.   As for birding, the park has several species of sparrows which are not regularly seen in Northern Minnesota, where I live.   For instance, during our short hike, I heard a Field sparrow.  The song is very distinct, even though I have never seen or heard one before.  I imagine that it is the sound of a Frisbee being thrown or a UFO taking off.   There were also many grasshopper sparrows, another sparrow that I hadn’t seen before.  They have an insect like song that sounds like a cross between a buzz and a hiss.  Over twenty species of sparrows can be found in the wildlife refuge, so it seems like a great place to visit to see sparrows (even if I only saw a few species).

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The wildlife drive follows along some lakes, where trumpeter swans, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, and various ducks can be seen.  For me, a highlight of these area was seeing black terns, which are another new bird for me.  I was unable to photograph them, as they zip along pretty quickly.   They don’t range near Duluth, but are found in other parts of Minnesota in prairie or prairie transition areas.  Another highlight was hearing a Least bittern in a ditch by the lake, though I did not see the bird hidden in the thick vegetation.   I am not a great birder, so I would suggest that less skilled birders (like myself) review bird song/calls before heading to the park.  It definitely helps with sparrow identification (as they all look pretty plain and brown) and for hard to spot birds.  I listened to a bird CD in my car on the way to Lake Maria State Park from Duluth (a three hour drive) so a few vocalizations were fresh in my head.

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The only buggy area was on the north-west end of the lake, where there was a small oak forests and trail.  We were too mosquito bitten to venture far, but we did see a red bellied woodpecker.  This was a new woodpecker species for me and one that I later saw more of at Charles Lindbergh State Park and Crane Meadows NWR.  As a whole, I would say that the park offered great birding opportunities.  I would definitely return to see more sparrows and to view the Sandhill cranes which migrate through the refuge in large numbers each fall.    I like that the park offered a wide variety of ecosystems and a wildlife drive.  While we didn’t do much hiking, I would like to return to try out the trails.  The park was surprisingly busy, with several vehicles slowly moving along the wildlife drive, also trying to spy on birds.  There isn’t much room for passing, so, be prepared to take it slow and follow the caravan of wildlife enthusiasts!   The refuge is about 30 minutes drive away from Lake Maria State Park, so both could be visited in the same day (though I visited them over the course of two days).

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Crane Meadows NWR:


Crane Meadows NWR is only fifteen minutes away from Charles Lindbergh State Park and only about ten minutes away from Little Falls.  This makes it very accessible and very easy to take in along with Charles Lindbergh State Park.  The NWR was a welcome reprieve from the mosquito swarms that characterized Charles Lindbergh State Park.  Crane Meadows NWR was bright and sunny, and although the trails followed along the Platte River, the wildlife area lacked the deer flies and mosquitoes that plagued my other outdoor adventures over the weekend.  Crane Meadows is only 2000 acres (compared to over 30,000 for Sherburne NWR) and does not have a wildlife drive.  Instead, it offers a few looped trails along the Platte River to Rice Lake.  The longest loop is just under four miles.  I hiked this loop, which was the best hike of the weekend because 1.) it wasn’t buggy.  2.) There was an abundance of birds.  3.) The trail passes a variety of ecosystems, such as oak savanna, tall grass prairie, sedge meadow wetland, and more!  The trail can only be used for hiking, so horses and bicycles are not allowed.  Perhaps owing to the length and limited use, I did not see any other people on the trail.

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As I already mentioned, the hike was very enjoyable, with easy terrain and a variety of habitats in one relatively small area.  I did not see as many birds as I did at Sherburne, but I also covered a smaller area.  There were some noteworthy birds on the hike, including a great crested flycatcher, another new bird for my list.  The yellow, gray, and rusty orange bird is easy to identify (which is not true of most flycatchers, which look pretty similar in their variations of pale yellow, olive, and gray plumage.)  Another highlight was a few red headed woodpeckers, which I have not seen in Minnesota before.  I also saw red breasted woodpeckers and a swamp sparrow.  Other sparrows included song sparrows and chipping sparrows, both of which are pretty common in Duluth.  The martin house was busy and there were also many barn swallows.

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Like Sherburne NWR, I would definitely visit Crane Meadows again.  The leisurely hike and variety of birds made for a great way to spend an afternoon.  I would say that the main downside of the NWR is a lack of amenities.  There are no toilets on the trails, but there is a port-a-potty at the parking area.  On the other hand, there was hardly anyone at the NWR, so that was a plus.  As a whole, it is a nice, compact wildlife area with easy access to Little Falls.

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Rice Lake NWR:

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The final NWR that I visited was Rice Lake NWR, near McGregor, MN.  I have visited this area many times, but couldn’t resist making a pit stop on my way home to Duluth.   Of the three, this NWR has the widest variety of things to do.  There is a wildlife drive, which I have done many times.  There is an observation deck and several hiking trails.  The NWR also features Native American and Civilian Conservation Corps history.  Native Americans continue to use the wildlife area for harvesting wild rice and maple syrup.  In fact, Native Americans have used the park since at least 1000 BC and there are burial mounds within the refuge.  Each time I visit, there are usually at least a few people fishing, which seems to be the most popular activity.  Rice Lake NWR is rich in waterfowl and each spring and fall during migrations.  In fact, the area holds the state record for the most waterfowl seen in one place at one time, when a million ring necked ducks were observed in 1994.   Like the other two parks, there is a wide variety of sparrows that can also be seen, including the rare LaConte’s Sparrow (which I have not seen).

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Where the wild rice grows…


In addition to the hiking trails, wildlife drive, fishing, birding, and Native American history/use, this NWR generally has pretty good amenities (at least compared to the other two refuges).  There are several toilets or port-a-poties spread throughout the refuge as well as two picnic areas.  There is no running water, however.  The refuge itself features mixed forests, lakes, and bogs.  Because it is a very wet environment, there are always lots of insects!  Of the three refuges, this was the worst, with swarms of deer flies AND mosquitoes.    I have never successfully hiked in this refuge since these attempts are almost always thwarted by voracious insects.  Even an open window during the wildlife drive attracted unwanted deer flies into my vehicle.

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National Wildlife Refuges are a different experience than state and national parks.  While they may not be as full of tourists, activities, and amenities, they are great places to spend a day taking in nature.  All three of these locations are relaxing, tranquil, and great for birding.  All three are places that I would visit again.   There are only 13 of these gems in Minnesota, and only 12 can be visited!  I will definitely be visiting other NWRs in the future and hopefully you will be inspired to visit them as well!

 

Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

H. Bradford

10/15/17

I like camping since it offers me a mini- adventure and time alone.   I like this new ritual of leaving for a day or two and unplugging from Facebook, activism, my phone, and people in general.  So, I was looking forward to camping at Savannah Portage State Park.   I visited the park back in August and March, but had not camped there.  It has become one of my favorite state parks due to the fact that it is not very busy, has great bog walk, and some nice trails.   Thus, I made it a goal that I would camp there this fall.   Here is how it went:

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Firstly, the forecast called for clear, sunny weather when I made my reservation at the campsite.   However, as it grew closer to the date, the weather looked like rain, more rain, light rain, clouds, and thunderstorms.  I am not a huge fan of being wet, but the days are getting shorter and my opportunities for camping will come to an end by the end of this month.   So…I looked up tips of how to comfortably camp in the rain.   I decided that it would not be a big deal and made plans to go birding and hiking- rain or no rain.


Like always, I stopped at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the way to Savannah Portage.  I immediately felt chilled by the rain and wind.   Nevertheless, I spent almost the entire day birding and hiking.  I was wet, but not not drenched.   Despite the inclement weather, I saw many birds.   One highlight was a flock of Pied billed grebes.  These grebes are adorable.  They have cute little fluffy white bird butts, big eyes, and a compact shape.  Another highlight was dozens of Trumpeter swans, even though they were pretty far away- near an island on Rice Lake.   I took a stroll down a service road and came upon two Sandhill cranes.  At first, I thought they were gray stumps or poles.  I guess I wasn’t expecting to see the cranes.   There were many other birds as well, including more ducks than I could hope to count- or identify.  The ducks were some distance away and I am not knowledgeable enough about birding to identify ducks by their flight pattern or shape.   While walking along the service road, I spotted a Lapland longspur.  This isn’t an uncommon bird, but the first time I have identified one.   I thought it was a fun and productive day of birding, but traipsing through wet grass, soggy trails, and drizzling rain left me feeling chilled.

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After leaving the refuge, I headed towards Savannah Portage State Park, picking up some campfire wood along the way.   I spent most of my day birding and I arrived a bit later than I had planned.  The park is remote enough that it is not well staffed and the park office closed at 2pm.  However, there was a notice on the door of what to do if I needed anything.  There are over 50 campsites, but only two were in use that night.  So…I pretty much had the whole state park  AND campground to myself!  There wasn’t even any staff.  Since it was drizzling rain when I arrived, I decided not to set up my tent.  The wind was also picking up.  I concluded that I was already soggy and wasn’t going to enjoy setting up and taking down a wet tent.   Instead, I would save time and effort and sleep in my car.   With nothing to set up, I set off for another hike (as I wanted to make sure that I visited the Bog Walk and did the loop trail around Lake Shumway).   I quickly did both short hikes, beating sunset.   After sunset, I decided to take advantage of my solitude and hike in the dark.   I haunted part of the Continental Divide Trail before the wind picked up again and I decided that hiking in the dark…alone….makes me feel a little uneasy.

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Back at my campsite, I pulled out my firewood and did my best to make a fire.  For whatever reason, this didn’t work out.  The wood that I had purchased was a little damp from being outside.  But, I had purchased some eco-friendly firestarting chips.  These did little to help the flame sustain itself on the wet wood.  I tried burning notebook paper and furiously fanned the flames.  Sometimes the fire lasted as long as five minutes, but after an hour of trying, it never really took off.   This was disappointing because I was going to make myself some hot tea, s’mores, and instant soup.  Instead, I ate cold snacks and drank cold water- which didn’t really do much to dispel the chilled feeling from being outside in the rain all day.   It hadn’t been a particularly cold day and I didn’t get drenched- but there is a certain, demoralizing chilled feeling that rain can bring.


Since the fire wasn’t going to work out, I decided to change clothes, read a book, do some journaling- and snuggle into my sleeping bag- in the backseat of my car.   It wasn’t exactly comfortable- but it was warm and dry.  Also, it was nice to be out of the wind.  Even though it wasn’t that late, I started to feel drowsy.  The wind rustled the leaves outside and droplets of water fell from the foliage onto the roof of my car.  I decided that I would head to bed early- feeling like my camping adventure was a bit of a fail (in terms of setting up the tent or making a fire anyway).  I had strange dreams.  I even had a frightening dream wherein I awoke to the sound of a male voice shouting my name.  It was an auditory hallucination- the sort a person has when they are half dreaming and half awake.  This is not a usual sleep occurrence, so I pondered it for a moment (maybe I had felt anxious being alone?).   I curled up into my sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.  The rain and wind increased during the night, which again made me feel okay with the decision to sleep in my car- even if I was a bit bunched up.


The next morning, the sky was overcast, but the rain had stopped.  I got ready for the day and set out on a hike.   My goal was to do the Continental Divide Hike (which was perhaps 3.75 to 4 miles round trip from my campsite).  This was a nice hike.   The forest was yellow and the park was entirely empty (spare one other camper).  It was odd to be the only human on the trail.  The trail itself followed…well, a continental divide…or a ridge.  On one side of the ridge, water flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.  On the other side of the ridge, water flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  The trails were wet so it was interesting to think about the long journey the water could take- on either side of me.  Although the hike was often up hill and along a ridge, it was pleasant and not particularly challenging.  I hate hills- but none of them were that steep.   Towards the end of the trail, there was an overlook deck- where a person could admire the lowland Tamarack forests and Wolf Lake.   I spent some time there reading the interpretive sign, then finished the rest of the trail before turning back.

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With the trail done and little to pack up, I left the camp site.  I headed back to Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge to see if I could catch a few more birds.  The sky cleared a little and I did see several birds, such as a Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue heron, Trumpeter Swan, Pied Billed Grebes, and what I believe was a pair of Blackducks.   I didn’t spend as long as I had the day before, but managed to devote a few hours to it.  I turned my phone back on.  I left the wildlife refuge and I started listening to radio news.  The first story that I heard about was the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  I was only gone Sunday into Monday, but it seemed that I had been gone much longer.  There is so much “world” to digest on a daily basis.   I like to escape it all.  I am not sure how others remain so engaged and yet sane or even happy from day to day.   Maybe I am weak for always wanting to run away.   On the drive home, I listened to the news coverage.  I saw a hawk perched over a swamp.  I turned the car around and watched it until it flew away (harassed by another bird).   I then headed home to change clothes and go to a feminist meeting.

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It wasn’t much of an adventure and I pretty much failed at some of the most basic elements of camping (setting up a tent or making a fire).   I was also somewhat miserable, but encouraged by my hardiness to at least TRY to be outside.  Yeah, I am not much of an adventurer.  I think about my co-worker who just spent two and a half weeks hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.  She was probably wet and muddy most of the entire time…without a place to warm up.   I wish I was more like that.   Maybe someday.  Who knows.  For now, it was nice to relish an opportunity to be outdoors- as winter is just around the corner.  With colder and shorter days, I won’t be as enthused to be outside.  We’ll see if I can squeeze one more camping trip in this fall.  Hopefully it won’t be as wet next time!

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My International Bog Day Bonanza

My International Bog Day Bonanza

H. Bradford

7/25/17

Last week at work I had a several stressful situations arise.  When I am stressed, I like to fantasize about my time off.  So, I determined that I was going to really enjoy my time off by celebrating International Bog Day.   International Bog Day was first celebrated in Scotland in 1991 in honor of a pretty unique ecosystem.  In the United States, it was first celebrated in 2008 at the Volo Bog State Nature Area in IL.  There are not a lot of bog related celebrations in Minnesota, even though Minnesota actually has more bogs (10% of the state or 6 million acres) than any other continental state.  The biggest celebration for International Bog Day in Minnesota appears to be at Big Bog State Park.  However, I didn’t feel like driving three hours to attend festivities such as the “bog jog.”  Maybe next year.  In any  event, I can’t say that I know a lot about bogs, but they are dear to my heart.  I grew up near a bog and have many great bog memories.   I can confidently say that bogs are my favorite ecosystem.  Thus, I relished the idea of celebrating International Bog Day!

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I like to invent holidays or holiday celebrations.  Some take off, such as Marxmas (which I did not invent, but have passionately planned a well-attended party for each year).  Others, such as Radon Awareness Month- don’t really pan out.   I felt that International Bog Day had a lot of potential.  I began to dream about visiting bogs.  Where would I go?  What would I do?  Oh, then there are the other details such as…what should I wear?  Each holiday needs special apparel.  So yes, I bought myself a “bog shirt.”  Yes, yes, shame on me for consumerism, but details matter.  And, it was hard to find a bog shirt!  I found a pretty cool shirt with a woman wearing a pitcher plant on her head.  Aside from this, I wanted a “bog cake” but this turned out to be too much work.  Then, there were the activities!  I decided that I would visit three bogs.  My first adventure would be a visit to the Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota to do some birding.  This would happen on “International Bog’s Day Eve” or Saturday.  Then, the following day I would drag my comrades Adam and Lucas on an adventure to Cable WI, to visit the Forest Lodge Trail.  I read online that the trail was the best interpretive bog trail in Wisconsin.   Then, on the day after International Bog Day, I would revisit Savanna Portage State Park for some camping…and you guessed it…a visit to a bog.   Three days.  Three bogs.  No one can com”peat” with this bog day bonanza. DSCF6115 (2)


Day One: Bog’s Day Eve

Located about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Duluth, the Sax Zim Bog is one of the best birding spots in Minnesota.  It happened that the Sax Zim Bog was hosting a Bio-blitz this past Saturday.  The goal of the event was to take visitors on various field trips to count the biodiversity of the wetland.  Field trips throughout the day logged such things as dragonflies, butterflies, spiders, wildflowers, birds, fish, etc.   I decided that attending the birding field trip would be a great kick off for Bog Day and a way to add more birds to my birding list.  So, I awoke very early.  In fact, I hardly slept at all.  I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and headed out the door at 4:15 am.  The morning was foggy and cool.  I wanted to stop for coffee or a snack, but waited until I was out of Duluth to make a stop.  Unfortunately, I waited too long to stop and the gas stations near Cotton, MN were still closed.   I was the first to arrive for the 6 am birding field trip and felt a little groggy and thirsty.   I nibbled on graham crackers from a previous camping trip and found a single lime La Croix in my backseat.  Still, I felt that I was graduating into a more serious birder, as no normal person would wake up at 3:30 am for something they weren’t passionate about.

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The early bird catches….the bird.  (gray jay)


Our field trip began with a journey to where a Great gray owl was thought to be nesting.  The Great gray owl is the world’s largest owl by length, though it is mostly a mass of fluffy gray feathers.  Sure enough, we saw a family of Great gray owls.  The mother took flight, moving a little deeper into the woods.  It was astonishing to see an owl that looked to be the size of an eagle.  It was my first time seeing a Great gray owl.  We stayed there a while, also spotting a Black backed woodpecker.  That was also a first for me.  After observing two woodpeckers dart from tree to tree, we moved on to watch birds elsewhere.  Three hours of birding yielded quite a few birds, including Sandhill cranes, a sedge wren, a swamp sparrow, a group of curious gray jays,  a few alder flycatchers, black billed magpie, and others.  I learned that the Sax Zim Bog is the eastern most range of the black billed magpie.  I added seven birds to my life list.  Also, I was again amazed at the other birders.  They can easily spot and identify birds.  I feel pretty dumb sometimes, but hope that with effort and time I will someday be as proficient.

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Sedge wren

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Black backed woodpecker–can you tell?  Nope.  I couldn’t.  But the other birders could…


Aside from the birds, I saw some pretty neat wildflowers.  These included purple fringed orchids and a purple fringed +ragged fringed orchid hybrid.  Another unusual flower was called Marsh grass of Parnassus.  It is not actually a grass but a fen dwelling flower that is threatened in WI and declining in MN.  I also learned that a lily that I had been calling Turk’s cap lily is actually called Michigan Lily (the former is found further south).  We saw some Michigan lilies as well as a black-eyed susan with a goldenrod crab spider perched on a petal.  I would have liked to have gone on the wild flower walk, but after birding for three hours on two hours of sleep (I could not sleep!) I decided to head home.  I had some other social obligations on Saturday as well.  Nevertheless, I hope that next year I can participate in the Bio blitz again- hopefully partaking in other field trips.

Marsh grass of Parnassus

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Purple fringed orchid

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Day Two: Forest Lodge Trail

On International Bog Day itself I set off with Lucas and Adam for Cable WI.  I had read online that there is a bog north of Cable, WI that is supposed to be the best interpretative bog trail in Wisconsin.  This is a tall order, but I had high hopes for an exciting bog adventure with my comrades.  Unfortunately, I started the day off in a crabby mood.  It was another early morning and I felt stressed out.  My cellphone does not get very good reception in rural WI or rural anywhere.  I had some printed maps, but I was the driver and no one was keen on navigating.  I could have forced the issue, but ended up doing 98% of the navigating myself.  Oh well, I should be proud of usurping gender roles as both the driver AND navigator.  AND photographer.  AND planner.  Okay, so I became a bit of a Swamp Diva as the day progressed, as in the moment I could not find the joy in being so empowered.  Sorry guys.

A comrade

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There were some snags in our adventure.  For one, we hiked the trail, but did not see a bog board walk…as I had seen online.  The bog itself seemed pretty ho-hum.  It was a long drive for a bog and board walk that didn’t seem to exist and certainly not to the degree that I would call it the best in Wisconsin.   However, the trail itself was nice.  There was a variety of terrain and only one other pack of hikers.  As we tried to find the trail, we stopped by the Gormusch Resort- a bizarre German themed petite-bourgeoisie lake resort.  But, for all of our trials finding the trail and traveling the trail itself, we saw little more than a blanket of moss punctuated with swampy puddles.  (I later learned that there is an extended trail…and the bog walk must be off of that.  I also learned that the Natural History museum has trail booklets as the trail does not have posted information on signs).

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Despite a disappointing bog, our spirits were lifted by a visit to Cable.  Adam bought us brownies, which he called “bog cake” (even though he never knew I had wanted to bake a bog themed cake!).  I found two geocaches and endured some teasing for my dorky, pointless hobby.  Lucas went as far as to call it a petite bourgeois past time.   The Natural History museum was closed, but we vowed to return and see it.  Otherwise, we also paid a short visit to a community farm, where we were impressed by the resources that the community had put into developing a farm wherein the produce was donated to local food shelves.   We decided to return to Cable again and set off to find the legendary Delta Diner.  This is where my Swamp Diva nature climaxed.  I was not paying close enough attention and had to back track twice.  I cursed and grumbled about my inability to find the Delta Diner, which seemed to be the Brigadoon of restaurants.  We eventually found it.  Had I been more patient and attentive this would not have been an issue.  As for the diner, it was a hipster oasis on rural WI.   Interestingly, the diner has a no-tip policy as the prices are inflated 20% to make certain that the staff make a living wage.  Despite my tantrum about getting turned around, I did enjoy the experience of eating there AND I did see a family of trumpeter swans along the way. Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


Finally, we set off back towards Superior.  I was in better spirits.  We stopped by the old King’s? school and a marsh off of HWY 13.  We went for another short hike.  I did some more birding while Adam and Lucas hid in the bushes, pretending to ambush me or something.  I think they were planning military strategies.  In order to get Lucas more engaged in the birding I told him it would be useful for “the revolution.”  After all, it would improve his skills as spotting something unusual in the landscape, such as a bomb, mine, or sniper.  I have zero sense of what is a useful “revolutionary skill”, but it seemed to work.  Finally, we stopped by the Davidson windmill where I finally found my geocache (that I could not find before).  Adam and Lucas wearily rested in the grass while I searched around the windmill.   I also tried to convince Lucas that geocaching is a useful revolutionary skill, as it can help us become better at hiding and finding messages or packages.  However, it seems there is a limit to how well I can pitch my hobbies as “useful to the revolution” before my manipulations become obvious.   All and all, I had a fun day.  I exhausted my poor comrades though.

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Day Three: Savanna Portage and Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge-

Although my first two days of International Bog Day celebrations were rather exhausting, I didn’t feel that I had my fill of bogs.  After all, I had yet to see a carnivorous plant and the Cable bog was a little lackluster.  I mustered my strength for one final bog slog.  However, I decided that camping was too much effort.  So, I went on a day trip to Savanna Portage State park and the Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge.  I nixed the camping, since packing, setting up a tent, and sleeping outside seemed overly ambitious.

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I visited Savanna Portage State Park back in March, so I knew it had a decent bog walk.  I was eager to see it in the summer, so I set off for a hiking and birding adventure.  This turned out to be worth the drive, as once again, the park was pretty empty.  It is nice to go somewhere and feel alone.  I only met one other person on the trails, though a few people were there for canoeing and fishing.  The first order of business was checking out the bog walk.  This time, it was alive with vegetation.  I saw what I thought was an unusual orchid, but it turned out that it was actually the flower of the pitcher plant.  I never new that pitcher plants had flowers!  I always thought that the pitcher plant was simply a pitcher shaped trap for insects.  I was enamored with the elegant, nodding green and purple flower on a slender stem.   The usual suspects, like cotton sedge, sphagnum moss, and Labrador tea also blanketed the bog in green. Image may contain: flower, plant, nature and outdoor

Pitcher perfect!


After enjoying the bog, I walked around Lake Shumway.  It seemed daunting to walk the perimeter of the lake, but it turned out to be a relatively short hike.  Along the way, I saw what I thought was a hairy woodpecker.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was actually a yellow bellied sapsucker.   I think it was worth taking a second look simply because it will help me to pay closer attention to details and become a better birder.  After finishing the trek around the lake, I went on another short hike alone the Continental Divide Trail.  Water to the west of the trail flows into the Mississippi River, whereas water to the east flows into Lake Superior.  Again, it was nice to have the trail to myself.  I definitely want to return to this state park in the fall and do some camping as it is quickly becoming one of my favorite state parks.  It has nice trails, a quiet atmosphere, an awesome bog, and patchwork of lakes.

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As a grand finale of the day, I went birding at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  I had planned on visiting my mother in the evening, but ended up staying at the refuge until sunset.  The refuge contains lakes, forests…and bogs.  It also is also a historically and culturally important area to Native Americans, who have inhabited the area since at least 1000 BC.  Rice Lake, as the name suggests, is a source of wild rice, which is still harvested from the lake by local Ojibwe.  On a previous visit last spring, there were Native Americans harvesting maple syrup at the refuge.   I saw quite a few birds on my visit, including common loons, Great blue herons, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, unidentified fly catchers, eastern kingbird, belted kingfishers, common yellow throats, etc.  Once again, I was the only person in the entire nature area.  It was liberating to explore the refuge in the joy and solitude of my own company.   The park closes at sunset, so I reluctantly left it behind and began the drive home. Image may contain: bird, sky, outdoor and nature

Eastern kingbird

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I had a fun, if not exhausting, three days.  Oddly enough, I spent today birding and hiking as well.  Tomorrow, I will return to work (though, I won’t get bogged down by the stress should it arise).  But, I feel that I have spent almost all of my time off in the outdoors.  Summer is precious and short, so I don’t regret this marathon of bogs and hikes.  As for bogs, I think they are worth celebrating.  For one, bogs have really unique plants!  As a child, I wanted to become a botanist- so bogs naturally interested me because they were home to carnivorous plants and orchids.  Tamarack trees are also common in bogs!  What’s not to love about a  deciduous conifer tree or a tree that sheds its needles and grows them back! Heather is a type of bog plant, so, even my name has a bog connection.  Although bogs are rich in peat, or layers upon layers of dead, slowly decomposed vegetation, they are acidic and oxygen poor-resulting in interesting adaptations for the plants that live there (such as carnivorous plants or stunted growth).   Bogs are important carbon sinks (though as frozen bogs thaw or peat is burned, the carbon is released) and soak up water, thereby preventing floods.  Culturally, bogs have been important as a source of fuel (peat) but also used to store food and a treasure trove of archaeological information (i.e. bog bodies).  While I certainly have a lot more to learn about bogs, I think that they are a fragile and unique ecosystem that deserve appreciation.

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Bird Nerding Notes: Birding with My Mother

Bird Nerding Notes: Birding with My Mother

H. Bradford

4/10/17


My mother and I don’t spend that much time together.  I keep a pretty busy schedule which doesn’t always align well with the schedules of others.  But, last weekend we both went birding together.  I wanted to visit Savannah Portage State Park and Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge for some birding adventures.  I invited her along and since she wasn’t busy, we set off together for a Saturday of bird watching.


 

The day began with a drive to Wright, MN.   It is only an hour from where I now live, but I only visit a few times a year.  We went to what once was the Wright Place Cafe, which I hadn’t eaten at in over a decade.  I was a waitress there for a summer, back when I was 19 years old.  In a way, it is surreal returning to where I grew up since it is very foreign to me, yet near.  I feel like a ghost.  That I was never really there at all, since the person I am now is so distant from that past self.   There are so many years between us.   Following breakfast, we set out on our birding adventure.


Our first sighting was just outside of Tamarack, MN.  We noticed a grayish, hawk-like bird on a power line, overlooking two pastures.  I turned the car around to get a closer look.  Unfortunately, this scared the bird away.  After a careful pursuit, I managed to get a photograph of the unknown bird.  The zoom capacity of my camera is not that great, but it is enough to aid in the identification of birds (even if the photos themselves are not that wonderful).   We flipped back and forth between the camera image and our bird book.  Finally, we determined it was an American Kestrel.  I wrote it down in my little notebook.

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Our journey continued towards Savannah Portage State Park.  The road wound around various lakes, where we caught sight of swans.  However, the shoulder was too narrow and the ditch to deep to stop and look at the swans.  My mother promised that I would see swans later, but it was frustrating to have to pass up so many of them along the way!  Finally, we arrived at the state park.  I bought a sticker for the year and a patch (I am collecting state park patches).  What should I do with my collection of patches?  My mother suggested that I could sew them onto a jacket, which I wear for my state park adventures.  This seems extremely nerdy, but also like something I might actually do.  I like having special apparel for various occasions.


Savannah Portage State Park did not have many birds.  The small lakes in the park were still frozen and it was the middle of the day by the time we arrived.  We went on a short hike by a lake and over a bog walk.  This was neat, since we found frozen pitcher plants and overturned trees (from the storm last summer).   I would like to visit again during the summer.

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We drove around Big Sandy Lake, spotting more swans.  In 1850, Sandy Lake was the site of a massacre of Native Americans.  Although I never learned this in school (and grew up just 30-40 min away), over 200 Ojibwe died there from illness, starvation, and cold.  They were told to go there to receive their yearly annuity payment and supplies from the BIA, which arrived late and in short supply.   There is a small plaque memorializing the events at a rest area along Highway 65.   This is a reminder that the area really doesn’t belong to settlers, even though it serves as a recreational area today.


After stopping at the Dairy Queen in McGregor, we continued on to Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  This is where we spotted many birds.  Our first encounter was on a small bridge, where we saw various ducks.  Of course, the ducks were shy and quickly scattered.  I used my camera to try to hone in on some of the distant waterfowl.  There were some unique sightings.  The first sighting was a duck with a light gray colored back, dark head, and black chest.  This was hard to identify and we wrongly identified it as a canvasback.  However, after re-examining the photos, it was actually a Greater scaup (or it could be a lesser scaup?).  The duck had a blue bill and yellow eye.  It was my first time identifying a Greater scaup.  Another duck, was a small, black and white duck which frequently dove underwater.  We identified it as a bufflehead.  This is the first time that I have identified one since I began birding.

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We explored the many lakes and roads of the wildlife refuge.  Interestingly, when we were stopped on the bridge, a friendly Native American man on a makeshift motorbike stopped by to invite us to watch him make maple syrup.  We didn’t take him up on the offer, but he said that there was a group of people making syrup in the park.  Even though the refuge is mostly used for recreation and bird watching, it was also a reminder that it also has cultural significance.   The park is still used by Native Americans for harvesting wild rice, which as the name suggests, grows in the lakes of the area.  The park also features burial mounds which may date back to as far as 1000 BC.


On Rice Lake itself, we spotted bald eagles, trumpeter swans, various ducks, a muskrat, and an Eastern bluebird perched nearby.  We heard whooping cranes from somewhere in the area.  The ducks were too far away to identify, but the area was teeming with life and I finally was able to see the swans!


We returned to my mother’s house about 20 minutes away.  Near her home, we spotted a killdeer and a turkey.  The turkey was quick to escape my camera, so I only obtained a photo of its rump.  We also saw two more trumpeter swans on School House Lake near her house.

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Overall, it was a fun day.  Birding can actually be tiring, since there are highs and lows.  It is definitely a high to see a bird that I haven’t recorded before.  The fact that birds move quickly or might be too far away to identify is a low.   It also requires some degree of focus and vigilance, since birds can appear anywhere and may be hard to spot.  By the end of the day, I was tired!

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