Sunday, June 22, 2008

SD refuges to far Northeast Minnesota

Mon-Wed, June 9-11, 2008

Waubay was a pretty good place to wake up, early enough that the world was songs and calls across the water, not enough light except for vaguely perceived motion. But in twenty minutes I could start making out gulls, and then more. I walked around the parking spot and up to a little viewpoint, but there wasn't much to see, a fair wind was blowing. Drove on across the causeway to the island where most of the refuge infrastructure is located, VC and sheds, fire tower, and lots of trails, not long, it's a small island, but with some habitat variety. Started on those with good luck on the lea side, not so much in the wind. Did see two fox dens with kits. There wasn't much on the water, and no mud except on the trail. Went slow enough that the staff finally arrived just before seven, they were friendly, I remember that from a previous visit and they invited me to coffee and donuts. One interesting thing was the biologist showing me pictures of the refuge from 20 plus years earlier when the island wasn't an island. She said the speculation was that a series of wet years, by raising the water level, had broken the fire continuity in the area and allowed a lot of woodland to survive and thrive, creating a woodland habitat island all around the lakes of the refuge which made it the western-most woods in the area. And a real trap for normally absent species.

By then I was seriously hungry and headed back to the main highway, hoping for more ducks where they had been in the evening, but the wind had cleared the lakes. I'd been lucky the night before. A little further west in Webster I found a wonderful small town eating place, lots of locals, lots of food without a crater in the wallet, and Wifi for an email scoop. That sent me off coffee jazzed and smiling for the hour drive to Sand Lake NWR. It's a big refuge north of the village of Columbia, a village with a sign on its two lane blacktop advising that I should take any of the next twelve or so exits. I took one at the PO and got some envelopes for Credit Card payments. I drove the refuge tour loop, lucked into quite a few more new state tics, and by the time I was driving into North Dakota I had exceeded expectations, making 30% well beyond my 100 species target. 55 new tics.

North Dakota was a much different problem. I'd been there before but hadn't recorded anything but new trip birds after already crossing a lot of similar habitat. So I had nine species on the list and a target of 100 at least. That was the steepest goal of the trip. It's pretty easy at the beginning, Mallards and House Sparrows, Barn Swallows and Pigeons. I routed my way through Tewaukon NWR but found it disappointing, not many ducks and small lakes surrounded by grass. Some sparrows of course, but it's probably better when migration is staging. Muddled my way on toward Fargo via Cheyenne National Grassland, but it too was virtually birdless. In Fargo I found a PO, actually in Minnesota, mailed off one bill catching the clerk just as she emptied the outside drop-box. Then into MN, heading for one of the pivots of the trip, Isle Royale National Park. Skirted Detroit Lakes with its miserable traffic, and cut north and east through Tamarac NWR. I'd had a great visit there on a previous trip, but the VC with its good bookstore was closed, it was drizzling, I'd been up and drive/birding for fourteen hours, and I just wasn't motivated to do anything but get further east and sleep. Ended up paying for a place in Chippewa National Forest by a little lake. Just stayed in the truck in the rain, logged in sightings and crashed.

Tuesday - My notes say "mosquito driven morning". Thankfully I bet, there's no recall of what that means exactly. It did rain a lot, so sleep wasn't good, and I was troubled by curious engine noises which meant checking under-hood stuff in the gray buzzing drizzle. Then off to Duluth, where I'd recalled someone who wished I could see again, but had no way of finding other than her family name. I found a bakery/bistro/Internet cafe that I'd hung in before on the owl invasion trip, harvested email, sipped coffee, studied a phone book, but finally couldn't get myself to make some cold calls. That didn't add much to dismal exhaustion. Got on the north shore highway and headed for Isle Royale. The weather forecast was a week of rain with highs in the fifties and lows in the thirties, a little chilly for a week from the solstice even by MN standards. The highway had a lot of water damage, lanes closed, edges undermined, one bridge just barely functional. They'd had gully washer rains two days earlier, the creeks were still high, and my spirits were battered. It's quite a ways from Duluth, scenic as hell, three hours driving with the road damage.

One of the main motivations and hopes around there was a possibility of finding Spruce Grouse. I was in serious Boreal habitat and the Kim Eckert MN birdfinder book had said they were present, but scarce. Can't win if you don't play. The IRNP checklist didn't have them, so the best hope was on the mainland around Grand Portage and its National Monument. I spent some time at the VC there, quizzed the desk woman, a youngish Ojibway, about the boats to the Isle, the weather forecast (daunting), and the grouse. Turns out she went hunting with her grandfather in those woods and knew them in detail, grouse hunting. So we ran our fingers over the local maps, she wrote names and reminders on some paper, and I resigned the boat trip for some woods exploring. While I was at the monument I checked out the displays and reconstructions and re-enactments. It's really informative, the interpreters were top notch, able to follow any line of questions and full of telling details. I won't say much about those, except it's really worth spending half a day getting to know. I had lunch at a local's favorite place near the border, then headed back to wander around in the woods.

One road was the old federal highway. Don't go there; it's one of those things with pavement damaged by years of winter and neglect, endless potholes, bumps, grinds, occasional fifty yard stretches of decent surface, then screech and crawl. Twas a relief to get back to the real highway. South a little way to Arrowhead Trail, which turned to good dirt pretty soon. I found the most recommended of her roads, which wasn't in the GPS mapping, but was a good road anyhow. Followed it most of twenty miles north, almost to Canada, and found a gated side road that looked like I could park, bird and camp. Not much traffic out there, less than half a dozen vehicles in the next twelve hours. The birding was magnificent, numerous Boreal warblers, woodpeckers, flycatchers, grouse, Ruffed, booming, Snipe winnowing, and scattered spells of drizzle. I was in heaven, especially with two Connecticut Warblers. It helped the mood a lot, but still a nagging sense of time running out. It had kept me driven for days, choosing to keep moving when I could have kicked back and spent more time working over good spots.

Wednesday - I spent three hours back down my prime road and then headed back to the highway. Mostly I was hanging around on the chance a Spruce Grouse would materialize, not much chance of that. What the focus was in the meantime was scaring up a Mourning Warbler, which shouldn't have been too hard. I walked into maybe four overgrown old clearcuts, soaking dewy boggy brush-fields, patiently playing the calls on the tape, and with no luck. Something else to make me go back. Then an hour plus driving south to the turnoff for Ely, gas in Finland, cheapest in MN that day, and on to Ely with lots of stops for MOWA, still no luck. At Ely I had a good yuppie sandwich served by summer co-eds at Piragis outfitters, where I scoured the store for useful and non-yuppie items for my canoe. From there on I was goal oriented and drove pretty much straight to Agassiz NWR.


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