Where the Birds Are
A new Minnesota trail leads to an astonishing variety of birds.
By Margaret A. Haapoja
It was still dark when we picked our way across the plowed field to a blind the size of a small dumpster. Wayne Hoshal, volunteer for the Department of Natural Resources, warned us to be quiet as we settled in to await the arrival of sharp-tailed grouse. Before long, we heard fluttering. Peering through tiny slits in the canvas, we saw the first birds begin to dance. Stomping their tiny feet, the males circled each other in pairs, outstretched wings beating, tails pointing skyward. Around the fringes, the females watched. Then suddenly, as if their performance were orchestrated, the dancers all stopped. Then, by the same unseen signal, every sharptail resumed the courtship rite. The ritual continued until the sun rose high overhead, and we were ready for breakfast.
This fascinating spectacle was the first birding experience for my husband, Don, and me. We don't consider ourselves "birders," but we do live in the woods, and we've always paid attention to the wildlife around us. When we heard of the new Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, a grass-roots effort to increase tourism in northwestern Minnesota through birdwatching, we decided to explore an unfamiliar corner of the state. In setting out on this expedition, we joined the ranks of 54 million Americans who birdwatch. The country's fastest growing outdoor activity, birding increased by 155 percent between 1982 and 1995, according to a 1995 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey.
The new trail follows more than 220 miles of highways and country roads from Fergus Falls to Warroad. True to its name, it crosses a range of landscapes -- from pine and hardwood forests, to prairie and agricultural lands -- and includes lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Throughout the year, visitors might view up to 275 bird species, including the seldom-seen greater prairie chicken and the marbled godwit, as well as other fauna and flora, such as an elk herd and the state flower, the showy lady's-slipper.
Don and I begin our adventure early one morning in late April, using the easy-to-read maps of the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail guide. As we drive from our home in northeastern Minnesota, across the resort country of Grand Rapids, Walker, and Park Rapids, we see thick coniferous forests give way to bur oaks. Near the start of the trail at Fergus Falls, the road winds through deep valleys, beside small potholes and lakes, and along the Otter Tail River for a while.
Rothsay Wildlife Management Area. We approach with anticipation, having heard from the DNR office in Fergus Falls that a noteworthy visitor -- a long-billed curlew -- had recently been sighted nearby. I'd talked to one of the lucky birders the night before we left. "When a friend called to tell me about it, I was so excited I couldn't stand it," Steve Millard told me over the phone. He ditched work and drove right up from Fergus Falls.
Fields flat as tabletops run right up to the road on either side of us. The soil looks black and rich. The willows are showing a hint of green, and maples are budding in deserted farmyards among the rock foundations of crumbled barns and silos.
We fail to find a curlew, but we spot a western meadowlark perched on the power line above us and stop to listen to its melodic song. While meadowlarks aren't considered rare, they used to be more plentiful.
Leaving Rothsay WMA we notice a flock of shorebirds in a vernal pool. The contorted branches of an ancient oak tree are silhouetted against the sky behind them. Referring to our bird book, we identify them as American golden-plovers, a species that performs one of the longest migrations of any American bird, a journey of some 8,000 miles from wintering grounds in Argentina to summer homes on the arctic tundra. Fast, powerful flyers, plovers can cover up to 200 miles per day with a tail wind.
We drive on to Felton Prairie WMA, after reading in A Birder's Guide to Minnesota that we can expect to see chestnut-collared longspurs right from the car. They prefer lightly grazed pastures, and this area is the only place longspurs breed in the state. Again we strike out, but the view from this high ridge is rewarding. To the west the land is level, and I can imagine how it must have looked to the first settlers. A soft wind blows, hinting of summer when the prairie will come alive with big bluestem grasses, leadplants, purple coneflowers, wood-lilies, and spiderworts.
Later that day, as we head east on County 26 toward Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, we pass patches of grassland. Developed in the 1930s and '40s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a migratory bird sanctuary, the 43,000-acre refuge remains nearly pristine. Not far from a sign marking the refuge entry, we spy a lone trumpeter swan on her nest and stop to take a closer look with binoculars.
The swan balances on one leg, stretching the other behind her awkwardly. Her golden head, I had been told, indicates she has been feeding in iron-stained waters. Trumpeters, once extirpated from Minnesota, are making a comeback since the DNR began releasing pairs in 1987. Today's population numbers more than 800 birds. Wildlife managers spot at least four nesting pairs in the refuge each year.
Tamarac NWR displays a wonderful diversity of habitat. Like much of the Pine to Prairie trail, it lies in a place where tallgrass prairie, northern hardwoods, and coniferous forests meet. Wild rice chokes Blackbird Lake, and fields of grain, clover, and alfalfa lure flocks of Canada geese and mallards. Huge white pines surround Pine Lake -- reminiscent of our home in the north, but without any docks, boat lifts, or personal watercraft to disturb the silence.
After a restful night and a hearty breakfast in Winger at the Whistlestop Cafe (once a Soo Line depot), we continue our journey north on U.S. 59. Yellow-headed blackbirds squabble over territory, their harsh calls a cacophony. Plantations of hybrid poplars suggest a few farmers are trying to diversify from the customary crops of barley, wheat, and rye. Gulls peck at worms and insects in freshly plowed fields, and a magpie swoops across the highway in front of us, its long tail glistening blue-black in the sunlight. North of Erskine the land is marshy, and a great blue heron flies by, flapping its wings in measured cadence.
Surely one of the highlights of the trail is Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. The 61,500-acre refuge occupies a portion of the griddle-flat bed of Glacial Lake Agassiz. By manipulating water through a series of pools, ditches, and dams, wildlife managers have created a variety of marsh habitats used by scores of bird species. Shorebirds such as yellow rails, sandpipers, and greater yellowlegs wade in the mud flats created when pools are drawn down. The insistent call of the killdeer echoes everywhere, as the long-legged birds scurry on the shoreline.
A channel of water parallels the entrance road, and a kingfisher swoops past us as we enter. Coots bob up and down in the ditch, and a pair of red-necked grebes swim past. These, the second largest grebes in North America, are one of five grebe species that nest in Agassiz. Like loons, they are expert divers. The grebe can swim with only its head above water, concealing itself in aquatic vegetation.
Six immature eagles perch on bare branches of an oak, watching for an opportunity to make a meal. A shoveler preens himself on a hummock, his mate nearby. Redheads, canvasbacks, buffleheads, and ringnecks dive in every pool, and blue-winged teal fly back and forth, their wing bars flashing. The drab landscape heightens the color of their plumage.
Crossing a culvert over a creek, we flush a pair of wood ducks, and they screech in protest as they fly away. Canada geese stroll along the road, glide on the water, and soar overhead. There's constant activity, and it's hard to know where to look next.
Unlike the Agassiz refuge, which is closed to waterfowl hunting, the 53,000-acre Thief Lake WMA is the destination of hundreds of hunters each fall. Now, in spring, their empty campers huddle together like ghost towns in farmers' fields at the edge of the refuge.
Four sandhill cranes feed in a field just outside the WMA boundary, their red topknots brilliant in the sunlight. These ungainly birds have fascinated me ever since we first listened to their hoarse, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o as they flew over our goose pits in Saskatchewan years ago. I agree with DNR Roseau River area wildlife manager Stan Wood, who told me, "Hearing them when they go off to feed around sunup is a heart-lifting experience."
Sandhill cranes have been expanding their range in recent years, and sometimes several thousand gather at Thief Lake WMA, Roseau River WMA, and Agassiz NWR during fall migration. A graduate student doing research at Agassiz in 1984-85 discovered that Minnesota has two populations of sandhills, one that migrates to Florida and another to Texas.
Walking toward the viewing mound overlooking Thief Lake, we hear the cry of phoebes and the soothing chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs. The sharp scent of balm-of-Gilead (balsam poplar) pricks my nostrils, and I look for the distinctive bronze buds. They are still twisted along the stem but are ready to burst forth any day.
A cool wind blows across Thief Lake. A huge expanse of water, the lake harbors 10,000 nesting pairs of Franklin's gulls and a large colony of black-crowned night herons, as well as grebes and Forster's terns. A herd of about 30 wild elk -- one of two populations in Minnesota -- roams this area. Since much of the WMA is forested, visitors find trilliums and showy lady's-slippers here in May and June.
At Badger, often referred to as the mallard capital of Minnesota, we turn north toward Roseau River WMA. Eight deer graze on new grass just outside the headquarters. Three woodchucks run across the road in front of our car, diving into their holes before I can snap a picture.
The WMA manager had given us permission to drive on the dike roads that run alongside three large pools. As we unlock the gate, at least 50 pairs of eyes lock on us. Tundra swans stand at the edge of the road, stretching their elegant necks in our direction. They don't panic but walk down to the water and glide away from shore.
A pair of pintails lands among them, the first we've seen for many years. A popular prairie game bird, the pintail is one of our wariest ducks.
Finally, a few swans take to the air, fighting the strong north wind as they shriek a warning. These migrants have found a ready supply of aquatic plants at Roseau River during regular pond drawdowns and visit for a month in both spring and fall.
The next morning we make our final stop: the marina on Lake of the Woods in Warroad. The sun is peeking over the horizon when we reach the waterfront, and there is a nip in the air. From atop the observation tower, a panoramic view of the lake unfolds. Red-winged blackbirds greet the day. A few fishermen try their luck from the pier, and mallards puddle in the channel.
As we journey homeward from the Canadian border, I view the landscape with the heightened senses of a birder. A flutelike warble echoes through the air as we pull up to our mailbox. As soon as I get into the house, I'll play my bird-song tape to identify it.
Margaret A. Haapoja is a free-lance writer who lives on Sand Lake, south of Calumet.
Before You Go
The Pine to Prairie Birding Trail is a cooperative venture of the DNR, Minnesota Office of Tourism, and the communities of Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Thief River Falls, Roseau, and Warroad. Here's a list of resources to help you plan your birding tour.
Obtain a copy of Pine to Prairie Birding Trail from these communities; www. mnbirdtrail.com; the DNR Information Center, listed on page 63; or the Minnesota Office of Tourism, 888-563-7777.
The Northwest Minnesota Birding Festival, takes place May 11-13 at Lake Bronson State Park (call DNR, see page 63). The 2001 Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds is May 18-20; call 800-542-3992.
For news of the latest bird sightings, call Minnesota birding hot lines: northwest, 800-433-1888; North Shore, 218-525-5952; statewide report, 763-780-8890 or 800-657-3700.
Minnesota Birding, a newsletter for Minnesota Ornithologists Union members, offers birding trips statewide. For membership information, write MOU Membership Secretary, Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
A Birder's Guide to Minnesota, by Kim Eckert, covers more than 800 birding locations. Look for it in bookstores.
For detailed descriptions of wildlife areas and directions for getting there, A Traveler's Guide to Wildlife in Minnesota, published by the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, is a great buy. Find it in bookstores, or call 800-657-3757.