By Gustave Axelson
Some of the best spring birding in Duluth lies below the Bong Bridge, in an industrial area of the St. Louis River estuary. This backwater is home to a paper mill, coal shipping ports, and Grassy Point, a restored wetland that provides critical stopover refuge for weary migrating birds. More than 230 bird species have been documented in the estuary.
Birds find abundant habitat here in the highly diverse plant community resulting from varying water levels. Like an ocean tide, water levels in the estuary rise and fall by as much as 8 inches because of a seiche—a sloshing effect on Lake Superior that pushes water in and out of the estuary.
The estuary stacks up with waves of arriving waterfowl in April, as loons and a wide variety of ducks, including mergansers, buffleheads, and goldeneyes, wait for the ice to go out on far northern lakes. In May several species of passerines—warblers, sparrows, and tanagers—move through. Grassy Point and its cattails, sedges, and willows are also popular with wading birds. Least bitterns, Virginia rails, sora rails, and common moorhens have been observed here.
Cartographer William Hearding had a hard time getting through Grassy Point during his mapping expedition of the St. Louis River in 1861. The "grasses" (which were actually sedge meadows and wild rice bays) were so thick in presettlement times that explorers had trouble finding the channel from Lake Superior up the river.
But the wetland ecosystem was buried beneath piles of sawdust during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as sawmills along the estuary's shores cut up the massive loads of timber floated down the St. Louis River. The Cloquet fire of 1918 burned up the mills, but the wood waste remained until 1995, when the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a restoration effort that removed 11,000 cubic yards of wood chips, boards, and logs.
Today Grassy Point looks grassy once again, and come spring it gets birdy.
At Grassy Point, a mile-long boardwalk leads to an observation deck that offers birders a way to get out into the wetland estuary complex. Visit on a spring morning and choruses of red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows will greet you. The boardwalk passes through a tunnel of shrubs and cattails, so on your walk keep an eye out for common yellowthroats, swamp sparrows, and yellow warblers. Once you reach the deck, scan the air for peregrine falcons swooping from Bong Bridge. Look for kingfishers perching on nearby power lines. Then glass the water for waterfowl; local birding guide Kim Eckert says tundra swans have been seen here in early spring.
If you're looking to stretch your legs a bit, make the short drive to this city trail that hugs the shore and runs five miles up the estuary. Bring a spotting scope, as you'll be able to look out at waters more than a mile across the river—and you're sure to see rafts of ducks.
The birding on shore is very good too. Duluth birder extraordinaire Laura Erickson says this trail is where she always sees her first Baltimore orioles, and she says it's the best place in town for warbling vireos.
"The weather [at the Western Waterfront Trail] is often a few degrees warmer than other places in Duluth, and many spots are sheltered from winds, so we get some fantastic warbler watching at times," she says. Erickson recalls birding the trail and coming upon a shrub "so filled with American redstarts that it glowed like a Martha Stewart Christmas tree."
Grassy Point. From Interstate 35, exit on Central Avenue and head south. Turn left onto Raleigh Street, then turn left onto Lesure Street and continue to the parking lot.
Western Waterfront Trail. From Grassy Point, drive a mile west on Raleigh Street to Grand Avenue and turn left. Drive another mile down Grand, then turn left on Pulaski Street (aka 75th Avenue West) and pull into the trailhead on the left. The five-mile trail is open to walking and biking.
The Duluth Audubon Society conducts free birding tours every Tuesday morning in May. Meet at the Western Waterfront Trail parking lot at 6:30 a.m.