Week Ending July 5, 2015

If you keep up with this blog on a weekly basis, which I hope you do, you probably noticed that I am way late in this writing. This is because I made a trip out to Indiana, and up to Minnesota over 4th of July weekend, and the following week. So, I’m writing two weekly blogs here at the same time now that I’ve finally been able to get through all the vacation photographs I took during my time in the Midwest. For those who haven’t read the ‘About Me’ section of the website, I was born in Ely, Minnesota and grew up mainly in Munster, IN. This past couple weeks, I was visiting both areas with my fiancé Ruth, staying with my mother in Indiana, and my step-mother in Minnesota. This was the third year in a row that I’ve made the drive up to Minnesota, but the first time that Ruth had ever been there, so it was a very exciting trip, full of some neat observations and photographs. This week’s blog therefore will focus on our trip and not on the nature sightings in Coastal Virginia, so if this is not interesting to you, please continue on to next week’s blog where I was able to get out here in Virginia Beach on the final day of the week for some photography. With 4th of July arriving this year on a Saturday, the observed day off from work was Friday the 3rd. Ruth & I used the holiday to extend the length of our vacation by a day, heading out after work hours on Thursday evening and making it up to Beckley, West Virginia by about 11 PM. It is not my custom to stay in West Virginia, since the towns along the interstate are pretty run down from what I have seen, but this was just as far as we could make it. The next morning, we left very early after a pretty poor night sleep (avoid the Econo Lodge at all costs), even if it is the only available rooms as it was for us. Driving through the remainder of West Virginia along I-64 and then through Kentucky, we met up with I-65 which takes you directly through Indianapolis and into northwest Indiana. We arrived at my mother’s home in Munster, IN around 2 PM and our first venture out of the house was to grab lunch at The Commander, my favorite restaurant in the town, then to Cabela’s to buy Ruth a fishing rod & reel for the Minnesota portion of the trip.

Gooseberry Falls along the north shore of Lake Superior on 4th of July!

Armed with her new Daiwa spincast reel and 6’ Ugly Stick with pink accents she was all ready for her first excursion to the northwood for some fishing. We stayed the remainder of the day in Munster, then left early on the morning of the 4th at about 5 AM, heading northward. Driving through Illinois I caught sight of my first set of Sandhill Cranes, flying over the interstate, and while in Wisconsin we added 7 more at 4 different fields along the roadway. Though I’ve seen quite a few of the cranes on my trips north, I’ve yet to photograph one so this bird actually is still not on my life list. One youngster was seen with an adult at one of the fields also, which was pretty neat to view even at 70mph. Arriving in Eau Claire, Wisconsin around 10 AM, we headed north on highway 53 going towards Superior, and about halfway there, south of Spooner near a town called Sarona, Ruth exclaimed that she had seen a Black Bear along the road. I of course thought it had to be a cut out that some farmers do put in their fields as a joke to passersby, however after pulling a pair of u-turns, I also got a look at the bear, which was moving! We pulled over to the side of the highway and I went into the back of the car to assemble my camera. Luckily, the bear stayed out in the field long enough for me to grab some photographs, clearly showing a young bear, maybe in its first year away from its mother. I had never seen a bear in a field like this before, though I later recalled that they seem to enjoy soy bean fields here in Virginia & in northeastern North Carolina. Perhaps it was just unaccustomed to hunting food, and was hoping to graze on some of the plantlife in the fields. Whatever the reason though, it surely was a bear, and the first o ne Ruth had ever seen in the wild! From there we drove up to Superior, crossing the bridge over the St. Louis River into Duluth, Minnesota around noon. From Duluth we headed up the north shore of Lake Superior, and with the weather being a bit hot and humid, but at least sunny, I wanted to show Ruth a few of my favorite parks along the way.

The view from Shovel Point northeast along the shoreline of Lake Superior!

After driving the highway to Two Harbors, and continuing northeast towards the Canadian border, we stopped at Gooseberry Falls State Park. Upon arrival it was pretty evident that I was not the only one thinking a beautiful 4th of July day would be perfect for an outdoor excursion. The parking lot was absolutely jammed full, and it took circling it and getting a lucky “spot” on the side of the roadway before we could finally get out to the trails. I’ve never seen so many people at any state park in my life, so we ended up not staying a real long time. But, we did walk the main trail to the falls, which were looking incredible as always, even with all the people seemingly in every available viewing location. One of my hopes for this park was that I’d get to see a Black-throated Green Warbler since I’d seen them the past 2 summers here. Fortunately, it held through for a 3rd straight year as we heard numerous birds and I got a photograph of one atop a tall tree. Their ‘zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zee’ call could be heard all along the shore on this outing, so now it is pretty well imprinted in my memory. Other wildlife at the park was very scarce though, due to the high volume of people around, so we left and continued northeastward, making our next stop at Tettegouche State Park just west of the junction with Highway 1 that leads up to the Ely area. At Tettegouche the new visitor center has now been completed after having been under construction the past two summers. So this year, we got to park right where I used to as a kid rather than having to enter through the campground road and cross over the parking area next to the Baptism River. From the parking area we headed directly towards my favorite spot along this park of the shore, Shovel Point! Shovel Point is a massive peninsula that juts out into the lake, and offers some pretty amazing views of the largest freshwater lake on Earth.

A beautiful Garter Snake that crossed paths with Ruth & I at Tettegouche State Park in Minnesota!

A couple hundred feet high at the base, and sloping down as it moves outward into the water, the peninsula is always a spot you’ll find climbers and repellers practicing their trade. The last few years it has also been home to a nesting pair of Peregrine Falcons, though I have only seen them one time on a small nest built out of the side of the cliff face. En route to the point, the trail used to be a pretty rugged one traveling along the native ground, however, most of the tougher spots are now replaced with wooden stairs, which in some ways makes it even harder to walk on since the vertical rise on the stairs is sharper than the ground used to be. It at least looks nice though, but is much different than it was when I walked these trails as a child. Warblers were heard all along the walk, with views being given of Yellow-rumped, Chestnut-sided, and Black-throated Greens. The forest of July though are so lush that you really can’t see more than a few feet into the woods. This of course makes it a tough time to actually view birds, but at least the sounds of the warblers still sounded through the forests. Along the point we also picked up a pair of Chipping Sparrows that refused to sit still for my camera. We also saw and heard numerous chipmunks as well as Ruth’s first Red Squirrels, which also go by the nickname ‘chatterbox’ for good reason. With the sun still high up in the sky, and though it was a bit humid, the views from the outermost observation area were stunning as usual. And fortunately, most of the hikers were all at Gooseberry Falls, though we did run into a number of folks here, it was nothing like the earlier park had been. Ruth & I took a number of photographs of the water, and the cliffs surrounding the shoreline, then headed back towards the visitor center area. Along the way a small Garter Snake was seen as it traveled next to the trail and then up into the woods, offering a couple photographs before disappearing. Interestingly, I saw one at the park last summer as well on my way to Ely.

A favorite flower of mine, the Indian Paintbrush, which I've missed the last 2 summers by being up in Minnesota just a bit too early.

We walked down to the rocky beach near the old arched rock that has now broken through, or perhaps was done on purpose by park staff? This beach was actually the last place I can remember hiking with my father before he passed away from a battle with colon cancer, so I will always know it is a special site; it was nice to get Ruth here finally so she could see just how beautiful a spot it is, and she even waded out into the waters, which is something not many folks are willing to do in Lake Superior, which was probably in the mid 60s (Fahrenheit) still! From the beach, we travelled westward towards the mouth of the Baptism River, where quite a few folks were swimming. This is another beautiful spot, though, as a child I recall watching another kid come out of the water with a leech on him, and upon trying to remove it, it became evident that it was a mother, with baby leaches coming out all across his legs. Ever since then, I haven’t had any desire to swim in the Baptism River, though I’m sure that happens very infrequently. We took some photos from up on the bluff next to the river, and then headed back up to the car. Given the amount of time spent in the car (22 hours at that point) from the trip from Virginia, and the general lack of sleep I’d gotten the last two nights, due in part to the poor quality hotel in WV and the ridiculous use of fireworks by our neighbors in Munster, I was flat out exhausted after just a couple miles of walking. So rather than continue along the north shore, we took Highway 1 northward through Finland and Isabella, eventually getting to the Ely area around 5:30 PM. We made a quick stop off at Zup’s for lunch groceries and then stopped at Voyageur North to get our fishing licenses so we’d be all set. We arrived to the house I spent my early childhood in around 6 PM, pulling off the Echo Trail onto the logging road that leads to the property. Just before getting to the house, I stopped the car and immediately grabbed my camera.

A mother Ruffed Grouse standing out in the open while her 5 youngsters escaped into the safety of the forest in the front yard of the house I grew up in north of Ely, MN!

Out in front of us was a female Ruffed Grouse, and all around her were this year’s batch of chicks! I shot a couple photographs through the windshield, then slowly stepped out of the car to approach and get some more. To my astonishment, the mother didn’t pull the typical broken-wing act, where these birds will fake like they’re injured and then run into the woods, hoping that a predator will chase them and allow the chicks to escape the other direction, then fly off as the predator closes in allowing for all their survivals. This one however, just puffed up its neck feathers, and strutted slowly into the woods. The little ones then flew into the trees, so they’re just old enough to have their flight feathers. I snapped some shots into the dark woods of them, but only one came out alright. By this point, my step-mother, Kim, had come down the trail from the house having probably heard our car doors and the engine. So it was quite an introduction for Ruth meeting Kim the very first time, with us chasing Ruffed Grouse down the logging road. We cleaned up, and then headed into town for a quick dinner at Kim’s mother’s house, which my father built, on Shagaway Lake near Ely. We went into town shortly after to watch the Ely fireworks show, which I still say is probably one of the best ‘per-capita’ shows in the country, given Ely only has 3,000 or so residents, and their show goes on and on just as well as most larger towns and cities. When we left the show and got home about 11 PM, it was pretty obvious we wouldn’t be getting up super early to go fishing or anything, but instead planned to just get out for a hike down our logging road whenever we awoke. This turned out to be around 7 AM or so on Sunday morning when I hopped outside to see if I could photograph any birds in the yard while Kim & Ruth were grabbing breakfast.

A cousin of the common nuthatches we see here in Virginia Beach, this is a Red-breasted Nuthatch, photographed on my family's property in Ely, MN!

I snapped some nice shots of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, my first of the year, though not a rare bird in the northern forest by any means. Sadly, the Eastern Phoebes that had nested on our screen porch exterior the last few summers weren’t seen this year. Red-eyed Vireos, Winter Wrens, and Hermit Thrushes were all heard singing furiously in the morning forests, but none could be seen. Ovenbirds as well were heard but remained hidden as they typically do. When everyone was set, we headed out down the road at about 8:30 AM. This road, which is used primarily by the US Forest Service, and a paper company that owns some of the stands of timber, travels a few miles to the east towards Low Lake, and mainly sticks to the higher ground situated between High Lake, Fenske Lake, Little Sletten & Sletten Lakes, and Tee & Grassy Lakes. What I love so much about it is the fact that we can walk right out our door, and head out along it, seeing lots of wildlife typically. As a kid, we used to walk this trail mainly in the winter time en route to Grassy Lake for ice fishing. In the summertime, we used it mainly for jogging & running when I was in much better shape, having been active in Cross Country and Track while in middle & high school. Both Kim & my father also ran at that point in time, and running in the summer was about the only way to avoid all the biting flies and insects encountered in the woods. However, since that time, I’ve gotten more interested in hiking, since it affords me the ability to take photographs, which running unfortunately does not. My father probably would have thought I was crazy if I’d asked him to go for a 7 mile hike down the logging road in the heat of summer, but, it really is a great place to see some wildlife. So, we headed out eastward down the road, passing all the spots I used to run too, like the 5/8 mile marker which I initially began running to and turning back to the house, all the way out to the end of the road, some 4 miles away, where I was capable of running too later in my high school years (keeping in mind 4 miles out, means an additional 4 miles back).

Another slightly different animal than its relatives here at the beach, this is a Red Squirrel, though they also go by the nickname 'chatterbox'!

Along the way we encountered one Broad-winged Hawk that was perched along the road but quickly flew off away from us as we approached. All along the roadway the flowers were also in full bloom and I was really excited to finally get to see some Indian Paintbrush, which isn’t blooming during the time of year I typically arrive in Minnesota. With all the discussions about racially insensitive names, like the Washington Redskins, in the news lately, I wonder if one day I’ll need to refer to this beautiful orange and yellow flower as Native American Paintbrush instead? Regardless of the name, it’s a beautiful flower, and one that grows everywhere in the northwoods. In addition to that, Kim pointed out the yellow flowers known as Hawkweed and I also saw some Buttercups as I call them, though I’m not sure if that is their proper name. Fireweed was in bloom as well, and many wild roses were observed. With all the flowers, butterflies were pretty common along the walk as well, though I must say I’m not the best with their identities in Minnesota, though I recognized some as species we have here in Coastal Virginia like Pearl Crescents, Tiger Swallowtails, and Variegated Fritillaries.  Red Squirrels also showed themselves, and made their chattery calls from the surrounding woodlands. Last year and the year before, I’d been up to the area more in the early part of June, when the forests weren’t fully leafed out, and the underbrush wasn’t so thick. That made it a bit easier to view wildlife while hiking, but it was also not quite as beautiful in terms of scenery. The bugs also were much worse in early June, when the blackflies (also known as sandflies) and mosquitoes are out in full force. Being sprayed from head to toe in 30% deet spray (Sawyer brand, excellent stuff) proved to help immensely, and we really didn’t get chewed up at all on the hike, though a cloud of deerflies stayed on our tails the whole time, I only had to kill a few as they bravely landed on my toxic clothing. In the prior years, Kim & I had encountered most of the wildlife seen along the shorelines of several beaver ponds that sit not far off from the roadway.

One of the dazzling insects of fast moving water, this is an Ebony Jewelwing, a species of Damselfly!

There are crude trails leading to some of these sites since snowmobiles and trappers have used them in the past for various things. In the summer, they’re a bit less obvious with the brush having grown up on most of them. However, we checked the first one (where 2 years ago we viewed a River Otter putting on a show), but unfortunately nothing was around. The pond looked like it had been abandoned by the beavers, and the water level had dropped considerable. Recently, the road has had a lot of improvements done to it, as Kim described, it was done so that the paper companies or other interested parties could access areas for controlled logging, since the condition of the road had really gone downhill over the last few years since logging had last occurred. The forest service invested a considerable amount into fixing up the road, filling in sections that sit low and wash out in rainstorms, as well as adding a new bridge near the creek to Grassy Lake, which had previously just been a poorly built bridge placed by snowmobilers to cross the creek. I wondered if perhaps all the construction traffic might have driven the beavers out from the area, though it is also possible they were trapped by someone which happens often in the northwoods unfortunately. Beavers are incredible animals, with the ability to design, construct, and maintain changed to the watershed, something that takes entire teams of people to be able to do effectly (I’m an engineer, I see it firsthand all the time). I was saddened to not see any on the outing, hoping that Ruth would get her first up close look at some in the wild. At the first pond, we did at least get a Broad-winged Hawk passing over though, so it was something. Heading eastward again along the trail, we didn’t divert into the woods til the next set of ponds which lie to the north of the road as it reaches a final crest before descending towards Grassy Lake. The trail heading north to the ponds is one we used to use as a winter trail to the lake, which puts you out right on the southern shoreline after crossing the ponds and heading down hilly terrain. Last summer, I ran almost headfirst into a Black Bear here, having it cross just 50 yards or so in front of me.

I believe this fellow is a Variegated Fritillary, seen north of Ely, MN!

I caught up to it as it crossed the pond on one of the damns, and took some photographs of it as it moved up the cliff on the opposite shoreline. This year though, no bear showed up. However, we did see sign that the bear is still active in this area, which was a great relief after we again found these ponds devoid of beaver activity. Large swaths of plants were moved down, an obvious sign of something large moving through the area, and rocks were turned over as well, which bears will do often while looking for grubs or other insects to eat. Kim even heard a branch breaking which could be another sign, as it was 2 years ago when she heard the same thing, and just a few minutes later the bear appeared, only a half mile or so southeast of where we were this time around. I firmly believe the bear was within short range, and was probably watching us as we took a break along the largest of the beaver ponds. Here I spotted a female Hooded Merganser, some Eastern Kingbirds which nest in the area each summer, and also my only Nashville Warbler of the trip, another first of year bird for me since I’ve never picked one up in Virginia. On the pond just to the south, a flock of about 6-8 Cedar Waxwings were constantly moving about in the tops of the trees killed off by the waters of the dammed up beaver pond, though the water level here also was down from last year sadly. We left the beaver ponds area, and headed down towards Grassy on the main logging road, just to get a look at the new bridge that had been placed over the creek that once was fairly treacherous to cross. At this spot, many Ebony Jewelwing damselflies were hovering over and around the fast moving creek. Kim remarked how it was amazing that in just a small spot, so much wildlife could be seen, which was very true, they seemed to only reside near the faster moving waters, avoiding the stagnant ponds upstream altogether. From there, we walked back just along the logging road to the house, not noting anything unusual in the process. I did also check for the Red-eyed Vireo nest I’d seen the previous summer near the half mile mark on the road, and it was indeed still there, though no mother or babies were observed. After cleaning up a bit and grabbing a snack and lunch, we went for a quick swim down at Fenske Lake. I must say that with all the shark attacks occurring and being widely publicized in North Carolina, it was nice to be swimming in a small freshwater lake. Fenske was where I spent a great deal of my childhood in the water, as I used to swim a lot here, and we used to come to Fenske to load up barrels of water to fuel our garden in the summertime when dry conditions made it impossible to keep the plants alive just off our well water alone. So we all got to enjoy a dip in the water, which was a bit cool in places, but still felt great on a hot humid day. Walking up the handicap trail back to the parking area we saw a pair of White-throated Sparrows, and also a rather large Garter Snake that slithered off the trail just before the parking area. Clouds rolled in shortly after we left which was just fine since we just had to run into town for Kim to get her fishing license purchased. We actually ended up grabbing dinner at Sir G’s Italian restaurant in town, the first time I’d ever eaten there, and actually only the 3rd time I can remember ever dining out at a sit-down restaurant aside from Pizza Hut in Ely (my father wasn’t big on dining out, and that is probably an understatement, though he was one heck of a cook so it never mattered). We enjoyed our meal out though, and then headed back home to get some sleep for the week ahead. More to come in the next weekly blog since tomorrow is Monday and I get to start all over again!

The roadsides were covered in this beautiful Fireweed, with this one housing what appears to be a Bald-faced Hornet or other wasp species.