After a successful start to the Midwest vacation over the weekend, Monday came, and I must say it felt quite fantastic to not be getting up to head into my office for a new work week. Instead, I had the entire week off to enjoy the outdoors with my fiancé, Ruth in Minnesota, and later in the week, Indiana. If you’re here seeking information on Coastal Virginia, jump about half way down to where I get back into the region for a Sunday outing. The beginning of this is still set in Minnesota, which I hope most folks will still check out because it is a beautiful place. Anyways, on Monday morning, we all awoke around 6 AM to very dreary, wet weather. Given that it wasn’t exactly hiking or fishing weather in Ely, we first decided that we’d head down the Echo Trail towards Crane Lake, and stop at the Vermillion Falls like Kim & I had done last summer. However, after thinking on it, I decided to head instead down to the north shore of Lake Superior since there is just more to see that way and more trails to get out to walk if the rain let up. So we headed down into town, then south on Highway 1 towards the north shore. My hope was that perhaps we’d encounter a Moose so Ruth could see her very first one. With this in mind, we all kept close watch out the windows, especially when we passed through the area around the ‘town’ of Isabella. Unfortunately, no Moose presented themselves on the trip to the shore. After reaching Highway 61 at Illgen City, we headed northeasterward towards the Canadian border. On Saturday, Ruth got to see the stretch from Duluth to here en route to Ely, so it was great that she was getting to see the next piece of the chain. Arriving in Schroeder, a very small town along the road where Kim had at one point sold her clothing at a festival along the highway, we got to see our first waterfall of the day. The Cross River passes under the highway as it descends rapidly to meet Lake Superior, over a hundred vertical feet below. The waterfall that is created here is incredible, and there is a wayside pull-off for vehicles to park and walk back to view it. So we did just that, and also snuck in a few photographs of the Lamb’s Resort sign to the west since Ruth is a Lamb afterall.
From the Cross River, the next stopping point was the Temperance River State Park. Here, you can park on either side of the highway, depending on which direction you are traveling. Typically, we’ve just viewed the Hidden Falls to the north, and the series of rapids upstream of it before the river calms down to just a slower moving, wide stream. Today, we followed suit, getting out of the vehicle on the north side of the highway and walking the trails up the east side of the river. From the parking area, I heard a wonderful sound, that of a Veery calling from the surrounding forest. I’ve only heard this sound one other time, and it was just a couple of weeks ago while up in Connecticut. These thrushes do pass through Virginia, but so far I haven’t encountered any. I did see several thrushes during the hike here also, but I couldn’t get good looks at them to say whether they were the Veery I heard calling, or if they were Hermit or Swainson’s Thurshes, both of which are common along the shore I believe. In addition to the thrushes, a did see several Black-throated Green Warblers, and Chestnut-sided Warblers were quite common to hear as well. With the very overcast skies, and the light misty rain coming down though, wildlife photography took a backseat to scenery photography on this outing. The wet conditions made for some truly amazing views of the rivers as they rolled down the hillsides near the lake. The ground was a bit slick given just how wet it was, but walking slowly along the river probably heightened the experience a bit, and afforded views I might have missed if I was walking at normal pace. Several large trees were seen down in the gorges of the river today, with all branches torn off, so clearly during high water levels. Amazingly, some of them were a considerable distance above the current water level, so it must have been quite a sight to behold when the river was at its inflated elevation following severe downpours probably earlier in the springtime.
With all the rain, flowers were in bloom as well, with many wild roses, blue flags (wild iris), columbine, bunch berries, and some very pretty purple flowers that were bell shaped that I can’t name. Here we also saw our first collection of Moccasin Flowers, which seemed to be much more numerous in June of last year, where we saw them along all the trails I hiked. The flowers, and the river made for a beautiful setting this July though, and as I mentioned, the overcast skies and mist even heightened the photographs of everything; it was just all very lush in appearance. We walked up the eastern shoreline as far up as where the slacker water begins, then headed back down the same path again. We had initially crossed on the bridge over the river, but the trail heading down the west shoreline was closed due to erosion so we had to cross back to the eastern shore to reach the parking area. I was amazed to see that many hikers were out just wearing flip flops, which seemed almost suicidal given how wet and slick the rocks around the gorge can get. No one appeared to get injured or hurt today, but if you walk with that type of protection (or lack of protection) on your feet in this environment, your good fortunes will eventually run out, and with the fast moving water and jagged canyon walls, it won’t be pretty; just a word to the wise. After climbing down the final set of stone-carved stairs, we reached the parking area and headed just a bit further down the road to Cascade River State Park. In stark contrast to the name bestowed upon the Temperance River, the Cascade River actually does what its name states. The river passes through several beautiful waterfalls over a short distance forming a cascade of epic proportions as it too, descends upon the shoreline of Lake Superior below.
Along Highway 61 there is a wayside pull-over for parking along the mouth of the river, thought it makes for a tough pull-out after the hike with little sight distance. We parked on the north side of the road, and crossed over to the eastern shoreline before beginning the walk upstream. As the river meets the road, an immense forest of ferns rests along the northern side, making the area look more like a rainforest one might find in the Pacific Northwest than that of one here in Minnesota. As with the prior rivers, the Cascade River was also impressive today, swollen in terms of typical status in July I would assume, with quite a volume of water moving through the narrow walled canyon formed over the millennia. Hiking up to the cascades was a beautiful walk, though I did have to throw on a rain jacket this time since the rain had picked up a bit. The same plants that had been in bloom at the other rivers were here as well, though the Columbine really stood out against the rocky canyon walls that they somehow managed to grow right out of. Ruth & I poked around some of the lesser travelled trails that crossed the rocky sides of the canyon, grabbing as many photographs as we could in the hopes that a few would come out well in the dimly lit, very forested areas. After a successful walk back down from the cascades, we stopped briefly at the mouth of the river to view Lake Superior. However, the lake was primarily enshrouded in fog, which made it tough to really see anything outside the immediate shoreline. What was neat though, was the fact that you really couldn’t see where the water surface met the air, and everything looked the same off in the distance. From the Cascade River, we continued on towards Grand Marais, where we stopped at the Angry Trout Café, the first time I’ve ever stopped for a lunch out while in Minnesota as a matter of fact; normally we just bring a cooler with sandwiches or snacks, so this was out of the ordinary. But, in a good way, the food was delicious, and I wanted to sample everything, from the cheese and smoked cisco & whitefish appetizer, to the whitefish & trout chowder, to my whitefish sandwich, and even the homemade soda that I washed it down with, it was all delicious.
After somehow devouring my way through all the food, we made a quick stop off at a coffee shop so Kim & Ruth could refuel, then stopped at a gas station so Ruth’s car could do the same. From there we headed back down the shore to Highway 1, and back up into Ely. We stopped briefly at Kim’s parent’s house and finally got to see her sister, Linnea, and her two daughters, Maggie & Evelyn. After a quick visit, we headed back up to the house, where I took Ruth out onto the logging road to give her a go at her new fishing rod. Armed with just a sinker tied on she let her first few casts fling, and only got stuck in the trees a couple of times. While she was practicing casting, a breeding pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers landed on a nearby tree, a spot they clearly frequent as it was already decimated by their standard pattern of peck holes. I ran back in to grab my camera, and made it back out while the male, in all his breeding plumage glory, was still up the tree. I snapped a few shots, and watched for a few more minutes before it did fly off southward into the forest. Ruth threw out a few more casts with the rod, and then we cleaned up, grabbed a dinner of pork chops that she cooked up outside on the grill, and then crashed for the night! Tuesday was our last day in Minnesota, and thankfully we were able to get up and moving early on, leaving around 6 AM, and heading up to my father’s favorite fishing lake. This was the first time I’d ever gotten to go fishing with Ruth, and it was to a spot I know quite intimately, so I really was excited to get her out to catch some fish. After the long hike into the lake, about three-quarters of a mile, we all made it to the shoreline, rigged up our rods, got all the gear situated our Minnesota II canoe that my father & I used to race with, as well as fish from, and we set out from shore into the lake. It was only a few casts in that I caught my first Walleye of the day, and after an hour or so, I’d added another 3 but nothing was hitting on the other rods.
Kim was in the middle of the canoe, which makes for incredibly difficult casting, and Ruth was up front, with my in the back doing my best at mimicking the positioning and control that my father was always so good at with the canoe. After a while, Kim requested to get out on shore, where she actually ended up fishing from for the duration, and Ruth & I were left in the canoe to work the rest of the lake from the water side. Soon after, Ruth hooked, and caught her very first Walleye! Probably about a 10-11 incher or so, it was on the smaller side, but there was no way I was going to throw back her first one, so we tossed it in the cooler to be part of our fish fry later in the day. That was of huge relief to me, as I didn’t want to have taken her all the way up to Minnesota, and all the way out to our favorite lake, for her to not catch anything! Over the next couple of hours, we worked the shorelines, and trolled across the middle on several passes, adding to the cooler every so often. Ruth eventually caught one Walleye in the 14-15” range, perfectly sized for eating, and lacking the mercury that the older, larger fish often carry, a big reason we typically eat the smaller fish & not the larger ones. While fishing, we had a Broad-winged Hawk circle high above, as well as an American Kestrel passing over while traveling in a northward direction. Eventually, we grabbed Kim up from the shoreline, where she had caught 1 keeper-worthy Yellow Perch, and 3 Walleyes, all from shore. I think she was really excited to see that this was possible, since it affords her the ability to come in to the lake via the solo canoe on her own, and just paddle to some spots around the lake to cast from the different shorelines, rather than try to hold the canoe steady enough to fish it alone. In the end, we finished with a haul of 14 Walleyes and 1 Perch between the three of us, with Ruth having put the most (6) Walleyes in the cooler, and actually she was the only one to catch her allotted limit by DNR standards.
Walking the long portage again back to the car, a bit tougher this time with the added weight of the cooler, and the no longer fresh muscles, we arrived back probably around 1 PM or so. We headed home and grabbed a quick lunch. Just prior to lunch, I had heard the sound of small birds chirping, and after scanning the nearby maple trees in the yard, I spotted a nest, which turned out to be that of a pair of Red-eyed Vireos, the common songsters that were filling the air with their question & answer style music. We watched it occasionally throughout the day as the adults eventually brought food to the youngsters, which Ruth was able to see as they stretched their necks out to receive the freshly caught caterpillars. After lunch, we spent the next hour or so filleting all the fish we’d caught in the morning. Once this was complete (much easier in July than in June when the bugs are eating you alive while you’re trying to work a sharp fillet knife), I went for a short hike down the logging road since it was my last day there, and I thought maybe I’d find some birds to photograph. Being quite exhausted from the day already, I walked just to the 5/8 of a mile spot where I used to run to as a kid before turning around. I did encounter a number of butterflies again, including Tiger Swallowtails and Variegated Fritillaries, and another species I don’t know by name, but had quite a beautiful black, white, and red color pattern (see photos). A single Red Squirrel also made an appearance along the road and gave me a few brief chances to grab its photograph before darting into the trees. Upon returning back to the house, I showered up, and Ruth & Kim cooked up a dinner of fresh fried Walleye, which was about the best meal I can ever eat. So we finished up the trip just as I’d hoped, with Ruth able to really get a good feel for the way I grew up, staying in our house, fishing our favorite lake, swimming where I used to, and hiking some of my favorite spots. After getting to bed around 9 PM we awoke on Wednesday morning at 4:30 AM, and heading out from the house, bidding farewell to Kim, around 5 AM. It is about a 10 hour drive from Ely to my mother’s house in Munster, Indiana, a drive I have done all too many times, having spent time with both my parents during the year, and having had to be transferred between them each time. The beginning of the drive was the last chance we had to get Ruth her first Moose sighting, as we travelled down Highway 1 to Highway 2, which then leads to Two Harbors on Lake Superior. As with the prior attempts, unfortunately, we came up empty handed on seeing a Moose. However, we were treated to an incredible sunrise over the South Kawishiwi River from the new-ish bridge south of Ely before the sun hid behind the clouds.
I pulled over in a gravel parking area and walked back up to the bridge for a bunch of photographs though, making for a great addition to the trip portfolio. We made a quick stop at Dunn Brothers Coffee in Duluth, and then headed into Wisconsin. Through Wisconsin, Ruth spotted another 7 Sandhill Cranes to my amazement, though we were never in a good position to pull over, so this species still remains off my life list even though I’ve seen probably 50 of them, all along interstates unfortunately. Maybe next year will be the year I finally get a photograph of one! We detoured to check out the Cheese Chalet in DeForest, Wisconsin, and ended up buying 1.5 lbs of cheese and a summer sausage to snack on, along with my fried walleye sandwich made from the leftovers of Tuesday’s dinner. Arriving back to Indiana around 4 PM, we got all settled into my mother’s home (the house I lived in during my senior year of high school before heading off to college and then later moving to Virginia). Over the next couple of days, we didn’t get into the outdoors at all so I don’t have much to report as far that goes, though we did go see the film, Jurassic World, which made me want to get out for a hike more than anything, even though I knew I wouldn’t find any of the films creatures. We had some great meals and spent some time in the pool, visiting with my sister Ellen whom I don’t get to see very often, her boyfriend John, with an H, and my mother & step-father, Bob. We grilled out for my uncles birthday on Friday, and then crashed for the evening. On Saturday, we headed back towards Virginia at 5 AM (Central time), arriving back home at 7:30 PM (Eastern time), which was probably the fastest we’ve ever made the 950 mile drive. I think part of this might be because Ruth drove for about 5 hours between Lexingtons (KY & VA), and I slept for about an hour so I have no idea just how fast she was driving. It was nice to get home on Saturday rather than on Sunday as I have done in the past, just to give us the option if we got tired along the way to get a hotel somewhere and not miss work the next day. Also, it let us unwind on Sunday, which was really needed after all the travelling (~3500 miles) we had done in the last 9 days. The biggest reason though, was the it was the 1 year anniversary of when Ruth & I adopted a little kitten that showed up in our front yard, and after a year of growing to love our Buster more and more, it was a special evening to spend with him!
On Sunday morning though, I did get up at 6 AM, and headed to Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area to see if any shorebirds had started to arrive in the region. July is a big month for shorebirds moving southward. They’re the first ‘family’ of birds to begin migrating southward and so this is the best time to be able to prioritize seeing their species. Most of our shorebirds I already picked up on their way north in April & May, but some species, like Whimbrel or Pectoral Sandpipers managed to elude my efforts. There are several others that I’d love to get for the first time also, like American Golden-Plovers and Stilt Sandpipers, so throughout the month of July, I plan to hit the beaches, and flooded fields of Pungo quite hard since this is where you’ll find them. On Saturday it apparently rained quite hard across the region, with parts of Norfolk getting 3” of rain in an hour, an incredible amount that will certainly flood their archaic drainage systems set to handle a 2-year storm (50% chance of recurrence in any given year). A 3” rainfall event is akin to about a 40-year event (2.5% chance of happening each year), so this was quite a storm. Unfortunately, I missed out on seeing it as we didn’t arrive home until afterwards. But given the rain, I thought heading south into Pungo would be the ticket to finding shorebirds. Named for their primary habitat, shorebirds are skinny birds that walk in search of food across beaches, mudflats, and flooded fields with rainfall induced ‘shorelines’ stretching through them. The impoundments at Princess Anne WMA provide a perfect habitat for them, and it was last August that I first began traveling to this park. Robert Ake had spotted a Ruff last year on the impoundments in mid-August, and when I went to look for it, I got to see a number of other species that at the time I wasn’t very good at differentiating. Well, almost a year later, I will say that I am much more confident in my ability to identify the varying species of shorebirds, though there are some I haven’t yet had a crack at as mentioned earlier. So I arrived at the park about 7:25 AM, and headed down the main entry trail to the south into the so-called Whitehurst Tract. The entry trail is a bit overgrown, but about halfway towards the southern group of impoundments that vegetation yields to large gravel, making for easier travels. Also, with the water distribution main work that has been undertaken this summer at the park, the construction vehicles have done a good job of keeping the vegetation short.
Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings were seen on the entry trail, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Carolina Chickadees were also encountered as I reached the chokepoint entry to the southern half of the park. Ditches have been dug into the perimeter of the western-most cell here, but not yet flooded. Intake gates & pipes have also been placed so I assume when they flood the impoundments to enhance the habitat for migrating waterfowl, this section will be filled for the first time. I walked a quick loop around the middle cell so that I could get views over all the cells without spending too much time in the tall grasses. However, I was a bit stunned to see that there was not a single shorebird on the ground of any cell, and just 3 Killdeer were seen in flight overhead during the hike. A single Snowy Egret was the only bird on the northern cell (where the Ruff had been seen last year). Great Egret, Cattle Egrets, and Great Blue Herons were all encountered at long range, but everything was pretty weary this outing, flying off before I ever got close. Obscure Birdwing Grasshoppers were everywhere, with hundreds of them jumping out of the way as I walked through the taller grasses on some of the trails. I’d never seen anything like this before. Dragonflies also were out in huge numbers, in some places filling the sky with a wide range of color from the Needham’s Skimmers, Halloween Pennants, Great Blue Skimmers, Eastern Pondhawks and Blue Dashers. I worked my way around the northern half counter-clockwise, reaching the area at the northeast corner where the abandoned farmhouse yard has essentially been turned into a storage yard for construction materials. Here, I heard a sound that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the unmistakable call of a Northern Bobwhite, and not very far off. I listened intently as it called a dozen or so times, about every 20-25 seconds. I tried to step up to a better vantage point, but in doing so, the calls stopped, and it must have been able to see me from wherever it was hiding. The fields to the west are all overgrown right now, so it virtually could have been anywhere among them and I’d never spot it. I spent about 15 minutes walking around hoping to see it, but couldn’t get a look. Birders count bird that they hear though, so why was this so frustrating to me you ask?
Well, when it comes to my counts, numbers of species, and lists on eBird, I do not report birds for a county until I have visually observed one in a given year. So far in 2015, I have not seen a Northern Bobwhite with my own eyes, therefore, even though I’m 99.9% certain of what I heard, I do not count it on my lists. Of course, it has been since May 29th that I lasted added a bird to my yearly Virginia Beach list (Black-necked Stilts), so I’m still stuck at 177 birds, with my goal having been 200 species at the beginning of the year. After trying and trying, I couldn’t find the Bobwhite, so I walked back along the road to where my car was parked, seeing some Orchard Orioles, and a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks, a nice surprise, along the way. Upon arriving at the vehicle, the Bobwhite called from the east again! So, I thought, this was my shot. I decided to do another loop of the park, so I could approach the Bobwhite from the direction where the wind would be at my face, keeping my sound & scent off the bird. Taking a half hour to walk the route, I was delighted that as I approached the spot again, the calls continued. Or so I thought. As I began to close in, the calls ceased, and I again felt the agony of having approached the bird too closely. Frustrated, I watched frantically across the fields for any sign of the bird, but it never showed itself. I walked back along the road a second time, reaching the car again, this time to no calls, so I headed out from the park. Of course, I’m extremely excited to have even heard one of these very tough to find birds (in Virginia Beach at least)! I have only seen a handful of them in my life, and only on one other occasion within the boundaries of Virginia Beach, having seen a small covey (flock) of them at Back Bay NWR in 2012 along the East Dike Trail. In that instance, I couldn’t even raise my camera before the disappeared into the underbrush. It wasn’t until a month or so ago that I finally photographed a pair up on the Eastern Shore, where they are a bit more common, though still hard to actually track down.
After leaving the park, I drove down some of the roads in Pungo, but couldn’t find any fields that were flooded. Actually, most of the fields are quite grown up right now with corn, making them actually poor sites to find shorebirds, so perhaps it will be after they are cultivated that I need to make my trips out that way again. Though, I will be checking on Princess Anne WMA again soon since I know when the shorebirds do make their appearance, it’ll be a great place to find a variety of species. Hopefully they begin descending on our area soon! It would really be nice to start moving my species count up from 177, since as I mentioned earlier, I have been stuck on it for over a month as the summer has slowed birding down a lot, and no new species tend to arrive to the area in June, save for a few species of seabirds that you cannot count on ever spotting from shore without a hurricane driving them into view. I gave that a shot last year on 4th of July actually since Hurricane Arthur was moving through, but we were on the weak side of the storm as it crossed the Outer Banks heading northeastward, so that didn’t yield any seabirds sadly. With no out of town vacations planned for the next few weeks at least, I should be able to get focused back on this website, and on getting out into the Coastal Virginia region that this site primarily focused on. Hopefully soon I can get up to see the Mississippi Kites that are nesting up in Thoroughgood, as my first attempt at finding them didn’t go so well earlier in the summer. Perhaps I’ll also nab my first Hairy Woodpecker and Chipping Sparrows, which have managed to hide from me all year thus far! I hope any readers enjoyed learning about Minnesota though, it is a place that I will always hold very dear, being the state that I first gained a love of nature from!