Tag Archives: NWR

Dancing Chickens and Skulking Rails

Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

I woke up extra early on Saturday, and drove for 50 miles along a nearly abandoned two-lane road through the dark Texas night to the only national wildlife refuge named for a chicken.  I know, right?  A chicken?!  It’s a pretty special chicken, though.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a genetically unique subspecies (or race) of the Greater Prairie Chicken.  While most Greater PC’s live up in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, a small population of them has evolved to live here on the Texas coastal plain.  Hunting and cattle grazing have caused their numbers here to plummet, and there are currently only about 50 Attwater’s Prairie Chickens left in the wild (plus a few more in a small captive breeding program).  And every wild Attwater’s PC lives here on this modest refuge.

Normally, it’s almost impossible to see a Prairie Chicken here (I tried back in February and didn’t see one).  While part of the refuge is open to the public, the Prairie Chickens live in the northern sector which is normally closed to everyone except for researchers and refuge staff.  But for two mornings a year, for 1-2 hours each morning, the park rangers at Attwater allow limited access to view some incredibly endangered dancing chickens.

Prairie Chickens and some of their grouse relatives engage in a behavior known as lekking or lek mating.  In the spring, male Prairie Chickens gather in a communal area (known as a lek) and perform a complex display which involves inflating large air sacs on their neck, raising feathers (known as pinnae) on their head, and dancing and jumping into the air.  Females gather at the lek as well, and use the performances to select a worthy mate.

If I got up early enough, I might get a chance to see Attwater’s Prairie Chickens dancing on their lek.  I arrived to the refuge at 6:25 am.  The tours were supposed to start at 7:00 am.  There were already 30 people in line ahead of me to catch a van.  I got in line, and watched the eastern sky brighten.

Pre Dawn at Attwater

I made it into the third van for the 10 minute trip to the northern part of the refuge.  Once there, I joined a group of eager birders and nature enthusiasts on a small raised platform, about 200 yards from the lek area.  The lek was a small flat area where the chickens had trampled the vegetation a bit.  You can almost see it just the to the right of the base of the windmill in the picture below.  We waited.

Lek Site

Soon, a male Attwater’s Praire Chicken appeared, and began to strut, “boom”, and dance.  A little while later, two rivals joined him.  While it was too far away for me to get photos, I got great looks through my telescope.  So did everyone else.

Chicken watchers

I did take a few pictures of some photos hanging in the refuge office to give you an idea of what I saw:

Chicken photo

Chicken photo2

My favorite picture is an amazing color drawing by local 4th grader, Diamond Flores.

Festival Poster Winner

You can also find some amazing lekking behavior on YouTube – here’s a very cool video showing Lesser Prairie Chickens at a lek (it’s only 47 seconds).

No one knows what’s in store for the future of Attwater’s PC.  The wildlife biologists and other staff at the refuge are working hard to sustain and grow the tiny population here, but there are many challenges.  The adult birds have a mortality rate of about 50% per year, mostly due to hawks and other predators. The chicks are also vulnerable to predators, and may be competing (not very successfully) with introduced fire ants for ground insects in the weeks and months after hatching.  New releases from the captive breeding flock bolster the wild population, but right even with these additions the numbers of PC’s at Attwater are barely holding stable.  Hopefully the dedication and hard work of the refuge staff will eventually pay off with a healthy and expanding population in the years to come.

After a successful morning at Attwater NWR, I decided to try my luck at another almost-impossible-to-see species: Yellow Rail.  While Attwater’s Prairie Chickens are critically endangered and found only in a restricted area, they practically scream for your addition during the lekking season.  Rails are exactly the opposite.  They are relatively common, and are widespread in many marshes along the Texas coast.  But Yellow and Black Rails in particular are extremely secretive.  They are small wetland birds who always stay hidden in dense marsh grass, and never willingly allow themselves to be seen.  Yellow and Black Rails are the hardest common, dirual (active during the day) birds to actually see in North America.  But there’s one way to see them.  And it’s at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 minutes drive from Attwater.

Anahuac NWR

Anahuac has a very healthy population of Yellow Rails that spend the winter here in Texas, and summer up in Minnesota (where I heard one last June).  A couple of times each spring, the refuge holds “Yellow Rail Walks.”  Basically you get a couple of dozen people to walk around in the rails’ habitat and wait for a rail to pop up out of the grass and fly a short distance before it disappears back into the grass.  The only problem is that the rail’s habitat is thigh-high marsh grass growing in deep sucking mud covered in up to a foot of brackish water.  Yep, rail seekers get seriously messy.

The rail walk organizer had also brought some milk jugs filled with rocks that he tied together with a rope.  The milk jugs help to “beat the bushes” and encourage the rails to flush instead of just running through the legs of the participants.  Rails have incredibly skinny bodies, and can squeeze through very narrow openings in the rushes – hence the expression, “thin as a rail.”

We headed out into the marsh.  It was wet.  And muddy.  And a real workout walking through that mud.

Rail Walk

We saw our first Yellow Rail within 10 minutes.  They have very distinctive white wing patches that can be seen as they flutter away to safety.  We continued to slog through the mud and grass for another half an hour or so.  Final tally: seven Yellow Rails and one Black Rail.  And I was only wet and muddy from the chest down!

Before leaving Anahuac, I toured another part of the refuge.  Here I saw a third rail species, King Rail.  King Rails are often pretty shy, but compared to Yellow and Black Rails this fellow was practically an exhibitionist.  I even managed a photo:

King Rail

I also came across some baby alligators in a small pool, probably just out of the nest.  Too cute!

Baby Alligators

I rewarded myself with dinner at the local BBQ joint, which was very satisfying.

BBQ dinner

And as the sun set, I drove back to my hotel for a hot shower and 90 minutes of trying to use the hair dryer to get my only pair of shoes back to a wearable state.

Anahuac Sunset

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The Lower Rio Grande Valley

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a thin strip of green that runs for 100 miles or so along the Rio Grande River through Mission, McAllen, Weslaco, and ending at the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville and South Padre Island.  It’s not really a valley – it’s more like the ancient floodplain of the Rio Grande.  Of course these days the river has been penned in by a series of levees and water is removed for irrigation, so there aren’t typically seasonal floods anymore.

Still, the Rio Grande provides life-sustaining water to this otherwise dry region, which is one reason why it is so productive for birds (and for agriculture).  There are many places along the Lower Valley that you can walk along the Rio Grande, like this spot in Bentsen State Park.

Rio Grande at Bentsen

The birds here are a mix of wintering species who spend the breeding season much further north, and also tropical species from Mexico and Central America who reach the very northern edge of their distribution here.  Birds like Green-winged Teal and Cooper’s Hawk can be found at various times throughout much of the US and Canada:

Green-winged Teal

Cooper's Hawk

But the Valley also holds many species that are rarely or never found further north, like Least Grebe – the smallest grebe in the world:

Least Grebe

Weighing in at only 4 oz, you could put the whole thing on a bun and call it the Quarter-Pounder Grebe Sandwich.  People would probably complain, though.

My other favorite Valley birds include some colorful and charismatic ones, like Green Parakeets, Green Jays, and Great Kiskadees:

Green Parakeets

Green Jay

Great Kiskadee

I also love the many great expanses of nature that have been preserved in the Valley, from small spots like the Frontera Audubon Thicket to much larger tracts like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen State Park.  Crossing the rope bridge between the hawk towers at Santa Ana with the tropical forest cloaking me on all sides always makes me feel a little like Indiana Jones.

Santa Ana Hawk Tower

You can hear the Chachalacas screaming their name at dawn, before they venture out of the brush to say hello.  Anyone who has seen both the movie Jurassic Park and also real-life Chachalacas can’t help but notice these little critters behave exactly like mini-Velociraptors.


I’m pretty sure these Chacha’s would tear me to shreds and gobble me up if they could.  It’s an interesting reminder that birds are basically the living descendants of the dinosaurs.

Other highlights from my first few days in the Valley include ducks that perch in trees (Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks),

Black-bellied Whistling-duck

A few rare birds, like this Clay-colored Thrush, the tropical cousin of your backyard American Robin,

Clay-colored Thrush

Sleeping Yellow-crowned Night-Herons,

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

And a panoply of cool butterflies and other insects, all of which I remain blissfully ignorant about both their identities and life histories.


Hey, one thing at a time, ok?


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The Brink of Extinction

I’m in Texas.  All serious birders end up in Texas sooner or later.  Over 600 species of birds have been recorded in Texas, making it the US state with the highest avian diversity.  Texas is home to many species that aren’t usually found elsewhere in the United States such as Least Grebe, Altamira Oriole, and Plain Chachalaca.  It’s also the winter home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the Whooping Crane.

I’ve discussed rare birds before, like the Northern Lapwing in Massachusetts or the Rufous-capped Warblers in Arizona.  But those birds were merely out of place – rare within the bounds of the US, but commonly found elsewhere in the world.  Whooping Cranes are critically endangered, with only a few hundred left on the planet.  I visited the largest concentration of wild Whoopers at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Texas gulf coast.

While never as abundant as their widespread North American cousins, Sandhill Cranes, Whoopers used to live throughout much of what is now the southeastern and midwestern United States, numbering more than 10,000 individuals at the time of the European colonization.  Habitat destruction and hunting for meat and plumes drastically reduced the Whooper’s range and population until there were only 21 individuals left by the early 1940s.  Protecting the species’ remaining habitat and a captive breeding program have brought the species back from the brink of extinction.  Decades of conservation work have resulted in a flock of around 270 birds that winter in Aransas and breed in far northern Alberta.  A second migratory flock is being established that winters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin (you might be familiar with this project – they teach the cranes the migration route by training them to fly behind an ultralight aircraft flown by a guy in a crane suit).  A few non-migratory populations have also been released in Florida and Louisiana.

But most wild Whooping Cranes winter at Aransas, and that was where I caught up with them aboard the Skimmer, a boat that takes nature enthusiasts to see the Whoopers out on the refuge.  They are spectacular birds, immaculately white and standing 5 feet tall.  They have a long probing bill that they use for catching blue crabs (their favorite winter food) and other goodies, a red facial mask, and black wingtips that can be seen when they show off their 7-foot wingspan.

Whooping Crane

The cranes maintain their pair bonds throughout the year, and each pair stakes out a small feeding territory at Aransas.  If the pair was successful at raising a chick, the young bird will also stay with them the first winter.  The Skimmer cruised up and down the shallow coastal bay, coming upon family groups of two or three Whoopers every quarter mile or so.  In three hours, I saw roughly 5% of all of the wild Whooping Cranes in existence.

Whooping Crane

While Whooping Cranes have a lot of things going for them, everything is not completely rosy.  Texas has been gripped by a terrible drought for the past three years, and a dozen cranes starved to death several winters ago.  The Wisconsin flock has not had good luck actually hatching and successfully raising chicks (this 21-minute excellent and heart-breaking podcast sums up the problems).  The Florida non-migratory flock has suffered terrible losses due to bobcat predation.  And several cranes have been shot dead in recent years by idiots with guns.  Whooping Cranes are back from the brink of extinction, but much work remains to secure the long-term survival of this amazing species.


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Eiderdown! Eider back up!

I spent a couple of days along the northern Massachusetts coast, from Parker River National Wildlife Refuge down to Cape Ann (near Gloucester).  The weather was cold, but I braved the wind whipping in from the Atlantic to watch the sea ducks, alcids, gulls, gannets, and whatever else blew in.

Saturday morning I stopped at Halibut Point State Park.  This area was an active granite quarry from the 1840s until the 1930s, and you can still see the giant quarry pit (now filled with water).

Halibut Point SP

Halibut Point SP Quarry

Taking the trail down to the rocky shore, I positioned myself on a large slab of granite and scanned the waves.

Rocks at Halibut Point

The temperature was 27 F, and tiny icy snow pellets began forming a thin white blanket over my hat, gloves, and spotting scope.  Many of the birds were way out at the edge of my vision.  I thought of my wife, who loves the challenge of “lump identification” – figuring out what those tiny specks on the horizon really are.  Here are some ducks in the distance, as seen through my scope:

Scope view

Some of the same birds shown above were in closer, and I was able to get some decent pictures of Common Eiders, a sea duck that winters in large numbers along the New England coast.

Common Eider

You may be familiar with eiderdown, the soft breast feathers collected from eiders and used historically for pillows and comforters.  Eiderdown has largely been replaced with synthetic fibers, and this eider looks very relieved to hear that.

Common eiders eat a lot of mussels and crabs snatched off the rocky bottom, so they dive actively when feeding.  They will go down, often for 10 seconds or more, before popping back up many yards from where they went under.  Down, up, down, up.  The diving Mallard was pretty amazing, but it had nothing on these true sea ducks.

Common Eider

The two photos above show males.  Female Common Eiders are a rich cinnamon brown with fine black barring.

Female Eider

Most of the birds were jetting by on the stiff breeze, and many too far away for photos.  I saw Northern Gannets plunge-diving from great heights, and hundred of Red-breasted Mergansers streaming by a couple hundred yards offshore.  This Red-throated Loon drifted by close to the rocks, so I snapped his photo, too.

Red-throated Loon

He only has the red throat during the summer breeding season.

The last bird I managed to photograph was a fly-over Blue Goose, the symbol of the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Blue goose

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Goosed at Nisqually NWR

National Wildlife Refuges have been protecting habitat for wildlife and providing recreational opportunities for Americans for over a century.  Founded by Teddy Roosevelt and currently administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge system has over 500 sites encompassing 95 million acres of land.  NWRs are great places to go for a nature hike, watch birds and wildlife, hunt and fish (in season), and even buy a bison.  Yes, I said buy a bison.  Go figure.

My favorite refuge in the state of Washington is Nisqually NWR, about an hour south of Seattle.  Founded in 1974 on former farmland, Nisqually now is home to protected wetlands and estuary habitat where the Nisqually River joins Puget Sound.  I spent a couple hours last week walking the trails and boardwalks there, enjoying the fall weather and the newly returning ducks and geese that have spent the summer up north in Canada and Alaska.

Geese flying in formation crossed the sky throughout the afternoon.  It is thought that formation-flying reduces the drag of air resistance on the geese following the leader, and is thus an efficient way to fly long distances.  A number of different species of geese were present on the refuge when I was there, including this chap:

If you recognize this as a Canada Goose, you used to be absolutely correct.  But not anymore.  Same with these birds:

The Canada Goose, formerly considered just one species, was split in 2004 into a pair of species: a physically larger one breeding primarily in the Lower 48 and eastern Canada, and a physically smaller one breeding primarily in northwest Canada and Alaska.  The larger species retains the name Canada Goose, while the smaller one is now called the Cackling Goose.  And while their summer ranges are mostly distinct, in the fall and winter these two species mix and mingle, especially in places like western Washington – site of Nisqually NWR.

Telling these two species apart isn’t always easy.  In general, Cacklers have a smaller body, shorter neck, and shorter/stubbier bill.  Some of them are barely bigger than a Mallard duck.  But there is quite a bit of variation in both Cackler and Canada Geese, with a gradient of sizes, shapes, and colors represented in the field depending on the subspecies.  For comparison, here are a few Canadas – note especially the longer necks and longer bills.

If you want more information on how to tell Cacklers and Canadas apart, David Allen Sibley has a great page with photos and maps here.

You might think that deciding which animals comprise a single species and which are really two or more species might be straight-forward.  And sometimes it is.  But often it is more complicated than you might think.  Originally, animals that looked the same were considered the same species, while those that looked different were classified as a different ones.  The problem is that some birds that look different (like all of the different color morphs of Red-tailed Hawks) breed with each other successfully, share most of the same habits and habitats, sound the same (songs and calls), and are genetically pretty similar.  In contrast, some birds look almost identical (I’m looking at you, Alder and Willow Flycatchers!), but do not regularly interbreed, have different songs, and show notable genetic differences.  And then there are cases like the (Eastern) Yellow-shafted Flicker and the (Western) Red-Shafted Flicker.  They look similar, but the western (sub?)species has red feather shafts instead of yellow, and subtly different markings on the head and neck.  Their calls and behaviors are pretty similar.  But they have pretty distinct geographical ranges, so they don’t interbreed often.  Where their ranges overlap, they do breed with each other producing hybrids with a range of intermediate or mix-and-match characteristics such as a “red-shafted” head on a “yellow-shafted” body.  I once saw a pretty amazing “orange-shafted” flicker in Oregon.

Ornithologists sometimes have difficulty deciding which groups deserve status as full species, and which are just variations or subspecies.  And sometimes they change their mind in light of new information (take note, politicians, that changing your mind about something is not always a weakness!).  The two flickers mentioned above, once considered separate species, where “lumped” together into a single species a few decades ago, now called Northern Flicker.  For the geese, the opposite happened.  After decades of being considered the same species, Cackling and Canada Geese were “split” into two different species in 2004.  Sometimes, there is real indecision.  The California Towhee, once considered part of the “Brown Towhee,” was split, then lumped, then split again!  The confusion is in part based on the fact that the simplest concept of a “species” is purely a human construct.  We like to classify things as either/or and yes/no in a binary, black and white way.  Nature, however, is more analog than digital.  Changes in populations wrought by natural selection and evolution happen in a continuous curve, not in discrete quantum leaps.  Speciation, the creating of new species from a common ancestor, is a process not an event.  As such, we try to use our best judgment to decide where one species ends and where a new one begins, but sometimes it’s complicated.  Look for more splits and lumps in the years to come!

The handsome fellow above is a Northern Shrike.  It has not quite reached full adult plumage, as the mask isn’t completely black and there is still some brown wash on the belly.  Shrikes eat small vertebrates like lizards and birds, and have a reputation for impaling their prey on thorns, sharp sticks, and barbed wire.  The first Common Redpoll I ever saw became a Shrike meal about 4 minutes later.

Just past the Shrike, the Nisqually estuary was filled with ducks, ducks, and more ducks.  This area is a protected zone that is surrounded by hunting areas on two sides.  And the ducks are not as stupid as they look.  These are male Northern Pintails.  They are still in the process of growing in their very long “pin” tail feathers.

The northwestern part of the refuge features a relatively new boardwalk, which stretches most of the way to the Sound.

Nearby I found a Great Egret feeding.  These elegant waders are common over most of the United States, but are quite uncommon in Washington state.

Nearby was a wader that is NOT uncommon – the familiar Great Blue Heron.  Like the Mallards, GBH’s often don’t warrant a second look from birders.  But they are pretty spectacular creatures.

As I turned for home, I meandered by the Twin Barns, a reminder of Nisqually’s farmland past.  They are currently languishing in a state of majestic disrepair.

As the days grow shorter and colder, the Big Leaf Maples throughout the refuge have received the signal to stop chlorophyll production and drop their flat photosynthetic factories.  Winter is coming.

My winter schedule is beginning to firm up.  The week after Thanksgiving I’m traveling to New York and New England to see some schools (like the public Bronx High School of Science and the independent Groton School in Massachusetts).  I’ll also be looking for Atlantic sea ducks, gulls, and alcids.  I’ll post more from the Northeast!

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Jersey Shore

While my favorite kind of birding is walking through the fields and forests looking for warblers, hitting the beach and marshlands is pretty appealing too.  New Jersey has a lot of such habitat, so I spent several days this week looking for common and rare gulls, terns, ducks, sandpipers, plovers, rails, and sparrows.

The area around Cape May has several nice shorebird locations, and I spent several mornings and afternoons walking the beach at Stone Harbor and Cape May Point State Park.  It was fun to see all of the different bird tracks in the sand and try to guess who made each one (above: Semipalmated Plover).  My best pick-up here was Lesser Black-backed Gull, an uncommon visitor from Europe.

I also spent most of a day at Brigantine (official name: Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge: Brigantine Unit), just north of Atlantic City.  This is terrific saltmarsh habitat, and a great place to see shorebirds, terns, and egrets.

I spent about 4 hours just driving the 8-mile auto loop, stopping frequently to look, walk, and take photos.  I brought my trusty 60x telescope, and spent a lot of time squinted through it at distant birds and other critters (my wife calls this “lump identification” – where you try to figure out what that sleeping bird is on the far shore, 300 yards away).  At times, I caught a glimpse of Atlantic City in the background, an interesting contrast to Brigantine.

My best bird here was the secretive Saltmarsh Sparrow.  These guys are pretty shy, and spend a lot of time hiding in the emergent vegetation.  I managed one photo, which shows a typical view you get of this species.

The Saltmarsh Sparrow is one of about seven sparrows (in North America) in the genus Ammodramus, and they are pretty much all known to be hard to find and hard to identify.  So far this year I’ve already seen five out of the seven, so I’m feeling pretty good about that.

As the day at Brig warmed up, the sun began baking the marshland.  Waves of distortion created by the rising warm air began to make viewing difficult, especially through my telescope.  You can see the distortion both in front of and especially in the background behind this distant Merlin (a small falcon), as he tries to figure out which sandpiper to have for lunch.




After a couple days on the Jersey Shore, I took the ferry from Cape May to Lewes, Delaware (about 17 miles/80 minutes across the bay).  Halfway across, the ferry was buzzed by four low-altitude F-15 fighter jets (from Dover Air Force Base?), literally the loudest sound I’ve EVER heard.  I felt partially deaf for the rest of the day.

I spent yesterday day driving north along the Delaware bay shore, stopping at Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges.  Ok, it only took me about an hour to do the actual driving part – Delaware is small!  I’m leaving the beach behind for now – next stop: Hawk Mountain, PA.

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Funny Signs and Other Silly Stuff

First things first – I’m in Arizona!

I survived the drive over from California, and have been exploring the Tucson area.  Tonight is just a short post since I’m pretty tired.  I’ll tell/show you a few of the crazy signs I’ve seen this week.  I didn’t get a pic, but I saw one last week driving along a state highway through the mountains that said THIS ROAD MAY BE CLOSED AT ANY TIME.  No other context, no other information – just a notification that I may suddenly have to detour 100 miles out of my way without warning.  Sweet!

The one this morning actually cracked me up:

Um, OK.  How exactly am I suppose to alter my driving to take this into account? And why do I need to exercise caution?  In case I accidentally look into the eyepiece and see an extremely distant object?  I can hear the complaints before this sign went up – “Why didn’t you tell me I might see the Omega-Centauri Globular Cluster!  The horror!”

Here’s another one that I should have worked into my last post about the Salton Sea, but I forgot:

Yep, that fabulously unique place that I called the Salton Sea is ACTUALLY the Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR.  Yes, THIS Sonny Bono.  I looked for Cher’s National Park, but haven’t seen it yet.

In other news, the prickly pears are ripening nicely.

I can tell you now from personal experience that the fruits are soft and deep purple when ripe, they contain a wonderful smelling juice, and the outside of the fruit is covered with many dozens of tiny, almost-invisible spines that can nevertheless penetrate deeply and painfully into one’s fingers.  Ah, curiosity.

Finally, I will leave you with a bad picture of what Wile E. Coyote sees at the end of every episode:

It’s the blurry backside of a roadrunner zipping away at high speed, never to be seen again.

More later…

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Rice Lake NWR

I spent some time yesterday afternoon (after the big thunderstorm) and this morning at Rice Lake NWR, outside of McGregor.  This is one of my four favorite birding locations in MN.


I mostly enjoyed just dinging around the refuge, seeing what was about.  My best birds were Golden-winged Warbler, Trumpeter Swan, Black Tern, and Le Conte’s Sparrow.  Le Conte’s Sparrow is a real skulker, and spends most of the time hidden in wet grassy fields on the edge of marshes.  It was easy to hear, but tough to see.  I finally saw one perched up:


Not a great photo, but you can see most of the important field marks for Le Conte’s. 

This morning I was treated to an American Woodcock ambling across the path.  Woodcock has been somewhat of a nemesis bird for me, but this one was downright confiding.


Eventually he moseyed into the woods.  

I have also seen a fair number of mammals, including moose, coyotes, rabbits, various ground and tree squirrels, chipmunks, and these skunks (momma and her older babies?) crossing the road near sunset.


I also saw a pair of what might have been gray wolves on the Gunflint Trail, but I’m not sure.  Off to Western MN today!


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