Christmas Bird Count Series – Steve’s Little Adventure: CBC #8 – Beltrami Island (extreme north-central Minnesota): January 1, 2015

MississippiRiver outside Jacobson Minn._12-31-14_S.Bailey

Passing over the Mighty… er mousy Mississippi River outside of Jacobson, Minnesota, still ~ 100 miles east of the headwaters of the river @ Itasca S.P., on our drive to Baudette, Minnesota.  Photo by Steve Bailey.

I had been wanting to help on this and the following other two northern Minnesota Christmas Bird Counts for many years. I have always loved the North Country, including the boreal forest and tundra areas all the way to Alaska (Sheryl & I honeymooned there), including their associated birds, animals and ecology. I’ve even had a long-time longing to build and/or live in a cabin in Alaska or the North Woods, for decades, though at this point, the chance of that actually happening are likely gone with the passage of time, but… I WILL go and stay at Martin’s cabin in the North Woods! Martin Kehoe is the compiler that started both the Beltrami Island and Baudette CBCs that I helped on this winter.

MartinKehoe@BeltramiIsland CBC compilation_1-1-15_SherylDeVore

Martin w-GRJA@hiscabin

Martin Kehoe at this years Beltrami Island CBC compilation dinner. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

Martin in an earlier day feeding an obliging “Whiskey Jack” or Gray Jay for you young folk.

He has a simple cabin on an in-holding in the very large Beltrami Island State Forest south of the town of Baudette.

Martin's cabin

Martin Kehoe's Minnesota cabin_1-1-14_DavidHarrington

Martin’s cabin by day and by night. Day photo of Martin & Dan Williams on an earlier year’s CBC morning. Night photo taken the night of this winter’s Beltrami Island CBC by David Harrington. David cross-country skied in his coverage area on count day.

You should check out some of the neat YouTube videos that Martin has crafted about his wilderness cabin and the interesting birds and other animals that can be found right around the cabin (including Gray Wolves, Moose, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Owls, Three-toed Woodpeckers & the Gray Jays (to name a few interesting species) that he feeds peanuts to in his first cabin video ( https://www.youtube.com/user/TheNorthwoodsman1 ).

Wolf@Martin's cabinJan09

This wolf was only about a mile from Martin’s cabin one winter. Photo by Martin Kehoe.

Spruce Grouse at Martin Kehoe's cabin in Beltrami Island State Forest

A Spruce Grouse coming for the grit at Martin’s cabin that he puts down for them, which is inside the Beltrami Island CBC. Photo by Carl Greiner.

BOOW_~2.5 mile from Martin's cabin Jan09 BeltramiIsland CBC

Boreal Owl found by Martin Kehoe near his cabin on a past Beltrami Island CBC. Photo by Martin Kehoe.

GRJA-BBWO_BeltramiIslandSF_1-1-15_DavidHarrington

A pretty neat photo of a Gray Jay perched near a Black-backed Woodpecker on this winter’s Beltrami Island CBC! Photo by David Harrington.

So exactly where is Baudette and the Beltrami Island State Forest you ask? Warroad is just to the west… and one of the first towns of any size to the east (~40-50 miles away) is International Falls… you know, that city that often regularly has some of THE coldest winter temperatures in the Lower 48 states! Baudette also sets right on the border with Canada just south of the huge and sprawling Lake of the Woods… THE Lake of the Woods. This lake is over 70 miles wide and long, contains over 14,000 islands and has over 65,000 miles of shoreline… WOW!  No wonder the main thing going on in the small town of Baudette is fishing… and of course, that means ice-fishing in the winter. With normal temperatures well below freezing  (often well-below zero!), it is nothing to see a fisherman taking his bucket of live fishing-bait into his motel room with him at night.

Leading up to these three CBCs my friends Dan & Barbara Williams had been giving Sheryl & I the BIG build up… but with good reason, as they had experienced many of both the highest birding highs for North Woods birds, and literally some of the lowest lows of winter temperatures (& deepest snows)! Dan’s great weather stories: Anecdote #1 –   About ten years ago, we brought a birding friend to Baudette with us.  While we were counting birds, a bunch of snow was getting tracked into the floor of the back seat of the car, because our friend had not been knocking as much loose snow as possible off his boots when entering the car.  By the time we had returned to Rockford, three days later, the snow on the floor of the back seat had NOT melted, despite the fact that the heater was on the entire time we were driving the 600 miles home. Anecdote #2 –  One year, the temperature at 7 AM was -28F.  It was pretty windy, maybe 15-20 mph.  You figure the wind chill yourself.  We were doing Beltrami Island State Forest that day. We could not find any birds.  At one point, we managed 3 corvid species-Raven, Gray and Blue Jays.  We were so glad to see them that we threw pieces of peanut butter sandwiches at them.  By noon, we had 9 species and fewer than 50 individuals, total, for our efforts.  We decided to give up. On the way back to the cabin, we spotted a brown Gyrfalcon.  We had to look into the wind with scopes.  Our tears froze on our cheeks.  It wasn’t pretty. Afterward, we packed up and headed for Rockford.  Fiftenn to twenty miles south of the cabin (and out of the Baudette count circle), we spotted another raptor in a tree over the road.  Gray Gyr.  Anecdote #3 – One year, in the late afternoon following the Roseau CBC, it started to rain and freeze on the road.  60 miles of black ice all the way back to Baudette.  Cars in every ditch.  We stopped at Warroad (1/2 way) and got the last two motel rooms.  Martin Kehoe slept in the back of his truck behind a gas station.

Dan’s bird/animal anecdotes, #1 – 10,000 Snow Buntings in one flock in Baudette. Anecdote #2 – 7 Hawk Owls inside the Baudette circle one year; Anecdote #3 – SIX Black-backed Woodpeckers (all by me in 6 miles of walking) on one Beltrami Island CBC-highest of any CBC in North America that year; Anecdote #4 – Wolves in the middle of the road on the Beltrami Island CBC several times.

Beltrami Island CBC circlesmall

As you can see, there are few roads within the Beltrami Island CBC circle!

With these accounts by Dan to prepare us, our first Minnesota CBC this year was an extremely fun and pleasing experience! We were all betting that the Common Raven would be the first bird of the 2015 New Year, but believe it or not, on the drive down the Pitt Grade Road through nothing but boreal forest for many miles, a large bird flushed from the side of the road just after sunrise was lighting up the eastern sky and heavily wooded road edge… a GREAT GRAY OWL, flew out in front of the car, then quickly dipped back inside the trees!  Not the best look I’ve ever had of a Great Gray, but a stunning bird for your 1st bird of the New Year!

GGOW_Sax-Zim Bog_mid-Dec2014_JohnRiceKelsey1

NOT the kind of look we had of our Jan. 1st, 2015 Great Gray Owl, but I’ll take it!  Photo by John Kelsey.

BeltramiIslandCBC_1-1-15_S.Bailey

The Pitt Grade or Bankton Road through the large bogs in Beltrami Island S.F that Sheryl and I would be walking today. Photo by Steve Bailey.

As Sheryl and I prepared for our most-of-the-day hike down the Pitt Grade Rd. through the boreal forest, a logging truck passed next to us on the somewhat narrow road… Martin reminded us to pull our vehicle over as far as possible to the edge of the road to let the big trucks by… or they would move it for us if we were not around! The few trucks we saw had actually been cutting down relatively small birch trees!

Logging truck along Pitt Grade Rd._BeltramiIslandCBC_1-1-15_S.DeVore

A Beltrami Island S.F. logging truck going down the Bankton Rd. on count day. Photo by Steve Bailey.

Temperatures were pretty mild for this time of year, with highs in the 20’s!  Sheryl and I were very warm all day, though we had prepared for our “North Woods Experience” by purchasing new Sorel boots and basically entire outfits guaranteed to keep you warm at temperatures anywhere between -20 to -40, depending on the clothing.

Sheryl ready to hike the Pitt Grade Rd thru bog_1-1-15_S.Bailey

Sheryl preparing for our hike down the Bankton Rd. through the bog. Photo by Steve Bailey.

bog along Pitt Grade Rd  Beltrami Island CBC_1-1-15_S.Bailey7

Open area of the bog. Photo by Steve Bailey.

There was a beautiful clear blue sky, virtually no wind, and best of all, plenty of birds to see! And the birds!! The Pitt Grade Rd. through the boreal forest was beautiful, with no other people around, and only the occasional hunting camp to let you know that there were other folks using the area at times (though the area has obviously been logged over quite a bit over the years).

Hunting Camp along Pitt Grade Rd Beltrami Island CBC_1-1-15_S.Bailey

One of the 3-4 hunting camps we saw along the Pitt Grade Rd on count day. Photo by Steve Bailey.

Occasionally, a winding arm of the North Branch of the Rapid River would come into view and part of me wanted to follow it instead of the road.

RapidRiver along Pitt Grade Rd Beltrami Island CBC_1-1-15_S.Bailey7

North Branch of the Rapid River in the Beltrami Island S.F. Photo by Steve Bailey.

This was followed by flocks of Common Redpolls (totaling 56 birds on the day) right in the road as Sheryl and I began our walking route for the day, small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks (29), Gray (5) & Blue Jays (2) flying in close to investigate my Barred Owl imitation,

Common Redpolls along Aitkin County 18

Common Redpolls. Photo by Carl Greiner.

PIGR along Pitt Grade Rd. BeltramiIslandCBC_S.DeVore

Female Pine Grosbeak that came in close to Sheryl along the Pitt Grade or Bankton Rd. through Beltrami Island S.F. Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

Gray Jay

The Whiskey Jack or Camp Robber. Photo by John Kelsey.

and adorable little Red Squirrels, their chatter sort of the main voice of the North Woods.

RedSquirrel_PittRd.Grade BeltramiIslandCBC_1-1-15_SherylDeVore

A cute little Red Squirrel (an endangered species back home in Illinois, only found at/near Kankakee River S.P.). Photo by Sheryl DeVore.

There had not been much snow yet this winter, unlike years when you can’t walk off the road without stepping into snow up to your waist or drive down the road without pushing 2-3 feet of snow with the front bumper of your car (if you’re lucky enough to have four/front wheel drive). However, there was enough snow to see lots of animal tracks everywhere you went, including many Snowshoe Hare prints and some likely Gray Wolf tracks!

small mammal tracks_BeltramiIslandCBC_1-1-15_S.Bailey

Wolf tracks @ BeltramiIslandSF_1-1-15_S.Bailey

Small mammal & some possible Gray Wolf tracks (?) Photos by Steve Bailey

Our list for the day also included a heard only Black-backed Woodpecker & 2 Pileated, 4 Hairy & 5 Downy Woodpeckers, the “common” bird of the day most places, Black-capped Chickadee (25), 2 White-breasted & 3 Red-breasted Nuthatches, a couple groups of White-winged Crossbills (19 including several bright males!; who knew they would come in close to investigate Barred Owl calls?!) & 7 Common Ravens (a favorite bird, though of course I never see them in Illinois). (Two of the best books I’ve ever read on birds were about ravens, and they were both by the same author Bernd Heinrich [see http://blog.adampaul.com/2007/06/02/mind-of-the-raven-by-bernd-heinrich/ & http://www.forestsformainesfuture.org/fresh-from-the-woods-journal/bernd-heinrich-writer-academic-maine-forestland-owner.html ]. I would recommend any of Bernd Heinrich’s many books to bird or nature lovers!)  A Ruffed Grouse silhouetted against a setting sun at dusk, eating tree buds next to the road, made for a fitting and beautiful end to the day!

At the compilation after the count at two local wildlife biologists home, we talked them (including their young daughter!) into trying to call in a/some of the local wolves. They had done this many times in the course of their studies of the wolves, and even their young daughter had become very proficient at making very realistic wolf calls… and sure enough right after their first set of calls, a wolf howled back in the distance!  However hearing the biologists making realistic wolf howls was probably more interesting than hearing the real deal. Not the same as seeing a wolf, but possibly even better!  Two count participants also saw a cow Moose & calf on count day, and I saw a Pine Marten run across the road. A great first day… and I’m sure Sheryl was glad that we neither got lost in the forest or froze to death! Before we head out tomorrow, maybe we’ll get to see Dan eat some of the pancakes as big as your head at Alice’s Restaurant near our motel in Baudette, Dan & Barbara’s favorite place to eat!

at the Ranch House

Dan getting ready to chow down on some pancakes “as big as your head” at the diner now known as Alice’s Restaurant prior to beginning an earlier year’s Minnesota CBC, conveniently located near our motel. Photo by Barbara Williams.

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