Birds can be easy to spot but hard to identify. More than 200 native species reside from Duluth up the North Shore plus some unusual birds can be seen on the highly traveled Lake Superior migration route. For identification, look for an app, or buy a field guide book. Minnesota’s state bird, the common loon, can be observed nesting, diving and swimming on inland lakes, spring to fall, while non-breeders linger on Superior’s shores. You will most likely spot Canada geese and snow gees plus a variety of ducks on Superior, too. One year round resident is the Herring gull, [mistakenly, but commonly called a seagull].
Some big birds you may spot along the shore include the bald eagle, which stands up to 3-feet tall with wingspans up to 7-feet. Immature bald eagles are often mistaken for golden eagles, which are slightly smaller and have an amber head and neck. Of the same size, is the turkey vulture, characterized by its red, featherless low-held head. The large great gray and snowy owls are up to four times the size of the native boreal and saw-whet owls. And then there is the pre-historic, red-capped pileated woodpecker [pictured here].
Lake Superior and northwest winds funnel migrating hawks down Superior’s shoreline each September. In mid-September, thousands of broad-winged, red-tailed, and rough-shinned hawks ride the thermals. In mid-October, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawsk and goshawks pass through. The osprey, largest of all hawks, builds nests along inland lakeshores. At 2-feet tall, with a five-to-six foot wing span, and a terrific head-first dive that makes a last minute minute switch to feet first, you’ll know the osprey when you see it.
Our north woods are host to timber wolves, moose, coyotes, black bear, white-tailed deer, pine marten, fisher, and beaver. Lots of folks hope to chance upon one of these mammals, but you can increase your opportunity for sightings by considering a few points. First, look in the right place, at the right time, keeping in mind the season.For instance, look for white-tailed deer yarded up midday in clearings during winter when snow is deep.Second, become aware of signs and when to read them. Winter is an ideal time to learn animal tracking. Third, be patient and bring binoculars. From September 1 through the end of the year, wear a blaze orange cap or jacket, too, since several hunting season are open at this time. Stay at least 50 feet away – they are wild animals after all.
The thick foliage and bounty of summer make wildlife sightings tougher. Consider spring and fall, when migration, courtship rituals and feasting mean high activity levels. If you have questions, stop by a Forest Service Ranger Station. Wildlife is their business. Both the Tofte and Grand Marais Ranger stations [on Hwy 61] have a variety of animal mounts, too.
Drive backroads in May before the trees leaf out, when the moose are filling their bellies on fresh browse. Drive the same roads at dusk in early December when the moose come out to lick the [de-icing] salt off the roads.
How delicious is it that while out ambling nature offers these delectable treats! The most common edible berries in the north woods are strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and high bush cranberries, which ripen in this order. Wild strawberries are tiny, if you find a thimble-sized one, it is a bonus. Look in mid- to late-June at dry edges of woods and in open fields. Blueberries grow in rocky upland forests, especially in areas where forest fires came through a few years prior. Picking begins around the 4th of July and continues through Labor Day and sometimes into September. Raspberries grow in cutover areas, producing juicy red fruit from July into August. If, when raspberry picking, you come across what appears to be a mammoth softer raspberry with less distinct lobes, you’ve discovered thimbleberries, which are also edible, although the flavor is bit more muted. And round your season of berries by heading out in late August into September for high bush cranberries. These bright red berries grow in clusters on bushes overhanging lakeshores and in bogs and swamps.
Ours eye are often drawn to the big view – the amazing waterfall, the panorama of the Lake Superior, the river gorge. While you’re out and about, take time to look down. The shaded habitat of wooded river edges favors little spring flowers like spring beauties, trillium and columbine. No need to hike to see flowers. Marsh marigolds fill spring ditches with masses of yellow heads. Then in June the lupine [shown here] spread across hillsides. Throughout summer contrasting daisies and black-eyed Susans, set the stage for tall willowy hot pink fireweed.
Unique or infrequently seen wildflowers grow in mini-tundra ecosystems found along the shore, including the Butterwort Cliffs. It is located a few miles northeast of, but still within, Cascade River State Park. [Note – it is illegal to pick or dig up wildflowers within state parks]. Butterwort is a small carnivorous plant typically found closer to Hudson Bay and north. It grows in fragile mats with sticky yellow-green leaves. Another carnivorous flower is the northern pitcher plant, found in swampy areas and where shallow creeks join lakes. It looks a bit like a muted red lady’s slipper. The lady slipper, Minnesota’s state flower, can sometimes be seen in openings in wooded areas where you may also spot wild lilies and orchids.
Enjoy the flowers!