BIG STONE COUNTY – Many Minnesotans are under the mistaken impression that outdoor recreation choices are few in March and April. Lakes are usually covered with ice, and turkey hunting, though an option, keeps participants in the field only a few days.
What to do?
The answer is in the air, as the annual springtime migration of birds takes wing over Minnesota.
Nowhere is this truer than in the far western part of the state, in Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Swift counties. Each contains a portion of the 33,000-acre Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and Refuge, a haven for hunters come autumn that is routinely neglected by bird lovers — hunters and others — come March and April.
This spring posed especially exciting visuals for those who trekked to the Minnesota-South Dakota border region. The reason: The season’s weird weather stalled the migration of many birds at Lac qui Parle for an extended period.
Even some birds that had tried to migrate farther north to North Dakota and Canada were turned back to Lac qui Parle by stormy weather.
“The migration seemed to come all at once this year, rather than more staggered, as it has in recent years,” said Lac qui Parle area wildlife supervisor Curt Vacek.
Wanting to see the birds myself, I drove west a week ago. The intent wasn’t only to witness large numbers of winged creatures. I particularly wanted to document as many species of ducks as possible in their brilliant spring plumage, something hunters rarely have an opportunity to view in fall, when many fowl have yet to assume their fully colored featherings.
Waterfowlers who haven’t made springtime pilgrimages of this kind might at first wonder the point of it all, there being no guns, ammunition or stinky dogs involved.
But the sojourn’s reason quickly becomes obvious.
Fundamentally — assuming a visit’s correct timing — the sheer numbers of birds that can be seen, and their variety, is inspiring. Also, as before, the birds’ coloring is spectacular. Count also as a trip benefit the relative scarcity of people to disturb the visiting migrants, and soon fascination sets in.
As does the idea of returning the next spring, and the next and the next.
I found birds nearly everywhere.
Marsh Lake itself — a large, shallow body of water within Lac qui Parle — was mostly still frozen. But open water stretched along its shorelines and it was there, especially, that I found rafts of bluebills (scaup), canvasbacks, buffleheads, mallards and shovelers, along with a smattering of Canada geese and various shorebirds.
Lac qui Parle hosts other wildlife also, of course, including white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, turkeys and even the odd moose or elk.
“A few years back we had a wolf hit by a car not far from Montevideo,” said Vacek.
My trip didn’t coincide with the peak of Lac qui Parle’s stalled migration. That occurred some days before my arrival, when virtually everything with wings was on site, from bluebirds to flickers, to white-fronted geese, diving ducks such as redheads, and many other species.
“In recent years, we were starting to trend earlier and earlier in the springtime migration,” Vacek said. “This year, with a longer winter, the migration came later.”
About 10 miles south of Appleton, Minn., I found a federal waterfowl production area that was stuffed with ducks.
Mallards preened alongside bobbing bluebills, with wigeon and gadwall nearby. Also present were shovelers, grebes, goldeneyes, canvasbacks and redheads.
For a long while, I watched the birds through binoculars while parked in my truck on a gravel road adjacent to the perhaps 30-acre marsh. Then I walked nearer to the wetland’s shoreline, disturbing the birds only briefly before watching them settle again into their routines.
For the next half-hour, I enjoyed a visual spectacle I hadn’t witnessed before.
No doubt some birds I saw on that marsh have since moved farther north — many perhaps flying nonstop to make up for lost time, and to reach their nesting grounds soon enough to bring off a brood.
Even so, plenty of birds and other wildlife remain in the area, and will throughout spring and summer. A journey westward whenever time is available will be rewarded.
Looking ahead, bird watchers might particularly want to check out the 2014 Salt Lake Weekend (www.moumn.org/saltlake), sponsored each spring by the Minnesota Ornithologists Union. The outing’s guided tour of the area results in a nearly countless array of bird sightings.
Last year on the tour, 75 bird enthusiasts found 133 different species on their daylong excursion not only to Lac qui Parle but to nearby Salt Lake and Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.
Birds chronicled included cinnamon teal and Wilson’s phalarope, golden eagles, lesser and greater yellowlegs, white-faced ibis, long-billed dowitchers, a marbled gotwit and various grebes and terns, among other species.
Tour participants also get to sample life in small-town Minnesota — always a bonus — dining in a Legion club and a Sons of Norway hall. Camping among like-minded people is also an option.
“My fascination with spring migration is from a biologist’s perspective, as a naturalist,” Vacek said. “In fall, when the birds migrate back south, the predator in me switches on, and I watch the sky as a hunter.”
Both seasons have their advantages, and both are necessary for the survival of migrating birds.
Neither should be missed.