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.