At Rainy Lake, fine birding for experts and novices alike

  • Article by: MIKE MOSEDALE , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2013 - 6:17 PM

At Rainy Lake, an otherwise knowledgeable outdoorsman tries basic birding.


– From the Twin Cities, it takes about six hours to reach this sprawling, island-studded lake along the Canadian border. From the moment I got my first clear look, I understood why so many in the hook-and-bullet crowd are willing to make the grueling drive: the place looks like a scene from the golden age of Hamm’s Beer art, pitch-perfect in every detail down to the on-cue wailing of the loons.

I didn’t make this trip to harass fishes or wild game. Instead, I came to improve the most embarrassing defect of my self-image as an informed outdoorsman: an ornithological skill set that makes me expert at distinguishing crow from pigeon, then falters woefully.

Poking around nearby International Falls, I asked around about the local birding opportunities and everyone said the same thing: talk to Lee Grim. A retired biologist with Voyageurs National Park, Grim has closely monitored the fortunes of the park’s most conspicuous avian citizen — the bald eagle — since 1973.

“We’ve got the densest bald eagle population in this area,” Grim said. “When I started, there were about five or six breeding pairs. Now we have 40.”

In the course of banding nestlings, Grim has gotten an up-close close look at the national symbol’s happy return from the brink — and its unusually opportunistic feeding habits.

“We’ve found carcasses from raccoons, loons and turkey vultures in nests. We found the radio tracking collar from a cormorant under one nest. And we always find lots of Rapalas and other types of fishing tackle,” Grim said. “One time, we found a dog toy — a stuffed goose — in a nest.”

Eagles are hardly the only notable feathered denizens of the area. Between Voyageurs and several adjacent state-owned lands, observers have tallied 238 species, including 68 deemed of conservation concern. Most of the Minnesota’s wood warblers breed here and, in winter, owls sometimes flood into the area from Canada. According to Grim, these irruptions — which include great gray, boreal and snowy owls — rival those of the state’s best known winter birding destinations such as the Sax-Zim Bog (which has the advantage of a location just three hours from the Twin Cities).

With early fall migration underway, Grim led me to one of his prime songbird spots — the home of his neighbor, Allan Meadows, on Jackfish Bay. As Meadows trained a camera with a bazooka-sized lens on a natural rock bird bath just outside the bedroom, he marveled at the variety of visitors. “It’s amazing what you capture in your own yard,” he said.

A ruby-crowned kinglet — barely larger than a hummingbird — flitted about and then perched on a lichen-dappled branch. Though we were only 10 feet away, I had trouble distinguishing the telling details until I peered at the display on Meadow’s camera, where every feather and glint of light was vivid. BIRDING PRACTICE

At Grim’s recommendation, the next day I rented a small fishing boat and putted across Rainy Lake’s Black Bay to a landing on the Kabetogama Peninsula — a roadless and wild 27-mile long swath of rocks, forests and lakes — and set out on the hiking trails, with a National Park Service birding check list in hand.

My first dose of birding novelty came with a racket — the familiar sound of a grouse flushing — followed by a flash of motion. The bird didn’t fly off in a straight line or race through the thicket on foot, the typical means of retreat of the ruffed grouse. Instead, it perched on a nearby evergreen tree. I detected an unfamiliar glint of color and realized this wasn’t a ruffed grouse, which are brown or gray, but the ruffie’s far less abundant relation, the spruce grouse.

Hoofing along for the next couple of hours, I did my best to identify the smaller birds I encountered. Those results were less definitive. Inspecting my checklist later, I found a preponderance of tentative question marks — even, I am embarrassed to admit, in the elemental matter of the woodpeckers.

In search of readily identifiable bird, I later drove by car about 20 miles west of International Falls. Grim had told me that sandhill cranes — unmistakable became of their size and general flamboyance — were recently spotted parading about the open fields in this lightly populated agricultural countryside.

As I approached the Big Fork River, I noticed a cluster of large birds assembled along the road. These were not the migratory cranes I was hoping for but, rather, an unusual commingling of bald eagles and turkey vultures.

When I stepped out to shoot a few pictures, the dozen or so birds took to wing. I peered into the roadside ditch, where the partly devoured carcass of a road-killed deer was bloating in the sun, and where the eagles and vultures imparted to this rube birder an enduring principle: Everyone loves a free lunch.


Mike Mosedale is a freelance journalist. He lives in Minneapolis.


  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Team Irvin 7:15 PM
Team Carter
Miami 96 FINAL
Chicago 84
Oklahoma City 49 3rd Qtr
Cleveland 57
Dallas 5:00 PM
New Orleans
Indiana 5:00 PM
LA Clippers 5:00 PM
Minnesota 5:00 PM
Detroit 6:00 PM
Milwaukee 6:00 PM
San Antonio
Boston 7:00 PM
Golden State
Washington 7:00 PM
Houston 8:30 PM
LA Lakers
Team Toews 4:00 PM
Team Foligno
South Florida 53 FINAL
Connecticut 66
Boston College 64 FINAL
Georgia Tech 62
Virginia 50 FINAL
Virginia Tech 47
Indiana 70 FINAL
Ohio State 82
Stony Brook 61 FINAL
Binghamton 54
Cincinnati 56 FINAL
UCF 46
Maine 70 FINAL
Hartford 61
Monmouth 64 FINAL
Manhattan 71
Fairfield 67 FINAL
Marist 73
Rowan 48 FINAL
Princeton 96
St Bonaventure 48 FINAL
Rhode Island 53
Duke 77 FINAL
St Johns 68
Saint Peters 69 FINAL
Siena 55
Drake 40 FINAL
Wichita State 74
Vermont 61 FINAL
UMass Lowell 50
Seton Hall 43 2nd Half 6:45
Butler 65
South Alabama 55
Northern Iowa 24 2nd Half
Illinois State 24
Louisville 40 2nd Half
Pittsburgh 30
UMBC 3:40 PM
Niagara 4:00 PM
Notre Dame 5:30 PM
NC State
Belmont 5:30 PM
Tennessee St
Creighton 6:00 PM
Northwestern 6:30 PM
Washington 7:30 PM
Senior-North 34 FINAL
Senior-South 13
Seton Hall 99 FINAL
Georgetown 85
St Johns 69 FINAL
Villanova 81
Arkansas 58 FINAL
Florida 72
Maine 56 FINAL
Vanderbilt 55 FINAL
Alabama 52
Lafayette 60 FINAL
Lehigh 65
SMU 57
Utah 51 FINAL
Washington 63
James Madison 73 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 53
Delaware 56 FINAL
Drexel 61
Hofstra 56 FINAL
William & Mary 57
Hartford 58 FINAL
Albany 82
Binghamton 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Towson 63 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 71
Wake Forest 80 FINAL
(17) Florida State 110
Georgia Tech 68 FINAL
Virginia 62
(22) Georgia 51 FINAL
(5) Tennessee 59
Drake 79 FINAL
Evansville 62
Iona 80 FINAL
Canisius 62
Fairfield 33 FINAL
Monmouth 59
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Penn State 76
Wisconsin 71 FINAL
Michigan State 77
Ohio State 79 FINAL
Purdue 71
Northern Iowa 57 FINAL
Indiana State 55
Butler 60 FINAL
Xavier 54
(2) Connecticut 96 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Creighton 84 2nd Half 4:54
Marquette 69
Providence 38 2nd Half 3:00
DePaul 83
Northeastern 60 2nd Half 4:54
Elon 63
Oregon 68 2nd Half 0:33
Arizona 69
Bradley 46 2nd Half 1:14
Loyola-Chicago 41
NC State 41 2nd Half 5:21
(23) Syracuse 57
(7) Maryland 70 2nd Half 5:44
Indiana 56
Illinois State 33 2nd Half 4:50
Missouri State 45
Colorado 29 1st Half 4:15
Washington St 23
Tulane 17 2nd Half
South Florida 33
(14) Kentucky 39 1st Half 1:50
Missouri 34
(9) Oregon State 27 2nd Half
(13) Arizona State 22
Vermont 3:30 PM
UMass Lowell
Iowa State 3:30 PM
(8) Texas
Southern Ill 3:45 PM
Wichita State
(15) Duke 4:00 PM
(12) North Carolina
Miami-Florida 4:00 PM
(4) Louisville
(21) Minnesota 4:15 PM
(25) Rutgers
California 5:00 PM
(11) Stanford 7:00 PM
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question