The Blue Mounds State Park – Birding the Big Blue!

The Blue Mounds State Park – Birding the Big Blue!

The Blue Mounds State Park

My companions are my wife, Les Rogers and Louise K and our new new found friends Wu and Dr. Ling Min from Taiwan. They have arrived in South Western Minnesota to spend a weekend and to build their life list of birds and friendships.

Dr. Ling Min is a wildlife veterinarian, she has pursued her studies at the Endemic Species Research Institute in Taiwan. Ling Min has been selected to serve a two year internship and is working with Dr. Julia Ponder-UMN Raptor Center-Veterinary Medicine College. Ling Min has been trained in handling American Bald Eagles, Falcons and other large birds of prey in the USA.

Her husband Wu studied political science and then became interested in wildlife & geography. After his military service discharge he chose to work at the Endemic Species Research Institute/Ornithology Lab and recently completed a two year field research project.

The Raptor Center is affiliated with the University of Minnesota and over the years it has garnered a well deserved National and International reputation for its expertise in the veterinary & conservation sciences of raptor rehabilitation, education & research. The Raptor Center treats injured bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks and owls of all species. All of these birds are federally protected so the area the Raptor Center serves, knows no state boundaries. Their reputation continues to grow as the public becomes aware of the good they do. The Raptor Center is celebrating its 40 year anniversary, they currently treat between 700 and 900 birds of prey yearly.

The alarm clock rang at 4:30 a.m., it seemed a bit early, yet we rose with great vigor knowing full well that we had a 50- 50 chance of bad weather and exceedingly high winds. With a devil may care attitude we donned rain gear and set forth in light sprinkles. Our destination was the Blue Mounds State Park. A short 30 minute drive from my home. The Blue Mounds is noted for its bison herd. It also continues to be one of the best kept secrets in the MidWest. It defies the topographic flatness that much of the midwestern tall grass prairie has to offer. If you motor by on interstate 90 you don’t get a sense of its presence, you can’t see the elevation and the 1 ½ billion year old rock outcroppings of Morton Gneiss, commonly called Sioux Quartzite. Few people know that this rock was positioned on the equator about 500 million years ago and recently the American Geological Society has come to understand that a curious phenomena occurred during this epoch. The Morton Gneiss was situated on a equatorial shoreline and yet there were signs of ice and snow at this geologic time & place.

Today the Oak leaves are the size of squirrels ears and it means the spring warbler migration is in full progress. The conditions aren’t great, it’s windy, sky is grey and the humidity is begging the rain to fall. We arrive at the Blue Mounds at dawn and park at the historic rock quarry. We immediately see a dozen or so Turkey Vultures playing off the breeze that lifts and rises over the tall rock cliffs. This is my ancestral homeland, The rock quarry is a place that I grew up playing in the rocks and crevasses. I know most every boulder and rock. When the effort is made to get up earlier than usual you are allowed special privileges. You are able to heighten your awareness because it is quiet, no motor noise, just the wind building a stout breeze. This wind keeps our warbler friends closer to the ground and closer to the cliff line as they seek protection in the wind shadow of the cliffs. My new found friends have traveled some distance to go birding and I have an inkling of concern that I must not fail to produce some birds!

After a short walk to the quarry we see a precious few birds. Our companions make for good company and we dispel any notion of the fact that the weather might be getting worse. We decide to rock climb to the top of the quarry, it is a good climb for people that are not faint of heart and it is easier if you are blessed with long legs. Throwing caution to the wind, everybody made it to the top!

If you have not been to the top of the Blue Mound State Park you have a limited sense of the landscape in which you reside. The view is incomparable, if you have a spotting scope & on a crystal clear day you can see the water towers in Luverne, Rock Rapids, Magnolia, Adrian, Rushmore & my town (Worthington) that is 30 miles in the distance. You can also see Iowa and the glowing lights of Sioux Falls South Dakota on an ordinary night. You can sense the curvature of the earth from this elevation.

We catch our breath and commence to hike in the treetops of the mighty oaks that are growing at the base of the cliffs far below.
Mist is in the air and the rocks become slippery. We could not climb back down if this continues! Alas, as I peer downward into the boughs and branches of the bur oak trees we get a truly good sighting, an Indigo Bunting is a most brilliantly colored bird. You live a life deprived if you have never seen this jewel of nature. Bird books with all the latest photography & printing technology can not capture the essence of an Indigo Bunting. These bird are in our midst and yet they remain invisible to the public unless you seek them out. They are small and a bit reclusive, but worth every effort once revealed.

The enthusiasm our companions display is infectious. We all spot a hawk high in the sky and I hesitate to identify the species for fear of being wrong. Wu then speaks up and confidently states that it is a Broad winged Hawk and that it is 2 years old! I try to grasp how he is able to ascertain that information and turn to him and ask, “how do you know?”. With a smile he states that the tail feathers of this Broad wing are slightly different in marking than an adult Broad wing because of the juvenile molt. I am humbled by his knowledge.

The Tennessee Warbler is another bird that confused me and my binoculars. I ask Wu how he could so confidently and quickly identify this nondescript bird? Wu stated “if you look at the white eyebrow, the dark eye line, the gray head, and the thin pointed bill & white under parts, there is nothing particularly identifiable… it must be a Tennessee Warbler!  Bird after bird, we walk through the bur oaks in the high elevations of the Blue Mounds. When we get back to the car, Wu systematically jots down every species that we have seen. I had hoped to present them with the sighting of a Blue Grosbeak and an Upland Sandpiper. Alas, they did not appear. Our friends were not disappointed because they had seen these in previous outings.

We spent the day in pursuit and by the days end we identified 54 or 55 species. Had I gone out by myself, I would have returned with perhaps 35 species. The Blue Mounds State Park Adventure added two species that Wu and Ling Min had not seen before. They were able to add them to their “life list.” My life list is perhaps 80 to 120 different species……I haven’t counted. I asked Wu about his life list and he was able to add the two additional species provided by the Blue Mounds trek & the total came to 909 species!

If you weren’t an avid birder the day was cloudy, cold, grey and miserable. Shoulder to shoulder we hiked with our new birding companions, we found the day quite enjoyable.

The miles we hiked, we came to realize that the adventure is in our own backyard.

Bill Keitel

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