March 21, 2012: Promise me that sometime in the next year or two you’ll go visit the relatively new Big Bog State Recreation Area (SRA) up near Red Lake in northern Minnesota. It’s not as far as you think…a quick 200 miles from Duluth. And they have a brand-spanking new visitor center with some great displays about the ecology of Black Spruce bogs. And a flock of Sandhill Cranes “flying” overhead down the main corridor. But the highlight at the Waskish site for the young and young-at-heart is the renovated firetower.

I climbed up the ever-smaller and steeper steps to the top. Calm on the ground, it was howling wind up at the top. Spectacular views over Red Lake (the largest lake completely in the borders of MN and 16th largest in the U.S. at 443 sq miles!). I recorded a short video segment while hunkered out of the wind at the top, hoping out loud that a Bald Eagle would fly by. And within 10 minutes, one did! These images were shot through the fencing at the very top of the firetower. The eagle was so close that I couldn’t fit the entire bird in the frame! But I still think it works. (Don’t tell anyone, but I like the plumage of immature’s more than adults…Scandalous!) Note the eagle’s nictating membrane is closed over its eye in image 2.

Located about 13 miles north of the visitor center is the crown jewel of the park—a one-mile long Bog Boardwalk that lets you experience a Black Spruce bog without getting your feet wet! But it took me awhile to get started on the trek because the dirt parking area was alive with early-emerging butterflies and moths. Thanks to a very mild spring, several Mourning Cloaks, Commas, Red Admiral, and tortoiseshells were out of hibernation a bit early. I also got my best-ever photo of the stunning Compton Tortoiseshell, a large holarctic species, that is also among the longest-lived species at 10 months or more.

For someone who’s tramped a fair number of bogs in rubber boots and headnet, access to the bog itself was not the highlight. The most interesting part to me was the ample natural history signage located along the boardwalk. Most fascinating was the fact that this bog was home to the last remaining herd of Woodland Caribou in Minnesota…and that they hung on to the 1940s. Of course, this was also a scouting trip to examine the boardwalk itself, as this is the type Friends of Sax-Zim Bog (www.SaxZim.org) would like to construct to give birders access to boreal bog birds. It is also built so that the bog underneath will get enough sunlight and moisture and continue to thrive.

Stay tuned! More installments of my NW Minnesota trip coming up.

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