This morning, my wife, Janet, and I walked a segment of the Heartland Trail that we hadn’t visited for a while.
It wasn’t long before I realized that this stretch was the perfect place for a bird walk with beginning and intermediate birders to learn and improve skills for identifying many of the local breeding species.
I highly recommend this walk for you on a calm morning in June, when the birds are most vocal on their territories. The earlier in the morning the better, but we walked between 8 and 9 a.m. and the birds were very active.
This walk begins at the junction of the Heartland Trail and 189th Avenue, a north-south dirt road connecting State Hwy. 34 and County 112 (opposite Up North Power and Sports). Park off the road at the Heartland Trail crossing and work your way east toward Dorset, about 1-1/4 miles away.
There are multiple reasons this walk is so good. First, the paved trail allows you to find birds without having to wade through poison ivy and ticks, both of which are plentiful right now. Second, the first stretch of about a quarter-mile is quite open, with a narrow band of trees on the north side and mostly brush on the south side. Beyond on both sides are open fields. These relatively open habitats support species like yellow warbler, gray catbird, house wren, indigo bunting, clay-colored sparrow and vesper sparrow (which nests in the fields, but perches in the trees). Because the area is so open, the chances of getting great views of the birds are exceptional.
Third, after passing the final bluebird house (which has nesting eastern bluebirds now), the trail enters deeper woodland and the species present change accordingly. Bird species have specific habitat requirements, so when you enter a new environment, expect to encounter different species. There will be some overlap, but certain new species here are typical of more extensive forest.
Soon you will be hearing red-eyed vireos, ovenbirds, eastern wood-pewees (an obscure flycatcher similar to the eastern phoebe), scarlet tanager, American redstart and black-and-white warbler. Great crested flycatchers can be found in both habitats.
Because the leaves are out, birds can be very difficult to see. But song is everywhere. Yes, it can be an overwhelming cacophony of sounds if you’re just starting out. What you need to do is focus on one particular song you can single out from the din and try to spot that one bird with your binoculars (essential!!). Use your bird identification guide to identify it. There’s no better way to learn birds than to focus on a singing bird, being patient until the bird comes into view, and then associating that song with the bird you identify in your guide.
It takes a long time to learn bird songs. But once you’ve got some of the common species down, you’ll be rewarded because, on a typical day, you’ll probably only see 10 percent of the birds that you hear. Learn one song at a time. There are plenty of websites for helping you learn the songs. Make use of these or birding apps you can get for your cell phone and have more fun birding!
Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.