Birding Brainerd: Gull Lake Recreation Area and Northland Arboretum

Gull Lake Recreation Area

Every summer we take at least a couple camping trips with Melissa’s parents and our two nieces.  Usually we stay at state parks, but we procrastinated a little too much on making reservations and ran out of time to get a couple camping sites on a weekend. Fortunately Melissa stumbled on to a great alternative which appears to be one of the best-kept secrets in the camping world.  Until now.  It turns out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recreation areas at many of their various projects.  And usually those recreation areas have a full-fledged campground.  So we booked a couple sites at the Gull Lake Recreation Area near Brainerd – a halfway point between our home and Melissa’s parents’ home.

This past weekend we camped at Gull Lake, and I was thoroughly impressed with what those Army engineers have done.  Never have there been more level, well-maintained sites.  Never has there been a better public shower house in a campground.  And never has there been better engineered service. Within minutes of arriving, a small squad of park rangers shows up on their Ranger utility vehicle to check us in and deliver firewood right to the fire pit.  And after they hand you your receipt and tell you your firewood purchase is tax deductible, they ask if there’s anything else they can do.  I would bet they’d even refill your Coke, that’s how good they are.


The overkill and built-in redundancies by the Army’s engineers is both laughable and enjoyable.  See, they really just needed to build this tiny dam with a one-lane bridge to hold back the drainage of 10 lakes in the Gull Lake Chain, keeping Gull Lake 5 feet higher than normal and preventing the Mississippi River from getting out of hand downstream, but then they confiscate huge chunks of land on either side of it for who knows what reason.

Gull Lake Recreation Area

One side of the bridge is the finely engineered campground; the other side is a large point on Gull Lake named Government Point (the engineers must have named it)  with a beach and boat launch and lots of government buildings and this mysterious small structure.  Perhaps a missile silo as part of our defense against Canada, eh? The small size and limit of one would fit that theory since it is just Canada.


But this blog is about birding and not just about Canadian conspiracy theories.  I was able to get out and do some birding on Government Point.  I had to smile when I proved a law of birding true.  That law is that once a lifer is seen, they show up everywhere. It’s the law that kept me from sweating that I saw a Pine Warbler last week and Evan didn’t see it because I knew the floodgates would open up for the Pines after that first sighting.  Yep, it turns out those Army engineers even designed a perfect territory for this guy.

Pine WarblerThis particular warbler has class, choosing the nicest, tallest White Pine right by those government buildings to call his home.


After this discovery on my first morning birding walk, I was eager to get back to share this news with Evan.  The warbler was singing on territory and wasn’t going anywhere, and it was a short hike from the camper.  Evan, indeed, wanted to come see it along with Marin and cousin Hannah.  Before we got there I played the song for the kids so they could listen for it on the way there.  Once we got within 200 yards of the location, the kids were excitedly exclaiming that they heard it.  Fast learners! Then the challenge was to spot it.

Evan, Marin, Hannah

Many will deride the Pine Warbler, citing its drabness.  But I like it.  Maybe that’s because it took me so long to find it – kind of like the girl who played hard-to-get phenomenon.  Or maybe that’s because it is better at picking habitat than the other warblers.  Our majestic Red and White Pines are beautiful whether alone or in large stands.  Good choice, Mr. Pine.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine WarblerI spent a lot of time with this warbler observing and photographing it.  When there is no pressure to find a life bird, I really enjoy spending time watching and photographing a particular species that I enjoy.  It was fun to watch this guy as he sang his heart out constantly, shaking his whole body with each song.  I really like their trilling song which is a higher, sweeter version of a Chipping Sparrow’s song.

My birding was pretty relaxed overall.  I mostly photographed birds that presented photo ops, and I got pictures of birds I’ve never “shot” before.  Many, like this Turkey Vulture, were practically begging to have their photo taken.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I even relented and took my first ever American Robin picture.  Probably my last too.

American Robin

American Robin

I saw several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  My best look came when I didn’t have a camera and one was on a tree just a couple feet in front of my face.  I had a similar experience with a Veery that came waltzing through the campsite while I was having coffee with my father-in-law.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

A loud drumming on a bird house at one point alerted me to this female Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

I also finally got a photo of an Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe - purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe – purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

And a relatively common bird during migration that was fun to see and hear on territory was the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Myrtle's Yellow-rumped Warbler

Myrtle’s Yellow-rumped Warbler

While I did some casual birding on this trip, Evan was moving on to other scientific pursuits, like marine biology, studying various snail shells and the invasive Zebra Mussels.


Though I spent some time just enjoying and photographing birds, I did make one quest to find a lifer.  The Wood Thrush has eluded me thus far.  A local birder recommended hiking the trails at the Northland Arboretum right in the city of Brainerd.  With 12 miles of trails through various types of forest it sounded promising.

Aspen Grove

Mature Stand of Aspen

The mosquitoes were incredibly fierce and abundant, though.  I was wearing long sleeves, pants, and the hood from my sweatshirt.  Even with repellant on the few square inches of exposed skin, I was getting destroyed.  I didn’t know what I’d do if I had to stop walking to look at a bird.  But then I found out what I’d do when I recognized the song of a former nemesis bird, the Blue-headed Vireo!  Once again that old birding law proved true. I endured countless bites as I tried so hard to get a photo of this bird.  It’s such a looker and one of my favorites, yet I couldn’t do it justice.  But I didn’t care too much because self-preservation was taking over.  I had a literal cloud of mosquitoes around me and had to keep moving.   My face was already swollen to twice its normal size.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

I had one other good sighting at the Arboretum that I identified after-the-fact when looking at photos.  It turns out a high-flying raptor that went overhead was a Peregrine Falcon!

I also got to see a Brown Thrasher, but I could not turn up a Wood Thrush either by sight or sound.  As I was nearing the end of my walk and going by a wetland, I saw this pile of baby Mallards, literally and photographically crushable as they were just 6 inches off the path.

Baby Mallards

Baby Mallards

Seeing this mass of Mallard babes reminded me of one of those contests where you try to guess how many marbles are in the jar.  But if we were playing that game on the blog, you’d all lose because Momma Mallard had Momma’s Boy off to the side, throwing off the count.  Apparently she wasn’t too concerned that the bulk of her children were one stray bike tire from being obliterated.

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

So, there would be no Wood Thrush.  The hunt goes on.  I may have to continue the fight back home.  Overall, though, it was some good side-birding on a camping trip.  A lifer for Evan and some good looks at fun birds is nothing to sneeze at.

No Lyin’ – Lyon County Has Unique Birds

The other night when my wife and I were on a date she took out her phone for a moment.  I figured it was as good a time as any to do likewise.  No, I wasn’t interested to see who texted me or check on sports scores.  Instead I wanted to check for any intel from the field, bird-wise that is.  Scanning the Minnesota Birding Facebook group posts, I saw one that got me fired up – 5 White-faced Ibises in Lyon County.  Lyon County is where I just was the day before when we got the Ross’s Goose.  I told Melissa that it looked like I’d be heading back to the southwest in the morning.  I put the birding aside and continued on with the date – until I got home.  Then I checked Birding Across America for any other info out of Lyon.  I saw that my Cottonwood reporter was at it again – one Cattle Egret and 36 Smith’s Longspurs at the Cottonwood sewage ponds that evening.  Yep, I was headin’ southwest in the morning.

I brought the kids along.  I knew Evan wouldn’t want to miss a potential 3-lifer day (one of which was an ibis!).  Plus we would be in the neighborhood of Lyon County’s Garvin Park – a campground with a playground so new and enormous that none can compare. With lunch, pillows, blankets, and movies, we were off on an adventure of undetermined length.

When we arrived at Sham Lake I looked for Cattle Egrets but came up empty.  Almost as soon as I pulled in, though, a car pulled up behind me.  I see a young man get out, binoculars in hand, and come up to my window.  Could it be this young fellow whose eBird reports I salivate over?  Sure enough, it was him.  We visited for quite awhile about the unique birds in the area, and he told me the first-hand account of seeing those 16 Cattle Egrets on his way to school a couple days prior.  By the looks of him I figured him to be a college student in his early twenties. As he talked about first waves of the warbler migration and nesting Western Kingbirds, I assumed he was in some sort of biology or naturalist program.  That is, until he told me he stopped by to do a bit of birding before going to prom that afternoon.  I didn’t even know what a warbler was until I was in my thirties. Sheesh.  We didn’t get any Cattle Egrets there, but I got something almost as good – the contact information of this local birding kingpin.  Those kingbirds shall be ours this summer.

After we parted company, the kids and I went to the poop ponds looking for the egret and longspurs.  We struck out.  Now we were 0 for 2 on the morning.  On the way out of town we stopped by both Cottonwood Lake and the slough south of town.  It was good to see that our Ross’s Goose was still hanging on.


The kids were beyond anxious to get to Garvin Park.  But we had to look for our main target first – the White-faced Ibises.  Five of them had been reported at Black Rush WPA just east of Camden State Park on County Road 59.  We drove the road back and forth a half dozen times or more.  I was looking deep in the thick cattail marsh thinking that they were lurking somewhere out of easy viewing.  Nothing.  0/3 now.  It was time to go to the park – the big draw for the kids.  In their world, it must have felt like an eternity until we got there around 12:30.  Good thing we didn’t get there much sooner!

IMG_8153My goodness did those kids play hard and long in the chilly, windy weather.  I was content to let them do so.  Melissa was ill and bed-ridden all day back home, and I figured we’d have a better shot at those ibises on the return trip the closer it got to evening.


Birding at Garvin was limited.  It was way too early for that Cerulean Warbler to be back, but it was nice to see and get some photos of a couple Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

Yelloww-bellied Sapsuckeer

Yelloww-bellied Sapsuckeer

This bird will always be a notable one for me.  Two years ago when Evan and I knew nothing about birds – well, he knew a lot more than me – we went on a birding walk with a naturalist at Bearhead Lake State Park.  The first bird our guide pointed out to us was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  It was a rather odd-looking woodpecker with a funny name.  It sounds like an insult you’d hurl at somebody.

IMG_8143It was pretty neat to see him working so hard at his name-sake – sucking sap.

IMG_8152So, the blog post could very well have ended right here since we struck out on all three targets.  Thankfully, though, it doesn’t.

Just at the time we were getting ready to leave the park, I got an update that someone had seen the ibises just now!  We were 15 minutes out.  We hustled on over there and flushed the 5 White-faced Ibises as we drove County Road 59! A lifer and a very cool one at that.

White-faced Ibises

White-faced Ibises

They were actually smaller than I imagined.  These birds were very skittish and would land 50 yards up the road, bobbing and weaving in the cattails and marsh grasses as they went along foraging for food.

IMG_8160IMG_8165We spent a good deal of time driving up and creeping on these birds only to have them flush a short distance and always together as a group of five.


They were very loyal to the ditches along either side of the road.IMG_8191What a life bird this was.  A small colony of them nest in South Dakota, so we do get them as scarce visitors every spring in Minnesota.  I remember thinking last year what a strange bird this was and even more strange that it can be seen in our state.


1 for 3.  Not bad considering this is the bird that pulled us southwest again just two days after our last trip.  We couldn’t go home and not check out the Cottonwood area again. Alas, there still was no Cattle Egret.  I wouldn’t classify it as a nemesis bird yet, but rather just a really annoying bird that was getting under my skin.

There were a few interesting shorebirds at the poop ponds, though.  I’m terrible at shorebird identification, but I knew they were peeps.  I was frustrated because my camera battery had just died, and I couldn’t take photos to ID later.  I did manage to have enough power to get just one image of this bird which we determined to be our Baird’s Sandpiper lifer.  I don’t get too excited about most shorebird lifers because there’s always an element of doubt as to what it is.  It’s not like a Blue-headed Vireo or Scarlet Tanager.  Those ones are easy to tell and worthy of a fist pump.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

Well, this guy’s pretty cool, I guess – worthy of a suppressed ‘yay’.

It was a good trip.  You can’t complain about a White-faced Ibis lifer coupled with a bonus shorebird lifer.  You can complain about a dead battery, though.  Lyon, we shall be back for more of your treasures with a fully charged camera next time.