SNA Nature Notes - Fall 2023

minnesota department of natural resources

Nature Notes


Showy Lady's Slipper

Fall 2023

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Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly newsletter. Here's what's in this issue.


Where Hawks Fly Through Autumn Skies

By Kelly Randall, SNA Statewide Outreach Coordinator


In any given year tens of thousands of raptors can be seeing soaring over the autumn skies in Duluth, Minnesota. This spectacle has drawn visitors from near and far for decades to get a glimpse at this variety of hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls. We’ve asked Janelle Long, Executive Director Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory to talk with us about this annual flyover and what makes it so special.

American Bald Eagle

American Bald Eagle at Hawk Ridge. Photo by Karl Bardon, courtesy of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory


Q | What makes the Duluth/western Lake Superior area a primary migration route for hawks/birds of prey?

Birds follow major migratory flyways primarily affected by geographic features. Here in Duluth we have Lake Superior and these beautiful rocky ridges along its shore. Raptors coming south from the boreal forests—the Arctic regions in Canada—then follow that natural pathway along the shoreline of Lake Superior.
Other factors are warm air that will push up against the shore, which forms updrafts and warm pockets of air called thermals the birds utilize as an efficient way to fly.
What's neat during the fall at Hawk Ridge is we'll see all of this in action. Occasionally it looks like a tornado of birds in the sky, with clumps of raptors moving upwards. They're called kettles. For every mile gained in altitude, raptors can sometimes soar for several miles.
And again, what makes this a unique location?
Duluth is at the very western tip of Lake Superior. As birds are soaring down that shoreline, they're choosing not to expend more energy by migrating over Lake Superior. From here they head south and follow the Mississippi Flyway, a natural river corridor, finding food sources along the way to wintering locations.

Q | Where in Duluth can people see this annual hawk migration? And when?
Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, in Duluth, is the 365-acre natural area where you’ll find about 4 miles of hiking trails and the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. This nonprofit provides bird migration counts, bird banding research, and education programs for visitors and school groups. According to me (as executive director of the Observatory!) it is one of the best sites to view raptor migration during the fall.
We have that beautiful vantage point up at Hawk Ridge in a very accessible area right along East Skyline Parkway.
Late morning into early afternoon is good for watching, as warm air is rising creating thermals. Days with north to northwest winds are typically good migration days that bring in good numbers of raptors. Staff and volunteers are available daily 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM from September 1st through October 31st, except during inclement weather (rain or fog).

Bird counters

Bird counters. Photo by J Richardson, courtesy of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory


Q | What are some common birds seen (with a good pair of binoculars)? What about rare ones?
There can be 16 or more raptor species passing through during the fall migration. Smaller raptors like sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, and American kestrels start off the migration, but October is peak for larger raptors like American goshawks, rough-legged hawks, and red-tailed hawks. Broad-winged hawks are counted in the highest numbers with tens of thousands seen over the fall migration. Other highlights are peregrine falcons and large counts of both bald and golden eagles, as well as more uncommon species like Mississippi kites and Swainson’s hawks. Last fall, there was even a swallow-tailed kite counted!
But we're not just counting raptors. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory documents the migration of all birds, with 200 plus species throughout the fall. Everything from small warblers and sparrows to large species, like sandhill cranes and American white pelicans.

Q | What should a visitor bring to enhance their experience? New birder advice?
A primary thing is being prepared for the weather. There's not much shade at Hawk Ridge. Be prepared if it is hot early in the migration or as we head into cooler days in October. You’ll want to be appropriately dressed for spending time outside since the best way to view the migration is outdoors. Bring a chair.
And, yes, binoculars. If you have a good pair of binoculars, bring them. If you don’t, no worries—Hawk Ridge also has binoculars we freely loan to visitors who don't have them. Hawk Ridge naturalist staff and volunteers are very passionate about birds and teaching people about them. Visitors may even have an opportunity to see a raptor or songbird up close during one of our live bird education demonstrations!
Finally, bring birding gear you like while watching, like a spotting scope or field guides. If you're into photography, you can get some wonderful pictures. We do have a merchandise trailer with Hawk Ridge and birding gear available for purchase as well.

Q | Do you have any other recommendations for birding spots and what birds to look for in the western Lake Superior area?
Duluth is a great city for birding with many hot spots and a great variety of birds. One such place is along the lakeshore at Park Point and Minnesota Point Pine Forest SNA where you can see warblers in the spring as well as shore birds spring through fall. Along that long stretch of beach, you'll observe a lot of birds that are not normally seen at Hawk Ridge. The Saint Louis River estuary also has some great birding hot spots especially in the city’s natural area. And really, just about any trail in one of Duluth’s parks (162 of them!) can be a good option to see birds.
Further afield Sax-Zim Bog, about 45 minutes from Duluth, is famous for winter birding and a diversity of birds that live in the bog. They also offer education programs about bog and bird diversity.
The North Shore also has many great locations to hike and see birds, such as state parks and at Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center and Sugarloaf Point SNA.

Q | The City of Duluth has over 9,000 acres of park and natural areas. Many more acres of open space are nearby. What role do parks and natural areas play in migration?
All the green space and natural areas along the North Shore and in Duluth are important for bird habitat. For example, if it is foggy or rainy birds will utilize these areas to wait out poor weather. Birds also expend tremendous energy during migration, so they're frequently looking for food. Green spaces and natural areas are important places for finding food sources. Without that, birds must fly further, expend more energy, and may have a harder time making it to their winter destination.
Duluth is fortunate to have places like Duluth’s Hartley and Magney-Snively Natural Areas and the state’s Moose Mountain and Minnesota Point Pine Forest SNAs. And not only for birds, but for people too, to enjoy and see a great diversity of species that call those spaces home.

American Goshawk

American Goshawk. Photo by Karl Bardon, courtesy of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory


Q | What birds are you looking forward to seeing during this fall’s migration?
That's always a tough question. For me it's the whole season not just a specific bird. It's getting to see that interface between birds and people at Hawk Ridge. It’s a reunion of people coming back season after season as well as new people coming for the first time; it's just a unique, special place and time of year.
Yeah, I love birds, so it's hard for me to narrow it down.

Q | Anything else you’d like to share?
Hawk Ridge is also well known for owl banding research. The two most common owls banded at Hawk Ridge are northern saw-whet and long-eared owls. Visitors can participate in one of our evening owl programs to learn about Minnesota owls and owl banding research.
Find out about this program and other events by visiting Hawk Ridge in person or at It is an awesome opportunity if you can visit during those peak months in September and October!

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Wood-Rill location map

Site Highlight: Wood-Rill SNA

By Matt Johnson, SNA Communications Outreach Specialist


Before going to Wood-Rill SNA, I did a bit of research and came away with three major facts: Firstly, the site was named by the previous owners of the land, Bruce and Ruth Dayton. They based it on a line of poetry by William Wordsworth, “His daily teachers had been woods and rills/ The silence that is in the starry sky/The sleep that is among the lonely hills.”
Second, According to University of Minnesota Forest Ecologist Lee Frelich, individual trees in Wood-Rill SNA range from seedlings up to 350 years old, with many trees between 120-180 years old. This may come as a surprise, as Wood-Rill SNA is only about 20 minutes west of Minneapolis.
Finally, Wood-Rill SNA preserves an outstanding example of sugar maple "Big Woods" forest. This forest type is ranked S2, or imperiled, in the state and is increasingly rare in the developing metro-area. Having the opportunity to visit such a site was a unique experience, especially for someone like me, who lives in the heart of downtown St. Paul.

The green foliage of Wood-Rill SNA

The green foliage of Wood-Rill SNA. Photo by Matt Johnson


It was a quiet August afternoon when I, along with a friend, made our way into Wood-Rill SNA. It was immediately obvious that, despite the short drive, we had definitely left the city and stepped into a unique place teeming with biological diversity. One of the first things we noticed is how the site is filled with the sound of various bird calls. According to the interpretive panel in the parking area for the SNA, we were to keep an eye out for species such as the red-shouldered hawk, scarlet tanager, and pileated woodpecker. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to see any of them, but we could certainly hear a lot of birds!

Violet-toothed polypore

Violet-toothed polypore (Trichaptum biforme) at Wood-Rill SNA. Photo by Matt Johnson


We did, however, manage to see the plant life that dominates the landscape of the SNA. The dominant canopy trees at Wood-Rill SNA include red oak, basswood, sugar maple, and white oak. We also saw an abundance of violet-toothed polypores (Trichaptum biforme) which grow on at least 65 different tree hosts!

As we ventured deeper into the SNA, the foliage became denser, and the terrain much steeper. The hills in this area are the result of a mass of rocks and sediment carried and deposited by ancient glaciers— the St. Croix moraine. Wood-Rill SNA is home to other remnants of the glacial era as well, such as small ice-block depressions now a pond, sedge meadows, and a black ash swamp on the site's western perimeter.

We turned back soon after, as we had forgotten to bring mosquito repellent (a rookie mistake!), but as our agenda amounted to nothing more than an opportunity to get outside and appreciate nature, we felt like our trip was ultimately a success. As we made our way back, we finally saw the first other people at the SNA:  a family, two parents and a young child, hiking through the SNA. It was clear that, thanks to the gift of the Dayton family, this site could be appreciated by all generations, for many years to come.

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Visit the SNA Facebook page!


Staff Highlight: Chance Meyer


Chance Meyer is an SNA Technician based in the DNR’s south region.

Chance Meyer

Chance Meyer out on the prairie. Photo by Chance Meyer

What is the best part about your job (and why)?
I think that would be getting to work outdoors. As a technician I get to dig in and do the dirty work of improving our natural resources. I’m outside every day, in all sorts of weather, doing all sort of work. I get to be close to nature. “The prairie is my office” as I tell people. I see interesting plants and animals all the time whether it’s a doe bounding across the field, a dragonfly I coax to rest on my hand, a skink running through the grass, or a pheasant taking flight right in front of me after I startle it (and it startles me!). I’ve always loved taking in natural and wild spaces and being able to do it for a living is great.


What gets you excited about your work (and why)?
Nothing feels better to me than seeing a pristine piece of wilderness. Knowing that I’m doing the work to change disturbed land into a pristine piece of wilderness feels great. I get to use my body to do the physical work and my mind to make sure I’m doing it right whether with plant ID or applying management techniques, as well as other things. I went to school for Ecology and Wildlife Management and being able to put to use the knowledge I acquired always feels good. It also helps that projects shift and change over the course of the year, so I get to do different things from week to week or day to day.


What is your favorite way to spend time outdoors (and why)?
I think I most enjoy exploring new places. I like hiking new parks and taking new paths or finding little hidden spots off the trail (when appropriate). Like many people I’ve met over the years, I’d like to visit every state park in Minnesota and spend at least a little time exploring it, and I’m getting pretty close! Hiking is a great form of exercise and exploration helps me continue to experience new and exciting things. I also like how accessible hiking is and how it doesn’t really require much for preparation, it’s easy to include friends and family, and I can show off my knowledge of the natural world. Just pick a park, pack a lunch, bring a friend, and go.

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Research Roundup

Researchers on an SNA


Scientific research is encouraged on SNAs to advance the knowledge of natural systems and the species that inhabit them. Each year the Scientific and Natural Areas Program reviews over 60 applications for research, most of which are issued after review by local and statewide SNA management staff. Minnesota State Parks and Trails and The Nature Conservancy also review some applications. In addition to research permits, special use permits are issued for activities such as seed harvest for restoration efforts and for naturalist activities. So far, in 2023 staff have reviewed 67 applications. Projects issued permits this year include:

  • Impacts of conservation grazing on nest and brood survival of greater prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus cupido)
    Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Grouse Research
  • Exploring the fungi diversity of old growth forests
    University of Minnesota
  • Butterfly and habitat surveys at Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA
    Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
  • Understanding genetic and functional drivers of flower color variation in Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)
    Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden
  • Long-term stream biological monitoring network surveys
    Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
  • Assessing whether arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi aid in northern tallgrass prairies’ acclimation to climate change
    North Dakota State University
  • Minnesota wetland condition assessment
    Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
  • Bioacoustics for broad-scale species monitoring and conservation of red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
    University of Minnesota
  • Conservation and monitoring of Minnesota’s rare arctic plants at Sugarloaf Point
    University of Minnesota Duluth
  • Understanding constraints on reproductive success in western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara)
    North Dakota State University
  • Assessing the occurrence of non-native gooseberries and currents (Ribes sp.) on Minnesota Point
    University of Minnesota Duluth
  • Integrating evolutionary and migratory potential of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) into forecasts of range-wide population dynamics under climate change
    Davidson College (North Carolina)
  • Surveying lichens for contributing to the Great Plains lichen flora project
    University of Kansas R. L. McGregor Herbarium

New proposals are welcomed year-round, and the SNA Program encourages researchers, including university professors and independent scientists, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, to apply early. An application this fall or winter for work that proposed for 2024 would provide ample time for review and any needed follow-up. All researchers must submit a completed research application. Please note review of application may take up to 30 days or more.

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Notes from Site Stewards


Site stewards monitor SNAs across Minnesota. Their observations provide valuable information to the SNA Program. Summer prairie visits were regularly reported, with a variety of observations and tasks completed.

  • Stewards sometimes help with basic maintenance at their SNA, such as straightening boundary signs. That is what Mike Spry, steward at Santee Prairie SNA, did when he visited the SNA on June 8.
  • Site steward Jeff Kujath noted the long-term progress being made in reducing invasive Queen Anne’s lace at Osmundson Prairie SNA. On his July 28 visit he noted only about 15 plants, which he pulled.
  • While making observations on August 28 site steward Sara Reagan took photos of several moths and butterflies at Antelope Valley SNA. They included monarchs, green clover moth, painted lady, yellow-collar scrape moth, and the black swallowtail below.


Black swallowtail butterfly

Black swallowtail butterfly at Antelope Valley SNA. Photo by Sara Reagan

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SNA Events


Is it fall already? If you are ready for fall here are a variety of events scheduled for the coming months. To see the full list, visit the SNA events calendar.

Seed collection


09/30/23 Volunteer Stewardship Project: Collect Seed Spring Creek Prairie SNA
10/08/23 Golden Hour Fall Foliage Paddle Lost Lake Peatland SNA
10/21/23 October Stewardship Project Lost Valley Prairie SNA
10/21/23 Volunteer Stewardship Project: Pull Buckthorn Avon Hills Forest SNA
10/28/23 Volunteer Stewardship Project: Clear/Stack Brush Chamberlain Woods SNA
11/18/23 November Stewardship Project Lost Valley Prairie SNA

Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly newsletter (archive online). It seeks to increase interest, understanding and support of natural areas while promoting involvement in the protection of these special places. Contact us directly at


Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).