|Mille Lacs Kathio State Park|
Soaring eagles and osprey, staging loons, gliding gulls and migrating waterfowl and warblers are just a few of the highlights of Mille Lacs Lake.<br><br>This is one of the largest lakes in Minnesota, encompassing 132,510 acres and 76 miles of shoreline. In conjunction with the thousands of acres ...
Mille Lacs Lake / IBA – West and North Shores
|Description: If you’re looking for easy bird watching, then a drive along the north and west shores of Mille Lacs Lake is perfect. This is a favorite destination for local birders who are always on the watch for unusual species to show up on the “big lake”. In the land of more than 10,000 lakes, it is Minnesota’s second-largest lake with a surface area of 207 square miles.
This drive is also included in the Audubon Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Important Bird Area (IBA), which encompasses the entire water body and islands, the surrounding shoreline, as well as significant areas adjacent to the lake. The total IBA covers 239,586 acres.
Significant lands within the IBA include Mille Lacs Kathio and Father Hennepin State Parks, the Lake Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, state and county forestry lands, and six state wildlife management areas (WMA). Claiming just a bit over a half acre total, Spirit and Hennepin Islands also comprise the entire Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, the smallest in the country.
In addition to wildlife watching, the beautiful lake country landscape and relaxed atmosphere of this area is notable. In May the woods come alive and forest floors carpeted with ephemeral wildflowers in dappled light, are home to spotted fawns and warblers are on the wing. Spring ephemeral and summer wildflowers, from spectacular waves of large-flowered trilliums to showy lady slippers to black-eyed Susans, abound. Other wildflowers, such as bloodroot, hepatica, nodding trillium, trout lily, blue flag iris, wild calla, Indian paintbrush, small purple-fringed orchids and yellow and pink lady slippers, reward the eye throughout the seasons.
Visitors enjoying outdoor activities flood the small towns during summer. Maple, basswood and oak dominate the forested shoreline and tamarack, black spruce, aspen and black ash prevail in the lowlands. The entire 76-mile shoreline is a spectacular drive in autumn when the forests are painted in shades of rust, scarlet, pumpkin and gold. Autumn migration begins, soon followed by the quiet of winter.
Wildlife to Watch: This is one of the best places in the state to see bald eagles. In early spring before the ice breaks up on the lake, the inlet creeks teem with thousands of northern pike, muskie and carp. Look for opportunistic eagles that perch in nearby trees to take advantage of easy hunting. As spring progresses, you can hardly miss the eagles soaring or sitting in trees bordering the highway—at peak times there may be one every 100 yards! Massive eagle nests may be seen throughout the area too. Bald eagles have been de-listed as a federal endangered species. While it may not seem so because of all the eagles you’ll see in Minnesota, the birds are still considered federally threatened and a state species of special concern.
Scan the large flocks of birds on the water during the summer. Ring-billed gulls are common—but see if you can discover some herring gulls in the group. There is a long boulder pile close to the highway on the west lakeside where gulls, and sometimes other waterbirds, often rest. You’ll also see them hanging out on many of the docks and perching atop shore stations and launches all around the lake. Smaller shorebirds scurry along the lake margin of rock and sand. You might even get a glimpse of a ruddy turnstone!
You may spot ospreys hunting from on high or double-crested cormorants drying their outstretched wings. Mallards and common mergansers regularly float near the shore of this 132,000-acre lake. Look for red-winged blackbirds singing and swinging on cattails and great blue herons stalking fish in the shallows.
Later in the summer, wild rice is found along some parts of the lake, so wherever you see rice beds, check for ducks feeding and seeking shelter from winds that blow in from the northwest. Shorter day length and cooler weather bring not only changing leaf color, but also rafts of staging loons, congregating Bonaparte’s gulls and waterfowl, especially common goldeneyes. During fall migration, also watch for American white pelicans, tundra and trumpeter swans, and common and red-breasted mergansers on the lake. Several species of birds not normally found in Minnesota, such as red-throated and Pacific loons, have been seen here during fall migration.
Early in the last century, the islands had a natural colony of purple martins nesting among the rocks. In time, the population declined. Today, purple martins have returned in greater numbers to Mille Lacs due to the tireless effort of dedicated individuals, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, DNR Nongame Wildlife Program and members of the Purple Martin Working Group. First-class housing units have been erected and you may get fairly up close and personal with purple martins at Eddy’s Resort on the west side of the lake. Another martin house is located off Twilight Road on the southwest corner of the lake, just before the road turns to the east. If you’re being “bombed” by the birds, you are too close!
The Mille Lacs IBA is especially important for resident and migratory birds. Of the 231 bird species recorded for this IBA, there are 62 documented Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). This categorization indicates species whose populations are rare, declining or vulnerable. The IBA provides a safe haven during migration for a variety of waterfowl, gulls, marsh birds and passerines that use the area to concentrate, eat, wade and loaf before moving on.
Finally, on the north side of the lake is the 15,042-acre Wealthwood State Forest, another spot for wildlife watching. However, the soil in the forest is fragile, often holding water until mid-summer, so it is important to tread lightly if you wander off the unmarked rustic roads. The southern portion of the forest has a rolling topography that is the result of past glacial activity and contains small wetlands with stands of mixed hardwoods. Moving to the north, the land levels off. The DNR manages wild rice and waterfowl in the WMA cooperatively with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Wealthwood provides habitat for white-tailed deer, black bears, fox, coyotes, porcupines, striped skunks, gray squirrels and other small mammals, ruffed grouse and many songbirds. If you’re lucky you might even spot a sharp-tailed grouse, short-eared owl, sandhill crane or possibly an opossum, Minnesota’s only marsupial.
Strictly from a distance: In 1915, rocky Spirit and Hennepin Islands, near the south end of Mille Lacs Lake, were designated as the Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge as a haven for colony-nesting birds. Early recognition of the importance of protecting this fragile boulder environment for the not-so-common, common tern was critical.
The common tern population dropped dramatically through the years, from more than 2600 nesting pairs in Minnesota to fewer than 400 pairs in 1992. Efforts to monitor and manage the population and habitat have brought limited success. Mille Lacs NWR holds one of only four common tern breeding colonies in the state. Currently, the common tern is listed as a species of special concern in Minnesota and a species of high priority in all Bird Conservation Regions.
Major threats to common terns are competition for nesting sites with ring-billed gulls, weather and human disturbance. There is no public access to either of these small islands. But, that need not discourage you from experiencing these special assets—use binoculars or spotting scopes to see from the main lakeshore.
Special Tips: Bring along a spotting scope, binoculars and a bird book to identify the many birds you’ll be seeing. Using binoculars or a spotting scope is the best way to view birds without disturbing reproductive activity. Keeping your distance is important.
Traffic is often heavy, especially during the summer, on the two-lane highways. There is an old frontage road that runs alongside part of the west shoreline, which is more conducive to slow going. The west and north shores are primarily residential and have extremely narrow shoulders in many places, but there are some areas where you may pull over. Don’t forget to watch the highway and roadsides for white-tailed deer, black bears, raccoons, porcupines, gray squirrels and turtles. Be careful!
Best time to see purple martins is from mid-April to mid-August, when the birds start migrating in massive numbers to Brazil.
Birders, hikers, loggers and hunters use parking areas and roads in the interior of Wealthwood State Forest, so as a wildlife watcher don’t be surprised if you come across heavy equipment or cut-over acreage.
Other Activities: The Mille Lacs area is extremely rich in historical and current Native American culture, so be sure to take time to visit the Mille Lacs Indian Museum. Restored to its 1930s vintage, the Trading Post captures the essence of that era and is another worthwhile stop.
Ownership: Mille Lacs Lake public – Wealthwood SF, DNR
Size: 132,000 lake acres, 76-mile shoreline, IBA 239,586 acres
Closest Town: Garrison
Best Seasons for Wildlife Viewing: