Cornish Hardwoods Management Area (CHMA)
|Description: Cornish Hardwoods in north central Minnesota is situated at the northern edge of the temperate forests, up to and including parts of the temperate-boreal forest transition zone. A few small lakes dot the site—Rat House and Cutaway on the south end and Blackface on the north, with the Cornish Impoundment in between and to the east.
Through the years this Aitkin County Township, named after settlers Charles E. and Milo F. Cornish, saw the arrival and departure of loggers and farm families. Once there was a school, sawmill, settlement, resort and even an open-air pavilion in the township, but today it’s a very quiet area with only a few family homes claiming the landscape.
Prior to European settlement, Aitkin County had hundreds of thousands of acres of fire-dependent ecosystems, typified by forests dominated by mixtures of white and red pine, mixed conifers and oaks. Loamier soils better protected from fire were covered with vast patches of rich maple-basswood forests—forests that exist today only in remnants such as the Cornish Hardwoods Management Area (CHMA). The combination of tree types provides diverse habitat for an array of birds and wildlife.
Many species of neo-tropical migrant birds, such as wood thrush, scarlet tanager and red-eyed vireo, found in contiguous deciduous forests are declining. Some of these species have shown long-term declines that may be the result of diminishing habitat caused by changes in forest composition. The multi-layered structure of northern hardwood communities provides many niches for these birds. Northern hardwood forests also have large den trees and snags, which are used by wood ducks, pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, silver-haired bats and northern flying squirrels.
Wildlife to Watch: This is a good place for warbler watching, especially during the northerly spring migration. Look for fast flitting in the trees and you might spot a black-and-white, Nashville, black-throated green, blackburnian, chestnut-sided or pine warbler. The black-throated blue warbler is an uncommon breeding bird in northern Minnesota. It is rarely found in north central Minnesota, but does occur in northeast Minnesota, primarily in the Lake Superior highlands. Surprisingly, however, black-throated warblers have been recorded at Cornish Hardwoods.
Listen for the calls of ovenbirds, veerys, blue jays, crows, ravens and black-capped chickadees. If you’re looking for woodpeckers, this site should prove fruitful. You may find or hear the tapping of northern flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, as well as downy, hairy and the largest woodpecker, the pileated. Luck may perhaps also produce sightings of the black-backed or American three-toed woodpeckers.
Other species to search for include great crested and least flycatcher, eastern wood pewee, brown creeper, winter wren, hermit thrush, red-eyed vireo, northern waterthrush, northern parula, scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak. You may even spot a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird or scare up a ruffed grouse or witness the courtship of American woodcocks.
The lakes, ponds and wetlands are stopping places for many species of migrating waterfowl. However, some stay to breed. Look for wood ducks, blue and green-winged teal, mallards, ring-necked ducks and Canada geese and their broods. Black terns, bald eagles, osprey and ring-billed gulls also frequent the waters. There is a waterfowl viewing area on the south side of the Cornish Impoundment and another at Boot Lake to enhance your efforts.
In early summer, listen for the calls of American toads, spring peepers and wood and chorus frogs. Check downed trees for blue-spotted and red-backed salamanders. You may come across a small redbelly or although rare, a ringneck snake sunning itself.
Walk quietly along the trails in early morning or late evening and you may be pleasantly surprised at the diversity of creatures you observe. The bogs contain many small animals, including a few unusual ones such as lemmings. You might come across a skunk, porcupine, eastern chipmunk, ermine, white-footed mouse or gray squirrel. Pretty, dark-eyed northern flying squirrels also frequent this forest. Watch for silver-haired and hoary bats swooping through the air as the day dwindles.
Beaver and muskrats are often seen in and near the shorelines. It’s possible to see white-tailed deer, a coyote, black bear or even a rare moose. Check for scat, rubbings and tracks year round, but in particular in winter when such signs are more obvious. It is not out of the question to spot a wolf trotting on the trails or see paw imprints in the snow. While not common, you may come across a fisher or bobcat or see signs of their presence.
Winter in rural Minnesota can and does sometimes get cold and long. However, there are benefits for toughing it out in this desolate landscape. Birding in winter is well worthwhile and can yield some exciting northern bird species. Slowly travel the Hedbom Forest Road—it’s terrific for potential sightings of great gray or northern hawk owls and possibly even a snowy owl in open areas. You may spot black-backed woodpeckers, red and white-winged crossbills, pine and evening grosbeaks, gray jays and boreal chickadees along the way.
Special Tips: A booklet entitled, “Aitkin County Naturally! Your Birding and Nature Trail Guide” is a must if you want to enhance your wildlife watching in this part of the state. It highlights Hedbom Forest Road and many other sites to visit, provides background info, covers specialty species, includes a bird checklist and furnishes amenity contacts.
There are no defined boundaries of the CHMA per se and the area contains county and state lands. If hiking, be aware the trails are not marked, so take a compass or GPS unit with you. Water and snacks would be good to pack too, as there are no amenities at this site. From early spring until winter, follow insect repellent protocol for wood and deer ticks.
Land Manager Contact:
Aitkin County Land Department
209 2nd St. NW
Aitkin MN 56431
“Aitkin County Naturally! Your Birding and Nature Trail Guide” may be obtained from Rice Lake NWR for a nominal fee.
Rice Lake NWR
36289 State Hwy 65
McGregor MN 55760
Other Activities: Aitkin County has a network of over 200 miles of forest roads on county managed lands. These roads are generally open to outdoor recreational uses such as hiking, hunting, berry picking and bird watching. Some of the roads are also used in the summer by ATVers and in the winter by snowmobilers. You will need to look at the road/trail signs to determine their usage and be aware of other pursuits to ensure everyone has a safe experience. Many roads are gated to restrict access during periods when road damage could occur due to heavy traffic or because of the season. Others are gated and restricted to foot travel only.
Ownership: Aitkin County & MN DNR
Size: 15,000 acres
Closest Town: McGregor/Jacobson
Best Seasons for Wildlife Viewing: