- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Robert Janssen’s research spanned 11 years, took him to every one of Minnesota’s 70-plus state parks at least a dozen times and added about 35,000 miles to his odometer. He didn’t tally the trail miles walked exploring every nook and cranny.

The park-specific bird lists he produced for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources show which of Minnesota’s 315 regularly occurring species are most likely to appear when. Janssen, an ornithologist and author who’s been called one of Minnesota’s premier birders, documented 300 species - later with help from assistant Jerry Bonkowski.

But the lists are simply lists.

They don’t indicate where to look or why. That can be daunting for many reasons - including sheer acreage. Minnesota’s largest state park, St. Croix, is nearly 32,000 acres. The state’s three major habitats - prairie, deciduous forest, pine forest (plus the much smaller aspen parklands) - harbor different birds, as do the habitats within each park.

A new book released last month, “Birds of Minnesota State Parks” sends birders down the right path - potentially saving them from traipsing about like Janssen did.

In 222 pages, augmented by maps and the work of five professional photographers, Janssen relays precisely where one is most likely to see, say, a yellow-throated vireo, in Lake Maria State Park. (Listen along the paved road from the entrance to the Maria Lake parking lot, which slices through forest, by lakes and marshes.)

“Birding is just like fishing or hunting. There’s always a chance you won’t see what you’re looking for,” Carrol Henderson told the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1GyTXo4 ). The DNR’s nongame wildlife supervisor and himself an avid birder, Henderson secured funding - $28,000 from the nongame wildlife fund, $17,000 from Legacy parks funding - to print the book. Janssen researched the parks from 1997 through 2007. The book idea came later; getting the money took five years.

The resulting work, Henderson said, at least narrows the possibilities.

“It just builds your chances for more enjoyment and success while you’re out there,” Henderson said.

Janssen, 82, keeps the tone conversational and the personal observations relevant. He names favorites, and lists Lake Maria State Park among his top 10. He’s recorded 223 bird species in that park west of Monticello. Among them: 29 warblers, 19 waterfowl, 16 sparrows and seven woodpeckers.

Each of the 75 park and state recreational area entries list three to five spots worth checking out.

“This is going to touch a lot of lives and bring people closer to nature,” Henderson said.

Ultimately, Henderson and Janssen want park visitors to discover a portal species - to make an observation so memorable it turns them from casual observer to full-fledged birder.

For Henderson, that experience was finding a killdeer nest in a cornfield, and then returning to see the newly hatched puffballs. For Janssen, it was seeing a meadowlark flush in front of him as he rode his bike.

“I think most of the people I talk to or teach classes for, they aren’t the wild, obsessed people like me. They’re beginning birders or birders along a path who just want to know the common, ordinary things,” Janssen said.

His records date to 1947. He became a county lister in the 1970s, recording which species he saw in which of Minnesota’s 87 counties.

Janssen’s tally as of April 9: 21,062.

The most recent addition: A raven in Clay County.

“It was just the other day. We went up to Buffalo River State Park near Moorhead to see a common raven that was nesting under a train trestle,” Janssen said. “To see it nesting was even more fun.”

These days, Janssen plans birding pursuits based on observations posted to sites such as the Minnesota Ornithological Union’s.

“A lot of people would criticize me for that,” he said by phone from his Golden Valley apartment. But being retired and sometimes wanting to sleep past 3 a.m., he finds efficiency in the computer-aided method.

“I basically try to chase the new county birds. But I still do a lot of general birding,” Janssen said.

Meanwhile, he continues work on a bird list for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. And he’s started discussions about a third revision to his 1987 “Birds in Minnesota,” first published in 1975 with Janet Green as “Minnesota Birds: When, Where and How Many.”

Just as the MOU listing takes some of the mystery out of bird sightings, the book could take a bit of the surprise out of state park sightings.

But, Henderson said, it will at least give the novice a better chance of success. And an experienced birder in pursuit of a certain species might turn to the index and plan a trip accordingly.

“Because of this focus on birds, it gives people a whole other reason to check out the parks,” Henderson said.

At Lake Maria, park Manager Mark Crawford said the book might prompt more detailed questions from visitors who check out the four suggested birding locations within its 1,600 acres.

Crawford said he planned to post a whiteboard in the visitor center noting recent wildlife sightings.

Trumpeter swans are among the more spectacular, hard-to-miss species at Lake Maria State Park. (Their wingspans can reach 8 feet.) Crawford said two or three pairs are known to nest within the park. The young typically emerge between mid-May and late June. Some of the best vantage points are from roads bordering the park.

Swans and waterfowl are followed by sparrows, thrushes and warblers as the season progresses.

The oak-dominated oak-maple-basswood mix supports a range of songbirds.

“Even if you don’t see them, you’re going to hear them on a regular basis,” Crawford said.

Fall is the best time to see juncos, hawks and migrating waterfowl. Bald eagles, owls (barred, great-horned and saw-whet) and bluebirds also populate the park. A maintained bluebird trail borders the park. While now common, bird watchers still enjoy seeing the flashy nesters.

“Birds of Minnesota State Parks” is organized by biomes. Lake Maria State Park lies within the hardwood forest. Sibley State Park, 90 minutes west of St. Cloud, lies within the tallgrass prairie. Itasca, one of the best-known bird-watching spots, lies within the pine forest. The book also highlights the tallgrass aspen parkland biome that includes two state parks in northwestern Minnesota.

Defining the landscape lends context.

“In real estate, if you’re buying a house it’s location, location, location. If you’re talking about birds, it’s habitat, habitat, habitat,” Janssen said.

“I have seen in my lifetime the numbers of birds just fall off the cliff - not every species, but just birds in general that use the parks.

The numbers are declining in every year. If it hadn’t been for parks, I’m sure that it would’ve been a very dire situation for birds.”

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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