Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time

All during March the weather has swung up and down and back and forth here on the Gunflint Trail. We’ve had it all — sunny short-sleeve weather, piles of snow, strong winds, even light rain one day. Right now the sky is blue and the sun is shining. It’s about 20 degrees but the cold wind coming from the northwest makes it feel a lot colder. On a walk this morning, my forehead started to feel as though I was getting a brain freeze, like when you eat ice cream too fast. Spring is coming. Repeat after me: Spring is coming!

During the warmer temperatures, some creatures started acting like it was Real Spring, as opposed to Fake Spring or Fools’ Spring. Lars and I saw some bird species we hadn’t seen in a while flocking in the trees and singing their hearts out in the balmy weather. We saw (and heard) flocks of cedar waxwings and pine siskins and quite possibly some goldfinches. I am partial to the birds that stick around all winter; they provide so much entertainment and beauty.

But the glory of the skies for me is always our own feathered pterodactyl: the pileated woodpecker. First, let’s deal with the name: Is it Pie-lee-ay-ted or Pill-ee-ay-ted? Technically the first one is correct, but both are acceptable in the birding world. Both are acceptable to me, too.

One recent sunny day, two pileated woodpeckers flew overhead, one in hot pursuit of the other. They sped across an open area and dove into the treetops. That same day I heard their distinctive calls from all directions. On another day — a very cloudy, windless and silent day  — a Pileated Woodpecker was hammering on a big dead tree. In the silence, it was the only thing making noise besides the loud crunching of my micro-spikes on the icy surface of the road. I stopped when I heard the drumming and waited until the drumming began again. I listened and tried to guess where the woodpecker was. I repeated that pattern of stopping and listening until I was fairly certain where I could find the tree. I need to go back later with snowshoes. There’s still 2 to 3 feet of snow in the woods, but it’s shrinking.


The drumming of the pileated is regular and is used as a means of communication. Different birds hammer at different rates. When they are excavating a dead tree for a nest, the beat is slower, more measured. They rarely use the same hole twice in which to nest, and their old cavities are reused by many other animals and birds. They peck for several reasons: slow excavating blows to hollow out a nest; faster drumming to attract a mate and to defend territory.

I spotted a Northern Shrike on the very tippy-top of a spruce tree: black mask, hooked bill, long tail tipping up and down to stay upright in the wind. I’ve seem more of these this year than ever before. I was reading about shrikes and sometimes they are more prolific here when the mouse population is low in Canada and the Arctic. They are interesting creatures, the shrikes. They are predatory songbirds, eating small mammals, insects and songbirds. They don’t eat berries or seeds. They kill in the air — on the wing — and impale their victims on thorns or barbed wire or stuff them in the crook of a tree. They kill more than they can eat at one time; they save food for lean times and come back later to feed. The Northern Shrike has coloring very similar to the Gray Jay. They both are gray, black and white; both have a black mask, but the Jay has a partial black cap. The Northern Shrike’s mask doesn’t extend above its eyes. The deadly hook on the shrike’s beak, a bigger head and the distinctive white patch on the wings help with identification.

Predators are showing up all over the upper part of the Trail. There have been many sightings of wolves regularly visiting cabins on Loon, Seagull, Poplar, Tucker and others. After multiple sightings of foxes and wolves close to our cabin, we stopped feeding the birds. We see fewer songbirds since then and I was surprised to see the shrike come around. I guess we’re one of his regular stops.

Another sign of spring on the Trail is the usual list of restaurants closing temporarily. Starting on April 1: Poplar Haus, Trail Center and Hungry Jack Lodge. Raven Rock Grill at Skyport Lodge is closed until May. Big Bear Lodge will still serve pizza and beverages, but it is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Gunflint Lodge’s Restaurant remains open.

~ Marcia Roepke