I awoke on 16 May to cloudy skies after a night of rumbling storms in the River Falls area of western Wisconsin. Windy, overcast, and cool (50oF at 6:00 a.m.), a planned river trip with fellow birdathoner Nina Utne was delayed by thunderstorms and reports of lightning in the area.
While waiting for Nina to arrive from the Twin Cities (about 40 minutes away) to our rendezvous spot at Glen Park, I birded the river’s edge and adjacent hardwoods. I picked up 20 species, including Tufted Titmouse, Great Crested Flycatcher, Pileated Woodpecker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but there were only two warbler species present, Nashville and Yellow-rumped, and I wondered about the paucity of warbler species I had seen thus far in spring, mostly in the Madison and Green Bay areas.
Finally, at 9:45 a.m., we were able to embark in our kayaks—mine donated to The River Raptors by Rutabaga Paddlesports LLC of Madison. (The put-in spot is located along the down-hill path at the base of a wooden stairs that drops down to the river, which takes a few minutes to reach. Best to carry one kayak or canoe at a time instead of dragging one down the hill stairs.)
Leaving from the put-in spot just below the dam at River Falls, I was concerned that the delayed start meant fewer species recorded, but I also knew that we still had a band of showers (but no forecasted lightning according to Nina’s special AP on her smartphone), and potentially long-distance migrants with the storm, coming from the southwest, which might mean some good luck.
Across from our put-in spot was a limestone outcrop, and here 3-4 pairs of Northern Rough-winged Swallows were coming and going from rock crevices and openings, suggesting likely nesting. Tree Swallows and a few Bank Swallows were also present.
I have never been to the Kinnickinnic River before, much less heard it talked about as a desired destination for birders (Daryl Tessen includes a reference to it in his Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts, Fifth Edition) but Nina knew it well and suggested a trip for The River Raptors and the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. As we got underway, I was struck immediately by the pace of the water and the frequency with which we encountered shallow rapids. Then, rounding the first and subsequent bends, it was as if we had entered Eden—fern and shrub-covered hills and bluffs rose up around us as the river corridor narrowed. Trees were more dominant higher up the bluffs, especially along the ridge tops, where white pine stands were prominent. Lower down, birch and especially ironwood and yew dotted the hillsides. Lush stands of polypody ferns, walking ferns, and bulblet ferns grew on rock outcrops, and mosses wet from recent rains added a softness to the scene. The overwhelming beauty of prominent rich greens dripping towards and surrounding our small kayaks was, and is, unforgettable.
We encountered intermittent rain showers down this Class I river, and as we did we began to experience mini-fallouts of warblers, dominated by Tennessee Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blue-winged Warblers. In fact, the two most commonly detected bird species throughout the 7.5 miles of river we kayaked, were Blue-winged Warblers and Tennessees, in that order. We ended up with 20 warbler species in total, and the most rewarding and unexpected was a Worm-eating Warbler, heard apart and away from Chipping Sparrows—also quite numerous. Another fine revelation was a lone Philadelphia Vireo, and four separate and widely spaced Louisiana Waterthrushes—likely breeding here. The steep, shrubby hillsides and ravines reminded me of parts of the Baraboo Hills, and given what turned out to be miles of intact and undisturbed habitats (we saw only one ridgetop cabin), this gem of a “canyon” river offers an attractive breeding bird refugia in a wider agricultural landscape.
Nina observed bird species number 80—a sweeping Bald Eagle climbing above the river. After 4.5 hours of kayaking and birding, we reached our take-out at a bridge on County Highway F. We ended the day with 85 species—not bad given our delayed start. Other notable species present: Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Wilson’s Snipe (flying past us up-river), Common Nighthawk, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, and Evening Grosbeak.
The temperature at the end of the day—a warm and breezy 79 degrees. As an aside, I would not recommend this trip to a novice kayaker or canoeist due to some sharp turns and occasional fallen trees in the beginning or middle of rapids, unless one fully expects to get soaked occasionally, which on a warm day may not be unwelcome.
Addendum from Nina:
It was a magical day indeed! From the drama of the initially threatening weather, to the lush, encompassing greenness, to the fact that we had that stretch of the Kinni entirely to ourselves, other than encountering one fisherman standing midstream with his faithful golden retriever by his knee.
List of Birds Observed, 16 May 2017, Kinnickinnic River, Pierce County, 0945-1415 hrs, 7.5 mi:
Canada Goose, Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush, Baltimore Oriole, Wood Duck, Blue-headed Vireo, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning Dove, Philadelphia Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler, Common Nighthawk, Warbling Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Sandhill Crane, Red-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson’s Snipe, Blue Jay, Nashville Warbler, Spotted Sandpiper, American Crow, Common Yellowthroat, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallow, American Redstart, Turkey Vulture, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cape May Warbler, Osprey, Bank Swallow, Northern Parula, Bald Eagle, Black-capped Chickadee, Magnolia Warbler, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow Warbler, Red-shouldered Hawk, White-breasted Nuthatch, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Red-tailed Hawk, Brown Creeper, Blackpoll Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, House Wren, Palm Warbler, Red-headed Woodpecker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Pine Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Robin, Wilson’s Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, Gray Catbird, Eastern Towhee, Hairy Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Flicker, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Pileated Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwing, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Purple Finch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Least Flycatcher, American Goldfinch, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Phoebe, Evening Grosbeak, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Ovenbird, Common Grackle, Eastern Kingbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Brown-headed Cowbird
Addendum from Webmaster:
Thanks Sumner and Nina for the review! Below are some further details on the Kinnickinnic that I’ll share with readers.
For the flow-rate, 110 CFS might be average and this trip was done at 158 CFS. At levels 100 CFS and lower the river might be pretty shallow, while at higher CFS levels (maybe 250+ CFS), the river may become too pushy and murky.
Note, on weekends I hear the Kinnickinnic can be very popular and it may be wise to do this on a weekday (as Sumner and Nina did) to avoid the crowds.
For shuttles and rentals there is Kinni Creek Lodge (715-425-7378).
Below is a big picture overview of the river:
- Upstream of Hwy JJ: The river is likely navigable this far upstream but I don’t know much more.
- Hwy JJ to Hwy 65/N. Liberty Road Launch: 4.2 miles. Probably a nice stretch.
- Hwy 65/N. Liberty Road Launch to Hwy 35: 4.1 miles. A lot of kayaks appear in satellite view so likely a good stretch.
- Hwy 35/N. Quarry Road to Heritage Park: 2.2 miles. Likely a nice prospect.
- Heritage Park to Winter Street Dam: 0.5 miles. Mostly flowage paddling on Lake George.
- Winter Street Dam to Glen Park: 0.5 miles. This consists of Lake Luise, a small flowage lake. I am not sure how easy of a portage the Winter Street dam is or if you can launch from there (but it is scenic).
- Glen Park to Hwy F: 8.1 miles. The most popular section and reviewed here.
- Hwy F to Mouth: 2.8 miles. This segment flows entirely through Kinnickinnic State Park. Take-out is on a beach upstream on the Mississippi right after the mouth. There is a trail that connects the beach to the public parking lot, but it would require that you drag your boat 1300′ up a hill.
- Mouth to Prescott/Mercord Mill Park: 6.3 miles. If you really want to paddle to the mouth, but not climb 1300′ up a hill, your other option is to paddle 6.3 additional miles on the St. Croix.