Some of the bird trail volunteers included Larry Wolfs, Laurie Moen, Saundra Solum, Barb Wolfs and Steve Kemp, shown at the new trailhead sign.  SGH/Moorhead
Some of the bird trail volunteers included Larry Wolfs, Laurie Moen, Saundra Solum, Barb Wolfs and Steve Kemp, shown at the new trailhead sign. SGH/Moorhead
There's more to birding than birds.

On the outskirts of Spring Grove, a group of volunteers has just developed a series of birding and nature trails on private land. Two loops will be open to the public year-round, so whether walkers are wearing boots or snowshoes, organizers hope the community can benefit in a variety of ways from added outdoor opportunities.

Karen and Jim Gray spoke recently about the trails, joined by fellow volunteers Barb and Larry Wolfs, Lori and Dave Morken, and Saundra Solum. Other trail committee members include Linda and Steve Kemp, Laurie and Mike Moen, Paul Gray, Mark Udstuen, Valerie Torgerson, Robert Vogel, J.C. Nerstad and Mary and Lane Zaffke.

Officially known as the Norwegian Ridge Birding and Nature Trails, the grand opening was held on Father's Day Sunday. Consisting of one- and two-mile loops, plus discontinuous blocks in Spring Grove's Trollskogen and Roverud parks, serious birders are welcome to look for that rare addition to their list of avian species. In addition, a whole natural community of plants and other animals is on display for non-birding hikers, along with a chance to benefit from some fresh air and exercise.

The trailhead is located just behind (south of) Red's IGA in Spring Grove.

Winding through a variety of habitats, including open grassland and young to mature forest, the loops skirt ponds and cross brooks. Mowed and marked, the paths feature numerous signs identifying bird species, plants, trees and more in Norwegian and English. There are 54 birds included on signs placed strategically along the route, in habitat where those species can be expected to pop up.

"We really didn't develop any new trail," Jim Gray said. "We just rejuvenated it... Part of it was horse trail, and some of it was part of the old Folkemarsj trail."

A third link that was incorporated is called the Ga Pa Tur. Volunteers formed a committee which won a grant from SMIF (the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation) to develop the trail. Tim Samuelson of Gundersen Health Care permitted the trailhead sign to go in on a corner of that property.

The rejuvenation has lots of improvements, including the new bi-lingual signage, trail markers, rebuilt footbridges, benches, picnic tables and birdhouses. There are more improvements planned. Some of those projects include additional habitat to support various bird species. Hiking the route is easy since slopes are modest and footbridges are provided over draws and gullies.

Even while volunteers planned for the grand opening last week, a pair of goslings swam a few feet from the trail under the watchful eyes of their parents. Bluebirds were inspecting nest boxes, one of several types of nesting structures provided for different species. Red-headed woodpeckers flew through a woodlot equipped with a trailside bench. A meadowlark landed on a fencepost.

A casual observer might spot bobolinks, indigo buntings, gray catbirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds, Cooper's hawks...

"You always see something on the trail," Jim said. "In this day and age when we have computers and TV and X-Boxes... kids don't get out into the woods. A lot of people don't get out and learn to appreciate what's out there."

"We're going to have 'QR' codes on our bird signs that you can scan with your smart phone and hear the calls," Solum said. Folks who are adventurous can even hike in after dark to listen for the calls of owls.

"We're going to build habitat in the fields for bobwhite quail and other songbirds," she added.

A website (sgbirdwalk.org) is being developed for the trails. Additional information and trail-related gifts are available at the Ballard House in downtown Spring Grove.

Expert advice has gone into plans, both present and future. Thurman Tucker of Quail Forever was invited to cut the ceremonial ribbon on Father's Day, officially opening the trails.

The current list of birds along the trail includes eastern phoebe (grafibi in Norwegian), eastern screech owl (Lundugle), and belted kingfisher (belte isfugl).

That roster will undoubtedly grow much longer over time.

Bird watching is now ranked as the number one sport in the United States (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), with over 50 million adherents. It says that 20 percent of all Americans now engage in some form of birding, up from 4 percent in 1970. In 2006, birdwatchers contributed $36 billion to the U.S. economy, according to Wikipedia.

Solum added that an avid birder from Winona was helping out recently when he caught sight of a Eurasian collared dove, a first for his "Houston County" list. That species was introduced in Florida, and is said to be expanding quickly in the United States.

One thing that Larry Wolfs did for the group was carve the trailhead sign, as well as a wooden planter that marks the spot. The Wolfs couple doesn't consider themselves birders in the traditional sense, but said they've always enjoyed viewing their feathered neighbors. They make their own feeder cakes, and Larry carves some unique birdhouses.

"It's family-oriented, it's good exercise, and kids need a place to get out," he said.

Barb Wolfs summed it up. "One of our goals is to promote a healthy lifestyle," she noted. "If you're looking for something to do, it's nice to know there's a trail nearby where you can just go out and enjoy nature."