The North Shore is home to many special furry and feathery creatures. Learn more about many of them below.
When you think Minnesota, “wildcat” does not usually come to mind. However, the bobcat is the most common wildcat in North America, and lives in the woods on the North Shore! The bobcat is a medium-sized cat that has shades of beige and brown fur, with distinct spotted markings, and a short bobbed tail, from which it gets its name. The bobcat is usually confused with its bigger cousin, the lynx, however the biggest difference between the two animals is their size and a white tip on their short black tail. Approximately 725,000 to 1,020,000 bobcats remain in the wild, with 2,000 of them in northern Minnesota. Adult bobcats are 26-36 inches long and weigh about 25 pounds, making it roughly double the size of a typical house cat.
Bobcats were once found throughout most of North America, but in the early 1900’s bobcat populations were decimated due to the increased value of its fur. Since, laws have been put into place protecting the cats, increasing the population significantly. Bobcat habitat varies from dense forest and mountains to semi-deserts and brush lands. The more dense the vegetation, the happier the bobcat, as they rely on keen eyesight and stealth-like movements to catch their prey. Bobcats are very territorial animals, with males generally controlling a 25-30 square mile area and females a 5-10 square mile area.
Bobcats mate in late winter and the gestation period takes about 10 weeks. The kittens are then born in the early spring, with each litter producing anywhere from one to six kittens. The kittens are usually born in a den, which can be a hollow tree, a cave, under dense shrubs, or any other place protected from the weather. As soon as the kittens are born, the female drives the male away and nurses the kittens for up to two months. Around the 5-month mark, the young bobcats learn to hunt in preparation for their mom’s territory eviction about three months later.
Bobcats are a carnivorous feline, preying on only other animals to survive. They mainly hunt rabbits and hare, but will also eat deer, lamb and young pigs during the winter. An incredibly elusive predator, bobcats stalk their chosen prey silently in the dark and then with incredible speed, and force, they pounce. Along with being a predator, a bobcat is sometime also the prey. In Minnesota, up to five bobcats are able to be taken with legal firearms, bow and arrow, or trapping from the first Saturday following Thanksgiving to the Sunday nearest January 6. They are generally hunted for their fur which can sell for up to $400 per pelt, but they are also live trapped and placed elsewhere due to their aggressive nature toward pets.
Bobcats are very elusive animals and move around mostly at night. Their tracks are asymmetrical, and have 4 toes with a metacarpal pad that is “m” shaped. Most people do a lot of tracking in order to find one.
The Canada Lynx is a medium-sized feline known for its ability to stealthily roam the northern Minnesota woods. Their bodies vary in color from shades of brown to beige with dark spots. There are four species of lynx in the world, with two living in Minnesota: the Canada Lynx and the Bobcat. All four species have a white furry chest that grooms down onto the inside of their legs. They have abnormally large padded paws that assist them when walking in the deep snow, similar to a human snowshoe.
Standing roughly 19 to 22 inches tall and with an overall head and body length of 32-40 inches, the Canada Lynx is about two times the size of the average house cat. Their hind legs are longer than their front legs, giving them a stooped appearance which makes them seem larger than they actually are.
The Canada Lynx can be very vocal animals and make a variety of hissing, chattering and yowling sounds. Closely related to the bobcat, the two are difficult to distinguish from one another. A few features that set them apart are the height of their back hips (the hips of a bobcat are about the same height as their shoulders, while lynx have higher hips than shoulders), the length of the black tufts on their ears (lynx have longer tufts) and the color of the tip of their tail (lynx have an all-black tip, whereas bobcats have white fur under the tip).
Lynx will mate in late winter or early spring and then about two months later, the female lynx gives birth to a litter ranging from one to four kittens. Strangely enough, lynx does not create a den for their litter. Instead, they find an existing feature such as a root system or a downed log that provides protection. The male has no role in parenting the kittens and the females stay with the young for about a year, or until they learn to hunt. The lynx population in Minnesota peaks every 10 years in correlation with the snowshoe hare, their main food source.
The lynx is an incredibly skilled hunter. They are a dual-threat, featuring amazing hearing and sight. Their eyes are keen enough to spot a mouse 250 feet away! The lynx is a carnivore and eats mice, squirrels, birds, and deer, but their preference is snowshoe hare. They hunt primarily on the ground, but can also climb trees and swim, making fish a part of their diet as well. The lynx does not have many predators threatening them, but they have been known to be killed by wolves, bobcats, and humans from time to time. Lynx hunt exclusively at night and then sleep during the day. They rely heavily on their senses to stalk and ambush their prey in the dark.
The lynx population fluctuates in the United States as they periodically move into Canada as the weather changes and as the snowshoe hare population varies. There are about 250 lynx roaming the wild, making it a federally threatened species. They prefer cold wilderness areas and dense coverings of brush, shrubs, and grass. They typically patrol an area up to 40 square miles.
If you think you have seen one of these elusive animals, be sure to report your rare sighting to the DNR with the date, time and location of the observation.
Some time ago, caribou were roaming the North Shore, but were driven out. Over-hunting, logging, and the appearance of the white-tailed deer all took part in the disappearance of caribou in Minnesota, leaving behind only pictures and stories of those who had once seen them. These deer prefer mature pine forests in which to roam and once logging began in northern Minnesota, it quickly drove them out.
When the timber located in northern Minnesota was removed by loggers, young trees appeared, providing an ideal habitat for white-tailed deer. Why would this be a problem for caribou? Well, white-tailed deer are carriers of a parasitic ringworm, which is found in the deer’s brain. Although harmless to them, the parasite is deadly to caribou and moose. Over time, the population of caribou diminished and white-tailed deer took over the land.
Another factor in their disappearance was over-hunting as caribou were once a major source of meat and hides for the Native Americans and European settlers. No caribou were seen in Minnesota after 1935 until a few were spotted north of Grand Marais, most likely migrating from Canada. Wildlife experts predict that caribou will most likely never establish themselves in Minnesota again.
If you’ve ever seen one of these fascinating creatures, you are one of the few lucky people to have had that chance. The cross fox has a color that is similar to the red fox, but what sets it apart from the other species is its distinct long dark stripe that runs down its back, intersecting another stripe to form a cross over the shoulders. Although not as valuable as silver foxes, the coats from cross foxes were often traded among fur traders. The value of the pelt depended largely on how dark the pelt was. If it was a more pale color, it was less valuable.
As for their physical conformation, cross foxes are identical to red foxes but vary in several other ways. They may be slightly larger with a bushier tail and more wool under their feet. Their flanks and sides are a reddish yellow color, while their muzzle, ears, and underparts are black. The tail is usually a mix of the two colors but is very distinct, always displaying a white tip.
Cross fox are found in the northern areas of North America, which is why there have been sightings of these animals along the North Shore. They make up over 30% of Canada’s red fox population! Although they have a different look, cross fox act in similar ways as other fox and are found in almost the same habitat.
The Common Loon is a Minnesota icon; as a matter fact it is our state bird. Loons have a black head and bill, a black-and-white spotted back, and a white bill. They are fairly large at roughly 7-9 pounds and 30-35 inches long. Loons are stealthy divers who like to use their dagger bills to catch fish. Because their feet stick out beyond their tails they are unable to walk on land very easily. Loons will sometimes act a little “looney” and stick one foot out of the water wagging it This is their way of cooling off on a hot day. They will also do a dance, a territorial dance, and lift their body upright while flapping their wings vigorously. You will usually see pairs of loons together, male and female, who like to communicate through their “nature patented” loon noise, loooooooooooooooon.
Loons spend a majority of their time in and around the freshwater lakes of the northern U.S. and Canada. They will swim in shallow waters in search of fish to eat and then use their sharp, teeth-like projections on the roof of their mouth to “chew”. In the winter, loons will migrate south where you can find them on lakes, rivers, estuaries, and coastlines. They make a bee line for warmer temps as some loons have been clocked flying at speeds of more than 70 mph! Once they get down south, loons begin to lose their distinct black and white profile and become a dark gray color.
Male and female loons will nest together over the course of a week in May or early June. A typical nest is about 22 inches wide, and looks like a clump of dead grasses right next to the water. A female will lay 1-2 eggs that are generally brown with dark splotches. The incubation period takes 26–29 days, resulting in a small bird with a sooty back and a white belly. The baby loon is able to ride around and swim with its parents within 24 hours of hatching. Mom and dad will leave the juveniles on their own at roughly the 12-week mark and start flying south, the juveniles are then responsible to find other loons to fly south with – talk about a reality check!
Common Loons would win a sushi eating contest. Biologists estimate a family of four loons eat approximately a half-ton of fish in a 15-week period. Because they are expert anglers, loons have no problem catching all the fish they want to eat. They will jet around underwater like torpedos, and when the fish change directions, loons are able to flip-turn better than Michael Phelps and catch their dinner! While underwater loons are also able to slow down their heart and conserve oxygen, sometimes lasting more than 5 minutes. In the northern waters, loons favor perch and sunfish because of their smaller size and ease of digestion. If fish are scarce, loons will search for other lake food, such as crustaceans, snails, and leeches. In the winter, loons will eat smaller fish such as Atlantic croaker and Gulf silversides.
Loons are extremely common on many lakes in Northern Minnesota every summer. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you will more than likely spot one.
TOP 6 PLACES TO FIND MOOSE IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA
Weighing in around 800-900 pounds, the Minnesota Moose is no joke! These mammals are about as big as four or five deer and are a sight to see on the North Shore. Although they have poor eyesight, they make up for it with their great sense of smell and hearing. Plus, their long legs and spreading hooves help them maneuver through difficult terrain like marshes and deep snow.
Spotting this elusive animal is a thrill for anyone who spends time on the North Shore. If you’re looking to spot moose on the North Shore, there are a couple of things you should know. First, in the spring and summertime, moose like to hang out in wetland areas. They can often be found in boggy lowlands because plenty of food is available and the terrain allows them to stay cool. They tend to eat a variety of plants and prefer twigs (willow, dogwood, etc). The word “moose” is derived from the native North American Algonquian Indian word meaning “twig eater”. Highway 1 is the perfect environment for them and moose can often be spotted right from your car as you drive along, especially early in the warm season when there is still snow in the woods.
Environments they thrive in most are regrowth forests that have been damaged by fire, beavers or logging. These areas tend to provide the most edible vegetation for moose, and since they eat more than 50-pounds a day, it’s important that they have access to a lot of it! The Ham Lake area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness along the Gunflint Trail, which was devastated by fire in 2007, now has a thriving moose population.
Like any animal, moose seek to fulfill their sodium requirements. In the summer months, much of their intake comes from aquatic plants. However, during the winter, as odd as it may sound, moose tend to navigate toward roads to lick the excess salt left by the plows. Therefore, searching for moose along Highway 61 tends to be more successful during the winter months and early in the spring.
It is important to spend most of your time searching around dawn or dusk if you’re looking for moose. It is during these times that they tend to travel to open areas to eat and drink. You’ll often find bull moose alone and moose cows with calves. Moose typically only become aggressive during the fall rut and if calves are around. However, as with all animals, it is important to stay a respectful distance away any time of the year. It’s also important to not attempt to feed a moose, as we do not want them to become reliant on humans or become too comfortable with our presence.
While the moose population is doing quite well in Northern Minnesota, we still take the protection and preservation of the species very seriously. So, when a moose finds itself in trouble, the situation is not taken lightly. Take, for instance, the April 2017 rescue of a young female calf who had fallen through the ice at Hungry Jack Lake on the Gunflint Trail. The rescue effort involved several neighbors, volunteer firefighters, and business owners who used canoes and a tow strap to pull the 650-pound moose from the frigid waters.
You likely won’t need to lend a hand in a moose rescue, but you may have the chance to spot one! Moose habitat on the North Shore begins around Tettegouche State Park, but the further north and inland (away from Lake Superior) you go, the better your odds. There are a number of roads along the North Shore that will take you through prime moose habitat. We recommend the routes below.
A) Highway 1: This road travels from Highway 61 (between Silver Bay and Little Marais) inland toward Ely. Many great side-roads will also take drivers through excellent moose habitat.
B) Cramer Road (County Road 7): This gravel road winds through beautiful boreal forest and swampy areas where moose may gather.
C) Caribou Trail/County Road 4: Follow this road that begins on the east end of Lutsen and heads inland for 17.3 miles until reaching The Grade. Make the route or turn onto The Grade if you would like to continue your adventure.
D) The Grade: You can hop on The Grade by taking the Sawbill Trail in Tofte, the Caribou Trail (County Road 4) near Lutsen or the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) to County Road 7 from Grand Marais. The Grade will take drivers through the low-lying, boggy areas that moose favor.
E) Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway (County Road 12): This 57-mile long paved road that begins in Grand Marais and heads inland is the highway we recommend above others. Most of the roads that branch off from the Gunflint Trail (like the Lima Grade which is approximately 21 miles from Grand Marais) are also great to travel during your search.
If you’re interested in getting out of your car, a moose viewing trail is accessible on the left-hand side of the road about 24 miles from Grand Marais. The trail is a multi-purpose loop trail that leads to a hidden pond with a viewing platform.
F) The Arrowhead Trail: This road begins along Highway 61 northeast of Grand Marais and Colvill. It leads north and west for approximately 13 miles and travels through great moose habitat.
Snowy Owls, the largest of the North American owls, are beautiful, large white birds that call the North Shore home. Their white bodies and wings have varying amounts of brown or black markings on them, with females tending to have more. The white body helps camouflage the big bulky body of the owl in the winters. The Snowy Owl will travel great distances in search of prey and for breeding purposes. Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls are very active throughout the day and rely on their hearing to find prey.
In winter, Snowy Owls tend to move toward shorelines of lakes and oceans, and agricultural fields in the northern United States and Canada. Every once in a while, an owl will fly to a northern city and draw big crowds. In the summer, Snowy Owls travel as far north as the Arctic Circle where the climate is milder and there is an abundance of prey. They will also breed throughout the summer in the treeless arctic tundra area, which will get up to 24 hours of daylight. They typically spend their days flying or sitting on or near the ground on places such as a fence post or a large boulder.
In early spring, male Snowy Owls mark their territory with a deep hooting noise and they fly around slowly beating their wings. He will locate a nesting female, who is usually sitting on a depression in the ground of the tundra. The female Snowy Owl will produce anywhere from 3-11 eggs, depending on the abundance of prey in that year. The eggs are whitish, and usually become nest-stained. The female will incubate the eggs for 31-33 days and the male will bring food to the female. The eggs hatch at intervals, allowing the female to feed young while incubating other eggs. The young are fed by the parents for up to at least 9-10 weeks and they begin flying around seven weeks.
Snowy Owls hunt by day and perch up high to watch for prey on the ground. Once they spot prey, they swoop down and catch their dinner with their talons. If they are extra hungry, Snowy Owls will seek out prey by flying really low to the ground, using their eyes and ears to find dinner. In the summer Snowy Owls are very nomadic and travel to find food. Their diet varies, but it usually includes small rodents called lemmings, along with rabbits, hares, voles, and ground squirrels. In coastal areas, Snowy Owls will feed on fish and other birds, such as geese and songbirds.
Biologists have not been able to track the exact travel routes of the Snowy Owl, but many spend their time on the North Shore during the winter. Keep your eyes open, and if you’re lucky you may spot one on your next North Shore adventure.
If you’ve been to the North Shore in the winter and summer months, you may have noticed something strange about the local deer. You tend to see many of them along Highway 61 during the winter months but not as many during the summer months. Do you know why?
With the cold temperatures and snowfall accumulating along the North Shore, deer are starting to navigate their way to specific spots to keep warm. Although it may come as a surprise, because of its size, Lake Superior influences the local weather acting as an air conditioner in the summer and a radiator of warmth during the winter. Because of this, deer are attracted to the shore and are seen in great numbers there during the winter months!
The other place deer can most likely be found during these cold winter months is somewhat bizarre. Because they are so easily frightened, most think that deer congregating near the busy highway would not happen, but in fact, it’s one of their favorite spots, mainly because the food supply is more prevalent where there is less snow. They also really enjoy the salt left behind from the snowplows. So, after a recent snowfall, deer tend to congregate along Highway 61 to lick the salt off the road.
Because of this, the North Shore sees more deer and car-related accidents than any other time of the year. Also, because of the higher snowbanks along the highway, you may not see a deer bounding out of the woods and leaping over the banks as soon as you would in other seasons. So we recommend you drive with caution and keep your peripheral trained on the treeline on either side of the highway, looking for sudden movement. Also, keep a safe distance of at least 3-4 car lengths between you and the vehicle in front of you. Because of the snow and ice that may be present on the highway, it is recommended that you do not slam on your brakes if you do spot a deer. This may cause your car to skid and lose control or for a vehicle traveling behind you to not be able to react in time and cause an accident. Instead, be aware that a deer may run across the road at any time and be prepared to come to a slow, controlled stop, if possible. The speed limit on Highway 61 between Two Harbors and the Canadian Border is now 60 in most areas (be aware, there are a few exceptions!) but this is the maximum, not the minimum. If you are seeing a higher number of deer than usual during your trip, you can drive a bit slower in order to keep the road safe for everyone, especially during an active snowfall.
Drive safe, be safe, and enjoy the beautiful local deer population in a safe manner.
The wolf population on Lake Superior’s North Shore is alive and well! The DNR population survey reported 439 packs and over 2,200 wolves living within Minnesota’s wolf range, primarily in the northern half of the state. That survey also showed that the population of the grey wolf was growing, increasing from just 374 packs found during the previous survey.
This is a great recovery from a century ago when the wolf population dwindled to almost zero due to active hunting. It used to be that if you hunted a wolf and turned in a paw to the DNR, you’d get a payment for successfully hunting what was once considered a nuisance species. These days, wolf hunting is illegal and could carry steep fines or even jail time. Since the near extinction of the wolf population in Minnesota, researches have realized that wolves are an integral part of our ecosystem. Their presence keeps the deer population, as well as other species population, in check. This, in turn, helps maintain other natural resources, like plants and shrubs, which are eaten by animals wolves prey on.
In very recent years, we’ve seen this fine balance between predator and prey relationship affecting flora and fauna on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. The wolf population had dwindled to just two wolves on the island, meanwhile, the moose population flourished due to lack of predators. The moose were destroying the limited natural resources on the island, so a multi-national program was set up between the US and Canada to increase the wolf population on Isle Royale. Since then, over a dozen wolves have helped to re-populate the island and are being closely studied by the US Parks Service.
Isle Royale is a great modern-day example of what could have happened in Minnesota had the wolf not become a protected species. Luckily, this was all figured out in time and the population has revived and is thriving.
If you’re looking to spot a wolf on the North Shore, there are a couple of things you should know. Encounters with wolves can occur throughout any time of the year, but the most frequent encounters happen during the late winter months. This happens for a couple of reasons, one being that the deep snow inland keeps the deer that they prey on near Lake Superior’s shore. Another, and maybe the most important reason, is Lake Superior freezes over and enables the wolves to stalk their prey out onto the ice for an easier kill.
Wolves actually use the ice to their advantage when hunting deer, surrounding them along the shoreline and eventually forcing them out onto the ice. If not on the ice, many motorists on Highway 61 have spotted wolves late at night preying on the roadkill that was left behind. In recent years, there have been reports of a resident wolf in the Cascade Beach Road area of Lutsen.
If you’re interested in seeing a wolf, be sure to be outside around dawn, as this is their most busy time of day. Then, walk down to a piece of Lake Superior shoreline that isn’t visible from Highway 61 and keep your eyes peeled. Make sure to bring a pair of binoculars because you will want to keep your distance. Also, dress warmly with plenty of layers, and if you’re not lucky enough to encounter a wolf, you’ll at least get to witness the beauty of a North Shore sunrise.
While wolves generally avoid populated areas and are not a nuisance to people, there have been reports of wolves attacking pets, such as cats and small dogs. Usually, this happens when there is a pack disturbance that causes a wolf, typically a male, to be kicked out of their pack. The lone wolf has a harder time hunting and catching more difficult prey, so they seek out easier prey, like domestic animals. It’s always wise to keep an eye on your pets when they are outside and always be aware of your surroundings when hiking with your pet. Wolf attacks on domestic animals are incredibly rare. There have been less than 30 reported wolf attacks in the entire United States ever. In Minnesota, the 2013 attack of a teenager by a wolf with a deformed jaw was the first, and so far only, wolf attack on record in Minnesota history. The teenager in that incident had only minor injuries.
Still, it is always wise to keep a safe distance from wolves and any other wild animal you might encounter during your travels. Enjoy the beauty of this large wild canine from your vehicle or home. Keep your pets on a leash and nearby, just in case you happen to see a wolf nearby. However, they will mostly leave you alone and want to keep their distance from you just as much as you want to keep your distance from then. And if you happen to see one, we’d love to hear about it!