Refuge Spotlight: Hiking Magnolia trail at St. Catherine Creek

Published 10:15 am Friday, July 30, 2021

Near the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Headquarters in Sibley is a trail head for the Magnolia Trail. This two-mile hiking trail meanders through an upland forest and past a youth fishing pond.

In the first half-mile of the trail are signs featuring facts about the different animals in the area. Using a notebook and a booklet from St. Catherine Creek, refuge manager Skye Kreisler said people could make a note for each time they hear a bird.

“The trail is somewhere people can listen for birds, and it’s a great place to listen and be present in nature,” Kreisler said. “The other day, we had a birder out here, and they identified about 50 birds on this trail. Some birds are named by what they sound like, such as a towhee or pewee.”

Birds are not the only wildlife that makes their homes in the towering trees along the Magnolia Trail. Squirrels pick away at nuts and bark from their perch. Tree frogs croak their songs.

Kreisler said tree frogs grow louder as dusk turns into night. Barred owls hoot, and mourning doves coo from their perches. Another creature makes their home in the forest using low trees to their advantage along the trail.

“Along the trail, there can be spider webs,” Kreisler said. “It’s good because they are keeping the gnats and mosquitoes away, but people do not want a spider crawling on them. You can carry a stick to keep cobwebs away.”

Seeing the forest for the trees

While walking the trail, you can note the different kinds of vegetation that make their home in the forest. There are four levels of vegetation: ground cover, understorey, mid-canopy and canopy.

Most of the refuge is bottomland forest because of floods from the Mississippi River, she said.

Common Upland trees you can find along this trail are a mixture of locust, sweet gum and sycamore trees. Upland forest contrasts with the oaks, cypress and willow trees found in the bottomland.

It has an impact on the wildlife found in certain areas, she said. The further away from the headquarters you go, the closer to the bottomland forest you get. In one section of the trail, a bench overlooks a bottomland pond that fills up in the winter. Wood ducks love to visit this area, she said.

Throughout the forest is a mix of old and young tree growth, she said. As a section of forest was clear, new trees grew up, and they are all the same age.  Typically if an area has trees of the same size, it is new growth, she said. Some birds will only live in the old trees. Deer love to feed on the young seedlings and saplings, she said.

A covered trail provides shade to the hiker and a break from the sun, she said.

“This trail is 10 degrees cooler because of the shade,” Kreisler said. “It can also shield you from the rain.”

Trees cover most of the trail. There is a section where the forest canopy opens up into a crisp blue sky. Flashes of orange dart around the grasses, these flashes are butterflies, she said. Deer also love the meadow as do the butterflies.

“This meadow is a good spot for deer because they have a nice edge habitat. They will also drop fawns here,” Kreisler said. “Butterflies and dragonflies are everywhere and so are damselflies.”

A half-mile from the meadow, and over Alligator Hill, the trail leads to a swamp. A flock of Vultures roosts in a dead tree over the water while wood storks and herons perch over the water.

Binoculars or scope can provide an up-close look at these birds as they hang around the backside of the swamp. Kreisler said she plans to upgrade the boardwalk to the observation blind and move it out closer to the water’s edge.

“It is sad to me that some people don’t even know a trail like this exists,” Kreisler said. “It would be big for people to come and see. It’s a great place for solitude. I believe the refuge becomes a snapshot of what it was like before it was farmed and inhabited. Every time you come out here, you will see something different.”