Also known as “BirdChick”, Sharon Stiteler is a National Park Ranger with the Mississippi River and Recreation Area (MNRA) and a hardcore birder. As a National Park Ranger based out of the Visitor Center at the Science Museum, Sharon’s job allows her to share her passion and knowledge for Saint Paul’s expansive natural beauty with locals and visitors alike.
What is your connection to Saint Paul?
I work here as a National Park Ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRA). When I moved here in 1996, I had my first job with a theatre company in downtown Saint Paul. A good portion of my work life is here.
What would you say the vibe or feeling in Saint Paul is?
For me, it depends whether it's spring migration. For the most part, I would say Saint Paul is pretty chill but still a good time. When spring migration happens, all bets are off—it's super exciting, especially over at Lilydale Park. So many warblers are pouring through and a number of people on our boat trips have seen me go nuts when a peregrine falcon flies over.
What is the best way to get up close and personal to nature in Saint Paul?
One day right here at our Visitor Center in the Science Museum of Minnesota, a coyote was running around in the parking lot and we saw it run out front—it’s also a surprisingly great place to see otters. Crosby Park is probably my favorite park in Saint Paul. I can get people super close to indigo buntings, bald eagles and, if we're really lucky, sometimes we get a good look at a river otter. There are so many river otters in that part of the park. In the wintertime, the trails are maintained. You have some open habitat and you have some hardwood forests. When we get a lot of snow, sometimes I'll lead a snowshoe program down there and at night I can almost guarantee either a barn owl or a great horned owl. Sometimes we've heard coyotes howling there too—it’s so cool to hear that.
If you want to find the best way to get on the river, talk to your friendly neighborhood Park Rangers—we’re happy to do that. If you live in Saint Paul and you want to get more involved with the Mississippi River, come talk to us. If you love your national parks, have a desire to help and have any kind of talent, we’ll find a way to exploit it.
Talk more about the MNRA.
People are always surprised at finding our national park here. I like to say we’re the national park that sneaks up on you. People expect a national park site to be remote—maybe a little tough to get to. We're so accessible and I love that the mission of my park is to get people, at the end of their eight hour day, to take a kayak right on the Mississippi River or ride a bike trail. Not everyone associates urban with a national park and I love breaking down that stereotype.
Sometimes after work, some of my ranger coworkers and I will go right across the river to the boat docks at Harriet Island to go catfishing. It’s so much fun and other people kind of know that as a pretty good spot, right here in a downtown area. I'm going to brag a little bit—I did once bring in a 20-pound catfish over by those boat docks. It snapped the line, but we saw it. It was 20 pounds, there were witnesses.
Another thing that's really surprising about it is the National Park Service owns very little of the land in the corridor. We’re what's called a partnership park, so we partner up with private landowners in our corridor—state parks, regional parks, city parks—and pool our resources to provide habitat restoration to improve trails and give you stellar programming you would expect from a National Park Ranger.
What is a can’t miss for someone trying to get the best Mississippi River outdoor experience?
Depends on the season. I love when people down south come up here to see ice on the Mississippi River. In the warmer months, I love giving people directions to actually walk down to the Mississippi River—you can do that right here at the Science Museum—put your hand in it, put your feet in it. During spring and fall migration, you cannot miss Crosby Park. Crosby Park is spectacular for warbler migration birders. It's one of the few places you can see a prothonotary warbler in the Twin Cities, which is a really cool little gold bird with sky blue wings.
In the autumn, the river is so gorgeous in the evening. The city is so beautiful, especially if you're walking over by Harriet island and spending an evening there. You can see bald eagles and, depending on the time of season, you'll see herons cruising by and you have this gorgeous urban landscape in the background.
In the summertime, you have to get on the river. We have the new paddle share program where you can rent a kayak—you can take a route from Hidden Falls to Harriet Island. I guarantee you will see bald eagles and you get that fantastic view of downtown Saint Paul. I've also seen coyotes on that route. There’s nothing quite like being on the river and being part of the vibe there as the barges go by. If you don't feel great about your kayaking skills, you can do shows with us on the Padelford. I produced a show through the park service called “Murder on the Mississippi.” It’s a great evening—riverboat ride, you get to watch a murder mystery and maybe win a prize! If that's not your thing, you can also take a personalized park ranger pontoon ride and we will give you a great tour on the river.
What are some other can’t miss seasonal experiences in Saint Paul?
Saint Paul in the wintertime is a great place to run a 5K. The roads are fantastic. Sometimes they'll run them from the Saints’ stadium—it embraces winter so much. And you have all the shenanigans with the Winter Carnival. It’s always fun to see the ice sculptures and some years there's an ice castle. Winter really brings out the artistry in Saint Paul. I love how art never stops in Saint Paul and, in winter, it flourishes.
The spring migration is distracting for me. It's amazing because I will walk between the Science Museum and Kellogg Square, and you can find common yellowthroats skulking in some of the shrubberies in Downtown. And, of course, the peregrine falcons are doing their mating flights—it's pretty exciting.
Anything you can do here that you can't elsewhere?
A lot of people from around the country say, “I hear you have a lot of Bald Eagles. I haven't seen one yet.” If you just stand outside on Kellogg Boulevard, you will see one fly by. The Minnesota DNR’s Bald Eagle Cam nest is not far from Saint Paul and there are a few other nests right across the river in Lilydale Park. I love that you can be on a busy road in a downtown metropolitan area and it's common to have a bald eagle soar right over your head—that's pretty fantastic.
Tell us about BirdChick.
That’s my alter ego outside of the park service. I've always been interested in birds. It's just the way that I'm hardwired, ever since I was a little kid. I write about birds on that website.
When I first started my career in birding, I used to do segments on local news and they called me the KARE 11 bird lady. Whenever you're a female who talks about birds, they call you bird lady. There are several of us across the country, so I was trying to think of a different way to differentiate myself. I was actually getting a tattoo and the artist was like, “Oh, you're that chick who talks about birds on TV.” And I was like, “Oh, that's catchy.” It was an available web address and just kind of took off from there.
It's crazy to me how many career opportunities I've gotten from that website. I've written at least three books and contributed to a few others, and my birding expertise helped me get my job with the National Park Service and now I run my park social media program. It's afforded me a lot of really great writing opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise.
You’ve had some appearances on national television. How did those come to be?
I ended up on Ellen and Jimmy Fallon by accident. There was a police report out of northern Minnesota about birds getting drunk and flying into windows. Fox News called here and asked if I would talk about it and I said, “Yeah but, here's the thing, what they're describing aren't really drunk birds. It's the wrong time of year.” And he said, “Okay, well I'm coming anyway.” So I'm trying to explain that these aren't drunk birds—this is a warbler fallout, that's what's happening. And he said, “The news is terrible right now and drunk birds is funny. Can you give us drunk birds?” And I said, “I'll tell you about my personal experience with drunk birds because I've had to give sober rides to drunken Cedar waxwings before and I just let them sleep it off in my bathroom and let them go the next morning.” And that just got picked up and before I knew it, it was on every Fox News channel and then it was on Ellen. She compared me to Kate McKinnon—that's a dream.
What is your insider tip?
You can go fossil hunting here. You have to be very careful, but if you know how to find shale—along the Mississippi River, especially at Lilydale Park, you can find some really cool oceanic fossils there. I just think that's incredible to be in a major metropolitan area and say, ”Yeah man, there are fossils here. No big deal. I can look at that. I can touch that piece of history.” That’s an incredible resource and it's really cool to show kids.
What does Saint Paul mean to you?
Saint Paul is a strong, loving, artistic community. I have made so many lifelong friends here. The artistic community is so strong. People support and inspire each other. This is such an amazing literary and artistic community on top of being such an outstanding natural resource.