Birding in Minnesota
|National Wildlife Refuges
|Acreage of Important Bird Areas
Minnesota swings from one temperature extreme to another, but while that may be disagreeable to humans it’s just fine with birds. The state’s combination of habitats—wetlands, prairie, and mixed hardwood and conifer forest, not to mention its location along an internationally significant flyway—make it a four-season destination.
The northeastern part of Minnesota is home to one of the country’s best fall hawk-watching sites, Duluth’s Hawk Ridge. That’s in addition to Sax-Zim Bog, whose winter birding festival showcases some of the most-wanted birds of the north country, including the Great Gray Owl. In the northwest, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge is one of the state’s best all-around destinations for both land and water birds. One of the largest Franklin’s Gull colonies in North America nests there.
West-central Minnesota is home to several tracts of tallgrass prairie, one of the most endangered habitats in North America. It’s there that Greater Prairie-Chicken and Loggerhead Shrike, among other grassland birds, still breed. Residents of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul are lucky to have Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a hotspot during spring and fall migrations, practically in their backyard.
Minnesota Birding Hotspots
From mid-August through November, a hillside road in eastern Duluth overlooking Lake Superior becomes one of the Midwest’s true birding hotspots. Here, scientists and casual birders alike gather to watch and census thousands of raptors passing on their southward migration.
Today, the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory conducts the count on East Skyline Parkway, though raptor counts began informally here in 1951. During September and October staff members and volunteers are on site daily to answer questions and help visitors identify species.
The absolute peak migration falls during September 10-25, when thousands of Broad-winged Hawks may pass daily. Different species peak at different times, though, so you won’t be disappointed by a later visit. Golden Eagle and Rough-legged Hawk peak a few weeks after the 25th, for instance.
On a good day (with generally west wind) in late September, a visitor to Hawk Ridge might well see Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. Occasional rarities include Mississippi Kite and Red-shouldered Hawk.
The Sax-Zim Bog area of of forest and wetlands can truly be said to be a legendary birding location, not just in Minnesota but nationally. About 35 miles northwest of Duluth, it’s a mixture of public and private land where much birding is done from roadsides, though there are some trails.
A sampling of the sought-after nesting birds here includes Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Sandhill Crane, Upland Sandpiper, American Woodcock, Great Gray Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Bobolink, and many warblers including Connecticut and Mourning.
While nesting boreal birds are the summer focus, many people visit this remote area in winter, when its owl population may include Northern Hawk-Owl, Great Gray Owl, Boreal Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. At the annual winter birding festival in February, birders look for owls and Northern Shrike, Snow Bunting, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Common Redpoll, and Hoary Redpoll.
There’s a winter birding center open from mid-December through mid-March about 12 miles west of Cotton on Road 203 (Owl Avenue). Newcomers should also visit the website of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog for a very helpful map.
Birding is a delight from spring through fall at this refuge northeast of Thief River Falls. An Audubon Important Bird Area, the 61,500-acre tract protects habitats including prairie, oak savannah, aspen woods, marsh, large impoundment pools, and more than 2,300 acres of coniferous bog. Wolves and moose roam here, though the latter has declined in recent years.
Tens of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds pass through Agassiz during migration. Large flocks of American White Pelican and Sandhill Crane can be seen seasonally. The refuge hosts important nesting colonies of Franklin’s Gull and Black Tern, and five species of grebes breed here.
Much of this bird bounty can be enjoyed on the four-mile Lost Bay Habitat Drive. Agassiz also has a few hiking trails, including a one-half mile, self-guided foot trail at the headquarters.
A few of the notable breeding birds at the refuge include Least Bittern, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, Connecticut Warbler, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Bobolink, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
If you head north from Roseau on Highway 310 you will reach Canada in less than 11 miles. Stop before you need your passport, as areas with excellent birding possibilities lie just before the border.
Winters can be harsh here, so for most people the best birding time is late spring through fall. But those who brave winter weather may find Northern Hawk-Owl, Northern Shrike, Snow Bunting, or Common Redpoll.
On the east side of Highway 310 lies Lost River State Forest, where nesting birds include Spruce Grouse (elusive here, as always), Black-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Connecticut Warbler, and Mourning Warbler. The Great Gray Owl, an impressive symbol of the north country, is a featured attraction. Some birders have been lucky enough to see this bird right along Highway 310.
A few miles west (west of Highway 89) lies Roseau River Wildlife Management Area, a haven for wetland-loving birds such as ducks, grebes, American Bittern, Least Bittern, rails (including Yellow), Black Tern, Sedge Wren, and Marsh Wren. Sandhill Crane and Le Conte’s Sparrow nest here. This is a popular hunting area, so it’s good to call in advance (218-463-1130) to check on seasons.
A visit to the Twin Cities yields terrific birding opportunities, thanks in no small part to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Minneapolis. Unlike most rural refuges, Minnesota Valley comprises several units scattered along almost 70 miles of the Minnesota River, totaling more than 14,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and restored prairie.
As a first step, study the refuge website or, better yet, stop by one of the two visitor centers, one in Bloomington southeast of the airport and the other in Carver, 23 miles southwest. Then delve into some of the units, where birders can discover abundant migrant and wintering waterfowl—including Trumpeter Swan and nesting Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser—and nesting Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon.
Birders appreciate the Bass Ponds area, less than 1.5 miles from the Bloomington visitor center, for spring migrants and nesting birds, such as Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, American Redstart, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Baltimore Oriole. It can also be good for migrant shorebirds in May.
The Old Cedar Avenue Bridge area, 1.2 miles southeast of there, is home to nesting Virginia Rail, Sora, and Marsh Wren. If you continue southeast another couple of miles, Black Dog Lake has open water in winter when other wetlands are frozen, which attracts waterfowl and the Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons that prey on them.
The Rapids Lake unit has nesting Sedge Wren, Blue-winged Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Orchard Oriole.
About only an hour northwest of Minneapolis, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge has accrued a bird list of more than 230 species. The refuge covers 30,700 acres on a glacier-formed floodplain of forest, grassland, and wetlands, with exceptional bird viewing.
In the fall, thousands of Sandhill Cranes gather here, creating a spectacle of both sight and sound as they make their bugling calls. Tens of thousands of waterfowl of up to two dozen species pass through during migration. Birders see Trumpeter Swan throughout the year.
Bald Eagle nest on the refuge, and several nests are visible from points along the 7.3-mile Prairie’s Edge Wildlife Drive. The route passes four wildlife observation platforms, and volunteers are often present along the way to answer visitors’ questions and give advice.
Nesting birds at Sherburne include Wild Turkey, Northern Harrier, Least Bittern, Sandhill Crane, Black Tern, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Bobolink, Dickcissel, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Winter visitors might see Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, or Snow Bunting, though all are scarce.
Four miles southeast of Felton, this treasured tract of native tallgrass prairie is home to beautiful wildflowers and unusual butterflies as well as grassland birds, some of them listed as threatened species.
The prairie tract is a patchwork of public land (some open to hunting), a Nature Conservancy preserve, and private property. Birders should obtain a map and avoid trespassing or entering closed areas.
The most magical sound here is the low booming of male Greater Prairie-Chickens as they gather at display grounds called leks to dance for females. It’s one of the highlights of the vanishing tallgrass prairie that once covered a huge area of the upper Midwest. Another special nesting bird here is Chestnut-collared Longspur, rare in this region.
Other species that might be found in nesting season include Northern Harrier, Swainson’s Hawk, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Least Flycatcher, Western Kingbird Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Sedge Wren, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Grasshopper Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Bobolink, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
One of central Minnesota’s best birding locations, Rice Lake is set in a glacier-sculpted landscape, where sheets of ice pushed up long ridges of soil and rock called moraines. These ridges impede drainage in the area, created abundant wetlands. Rice Lake itself is a 3,600-acre emergent marsh, or shallow lake with plants rising above the surface.
The wild rice for which the lake is named makes excellent food for waterfowl. The refuge is known for enormous flocks of Ring-necked Ducks that gather here in mid-October, averaging up to 100,000 individuals. The refuge attracts many other species of waterfowl as well, including Trumpeter Swan, Blue-winged Teal, and Hooded Merganser.
Driving the 14-mile Rice Lake auto tour road in spring or summer can bring sightings of Northern Harrier, Black Tern, Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, Veery, Mourning Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Bobolink, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. In forested areas, listen for the drumming of Ruffed Grouse, and in open areas, the bugling call of Sandhill Crane. The eerie “laughing” of Common Loon echoes over refuge lakes.
Rice Lake manages some areas for the threatened Golden-winged Warbler, a species in decline everywhere in its range. Look for it in shrubby areas with saplings or scattered small trees. The extremely elusive Yellow Rail also nests here.
Named for large granite outcrops rising from the grassland, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge ranks among Minnesota’s top birding locations. Set in the far western part of the state, less than a mile from South Dakota, it’s known for “western” nesting species as well as waterfowl and prairie birds.
Habitats here include impoundment lakes, woodland, marshes, and 1,700 acres of native tallgrass prairie. The 5.2-mile auto tour road provides a good sampling of refuge birdlife. Reach it by turning south off Highway 74 about 2.5 miles east of Ortonville. (The refuge office is located on County Road 15 near Odessa.)
Some of the western-oriented birds seen here are Western Grebe, Swainson’s Hawk, Western Kingbird, and Western Meadowlark. Nesting grassland specialists include Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Harrier, Marbled Godwit, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink. Marsh and wetland breeders include Pied-billed Grebe, Black Tern, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
Also drive County Roads 15, 40, and the road paralleling Highway 75 at the eastern end of the refuge for more birding opportunities.
Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge represents a wonderful opportunity to easily experience the rich Minnesota north woods environment. About 12 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes, the refuge protects almost 43,000 acres of lakes, bogs, grassland, and forest—a mix of both eastern hardwood and northern coniferous.
Much of this diversity can be seen on the five-mile Blackbird Wildlife Drive, which begins on Highway 26 about two miles east of refuge headquarters. The route winds past three major lakes and many wetland areas where the eerie call of Common Loon echoes in spring and summer. Bald Eagle is common here, building its huge nests near water.
Trumpeter Swans were reintroduced on the refuge in 1987, and today dozens of the big birds nest here. Tamarac is also known as an important breeding area for the threatened Golden-winged Warbler, which needs shrubby habitat rather than mature forest.
Some of the species that birders hope to find are Ruffed Grouse, Sandhill Crane, American Woodcock, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Connecticut Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Purple Finch.
Remarkable bird diversity abounds where northwestern Minnesota’s great coniferous forests yield to a narrow band of deciduous woodlands and then the wide-open prairie farther west. This trail, the first established in the state, links 45 prime sites along the transition zone, offering the chance to see almost 300 bird species. If you are visiting from points south, you may be most intrigued by the possibilities in the region’s evergreen forest: the powerful northern goshawk, the quiet, elusive spruce grouse, and the oddly tame gray jay. The deciduous woods provide a summer home for black-billed cuckoos, brilliant scarlet tanagers, and many other migratory birds, while the grasslands just to the west offer everything from buzzy-voiced grasshopper sparrows to greater prairie-chickens. Some of the best birding is around marshes and lakes, where you may find American bitterns stalking slowly in the shallows and common loons nesting in the wilder and more remote bays. With luck, you might even spot the elusive yellow rail, or hear its odd ticking song. —Kenn Kaufman
Minnesota may be famous for its 10,000 lakes, but the state’s rivers make the best routes for birding trails. This particular one, a project of Audubon Minnesota, follows its namesake river valley from the South Dakota border through the state’s southern part to the heart of the Twin Cities area. An expansive trail, it is thoughtfully divided into 11 distinct loops, each of them compact enough to provide a full day of birding. In summer many of the trail’s highlights are in the more open habitats. Clay-colored sparrows sing their funny flat buzzes from atop low thickets in the prairie, while bobolinks bubble and chime in flight above damp meadows. Open marshes are the places to hear yellow-headed blackbirds attempting to sing, although their hoarse strangled squawks are anything but tuneful. Black terns, graceful and sleek, fly above these same marshes. You might want to try the trail in winter. Your bird list will be shorter than it would be in summer, but it may include such prizes as the golden eagle or the northern shrike. —K.K.