Birding North-central Minnesota

Yellow Warblers were singing from the trees on either side of us as my niece Elizabeth and I walked down the service road leading to one of the wetlands areas of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Suddenly, one flew across the road and landed where we could observe it.

“I can see it,” Elizabeth said excitedly. “It has thin red stripes on its breast.”

After introducing her to the feeder birds at the refuge Visitor Center, the staff directed us to this location where Elizabeth might have an opportunity to see a nesting Bald Eagle. We never saw the eagle; however, we had a delightful walk and a chance to observe a number of riparian birds.

When Elizabeth left for work on Monday morning, I headed out in my rental car to the Sherburne NWR, about an hour and a half northwest of Minneapolis. It was suggested as a location to see Minnesota’s woodland birds – and hopefully, a Scarlet Tanager.

The refuge staff recommended that I start at the Mahnomen Trail. “Are there ticks?” I inquired.

He laughed and responded, “This is Minnesota.” So, I tucked my pant legs into my socks and headed off on the trail.

Mahnomen Trail

The first bird that greeted me was an Eastern Phoebe. Since a few breed in New Mexico, I recognized it calling its name. A short distance away I spotted an Eastern Wood-Pewee. I followed the ‘question-answer’ song of a vireo I didn’t recognize, and found a Yellow-throated Vireo. I had seen one wintering in southern Mexico, but had never seen one on its breeding grounds.

I stopped to chat with a local birder as a Sandhill Crane called from beyond the woods. I hadn’t realized they nested in this area. “They have their colts with them now,” she told me.

“Be on the look-out for trees laying across the trail that came down in last night’s storm,” she cautioned. “And, I hope you have insect repellent; there are mosquitos in the woods – and also black flies.”

Undaunted, I walked towards the woods, passing Brown-headed Cowbirds, American Robins and a Hairy Woodpecker. I stepped over one of the downed trees and then stopped when I heard a melodic whistle. Pretty soon a Baltimore Oriole popped into view.

Baltimore Oriole


As I rounded a bend in the trail, a female Scarlet Tanager was foraging on a decaying log. I searched diligently for the scarlet-colored male with its black wing, but never saw him. While I was successful in seeing one of my Minnesota target birds, I will have to save the pleasure of seeing a male for another trip.

A small Green Snake slithered across my path as I emerged from the woods and into the grassland area. A Clay-colored Sparrow perched momentarily on a bare branch next to the trail. Its bill held an insect that undoubtedly would soon be delivered to a nest of chicks.

Clay-colored Sparrow


My next stop was the Blue Hill Trail where the refuge biologist said I would have my greatest chance of seeing warblers. “There is a Cerulean nesting there,” he relayed.

A largish snake, that I later learned was an Eastern Hognose Snake, made its way across the trail as I headed towards the tree-covered hill. I was glad it seemed to be on a mission since its largish diamond-shaped head had me worried.

The wind had picked up and as I entered the woodland, the trees were creaking and groaning.
While Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts sang and flitted in the branches, thoughts of the downed trees on the last trail made me reluctant to tarry and look for the Cerulean Warbler.

I didn’t want to return through the woods, so when I emerged on the other side, I choose to follow the service road that skirted the wooded hill. It was a smart choice. It came out along the grassland. I flushed a gray-plumaged male Ruffed Grouse that took off with a loud burst. The female was foraging in the grass a short distance away, giving me the opportunity to see its crest that resembled that of New Mexico’s Scaled Quail.

After eating my sandwich, I headed for the Wildlife Drive that wound through both prairie and wetlands, one of which contained a pair of Trumpeter Swans.

The birder I had met in the morning suggested I walk the woodland trail that was marked with a picture of an owl. “That is where I saw a Scarlet Tanager two days ago.”

While I didn’t see the tanager, I had the opportunity to hear the melodic song and striking coloring of a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak – only an occasional spring migrant in New Mexico.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak


After spending the night at Park Rapids, I headed west towards Detroit Lakes. Signs along the road let me know that I was in the ‘north woods’ of Minnesota. The terrain became more wooded and hilly and the lakes and pothole wetlands more numerous. My first stop was the Visitor Center at Tamarac NWR, where a Tree Swallow was perched on one of the signs.

Tree Swallow


I inquired about where to look for Golden-winged Warbler. “They nest here and we have students who are doing research on this species,” she explained after showing me where to look.

I drove along the refuge service road, parked along the edge and started walking in the area she suggested. It seemed as though Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts were everywhere. There also were pairs of Cedar Waxwings scampering after each other in the shrubs. I stopped to check out a warbler-sized bird flitting in quietly a bush – a male Chestnut-sided Warbler, an unexpected life bird.

I saw a group of students drive out of a road that was off-limits – probably the researchers. After covering the area marked on my map, I circled back towards the car. Almost immediately I spotted it – a striking little warbler with a white breast, bright yellow wings and forehead patch, and a black throat and mask.

As I headed back out on the service road, I stopped at an impressive eagle’s nest. It had appeared empty when I arrived earlier, but now there were two Osprey sitting on it.

Osprey on nest


My next stop was at the spot where the refuge staff told me that a Common Loon was nesting. She was still sitting on her nest and her mate was hovering nearby.

Common Loons


On the same lake was a pair of nesting Trumpeter Swans. I was surprised by the color of its head and neck, but later learned that the feathers are often stained from water and mud with high iron content.

Later that afternoon I visited Hamden Slough NWR, adjacent to the City of Audubon. I was curious about how the town was named. When I returned home I checked out the city’s website. It explained that John James Audubon’s niece arrived in the area with friends on a railroad inspection tour. She was so taken by the prairie flowers in bloom that she requested that if a settlement were established that it be named after her uncle.

The refuge was established to restore the prairie ecosystem and provide resting and nesting habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. It was closed, but I was able to drive on some of the perimeter roads to view the prairie birds. Just inside the gate was a Clay-colored Sparrow feeding its chick that was walking through the weeds calling for food.

Clay-colored Sparrow fledgling


A Bobolink was singing from a wire, but flew off before I could get a photo.

Before heading to North Dakota the next morning, I took time to drive along the border of Felton Prairie, an Important Bird Area located in what is referred to as a gravel prairie.

Felton Prairie


Pairs of Mourning Doves could breed and feed without having to compete with White-winged or Eurasian-colored Doves that have invaded many areas. Western Meadowlarks, at the eastern edge of their range, warbled from fence posts. Savannah Sparrows buzzed from dried stalks, Yellow-headed Blackbirds gurgled from the marsh, and an Eastern Kingbird landed on a wire nearby.

Eastern Kingbird


Using the car as a blind, I crept along the dirt road with the car windows open. An occasional truck passed me, but otherwise, I had the area to myself. Farms dominated the landscape south of the preserve, attracting a different set of birds. As I stopped to admire a Red-headed Woodpecker in the treed yard of one farm and attempt to photograph it, one of the trucks that had passed me earlier approached and came to a stop next to me. I’m sure he was curious about this woman creeping along the road. “I’m looking at birds,” I told him when he rolled down his window.

“Really?” he replied.

“I stopped to admire a Red-headed Woodpecker,” I told him. “It’s a bird I don’t have an opportunity to see very often in New Mexico.”

He smiled and apologized for scaring the woodpecker off.

It had been delightful experiencing the varied habitats and birds of north-central Minnesota, but it was time to head to North Dakota.

2 thoughts on “Birding North-central Minnesota

    • When I downloaded my pictures, I thought they looked like Osprey also, but they weren’t supposed to be there at that time – and since they were sitting on the eagle nest, I thought perhaps the ‘side burns’ were shadows.

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