By Trent Jonas
Minnesota is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The eastern hardwood forest, northern boreal forest, and tallgrass prairie biomes all converge in the state. The Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers are major flyways for migratory species. And thousands of lakes offer respite for waterfowl. With help from wildlife services and other agencies, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources established the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail. And while it’s hundreds of miles long, there are plenty of excellent spots along the way to get out and explore. Here are some of our favorites.
For birders who love owls, the Lost River State Forest—which is included in the Pine to Prairie International Bird Trail—is about as good as it gets. One of the things that makes the forest such excellent bird habitat is that its home to several fens and peat bogs, which can make hiking a bit of a challenge. The most accessible part of the forest is just south of the Canadian border. Drive north on MN-310. About 1.5 miles before the border, you’ll see an unpaved pullout on the west side of the road. Park there and follow the trail straight west toward the Sprague Creek Peatland Scientific and Natural Area. If you go late in the year, you can see northern hawk owls, sandhill cranes, whippoorwills, and several species of woodpeckers.
In the autumn, migrating raptors soar daily by the hundreds over Hawk Ridge in Duluth. This world-renowned location also draws birders and scientists by the hundreds to study the migrations from the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. In addition to many species of hawks and owls, birders can see ospreys, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and turkey vultures.
The 110-acre park has miles of hiking trails. For a good hike with the best birding potential, hike out along Skyline Parkway to its intersection with the Pine Woods Trail. Turn southwest onto the Pine Woods Trail to the Summit Ledges observation point. Hike counterclockwise on the Ridge Loop Trail until it meets Spruce Trail, then hike up to the Spruce Knob observation point. When you’re ready to head back, hit the Middle Trail back to the parking area. To see the trail map, check out the website.
The Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge is an area where all the Eastern Hardwood Forest biome butts up against the tallgrass prairies. Rivers, wetlands, sedge meadows, and marshes make the refuge a crucial habitat for migratory birds, such as sandhill cranes and 200 other species, as they pass through Minnesota in the spring and fall. The best hiking trails for birders are the Blue Hill and Mahnomen Trails off of County 9, near the refuge headquarters. The Blue Hill Trail, west of the the headquarters, is the longer and more challenging of the two, but an intrepid birder could easily hike both in a day.
The Sax-Zim Bog is a somewhat-undefined area in Northern Minnesota that’s comprised of public and private lands. However, the unique habitat in this area attracts more than 240 bird species, which draws birders from across the country. The area is best known for winter birder as northern species move down to overwinter before heading north to Canada and the Arctic for the rest of the year. The northern owl species, such as the snowy, great gray, and northern hawk owls, get most of the attention at Sax-Zim. But dozens of migratory songbird species make the area musical in the spring. A good year-round bet for a hike is on the dirt track that heads east off McDavitt Road, about a mile and a half south of Zim Road.
In western Minnesota, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s bucket list item. Bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and golden-winged warblers are the stars of the show in this multi-biome habitat that consists of hardwood and coniferous forests punctuated with wetlands, three rivers, and bogs. Birders on foot should hit the North Country Hiking Trail. If you start at South Chippewa Lake, then head west and south toward Tamarac, Pine, and Mud Lakes before turning around and hiking back, you’ll maximize your birding opportunities in the refuge.