A Myrtle Warbler in the sun

A Beginner's Guide to Birding in Minnesota

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A Myrtle Warbler in the sun / Chris Hurst

A Beginner's Guide to Birding in Minnesota

By Katie Koranda

It was a few months into the pandemic when I realized I had never looked at a Blue Jay.

Having grown up in the Midwest, I had seen them, of course, but I had never stopped to really look. And here one was, bopping around my front yard.

“I wonder what his story is,” I thought. With phone in hand, as it always was in those early days of quarantine, I typed “Blue Jay.”

A Blue Jay perched atop a tree in Grand Portage

A Blue Jay perched atop a tree in Grand Portage  / Travis Novitsky

It turns out Blue Jays aren’t actually blue. Not in pigment anyway. It’s all light fracturing and scattering — the same science that makes the sky or the ocean blue. It’s actually incredibly rare to find the pigment blue in nature. In fact, fewer than 1 in 10 plants produce blue flowers.

I later learned that Blue Jays were my spark bird – a bird that ignites your passion for birding. Little did I know that birding itself would be a spark, igniting a passion for finding fossils, rock-hounding, and simply being in nature.

Birds connect us with nature, teach us life lessons, promote conservation and give us something to fight for. OK, you’re convinced. Now what?

The good news is, you have timed your interest perfectly with spring migration (although you can go birding in Minnesota year-round). Here are some resources to get you started.

Bird watchers in Duluth

Bird watchers in Duluth  / Visit Duluth

The Ethics of Birding

First things first: Familiarize yourself with the ethics of birding. That means respecting birds and their environment by not getting too close to birds or their habitats — especially where it can cause stress, which is common during nesting season (early spring to mid-summer).

The American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics also calls for respecting and promoting the birding community and its individual members. Simply put, be a friendly, inclusive birder. One way to honor Black birders is to be intentional about your sources of information. From J. Drew Lanham to Isaiah Scott, there are plenty of Black birders whose expertise you can tap into.

Birdwatching with the DNR's birding kit

Birdwatching with the DNR's birding kit  / Deb Rose

What to Pack

Binoculars are a must, but don’t be intimidated by the choices. There are lots of options at all kinds of price points. You can also check out birding kits — complete with binoculars, guide books and park-specific bird lists — for free at most Minnesota state parks.

Footwear matters. I learned early on to be prepared for anything, especially if you’re birding in the spring. I recommend waterproof hiking boots. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray, depending on the season!

Once you begin, you’ll learn what works for you. The most important thing to bring with you, whether you are a new or seasoned birder, is a sense of wonder.

Even if you’re hoping to see a specific bird, remember to set yourself up to take in all the sights. “Just be happy with what you see," says Urban Bird Collective founder/executive director Monica Bryand, "and not be disappointed with what you don’t see.”

Blue Heron standing majestically on West Battle Lake

A blue heron sighting on West Battle Lake / Allie Hoeft

Where to Go

You can bird anywhere. Literally. Sometimes rare birds are spotted in parking lots. Speaking of rare birds, there are groups that track them. The DNR has everything you need to know, including birding checklists. You can also check out whatever parks are near you and monitor the conditions and trail difficulty on the All Trails app.

Birding in a state park or regional park is my first choice. I will always have a soft spot for Wood Lake Nature Center, the first place I ever went birding. My binoculars hadn’t come yet, and I went out during spring migration to see what I could see. I will never forget turning the corner and coming face to face with a green heron — a bird I didn’t even know existed.

Believe it or not, you can also see pelicans at Wood Lake at certain times of the year. These semi-tropical birds stop there — for up to a few weeks sometimes — during fall migration.

Birds in flight over Prior Lake

Birds in flight over Prior Lake  / Sunny Augustine

Groups You Can Join

There are many communities you can join, including local Audubon chapters, groups for female birders, and more.

The BlackAFinSTEM Collective seeks to support, uplift, and amplify Black STEM professionals in natural resources and the environment through professional development, career connection and community engagement. Connect with it on social media for information on how to get involved with its annual Black Birders Week.  

Locally, the Urban Bird Collective is working to create safe and welcoming spaces for all communities to explore birding and the outdoors as well. The group’s annual birdwatching festival takes place in May. Welcoming all skill levels, the event is a great opportunity for beginning birders to meet others in the community and participate in guided birdwatching sessions.

A Lesser Yellowlegs bird in Grand Portage

A Lesser Yellowlegs bird in Grand Portage  / Travis Novitsky

Identification Nation

Start by reading up on birds in Minnesota. When you’re on the trail, you can identify birds by appearance and song with the Audubon or Merlin bird ID apps. You can even track migration patterns with BirdCast.

A lot of people like to keep a life list to record all of the species they see over the course of their life. You can purchase a simple notebook or just bring your phone. The Audubon and Merlin apps have life list functions.

Bryand calls the Merlin app the “shazam” of the birding community. “You can be outside and hit record and it will capture all of the calls and tell you what you’re likely hearing,” she explains.

But the biggest tip for beginners? “Don’t get overwhelmed,” says Bryand. “We’re all on a continuum of learning, and we’re all learning — together.”

For more information about birding and other outdoor recreation opportunities, subscribe to the monthly Minnesota Outdoors newsletter.

Katie Koranda

Katie Koranda is a writer and photographer with experience at two of the nation’s top public radio stations, newspapers, a global nonprofit, and a Fortune 100 company. As a Minnesota transplant, she loves exploring —and writing about — what this great state has to offer.