10 Highlight Birds of Minnesota

1. Snowy Owl

A beautiful snowy owl photographed during the Bird Watcher's Digest Reader Rendezvous in Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota. Photo by Peter Trueblood.

A beautiful snowy owl photographed during the Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous in Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota. Photo by Peter Trueblood.

The beautiful snowy owl is 20 to 27 inches long, has a rounded head without any ear tufts and has big, yellow eyes. The adult male is almost pure-white, while the female has scattered bits of brown in its plumage and immatures birds are heavily marked with brown.

Like most owls, the snowy owl is able to turn its head 270 degrees while searching for prey and can appear to be quite tame while hunting.

The snowy owl is a winter visitor to Minnesota. When prey (primarily lemmings) is scarce, this owl moves from its northern nesting territory in the tundra south into Minnesota. It arrives when the weather turns cold and the owl is able to blend in with any snow cover. This owl likes to perch on fence posts or utility poles, and the big, round bales of hay that are a common in our many farm fields. Many of the snowy owls that make the trip south are immatures.

The snowy owl can be found anywhere in the state in winter, but the shipping terminals of the Duluth Harbor are a reliable place to look for snowy owls from mid-November to mid-March. The best time to find one is early morning or late evening. Of course this is Minnesota time, which during the winter would translate to 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Overcast days are good for finding snowy owls because they ofter are active in such weather. On clear, sunny days they tend to become inactive. Scan winter fields and fences for something large and white and you may find a snowy owl.

2. Great Gray Owl

Great gray owl, photo by Cephas / Wikimedia

Great gray owl, photo by Cephas / Wikimedia

The great gray owl is our largest owl at between 24 and 33 inches long. Great grays have a large facial disk patterned with concentric gray rings and an obvious white patch on the throat, like a bowtie, and yellow eyes. It is a dusky gray in color with streaked underparts and lacks ear tufts.

Great gray owls are permanent residents of Minnesota and are generally encountered in northern counties such as Roseau, St. Louis, Lake, Cook, and Aitkin. These owls are well-known for showing up at Sax-Zim Bog, Aitkin County Road 18, Highway 310 north of Roseau and Pietz’s Road in Aitkin County.

The great gray owl is fond of habitats such as forest clearings or spruce or poplar trees standing along bogs, fens, or meadows.

They are most active early and late in the day and on snowy or cloudy days. They are often seen on low perches, so look for them in such locations along roadsides. The great gray owl typically shows no fear of humans and therefore can be approached closely.

The great gray owl nests in abandoned hawk, crow, or raven nests and sometimes on the top of tree stumps.

If you have a chance to see a great gray owl in Minnesota, consider yourself lucky. Birders from all over the world have traveled to our state in search of this quiet woodland giant. It is one of Minnesota’s avian treasures.

3. Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater prairie chicken displaying. Photo by GregTheBusker / Wikimedia.

Greater prairie chicken displaying. Photo by GregTheBusker / Wikimedia.

The greater prairie-chicken is a stocky, 17- to 18-inch-long bird with a darkly barred brown body and a short, rounded tail. The male has yellow neck sacs that are inflated when it is displaying for females in its spring courtship ritual.

The greater prairie-chicken has a range that runs along the eastern margin of the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota. This bird is found in Polk, Becker, Wadena, Clay, Wilkin, Red Lake, and Cass counties.

The best way to see this bird is from a blind on their booming grounds or leks. A lek is an assembly area where prairie chickens carry on their courtship behavior. Most of the displaying on these leks occurs from late March through April.

The males assemble at or before dawn, typically from 8 to 11 of them on a lek covering about 300 square yards. They spread their wings, lower their heads, and inflate their air sacs. When a male deflates his air-filled sacs, it produces a booming sound. That is why the leks are sometimes referred to as booming grounds. They strut, cackle, and coo, making complete fools of themselves. And why? To impress a female, of course. They are almost human in this regard.

Reservations are mandatory for the viewing blinds. You need to be in the blind at least an hour before sunrise in order to avoid frightening the prairie chickens away. The birds can dance for a long time, so your time in the blind can be a real challenge for your bladder. One should adjust his or her morning coffee intake accordingly.

To make a reservation for a blind, call one of the following numbers: in Crookston 218-281-6063; in Fergus Falls 218-739-7576; in Park Rapids 218-732-8452; in Backus 218-947-3338; and in Glyndon 218-498-2679.

4. Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared longspur. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

Chestnut-collared longspur. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

The chestnut-collared longspur is a mottled brown, sparrow-sized (5-1/2 to 6 inch) bird. The male is a gaudy fellow with a chestnut nape, black cap, yellow throat, white eyebrow, black underparts, and white outer tail feathers. The female has a drab gray-brown appearance. A summer resident of Minnesota, the longspur gets its name from its extremely long claw on its hind toe, an adaptation that helps them walk across everything from wet, muddy soil to snow. This is a handy feature for this ground-loving bird as it spends its days foraging for seeds and insects in the prairie soil.

The chestnut-collared longspur, one of our most colorful grassland birds, is found in only one breeding area in Minnesota, that being Felton Prairie in Clay County. As such, it is a highly sought-after species for bird watchers compiling a life list. Look for longspurs in mowed or grazed areas where the males may be seen singing from the tops of rocks, fence posts or tall plants. The song is a soft and sweet warble that is reminiscent of the song of the western meadowlark only higher-pitched. Male longspurs often utter this song while fluttering high above their territory.

Their nests are a cup-like assemblage of grasses placed in a shallow depression in the ground, dug by the female.

Chestnut-collared longspurs depart Minnesota in the late fall to spend the winter in the south-central United States.

5. Boreal Chickadee

Boreal chickadee. Photo by P. Bonenfant / Wikimedia.

Boreal chickadee. Photo by P. Bonenfant / Wikimedia.

The boreal chickadee is a cheerful little bird, about 5 inches long, with a brown cap and back, a gray nape, dull reddish-brown flanks, a black bib, and white on its cheeks. In size and behavior it is similar to the black-capped chickadee which is found all across Minnesota.

User friendly for bird watchers, most of the tiny chickadees sing their name softly: chickadee-dee-dee. But the boreal chickadee’s call is more wheezy and nasal than that of the black-capped chickadee. Instead of saying chickadee-dee-dee the boreal’s call has been described as yesterdaaaay, daay. Less user-friendly is the boreal chickadee’s habit of not singing during the nesting season, which makes it harder to find.

Boreal chickadees nest in a natural tree cavity or in one excavated by woodpeckers. The nest is lined with animal fur, moss, or other soft materials. The boreal chickadee forages in conifers, gleaning insects off the needles, branches, and bark. Like the gray jay, the boreal chickadee is known to store food items in a cache for later consumption.

This acrobatic, likable bird is a permanent year-round resident of northeast and north-central Minnesota. It prefers dense spruce forests and is somewhat shyer than the black-capped chickadee, coming less readily to the tips of branches in response to spishing or squeaking that birders use to attract many woodland songbirds. Because of its extreme northerly range, this is not a bird that lots of folks get at their bird feeders.

Good sites to search for this chickadee are the Gunflint Trail, Superior National Forest, and Sax-Zim Bog.

6. Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's gull. Photo by Avaceda / Wikimedia.

Franklin’s gull. Photo by Avaceda / Wikimedia.

The Franklin’s gull is between 13 and 15 inches long, has a black head and orange-red bill and feet during the breeding season, from April through August. In flight, it shows a black crescent on its white wing tips and a white trailing edge to the wings. Non-breeding birds (from August through March) have only a half-hood of black and sport a black bill. In this plumage they look like balding middle-aged men. It is very similar in size and appearance to the laughing gull, a year-round resident of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But range makes it fairly easily to separate the inland Franklin’s from the coastal laughing gull.

The Franklin’s gull is a summer resident of the northwestern part of the state. It prefers prairie marshes and sloughs for both breeding and foraging. It often feeds on insects in plowed fields, at times following closely behind the tractor, snagging insects disturbed by the machinery. This has earned the Franklin’s gull the nickname, “prairie dove.”

The Franklin’s gull breeds only in large colonies near fresh water, and is extremely sensitive to habitat destruction. The call of this gull is a nasal, laughing sound—a strident ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

There is a large and noisy colony that nests on Agassiz NWR. Heron Lake in Jackson County is another spot worth checking. The Franklin’s gull is a colonial nester and builds a nest of grasses either on the ground or floating in shallow water.

7. Gray Jay

Gray jay photo by Cephas / Wikimedia

Gray jay photo by Cephas / Wikimedia

Often called the “whiskey Jack,” “Canada jay” or “camp robber,” the gray jay is an 11- to 13-inch-long bird that is dark gray on top and pale gray below, with a dull black stripe through the eye and a white forehead. Because of its confiding nature and its overall coloration, many people have likened the gray jay to being an oversized chickadee.

This short-billed, inquisitive and tame jay earns the moniker “camp robber” by stealing food from campsites and picnic areas. It will eat almost anything it can steal—from Cheetos to pancakes, but among its naturally-occurring foods it consumes mostly conifer seeds during the winter. The gray jay uses sticky saliva to cache seeds, berries, and buds by sticking them to trees. Burying these food items, as other jays do, would be fruitless. The winter snows would cover the caches up and make them impossible to find. The gray jay returns to consume these tree caches later, when other food supplies have dwindled.

Unlike most jays, the gray jay is often quiet, but is capable of scolding screaming or whistling. It is also able to produce a screeching jay call not unlike that made by the blue jay. A common call of the gray jay is a chuck-chuck-chuck.

The gray jay is an uncommon, permanent resident of northeast and north-central Minnesota in the conifer forests. The Gunflint Trail, Superior National Forest and Sax-Zim Bog are good places to look for this resident jay of the northern woods.

Its nest is made of bark, mosses and twigs, lined with feathers or fur and placed on a horizontal branch of a conifer.

8. Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Evening Grosbeak (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The evening grosbeak is 7 to 8-1/2 inches long. Males are a striking golden yellow and brown. They have black wings with large white patches, and a yellow eye line. It has a large, pale greenish to ivory bill. Both the head and the bill are noticeably large. The female evening grosbeak is a duller gray-brown with less white in the wings.

This nomadic grosbeak is an uncommon summer resident in the northeastern and north-central portions of the state. It is a winter visitor to the northern part of the state, especially where conifers are present.

The Gunflint Trail as well as the city of Grand Marais and Superior National Forest are good places to look for this grosbeak.

These grosbeaks are world-class consumers of sunflower seed and when they visit a bird feeder, it tends to become empty in a hurry. When the grosbeaks descend on your feeders, plan on refilling your feeders more often. Many bird watchers have found that grosbeaks prefer white-striped sunflower seed to the more commonly offered black-oil sunflower seed, but this may not be universally true.

Evening grosbeak flocks are often heard before they are seen. The species has a call note similar to, but louder and more ringing, than that of the house sparrow. When a flock of evening grosbeaks give voice, the series of musical whistles can sound something like sleigh bells.

The evening grosbeak nests in conifer forests, but will stray from this area during the winter, especially if the conifer seed crop is at a low level.

9. Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut warbler, photo by Matt Tillet / Wikimedia

Connecticut warbler, photo by Matt Tillet / Wikimedia

The Connecticut warbler is yellow below and olive-green above with a bold, complete white eye ring. The male has a blue-gray hood covering its head and neck, and the female sports a gray-brown hood. At a glance you may notice the Connecticut’s long bill and legs and relatively short tail. It is the complete white eye ring, the larger size, and the preference for walking that separate the Connecticut warbler from the visually similar mourning warbler and Nashville warbler, both of which are also found in northeastern Minnesota. The mourning warbler lacks any eye ring and has a much darker hood. The Nashville is a much smaller bird, with a smaller bill and black legs.

This 5- to 6-inch-long bird is typically found in spruce bogs and pine forests where it can be found walking on the ground or along fallen logs as it searches for insects and spiders. It bobs its head and carries its tail in an elevated position as it skulks through the undergrowth. Its song is a loud and ringing, repetitive series of four-syllable phrases. Its call is a loud, metallic chink.

This warbler is an elusive summer resident on the northeast and north-central portions of the state. Look for it at Sax-Zim Bog, Highway 310 north of Roseau, and northern Aitkin County.

The Connecticut warbler, so named for its place of discovery (it migrates through New England in the fall), builds a grassy nest in a clump of moss.

10. Yellow Rail

Yellow rail. Photo by D. Sherony / Wikimdia.

Yellow rail. Photo by D. Sherony / Wikimdia.

The yellow rail is one of those birds that is heard far more often than it is seen both because of its preferred marshy habitat and its tiny size. The yellow rail is a brownish, little (just 6-1/2 to 7-1/2 inches long) bird with dark streaks on its back, a buffy-yellow breast, a white throat and belly, and a dark mask-like line through the eye.

The male yellow rail makes a call that sounds like two pebbles being clicked together. Many bird watchers seeking this elusive water bird have clicked two pebbles together in a pattern similar to the yellow rail’s call: tik-tik, tiktiktik. Some pebble-clicking birders have even enjoyed success at attracting a territorial male into the open for a quick look. Most use devices to play back the rail’s call, and a powerful flashlight to aid in spotting the bird.

Because it is most active at night, this can be a challenging bird to find. It inhabits sedge marshes and wet sedge meadows. All rails are secretive, but none is better at it than the yellow rail. This tiny, sparrow-sized bird is able to conceal itself expertly in the thick marsh vegetation. The phrase “thin as a rail” refers to the rail family’s ability to slip effortlessly through marsh grasses without causing a sound. Trying to locate a yellow rail may not be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It’s more like trying to find a mouse in a marsh.

The most dependable spot to find this shy bird is the McGregor Marsh in Aitkin County.

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