By Bill Allen
It's spring! And in Minnesota that means it's time to shed our winter coats and get outside.
The coming of spring also means that the animals of the world are in motion again — flying, swimming, running and crawling to their summer homes and breeding grounds.
To celebrate this annual pageant of nature, The Nature Conservancy has created a list of the "Top Five Must-See Migrations" in Minnesota. The most visible spring migrants in Minnesota are birds, and there are many excellent bird-watching locations throughout the state.
So grab your binoculars and get outdoors where you can greet those colorful songsters that make spring one of the best times of the year in Minnesota!
The Top Five Must-See Migrations for Minnesota
Ducks and geese are among the earliest of Minnesota's spring migrants, and their numbers can be impressive. Lakes that open early in the season, such as Lakes Okabena, Ocheda and Bella near Worthington in southwestern Minnesota, attract 25 or more different species of waterfowl including concentrations of snow and Canada geese that can number in the thousands. About 100 miles further north in the Minnesota River valley, Lac Qui Parle State Park and the nearby Wildlife Management Area are good destinations for watching waterfowl and other water birds. White pelicans and cormorants that arrive here in the spring stay to form huge nesting colonies. The Mississippi River in the southeastern corner of the state is another good location for watching waterfowl, especially along Lake Pepin, a widening of the river that forms behind its confluence with Wisconsin’s Chippewa River. The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge attracts waterfowl and an overlook near Brownsville provides a good vantage point for watching the refuge's birds. Come back to the refuge in November to witness the thousands of tundra swans that stop here during their fall migration.
The Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota is a good location to watch bald eagles in early spring. Many eagles overwinter there, and those birds are joined by additional eagles returning from points further south. Look for eagles perched in trees by the river shore or sitting alongside open leads on the river ice. Wabasha is home to the National Eagle Center that offers interpretive programs about the river's eagles. With the arrival of warmer weather, the eagles disperse to their nesting sites throughout Minnesota.
3. Sandhill cranes
Sandhill cranes return to Minnesota starting in March and continuing through April, and are perhaps the most spectacular of the state's spring migrants. They are conspicuous large birds, standing five feet tall with seven foot wingspans that make loud bugling calls. Sandhill cranes nest in wetlands in the state, notably at Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near Little Falls. Other good locations to watch cranes are the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Anoka County, and The Nature Conservancy's Glacial Ridge Project in northwestern Minnesota.
Most shorebirds arrive in Minnesota in April and can be found anywhere there are exposed mudflats, including wet depressions along rural roads that may last only a few days and are commonplace in the spring.
More predictable locations that are good for shorebirds are Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge near Detroit Lakes and Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge near Thief River Falls — Agassiz is also known for its water birds and waterfowl. Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area on the South Dakota border in Lac Qui Parle County is well-known for its shorebirds, especially for avocets, phalaropes and other species that are uncommon in Minnesota and attracted to this unusual alkali lake. Other shorebirds that can be seen in April include many kinds of sandpipers, plovers, and godwits that can be found at Nature Conservancy preserves such as Chippewa Prairie and Plover Prairie, and on lands being restored as part of the Glacial Ridge Project.
The earliest migrating warblers arrive in Minnesota in mid-April, but warmer weather in May brings the greatest number and variety. Exactly when and where varies with the timing of the season — warblers eat insects and so depend upon the warm weather that makes their prey abundant. Wooded areas are the best locations for warblers and isolated patches of forest in agricultural areas can concentrate the birds. A good location for warblers in the Minnesota River valley is The Nature Conservancy's Ottawa Bluffs preserve near St. Peter. In north central Minnesota, visit the Conservancy's Lake Alexander Preserve to watch migrating warblers. Perhaps the most popular spot for warbler watching is Frontenac State Park, where mixed flocks of many kinds can be found in the woods near Lake Pepin. Many different warblers visit the state: blackburnian, magnolia, black-throated green, blackpoll, chestnut-sided are just a few examples of these colorful woodland birds. Some nest in the state, typically in boreal forests, and Conservancy preserves in the Arrowhead region are good places to look for these birds.
Bill Allen is a volunteer writer for The Nature Conservancy.