Explore Minnesota Birding Update - December 2020


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Explore Minnesota Birding Update - December 2020 
image of tundra swans along the Mississippi River
Pine grosbeak / Sparky Stensaas


This is your monthly Explore Minnesota Birding Update.

Birding is probably the finest social distancing activity imaginable, and it is ideal for physical and mental well-being — perfect for times such as these.

Happy birding!


December Nature Notes

While December marks the end of the southbound migration, it is the beginning of a special birding season when arctic birds arrive from the north. Birds to watch for include boreal chickadees, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, hoary redpolls, common redpolls, gray jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, snow buntings, pine siskins, northern shrikes and red-breasted nuthatches. Many of these have already arrived, and it appears there may be an irruption of evening grosbeaks and pine siskins this year!

Another much-anticipated event is the arrival of northern owls rarely seen in the U.S., including snowy, boreal, northern hawk and great gray. In previous years, these owls have drawn birders from all over the world. The Sax-Zim Bog in northeastern Minnesota, an Audubon Important Area, is one of the best sites to view boreal birds. If you want to experience the Sax-Zim Bog but you're hesitant to head out on a chilly winter day, try birding vicariously with Sparky at Virtually Live 12 Sax-Zim Birding.

December also offers us a chance to view vast numbers of North America's largest waterfowl, the trumpeter swan. Once on the brink of extinction, trumpeter swans have had a miraculous recovery in Minnesota. Learn more at Visions of Swans. During the winter months, these swans gather in abundance in areas where water remains open. One such location is on the Mississippi River in Monticello where water flows year-round due to a power plant upriver. Witnessing the sights, sounds and antics of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of swans is a memorable experience. For directions and to learn more about these spectacular birds, visit the Monticello Chamber of Commerce Trumpeter Swans web page. Please note that the local feeding program ended this year so fewer swans are expected to overwinter at this location. Other good trumpeter swan wintering sites can be found along Minnesota's Otter Tail and Pelican rivers.

This is also a great time of year to view bald eagles, especially at open water sections on the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. At times, hundreds of eagles and a variety of other waterfowl can be seen. Some of the best viewing sites are the city park in Red Wing, Read's Landing south of Lake City, and areas near Wabasha. Learn more at the DNR's Bald Eagles in Winter web page. The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge offers weekly counts of numerous bird species on their Recent Bird Sightings web page. When visiting the area, be sure to stop at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha where wild bald eagles can usually be spotted through two-story floor-to-ceiling windows. Due to COVID-19, please call ahead for days and hours of operation.

Did You Know?

Wondering what you can do to help birds this winter? The DNR offers an informative guide about which types of feed and feeders are best for wintering birds in Minnesota at Winter Bird Feeding Tips.

This year marks the 121st Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC is the world's longest-running wildlife census, both a social and citizen science event. Bird counts are held from Dec. 14, 2020 through Jan. 5, 2021 at sites throughout the U.S., Canada and many other countries in the Western Hemisphere. The information gathered at specific sites over a 24-hour period is summarized by scientists to gain insight about bird populations and patterns. Volunteers of all skill levels are needed, and there are dozens of bird counts in Minnesota looking for participants. Please note that the COVID-19 pandemic may affect CBC participation. Some events may be cancelled or you may be assigned to bird an area on your own. Please refer to Minnesota's CBC map for more information.

Fun and Educational Activities

The Zumbro Valley Audubon Society Monthly Bird Walk will be held at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5 at Quarry Hill Nature Center in Rochester. Participants should bring binoculars, dress for the weather and meet near the Nature Center entrance. Walks usually last about an hour but participants may stay as long as they like. The walk is free and open to the public — no registration required.  Masks and social distancing are required.

Anyone hoping to introduce a child to birding will want to share Ask-A-Scientist: Bird Bonanza! by Brains On. Adults will enjoy the Brains On video Hope Is the Thing With Feathers. 

The Three Rivers Park District will host a Morning Bird Walk at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park in Brooklyn Park on Saturday, Dec. 19. Participants will learn birding tips and tricks, and hike along the river and other habitats in search of birds. Binoculars provided. This program is entirely outdoors. Reservations required at least two days prior to event.

Join the Expert-led Owl Prowl at the International Owl Center in Houston on Saturday, Dec. 31. Participants will learn how to identify local owls by size, shape, silhouette and sound. Program participants will drive their own vehicles behind staff to known owl territories in and around Houston. 

Recent Bird Sightings

Check the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union web site for recent bird sightings and rare bird alerts.

For additional information, consider joining the Minnesota Birding community on Facebook.


image of a Boreal  chickadee
Boreal chickadee / Sparky Stensaas
image of an Evening grosbeak
Evening grosbeak / Jon Swanson
image of a Common redpoll
Common redpoll / David Brislance
image of a Canada jay
Canada jay / Sparky Stensaas
image of a pine siskin
Pine siskin / David Brislance
image of a red-breasted nuthatch
Red-breasted nuthatch / Jean Brislance
image of a Northern shrike
Northern shrike / Sparky Stensaas
image of a Snowy owl
Snowy owl / Jim Williams
image of a Boreal owl
Boreal owl / Dan Tallman
image of a great gray owl
Great gray owl / Amanda Burcar Annis
image of a great horned owl
Great horned owl / Dani Porter Born Photography
image of overwintering trumpeter swans
Overwintering trumpeter swans / Jim Hoffman

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