One of the best places for seeing northern birds, Minnesota has a rich combination of habitats to explore. Birders appreciate it as a four-season destination with many interesting specialties that are hard to see in other states. Even if Minnesota has only around 250 bird species, it certainly pays off to visit it just for some spectacular winter birds. If you’re planning a birding trip in this state, it’s essential to see the following highlight bird species.
Before checking out what Minnesota has to offer in terms of avian attractions, consider the following important birdwatching gear to prepare yourself for the adventure:
- Field Guide
Recently updated and expanded, the Birds of Minnesota field guide is an indispensable part of any birding expedition in the state. It’s available in both digital and paperback formats so you can enjoy a treasure trove of information about the birds found in Minnesota. You will be able to differentiate between species and discover that particular bird you’re looking for with superior efficiency.
- Monocular Telescope
With high power magnification and long-eye relief, this monocular telescope can be a solid smartphone accessory for all kinds of outdoor adventures. It’s particularly useful for bird watching considering the portability and practical smartphone holding. Birders who want to travel light shouldn’t miss getting a waterproof monocular telescope.
- Hand Warmer
Freezing cold temperatures can pose many issues for birders. A good pair of gloves can help to stay warm but that’s not exactly practical when it comes to focusing the binoculars or browsing the field guide. Instead of bulky gloves, you can maintain toasty fingers with the help of air-activated hand warmers such as HeatMax Hot Hands.
1. Snowy Owl
One of the most beautiful owls, this species represents an important sight for birders visiting Minnesota. It can be seen in the winter season when the snowy owl can most easily blend with its surroundings. Check for perched birds on fence posts or bales of hay. Adult owls are very large and show off pure white plumage that’s sometimes adorned with brown spots. Snowy owls lack ear tufts and have rounded heads that permit 270-degree turning to scan efficiently for prey.
2. Common Goldeneye
Another winter visitor in the state of Minnesota, the common goldeneye is a beautiful duck with an amber eye and an iridescent green-black head. The male bird also shows a strong contrast considering the bright white body. Common goldeneyes aren’t just very colorful but quite distinctive when it comes to their shape as well. The ducks have a large head with an almost triangular shape. Flocks of common goldeneyes winter on Minnesota’s inland lakes where they can be seen diving for aquatic invertebrates.
3. Greater Prairie-Chicken
Most birders visiting Minnesota are probably focused on the state’s numerous lakes as they provide suitable habitats for many bird species. It’s worth noting that you can also find some great birds in other parts of the state where grasslands and prairies dominate. The greater prairie-chicken is one of the best examples as it’s quite the spectacular bird to watch, even by non-birders. Consider visiting a lek (breeding ground) where male birds show off characteristic mating behavior. One of the main highlights is when they inflate yellow air sacs that are used to produce booming sounds.
4. Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter swans have an important presence in the state of Minnesota. The bird is known as the largest native waterfowl in the US. Despite its bulky and heavy appearance, the trumpeter swan inspires a very delicate and elegant aesthetic. It features fully white plumage and a long neck. A notable detail is its black bill with a dark-colored facial patch. The central regions of Minnesota can be considered the ideal grounds for admiring these impressive birds. Many birds use the wetlands of the state for breeding but some populations can be found year-round.
Those who want to admire a beautiful raptor shouldn’t miss the gyrfalcon. This majestic bird spends most of its time in the Arctic but it makes an appearance in the northern and central parts of Minnesota during the winter. The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon species and it’s known for its incredible striking speeds. Birders will be delighted to get a good view of this raptor in action. It’s not a very common sight even if you’re searching in areas resembling the tundra habitat of the bird. Gyrfalcons have gray and white morphs and can sometimes be seen perching on the ground.
6. Hoary Redpoll
Minnesota is a great place for seeing winter birds. It’s one of the only states in the US where you can be lucky enough to spot a hoary redpoll. This small finch is adapted to the harsh arctic tundra environments. Its winter range extends from Canada to the northernmost US. As the name suggests, the hoary redpoll has a frosted appearance with a bright red crown patch. Looking for flocks of common redpolls represents a great way to increase your chances of spotting the hoary redpoll species. This is because it can travel in mixed flocks southward depending on food sources and weather conditions.
7. Franklin’s Gull
With a delicate appearance and graceful flight patterns, Franklin’s gull is an attractive bird to observe in Minnesota. The seabird can be differentiated from other gulls by its dark head and red bill. Breeding adults can look very similar to laughing gulls but Franklin’s has an overall smaller size. You don’t really have to worry about distinguishing them as the gulls’ ranges don’t overlap. Franklin’s gull is an inland bird that’s relatively easy to see in the northwestern area of Minnesota in the summer. In terms of habitats, it favors lakeshores, farm fields, and marshes.
8. Great Gray Owl
It’s not surprising to see that birders looking for owls choose Minnesota as their destination. The state offers decent variety when it comes to owl species but the most sought after is the great gray owl. This is a large and imposing owl with a dapper gray appearance. You can find it year-round in the northern forests of Minnesota. Depending on food availability, the owl can travel further south so you can also explore the central parts of the state in the winter to spot it.
9. Red-Necked Grebe
A boldly plumaged waterbird, this grebe species relies on various areas of Minnesota for its breeding grounds. Visiting lakes and ponds represents the best solution to find red-necked grebes engaged in boisterous courtship displays. As opposed to other grebe species, this one features a large body. Some of the distinctive characteristics of breeding adults include the chestnut-red neck and black cap. The sharp yellow bill provides some contrast on the grebe’s head. As these birds tend to feed quite far from land, it could be useful to invest in a powerful spotting scope to see them properly.
10. Black-Billed Cuckoo
The uncommon black-billed cuckoo can be seen in Minnesota with a bit of luck. Before you can spot the slender-bodied bird’s long tail and red eye ring, it’s safe to say that you will hear its characteristic singing. Black-billed cuckoos prefer dense forests and thickets when it comes to habitats. The bird feeds on insects, particularly caterpillars and webworms. One of the best times to hear a black-billed cuckoo is at nighttime in the summer season. Look for its distinctive hunchbacked silhouette hidden among branches.
11. Chestnut-collared Longspur
The chestnut-collared longspur is a colorful bird that prefers grassland habitats. It’s not widespread in Minnesota but it can be found in a particular breeding location in Clay county. Male birds have an attractive appearance with the characteristic chestnut nape and yellow throat while females show a plain brown appearance. It’s quite a spectacle to see the display flights of the chestnut-collared longspur in the breeding season. Mowed or grazed areas are particularly good for discovering this bird. You can let the longspur’s soft singing guide you to its precise location.
12. Black-Backed Woodpecker
Burned forests can provide a surprisingly great opportunity for birders, especially those looking to see woodpeckers. The northern parts of Minnesota are populated by black-backed woodpeckers. These birds are year-round residents specialized in eating wood-boring beetle larvae. The medium-sized woodpecker can be identified by its barred flanks and white face patch. Males are more distinctive compared to females thanks to a yellow crown. Search burned-out forests with coniferous trees if you’re hoping to observe the black-backed woodpecker. Locating the bird visually can be sometimes challenging unless you listen for its sharp chip notes.
13. Common Loon
With eerie calls and regal patterns, breeding common loons are very impressive to watch. This is the official state bird of Minnesota. It’s worth visiting northern and central areas of the state in the summer to get a good look at this tuxedoed bird. It only shows off the elegant checkerboard patterns and iridescent dark green neck during the breeding season. Common loons are skilled divers that chase after fish underwater. They are quite conspicuous on lakes and ponds with their large bodies and patterned appearance. Even if they’re far the middle of the lake, their loud vocalizations are helpful to locate them.
14. Northern Hawk Owl
Although it’s primarily found in the boreal forests of Canada, the northern hawk owl can sometimes come down south in the US. It’s a winter visitor in Minnesota but not really common. The good news is that this owl isn’t particularly shy so it should be easy to observe when you find it. The bold facial markings can help to recognize a northern hawk owl. It’s worth noting that this solitary bird also hunts by daylight, not just during the night. The name of the owl refers to the face of the bird that resembles the look of a hawk.
15. Evening Grosbeak
Evening grosbeaks show off a brilliant yellow plumage with some patches of brown, white, and black. One characteristic feature is its pale green beak that has massive proportions for a bird of this size. This ground forager can be found year-round in northern parts of Minnesota, especially in coniferous forests. The birds enjoy sunflower seeds a lot so it’s not uncommon to see them visiting backyard feeders. Evening grosbeaks have nomadic tendencies. Traveling flocks create musical whistles and calls similar to house sparrows.
16. Least Flycatcher
Small and fairly common birds, least flycatchers can be encountered in the state of Minnesota with minimal effort. Identifying the bird can be a little more complicated unless you’re familiar with this flycatcher’s distinctive song. Birds are particularly vocal during the breeding season. Clusters of least flycatchers live in deciduous forests of Minnesota. They show off grayish olive feathers with a white eye-ring that makes them stand out. Despite the diminutive size of the bird, the least flycatcher isn’t easily intimidated by larger birds.
17. Palm Warbler
Here’s a bird that you wouldn’t normally expect to find in the northern US but despite its name, the palm warbler isn’t a tropical bird. It’s a more unusual warbler that forages on the ground and relies on the boreal forest for its breeding grounds. Palm warblers show up in Minnesota usually during migration. There are two distinct types of palm warblers depending on the region. Eastern birds have a more vibrant yellow color while the western warbler is paler. Both subspecies feature a characteristic rusty cap and eyebrow stripes.
18. Sedge Wren
A challenging bird to see unless you really search for it, the sedge wren is a common visitor in the state of Minnesota where it breeds throughout. Finding the wren can be difficult because of its dense grassland and marsh habitats but also due to the bird’s small dimensions and elusive behavior. Sedge wrens tend to move around a lot so it’s not easy to discover the bird consistently in a particular habitat. It’s known to be one of the most nomadic birds on the continent. Aspiring birders should also learn to distinguish the vocalizations of this species to avoid confusing it with other wrens living in marshes.
19. Boreal Chickadee
If you don’t want to make the trip to Canada or Alaska to see the boreal chickadee, the state of Minnesota is one of your best options for spotting this bird. True to its name, this species has boreal habits so it prefers northern coniferous forests. Boreal chickadees are rarer to see compared to other chickadees, even if you’re looking for it within its range of habitats. The bird is known to have a more sedentary lifestyle and prefers traveling in small groups. The boreal chickadee’s calls have harsher qualities compared to similar species.
20. Canada Jay
Resembling an oversized chickadee, the Canada jay is a fairly uncommon bird in Minnesota. It has established a permanent presence in the northeast and central north parts of the state. Though the bird lives in coniferous forests, it has an inquisitive personality and diverse enough diet to come looking for food on campsites or other areas populated by humans. Visual identification is relatively easy considering the short bill of the bird and plumage that mixes different shades of gray. Compared to other jays, this species isn’t very vocal but makes some characteristic screeching calls.
21. Yellow Rail
Birders looking for a challenge should consider looking for the yellow rail. This rare bird can be found in marshy habitats in Minnesota. The small size makes it hard to spot in dense vegetation, especially when considering the camouflaged appearance. Yellow rails have a generally brown color with a buffy yellow chest. It’s best to stick to recognizing this bird by sound instead of trying to look for it. The yellow rail has a distinctive call that can be mimicked by birders using a simple pebble-clicking technique.
22. Le Conte’s Sparrow
One stealthy Minnesota bird to look for is the Le Conte’s sparrow. This species might sometimes get confused with a mouse judging from its behavior. The sparrow spends a considerable amount of time on the ground as opposed to other birds. It searches for insects but it also prefers other food sources like seeds. Le Conte’s sparrows live in dense grasslands so the habitat contributes to the challenge of finding it. You can recognize the bird by its short tail, flat head, and slight orange glow on the face.
23. Black-Billed Magpie
The black-billed magpie is a smart corvid that’s often seen in some northwestern parts of Minnesota. This is a large bird with an elegant blue and black plumage. It can also be identified by its white patches on the underparts and back as well as having a particularly long tail. Black-billed magpies are more widespread in western North America but their range extends to Minnesota. They sit in conspicuous places so it’s fairly easy to spot them. The flashy white wing patches contribute to correct identification.
24. Connecticut Warbler
Another interesting warbler to see in Minnesota, the Connecticut species has long legs and a bold eye-ring. The olive-green and yellow plumage can seem quite similar to other warblers but the Connecticut warbler stands out through a blue-gray hood. This little bird prefers forested habitats with lots of pines and spruces where it forages for insects. Due to its tendency to skulk in the undergrowth, the Connecticut warbler can be difficult to find so make sure you listen carefully for its metallic-toned call or loud singing.
25. Black Tern
With dark plumage and silvery wings, the black tern is quite an attraction when it comes to the birds of Minnesota. It can be found nesting in the freshwater marshes of the state where it typically resides in the summer. Black terns are quite impressive to observe in flight thanks to their acrobatic aerial skills. They catch flying insects but will sometimes hunt fish as well. Considering how these birds are tough to find during migration, Minnesota is a good destination for spotting a small colony of breeding terns.
26. Northern Shrike
Northern shrikes are small predators that breed in the remote north. You can only find this bird in the US during the winter period. The shrike’s wintering range extends quite far south to include the entire area of Minnesota. Birders have to be patient to catch a good view of the northern shrike’s fierce hunting. It feeds primarily on other birds as well as small mammals and insects. Open brushy habitats are recommended to increase your chances of spotting its characteristic hooked bill and black mask.
27. Snow Bunting
A common bird to see during the winter in Minnesota, the snow bunting travels in restless flocks through grasslands after breeding in high Arctic regions. Nonbreeding birds resemble the look of sparrows. Males are mostly white except for some rusty patches and dark streaks. Female buntings have a more prominent rusty wash on their face. Some of the best places to find snow buntings are barren fields or along lakeshores. Keep your eyes peeled as the birds can be well camouflaged in the winter landscape. It’s recommended to invest in high-quality binoculars to get the best view.
28. Least Bittern
Widespread in Minnesota’s marshy regions, the least bittern is a challenging yet rewarding bird to find. This is a small heron species elegantly adorned with a black crown and black. The bird features a pointed yellow bill and white and reddish-brown stripes on the neck. It will take quite a bit of wetland exploration to stumble upon a least bittern. It’s recommended to search for these birds during their breeding season. Areas with open water can be good spots to find a least bittern stalking fish out of the cover of marsh vegetation.
29. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Flycatchers are difficult to identify correctly. The yellow-bellied species has some more distinctive features that make it simpler to distinguish. This little bird is quite widespread in Canada but the range of its breeding grounds extends to a few pockets in northernmost areas of the US. The yellow-bellied flycatcher has an important presence in Minnesota where it sings its characteristically harsh song. That will serve as the best guide to discover the location of the bird. Then it’s simply a matter of getting a glimpse of the yellowish olive appearance of the flycatcher.
30. Hooded Merganser
The hooded merganser shows off an extravagant crest that makes it a bold appearance among other ducks. The male bird is the most impressive considering its flamboyant oversized head with a white patch. Females are also attractive with cinnamon-colored crests. A skilled diver, the hooded merganser can be found on lakes and rivers where they hunt fish using thin bills. The breeding range of this bird extends to pretty much all the regions of Minnesota so it’s reasonably simple to find in the right habitat.