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Birding with the pros

In spring, a symphony of trills and chirps draws hikers into the woods.

Bird watchers on Hawk Ridge.

© Beth Gauper

Bird watchers come to Duluth's Hawk Ridge to watch the fall migration.

In April, birds return to the woods.

They're easy to hear, but not to see. Unlike spring wildflowers, birds don't stay put.

A flash of yellow likely is a warbler, but which kind chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, magnolia, Wilson's? And those tweets, twitters and trills   who's making them?

It takes a finely tuned ear to pick out the songs in a babel of birds, and a sharp eye to identify the singer.

That's why it's fun to tag along with an expert at one of the many bird hikes offered this time of year. Usually, you can borrow a pair of binoculars and to see birds even closer, watch a bird-banding demonstration.

In Minnesota state parks, there are birding hikes and programs every weekend in spring. At Ridges Sanctuary in Door County, bird hikes are offered every Saturday from May through August.

Nearly every nature center, refuge and preserve offers bird hikes, especially in spring.

One May,  I went on a bird hike in Wisconsin's Kickapoo Valley Reserve, led by Barbara Duerksen of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

The unusual topography of the 8,569-acre reserve prairie savannah and marshes, cool valleys and sun-soaked cliffs makes it breeding habitat for more than 100 species of birds and a stop for many others heading north to boreal forest.

"The biggest problem of birding here is figuring out where to go, because there are a lot of great places," said Duerksen, who lives in nearby Richland Center.

From the visitors center, we borrowed binoculars and walked down a trail that the previous year, Duerksen said, had to be widened because a snapping turtle made a nest on it.

Soon, she began picking out bird calls  the meow of a catbird, the metallic chink of an Eastern towhee, the unison call of sandhill cranes in the distance.

"Let's go on, maybe we'll see some birds," she said. "It seems as if we ought to be able to see the towhee pretty close." But another bird distracted her.

"Oh, hear that little descending squeal?" she said. "That's a blue-gray gnatcatcher. They decorate their nests with lichen, and it looks just like a knot on a branch. It has a little tiny downward squeak; you can see it feeding."

Bird banding at Horicon Marsh.

© Beth Gauper

At the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, naturalist Bill Volkert displays a newly banded bird.

Looking and listening

The morning was cool and gray, with a little mist  good for us, because it kept the birds close to the ground and feasting on insects.

Overhead, someone spotted a brown bird hunkered on a bare branch, and we all lifted our scopes and tried to find it; even with help, it was hard.

"I'm thinking it's a nighthawk," Duerksen said. "They're the ones I tend to see or hear most around town. They have a bzzzt-bzzzt sound when flying around; they make a rushing sound with their wings."

We were lucky, she said, to catch it roosting where we could see it.

"Its feathers have markings that are just like lichen on a branch," Duerksen said. "Once you see something like this, you can fix the image in your head, and it's easier to see it again."

We continued down the trail, into a stand of the white pines that were fooled into flourishing far south of their normal habitat.

"Hear that Tennessee warbler singing up ahead?" Duerksen asked. "It has a three-part chirpy trill thing."

We passed a shale outcropping, and a deer shot past. But everyone was looking at a bright-yellow warbler, which obligingly flew right into the spot on which I'd trained my binoculars.

"That's a common warbler  'swee-swee-sweet, how sweet,' " she said.

Duerksen has been listening to birds for many years.

"I have bad eyesight, and the first thing that attracted me about birds is their songs," she said. "The first thing I remember is asking my mother the difference between a robin call and an oriole, and she knew.

"I grew up in Kansas, and if you have Western meadowlark, you don't need Prozac. It's instant cheer you're going down the road, and you hear this gorgeous bubbly song."

At the edge of a marsh, we watched red-winged blackbirds swinging from the tops of cattails and swallows swooping overhead.

A deer stood on the opposite end of the marsh; as I looked at it through my binoculars, I saw a coot pop its head out of the rushes, followed by its partner.

Birders in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

© Torsten Muller

On a guided hike in May, birders look for waterfowl in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

Walking toward the Kickapoo River, we heard the gurgle of a cowbird and the hollow tap of a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

As we approached a new covered bridge, one of 12 in the reserve, the sapsucker flew ahead of us and onto a wooden pillar of the bridge.

In the still air, the rat-tat-tat of the sapsucker on the bridge sounded abnormally loud, almost like the report of a gun.

When I asked why the bird was tapping at wood it knew wouldn't yield sap, Duerksen shrugged, as if the answer was obvious.

"It's mating season," she said. "It makes a cool sound."

Starting and stopping

A bird hike is a good excuse to get into the woods and inhale the ambrosia of spring air, heavy with the fragrance of damp earth and growing things. But don't count on getting a lot of exercise.

"I try to take a walk every day, but on a great warbler day, it takes 45 minutes to get down the driveway," Duerksen says. "There goes the aerobic value of a walk, but that's OK."

As birds start to migrate and become more active, naturalists will hold hikes all over the region, helping beginning as well as experienced birders spot birds and identify their calls.

In the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in the Twin Cities, volunteer interpreter Craig Mandel leads bird-watching treks, each time to a different part of the refuge.

In mid-April, he says, hikers will see sparrows and perhaps osprey, peregrine falcons and great blue herons. In early May, they'll spot shorebirds, the first warblers and, perhaps, trumpeter swans; later, nesting birds will join the mix.

"There's not any bird not worth looking at," says Mandel, who leads 50 to 70 field trips a year.

He has been birding seriously since 1985 and taught himself by listening to bird calls on tape, over and over, just as if he were learning a foreign language.

Every winter, he listens to the tapes again to brush up. Amateurs shouldn't feel bad if they don't catch on right away, he says.

"For me, it was a real struggle," he says. "It's a lot of work. You'll never learn it all, which is one thing I kind of like about it."

The payoff comes in spring, when the symphony starts anew, and he's there to listen.

"Every month should be May," Mandel says. "The birds, the flowers  it's just great."

Birders on the Chippewa River.


Birders scan trees along the Chippewa River in Wisconsin.

Trip Tips: Bird hikes

Most hikes go out rain or shine; an overcast or even drizzly day often is better than a warm, sunny day for spotting birds.

Dress for the weather and wear sturdy shoes. Bring binoculars and a field guide. Often, centers lend binoculars and/or guides to participants on hikes; call ahead to check.

Below are some of the places that offer hikes; check nearby state parks, wildlife refuges and nature centers for others.


State parks: Many state parks offer bird hikes. Beaver Creek Valley near Caledonia holds Warbler Walks; Interstate offers a Women's and Girl's Birding Adventure; Minneopa near Mankato offers bird-banding; St. Croix near Hinckley is holding a Bird Bonanza Weekend; and Whitewater near St. Charles offers bird-banding.

Nearly every Minnesota state park lends out free birding kits that include binoculars, guidebooks and bird lists unique to each park.

Minneapolis' southwest suburbs: The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge holds regular bird-watching treks from Old Cedar Avenue just south of the Mall of America and Ferry Road in Bloomington, Louisville Swamp in Shakopee and Rapids Lake Education & Visitor Center in Carver.

Minneapolis' suburbs: Three Rivers Park District holds many birding programs, including monthly bird banding at Lowry Nature Center in Victoria and spring bird hikes at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony.


Green Bay: Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary on Lake Michigan offers early-morning bird walks.

Baileys Harbor: Ridges Sanctuary offers bird hikes on Saturdays from May through August as well as many birding programs during its Festival of Nature on Memorial Day weekend.

Grantsburg: Crex Meadows Wildlife Area offers spring bird tours and a songbird banding program.

Chippewa County: Beaver Creek Reserve near Stanley offers early-morning hikes in and around Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls as well as at the reserve.

La Farge: Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers a variety of programs on wildflowers, insects and wild edibles as well as birds.


Marquette: Effigy Mounds National Monument, up on the bluff three miles north of town, offers bird hikes and many other programs.

Bird festivals

Festivals nearly always include bird-banding as well as hikes and field trips. In spring, they're held from the prairie around Detroit Lakes, Minn., to the eastern end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. For details, see Spring bird festivals.

Last updated on March 7, 2016