Why Winter Is a Great Time for Birding

Don’t let cold Minnesota weather deter you from birdwatching spots that flourish this time of year
A great gray owl perched in Sax-Zim Bog
A great gray owl perched in Sax-Zim Bog

Photo by Lucy Hawthorne

Two main attractions get people birdwatching, or birding, in Minnesota: the feathered friends and the scenic outdoor surroundings where they live. Add a pair of binoculars and some bird knowledge, and the experience is exhilarating—even, or especially, in winter.

The colorful, warm-weather species that get so much attention are long gone, but local expert Bob Janssen, 87, says there’s still plenty to see once the weather turns cold. After decades of dedicated chasing and record-keeping, Janssen is, as of this year, the first person to spot 225 different bird species in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties. January 10 will see the re-release of his definitive guide, Birds in Minnesota reflecting new species data and birdwatching techniques.

A quick walk or jog near wooded areas with feeders will often reveal year-round residents like the northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee, American goldfinch, and hairy or downy woodpeckers. In winter, Twin Cities birders should also seek out the common redpoll, pine siskin, and dark-eyed junco.

For a more deliberate birdwatching venture this winter, Janssen has three locations in mind.

In Monticello, you can get an up-close look at hundreds of trumpeter swans that overwinter along an unfrozen stretch of the Mississippi River called Swan Park. “It’s really a fabulous sight to see,” he says. Farther down the Mississippi in Wabasha is the National Eagle Center. There, it’s possible to see dozens of bald eagles in a single day, and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a golden eagle.

The Minnesota winter birding mecca, however, is the Sax-Zim Bog, a 300-square-mile region of bog, meadows, aspen uplands, rivers, and lakes Janssen calls a “great place for unusual winter birds.” Located about 15 miles southeast of Hibbing, the bog draws thousands of bundled-up birders and photographers annually, all hoping to see the great gray owl, boreal chickadee, hawk owl, and Canada jay.

Residents of the bog maintain feeders—detailed on maps available at the bog’s welcome center—so visitors can often spot birds without even having to get out of the car. “You can go to the Sax-Zim Bog on the spur of the moment,” Janssen says.

In northern Minnesota, the evening grosbeak’s striking yellow brow—“very beautiful winter birds,” Janssen says—often makes an appearance, along with the reddish-pink pine grosbeak. Northern shrikes, as well as white-winged and red crossbills, appear regularly, and so do raptors, such as the snowy owl and rough-legged hawk.

And if a trip to an out-of-the-way birding destination hooks you, it might also lead you five hours north to International Falls to see a single varied thrush—like Janssen a couple winters ago. It’s his favorite winter bird to chase. He maintains, “It was worth it.”

Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. from mid-December to mid-March

National Eagle Center, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Swan Park, late-November through March—depending on weather

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