Fall colors are ramping up in the Brainerd lakes area, luring many to hit the trails and soak in Mother Nature’s annual art exhibit. For bird enthusiasts, it’s also a time to glimpse sometimes rare feathered travelers as they journey toward their wintering grounds to the south.

“There are more and more people that are out this time of year,” said Judd Brink, a Brainerd-based birding guide and owner of MN Backyard Birds. “They’re looking for rare birds that kind of come through.”

It’s not only the chance to spot an unusual bird that makes bird-watching in the fall desirable, but also the tendency for birds of all shapes and sizes to congregate in large numbers. One of the best places to do that, Brink said, is along the shores of the Mississippi. The mighty river serves as a natural highway for more than 325 migrating bird species, according to the National Audubon Society, and it’s one of four primary flyways identified in the United States. Lakes area residents are lucky enough to have a front row seat to this major thoroughfare, Brink said, along with an easy day trip access to a number of other prime birding locations.

While shorebirds and smaller songbirds have likely moved on at this point in the year, larger birds such as hawks, eagles and robins are at the beginning of their journeys. Waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans typically stick around until ice overtakes open water areas. Autumn also marks the arrival of a number of sparrows, including the small grayish juncos, the distinctly black-faced Harris’s sparrows and fox sparrows, named for their fox red hues.

Brink writes a weekly Brainerd Bird Report published on VisitBrainerd.com, and his most recent edition included sightings of a sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, white-throated sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler and a number of other species.

“You can go to the same place five days in a row, and you would probably see different birds every day,” Brink said. “Things change pretty fast during migration time.”

Giving bird-watching a try requires little more than appropriate clothing for the weather and a set of eyes and ears, although Brink recommends binoculars for better viewing along with a bird book or app, such as iBird Pro Guide to Birds, to assist in identification. Weather makes a big difference in bird movement, and a strong north wind encourages the migrators to take advantage of the helpful tailwind. Wind from the south, on the other hand, leads to layovers. Morning is typically a good time of day for finding birds, Brink added, although any time of day can yield enjoyable viewing.

“Really, it’s just having the opportunity to get out to explore and to enjoy,” Brink said. “I think that’s the main thing. You’re not going to see anything if you don’t get outside and look.”

On the decline

Bird lovers like Brink are worried, though. For a number of reasons, bird-watching opportunities appear to be on the decline in lockstep with diminishing bird populations. A recent study by Canada’s environmental agency and the U.S. Geological Survey reported there are 29% fewer birds in the U.S. and Canada today than there were 50 years ago, with agriculture and habitat loss named as a top driver. Light pollution, buildings and windows, roaming cats and other threats are leading to “death by a thousand cuts,” stated lead author, Ken Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy.

With 30 years of birding experience, Brink said he’s noticed shifts in bird migration behavior, including earlier arrivals due to increasingly mild winters, and declining bird populations, particularly among grassland birds.

“I am kind of a believer in climate change. I think there’s enough evidence now that points to, there is something going on,” Brink said. “I’ve been bird-watching for a long time. It’s scary, in my lifetime, the next 30-50 years, we could have serious consequences.”

Among the consequences Brink pointed to is the decline in Minnesota’s common loon population.

A common loon sits on a nest near the shore. Minnesota's state bird is in trouble, according to the National Audubon Society, and may no longer be found in the state by the end of the century. Judd Brink / MN Backyard Birds
A common loon sits on a nest near the shore. Minnesota's state bird is in trouble, according to the National Audubon Society, and may no longer be found in the state by the end of the century. Judd Brink / MN Backyard Birds

“By 2080, this great icon of the north is forecast to lose 56 percent of its current summer range and 75 percent of its current winter range, according to Audubon’s climate model,” the National Audubon Society states. “ … While the bird may be able to keep pace with the rapidly changing world, it looks all but certain that Minnesota will lose its iconic loons in summer by the end of the century.”

While climate change appears to be impacting birds on a macro scale, people can make a difference in the lives of birds closer to home. One way is to deter birds from windows during migration by applying decals, hawk silhouettes or streamers to the glass.

“Anything that flashes or has noise or moves should reduce the number of collisions in our homes and businesses,” Brink said.

Planting native fruit trees and shrubs, such as mountain ash, dogwood, cherries or crab apples offers birds a food source and attracts a larger variety of species to one’s yard. And of course, bird feeders are a popular option, particularly helpful to birds who stick around for the winter. Brink recommends hanging bird feeders between Thanksgiving and Easter so the birds eat the food, instead of black bears.

Birdwatching hot spots

Local

Day trips

  • Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Little Falls. The refuge is also an Important Bird Area. To view recent bird sightings at the location, visit https://bit.ly/2mUGnii.

  • Mille Lacs Lake, Garrison. The wayside rest and overlook can provide good viewing opportunities of a large number of gulls and waterfowl, according to Brink.

  • Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth. The area is known as one of the premier hawk watching areas in the Midwest due to its geography. The observatory notes raptors seek to avoid long water crossings as part of their migration, so naturally veer to the southwest along the shore of Lake Superior. During an average year, close to 100,000 birds can be observed from the end of August through the end of October. Visit hawkridge.org for more information.

Winter birdwatching

  • Sax-Zim Bog, rural Duluth/Hibbing. A number of rare birds, and owls in particular, congregate in this 300-square-mile nature preserve, known as one of the best winter bird-watching areas in the country. The habitat consists of more than just a bog, including aspen uplands, rivers, lakes, meadows, farms and a couple towns. Friends of Sax-Zim Bog describe it as a “‘magic mix’ of habitats that boreal birds love.” Visit saxzim.org/birding-the-bog for more information.

Connect

The Bee-Nay-She Bird Council is a local group of avid bird-watchers who coordinate birding walks and trips, assist with local bird counts and host speakers on various bird-related topics. The next meeting of the group is set for 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at Camp Vanasek, 14307 Oakwood Drive, Baxter. Guest speaker is Steve Kolbe, a volunteer counter with Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, who will discuss the migration of common nighthawks along Lake Superior.