Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Golden-winged Warbler, a Minnesota bird you’ve might never have seen, is special. This species is as special to Minnesota as any other bird that breeds here, perhaps more so.
That’s because more of these warblers breed in Minnesota than anywhere else in the world.
The bird is very pretty. It’s white and gray and black with golden trimmings. During nesting season, 42 percent of that species is in our woods. Aitkin and Mille Lacs counties, a two-hour drive north from Minneapolis, could be considered ground zero for these birds.
More of them nest there than anywhere else.
Biologists once believed that this warbler preferred and needed willow/aspen swamps and young aspen forest as nesting habitat.
Research in Minnesota in the past three years has shown that things are not that simple. The birds also use mature forest adjacent to those two habitat types. This complicates forest management.
With the mother load of Golden-wings comes a responsibility for those birds, said Carrol Henderson, non-game wildlife manager for the DNR.
Studies of Golden-wings and their habitat needs are currently underway in north and west central Minnesota.
“We’re trying to tease out information from that research to help us write forest management guidelines,” Henderson said. “We’d rather manage the land correctly to begin with than play catch up. It’s easier that way.”
Audubon Minnesota also recognizes our importance to this species. It has named Golden-wings as one of 13 Minnesota Stewardship Species. These 13 species have at least five percent of their global and North American breeding range in the state.
Lee Pfannmuller, interim director of Audubon Minnesota, told me that the Golden-winged Warbler is doing better here than nearly anywhere else.
“It’s long-term population trend in the state is actually increasing,” she wrote in an email, ending the sentence with an exclamation point. (Bird population increases are hard to find.)
Elsewhere in its U.S. range (east from Minnesota into New York and south to Kentucky) Golden-wing population is dropping. Habitat is a concern.
Interestingly, another bird species also bears some responsibility. Blue-winged Warblers interbreed with Golden-wings, those offspring diluting and diminishing Golden-wing numbers.
Habitat in Central America, where the warbler winters, is another problem. It’s thought to be declining. This makes Minnesota research and forest management even more important.
The stewardship list is Audubon Minnesota’s way of saying that these birds deserve particular conservation attention.
The other 12 species (and the percentage of their population breeding here) are American White Pelican (18%), American Woodcock (10%), Baltimore Oriole (5%), Black-billed Cuckoo (10%), Bobolink (13%), Chestnut-sided Warbler (6%), Nashville Warbler (5%), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (6%), Sedge Wren (33%), Trumpeter Swan (13%), and Veery (6%).
A Golden-winged Warbler
Red Crossbills are being seen in Minneapolis as well as several other locations in the state where this bird is infrequently found. Crossbills are finches that specialize in the seeds of various pines and spruces for food. You would expect to see them – with some diligence and good fortune – in Minnesota’s Arrowhead, beginning at Duluth. Their range extends east and west in Canada and down through the Rocky Mountains and other mountain ranges where elevation duplicates the conditions of northern habitat. They are nomadic, moving frequently and irregularly in their search for food.
Birders have been walking paths at Theodore Wirth Park the past few days, watching for return of a flock of about two dozen Red Crossbills first seen there late last week. The birds have been nomadic there on a small scale, seen here and there in the park as well as on flyovers. Sunday afternoon I stood with five other birders at a path intersection regarded as Ground Zero. I gave it 20 minutes and left. The birds are either there or they’re not. As I walked out I met a man who had seen the flock early that morning. As we visited he pointed overhead and said, “There go two now.” I returned to Ground Zero. That man left. Three other birders were with me. One said that she had been told by another couple that they had overhead yet a third couple in the wild-flower garden parking lot telling a man that he had just missed the birds. A lot of good that did him, but now we knew that maybe they were still in the area. At least nearby within the hour. Just then, six dark finches the right size for crossbills, flying in a crossbill-like manner (scalloped flight line) flew over. Way to over for positive ID. I went home. I went back this (Monday morning), finding more birders but no crossbills.
Reports of sightings also have come from Crookston, Sandstone, Little Falls, Cottonwood County, and Fargo plus other Dakota locations. Surely they’re scattered elsewhere in the state. I’ve heard that the birds are being seen south of Minnesota and South Dakota. It’s hoped that this widespread pattern means this is one of those occasional years when the birds abandon usual habits to move widely out of range, including visits to The City. We’ll see.
Crossbills, by the way, do have crossed bills, like your fingers behind your back when fibbing. They use the leverage created by this unusual configuration to pry open the scales on pinecones, behind which they find seeds. The Wirth Park birds are being seen in deciduous trees, a box elder most often, I believe. Crossbills do eat box elder seeds, and occasionally insects. So, while pine tree cones are the first place to look – the birds move from cone to cone, looking quite like mice up there – box elders and bugs spread the field.
The photo of a Red Crossbill was taken north of Duluth several years ago.
Birdwatchers who frequent wooded areas, grasslands, and marshes in Minnesota should be aware of our various game hunting seasons. In some cases, wearing an orange cap or vest can be a good idea.
Here are the small game seasons:
Rabbits and squirrels, Sept. 17 to Feb. 29
Hungarian Partridge, Sept. 17 to Jan. 1
Pheasants, Oct. 15 to Jan. 1
Mourning Doves, Sept. 1 to Oct. 30
Crows, opened July 15, closes Oct. 15
Woodcock, Sept. 24 to Nov. 7
Sora, Virginia Rail, and Common Snipe, Sept. 1 to Nov. 7
Hunting in all cases begins one-half hour before sunrise and continues to sunset.
A second Sandhill Cranes hunting season will be held in a restricted area of northwestern Minnesota. The season runs from Sept. 3 to Oct. 9. In addition to a small game hunting license a special crane-hunting permit is required. Cost is $3. Daily limit is two, possession limit four. There is no limit this year to the number of permits available. Last year, 2,000 permits were offered, 1,954 sold. Approximately half of the permit holders actual hunted the birds. An estimated 830 cranes were killed.
Below, a Ring-necked Pheasant runs for cover.
Sandhill Cranes are beginning to gather in flocks prior to migration south for the winter. You can find them in or near Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge west of Zimmerman (Highway 169 north of Elk River), and in the Carlos Avery Game Refuge in Anoka County. Perhaps the most certain place to find them is Crex Meadows Wildlife Area just north of Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Take I-35W to Highway 70, just beyond Rush City, and follow 70 east into Wisconsin. Grantsburg is five miles east of the state line, marked by the St. Croix River. Sunup and sundown are guaranteed times to watch the birds as they leave the refuge for foraging in nearby farm fields, returning as evening arrives. You can watch them cross Highway 70 two or three miles east of Grantsburg. You'll see hundreds of birds, flock after flock. It's a spectacle. The birds roost on the refuge, in the center portion where access is forbidden. Driving refuge roads, though, often turns up a few cranes. The photo below was taken at Crex a couple of falls ago.
A birding tour will be held Saturday at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the areas better birding locations. The tour is free. Details are on the refuge Web site: www.fws.gov/midwest/sherburne. The refuge is located west of Zimmerman (Highway 169 north of Elk River).
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