Northfield, with two scenic college campuses and a historic downtown curled around the Cannon River, feels like walking into a storybook. It’s a picture-perfect setting for my day trip in search of Minnesota’s summertime resident that symbolizes happiness: the bluebird.
In addition to educating 3,000 students each year, St. Olaf College has hatched hundreds of bluebird chicks along its Bluebird Trail. The trail, made up of 64 specially designed birdhouses, meanders through the campus’ restored Natural Lands.
The campus on a hill, including the 350-acre Natural Lands — a mosaic of woods, wetlands and prairie sprinkled with wildflowers — is open to the public. I make the hourlong drive south from the Twin Cities to catch a glimpse of the lovely little songbird, to explore St. Olaf’s impressive habitat restoration efforts and to spend a day in this picturesque town of 20,000.
The 143-year-old Lutheran college is part of a greater survival story to rebuild Eastern bluebird populations that had declined in the 1960s and ’70s due to loss of savanna — their preferred habitat — and competition from nonnative birds. Volunteers across Minnesota have placed bluebird houses in parks, natural areas, college campuses — even cemeteries — to help increase their numbers.
“Bluebirds would undoubtedly be on the endangered species list if it weren’t for bluebirders — people who put up bluebird houses,” said Gene Bakko, a St. Olaf professor emeritus who helped establish the Natural Lands and its Bluebird Trail.
The bluebird is the subject of countless songs, poems and works of literature. Bakko theorizes it’s the bluebird’s bold color that creates that flutter of excitement for me and countless other amateur birders.
“Aside from the sky, blue is an uncommon color in nature. It’s very striking,” he said.
On my visit to St. Olaf, I’ve arranged for tour guides, but printable trail maps of the Natural Lands found online (wp.stolaf.edu/naturallands/blue-bird-trails) and a kiosk near Tostrud Center make self-guided tours easy.
Accompanied by biology professor and Natural Lands curator Kathleen Shea and four student workers, I take a gentle morning hike along the Bluebird Trail, which straddles the more manicured areas of the campus and the Natural Lands. The nearly three-mile hike winds through rolling hills, forest, grasslands and wetlands with wildflowers including wild geranium in lavender and pink phlox dressing up the landscape.
Throughout the spring and summer, student biologists count and monitor eggs and fledglings. Student workers also serve as housekeepers, clearing out old nests and shooing away nonnative house sparrows from taking up residence in this prime real estate.
“We fledge about 80 bluebirds every year,” Bakko said.
Their numbers are reported to the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota (bbrp.org) — one of the first state bluebird organizations in the nation, founded in the late 1970s — and the North American Bluebird Society.
In a decade’s time, the Minnesota program has recorded 190,590 bluebirds fledged.
College founders harvested timber and cleared much of the land in the late 1800s. For decades, the campus was mostly surrounded by fields of soybeans and corn. Around 1990, biology professors, dangling federal conservation dollars, persuaded the administration to set aside what eventually amounted to hundreds of acres for restoration.
More than 100 acres of trees, including many oaks and basswood, were planted to re-establish the Big Woods forest once found in this area. About 150 acres of native tallgrass prairie also have been reconstructed, and 15 wetlands restored.
“The idea of providing an educational laboratory was also attractive,” Shea said.
A student persuaded staff to add bluebird houses, and now students compete for work-study jobs to help maintain the Bluebird Trail and the restored lands.
Those efforts have firmly taken root. A canopy of trees offers shade to portions of our walk, and plenty of habitat for all types of songbirds, deer, fox and rabbits. The birdhouses are staked about 5 feet above the ground. We quietly approach one house in tall grass and see father bluebird — with its blue-feathered back and rust-colored breast — sitting atop the house. Mother bluebird is perched in a tree nearby. The houses are designed to allow student workers to peek in to inspect nests and count eggs and hatchlings.
Students find blue eggs in one nest and a family of downy hatchlings in another — as both parents wait in nearby trees for us to leave. Bluebirds can raise as many as three broods a year.
Bluebirds are just one of Minnesota’s cavity dwellers. Native black-capped chickadees, tree swallows and house wrens also build nests in the houses. Student workers patiently wait for those eggs to hatch and chicks to fledge before clearing out their nests, hopeful that bluebirds will discover it next. Spotting swallows and chickadees during my stroll delights this novice birder.
Meanwhile at Carleton
I spend about two hours at Olaf before driving the short distance to Carleton College. The school allows the public to visit its 800-acre Cowling Arboretum, established in 1920 along the Cannon River and featuring prairie, upland and floodplain forests and oak savanna (apps.carleton.edu/campus/arb). Carleton also courts the bluebird, with three dozen birdhouses spread throughout the arboretum.
A good portion of trail flows along the river, and I spend some time crossing several of the picturesque arched bridges spanning the water.
Lunch in Northfield
After a morning of birding, I finish my day dining and shopping in downtown Northfield (visitingnorthfield.com).
Downtown has several appealing coffee shops, cafes and restaurants including the HideAway Coffee House and Winebar with lighter fare including soup, salads and sandwiches (1-507-664-0400; thehideawaynorthfield.com).
Froggy Bottoms River Pub and Lily Padio offers classic American burgers and sandwiches with a side of live music in the summer (1-507-301-3611; froggybottoms.com).
I decide on the lunch buffet at Chapati — A Taste of India, located in the Archer House River Inn, which has a delicious array of curries and breads as well as biryani and tandoori chicken (1-507-645-2462; chapati.us).
Where to shop
There’s a smattering of mostly independent shops to duck into along Division Street and Bridge Square downtown.
Vintage and rustic finds spill out onto the sidewalk at Antiques of Northfield (1-507-664-9599). The Goat offers a funky mix of vintage finds and handcrafted items. Monarch Gift Shop (1-507-663-7729; monarchgiftshop.com) has handblown glass, jewelry and pretty little treasures.