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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Bird Watching in the Boundary Waters by Steve Volkening

A recent report noted that over 50 million Americans - that is nearly one-fifth of the population - are interested in wild birds. The Boundary Waters is home to hundreds of bird species and a beautiful place to watch birds. For many visitors, the thrill of seeing a Bald Eagle, or hearing the haunting call of the Common Loon is a memorable part of their Boundary Waters experience. Whether paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, camping, staying in a cabin or resort, or just driving through, it's easy and fun to observe the birds.

Getting started doesn't take a lot of expensive equipment or require learning a new sport. People of all ages and abilities can enjoy birding. Not all visitors to the Boundary Waters return home having been fortunate enough to see moose, wolf, or bear. But birds are nearly everywhere. Here are a few suggestions, which may help you find and enjoy the birds of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario.


All that is needed is a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Binoculars come in a wide variety of models, styles, and price ranges. They all have two numbers such as 7 x 35. The first number is the power of magnification. "7" means that the bird appears seven times closer. The second number is the size of the objective lens, which lets in the light, in millimeters. A larger lens lets in more light under poor viewing conditions. However, larger binoculars are usually heavier and harder to hold steady. As a general guide a 7 x 35 binocular is relatively inexpensive and a good choice for beginning birders.

Using binoculars takes a little practice. Some people can see a bird in a tree but can't seem to locate it using their binoculars. The key is to keep your eyes on the bird while raising the binoculars. Spend a little time at home locating an object and adjusting your binoculars into sharp focus. It will be time well spent.

Binoculars (or a spotting scope) can help you see birds. Next, you need a book to help you identify the birds you saw. A field guide is a book which can help you. They include either photos or drawing of birds, a physical description of each species, and a map showing their range. A description of their call or song, the type of habitat where they are found, and distinguishing features are often included.

There are several good field guides which can be found in nearly any good bookstore. Any of these would be a good choice - Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds, National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Birds (Eastern Region), the Stoke's Guide to the Birds by Don and Lillian Stokes, and Kenn Kaufmans Birds of North America. Each is organized a little differently, so pick the one which looks easiest for you to use.

Bird Identification

Some birds, such as the cardinal or bluebird, can be identified by color alone. But you will probably need something more to help you. Try to find an identifying characteristic or field mark. Most field guides will note a particular species' field marks, such as color pattern, bill size, wing shape, or tail shape to help you determine the bird you saw.

Here are several field marks to look for:

  • Relative size - Compare the size of the birds you see to birds which you already know. The field guides list the size of each species' length from the bill to the tip of its tail. A sparrow is 5-6 inches, a robin is 10-12 inches, and a crow is about 20 inches.
  • Wings - Are they long or pointed or short and rounded? Are there wing bars (stripes) or colored patterns?
  • Tail - Is it long or short? Is it forked, rounded, or square-tipped?
  • Bill - Is it small and sharp like a warbler, short and heavy like a seed-cracking sparrow, or hook-tipped like a hawk or eagle? Even different types of ducks have differently shaped bills. A mallard has a large rounded bill for eating plants, while mergansers have sharp serrated bills for catching fish.
  • Eyes - Does it have an eye ring, or a stripe above, through, or behind its eyes?
  • Color - Is it a solid color or is it streaked? Is the head the same or different color from the wings or body?

Behavior and habitat can also help identify a bird. What is it doing? Does it fly in a straight line or dip up and down? If it's on the ground, does it walk or hop? If it's in the water, does it ride high like a gull or low like a loon? Where did you see it? Was it high up in a tree, deep in the woods, in a marshy area, swimming, or wading? Most field guides describe the habitat birds are most likely to be found in.

Was it alone or in a flock? Cedar waxwings and chickadees are rarely seen alone. Loons are often found in pairs. On northern lakes, immature Red-Breasted Mergansers are often seen swimming single file in groups up to a dozen.


Many people make a list of the birds they see. Some keep a Life List of the total number of species they have ever seen. Others keep records of the birds they find in a certain area. Many bird watching organizations and conservation groups provide checklists which enable bird watchers to check off the birds they see. They are available at many state or local parks or state department of natural resources.

The 313 bird species regularly found in Minnesota, as listed by the Minnesota Ornithological Union, can be found on the website of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota at Of course, not all of these species are found in the Boundary Waters region. For a list of birds I have seen in the eastern portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area around Seagull and Saganaga lakes, visit Seagull Outfitters website and view their Birder's Checklist (or visit's here). Here is a list of some of the most commonly observed birds in the Boundary Waters to get you started:

  • Common Loon
  • Bald Eagle
  • Herring Gull
  • Canada Goose
  • Red-Breasted Merganser
  • Mallard Duck
  • Common Flicker
  • Downey Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Gray Jay
  • Ruffled Grouse
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Dark-Eyed Junco
  • White-Throated Sparrow
  • Black-Capped Chickadee
  • Red-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Red-Tailed Hawk
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  • American Robin

Some Final Tips

  • Do a little study while still at home. Look through a field guide to familiarize yourself with the birds you might encounter in the Boundary Waters. Check the maps to see which birds live in the area. Try to recognize ten or so species that you are likely to see.
  • Birds are often heard before they are seen. It's possible to recognize and locate birds by their song, call, or tapping. There are recordings available of birds' songs on cassette or CD. They can either be purchased from most music stores or checked out at many libraries. Learning the calls of a few common birds can be a great help to beginners.
  • Videos on bird identification are also available. They can be rented from specialty bird stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited.
  • Ask other bird watchers. Birders are usually eager to share their knowledge of and love for birds with others. If you see someone else with binoculars, don't be afraid to ask them what they are looking at. They'll probably be happy to show you what they are seeing and offer useful advice.
  • Be patient. Whether you are hiking, canoeing, or just stretching your legs at a roadside rest area, you won't always see birds immediately. That doesn't mean that there are no birds around. Stand quietly for a few moments or pull your canoe into a protected bay. Give the birds a little time to get used to you. You will often find that an area you thought was devoid of birds is really home to quite a few.

During your next visit to the Boundary Waters, spend some time bird watching. You don't need a lot of fancy equipment. Just get outdoors and devote a little time looking and listening. You may find that you've discovered a new hobby. Even if you don't become an avid bird watcher, you'll at least develop a new appreciation for some of the most beautiful and easily observed wildlife in the Boundary Waters.

-article courtesy of

BWCA Birdwatchers List Birds of Winter

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