Mention birdwatching and many amateur ornithologists envision a woodland hide-and-seek adventure. Warblers flitting through the underbrush. Tanagers flashing through the treetops. Orioles fluttering through the branches.
But there's another place to observe songbirds—a place where the subjects' plumage may not be as showy, but where their life stories are right there in the wide open to see. Welcome to the grasslands.
Only 1 percent of Minnesota's once-vast native prairie remains, but the state has grasslands that still offer habitat for these prairie-loving birds. Where they haven't been plowed for grain crops, pastures—especially those that are rotationally grazed by cattle, as the prairie once was by bison—serve as surrogate habitat for native prairie. So do Conservation Reserve Program and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program acres, plus other farm bill program acreage that lets land revert back to grass. Waterfowl production areas and wildlife management areas in southern and western Minnesota offer good grassland songbird habitat. So can fallow fields, forgotten meadows, and even hayfields.
Where to Go Prairie Birding
Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge Magnificent, huge, remote. Over 22,000 acres include 5,000 acres of pristine northern tallgrass prairie and 8,000 acres of restored prairie. 14 miles north of Fertile.
Buffalo River State Park/Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area Along with the nearby Moorhead State University Regional Science Center, this complex offers a large, continuous treasure of undisturbed grasslands: nearly 8,000 acres of native and restored prairie. 5 miles east of Glyndon.
Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge This 11,586-acre gem is predominantly restored tallgrass, with more than 1,200 acres of native prairie anchoring the complex. Big Stone hosts nesting waterfowl as well as prairie songbirds. 7 miles southeast of Ortonville.
Felton Prairie Scientific and Natural Area This SNA and the adjacent Felton Wildlife Management Area create a patchwork of more than 2,000 acres of prairie, much of it only grazed before and now reverted to its native state. Some of the acreage is dry prairie, a unique habitat. 6 miles east of Felton.
Wildlife Management Areas Minnesota’s WMAs aren’t just for hunters. Thousands of acres’ worth of WMAs in Minnesota’s southern and western counties offer ample grassland birdwatching opportunities in spring and summer. Find WMAs on the DNR’s Recreation Compass map tool.
For a different kind of birding adventure, explore the big wide open and put the following five prairie songbirds on your checklist.
Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
A male bobolink in breeding plumage wears a reverse tuxedo: He is distinctively all-black below but streaked white above, with a creamy-yellow to dull-gold nape. The bill is conical and pointed.
"Male bobolinks are flashy little birds," says Bob Dunlap, DNR zoologist and grassland bird expert who completed his master's degree thesis on prairie songbird habitat in western Minnesota. "They show off their napes and ruffle up their neck feathers when calling." Bobolinks are a little smaller and slenderer than robins.
A female bobolink is creamy-brown, with a buffy yellow tinge below. She looks a lot like a female red-winged blackbird—and in fact, bobolinks are members of the blackbird family. It's easy to see the behavioral similarities of a red-winged blackbird clinging to a wetland cattail and a bobolink swaying on a grassland stem.
"In Minnesota, bobolinks were originally birds of the tallgrass prairie," says Dunlap. You can find them in prairie remnants, grasslands, and forgotten fields in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and southeastern Minnesota, and meadowlands in central and northeastern Minnesota.
The bobolink song sounds a bit like R2D2 from Star Wars, says Dunlap. It's a bubbly, happy call that starts with low buzzes and finishes with high-range gurgling.
Bobolinks sometimes key in on alfalfa fields in spring; the cover mimics tallgrass prairie at that time of year. "They will nest in the grass, on the ground, right at the base of grass clumps," says Dunlap.
Bobolinks eat mostly bugs, grubs, and caterpillars in spring and summer. They are neotropical migrants, wintering in South America and returning to Minnesota when spring warblers do—about the time hardwoods such as oaks and aspens are leafing out and the weather is warm enough for insects to be out and about.
The birds otherwise feed mainly on seeds. They are called "rice birds" in the southern United States because of their penchant for descending on harvested fields in big flocks.
Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)
The western meadowlark sings one of the happiest songs in the bird world—a flute-like triplet or so of whistles followed by a gurgly bubble of notes traveling up a musical scale.
"That song is the key to identifying a western meadowlark from the nearly identical eastern meadowlark," says Dunlap. The eastern sings a mere three- to five-note whistle.
The western meadowlark is robin-sized, about 10 inches long. The sexes are not dimorphic, meaning males and females look alike. In breeding plumage they are streaked brown on top but bright yellow below, with a prominent black V at the top of the breast.
Meadowlarks are ground feeders. They use long, sharp bills to feed on grains, seeds, and insects, and to probe and pry the ground for insects and seeds.
The western meadowlark is a bird of greatest conservation need in Minnesota, and populations have been declining for several decades, says Dunlap, mostly due to conversion of native prairie to cropland. At least one recent study also suggests the meadowlark, like many prairie birds, bees, and butterflies, has been affected by neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides used on crops.
"Western meadowlarks range all the way to the eastern edge of Minnesota," says Dunlap, "but they seem to be increasingly difficult to find in the eastern part of the state during the breeding season."
This bird prefers shortgrass prairie habitat and can even be found around airports, with their expanses of mowed grass. But it is also found in tallgrass areas in Minnesota.
"Meadowlarks are blackbirds and ground nesters," adds Dunlap. The birds often build grass domes over their nest cups. Meadowlarks love the prairie primeval but adapt well to grassy fields, pastures, meadows, and marshland edges.
Dickcissel (Spiza americana)
If not for its diminutive size—only about 6 inches long—a breeding male dickcissel might be confused for a meadowlark. It features a yellow chest with a black V below the throat, distinctive rust-colored shoulder patches, and a yellow eyebrow. Its sturdy, conical bill marks it as a seed eater.
Females show only a little pale yellow on their chest, though they do display rusty shoulder patches and soft-yellow eyebrows.
"Dickcissels are almost always out in the open and conspicuous," says Dunlap, "where they can get a good view. They perch on road signs, fenceposts, barbed wire, weed and grass stalks, or the occasional prairie tree."
They're named after the sound they make, a sharp-to-buzzy dick – dick – dick – ciss-ciss-cis-cis-cis-cis.
Dickcissels are among the last neotropical migrants to return to Minnesota each spring, often not arriving until the last week of May. They spend the winter in South America in huge flocks, eating seeds and grains.
Dickcissels are quite irruptive, meaning populations can occasionally spike. "Some years there are only a few around, mainly in southwestern Minnesota prairie areas," says Dunlap. "Other years, dickcissels seem to be everywhere there's grass. I've seen them in parking lots in St. Paul then." Lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and unmowed roadsides all harbor dickcissels too.
"Like many prairie songbirds, dickcissels nest near the bases of grass clumps," says Dunlap. The young are fed a steady diet of insects before becoming seed eaters.
Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
Sparrows can be challenging to positively identify. "Nearly all sparrows look brown and streaky," Dunlap says with a laugh. But some "little brown jobs"—such as the grasshopper sparrow—can be thrilling to check off your bird list when you see or hear the right things.
Male and female grasshopper sparrows are small (only 4 to 5 inches long), with a clear, non-streaked, buffy- colored breast and dark-rufous, scalloped-looking upper parts. Their crowns sport a cream-colored stripe, and their bills are sharp and pointed. Their unstreaked chest and belly help set them apart from some other prairie sparrows and make a key identification mark.
"Grasshopper sparrows are efficient little hunters," says Dunlap, with grasshoppers, other bugs, and caterpillars serving as prey. These sparrows are named not for a food they eat but for the sound they make—a high-pitched trill not unlike that of a summer grasshopper, which rubs a leg on a wing to make noise.
"You have to listen closely," says Dunlap. "If you can hear a grasshopper sparrow's song, you have darn good ears."
Grasshopper sparrows often prefer shorter-grass habitat—generally, grass that is less than waist-high, and relatively sparse.
That makes pastureland prime. When land converts from grazing to grain, grasshopper sparrows suffer, as the species does better in larger, unfragmented prairies. That has made the grasshopper sparrow another species of greatest conservation need in Minnesota.
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)
The Savannah sparrow may be the most common bird you've never heard much about. Numerous subspecies inhabit a variety of open-country habitats across North America. It's a good-sized sparrow, about 6 inches long.
Savannah sparrows have streaked chests and bellies. Look for a yellow patch above the eye that stretches down to the beak. The crown feathers often flare. Males and females look alike.
"Savannah sparrows prefer prairies with denser vegetation. They also like weedy pastures, forgotten fields, and overgrown meadows," says Dunlap. They are often spotted by pheasant hunters in the fall in the thick and mean tangles that both birds love.
Roadsides are important habitat, too, for these extremely adaptable birds. Other subspecies inhabit ecosystems as diverse as tidal salt marshes, beach grass systems near oceans, and willow shrubs on the Alaska tundra.
Savannah sparrows are ground foragers and good runners. Although they eat seeds, during breeding season the birds concentrate on insects for protein. They raise young hatched from a cup of grass on the ground. The song is a very high-pitched sip-sip sip-seeeee-tsay.
The spelling of the bird's name, Savannah with an "h," is an interesting story itself. The birds are not named for savanna habitat, as you might think. Rather, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson named them for a specimen collected near Savannah, Georgia, in 1811.
Savannah sparrow populations nationwide benefited from pioneer settlement, as land was cleared and some of that land pastured. Grain crop fields and reforestation have taken away much of this habitat.
Forests are fine. But the big wide open frees you. A good pair of hiking boots, some powerful binoculars, and a horizon framed in grass deliver a rewarding birding adventure. Prairie songbirds may not be flashy. But their stories are well told on the endless breeze over an ocean of waving grass.