Go Birding at Salt Lake
Minnesota’s only saltwater lake doubles as a great birding destination.
On the right fall or spring day, it can seem as if every duck, goose, and shorebird on the continent is raucously enjoying a stay at Salt Lake in western Lac qui Parle County, where I grew up. “Lac qui Parle” is the French translation of the original Dakota name for nearby Lac qui Parle Lake, meaning “lake which speaks.” On that right migration day, Salt Lake is the “lake which sings.”
In spring, the birdsong is symphonic because all the players have arrived. Lines of greater white-fronted and snow geese trumpet their return. Giant flocks of dabbling ducks and rafts of diving ducks add plenty of sax. Shorebirds, like American avocets and marbled godwits, flute from the mudflats. Yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds chime in from cattail pockets. Even the surrounding prairie pipes in, with western meadowlarks and, if you’re really lucky, a bobolink or a chestnut-collared longspur. It’s harmony.
The orchestra convenes here each spring and fall because of the lake’s unique makeup. Yes, it’s actually salty! The water has about one-third the salt content of seawater, the result of mineral leaching from the area’s alkaline soils. Sago pondweed and brine shrimp flourish in this salty environ, a pairing which serves as a veritable bird buffet. Not only is it Minnesota’s only saltwater lake; it’s the most alkaline water body between the Atlantic Ocean and Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Visiting Minnesota’s own Salt Lake can be an exhilarating experience. Binoculars will help you enjoy the show, but don’t be surprised if it’s the soundtrack that truly tops your chart.
About Salt Lake
More than 150 bird species have been documented at Salt Lake, according to Audubon Minnesota, which has designated the lake and its surrounding mix of public and private lands an Important Bird Area.
A key figure in the preservation of Salt Lake is Mae Peterson, known as “the bird lady of Lac qui Parle County,” who in the early to mid-1900s banded more than 15,000 birds and tallied a life list of 286 species, with many of her rare sightings coming from then little-known Salt Lake. Peterson put Salt Lake on the map, so to speak, and the DNR began permanent protection efforts in 1973. The lake is now conserved within Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area; a bordering fraction in South Dakota is a federal waterfowl production area.
Plan Your Trip
The Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area viewing area is on the east side of the lake, about 4 miles southwest of Marietta. Down a short trail from the parking lot is an observation deck that’s an excellent place to start scanning for birds. If birding by boat is your thing, a couple of rugged parking pull-ins are close enough to the water to launch a canoe or kayak.
In birding circles, the spring shorebird migration is a major draw, but the fall event plays no second fiddle, especially when migrating tundra swans drop in from the Arctic. Be aware that as a multiple-use state wildlife management area, Salt Lake is also open to hunters.
Don’t want to go it alone? Salt Lake Birding Weekend is Minnesota’s oldest birding festival, a free event hosted by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union and the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter. Held annually for 45 years (save for three years during the COVID-19 pandemic), it usually takes place the last weekend in April to coincide with peak shorebird and waterfowl migrations. Expert guides lead groups to birding hotspots. Learn more at moumn.org.