July–August 2024


Birding for Fun

Author and guide Kim Eckert is still sharing his passion for birdwatching.

Allison Jensen

Who was the first person in Minnesota to spot 300 bird species in one year? Kim Eckert, in 1977. Today, he says, with eBird, smartphones, and social media, that record is not too hard to crack. But without technology, he was the first. At 78, he remains among the top birders in Minnesota.

In the decades since, Eckert has been exploring Minnesota, scouting bird locations, and helping thousands of people spot birds.

For 20 years, Eckert was the chief naturalist at Hawk Ridge, the promontory above Duluth that migrating birds cross to avoid flying over Lake Superior. He introduced visitors to birds of prey—falcons, bald eagles, tiny owls, and, typically one day each season, a flight of 10,000-plus broad-winged hawks. In 1978, he began leading bird tours around Minnesota, first for friends and then for international birding organizations.

In 1986, he created Minnesota Birding Weekends to lead small groups to see birds on the prairies, in the forests, and even at sewage ponds. In 2011 he, along with fellow birders Sparky Stensaas and Dave Benson, founded Friends of Sax-Zim Bog to protect threatened black spruce–tamarack habitat and the birds that thrive there.

Outstanding among Eckert’s accomplishments is his book A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, first published in 1974 by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. Now in its fifth edition, the guide includes more than 1,400 hot spots, nearly 200 photographs, maps for each county, bird identification tips, and quirky observations and quips.

We caught up with Eckert during one of his breaks from leading Minnesota Birding Weekends.

Q | Why did you first write A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota?
Some of us realized what a good state Minnesota was for birds, yet it really wasn’t recognized as such. So we put together this rather meager first edition. Then every eight or 10 years since, I would enlarge it and hopefully improve it. Things quickly get out of date, so I felt obligated to keep going.

Q | When did you become a birder? 
In the only biology class I ever took, in 10th grade, we had a bird-identification project. I had no idea how to tell a grackle from a crow from a starling, all of which were in my neighborhood in suburban Chicago. My parents knew the parents of Bob Russell, who was a year older and had started birding in grade school. I still have the vision of meeting Bob coming down the alley four houses away, on his bicycle. We were going to a park on Lake Michigan. He showed me the basics. [Afterward] I said to Bob, “You know, that was kind of fun.” So he sparked my interest and kept it going.

Q | Why do you live in Duluth?
I moved to Duluth in 1977 because I knew that’s where you go to see birds. It so happened that the winter of 1977–78 was one of those big owl years. Coming south for the winter were four northern owls—snowy owls, northern hawk owls, great gray owls, and boreal owls—and the last were even, unusually for the species, flying in the daytime. I wasn’t the only birder in Duluth, but I was one of the few. I communicated to birding friends back in Chicago, and they started coming up. Gradually, a lot of people came. I took a lot of people out; I never charged them anything. They would maybe give me gas money or buy me dinner once in a while, but that was about it. So when that owl irruption was over, it sparked the idea: “Maybe I could do this for a living.”

Q | Have you made any ornithological discoveries?
With Terry Savaloja, we got a team together back in 1978–79: We were obsessed with boreal owls. We knew  they had nested in southern parts of Canada. I wondered if they nested in Minnesota, but there had never been a nesting record. With a lot of luck and coincidence and help from others, we did find the first actual nest for the boreal owl, not only for Minnesota but also for the lower 48 states. There’s an account of it in The Loon [the MOU journal].

Q | What is your advice for those who wish to become birders or better birders?
Birding is supposed to be fun. You shouldn’t take it too seriously. There are serious parts of it, of course. But I’ve seen people on tours who seem miserable. Maybe they are finding birds, but there really are things that are more important than birds, sometimes, on bird trips. Like people. I swear that’s why people keep coming back on Minnesota Birding Weekends: for the company. They want to bird with people they know and who have the same kind of easygoing outlook that [frequent co-leader] Craig Mandel and I have fostered on our trips. They enjoy that atmosphere. I always want people to go out and find their own birds. That’s important to me. That’s part of the point of my book: Get out there and find your own birds! Find a road that goes off the edge of your map and see what’s there.