BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at the Map

One of the first Hindsight articles ( addressed the topic of how several misidentifications could be avoided if birders would pay closer attention to the calendar. By being aware of when certain species occur and when they don’t, you can often simplify the ID process. Closely related to this, and just as important, is to consider where you are, with this including not only the knowledge of species’ ranges but also their habitats.

What follows, therefore, will not be a discussion of field marks of potentially confusing birds, as is typical of most of these Hindsight articles. Instead, this is intended to alert birders how knowledge of the range maps and habitats is often an essential aid in correctly identifying and effectively finding a wide variety of birds. Call it birding by geography or distribution, but the point here is how an atlas or road map (or even a tree identification book!) will sometimes prove as useful as a field guide.

All lakes are not created equal.

And maybe that’s why this Land of Ten Thousand Lakes actually has two or three thousand more than advertised: some of the smaller ones apparently are not getting counted at all. In any event, when it comes to certain waterfowl, some lakes are certainly better than others.

For example, if you find yourself scrutinizing every loon you see in hopes of finding something other than a Common, you might consider limiting your search to a certain few lakes. To find a Red-throated, Lake Superior has far more records of this species than any other. Or, are you examining a loon you think just might be a Pacific? Take a second look and be prepared to rethink your ID unless you’re on Lake Superior or Mille Lacs, the only places where Pacific Loons regularly show up each fall. (And note these same two lakes have hosted three of the four Yellow-billed Loon records in the state.)

Do you sometimes have trouble identifying scaup? (If not, you’re a better birder than I am!) But one thing to consider is that Lessers migrate everywhere throughout the state, so in most places the best policy is to assume you’re not looking at a Greater. In most places, that is. Migrant Greater Scaup tend to use larger bodies of water (e.g., Lake Superior, Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs, Lake Pepin, the rest of the lower Mississippi River – and even larger sewage ponds), while they typically avoid smaller and shallower wetlands which Lesser Scaup monopolize.

Some birders still have trouble separating female Common Mergansers from Red-breasteds. But in summer, at least, your worries are over once you consider that Lake Superior is the only place where Red-breasteds are normally found. Commons also predominate throughout the state during migration, especially in western Minnesota where Red-breasteds are relatively uncommon.

Another group of waterfowl to consider might be the swans. Though Mute Swan ID is a lot easier than trying to tell a Tundra from a Trumpeter, it’s often very hard to tell how wild and “countable” it is for your list and for the file of Minnesota bird records. Location is one clue which might help you decide whether or not that Mute Swan you find may be “listless”. A Mute Swan in a park-like setting, especially if there are relatively tame waterfowl with it begging for a handout, would be less likely to appear on my list than one in a more natural wetland with some genuinely wild migrants as companions.

Grousing about grouse.

Complain if you will about how elusive gallinaceous birds can be, but it still won’t help you find them. Perhaps the toughest of them all is the Spruce Grouse, and possibly contributing to this might be its misleading name. In this part of the continent this grouse is actually associated more with jack pines than with spruce, and it is probably most plentiful in Minnesota in the seldom-birded jack pines of Beltrami Island State Forest in Lake of the Woods County.

Another distributional point to keep in mind is that Spruce Grouse, as well as almost all the gallinaceous birds, simply do not migrate. So, one reported south of where it should be probably represents a misidentification (Ruffed Grouse can act every bit as “tame” as a Spruce Grouse, by the way), or a bird escaped or released from a game farm. There is a published 1982 Spruce Grouse report from southern Pine County, for example, that I still believe was either from a game farm or possibly misidentified.

Sharp-tailed Grouse are similar in this regard, with out-of-range reports also probably the result of misidentifications (I’ve seen birders misidentify young pheasants as Sharp-taileds) or game farms. And there are two recent documented Sharp-tailed Grouse reports from Wilkin and Rock counties that one has to wonder about in this regard.

A couple other gallinaceous birds, though hardly presenting any ID problems, raise Mute Swan-like questions about listing. Wild Turkeys and Northern Bobwhites (and, for that matter, Chukars) can turn up anywhere in Minnesota, courtesy of game farms, sportsmen’s clubs, and the like. No one would probably think much about a turkey or bobwhite up the Gunflint Trail, but what about a turkey in St. Cloud or a bobwhite in Rochester?

The behavior of a questionable bird might be the best indicator, but beyond that I would hesitate to count any turkey unless it were south of the Twin Cities and east of Interstate 35 (probably a more conservative view than most birders have), and I doubt any bobwhite outside of Fillmore and Houston counties could be considered wild.

[Author's Note, July 2016 – Most now consider the Wild Turkey's "countable" range to generally extend statewide, excluding most of St. Louis Co. ("wild" birds are now in the Sax-Zim Bog and vicinity), and all of Lake and Cook counties. Conversely, the Northern Bobwhite's range has essentially contracted down to becoming non-existent in recent years, as "countable" birds no longer occur in the state, and the species is considered Extirpated.]

It would be easier to call them all chicken-hawks.

With so many diurnal raptors presenting ID difficulties to even seasoned birders, it’s nice to know there are some geographical clues to indicate whether an ID you’re struggling with is on the right track. Take the accipiters, for example. In summer, unless you are birding in the coniferous forest zone of northern Minnesota, odds are that accipiter you just saw is a Cooper’s. In winter and migration, though Sharp-shinneds always outnumber Cooper’s, in most places and in most years any truly large accipiter will more likely be a Cooper’s rather than a Northern Goshawk: except in peak years of their ten-year cycle, don’t expect to see a Goshawk south of the boreal forest.

Buteos can be just as hard to identify as accipiters, with Swainson’s and Ferruginous hawks especially involved in many misidentifications. As far as the Swainson’s is concerned, in eastern Minnesota they are not to be expected unless you are at Hawk Ridge in Duluth in September or in some few favored farmlands of southeastern Minnesota in summer. The Ferruginous is even more restricted geographically, since there are hardly any reliable identifications east of the counties bordering the Dakotas.

Most Minnesota birders are aware that any dark-looking eagle will almost always turn out to be an immature Bald Eagle, rather than a Golden. But there are a couple places to reliably find and safely identify a Golden Eagle: one would be during late fall at Hawk Ridge, the other in winter in the southeastern corner of the state. However, in this latter region don’t search for them among the Bald Eagles along the Mississippi River, where many Goldens are reported but hardly any are correctly identified. The place to look is in the hills back away from the river, with Whitewater Wildlife Management Area probably the most consistent spot to find one.

One final and very specific geography lesson on raptors. Peregrines nest on ledges – buildings, cliff faces, etc. They do not place their nests in spruce trees, which Merlins do all the time, and overly optimistic observers often report these as Peregrine nests.

Uncommon Common Terns.

Bird identification could certainly be simplified if bird names were more descriptive and less misleading. A case in point: Common Terns aren’t as common in Minnesota as are Forster’s, the species which predominates in summer and migration. So, as long as you’re sure that tern in question isn’t a Caspian or Black, you can usually start with the assumption that it’s more likely a Forster’s than a Common. Even during migration Commons are only infrequently seen, and most often only on the lakes at which they breed: e.g., Lake Superior, Mille Lacs, Leech Lake, and Lake of the Woods.

Getting bogged down at feeders.

Birders visiting northern Minnesota invariably hope to see Black-backed and American Three-toed woodpeckers and Boreal Chickadees, but they often spend time in pursuit of these birds in the wrong places. One of those places is at bird feeders, which in a way comprise a micro-habitat, but if you think you see one of these woodpeckers or chickadees at a feeder you’d better take a second look. For one thing, I have never heard of a Black-backed or three-toed coming to suet or any other kind of feeder – and I certainly would like to hear from anyone who has witnessed this! And, as far as Boreal Chickadees are concerned, they will visit suet feeders, but hardly ever (never?) do they come to seed feeders — only once or twice have I ever heard of this.

Perhaps a more important habitat clue as you search for these three species is to remember that they are almost invariably limited to coniferous trees. While they can be seen in an aspen or birch or other deciduous tree, it is usually not for very long and only when that tree is within or adjacent to a stand of conifers. Also note that if you’re more interested in seeing a American Three-toed than a Black-backed, be prepared to literally get bogged down. While Black-backeds can be found in almost any kind of coniferous stand, three-toeds seem to prefer smaller and thinner trees, such as those in black spruce and tamarack bogs.

The Least of my worries.

It should go without saying that range and habitat are essential factors to consider as you struggle to identify Empidonax flycatchers in summer, but some reminders here might be helpful and will hopefully not just repeat what everyone already knows. To begin with, Least Flycatchers can nest in virtually any wooded area anywhere in the state, usually in deciduous trees. About the only place I wouldn’t expect one would be within the interior of a spruce, tamarack, or cedar bog. Yellow-bellieds are in the coniferous forest zone of the northern third of Minnesota (and locally into east central Minnesota), almost always in woods predominated by spruce, tamarack, balsam fir, or northern white cedar. Acadian Flycatchers are only local in a few larger tracts of deciduous woods in southeastern Minnesota, north to the Twin Cities area.

More interesting in their distributions and habitats are Alder and Willow flycatchers. Alders are generally widespread throughout the northern half of the state (and somewhat into east central Minnesota) in relatively open and deciduous woods — and usually not far from alders! Willow Flycatchers replace Alders in the southern half of the state (and locally into northwestern Minnesota), and they tend to be much more local than Alders in wetter and more open areas. Where the two overlap in central and northwestern Minnesota, I would expect an Empid on the edge of an aspen stand to be an Alder (if it's not a Least, that is), and one in a wet thicket farther from larger trees to be a Willow.

On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia (Vireo) range and habitat.

W. C. Fields and his famous epitaph might come to mind as a birder anywhere in the boreal forest listens to Red-eyed Vireo songs which seem to be everywhere. How many of these songs might actually be coming from a Philadelphia Vireo, whose song is very similar and at times apparently identical? Since there are too many Red-eyeds singing out there, there isn’t time to chase them all down for visual confirmation, but one thing to try is limit your search to one certain habitat.

Though there is much we still don’t know about the Philadelphia’s habitat, they may prefer birch trees over aspens, often in wetter areas with an alder understory. Red-eyed Vireos also use this same habitat, but this is where I’d pay particular attention to a song which sounds a bit higher and slower. As far as range is concerned, Philadelphia Vireos seem to be found consistently only along and near the North Shore of Lake Superior from about Silver Bay northeast, but it seems likely they also occur locally elsewhere in the northern third of the state.

Confusing summer warblers.

There may not be many of these, of course, at least not when compared to those in fall which give birders more difficulties. But there are a handful of warblers whose ranges or habitats can be of assistance as you try to figure out what you’re seeing or hearing.

One example is the Pine Warbler, which has a quite atypical name: unlike most species, its name actually refers to something relevant! Pine Warblers are almost always found in pine trees, especially in summer but also in migration. So, if you find yourself in fall puzzling over one of those Blackpoll/Bay-breasted/Pine Warbler types, or in summer if you hear one of those frustrating Chipping Sparrow/junco/Palm/Pine warbler trills: if it’s not in a pine it’s probably not a Pine.

Since the song of the Black-throated Green Warbler is similar to the Black-throated Blue’s, this latter species is sometimes reported erroneously as a result. Keep in mind, though, the Black-throated Blue’s quite limited breeding range in the maple ridges along the North Shore in Lake and Cook counties (where Black-throated Greens also occur). Anywhere else, vote Green and don’t think about the Blues.

While the Northern and Louisiana waterthrush songs are relatively easy to separate, silent waterthrushes are quite another matter to ID. One obvious clue in summer would be the difference in their ranges, but this is often misunderstood. Louisianas are not limited to the southeastern corner of the state, since they have been found in the St. Croix River Valley up into Pine County. Since this county mostly falls within the boreal forest zone, the false assumption is that Northerns would breed here. In truth, don’t expect to find a Northern Waterthrush in summer until you get north of Duluth.

Finally, are you still in search of Minnesota’s two most highly sought warblers, the Connecticut and Mourning? Make sure you’re looking in the right places. Connecticuts have a curious preference for two very different habitats: tamarack bogs and mature jack pines (or a mixed woods of aspen and jack pines). Mournings, on the other hand, are found almost everywhere in the boreal forest as long as there are some deciduous trees and openings around. Don’t look for them in the forest interior, especially if that forest is predominantly coniferous.

Longshot longspurs.

While migrant Lapland Longspurs can be encountered in pretty much any open area anywhere in the state, Minnesota birders are always hopeful of finding one of the other longspur species somewhere during migration. With only a few records of the McCown’s in this century, it’s probably not worth much time looking for this one, but where does one start looking for a Chestnut-collared or Smith’s?

During migration, the best strategy in regard to the Chestnut-collared is probably to not even try. Though easy enough to find in summer in the pastured grasslands of the Felton Prairie complex, this is one of those species hardly ever encountered as a migrant. (Several birds in Minnesota are curiously just that way for reasons unknown, appearing all of a sudden on their breeding grounds without seeming to stop much en route: e.g., Piping Plover, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Common Tern, Pine Warbler, Lark Sparrow, and Brewer’s Blackbird.)

Smith’s Longspurs, however, can be regularly found in migration, at least in October in west central Minnesota, with places like Rothsay Wildlife Management Area or perhaps the Felton Prairie being especially productive. The key is to listen for their call notes in and over the right kind of field, since they have a strong preference for short grass — either pastures or mown hayfields. On the other hand, if you go to Rothsay or Felton and hear or see some longspurs in a plowed dirt field, they are more likely to be Laplands.

Birding meadows just for a lark.

Visual identification of silent meadowlarks is one of the most difficult and underrated ID problems, especially in fall and winter when some useful facial plumage differences are obscured. But the range maps are often helpful in summer. Western Meadowlarks breed throughout the state, except perhaps in Lake and Cook counties (where the fields are too small?); Easterns nest throughout the eastern half of Minnesota (a line drawn from Lake of the Woods to Albert Lea would be close to its western range limit). Therefore, anything west of that line, no matter what the time of year, would normally be a Western by default.

There remains, however, a broad area of overlap in the state, but here it helps to know the two meadowlarks tend to separate out by habitat. Look for Westerns in larger fields in flatlands less fragmented by trees, where big agriculture operations predominate. Easterns tend to prefer smaller fields in areas where there are more trees, often in clearings in a river valley, and often in meadows and pastures with longer and wetter grass.

Improving Rusty identification skills.

I’m fond of telling other birders that the Rusty Blackbird is one of my favorite birds. This is because it’s more colorful in fall than in spring or summer (unlike most birds), because females are easier to identify than males (to separate from female Brewer’s, simply note the eye color), and because it has two good reasons for its name (which is two more than most birds have!) – which refers both to its fall plumage and its “rusty-hinge” song.

Breeding range is also a good aid to Rusty vs. Brewer’s ID, with Rusty Blackbirds (formerly, at least) perhaps limited to just a few alder swamps in extreme northeastern Minnesota, and Brewer’s occurring in edges, clearings, and fields almost everywhere else in northern and central Minnesota. During migration, habitat differences are also important: look for Rustys in wetter, brushier, and more wooded situations; Brewer’s prefer drier and more open fields.

When to pine for crossbills.

Many visiting birders to the boreal forests of northeastern Minnesota tend to call any conifer they see a pine tree, but the conifers which actually predominate in this part of the state are spruce, tamarack, balsam fir. and northern white cedar. And a basic knowledge of tree identification is important when looking for crossbills: note that Red Crossbills are clearly partial to pines, while White-wingeds almost always prefer spruce and tamarack cones. Since crossbills are often first detected as they call in flight overhead, and since most birders still have trouble distinguishing their call notes, it helps to know what kind of forest you’re in.