Bright blue tree swallow

Springtime Birdwatching

Learn about what birds can be found during the height of spring migration

Published04/28/2021 , by Bob Dunlap, Past President, Minnesota Ornithologists' Union

May is the month of birds. Birds can, of course, be found in any other month; but what makes May so special to observers in Minnesota is the diversity of birds that is present and passing through during the height of spring migration.

There are two main categories of migrant birds: short-distance migrants and long-distance migrants. Short-distance migrants are birds that usually spend their winters in the continental United States. Some short-distance migrants travel just a few hundred miles between wintering and breeding grounds (where they spend their summers), while others travel much greater distances, such as from Canada to southern Louisiana. Long-distance migrants are birds that do leave the continental United States, traveling as far south as South America to spend their winters. Most of these long-distance migrants return to Minnesota in May, joining many of the short-distance migrants that returned earlier in the spring.

Canada Geese, Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and even our state bird, the Common Loon, are short-distance migrants that you may find in May if you visit a nearby lake, pond, or wetland. Some less obvious birds (largely due to their smaller size) in these same habitats are Belted Kingfishers, Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, and Common Yellowthroats, all short-distance migrants that are more easily heard than seen. An early morning or late evening visit to a marsh or wetland can be a rewarding experience boasting a chorus of birdsong in May

A brown field sparrow

Field Sparrow, image credit: Bob Dunlap

On drier, open ground, you’ll likely find a mix of short-distance and long-distance migrants. Sedge Wrens, Field Sparrows, Northern Flickers, and American Kestrels didn’t have to fly far to reach their breeding grounds in Minnesota from states to our south. However, Eastern Kingbirds, Bobolinks, Indigo Buntings, and many Tree Swallows spent the winter in more tropical latitudes and by mid-May are alighting grasses and scattered treetops.

In more wooded areas you’ll likely find many of our long-distance migrants. Most of these are songbirds that spent the winter in forests of Central and South America. The most popular tend to be the warblers, a colorful family of songbirds that, for many observers, represents the pinnacle of May birding. Warblers pass through the state en masse throughout May, with peak migration occurring around May 15 in the southern half of the state and in the third or fourth week of May in the northern half. These birds really are stunners, and with descriptive names like Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Golden-winged, and Blackburnian you can picture the colors that some of these flashy gems sport. At least 31 different kinds of warblers are found in Minnesota each year, and May is the best time to see them as most are headed north to their breeding grounds in the forests of northern Minnesota and Canada.

A yellow-jumped warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler, image credit: Bob Dunlap 

You’ll likely notice other long-distance migrants traveling with the warblers; these mixed flocks can net a keen observer many different kinds of birds in one location in a short period of time. A myriad of flycatchers, vireos, and thrushes are likely to be encountered on a morning walk in mid- to late May. Other colorful birds, like Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers, can be found without too much effort in the same areas. Especially on cold mornings or mornings following overnight storms in May, migrants tend to become “grounded,” which means they’re not actively migrating at the moment and are instead looking for food—often in the form of insects closer to the ground rather than higher up in the trees. If you’re lucky enough to come across grounded migrants, it pays to sort through the many different kinds of birds present in the flock as you might find a surprise or two.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, image credit: Bob Dunlap

Thankfully, you need not travel far from home to experience the wonders of May birding! Warblers and other long-distance migrants readily pass through urban, suburban, and rural areas of Minnesota. Sometimes your own backyard or neighborhood can be just as likely a spot to find one as a wooded trail in the middle of a park. If you’re looking up, you might see a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks (long-distance migrants) or American White Pelicans (short-distance migrants) soaring overhead. Or you could simply count how many different bird sounds you hear outside your window in the morning; in May, you really can’t go wrong. All you need to do is look and listen, and you will find birds.

For more information about Minnesota’s birds, visit the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.