Flying South – Where Do the BW’s Birds Go?

Every winter, the forests of canoe country fall silent as so many of the sounds of summer fade with the season. With the coming of winter’s chill, many of the birds that call these wild shores their summer home head south to milder wintering grounds from the rivers of southern Minnesota, the southern states, all the way to South America. It’s a truly fascinating perspective that the birds whose calls we associated with an August canoe trip could now be perched in an Amazonian rainforest or along an Atlantic dune. Not all birds leave us. Some of the hardiest from pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, and the whisky jacks ride out the frigid winters, but as we embrace this uniquely tentative winter, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of Canoe Country’s most familiar birds and where they are spending their winters.

Photo Cred Riley Smith

Common Loon

“The haunting call of the loon remains forever in the memories of those who have visited the northern lake country. Like the howl of the wolf, the wild calling of the loon touches something deep inside us, something primitive, something that speaks to our very soul.” – Tom Klein

Few animals are as ubiquitous with the experience of Canoe Country as the Common Loon whose haunting calls permeate the open expanses of almost every lake across Minnesota north into the Canadian Shield. These wilderness-defining summer residents, unable to walk on their own two feet, flee south as the waters they depend on begin to close in for the winter. Their iconic black and white speckled appearance dims into a light grey and their songs fall nearly silent when inhabiting their winter homes, leaving a bird all but unrecognizable to the canoeists who treasure them each summer. Minnesota is blessed to have the largest population of loons in the lower 48, nearly 10,000 of them, owing to our abundant waterways for habitat. (source) During the winter, many of Minnesota’s loons head for the Gulf or the Atlantic coast with a few wintering in inland reservoirs in the south. They make the trip at great speed with some loons tracked at over 500 miles traveled in a single day. Loons, despite their relatively short wingspan in comparison with their mass, are powerful flyers recording top speeds of 70 mph. (source) As the winter ice retreats and lakes begin to reopen, Loons head north again, often to the same bodies of water year after year unless they are displaced by another Loon competing for the territory. Check out the map below of their migration destinations and the sweet e-bird animation of their abundance by season.


A head shot of an American Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Another commonly sighted bird in the skies above canoe country is the Bald Eagle who prefers the towering old-growth white pines for nesting and the clear open lakes for feeding. Some eagles stay put, scrounging carrion and roadkill during the winter along with the occasional snowshoe hair or squirrel. Eagles that stay tend to spend time near open water if it can be found. Many of the eagles found in the BWCAW during the summer head south to overwinter along open water stretches of the Mississippi near Red Wing and Wabasha where hundreds of eagles can be seen congregating in the peak of the winter season. Though eagles were once endangered, their population has now made a full recovery with many thousands of eagles now calling Minnesota home. For those looking to visit eagles during the winter, the National Eagle Center in Wabasha gives a glorious opportunity to see overwintering birds up close. And who knows, perhaps one of those many birds perched in the cottonwood trees is the same eagle who stole your boundary waters fish dinner last summer? Come spring thaw, these magnificent raptors will head northwards again for another summer in canoe country.


Photo Cred: University of Minnesota

Broad-Winged Hawk

The Broad-Winged Hawk is a very common summer resident that can be seen throughout canoe country hunting for food in northern forests. They are generally unassuming brown hawks about the size of a crow that eat a wide variety of prey from rodents and reptiles to amphibians and birds. Come fall, they are one of the few hawk species to migrate in large groups as they head for wintering grounds all the way in Central America. In order to conserve energy on their nearly 4000-mile flight, they utilize updrafts of air to lift them as high as they can then shoot forward gaining as much glide as they can with minimal energy. A group of Broad-Winged Hawks are known as a kettle and upwards of 8 to 10 thousand can be seen in their annual migration past Hawk’s Ridge in Duluth each fall and spring. Check out the unique animation showing the incredible distances these birds fly each year.


Photo Cred Riley Smith

Turkey Vulture

The Turkey Vulture is a common sight across Minnesota with its wide dark wings and distinctive bald, red head, these birds play an important role in cleaning up carrion, preventing the spread of disease. They can often be mistaken for eagles or other hawks while in flight, but have a distinctive “wobble” when they fly that helps distinguish them. In the winter, turkey vultures head south to warmer climates either in the Southern US or even all the way to South America.


Photo Cred © David Brislance

White-Throated Sparrow

To me and many others who treasure their time in canoe country, a morning in the Boundary Waters would be incomplete without the sweet whistle of the white-throated sparrow cutting through a foggy sunrise. Uniquely, they are a bird whose call is “slanging” from the familiar “Oh Sweet Canada-Canada-Canada-Canada” many of us are familiar with to a new “Oh Sweet Cana-Cana-Cana-Cana.” They are actually losing syllables! It’s a fascinating study. Like many of our summer mainstays though, they head south for the winter with many of our birds heading south two or three states or more in time for winter’s snow.


Photo Cred – Heather Hubbard

Eastern Whip-Poor-Will

Named for their familiar nighttime sounds that have driven many a camper crazy with their persistence, I for one am unable to separate this bird’s sound from warm summer nights in Canoe Country. They are a small, dare I say, almost unsightly brown bird with a large pair of eyes and mottled plumage. They nest in leaf litter on the ground, aligning hatching dates close to the peak full moon allowing for the prime nocturnal hunting of insects which their large eyes are suited towards. Come wintertime, they migrate to the southern states along the Gulf Coast.


Trumpeter Swan

There was a time, not all that long ago when Trumpeter Swans were absent from Minnesota. Thanks to persistent and dedicated efforts, they are now fairly common across the state. In the BWCAW, they can routinely be found in large river systems and shallow lakes where aquatic vegetation is common. They are difficult to miss with their bright white plumage, large size, and trumpeting call that carries across the hilltops. During the winter, they don’t travel far. Most head for open water stretches of rivers in the southern half of Minnesota where they can continue finding food throughout the winter.


Photo Cred: Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas

Common Merganser

This common diving waterfowl can be frequently spotted across Canoe Country where it spends its summers feeding on small fish and invertebrates. Each summer, they can be seen trailed by a clutch of their dorky mohawked offspring, a sight not to be missed. Occasionally, like other ducks, they can accidentally adopt ducklings of the same species such as the merganser photographed in Bemidji a few years back with a clutch of more than 50 offspring! They don’t migrate too far come winter, simply heading for southern states where the water stays open. Keep an eye out for these waterfowl come summer!


Belted Kingfisher

The Belted Kingfisher is, as the name suggests, a fish-eating bird that will actually dive into the water headfirst after their prey. They are amusing creatures, always seemingly angsty about something. They can commonly be seen perched in dead trees close to waterways eyeing up new fish to catch. Come winter time, they don’t head too far, just further south in their range in search of open water.


Photo Cred David Brislance

Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker is a somewhat commonly seen bird that relies on ants and other insects for food and large, hollow trees for nesting. Their mostly brown bodies blend into the forest except for a small red patch on the backs of their heads. We are near the line for whether flickers migrate south or whether they stay put for the winter. Those that migrate head just slightly further south in the range.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.

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