Must-see FMR spring birding sites along the river

A singing common yellowthroat grips a thorny branch.

Species such as the common yellowthroat seen here are common at many of FMR's restoration sites during spring migration. (Photo by Mike Budd/USFWS)

From April through May in Minnesota, a harbinger of spring takes flight. More and more migrating birds, including neotropical species that winter in Central and South America, pass through the metro river corridor on their way to their summer breeding grounds up north.

Protecting and restoring habitat along this flyway has long been a priority for FMR, and the Mississippi River is one of the most important migration corridors on the continent. It also provides incredible opportunities for birdwatching.

Whether you’re just getting into the hobby and looking for a nearby urban birding spot, or are an experienced birder preferring a location a little more off the beaten path, we’ve got you covered. Below, learn about seven sites we've helped permanently protect or restore that offer great birding. Learn about the habitats and bird species that can be found there — with a few special suggestions from our Land Conservation staff mixed in.

William H. Houlton Conservation Area

Houlton Conservation Area in Elk River has expansive prairie, woodland, floodplain forest and riverine areas that come together to create a diverse habitat mosaic in which to view many different species, including migrants and year-round residents. Northern harriers are a common sight flying above the tall grasses scanning for prey. The Houlton prairie has even hosted Henslow’s sparrows which are endangered in Minnesota. Grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels and bobolinks have also made the restored prairie home. Indigo buntings, American redstarts and common yellowthroats can be spotted in the forest that rings the prairie. We began restoration on this site in the 2010s, so make sure to return over the years to see the difference habitat restoration makes.

Nicollet Island Park

Nicollet Island’s diversity of habitats along the river supports an amazing list of birds right in the heart of Minneapolis. White-winged scoter, lesser scaup, bufflehead, pied-billed grebe and common goldeneye have all been spotted in the river from Nicollet Island. In the river’s shallow side channels near the park, green herons, great egrets and double-crested cormorants find small fish to eat, and the shrubby willows provide cover for both alder and willow flycatchers. The look-alike sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are also common in the park, as is the charming call of the barred owl. 

Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park

The gorge’s steep bluffs along the river in Minneapolis have a way of funneling migratory bird species into this narrow stretch of woodland and savanna habitat. As a result, the gorge sees an array of migratory bird species every year. In fact, FMR volunteer Dave Zumeta had observed nearly 200 species there during decades of monitoring, and regularly updates this bird list for the Mississippi River Gorge.

It’s not unlikely to see a scarlet tanager, magnolia warbler or great-crested flycatcher here during late May, but one important tip: Get out early before the silver maple and cottonwood trees have their leaves, and these beautiful (but small) birds become tougher to spot. You can also see a whole hillside of the spring ephemeral bloodroot along the trails near 36th Street.

Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific & Natural Area

The bend of the Mississippi at Pine Bend Bluffs in Inver Grove Heights also has a way of clustering migrating songbirds to add to your life list. As our neotropical migrants follow the river up north, warblers such as northern parulas and ovenbirds use the oak forests along the rugged bluffs for cover and food. Tundra swans and American white pelicans use the river as a food source as they make their passage to the subarctic. While you’re not looking to the skies for birds, you might see hepatica and wild ginger under the oaks. Later in the season, red-shouldered hawks can be found in the woodlands, while field sparrows and bobolinks are drawn to the remnant prairies.

Hastings River Flats

This beautiful spot along the Mississippi in Hastings has a diversity of habitat, which brings a wide range of both resident and migratory birds. The floodplain forest at the park has hosted a nesting bald eagle pair for many years, and saw-whet owls have also been spotted nearby. Peregrine falcons and belted kingfishers nest on the bluffs across the river and can often be seen from the park. Lake Rebecca, on the west side, is a great spot to see waterfowl such as blue-winged teals, scaup and hooded mergansers, as well as green herons in the shallows. And the open wet prairies are a good spot to hear the bugling of sandhill cranes during their early spring migration.

Hampton Woods Wildlife Management Area

Though this site and the next aren't along the river, we had to include them. Hampton Woods (located in Hampton Township) is an equally lovely spot for spring wildflowers (bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, Virginia bluebells) and neotropical migrants, including multiple colorful warblers: the golden-winged, black and white, chestnut-sided and orange-crowned. Later in the year, you might see a yellow-bellied sapsucker, eastern wood pewee or scarlet tanager here.

Vermillion River Aquatic Management Area

This complex of nearly 450 acres along the Vermillion River, a tributary of the Mississippi in Dakota County, is the spot to go for solitude and a peaceful meander along a coldwater stream. The Vermillion attracts a number of wading birds such as great blue herons, sandpipers and osprey that are looking for small fish in the stream. In the willows that line its banks, northern shrikes and rose-breasted grosbeaks have been spotted in the early spring. Walking the grassland areas around the river, you will likely hear field sparrows in spots with some shrubby cover, and see eastern kingbirds perching on old fence posts. 

There are many access points to explore this AMA — you can find four parking areas along 200th Street in Empire Township. We recommend starting at the South Branch parking spot and trails where FMR has been restoring habitat since 2017.

Help protect our flyway

Want to help keep our local Mississippi River flyway healthy? Volunteer with us to steward habitat or become a member to support this vital work. You can also learn more about the many special places where FMR works throughout the Twin Cities region.

Explore all of our Conservation updates.

Upcoming Events

Tuesday, May 21, 2024 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Vermillion River Linear Park, Hastings
Thursday, May 23, 2024 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Riverside Park, St. Paul Park
Saturday, May 25, 2024 - 9:00am to 11:00am
Mississippi River Gorge Sand Flats, Minneapolis