Birding Minnesota by Canoe

Down the Rivers

Excerpt from the journal of a birdwatching canoeist:

“As we drifted down the Cannon River, a Cooper’s Hawk glided over our canoe toward a stump in the middle of a boggy backwater stretch of the river. We paddled the canoe into the quiet water in time to observe a pair of Eastern Kingbirds lift off and start attacking the hawk. The hawk landed on the stump and worked its way to a branch where there was a nest.

For the next several minutes, the hawk ate, what we assumed were the young, hidden in the nest. The pair of Kingbirds continued to harass the raider but without effect. When the Cooper’s hawk was done, it ruffled its feathers and took off to the oak woods with the chasing Kingbirds at its tail.

What were the Kingbirds going to do? Did they realize what just happened?

The pair returned to the dead branches surrounding the stump. One started to preen in a frantic kind of way and the other sat and fluffed. Then one lit at the edge of the nest and seemed to peer in. The Kingbird then reached in, took some of the nest material and carried it off. It did this four times, flying in various directions, each time its mate followed.

Yes, we guessed they knew. We turned the canoe back into the current and continued downriver.”

Poignant and compelling dramas such as this are common along the 32 Minnesota river routes, which the DNR maintains for recreational canoe travel. Because riparian habitats attract birds, canoeists who combine birding with paddling will be richly rewarded. By drifting with the current, canoeists can silently move downriver without alarming birds. The visibility provided by the open space above the river and the banks scoured clear by spring runoff are unlike what is experienced on a forest trail where birds hidden by the foliage are often heard, but less frequently observed.

In the Marsh

Minnesota is blessed with thousands of acres of wetlands. Much of it is protected in state wildlife management areas which are open to the public. Mucky marsh bottoms, which would bottom-out a motor boat and suck the boots right off a hiker’s feet can be paddled over with ease in a canoe that only draws a few inches. Bird watching opportunities for these bog and swamp adventurers are myriad. Moving quietly through the marshy environments, canoeists may encounter an American Bittern. When alarmed the Bittern’s instinct is not to flush but rather to hide by freezing with its long brown-streaked neck stretched up and its bill pointing skyward pretending to look like a stand of cattails. If paddlers pass askew and close, but not too close, they might observe the bird slowly rotate to keep its camouflaged facing profile toward the benign intruders. When birding in the swamps, canoeists will want to bring fresh drinking water, bug repellant, and either a compass or a GPS. Surrounded by grasses and cattails it is possible to become disoriented in wetlands and finding a route back out to the parking lot can be challenging.

On the Lakes

Countless lakes in Minnesota provide free launching access to canoeists. This makes it easy to explore miles of shoreline which are home to waterfowl but also attract other species such as songbirds and raptors. On a Memorial Weekend bird ecology class in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness participants paddled past a stand of forest fire killed spruce. One of the students loudly whispered, “There’s a woodpecker!” Everyone turned to look and soon spied a Black-backed Woodpecker. It is an uncommonly seen species and seldom found south of the boreal forest making the sighting especially exciting for the students who keep a “life list”. Avid birders keep track of species they have observed in the wild. A “life list” adds excitement to their bird quest making it akin to a treasure hunt. Accomplished birders have spotted over 400 different species in Minnesota alone. Being in canoes allowed the group to silently drift and to watch the bird flake off the dead spruce bark in its search for insects. Rather than seeing a fleeting glimpse of fluttering wings, birding by canoe enabled the group to not only identify the bird but to also observe its distinctive food gathering behaviors. Another lesson learned in the bird ecology class was to first study the birds that would be most likely encountered in the habitats being traversed. Many of parks’ websites have sidebars with lists of birds seen in their vicinity.

Getting Started

Easily accessible public launches, maintained river routes, varied habitats and the astonishing abundance of water makes it easier to get started at this activity in Minnesota than anywhere else. Many river routes have private canoe liveries that rent canoes and arrange low cost shuttles. Canoes can also be rented on lakes or from outfitters and transported to lakes or marshes on the rooftop of cars. The best all-around tandem canoe for river, marsh and lake birding is a 16-17 foot Kevlar, Royalex or ABS canoe with a conservative shaped hull. Aluminum canoes are also okay but they tend to be noisy and reflect flashes of light, both of which can spook birds. Anyone can learn a few basic paddle strokes and get started birding almost immediately. However, some time spent practicing will result in a more satisfying and enjoyable outing. Although most Minnesota rivers are slow moving and easy to navigate, paddlers should always be cautious, especially during the high waters of spring run-off. Properly fitted life jackets (PFDs) should be worn and a spare set of clothes should be carried in a “dry bag”. Paddles with broad blades and a protected edge make sense in rivers and marshes where pushing off the bottom is often necessary. It is also wise to carry a spare paddle in the event one is lost or damaged.

A good bird guide is essential. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America is an excellent Minnesota choice though several other good field guides are available. As important as the guide is a pair of 8 x 42 (or similar) binoculars. Whenever canoeing it is best to “be prepared to get wet” so either waterproof binoculars or inexpensive binoculars are recommended. There are binocular straps available that are more like a shoulder harness as opposed to the traditional neck strap and are more enjoyable for paddling.

Even on rivers and lakes, birds are often heard before being seen. Using the newest computer technology, becoming familiar with songs of common birds is easier than ever. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds presents photos, sounds and life history of any North American bird. It is found at The use of Apps is becoming very popular with birders. Several bird “e-guides” with photos and sounds are now available for handheld devices. iBird and Sibley’s eGuide to the Birds of North America are two compact and portable products that make learning about birds multi-sensory and interactive.

The most important part about birding by canoe is to get out on the water. You will see a lot more birds through dime store binoculars from a leaky old canoe than you will see sitting on the couch wishing you could afford a Kevlar canoe and German optics. A list of DNR maintained Minnesota rivers, water levels, lake access points and wildlife management areas is available on the DNR website: A large scale road atlas such as the DeLorme Minnesota Atlas & Gazetteer is also helpful for seeking out suitable spots to start birding by canoe.

Checklist for Birding by Canoe (for 2)

  • 16-17 foot Canoe
  • PFDs for all travelers
  • 3 paddles
  • Binoculars
  • Bird Field Guide
  • Map of the area
  • Water bottles
  • Rain gear
  • Extra clothes in a waterproof container
  • Bailer and sponge
  • Whistle
  • Bug juice
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Journal and pen (optional)
  • GPS (optional)
  • Picnic lunch (why not?)

For ten years, I co-led a bird ecology class every spring in the Boundary Waters Wilderness through the University of St. Thomas and Uncommon Seminars LLC. It was always a fun and learning experience. The more you know the flora and fauna of the land the more you will enjoy and be inspired by your travels there.

Black-throated Green Warbler on Sawbill Lake BWCAW

Birding in Dakota County

White Throated Sparrow on Gunflint Trail

White Pelicans at Lake of the Woods

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.