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Blane Klemek: The first highway birding trail in nation goes right through Detroit Lakes

Over 200 miles in length with 51 sites to view birds. These sites offer some of the most spectacular birding in the state, along with scenic beauty and friendly communities.

Diving chickens
Prairie chickens divebomb, flutter dance and strut during their spring rituals. These were on the Blue Stem Prairie Preserve southeast of Glyndon. It’s a dramatic performance. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)

While touring northwest Minnesota recently and driving mostly on roadways that make up the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail, I was reminded once again about the amazing diversity that we enjoy here in Minnesota — the landscape and wildlife.

Traveling the primary highway corridors of the trail, which includes U.S. highways 75 and 59 as well as state highways 32 and 11, I stopped at a few of the trail’s birding spots that are identified on the trail map — Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Roseau River Wildlife Management Area, and Warroad Point Park and Warroad Marina Bird Trail, to name some.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl.jpg
This Northern Saw-whet Owl is one of several fine-feathered ambassadors for the Bemidji-based Nature Connection, a nonprofit organization focused on wildlife education. (Submitted photo)

This treasure of a trail, the first such highway birding trail in the nation, is full of gems. Birding sites are everywhere and many places in between. The trail’s website informs birders that it’s, “...over 200 miles in length with 51 sites to view birds. These sites offer some of the most spectacular birding in the state, along with scenic beauty and friendly communities.”


Indeed, the many cities and small towns along the way are worth the adventure alone — from Fergus Falls to Red Lake Falls to Thief River Falls; and further north to Lake Bronson to Roseau to Warroad, your time on the trail will lead you to these places, too.

The Pine to Prairie Birding Trail became known as an “international” birding trail in May of 2009, when the trail was extended an additional 300 miles north into Manitoba, Canada.

Henceforth, the trail’s name became the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail. The Manitoba portion of the trail has 24 sites to view birds and other wildlife. One of these days I hope to tour this segment of the trail.

The trail’s website lists several “lifers,” which of course means species of birds that people can add to their birding “life lists.” And for certain, there are plenty of species that, depending on the time of year, are uncommon or difficult to encounter or observe.

According to the website, some of these unique species include, “...chestnut-collared longspur, northern goshawk, ruffed grouse, greater prairie chicken, yellow rail, American woodcock, snowy owl, northern hawk owl, great gray owl, three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadee; bay-breasted, Connecticut, mourning and golden-winged warblers; red and white-winged crossbills; and pine and evening Grosbeaks,” and really, so much more.
For example, healthy populations of greater prairie chickens exist not far from Detroit Lakes. Just west of Highway 32 and the village of Syre is a large complex of prairie grasslands, mostly comprised of state wildlife management areas with some adjacent land owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. This complex of contiguous grasslands is managed specifically for prairie chickens.

Just a week ago, I visited this site and took part in a formal dedication of a new tract of land of over 900 acres that was acquired and added to this critical network of public land.

Part of the Cupido Wildlife Management Area, the parcel will provide important food, water, shelter, and space for prairie chickens and other open landscape dependent species of wildlife.

I also visited Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area this past week, which is another popular birding area identified on the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail. Though Thief Lake is two feet lower than it normally would be this time of year, birding should be phenomenal this fall when migrant shorebirds begin utilizing the extensive mudflats exposed by the drought.


Waterfowl abundance is high right now, and numbers should only grow as migrant ducks, geese, and swans stop on the lake to feed and rest.

Near Crookston, the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, another of the 51 birding sites on the trail, is replete with both wetland and open landscape dependent species of wild birds. This area was subject to a massive wildland fire this past spring, but as a result, the fire effects were beneficial in countless ways — all of which improves habitat for a vast array of birds.

Viewing wildlife, particularly wild birds, is something many of us have turned to during these past many months for respite and peace of mind. As such, the great outdoors has seemingly been rediscovered. Having places to go, especially places all mapped out such as the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail where wildlife is plentiful, the landscape is beautiful, and the townspeople are welcoming, is what it’s all about, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(For information about the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail visit: https://mnbirdtrail.com/ )

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