I was first introduced to Blue Mounds when I was 6 or 7 years old; the family had stopped here en route to visit more family in Omaha, NE. This was probably the first time that I had seen real, live buffalo (the park is home to a fenced-off herd that grazes a large portion of prairie), and certainly the first time that I had walked across a prickly-pear cactus! Since then I’ve been back many times to enjoy the park’s approximately three square miles of tall-grass prairie outlined to its south and east by a stunning outcropping of Sioux quartzite that literally rises out of the surrounding land.
Today I find the the birds of Blue Mounds to be just as charismatic as its landscape. And to most Minnesota birders, Blue Mounds State Park means one thing: Blue Grosbeak. Indeed, this species can be found here more reliably and in greater numbers than at any other location in the state; in fact Blue Grosbeaks are generally rare and unexpected away from the extreme southwest corner of Minnesota. The grosbeaks seem to be quite fond of the shrubby borders between the prairie and the more wooded cliffside, and this is where I usually find them. Some years they tend to be more prevalent on the southern end of the park (especially in the vicinity of the many plum thickets), but I’ve recorded them throughout the park’s expanse in the habitat mentioned from late May through early August.
Yet the park also serves as a wooded oasis among miles and miles of agricultural and pastoral lands, and thus Blue Mounds provides prime breeding ground for several species in addition to an important stop for migratory songbirds. During the summer months, you’re guaranteed to find Bobolinks, Western Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Dickcissels galore among other expected grassland birds; species present in smaller numbers that you still have a decent chance of finding include Upland Sandpipers, Western Kingbirds, Swainson’s Hawks, and displaying (booming) Common Nighthawks. A hike through the park’s woods during the same season can turn up both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, and the man-made wetlands situated on the park’s north side attract breeding Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Belted Kingfishers, and Willow Flycatchers.
Migration is perhaps even more exciting than the breeding season at Blue Mounds. In spring and fall the park has attracted a long list of western strays more common in the Dakotas, including a Lazuli Bunting in 2003. Spotted Towhees have been found in the park’s woods during late April and May on several occasions; watch for this species especially along the wooded stream that runs north of the walk-in campground. Any warblers, vireos, and flycatchers migrating through Rock County are likely to make a pit stop at Blue Mounds, and although you’ll probably never run into any significant waves or fallouts you should be able to find a nice mix of several species throughout the park. The prairie itself attracts a large variety of migrant sparrows; even Le Conte’s Sparrows can be easily located by taking a walk through the park’s grasslands from late September to mid-October.
Bob’s birdlist from Blue Mounds State Park:
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Green Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow