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Linnaeus Arboretum, Nicollet County

The Linnaeus Arboretum, located on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, might not be on many birders’ radar in terms of a Minnesota birding hotspot. True, it’s a public garden space surrounded on all sides by human development, from large academic buildings to suburban houses and apartments to agricultural fields.

I would being doing the location a disservice, though, if I didn’t include it on my list of favorite birding areas. Having spent seven years at Gustavus (four as a student and three as arboretum naturalist), I’ve birded the arboretum on countless days at all times of the year and amassed a birdlist comprising 174 species — not bad at all for an area comprising 125 acres. Granted, the Linnaeus Arboretum boasts a variety of habitats; deciduous forest, coniferous woods, cattail wetlands, and even a 70-acre tall-grass prairie are all found in the arboretum in addition to the formal gardens and tree collections. Throughout my career at Gustavus, I’ve been privileged to showcase this landscape to thousands of visitors, and have led birding hikes for a vast number of groups of all ages and interests.

As Gustavus Adolphus College sits on top of the western ridge of the river valley, anywhere in the arboretum can be a good spot for viewing migrating birds as they follow the Minnesota River flyway in both spring and fall. Beginning in early to mid-March, Bald Eagles are common sights above the arboretum (and the rest of campus) as they follow the river north; other raptors — including Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures — join them by the third week of March. Goose flocks soon follow; and while Canada Geese are still the most commonly sighted, flocks of Greater White-fronted and Cackling Geese are annual sights as well (in addition to a flock or two of Tundra Swans). The last week in March is usually a good time to see hundreds (if not thousands) of migrating American Robins across campus; look for them (and Cedar Waxwings) feeding on residual crabapples in the arboretum. In early April, watch for returning Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Eastern Phoebes, and Eastern Bluebirds flitting around the scattered trees south and west of the Interpretive Center (this area attracted a singing Eastern Meadowlark that stuck around for a month in 2006), and by mid-April several sparrows begin showing up as American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and both Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets can be observed in the skies overhead. In late April, Brown Thrashers become nearly abundant in the arboretum as the birds forage across the lawns with Northern Flickers and the occasional Hermit Thrush.

The floodgates of spring open up in May, and migrating sparrows — including White-throated, Harris’s, and White-crowned — peak during the first week (look for them especially at the feeders behind the Interpretive Center). By mid-May you should be able to find a nice assortment of species throughout the arboretum; a walk along the wooded trails north of the Borgeson Cabin can produce a variety of warblers in addition to migrating flycatchers, thrushes, and other passerines. For some reason, the treeline between the woods to the east and the Coneflower Prairie to the west attracts a singing Lark Sparrow or two each May, as Indigo Buntings begin to show up in the same area toward the end of the month. Even the small wetlands have produced some interesting birds in May, including an American Bittern in 2006 and a calling Sora in both 2007 and 2010.

Fall migration can prove just as exciting, although as in other locations the return trip appears to be more gradual for most species instead of peaking within a single week; late August to mid-September is more or less the mirror image of mid- to late May for migrating songbirds in the arboretum. Particularly of interest in fall however is the Coneflower Prairie; similar to other prairies in southern Minnesota, this grassland holds its share of migrating sparrows in early to mid-October (including 19 Le Conte’s Sparrows observed in 2010 during the second week of October). In early November, check the coniferous woods west of the Jones Northern Forest Ponds for roosting owls; Great Horned, Barred, and Long-eared Owls were all present here for at least a few days at this time in 2010 (listen for the mobbing calls of Black-capped Chickadees and both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches to direct you to them).

I’ve also seen my share of rare birds in the Linnaeus Arboretum, in case the above still hasn’t convinced you to make a visit. These include: an adult Northern Goshawk flying over the arboretum in January 2005, a Golden Eagle flying over the Interpretive Center in October 2004, a White-eyed Vireo behind the Interpretive Center in November 2008, two Northern Mockingbirds four years apart from each other in almost the exact same location south of the Borgeson Cabin in 2005 and 2009, a breeding-plumaged male Smith’s Longspur in the Coneflower Prairie in April 2011, Red Crossbills in late October/early November in 2004 and 2006, a flock of up to 45 White-winged Crossbills during the winter invasion of 2008-2009, and a Hoary Redpoll at the feeders behind the Interpretive Center in March 2009.

Bob’s birdlist from the Linnaeus Arboretum:

Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Tundra Swan
Wood Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Wild Turkey
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
American White Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Northern Goshawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle
American Kestrel
Merlin
Peregrine Falcon
Sora
Killdeer
Solitary Sandpiper
Wilson’s Snipe
American Woodcock
Bonaparte’s Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Caspian Tern
Black Tern
Forster’s Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Long-eared Owl
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Northern Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Lapland Longspur
Smith’s Longspur
Snow Bunting
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson’s Warbler
Eastern Towhee
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Dickcissel
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Purple Finch
House Finch
Red Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill
Common Redpoll
Hoary Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow