Birding Minnesota by Canoe


Birding Minnesota by Canoe

By Rob Kesselring/Sue Plankis

Outdoor Writers

Excerpt from a birdwatching canoeist’s journal:

“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. We see a pair of Eastern Kingbirds lift off to attack the hawk. The hawk landed on the stump and worked its way to a branch where there was a nest.

The hawk ate, what looked like the young, hidden in the nest. The pair of Kingbirds continued to harass the raider 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. It reached in, took some of the nest material and

carried it off.

We guessed they knew. We turned the canoe back into the

current and continued downriver.”

Dramas like this are common along Minnesota’s 32 rivers

maintained by the Department of Natural Resources for recreational canoe travel. Because riparian habitats attract birds, canoeists who combine birding with paddling will be richly rewarded. 

The visibility provided by the open space above the river and the banks offers easier sightings of birds often hidden in forests.


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 many. 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, they might observe the bird slowly rotate, keeping 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 Day weekend, participants in our bird ecology class in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness 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 as many as 405 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 vicinities.


Getting Started

Easily-accessible public launches, maintained river routes, varied habitats and the

astonishing abundance of water make it easier to get started. 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 rooftops of cars. 

The best all-around tandem canoe for river, marsh and lake birding is a 16-17-foot canoe with a conservatively-shaped hull. Aluminum canoes are noisy and reflect flashes of light. 

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 a good 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. Becoming familiar

with songs of common birds is easier than ever using the newest computer technology.

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 “eguides” 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 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.

Rob Kesselring and Sue Plankis teach a bird ecology class in the Boundary

Waters Wilderness through the University of St. Thomas and

(Sue, this list is optional. Don’t run it if it means too tight.


Checklist for Birding by Canoe (for 2)

16-17 foot Royalex Canoe

PFDs for all travelers

three paddles


Bird Field Guide

Map of the area

Water bottles

Rain gear

Extra clothes in a waterproof container

Bailer and sponge


Bug juice



Journal and pen (optional)

GPS (optional)

Picnic lunch (why not?)



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