This article reviews 3 topics: 1) why the Garden is a great birding habitat; 2) information of current birding experiences in the Garden and 3) historical notes about birds during the first 70 years of the Garden's history.
The Garden has always been a birder's paradise so close to downtown Minneapolis. Eloise Butler, the Garden's first curator made notes about birds in her Garden Log every year from 1907 to 1932. In addition, some of the essays she wrote that were not published in her lifetime contained stories about birds. She wrote in 1914:
"A Large number of birds nest in the garden, and during the season most of the migrants reported from the state have been noted in the Garden. The tangled vine coverts, abundance of food and water, and protection from sportsmen have made the place a favorite of the birds. Song, vesper and swamp sparrows, catbird, bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, brown thrasher, bobolink, marsh wren, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting hold matins and vespers in the leafy aisles along the brook, while those of brilliant plumage, together with goldfinch, Maryland yellow-throated hummingbird gleam like jewels in the foliage or as they dart through the air." From Animal, Bird, and Insect Life in the Wild Garden. From “Animal, Bird and Insect Life in the Wild Garden”. Read some of her notes below.
The Botany Teachers of the Minneapolis School System were responsible for the formation of the Garden - to protect one of the few remaining wild areas for future use for the their botany classes and nature study. There were other notables from the University of Minnesota that used the Garden for similar classes and for birding. Both Eloise and Martha Crone frequently made notes of visits by Dr. Roberts, Dr. Kilgore and Dr. Breckinridge with their classes. Dr. Thomas S. Roberts was the author of Birds of Minnesota. In 1934 he donated a set of color plates from his 2-volume book to the Garden to be displayed in the office. The Roberts Bird Sanctuary at Lake Harriet is named for him. Dr. Walter J. Breckenridge was Director of the University of Minnesota Natural History Museum.
Naturalist Tammy Mercer has written a series of short essays about birding at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary. These essays were published in The Friends newsletter The Fringed Gentian™ over a period of years. We hi-lite them here.
Why is the Garden such a good place for birding? Read what Tammy Mercer wrote in “A Great Place for Birding.” During bird migration, the Garden makes a safe rest stop as Tammy describes in “A Rest-stop for Weary Travelers.”
One migration where the Garden fills a niche is the warbler migration. Here she writes about “So Many Warblers - So Little Time” (pdf file). Once Spring migration is over, we have the Summer Birds, in “Rewards of Summer Birding” and then the young birds "Baby Songbirds have hard-working parents."(pdf file) For those interested in the birding walks at the Garden, Tammy provides an outline of what goes on in “Early Birders Catch the Wonders”.
John Toren explains in English the calls of 10 common Summer birds found in the Garden. (pdf file)
Birding checklist: You can pick up a copy of the checklist at the Martha Crone Vistors Shelter in the Garden. It lists all the birds that have been seen in the Garden. There is a current events board in the shelter noting the most recent sightings.
July 7 1913: “Red shouldered hawk fledgling standing on limb outside it’s nest.” She had noted back on May 29th that “A red shouldered hawk nesting on ash tree west border of swamp.”
1915: On August 8 Dr. Thomas Roberts found a Ruffled Grouse in the swamp. On August 28 Eloise Wrote “All sorts of birds by [the] spring this morning, humming birds, redstarts, house wrens, yellow breasted vireos, catbirds, sparrows, etc. Humming birds chased the white-crowned sparrow. When the humming birds fly, their wings vibrate so rapidly that they look like gauze”
May 1916 letter to the Gray Memorial Botanical Chapter of the Agassiz Association: “Discovered a shapeless mass of damp earth and moss on the top of a wren birdhouse set under the eaves of my office. It looked as if some sportive youth had flung it there. A few hours after it had taken a more definite shape, and I saw that is was the work of Mistress Phoebe. Will war be declared if the wrens take possession below?”
1917: “The first of June, as I was clearing away the dead stalks of perennials near the edge of my swamp, I flushed a bird that I had only seen in pictures or as stuffed specimens in museums. It made a short, low flight and fluttered feebly to the ground as if it were wounded unto death. As I followed it, the bird repeated the feint several times, sometimes running for a little distance and peeking out at me from behind a bush with one bright eye. Of course, I understood that the bird was trying to lure me away from her nest and I recognized from the long bill and bobbed tail that is was a woodcock. The next day I found her in the swamp with three little ones.” From “1917 Birdbath Acquisition”.
June 3 1917: “A young grosbeak just out of the nest came directly to me in the swamp and huddled under my skirt.” Garden Log.
“My phoebe who raised two broods last year in a nest that she built over a wren box under the eaves of my office, returned this season and is now feeding her second brood.” from 1917- A New Birdbath.
The new bird bath was busy during the summer. On July 25 1917 she wrote “Saw crow standing in bird bath. Shortly after 5pm saw as many as thirty birds taking their turn in the bath. Often 6 at once.” Garden Log.
1922: July 1: “Noted Virginia rail and three downy black young probing for worms in the brook shallows. They were like hen and chicks together.”
July 5: “Set free a young sparrow hawk in the garden. It was caught in Mr. Babcock’s yard a fortnight ago and placed in a canary cage. It was fed on meat. It became quite tame and would perch on one’s finger like a parrot.”
1924: May 7: “Noted Whip-poor-will near west path. Has been heard for two weeks.”
May 19: “noted pheasant’s nest on west hillside with 10 eggs.”
June 4: “yellow-headed blackbird’s nest with 4 small eggs, one small, probably cowbird’s egg.”
14 June: “Noted exquisite nest of American Goldfinch in showy lady slipper meadow four eggs in it.” All from Garden Log.
1931: June 1: “On the plateau, north of the office and near a small hawthorn started up a pheasant. Her nest had eleven eggs, one of which had rolled off a little distance from the others. Noted among the cat-tails five nests of red-winged blackbirds. One nest had four eggs -- beautiful blue, scrawled with dark purple Runic inscriptions.”
Owls are getting special treatment here as so many people are interested in them. Here are some of Eloise Butler's sightings:
1908: Nov. 28: “noted three blue jays chasing a Barred Owl out of the Garden.”
1916: Oct. 26: ( Last note of 1916) “Noted in garden a small hawk and great horned owl.”
1917: April 1: “a large gray western great horned owl was captured in the vicinity of the Garden.”
1921: May 20: “Noted this Spring long-eared Owl.”
Sept 18: “Saw on Monarch short-eared owl.” ['Monarch' was the largest White Oak in Minneapolis.]
1924: April 13: “Noted screech owl perched in a young hemlock tree north of the tarvia road. Sat motionless for a long time, and permitted near approach.”
Martha Crone, Eloise's successor, was the most avid birder of all the Garden Curators. Almost every year's log had notes about the arrival and departure of warblers and hummingbirds; about what was nesting; about rare finds.
Martha had a friend, Lulu May Aler, who visited the Garden often to maintain a bird feeding table at the back gate. She is mentioned often in Martha's Garden Log and in her diaries. Here is what Friends member J. S. Futcher wrote about her in 2004:
Outside the back gate, fenced separately, was a large, open, old bird-feeding table. I became acquainted with the lady who for many years maintained that feeder, a Ms. Lulu May Aler. During the 1950-51 feeding season Ms. Aler told me she was getting too old to continue this volunteer task next season. Would I happen to know of anyone who could take over for her? Well, it just so happened that I did. There were four boys in the Minneapolis Bird Club who lived in the Homewood district not too far from the Garden. Yes, they eagerly took on that job. Eventually the Minneapolis Bird Club, now called the Audubon Society of Minneapolis, took over from the boys. I received a thank-you Christmas card from Ms. Aler that year which showed a photo of the feeding table taken in about 1936.
Below: The bird feeding station at the back of the Garden in 1936. The little structure in the center is a storage shed.
1934: April 9: “Woodcock in woods near swamp west of Mallard Pool.”
May 1: “Blue Bird started nesting in house east of the office, after a number of attempts to dislodge the Chickadees in house west of the office.”
May 3: “Saw nest of Killdeer on east slope of Birch Pond, contained 2 eggs and the shell of 1 nearby taken no doubt by gophers.”
June 9: “6 Chickadees left the nest this morning. Crested Flycatcher building in front of office in the Squirrels house.”
June 17: “Found nest of containing young of Green Heron, mother bird flew short distance in Tamarack on north boundary of lower enclosure.”
1937: She recorded the fledging of five bluebirds on July 2 from their nest west of the office. She noted there was only 15 minutes between the first and last leaving the nest and all flew perfectly. By August 15 she was recording warblers showing up for their migration.
1938: The blue bird was building a nest just west of the office.
In June Martha recorded a male hummingbird doing the “pendulum swing” courtship ritual over several days for a female right near the office. This is an aerial dance where the male bird moves in an arc in front of the female, wings buzzing, to show off his control. She would see this again later in the summer.
Back in May the Bluebirds west of the office were feeding their young. On June 8 the young left the nest and on June 27 the adults were building a nest for a second brood. By July 18 they were incubating a second brood which left the nest on Aug. 3. In the mean time the Wood thrushes hatched a brood on June 18. On June 13 she noted a Black-billed Cuckoo. By early August she noticed the first migrants coming through and at the end of August the warblers started arriving.
1939: May 28: “Reserve filled with bird song such as Oriole, Red-breasted Grosbeak, Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Crested Fly-catcher, Veery, and Cuckoo. Followed two Connecticut warblers about for some time, they were singing their beecher, beecher, beecher, be song, somewhat like an Oven bird yet on one level instead of ascending. Hummingbird performed the pendulum swing.” [The 'Reserve' was a term used by Eloise, Martha, and Ken Avery to refer to the Garden - the Native Plant Reserve - even though the Garden had been officially renamed the Eloise Butler Wild Flower Garden in 1929.]
June 4: “Mrs. Ure [a birder] found a pair of Blue-gray Gantcatchers building a nest in a white oak tree on hill near SW corner of Reserve, about 20 feet from ground, beautifully constructed similar to a Humming-birds nest, but a little larger and thicker.” She noted those birds are very rare here. On July 2nd a Mr. Yelick came in and took down the nest after the young had fledged and sent it to Dr. Roberts at the University.
1941: April 17: “Discovered nest of the Hairy Woodpecker freshly made in white oak tree south of upper gate. A shelf mushroom forms a lovely canope [sic - canopy] over the entrance. Very cleverly chosen.”
June 3: “Chickadee pair inspecting the unpainted cheese box house east of office.”
June 5: “At noon the Chickadees started to build in the house. Both very busy.”
June 8: “Chickadees still come to the bird house every day.”
June 14: “No sign of the Chickadees since a week ago yesterday, so proceeded to open the box to check against Cowbird intrusion, when out flew the female Chickadee, no doubt she is incubating. Later both were noted, he feeding her, a rare performance.”
July 8: “Chickadees still feeding, the young clamoring loudly. Young Chickadees come begging for food, but receive none. Apparently they are of the first brood.”
July 16: “Chickadees left the house this morning before I arrived, The adults came back several times as tho making sure that all were out.”
1942: April 28: A Mr. Milton Thompson was in the Garden and “collected” a male Cooper’s Hawk, but couldn’t get the female. Mrs. Crone had asked him to come in and get it as she was afraid of losing all of her song birds. On the 30th there was a thunderstorm, very quiet in the Garden and Mr. Whitney Eastman left a card saying “they had collected the female hawk and found 2 eggs in the nest, thereby establishing an early record for the State.”
May 19: “A red letter day.” This was record breaking birding. She listed 44 species of birds that day including 19 different warblers.
May 20: Miss Aler records 86 species including 22 warblers, all eating canker worms which were terrible that year, eating all the leaves off the trees.
During May and June the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was sighting once again nesting near Birch Pond - between the Garden parking lot and the pond. Miss Aler found the nest in a White Oak. After the first brood in May, they made another nest.
1943: May 30: “Many birds noted, also a most unusual find, a “western tanager” discovered by Mr. Whitney Eastman, south of upper gate just west of deep hole. We observed it a long while. It was traveling with a number of scarlet tanagers.”
1947: Sept 14: Pileated woodpecker was working on the Oak tree on path to north of office.
1949: June 9: Pileated woodpecker is nesting in basswood tree near east path.
1955: “Among the birds nesting in the Wild Flower Garden this year are- Indigo Bunting, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Catbird, Robin,
Brown Thrasher, House Wren, Blue Jay, Wood Pewee, Phoebe, Crested Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Flicker, Ruby-throated Humrningbird, Barred Owl, Broad-winged Hawk, Ring-necked Pheasant, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Northern Yellow-throat, Baltimore Oriole, Cardinal, Field Sparrow and Goldfinch.
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was again seen adjacent to the garden where it nested some years ago. It had not been noted in this locality for many years.” [July -The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 3 No. 3]
Back issues of The Fringed Gentian™ can be accessed via our Newsletter Archive.
Ken Avery succeeded Martha Crone in 1959 and since birding was so important at the Garden he took a class at the University of Minnesota to learn more. After that he frequently carried binoculars with him for sightings. He was particularly interested in birds that were infrequent visitors - particularly owls and piliated woodpeckers about which he reported often.
In 2005 the Friends sponsored the funding of the Ken Avery Birding Terrace in the Wildflower Garden in honor of the Garden's 3rd caretaker. It was dedicated on Father’s Day, June 19th, 2005. The terrace is elevated above the wetland area of the Garden, situated half way between the Upland and Woodland Gardens. Photo below. More details here.
The following selected quotes are all about the owls and the pilated woodpecker. All were originally published in The Friends newsletter The Fringed Gentian™.
Vol 21 No.1 Jan 1973: “One old friend that gave me a fright last year is back, however, and seems to be ready to stay - our Great Horned Owl. Last year I saw him a few times in late fall and then not one more time all winter. I was afraid the greatly expanded winter use of the area all might have but he discouraged this shy bird and that he had secured more remote lodgings, but he is back as usual this winter.”
“Another is bird the which I have seen with some regularity this fall is the Pileated Woodpecker. This spectacular bird used to be one of our valued residents but for close to ten years now none have made their home here in the Sanctuary. We have seen them every year but only at widely spaced intervals. We have continued to hope that one (and preferably two) will make our Sanctuary their sanctuary. The bird which I have seen this fall has remained in the area much longer than any have for the last few years so I remain an optimist.”
“I should also report that the Saw-whet Owl, a bird that is not at all common in this area, showed himself to me at the spring about a week before Christmas. I have seen the species in the Sanctuary once before about nineteen months ago when one was seen in a white pine by the front gate at about five-thirty one afternoon and it was at the same place at the same time again the next day. I went back time and again to see if this were this were his schedule but I did not see one again until this December.”
Vol. 22 No 2 April 1974: “This last February I saw a Saw-whet Owl. This is the third time I have seen one. It is a little earless owl about 7 inches long (a Blue Jay is 10 inches long) and is supposed to be a very common bird. However, most people have never seen one. I saw my first Saw-whet two years ago in April. A Birder, who had come in often, told me that she had seen one a few days earlier and when she pointed to where it had been, there it was. I thought that it might have a routine that brought it there each day at that time so I looked for it every day for a few weeks but I never saw it again that year.
The next one I saw was at the spring north of the Garden. It was in December a year ago. I was walking from the spring to the parking lot when a bird flew across the road into a cedar a few feet from me. I stepped over and ten feet above me was a little owl. The next one was at almost the same place this last February. I had just parked the truck at the spring and was walking away when a Blue Jay started making an awful fuss in tile cedars and then two birds flew across the road--it was a Blue Jay chasing an owl about its size.”
“I also have some other owl news from last year. The Great Horned Owl has wintered in the Garden many years, more than I nave been there, and we have assumed that they nested in that area--they nest in February. I had even seen two of them making overtures, but until last summer we had never seen the nest or their young. Last Spring someone reported that they had seen a young owl in the wild area west of Birch Pond. We found one of the young and a few days later found a second one. They both disappeared, but then I saw one in the fall fully grown. Now I have a second-hand report of the owl nesting in the park again, but I have not seen it personally.”
Vol. 23 No 2 April 1975: “Another thing that is happening is that the Great Horned Owl is busy having a family again. This may seem like a strange time to be sitting on a clutch of eggs but it is the time that the Great Horned Owl picks. I would think it would be a little uncomfortable, and I must say when I saw her half covered with snow she didn't have a terribly happy expression on her face; but she has no one to blame but herself.
This is the third year in a row that we have been aware of the owl nesting in the area. I have no way of knowing if one nested there for the last 20 years, but since we have found it for the last three years and never did before, I wonder if during those high D.D.T. years they did manage to nest or if we simply managed to miss it. You know that the eagles have been having better nesting success these last few years since the D.D.T. has become less prevalent in the environment.”
Vol. 24 No 2 April 1976: “Two weeks ago I saw two Pileated Woodpeckers flying over Theodore Wirth Lake, This was a most welcome sight, When I first started at the Garden in 1954, the Pileated was a permanent resident and while not a year has passed without our seeing one, they have all been casual visitors for the last fifteen years. I hope that seeing two of them means that they are living here again.”
Vol. 25 No 2 April 1977: “Well, Spring is here. I know she is because she is in bloom (in the form of Snow Trillium) down under the hemlocks by the back gate. However, on Sunday (April 3) I saw The Owl and The Owl is our bird of winter. As long as I have been here, the Great Horned Owl has spent the winter in the vicinity of the Garden and would disappear shortly after we opened and people began to arrive, and then would reappear again in the fall as the people became less evident. I assume that the owl which I saw fly over - chased by three crows - was our owl (a Great Horned Owl), but last winter I did see a Great Gray Owl here in the Garden and they are approximately the same size so I could be wrong, Two other birds I have been seeing lately are a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. They have been here for over a year now so I guess we can start calling them "Our" Pileateds. I haven't seen any spring birds yet and even a Goldfinch that I saw was still quite drab.”
Back issues of The Fringed Gentian™ can be accessed via our Newsletter Archive.
The Great Horned Owls are still around. In 2014 a Great Horned Owl got in trouble and was rescued before more adversity struck. Thanks to a well-mannered dog named Jax and his watchful owner Al Jueneman, this raptor flew again after being fixed up at the Raptor Center. Read the story here.