A Twin Cities Green Big Year

Like many others, our extended family started having regular Zoom gatherings during the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic. Before Covid, we’d never had a group call of any type, but suddenly our four households in St. Paul, Jersey City, Baltimore and the Gulf Coast of Florida were spending an hour together on Zoom every Sunday. On the days in between, new group texts filled in the gaps on how everyone was doing.

Early in 2021, in between attempts at Zoom charades and Jeopardy, we added a new off-line group activity. One of our sons and several others in our extended family are very interested in birds, and in reading about birding opportunities in the Twin Cities I came across the website of a Minneapolis-based birding guide, Gregg Severson, who wrote about his recent “green big year.” A “big year” in birding—as depicted in the 2011 comedy of the same name—is a challenge to see as many different bird species as possible in a given year, usually on a national or some geographic basis. Gregg’s green big year, as his website explained, was a big year consisting only of birds viewed on outings from his home by foot, bike or canoe. Gregg reported that in 2019 he saw 238 different species in his green big year, which is over half of the 400+ birds that have been sighted in Minnesota. That seemed pretty incredible to me.

I mentioned the green big year on the next Zoom call and everyone quickly decided it would be fun to have a contest to see how many birds we could see in our various locations. (Our family always enjoys a little competition…). Canoeing really isn’t an option for most of us, so we decided to replace that mode with public transportation.

We fairly quickly discovered that our potential success in the competition would have a lot to do with our locations. Florida has a great diversity of bird species, but my parents’ community there lacks public transportation and my mother, the birder in that household, doesn’t ride a bike. (My father does a lot of biking but couldn’t be counted on to pay too much attention to the fine distinctions among the various species…). So, Mom’s potential green big year would consist of the birds that visited the feeders and ponds within walking distance of her house.

A Barred Owl at Reservoir Woods. Photo by author.

The birding opportunities for our niece, a student in Baltimore, also weren’t the best, although she took the best picture of the year—of a Barred Owl perched on her fire escape.

My brother and sister-in-law, serious birders who travel to far-flung destinations to see birds, had the best set up. Not only is there a light rail stop in front of their apartment building and thus easy connection to the entire New York City transit system and beyond, they are also within walking distance of Liberty State Park, which we would come to learn is a “hot spot” for migrating birds.

Our situation here in St. Paul was also pretty advantageous. The Mississippi flyway brings countless birds through our area during the spring and fall migrations and several good birding destinations are easily reached by bike or transit, including the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge and the many parks and trails along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and St. Paul. As it turned out, however, Metro Transit remained under “essential trips only” restrictions until well after the spring migration, which is the best time to identify lots of different birds. (The migrants pass through again in the fall, but without the bright plumage of mating season that makes them easier for novices like me to identify.)

This meant that our birding outings were mostly limited to places we could reach on foot or by bike. And since we like to take our dog, Banjo, along whenever we can, this meant biking destinations that could be reached in the amount of time he tolerates rides in the trailer, which seems to be about five miles each way. We found that the best destinations easily reached from our house were Nicollet Island, the trails in the Mississippi River Gorge, and Reservoir Woods in Roseville.

Banjo. Photo by author.

Once we’d spotted all of the most common birds on walks around our neighborhood, a successful outing might turn up three to five3-5 new birds. That was the case one day in May on Nicollet Island, for example, when we saw a Great Blue Heron, a Double-crested Cormorant, a Turkey Vulture, a White-throated Sparrow, a Chipping Sparrow, and a Bald Eagle.

In the end, none of us came close to Gregg Severson’s feat. My brother and sister-in-law in Jersey City topped the list at 156 species, and our younger son, the birder, was our family’s champ, at 68 species. He was most excited about a Merlin we spotted in our alley and a Shoveler he saw at Reservoir Woods.

Merlin. Image by William Barrow via Flickr.

One of the most surprising parts of the experience for me was discovering just how much you can see when you get in the habit of looking up when out and about in the neighborhood. For example, I would have previously never believed how many owls you can observe in the middle of the day, in the middle of the city. Over the course of the year, we saw Great Horned, Barred, Long-eared and Eastern Screech Owls, all perched in trees in full daylight.

These days we don’t manage to fit in the weekly Zoom calls anymore, but we have just begun Green Big Year: Round 2. We’ll see if access to the bus and rail will help us top our count from last year. Too bad dogs still aren’t allowed on transit!

p.s. For anyone interested in the different species the casual watcher might see in Minneapolis and St. Paul, here’s my green big year list:

Black-capped ChickadeeNorthern Shoveler White-throated Sparrow
CardinalHerring GullChipping Sparrow
American CrowTurkeyBald Eagle
American RobinKilldeer Chimney Swift
Downy WoodpeckerMourning DoveCatbird
American Goldfinch Fox SparrowBrown-headed Cowbird
European StarlingSong Sparrow Red-tailed Hawk
White-breasted NuthatchWood DuckYellow Warbler
House FinchGreat Horned OwlBaltimore Oriole
House SparrowCooper’s HawkAmerican Redstart
Dark-eyed JuncoBrown CreeperHouse Wren
Blue JayPalm WarblerCommon Nighthawk
Red-bellied Woodpecker Rock DoveGreat Crested Flycatcher
Northern FlickerYellow-rumped WarblerRuby-throated Hummingbird
MallardRuby-crowned KingletCedar Waxwing
Canada GooseGreat Blue HeronMerlin
Pileated Woodpecker Double-crested Cormorant Common Loon
Eastern Screech OwlTurkey VultureBarn Swallow
Red-winged BlackbirdCommon GrackleEastern Kingbird
Hairy Woodpecker Great EgretGreen Heron

About Mark Thieroff

Mark is a land use attorney in Minneapolis. He and his spouse and two sons live, shop, bike and walk their beagle in St. Paul. Twitter: @markthieroff