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A western Minnesota birding get-together returns

After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, birders return for the Salt Lake Birding Weekend, which began 48 years ago

Salt Lake Birder Weekend 4.29.2023 birderday27.jpg
After a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, birders returned for the Salt Lake Birder Weekend in western Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties on April 28-30, 2023. They continued a tradition begun 48 years ago. The birders recorded 139 species of birds, according to organizers.
Contributed / John White

MARIETTA — After a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, birders returned to western Minnesota for the annual Salt Lake Birding Weekend .

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The April 28-30 outing continued a tradition begun 48 years ago. True to that tradition, the majority of the birders who explored the landscape of western Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties traveled from the Twin Cities and northern Minnesota, easily putting on 100-plus miles for this spring treat.

Yet they were easily outdone by the migrating birds. Some of the shorebird species the birders scoped out traveled all the way from Argentina. Salt Lake in western Lac qui Parle County is but the halfway point in their journey to nesting grounds above the Arctic Circle.

Jason Frank, of Ortonville, who organized last weekend’s outing, said it was one of the most successful counts in the event’s history. The birders identified 139 species of migrating birds. That’s despite the late spring. Frank said many species have yet to reach western Minnesota. He expects great birding in the week ahead as well.

White-faced Ibis 4.29.2023 birderday23.jpg
Three white-faced ibis are captured in flight during the Salt Lake Birding Weekend on April 29, 2023.
Contributed / John White

The highlight of this year’s outing was the spotting of 66 white-faced ibis in one location; they were congregated near a roosting site a few miles east of Marietta. It’s not uncommon to see white-faced ibis on this migration route, according to Steve Weston, an avid birder from Eagan. But they generally are spotted one, two or three at a time, and rarely in such a large gathering, he told the West Central Tribune.


Other highlights this year included the spotting of a short-eared owl, an American pipet and a black-crowned night heron, according to Frank. He reported that there were also great concentrations of migrant sparrows, five grebe species, and a black-necked stilt.

Perhaps the biggest highlight was this: Frank and Weston estimate that more than one-half of the birders were participating in this event for the first time. Most of the birders were new to birding itself, they said. “Fantastic,” said Weston.

There were 85 registered participants, but the event is casual and the actual number of birders is larger, explained Weston. Many birders come on their own and don’t necessarily participate in the tradition of joining for the breakfast and lunch get-togethers hosted in Marietta by the American Legion and other civic groups on Saturday and the supper that evening hosted by the Sons of Norway Lodge in Madison.

He and Frank attribute the interest by newcomers in large part to the pandemic. Many people took up birding during the pandemic. They were also happy to report that many of the newcomers were young people.

Salt Lake is Minnesota’s only alkaline lake. Its waters are about one-third the salinity of the ocean. As a result, the waters attract a number of western bird species not otherwise seen in Minnesota. The birders also visit a number of other wetlands in the area, which is a busy migration corridor in itself.

Goodman Larson, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dr. Walter Breckenridge, a taxidermist with the Bell Museum and a professor of ecology, originally organized and promoted the Salt Lake Birding weekend.

“They always wanted to promote this area as a birding destination,” said Frank. “It started as a way to get people to come out and visit western Minnesota and appreciate the landscape and habitat we have out here and this wealth of bird life that passes through this part of the state each spring.”

Goodman Larson’s son Ken and his bride, Mary Lou, took over the organizing. Ken is Frank’s uncle. Frank said it was very easy to resume the outing after the pandemic-caused hiatus. Birders and local volunteers alike were more than excited about making it happen again, and he explained that the birds and even the weather cooperated to make it all work.


To see a listing of the birds observed during the outing, go to the Minnesota Ornithologists Union website and click on the left tab for the Salt Lake event.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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