Arboretum News

Bird Survey at the Arb

Arboretum Director of Operations Alan Branhagen identified 63 species of birds during a recent survey.

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Director of Operations Alan Branhagen on a birding walk at Lake Tamarack. Photo by Jill Leenay.

By Susie Eaton Hopper

On June 12, Arboretum Director of Operations Alan Branhagen conducted a breeding bird survey at the Arboretum. He is an expert birder, so we took the opportunity to ask him about the birds he located on the grounds, as well as his experience birding. Scroll down for a list of all 63 species that Branhagen observed during his survey.

What is a breeding bird survey and who uses this information? 

Official breeding bird surveys are designated routes that begin a half hour before sunrise with 50 stops each a half mile apart. You record every bird seen and heard in three minutes then move to the next spot.

These are done each year in June, many have long data sets of information now. So this was not an official survey (I have done them in Illinois and Iowa) but I thought we needed a better idea what is here this year since the site is not birded as heavily as in the prior years with our current site access.

The information from official surveys are critical to monitor overall bird population trends – the new Birds of Minnesota Field Guide by Stan Tekiela shows graphs of the overall populations of Minnesota’s breeding birds based on this data. Our information is used to make sure we manage our land well to maintain the wonderful diversity of birds we have.

Canada Goose. Photo by Robert Evans.

How long did it take you to do the survey? Where did you walk

I started the hike from the Snyder Building and walked the Bog Walk, part of Three-Mile Walk, the Ridge Trail and cut through to Farm at the Arb, hiked Eastern Drive, Pine Walk and back on Three-Mile Walk. Then I hiked the Dayton Wildflower Garden section of Three-Mile Walk and cut across to Wood Duck Pond and followed that trail back to the Oswald Visitor Center. Of course, I put natural areas on my site check-in for the week! I wanted to cover a broad cross section of the Arb’s habitat. I also walked the boardwalk at Spring Peeper Meadow. Four hours approximately on foot and driving Three-Mile Drive. 

How did you start out as a birder? 

My mom was a country school teacher and taught birds. I found all her old teaching materials and was hooked. I went on my first Christmas Bird Count in December 1969, then spring bird count (now International Bird Migration Day) in May 1970, at age 8, and have been birding ever since. I’ve only missed my hometown (Decorah, IA) Christmas Bird Count twice in 51 years!

How have you become such an authoritative birder over the years? 

My hometown bird count compiler is an outstanding Iowa birder and that lead to friends and bird surveys in my youth. In Rockford, IL, I became president of the North Central Illinois Ornithological Society and friends there included the past president of the American Birding Association. In Kansas City, I was involved with the Burroughs Audubon Society but have not been very involved in Minnesota as the Arb takes so much of my time.

I have been birding around the country and even on a very special trip to the El Triunfo Biosphere reserve in Chiapas, Mexico with the past President of the National Audubon Society, along with staff from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and my friend who used to lead the American Birding Association – they can vouch for my birding skills. Oh, and I own the 20 pound, 2-volume set of the Illustrated Birds of the World, which depicts every species and subspecies of bird on Earth. I have a scary understanding of the birds of the world, even though I have not birded much outside the U.S.

What equipment do you use and why? 

I still have one great ear! Binoculars are important, and I have 10 X 40 Nikon Monarchs. I should have better, but I am too rough on binoculars.

Hooded Merganser. Photo by Susie Eaton Hopper.

What bird on the survey surprised or delighted you most? 

The Hooded Merganser ducklings at the Chinese Garden! Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds are all over the place at the Arb! I got to see a Black-Billed Cuckoo as they have become quite scarce.

What bird would you love to see that was not on the list? 

I was trying to relocate the Kentucky Warbler I heard here on May 26, but no luck – must have just been an overshoot migrant. I missed the Sandhill Cranes, even though we know they nested by Spring Peeper Meadow and have a young colt.

What are your favorite resources for studying birds or learning birds? 

I still think the fact that I learned the birds from the original Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to the Birds was why I can identify birds so well. It had few details but focused on the field marks. Being around great birders at an early age and learning bird calls also helped.

Do you ever see a bird you don’t know? If that happens what do you do? 

It happened in Quito, Ecuador on one of the Arboretum Garden Travel Tours. It was the Cinereous Conebill. The artist’s image in the field guide I had was just plain bad and that was the image I had in my head. Luckily, Arb naturalist Matt Schuth was in the group with a photographic field guide!

Green Heron at Arboretum. Photo by Dick Shoenberger.

Where are your favorite spots to bird watch at the Arb and why? 

The Bog Walk and around Green Heron Pond, because of the great diversity of wetland and woodland loving birds, and along Eastern Drive, because there are still Bobolinks, which are one of our most declined songbirds.

If people want to get better at birding, what are a couple of easy challenges to get them going? 

Get out as much as you can and learn the calls/songs. With time it all comes to you! There are many sites to learn the songs and calls including YouTube,,,

Breeding Birds of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Susie Eaton Hopper.

June 12, 2020
63 species observed in less than 4 hours, extensive hike and drive through Three-Mile Drive and around 82nd Street.

-Canada Goose.
-Wood Duck.
-Hooded Merganser (ducklings in the Chinese Garden pond put on a delightful show).
-Ring-necked Pheasant (cackling along 82nd Street).
-Wild Turkey.
-Rock Pigeon (Red Barn).
-Mourning Dove.
-Black-billed Cuckoo (one, near shop).
-Chimney Swift.
-Great Blue Heron.
-Turkey Vulture (saw 7), possibly nest somewhere on site.
-Osprey (3 pairs – all platforms occupied).
-Cooper’s Hawk (nest in Dayton Wildflower Garden).
-Broad-winged Hawk, Berens Cabin woods.
-Red-tailed Hawk – pair Dog Commons and west, also Red Barn Farm-Eastern Drive.
-Barred Owl.
-Red-bellied Woodpecker.
-Downy Woodpecker.
-Hairy Woodpecker.
-Northern Flicker.
-Pileated Woodpecker.
-Eastern Wood-Pewee.
-Willow Flycatcher (at least 3 pairs in Green Heron pond wetlands).
-Eastern Phoebe.
-Great Crested Flycatcher.
-Eastern Kingbird (2 pairs along 82nd Street).
-Yellow-throated Vireo.
-Red-eyed Vireo.
-Blue Jay.
-American Crow.
-Tree Swallow (using bluebird houses).
-Northern Rough-winged Swallow (feeding over Spring Peeper Meadow).
-Barn Swallows.
-Black-capped Chickadee.
-White-breasted Nuthatch.
-House Wren.
-Sedge Wren (wetland below Linden Collection, plus Spring Peeper Meadow).
-Marsh Wren (many, Lake Minnewashta wetlands from near entrance to Learning Center).
-Eastern Bluebird (widespread, exceeded my expectations on observations) 24-plus.
-American Robin (one of the most common birds on-site).
-Gray Catbird.
-Brown Thrasher (one pair, hedges/pine collection).
-European Starling.
-Cedar Waxwing (widespread, exceeded my expectations on observations) 24-plus.
-House Sparrow.
-House Finch.
-American Goldfinch.
-Chipping Sparrow (one of the most common birds on site).
-Clay-colored Sparrow.
-Song Sparrow.
-Swamp Sparrow.
-Bobolink (3 displaying males, saw 2 females Eastern Drive/82nd Street old fields).
-Orchard Oriole (1: Eastern Drive shade tree trials).
-Baltimore Oriole.
-Red-winged Blackbird (one of most common birds on site).
-Brown-headed Cowbird.
-Common Yellowthroat.
-Yellow Warbler.
-Scarlet Tanager (2 singing males – Dayton Wildflower and Maple Collection).
-Northern Cardinal.
-Indigo Bunting.
-Dickcissel (2: west of Red Barn, Bavaria Road/82nd Street new research plots).

Missed but observed/heard recently in June:
-Sandhill Crane.
-Green Heron.
-Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
-Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
-Common Grackle — that species population is down 60 percent.

5 comments on “Bird Survey at the Arb

  1. Matt Schuth

    Alan is by far the most knowledgeable naturalist I have ever met. The wonderful thing about nature is that you can never know everything but Alan is as close as you can get.

  2. Interesting to read about the birding.

  3. J.Brophy

    I agree with Matt. The University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is so fortunate to have Alan at the helm! ( Also, I just want to mention that I saw and heard a (not so) common common nighthawk at Spring Peeper Meadow on the night of 06/20/20.)

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