Bird oasis in the city

CARAG resident Steve Greenfield, a birder at Roberts Bird Sanctuary. Photo by Michelle Bruch

Avid birders have spent a century visiting the Roberts Bird Sanctuary, where they currently spot 220 different species.

Roberts Bird 3On a recent morning visit, CARAG resident Steve Greenfield pointed out a low-flying oriole, robins gathering material for nests, and the calls of chickadees.

“Once the leaves come out, you do more by sound,” he said. (To learn bird calls, he recommends

The Park Board is currently finalizing an improvement plan for the bird habitat.

Park Board consultant David Zumeta said that although the Sanctuary’s habitat has degraded over time due to invasive species, birds have always liked its location between Lake Harriet and Calhoun. Viewed from above, the chain of lakes is roughly parallel to the Mississippi River flyway, one of four major migration routes in the country.

“This is like an alternate route of green and blue infrastructure,” he said. “…Where it’s located is crucial.”
That location was crucial even back in the 1930s, when the park was designated a bird sanctuary. IMG_3728Greenfield said it’s fun to read old notes by Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts, who published a comprehensive study of Minnesota bird life in 1932. Roberts hunted prairie chickens in an area southeast of Lake Calhoun, he said. Roberts documented birds like the red-tailed hawk in 1881 at the “Lake Harriet woods,” believed to be the present-day Sanctuary.

As the habitat has changed over time, so have the park species, and birds like the ruffed grouse are long gone. The Sanctuary still offers plenty to see, however, especially during migration in the spring and fall.

Roberts Bird 4

Glen and Cathy Sando walk in the Sanctuary every day.

“It feels like you’re out in the country,” Cathy said.

They have seen hundreds of orioles high in the trees. They watched Great Horned Owls nesting in a Willow tree, before a storm took part of the tree down.

Red-winged Blackbirds like the marshy area, and woodpeckers like the dead trees. It’s even secluded enough for Cooper’s Hawks to nest.

“When it comes down to it, this is what we’ve got,” Greenfield said. “It’s not the Amazon rainforest, but it’s what we’ve got.”

“One of the silver linings of climate change might be range extension,” Zumeta said. “…Many species have extended their range 70 miles to the north.”

Greenfield has seen Kentucky warblers this year, which he said are rare to find this far north. The same is true for the yellow-throated warbler nesting Downtown, and the blue-gray gnatcatcher, he said.

IMG_3709As some species disappear from the area and others are introduced, Zumeta said it’s crucial that new native plantings thrive. Due to climate change, they will need to survive increasing numbers of droughts, floods, windstorms and other major weather events, he said.

The removal of invasive species is one of the most important aspects of long-term management of the Sanctuary, he said. Although a few birds do like buckthorn (robins are complicit in eating the berries and spreading the seeds), buckthorn is problematic for choking out wildflowers, native shrubs and ferns that other birds seek.

“It’s an endless task,” he said.

Linden Hills resident Constance Pepin organizes “buckthorn busts,” and asks for volunteers to help pull garlic mustard. As part of the Friends of Roberts Bird Sanctuary, they help care for the park under an agreement with the Park Board. Pepin said it’s critical to restore the native plant community. On a recent visit to the Sanctuary, she noticed new native plants like Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Enchanter’s nightshade, and pointed out a spot where young Maple saplings are waiting for a break in the canopy.

Zumeta said another important aspect of conservation relates to educating the general public. That means no bikes, dogs, hammocks, jogging groups, litter or trailblazers in the Sanctuary.

“It’s a bird sanctuary. It’s not like all the other parkland around,” he said. “It’s very hard to get people to recognize that or comply.”

“Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” Pepin said.

The Minneapolis Park Board is currently finalizing a preferred concept for improvements at the Sanctuary. Here are a few of the draft proposals:

— Restore a maintenance area at the southeast corner of the park to the Sanctuary as a buffer area.

— Replace a boardwalk through the wetland area.

IMG_3701— Improve the east and west entry points. Some birders aren’t interested in enhancing the west entrance, however — they don’t want cyclists or joggers to view the area as a thruway.

— Replace the fence in areas where it is missing or damaged.

— Remove invasive species, replacing them with native trees, herbs and shrubs that are attractive to birds. As mature Ash trees die from emerald ash borer, retain them as snags to enhance the bird habitat.

Greenfield said that when it comes to the Sanctuary, keeping the park natural is key. There are plenty of manicured picnic areas and trails nearby, he said.

“More often we’re arguing to do less, rather than more,” he said.

“It’s just a wonderful place to go observe birds,” Zumeta said. “I encourage people to go explore it and respect it.”