To bird in the Long Meadow Unit of the Minnesota Valley NWR is to enter a world unexpected in the middle of a major metro area. If I want sheer birding variety — songbirds, waterfowl, marsh specialties, raptors — there is no place I’d rather go.
I’ve found my state-life King Rail and Little Blue Heron here, hardly common, but a comment on the opportunities. Bald Eagles nest in the area; I’ve stood beneath a cottonwood holding a nest. Prothonotary Warblers nest here, too, regular in Minnesota but a nester that is hard to find this far north.
Most of the hiking trails follow the river, wooded bluffs on one side of me, the marshy shore of Long Meadow Lake on the other. It’s an easy half-mile walk around the Bass Ponds, a place I favor during spring migration. My trip notes here have included seven thrush species, eight of the nine flycatchers possible, five of the six vireos, and 24 of the 30 warbler species on the refuge list. I am waiting for my first chat here, and I’ve heard (but did not see) a Worm-eating Warbler on the hillside below the visitor center (a most unusual bird here). I’ve found American Bitterns at the Bass Ponds, a bird I’ve also seen at the Old Cedar Avenue site. Least Bittern is possible, too. Walking the mile-long trail that connects the ponds and Old Cedar Avenue, I’ve learned to expect almost anything. — Jim Williams
Jim Williams writes a birding column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the largest daily newspaper in the state. He is a former associate editor for Birding magazine. He has been birding in Minnesota for over 50 years.
Flood-plain forest, wooded bluffs, marshland, small lakes, river.
Varied. Main access points served by paved roads. Trails near marshes can be wet. Best birding for persons with disabilities would be at Old Cedar Avenue or in visitor center. Large windows there face feeders active year-round.
More than 200 species. More than 100 are known or presumed to nest here, including six species of herons, eight sparrow species, and both Marsh and Sedge Wren. About two dozen species are winter residents.
When to go
Spring is best, but birding is good in the summer and during fall migration.
Visitor center. The Long Meadow Unit borders a busy business and retail area. Food and lodging are available in 10 minutes or less, and the Mall of America is just as close.
Federal wildlife refuge. Admission free. The Long Meadow Unit has a visitor center and three access points for observation and hiking: the Bass Ponds, accessed from 86th St.; Old Cedar Ave., where it once crossed the river; and the Sorenson Landing, where Lyndale Ave. meets the river. Persons with disabilities can access the lower-level parking lot at the Bass Ponds by asking at the visitor center.
Wear shoes that can get wet without damage. Bring bug repellant from late spring to frost. A spotting scope is helpful at water access points.