Winter in Minnesota is the perfect time of year to get together with loved ones, embrace old traditions, or even start some new ones. Here are just five of the many ways to make the most of this special season.


Bentleyville Tour of Lights

Bentleyville Tour of Lights, Duluth

A hallmark of the holiday season in Germany and Austria, holiday markets—called Christkindlmarkts—have made their way to Minnesota. Holidazzle will take place in Loring Park again this year and will feature more than 40 vendors selling ornaments, candles and other handcrafted gifts, as well as mulled wine and brats. Other highlights include fireworks, Santa visits, holiday movie screenings and free ice skating. The destination is open Thursdays-Sundays from Nov. 25 through Dec. 23 and is free to attend.

Holiday plays and performances are a tradition for many families this time of year. Festive favorites include “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Rochester Civic Theatre, a dozen iterations of “The Nutcracker,” from classic to hip-hop, and Christmas concerts by artists including Kat Perkins, Blind Boys of Alabama, Lorie Line and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

For light shows worth a drive, don’t miss Duluth’s Bentleyville Tour of Lights, the Kiwanis Holiday Lights in Mankato and the Trester Trolley Light Tours in Winona. New in 2016, “Bruce Munro: Winter Light at the Arboretum” is the first large-scale outdoor light display at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.


Great gray owl in Duluth; photo by Amanda Burcar-Annis

Photo by Amanda Burcar Annis

Many of Minnesota’s nature centers are open year-round, offering opportunities to interact with wildlife and the winter landscape. Owls are a big draw at the Agassiz Audubon Center near Thief River Falls, which documented dozens of snowy owl sightings last year in the surrounding Red River Valley.

At the International Owl Center in southeastern Minnesota, Alice the resident great horned owl is so popular that the International Festival of Owls in early March is held in conjunction with her hatch day.

Since nature centers are often surrounded by trails, they make a great starting point for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling. Options include the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault (skiing and snowmobiling), Maplewood Nature Center (snowshoeing) and Hartley Nature Center in Duluth (skiing).


At the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul, “Mindbender Mansion” makes critical thinking and problem solving fun, and “A Beautiful Planet” is featured in the Omnitheater. Open until mid-January, the “Gridiron Glory” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center features the Vince Lombardi trophy and other artifacts from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While you’re downtown, be sure to stop by Rice Park to see the ice sculptures and live entertainment as part of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival.

Other museums worth a winter visit include the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, the recently reopened Spam Museum in Austin, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which recently debuted a new entrance and restaurant as part of its major renovation project.


Family Cascade Bay Water Park 440x440.jpgWaterslides, lazy rivers and splash pads aren’t just for the summer months. Several Minnesota water parks can be found indoors, offering a tropical escape no matter the weather.

Paul Bunyan Water Park, inside Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter, features tube and body slides, a treehouse equipped with water cannons and an indoor/outdoor hot tub. At the Edgewater Hotel & Waterpark in Duluth, a vortex pool allows guests to swim with or against a fast-moving current.

There’s even a waterpark right by Mall of America, so you can take a dip after completing all your holiday shopping. Find more options, from Bloomington to Alexandria to Thief River Falls, on the water parks page.


A sure sign that spring is coming, maple syrup demonstrations and festivals start cropping up in March. On Maple Syrup Day, the Audubon Center of the North Woods in Sandstone hosts a pancake brunch as part of its syrup celebration. Or see how the sap is gathered and turned into syrup, and get a taste of the end result, at the Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes.

Many Minnesota state parks, including Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Whitewater near St. Charles and Lake Maria near Monticello, offer maple syrup programs. Nature centers and other parks, like the Three Rivers Park District in the metro area, also get in on the fun.

Minnesota birding report

Minnesota birding report brought to you by White Birch Resort.

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Tundra swans; photo by Jim Williams


This is your monthly Explore Minnesota Birding Update.  Happy birding!

November Nature Notes

Tundra swans are migrating in large numbers with thousands viewed from the Brownsville Overlook on Nov. 6. Anyone who admires the beauty of tundra swans will want to visit the Weaver Bottoms marshes and the Brownsville Overlook along the Mississippi River during the month of November. The spectacular sights and haunting sounds of huge concentrations of these birds is something everyone should experience. From 25- to 40-percent of the eastern population of tundra swans use the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge as a resting site prior to their long journey to wintering areas on the Atlantic Coast. Bird counts for various locations within the refuge can be found at the Upper Mississippi River Recent Bird Sightings web page.

Sandhill cranes continue to gather at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Zimmerman. Cranes from all over the state come to Sherburne, with numbers sometimes exceeding 10,000. In fact, as of Nov. 8, 11,286 sandhill cranes were at the refuge. Since cranes venture out to feed in area croplands during the day, morning and evening hours offer the most amazing views of vast numbers of birds. Stop by the headquarters for a map of the viewing sites, or print a crane viewing map ahead of time to help you plan your trip.

Did You Know?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a wonderful Winter Bird Feeding guide on what to feed winter birds and which feeders are best for your backyard. Some winter birds you may attract include American tree sparrows, pine grosbeaksevening grosbeakscommon redpollshoary redpollsred crossbillswhite-winged crossbills and purple finches.

You can help scientists track the movements of winter bird populations, as well as bird distribution and abundance by participating in Project Feeder Watch. All you need to do is gather and report data while enjoying the birds at your feeders. This year’s Project Feeder Watch begins Nov. 11. Join now!

Those who enjoy photographing birds will want to participate in the Bird Spotter Photo Contest. Submit your favorite birding stories and photos corresponding with a specific category every other week for a chance to win!

Upcoming Birding Events

Nov. 11, Winona
Swan Watch Bus Tour
This bus tour is open to the general public. Witness the spectacular tundra swan migration that takes place on the refuge. Bus tour, instruction and lunch included. Reservations are required. Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. 507-454-7351

Nov. 11, Hastings
Minnesota Campus Bird Hike
Join bird expert Kevin Smith on a morning hike around the nature center. Field guides and binoculars are available or bring your own. Carpenter Nature Center. 651-437-4359

Nov. 18, Carlton
Winter Bird I.D. 
Ever wonder what kinds of birds are flocking to the bird feeders? Learn how to identify some common Minnesota winter birds, what their favorite foods are and make and take your own winter bird mobile. Binoculars are available to use. Pre-registration is required. Jay Cooke State Park. 218-673-7006

Nov. 18, Victoria
Bird Banding
See wild birds safely trapped, studied, and tagged with numbered rings. Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park Reserve. 763-694-7700763-694-7650

Nov. 19, Maple Grove
Raptors in the Yard
Meet captive raptors and learn about these amazing birds of prey. Cameras are welcome, and participants may drop in anytime. Eastman Nature Center at Elm Creek Park Reserve. 763-694-7894

Nov. 24, Hastings
Minnesota Campus Bird Banding
Bird banders welcome you to see birds up close and learn about the birds who share our ecosystem. Banding runs continuously for 3 ½ hours but visitors may come and go at any time. Please call ahead of time to say you are coming — donations of bird seed or suet are greatly appreciated. Carpenter Nature Center. 651-437-4359

Dec. 1, Marine on St. Croix
Rise & Shine Morning Bird Walk
Join Kyle TePoel on a special bird walk in the park. Kyle is a naturalist who has been guiding bird hikes since 2008. Bring a pair of binoculars or one will be provided for your use. Beginners and advanced birders are welcome. William O’Brien State Park. 651-433-0500

Dec. 2, Rochester
Zumbro Valley Audubon Society Bird Walk
Enjoy a casual walk through Quarry Hill Park to look for over-wintering and migrating birds. Bring binoculars if you have them or borrow a pair from the nature center. Quarry Hill Nature Center.

Dec. 2, Houston
Owl Prowl to Call in Wild Owls
Experience wild owls outdoors and learn how to identify owls by size, shape, silhouette and sound. Following an indoor portion of the program, participants will carpool to known owl territories in and around Houston to call for eastern screech-owlsbarred owls, and great horned owls. International Owl Center. 507-896-6957

Recent Bird Sightings

rough-legged hawk was seen on Nov. 8 in Scott County by David C. Keyes.

An American tree sparrow was discovered by Allan Meadows on Rainy Lake in Koochiching County on Nov. 8.

Sparky Stensaas found a short-eared owl hunting for voles in the Sax-Zim Bog in St. Louis County on Nov. 6.

Check the Duluth/North Shore Rare Bird Alert and the Northwestern Minnesota/Detroit Lakes Rare Bird Alert for other recent bird sightings. Recent sightings throughout the state can be found on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Unionwebsite. For additional information, consider joining the Minnesota Birding community on Facebook.


Tundra swans near Brownsville on the Mississippi River; photo by Wayne Bartz

Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge; photo by Jim Williams

Evening grosbeak in St. Louis County; photo by Jon Swanson

Purple finch; photo by David Brislance

Common redpoll in the Sax Zim Bog; photo by Mike Lentz

Red crossbill; photo by David Brislance

American tree sparrow in Koochiching County; photo by Allan Meadows

Short-eared owl in the Sax-Zim Bog in St. Louis County; photo by Sparky Stensaas

Rough-legged hawk in Scott County; photo by David C. Keyes