This time of year, Whitewater Valley is a bird hotel
Even before the ice melts from pools in the Whitewater Valley, mallards and Canada geese begin pairing up for breeding in the area or flocks of waterfowl from the south flutter in for rest and food before moving on.
When pools are ice free, the biggest migration will begin, both in numbers of ducks, geese, cranes and shorebirds as well as people eager to see them.
It’s the annual rite of spring when the valley becomes a Holiday Inn for many birds and a home for a few.
The Mississippi River in the region gets by far the most waterfowl to its sprawling backwaters. But that water is hard to get to or it’s usually even more difficult to see the birds.
The Whitewater Valley, however, is nearly all public land, has Minnesota Highway 74 wiggling through its middle and pools are usually close. It’s probably the premier place to see a large variety of migrating birds. The flood-control reservoirs around Rochester, or flooded farmfields, also attract migrating birds because they offer water and food.
Last week, pairs of local geese, mallards and hooded mergansers, the males with their head tufts gleaming white, were off by themselves, preparing to nest. Bigger flocks were usually migrating birds wanting only a safe place to sleep and food for further northward flights.
Ice was still quite thick on some parts of pools and geese often stood on ice, waiting for the time to nest.
Bob Tangen, Department of Natural Resources assistant Whitewater WMA manager, said diver ducks such as ringnecks and bluebills, tend to show up first in large numbers, followed later by puddle ducks like mallards and teal. But last week, puddle ducks were more common, as were a pair of sandhill cranes feeding in an old cornfield and loafing on dikes that create some of the pools.
Killdeer are around now but other shorebirds will show up later, Tangen said.
When they do show up, so do birders. It’s quite common to see cars stopped along the road, binoculars and spotting scopes sticking out windows. Some cars have license plates from other states, indicating the Whitewater Valley gets not only birds, but birders, migrating to it.
As spring wanes, and summer begins, the migrants will have long moved on while local birds will have hatched their broods and you can see the young feeding and bobbing in the pools.
It’s all part of that natural cycle.
John Weiss is an outdoors writer for the Post-Bulletin. If you have comments or story ideas, call him at 285-7749 or e-mail email@example.com