Swans from the tundra flock to Southeast Minnesota
Annual migration of birds attracts visitors to the Mississippi River near Brownsville, Minn.
BROWNSVILLE — Thousands of miles north of Southeast Minnesota, Canadian tundra is already frozen, forcing thousands of tundra swans to leave their breeding grounds.
By the scores, by hundreds, they fly south, communicating in their dissonant gabbling until they come to the Mississippi River and funnel down it. People living along or near the river in in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa can hear that sound that tells them with certainty: Fall is giving way to winter.
Finally, the swans meet at the Lawrence Lake backwater south of Brownsville where about 5,000 gathered Sunday to rest and use their big webbed feet to stir up the bottom and get the arrowhead tubers that grew there this year. Swans will eat about six pounds a day, bulking up as they prepare for the final part of their migration to around Chesapeake Bay.
In a week or two more, depending on the weather, 20,000 to 30,000 of the birds will visit the area, said Joni Welda, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service naturalist out of the La Crosse, Wisconsin, office. Unlike teal, which tend to fly by the calendar, swans don’t migrate until winter tickles their tail feathers.
“They wait for the north wind to help carry them down,” Welda said.
In fall, swans lollygag their way south, never moving until closing-in winter forces them out. But in spring, they are eager to get to the tundra breeding grounds and they spend much less time around here.
When here in fall, most spend their time resting a half mile or more from shore so they are only white specks. Fortunately for those who want to see birds closer, maybe a thousand are in a bay much closer to shore, easily seen even without scopes or telephoto lenses.
From the tundra
Tundra swans are the slightly smaller cousins of the trumpeter swans, that do live and nest in this region, sometimes year-round, Welda said. In fact, some tundra and trumpeter swans were in a pool in the Whitewater Valley, she said.
Both are big and white, but their beaks are a bit different. The easiest way to tell them apart, however, is their sound, she said. Tundras have that loose gabbling, while trumpeters sound like a Canada goose with a sore throat.
The swans flock to the open water and food, and people can flock to see them. Two USFWS observation areas are along Minnesota Highway 26 south of Brownsville. At the much larger northern one, the upper viewing area also has two spotter scopes for anyone to use.
Many of those there early Sunday afternoon also brought large, powerful telephoto lenses while others relied on binoculars or their own spotting scopes.
Two using the public scopes were Acadia Kashdan, 2, and her mom, Allison Kashdan of Onalaska, Wisconsin. They also came a week before but this time, many more swans were there Sunday, said mom.
As they looked, mom asked: “Are they pretty?’’
“Uh, huh,” said Acadia.
“Are they noisy?”
“Uh huh,” said the daughter.
Mom noted that one was tipped up so its big webbed feet could stir up the bottom and it could then tip its head down to get the food. Her daughter watched and her mom noted that trying to imitate swans by using her feet to gather food would not be a good idea.
Cassie Christopherson, of La Crosse, was there with her son Waylon Hall, 9. They’ve been there before and came back to look again.
“We’re kind of new to the birding scene,” she said.
Her son said, yes, he’s seen them before but not with that many there.
“Pretty crazy,” he said. “There are so many but also, pretty cool.”
Nearby, dressed in warm camouflage clothing was Michael Huebschen of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who shoots photos for greeting cards and other ways to help pay for his wildlife photography hobby. “It’s not a profitable hobby,” he noted.
While he shot a lot of pictures, he said he also shoots landscapes, mammals, other birds and flowers. “I take them all,” he said. He doesn’t have a favorite but he did say “the swan migration is spectacular.”
River rest stops
It certainly is, Welda said. “It’s a phenomenon, it’s certainly a phenomenon, it’s a rarity,” she said. While no one is sure when the swans first came to the area “as far as I know, that have been migrating through here forever,” she said.
Lawrence Lake isn’t the only place in this region the swans have migrated to for food and rest, Welda said. For many years, the swans would use Weaver Bottoms south of Wabasha, but that is filling in, so they used a backwater near Alma, Wis. That too is past its useful life for swans but the backwater south of Brownsville is still good and should remain so for many years, she said.
The backwater was created in the early 1930s when a series of locks and dams were built on the Mississippi, turning a free-flowing river into a series of pools with former lowlands flooded. While others are not so good for swans, Lawrence Lake should remain good for a long time because of a major rehabilitation project done about a decade ago.
After the backwater was created, many of its islands were eroded by waves and wind, she said. Without islands to slow the power of the wind, it was able to further rile water and make it more turbid. Sunlight can’t penetrate that water so there are fewer plants for the migrating birds and other wildlife.
The project built 22 islands, three breakwaters and an offshore rock mounds. Island were buttressed with rocks to stop the wind from eroding them. Without the wind, water got clearer and more plants grew, including arrowhead for the swans. There was also a lot more water celery and wild rice for smaller birds, she said.
With the project, “it’s strong and sustainable,” Welda said. “I don’t see it deteriorating.”
To get there from Rochester, use Interstate 90 to go to the Mississippi and take the LaCrescent exit. Go through that city and a few miles south is Highway 26 that will take you to Brownsville and then the overlooks. You can see also swans for several miles along the highway.
Their total migration is about 3,100 miles. And the observation deck gets people from many states and even a few other countries. On Sunday, vehicles had license plates from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.