By Craig Moorhead for the Houston County News
The event, hosted by the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge and Mississippi River Wild, a friends of the refuge group, showcases one of the greatest bird migration corridors on the North American continent. Besides swans, many varieties of waterfowl — including ducks, geese, coots and even raptors — sail down the waterway.
Busloads of bird watchers arrived at the Brownsville overlook Saturday morning. One of those groups, from Winona, had as tour guides Dave Palmquist, naturalist of Whitewater State Park, and Edward Lagace, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Winona District park ranger.
“This is my 27th annual swan watch field trip,” Palmquist said. “Considering the weather, this is a pretty darn good turnout.”
The swan watch has followed the birds over the years, he explained, with tours beginning in Weaver and then Alma, Wis. Now the favored spot is Brownsville, due to extensive habitat work done there in recent years.
“This is my third tour,” Lagace said. “We brought 50 people today, but I had to turn about 20 more away when they called in after the deadline to sign up. We may need to bring two buses next year. People just love coming, just absolutely enjoy this.”
Umbrellas sprouted and rain drops glistened on spotting scopes. River Wild volunteers served bowls of chili, along with other warm victuals. Sue Fletcher, naturalist/educator with the Fish and Wildlife Service, held a big jar of broadleaf arrowhead tubers. Attached to the roots of the plant, they’re the reason the swans are here.
“One swan can eat about six pounds of these per day,” she said. “That’s about two of these containers.
“They do a count every week, and the latest one showed 5,000 to 7,000 tundra swans,” Fletcher added. “That was early last week, so there may well be more here now. In addition, there are about 150,000 canvasback ducks on the refuge, which takes in 260 miles of the Mississippi (River) from Wabasha to Rock Island, Ill.”
That’s a large portion of the total population of the big diving ducks. Fletcher told birders that if they scanned the river, they’d also see other species, including Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, green wing teal, coots, mergansers, ring neck ducks, golden eyes and bald eagles.
Palmquist said that 12,000 to 15,000 tundra swans can sometimes be seen in the area. In fact, 20 percent to 25 percent of the total eastern population of tundra swans rest and feed in this region in November and December, leaving only when the waters freeze. Then they’ll continue south and east, wintering along the Atlantic seaboard, mostly from Maryland to the Carolinas. The eastern population breeds on a vast swath of arctic tundra from Alaska to Hudson Bay.
Mississippi River Wild President Ken Visger said that in spite of the weather, more than 300 people attended Saturday’s event. For those who missed the boat, there’s more birding to be had. Two observation decks are located along Minnesota Highway 26 south of Brownsville. Both the upper (northern) deck, where Saturday’s festivities were held, and the lower deck, closer to Reno, sport permanently mounted spotting scopes.
“The volunteers are great,” Lagace said. “It’s important to note that Saturdays and Sundays throughout November, there will be staff here with scopes for people to use, and people to talk to (including MRW members) and ask questions regarding the swans.”
“Without the friends group and other volunteers, we’d be sunk,” Palmquist said. “We wouldn’t have the manpower to run these programs.”
A busload of college students from Decorah, Iowa, loaded up to leave. The second bus from the Winona area began to load up as well. The drizzle continued, but cars trickled in and visitors stared out at the big white birds with their long, graceful necks.
Winona resident Farmer Parsi showed his daughter, Ryka, what wild swans look like, birds that have flown straight from a place that most humans will never see. Speaking for the people who were braving the cold, he summed the sight up in two words: “It’s gorgeous.”