Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Showing posts with label birding. Show all posts
Showing posts with label birding. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Trumpeter swans flock to Mississippi River for the winter

Thousands of once-endangered trumpeter swans spend their winters on the Mississippi in Monticello, Minnesota.
Swans use winter as their social & courting season.

The trumpeting sound of Monticello's swans 
Here's a glimpse of the thousands of trumpeter swan that winter on the Mississippi River in Monticello, Minnesota, December through early March. Even better, you can hear the joyful honking of trumpeter swans who are fed daily around 10:30 am, the best time to see the swans in Monticello.

Look for my full feature on their comeback in Minnesota and why they winter on this bend of the Mississippi River in the Star Tribune's Outdoors Weekend section Friday, Jan. 17.

--Lisa Meyers McClintick


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Watch trumpeter swans in Park Rapids, Minnesota

No snow needed for winter birdwatching
It may be winter, but Minnesota claims excellent bird-watching with the comeback of trumpeter swans. The biggest flock of trumpeters gathers in Monticello along the Mississippi River, but you also can get close to this flock in Park Rapids which is closer to summer nesting areas. 

Take a look at this YouTube video to hear the brassy honks for which they are known and to admire the synchronized swimming of pairs that mate for life.

Check our last year's swan feature for more photos and information on these elegant swans.

Winter also is the best time to spot bald eagles soaring through the air.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Watch bald eagles soar above the Mississippi River

Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick.

If you've ever wanted to get nose-to-beak with bald eagles and also watch them in the wild, now is the time to hit the Great River Road. The Mississippi River, between Red Wing and down to Winona is one of the best parts of the United States to see this living symbol of America.

Wabasha--in between the two cities--is the epicenter with its National Eagle Center's Soar with the Eagles weekend events throughout March.

Head to Wabasha's National Eagle Center

Located on a stretch of the Mississippi River that rarely freezes thanks the strong current of Lake Pepin to the north, the National Eagle Center is both a cultural museum and ideal observatory for watching bald eagles in the wild.

The birds can sometimes be tricky to spot against gray winter skies, but the center's five resident eagles face the river and loudly announce wild eagles that swoop across the sky--no matter how far away they are.

"An eagle can see a rabbit running two to three miles away," said Alison Springer with the National Eagle Center.

I have no doubt.

March is for migration and bird lovers

There are decks and spotting scopes to watch wild eagles swoop for fish, gather sticks for building huge nests or spiral into an elegant mid-air mating dance.

March can be a temperamental month. It typically doesn't inspire travel with its messy, monochromatic clash of winter and spring. Birders, though, know it's the ideal month to see ducks, cranes, swans and eagles. Why? Lack of foliage makes them easier to see. So does the tendency of flocks to arrive in groups from wintering grounds before pairing up and heading to remote nesting spots. It is the absolute best time to see bald eagles in particular.

Bald eagles make a comeback
I often stayed at my Grandma's riverside cabin in Wabasha in the 1970s and into the 1980s. We never once saw an eagle. They were almost wiped out by DDT pesticide, which thinned egg shells so much they'd crush beneath the parents' weight.

An eagle rests above Red Wing's Colvill Park.
In 1963 there were about 450 nesting pairs in the en country and a 260-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Wabasha and Rock Island was down to just one nesting pair.

Now there are more than 1,000 eagle pairs across Minnesota alone.

These days there are about 40 nesting pairs of eagles within a few-mile radius of Wabasha that stretches into Lake Pepin and along the Chippewa River. There are more than 1,000 eagles thriving throughout statewide, especially on the Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest.

Take the kids on an eagle field trip
My kids and others of their generation may take spotting eagles for granted, but it's impossible not to be impressed by seeing them up close and learning more about them.

Kids giggle at learning eagles can projectile poop six feet away to keep their nests clean. They lift simulated eagles to feel how surprisingly light the birds area. Molted feathers from resident rescued eagles are given to Native Americans who might wait years to receive one.

Cultural references to eagles are everywhere--from the rock group and fighter jets to space craft and "Old Abe," an eagle that followed Yankees into 37 Civil War battles and survived.

Soar with the Eagles events:

March 12-13  The Flyway
Guests include the Cincinnati Zoo's Wings of Wonder Traveling Bird Show, a session with a loon expert, hunting dog handler and wildlife photography specialist.

March 19-20  The Eagle
Special events include a photography class, sessions on the ivory-billed woodpecker, flint-knapping, falconry and a field trip to hot spots for eagles and other species.

March 26-27  The River
Special sessions highlight local wildlife, birds of prey and symbolism of the eagle.

Staying overnight?
Eight places offer special March packages from $121-$241/night with National Eagle Center admission, gift shop and local dining gift certificates. If you're taking kids, AmericInn of Wabasha is the best bet.

Make it an easy day trip
If you want to do a shorter eagle trip, Red Wing's Colvill Park is about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities and another excellent open-water place to spot the eagles. Two years ago, locals counted 156 eagles in one afternoon.

This year's eagle numbers--perhaps due to fluctuating weather--are not as plentiful as in years past. But it's not the numbers that impress. It's the chance to see the soaring flight of bald eagles, see how nests are carefully restored and catch a close-up look at fierce but proud faces that became a national symbol.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Minnesota's trumpeter swan season

Swans dancing and prancing at Park Rapids. Photo by Marianne Diericks.
 Winter's the best time to watch trumpeter swans

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Photo by Marianne Diericks
February ranks as one of the best months for viewing trumpeter swans, one of Minnesota’s most graceful and beautiful creatures. They’ve gathered by the thousands along Mississippi River in Monticello since resident Sheila Lawrence (dubbed “the swan lady”) began feeding them.

That, along with Department of Natural Resources efforts, has helped the swans make a steady and rather astonishing comeback. When I last wrote about them in 2004, there were an estimated 1,350 trumpeter swans in the state. There are now about 5,500.
Deane Park on the Fish Hook River, Park Rapids. Photo by Rik Meyers.
Trumpeter swans weigh up to 35 pounds, stand up to 5 feet tall, and measure up to 8 feet wing tip to wing tip.
One of the nation's largest birds was almost extinct by the late 1800s as people used everything from the swans' hide to feathers. There were no trumpeter swans left in Minnesota until swan restoration programs began more than 30 years ago.

Where to watch wintering swans
Warm water discharged from the nuclear power plant keeps a stretch of the Mississippi River open in Monticello, which has long been the Midwest’s biggest gathering spot for trumpeters. With the swans' comeback, they’re showing up in new locations with open water during winter’s cold snaps.

One of their new gathering places is Deane Park in Park Rapids, about two hours north of St. Cloud. About 50-60 of the birds are spending the winter where the Fish Hook Lake meets the Fish Hook River. Residents bring regular donations of feed.

Crow Wing River. Photo by Rik Meyers.
It’s a handy location with close to 400 lakes in the area. That makes it easy for swans to head out and find their own lake for nesting and raising their young. It’s much harder to spot them in the summer behind high reeds and lakeside shrubs, but keep an eye out on Itasca State Park’s wildlife drive. You might get lucky.

Honking swans & showing off
  Winter rules as best time to enjoy the spectacle of swans—especially for photographers who can catch the birds in large groups swimming among ice chunks and drifting through fog.

Mid-winter is courtship season—think bar scene for birds. Expect incessant honking, like nature’s version of a traffic jam. Males posture and flap their giant wings to look tough and impress future mates.

Fish Hook River. Photos by Rik Meyers.
 It’s almost meditative, too, to stand and watch the ever-changing formations
and behaviors. One group will effortlessly merge and paddle
into a perfectly straight line. Others will form circles and exuberantly
bob their heads and honk as if swapping gossip they can’t wait
to share.

“You can almost tell what they’re saying to each other,” said Sheila Lawrence, Monticello's swan lady.
“It’s just so much fun to watch them. It’s like watching a soap opera.”

Swan-watching tips
  •  Best viewing times are often 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Keep an eye on the sky when traveling Interstate 94 near Monticello. You may catch swans flying overhead.
  • By mid-March, swans are often on their way to nesting grounds.
  • In Monticello, park visitors are expected to stay behind the fence. Trumpeter swans spook easily and are skittish because they cannot maneuver their large bodies well.
  • Swans are easy to see and enjoy without any special equipment, but binoculars are still nice to have.
  • For more information on swans in general, go to
Update April 27, 2011

Sheila Lawrence, Monticello's beloved "Swan Lady," died from cancer on April 2. The community is collecting funds to help feed the swans next winter in her absence. Donations may be sent to:

Monticello Trumpeter Swan Fund 
C/O US Bank Monticello Office 
307 Pine Street
Monticello, MN 55362.

Read more about Sheila and her beautiful Minnesota legacy.