During the months of September through December, about 40% of all North American migratory birds use the Mississippi Flyway to travel from as far away as the Arctic coast of Alaska to tropical Central America. It is no surprise that during this migration the Winona area becomes a birder's paradise.
Bird watching or "birding"¯ as it is sometimes referred to, has become big business throughout the United States. Based on a report produced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2001, 46 million birdwatchers spent $32 billion on the hobby of bird watching. And the Winona area is prime territory for this recreational activity.
On a personal note, I am a bird watcher and bird photographer. I spend most of my time traveling along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in search of one of those National Geographic, once-in-a-lifetime photographs. Although I have never taken that once-in-a-lifetime photograph that will gain me worldly fame, that hasn't stopped me from photographing birds whenever I can.
Here in the Winona area, bird watching is a year-round event. It doesn't matter what time of year it is or what the weather might be, there is always something to see. One of my favorite times of the year however, is late autumn when the air is crisp, skies are blue and the sound of thousands of tundra swans can be heard as they make their way down the Mississippi River.
True to their name, tundra swans spend their summers along the Arctic coastline from western Alaska to the eastern Canadian providences breeding and raising their young. During the summer months they spend the majority of their time on dry land, but once migration begins they prefer open water.
The open waters of the Mississippi are the perfect place for them to rest as they travel towards the Atlantic coast where they over-winter. In some places near Winona there are sometimes tens of thousands of these beautiful white birds resting and feeding"”the sound is deafening at times.
The swans will usually stay until the river begins to freeze over and then it is off to the East Coast of the U.S. for the remainder of the winter. This usually occurs in mid to late November, but some years they will stay until December.
Birders that visit the area don't just show up for the swans however. This is also prime time for viewing bald eagles. Bald eagles primarily eat fish, and as the river begins to freeze over, as many as a hundred or more of these majestic birds can be found fishing just below the lock and dams.
Although the summer months bring lots of travelers to the Winona area, don't be surprised to find carloads of birders with their spotting scopes, binoculars and cameras focused on tundra swans and bald eagles as they make their way down the Mississippi.
Alan Stankevitz lives near La Crescent. You can learn more about his self-sufficient lifestyle at www.daycreek.com