Tundra Swans

by Norm Jensen

© 1999 Norm Jensen

During the middle of October, I was going to attend the annual meeting of a biology educators group that I have been a member of for many years. This year it was to be held in River Falls, Wisconsin. Since I'm retired from teaching I don't have to be back in the classroom on Monday mornings and thought that we'd take a more leisurely return route to Decatur. So this trip had a little more planning than most that I take - much to my wife's delight! I tried to find some things that we could do on the way back that would be along the lines of birding or visiting natural settings. A friend, Karen Baird, gave us some help because she had been to that same region the week before and was planning to attend the same meetings in River Falls. By coincidence, I happened to pick up a copy of Bird Watcher's Digest (Sept/Oct '99) and came upon an article about the Tundra Swans that migrate to Rieck's Lake, near Alma, WI which is along the Mississippi River and south of River Falls. That same article gave the URL for a website (www.mwt.net/~swanalma) which gave daily updates about the migration of the tundra swans. I logged on and found some interesting information about the tundra swans and their migration patterns. According to information from the year before, the movement of the swans would just be starting during the time we were in Wisconsin.
The meetings concluded on the 17th of October and we left for Alma that same day. It was about an hour and a half south of River Falls and we arrived around 4 p.m. Rieck's Lake is right along Highway 35-- The Great River Road. We went to the viewing platform, which is manned by "birders" from mid October through November, to aid people in identifying the various waterfowl and swans present. There were several spotting scopes set up for viewing. Unfortunately for us the migration was just starting and there were only 25 -30 swans that had reached the Lake. Janet and Ed Beck were there about 2 weeks later and saw approximately 300 swans. It was still exciting to see even a few of these large birds fly in and land! The Tundra Swan is a beautiful bird, all white except for the beak and feet which are black. They carry their necks erect when on the water. They vary in size from about 4 to 4 1/2 feet long with a wingspan of about 7 feet. They were called the Whistling Swan but are now the Tundra Swan. They nest in the tundra or sheltered marshes on the Alaskan and Canadian tundra near the Arctic Circle. The swan population which migrates through Alma, stays at Rieck's Lake for several weeks, with the peak numbers arriving in mid November.
At the time of this writing, the web site notes that only 600 birds have reached Rieck's Lake. Peak numbers are somewhere between 2,000 -6,000. They will stay around the Lake until late November or freeze-up. This particular population does not continue south in its migration but instead turns east and winters in flocks on ponds, lakes and estuaries along the east coast near the Chesapeake Bay and inland marshes of Virginia and North Carolina. (There is a western population of Tundra Swans which uses the Pacific flyway and winters in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys of California.) Swans are members of the Family Anatidae which also includes the ducks and geese. We saw a number of other waterfowl on the Lake before leaving but then continued our journey. We stayed at the Trempealeau Hotel - a quaint place, and the following morning hiked the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, seeing a lot of ducks and Great Egrets.
We then headed south along WI 35 through La Crosse. Just south of La Crosse, Karen and Lori saw a viewing place along the road and overlooking the Mississippi and we stopped to see the river. On the other side of the river we spotted approximately 80 - 100 white pelicans which were still feeding. This was an added bonus and we felt very good about seeing them. White Pelicans do migrate south and were probably waiting for colder weather to drive them south to the Gulf states. In addition to the pelicans we observed a good number of Double-crested Cormorants still in the area. They also migrate to the Gulf states. By this time we had used up our "birding" time and had to get back to Decatur. The Tundra Swans were a first for Lori, Karen and me. I had seen the White Pelicans before but this was a much better view. If you get a chance to see the swans, do so--it's worth it! They'll be there through the end of November but according to the web site the best viewing is in the middle of the month.

copyright 1999 Norm Jensen, all rights reserved

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