When we first started seeing all of the swans in the river, we started looking for a spot to pull over on the highway, then finally saw the sign for the Scenic Overlook - 1/2 Mile Ahead on Left. I'm not sure who was responsible for this Brownsville Overlook (maybe the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources), but it was a really nice and newly completed viewing area with lots of parking spots and this informational signboard.
Here's some information on Tundra Swans by Stan Tekiela from his "Ducks & Geese of Minnesota Field Guide."
Tundra swans are the smallest and most numerous of our swans and they're called Tundra Swans because they nest on the open tundra of Alaska and northern Canada. Pairs form in the fall before migration, with bonds lasting many years, if not for life. They may have 4-5 babies and both parents take turns incubating the eggs. The parents lead the chicks to food and then the chicks copy the feeding behavior of the parents.
The chicks stay with the parents for a year and are distinguished from the adults by their gray plumage and pinkish bills. The juvenile in the photo below looks much grayer than juvenile in the above picture.
They tip forward in the water to feed and with the aid of their long neck, they're able to reach down and tear off aquatic plants from the bottom of the river or lake. The picture below shows only one "tipped-up" (at the left side of the picture).
According to Stan, we will only see them here in Minnesota during the fall migration. They will fly non-stop for 2-3 days from Alaska down to North Dakota and Minnesota. They gather in great numbers--up to thousands (see photos below!) in large lakes and rivers to rest and feed, often staying until the water freezes before continuing on their migratory journey. Then they fly another 2-3 days to wintering areas on the East Coast. In the spring, they will migrate north up the eastern seaboard, turning west across northern Canada to return to their spring and summer home.We didn't drive any further south than this Brownsville overlook, so I'm not sure how much farther downriver these swans were, but it was amazing to see the sheer numbers of them in this approximately 1-mile stretch of Mississippi backwaters.
They were doing quite a bit of vocalizing and it was really neat to hear all of them calling to one another. We ended up standing outside and watching them for at least half an hour--until our lips started going numb from the wind and cold. We finally got back into the vehicle and turned on the heater so we could watch them a little more while we warmed up. We wondered if they all leave on the same day or if they take off in little groups until everyone is gone? Wouldn't it be amazing to be there if they all decided to take off the same day?
I'm glad my sissy was able to come along with me on this trip. It's going to be my second best birding adventure with her (our first and most memorable will always be the Great Gray Owl irruption trip we went on in February of 2005).
And now, as promised, here's the longer movie (20 seconds) of swans.
Thanks for coming along with me on this Tundra Swan trip--hope you had a good time. Someday I hope each of you will get a chance to see these magnificent birds in person. If you ever decide to take a trip to Minnesota in late November, I would be happy to be your host!