A year ago I wrote a blog about the tundra swans at Brownsville, Minnesota. I try not to repeat myself in my blogs, but the swans are such a spectacular sight that they deserve a second mention. 

I worried I might miss the swans this year. Thousands of the birds show up near Brownsville every autumn just after Halloween, settle in, and then stay until first ice forces them south and then east to the Chesapeake Bay. This year an unseasonable cold spell hit the Upper Mississippi Region early, and I feared that we would go from early autumn to winter in about a week. When I saw ice fishermen already on the backwaters (although the ice is too thin to get me out there), I assumed the shallows near Brownsville had frozen over and the swans had departed before I had a chance to see them.

Last Friday I drove to Brownsville on the off chance that a few birds remained. Even after the shoreline freezes up, a few hundred swans sometimes stick around in the open main channel until they have no choice but to leave. To my surprise, all of or nearly all of the swans were still around.  There was only one pair within a hundred feet of the observation area, but the river at Brownsville is more than a mile wide, and there were, I am guessing, 20,000 birds in the distance. The odd thing was that the area nearest me, which usually is jammed with swans, had had yet to freeze over, but almost no birds were there. I speculated, although I have no support for this theory, that the water was too deep. The Mississippi River has been high all summer, and it remains high. Maybe the arrowhead tubers (the swans’ favorite food at Brownsville) did not develop in their usual places – or if they did develop, were in water too deep for the swans to reach. The shallows around the manmade islands farther from shore might be the better feeding grounds this year.

Because the swans were so far away, I spent much of my time looking at eagles. During most of the year, bald eagles on the Upper Mississippi keep a distance from each other, but come winter, both permanent residents and migratory winter guests congregate around any open water. It seemed to me that the eagles were coming together early this year. Maybe the lakes and rivers farther north already were frozen solid, so raptors from the north had moved in. We saw at least fifty eagles, one so large I wondered whether it might be a golden eagle rather than an immature bald. Overall, birding has not been great this fall, but my afternoon of swans, eagles, mallards, and what I think were golden eyes was a good close to the autumn birdwatching season. 

Steven Simpson