The most memorable animal sightings are the unexpected ones. The first whale I ever saw breached not fifty yards from where I stood on the steps of the Point Reyes lighthouse. Not as spectacular, but just as surprising, I once stared into an evening campfire on an autumn camping trip, felt something against my foot, and looked down to see a skunk calmly sitting between my legs. It seemed as entranced by the flames as I was.

Disoriented whales and friendly skunks are a matter of luck. They are the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. If a person spends enough time in nature, once-in-a-lifetime moments like these happen.  

There is a second kind of animal sighting that, while not entirely unexpected, is just as exciting. It is when a person intentionally goes someplace with hopes of catching a glimpse a particular animal and then has the experience significantly exceed expectations. For example, Manyu’s sister and brother-in-law who live in rural Thailand wanted Manyu and me to go with them to look for a farmer’s field they’d been told had lots of bats. Once we got close, we didn’t know which of a hundred small agricultural plots was the right one, so we asked a saffron-robed Buddhist monk who was walking along the road. We were just starting to think that the monk had given us bad information, when a few dozen bats emerged from a crack in a nearby hillside. Within a minute the trickle became a steady stream, and after thirty minutes, we’d watched at least a million bats pass directly overhead.   

I am writing about this second kind of wildlife sighting because November is the season for La Crosse’s own guaranteed over-the-top wildlife display. From Halloween until early December, 25,000 tundra swans gorge themselves on arrowhead tubers just north of the Genoa Dam on the Mississippi River. These birds leave their northern Canadian nesting grounds in mid-September. On their way to Chesapeake Bay, they annually feed along the Upper Mississippi Flyway until first ice moves them along.

The best viewing of the swans is across the river from La Crosse, so last week Manyu and I drove over to a spot near Brownsville, Minnesota. It was late afternoon when we got there, and the adjacent bluff cast a broad shadow over the open water nearest to shore. Mallards and Canada geese swam in the shadows, but all of the swans stayed far enough out that they were still in the sun. I hypothesized that, after a summer above the Arctic Circle, they’d grown accustomed to direct sunlight. I will return to the swans at least one more time before they leave, and I will make a point of arriving earlier in the day. Even if the swans are closer to shore when I visit again, I still won’t know for sure whether it is the position of the sun that brings them in. 

Steven Simpson