Swan Watching on the Upper Mississippi River

The swans are in! The text messages buzz and excited voices relay the information. Friday night, October 23 was a good night for flying if you were a tundra swan. Freezing temperatures turned water to ice at all points north signaling to migrating waterfowl that it was time to move on. Reports from Winona and surrounding communities were that “strings” of swans could be seen heading downstream with the “who-hoo who-hoo” calls being heard throughout the night. And then they landed at points along the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (Refuge) for everyone to enjoy.

The tundra swan migration is a highlight of the fall on the Refuge. At their peak, which usually occurs the second week of November, there can be as many as 50,000 swans on the Refuge. They will stay until the backwater areas where they feed are frozen and then, often in one evening, they will all disappear. They leave as they arrived, young following old to the Chesapeake Bay and points south to the Carolina shore. They often complete this 1,500 mile jaunt in a single non-stop flight.

Unfortunately, the Friends of the Refuge Headwaters annual swan watch bus tour will not be offered this year, but you can still see swans on your own. So grab binoculars, dress for the weather, and head out for some great swan watching!

The best locations to see swans on the Refuge are:

  • Weaver Bottoms, Weaver Minnesota, best viewing is from the service road on the west side of Hwy 61 at 116th Avenue (mile marker 45) which accesses the St Mary’s Cemetery.
  • Brownsville Overlook, approximately three miles south of Brownsville, Minnesota, this is a pull-off on the east side of Hwy 26 overlooking the Mississippi River. Plenty of parking but this is a popular stopping and viewing location which will be less crowded during the week.
  • Shady Maple Overlook, approximately 3 ½ miles north of Stoddard, Wisconsin, this is a pull-off on the west side of Hwy 35, watch for the “Scenic Overlook” signs.

Check out the Refuge website at www.fws.gov/refuge/upper_mississippi_river/ for more information.

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