By Kate Crowley
Looking around your yard or neighborhood, you might think that migration has been completed, but it is still in progress. The largest birds are the last to migrate; specifically, the swans, bald eagles and hawks. I was reminded of this last week on several different occasions.
In both Moose Lake and then in Sandstone, on two different days, I looked up to see a pair of swans flying in a southerly direction. Even with grey skies behind them, and not able to see their blinding white plumage, their large wings and long neck were definitive. Plus, their wingbeats are much slower than that of geese. In the past, some people have shot swans claiming that they thought they were Snow Geese. There is no comparison in size and you cannot call yourself a waterfowl hunter if you confuse the two.
Trumpeter swans were extirpated from our state in the 1800s due to overhunting. They continued to migrate through, but they did not stay to nest. Strong reintroduction and recovery efforts beginning in 1969 by the Hennepin County Park Reserve and later by the DNR in the 19880’s have resulted in more than 2,400 free-flying swans in Minnesota. While the initial goals for reproduction and population increase have been met, concern remains about their future, since they still face habitat (wetland) loss, illegal shooting and most dangerous of all – lead poisoning; about 40% of Minnesota's trumpeter swan fatalities are caused by lead poisoning. Lead shot and fish sinkers are responsible for more than half of those deaths.
Many of the swans will spend the winter in Minnesota, if they can find open water. The most popular gathering spot for swans and people who want to see them is in Monticello. For 20 years the birds have been gathering on a spot on the Mississippi River below the nuclear power plant and local people have taken over the task of feeding them. Seeing hundreds of these snow white birds in a snowy, winter landscape is a sight not to be missed.
Mike and I were driving to the cities on Friday and as we approached Hinckley on I35, I noticed a couple eagles perched in some tall trees close to the road, then I saw two more flying towards the trees and then I saw two more flying on the other side of the Freeway! I know at least one was an adult with a fully white head and tail. Gray skies did not let me see the others well enough, though I am sure at least some of them were juveniles.
Most of the eagles are leaving northern Minnesota too. They are among the last ones to be counted at Hawk Ridge up in Duluth, usually into November. The adults might very well linger in our region; again, like swans, if they can find open water, or if they are able to scavenge enough road-killed deer or leftovers from deer hunters. It would seem that these great raptors are following the freeway going south, rather than the St. Croix River which should offer better good selections, but maybe they were just taking a break at Hinckley as so many other travelers do.
Finally, on that same day, as I was driving on the freeway through Minneapolis and St. Paul my eye was drawn over and over again to hawks (most looked to be Red-tails) perched on the street lights that line the roadway. This is something we might see all winter long, if the snow doesn’t get too deep. In the grassy slopes and ditches on either side of the road there must be a good amount of rodents - their main prey base. The Rough-legged hawk, and the Northern Goshawk are counted well into November at Hawk Ridge.
Two final recent observations: Though I haven’t seen any myself, there have been sightings and postings of Snowy Owls already showing up in northern Minnesota. At the same time I have seen flocks of Snow Buntings (beautiful, little, white and black birds). Both species spend most of their lives in the Tundra of Canada, but are seen in Minnesota in years with hard winters further north. I know the forecast has been calling for a mild winter here because of El Nino, but these recent arrivals makes me wonder.