Wings on the Mississippi


The demise of fall colors along Clinton’s riverfront signals the seasonal migration of waterbirds is underway on the Mississippi River. The great white pelicans have moved their fish trawling operations south. Thousands of ducks, geese and swans have arrived and are performing synchronized aerial acrobatics. Magnificent bald eagles are sitting vigilantly along the shoreline, searching for their next winged cuisine.

Conservation areas along the river form a chain of pearls that provide habitat and sanctuary for waterbirds. The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge contains 240,000 acres, extends 261 contiguous miles through four states, and borders Clinton. The refuge is a designated Globally Important Bird Area and a Wetland of International Importance.

Some waterbirds are here only for a refueling stop to dine at the marsh snack bar eating high protein seeds. Others book a longer stay and feast at the all-you-can-eat buffet of fish, snails, mussels and tubers. As winter approaches and ice hardens the river, the last stragglers will head south to warmer climates. Slow moving or injured birds become dinner for the many predators that patrol the marshes.

Large numbers of waterbirds attract attention, especially by bald eagles. During winter, there are typically 500 to 1,000 bald eagles present within a 50-mile radius of Clinton. A favorite bald eagle hangout is Lock & Dam 13 in Fulton. The highest concentration of eagles occurs after the river channel freezes. Ice cold water pouring through the dam stuns fish and creates a floating sushi banquet in the tailwaters that is easy pickings for hungry bald eagles.

A rare bald eagle nesting trio has provided a lot of local excitement. Last spring, the two dads, one mom and two chicks were viciously attacked in the nest by two marauding bald eagles. An hour-long fight ensued. Mom was never seen again, but the two dads successfully raised the chicks despite repeated attacks.

Miracles do happen, and a new eagle mom is now redecorating the high-rise nest. The new mom is a robust beauty that towers over the dads (females are larger than males) and rules the roost. Eagle dads apparently don’t know how to fashionably place sticks in the nest as mom repositions each one.

A live-streaming Internet webcam is located at the eagle trio’s nest. At night, tiny white eyeball illuminations are seen scurrying around the nest; closer inspection reveals mice doing house-cleaning chores. The eagles feed on much larger prey, especially coots, and don’t seem to mind their tiny furry roommates.

Another webcam is located at Lock & Dam 13 for bald eagle viewing. The webcam projects are a partnership between the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Stewards of Upper Mississippi River Refuge. The webcams can be viewed on the Stewards website:

A growing population of sandhill cranes is gathering locally in preparation for its migration south. Hundreds of cranes may gather in our area to chart their group flight south. These vegetarian and insectivorous feeders make frequent flights from the marshes to inland fields. Groups of cranes noisily chatter during their low-level roundtrip flights.

We are truly fortunate to have an abundance and variety of waterbirds at our back door. It provides a great opportunity to view many species of ducks, geese, swans and cranes. Take the time to come down to the river and enjoy the winged migration before Ole Man Winter turns the river into an ice arena.

Ed Britton is a Wildlife Refuge Manager on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and a volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.

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