Celebrating the fall migration
Mid-October through mid-November is an amazing time to see water birds on the Upper Mississippi River as they stopover on their long migration journeys! As staff and volunteers share estimates of bird counts on the river, we'll update this page to share the news.
When do the birds arrive?
"When will the birds arrive?" is always a popular question! The dabbling ducks and American white pelicans usually arrive first in late summer and begin to increase in number in September and October. Diving ducks begin arriving a little later in mid-October, and tundra swans usually begin arriving in late October or early November.
Weather greatly influences when the birds arrive, how long they will stay, and how concentrated they are on the river. As temperatures get colder in the northern regions of North America, birds begin to move south from their summer habitats when the bodies of water near them start to freeze over. Once they arrive to the Mississippi River, some birds will stay here until it gets cold enough for the water here to begin to freeze too, while others move on earlier due to other external cues like length of daylight. When the Mississippi River freezes quickly, we see birds more consolidated in areas where there is still open water. When it freezes more slowly, we still see large numbers of birds, but they may be more spread out over open water. The tundra swans will usually stay around until the river ices over more completely, and the peak of their migration is typically the second or third week of November. With lower water levels this year, the peak of migration will be a little more difficult to predict.
Why do they come here?
The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge lies within the Mississippi Flyway, which is kind of like a superhighway in the sky for migrating birds! As one of the largest bodies of water in the Midwest, the Mississippi River takes longer to freeze in the fall than smaller rivers or ponds and is also an easy visual for birds to see from high above. For migrating water birds that depend on finding aquatic plants, insects and fish to eat, they can find high quality food sources and shelter from the elements along the braided river channels of the refuge.
Recent bird sightings
There are many excellent places to see birds along the river! The following locations are points where staff conduct weekly biological surveys and/or are some of the most popular walk-in or drive-in locations where refuge staff and volunteers are regularly able to visit to estimate bird numbers. We will continue to add locations as birds increase on the river and as staff and volunteer reports come in. These sites are visible on the refuge Pool Maps. NOTE: These sites are not all updated on the same dates so some are more current then others.
Pool 5 - Weaver Bottoms
The best place to see swans in the Weaver Bottoms area is from 116th Avenue/service road adjacent to MN Highway 61 near St. Mary's Cemetery. This location is about 17 miles north of Winona, MN.
Weaver Bottoms boat landing observation platform
- 143 swans north of the landing at a patch of open water.
- 53 bald eagles along the shoreline watching a few thousand ducks and Canada geese that were in a patch of open water on the northeast shoreline.
Weaver Bottoms viewed from the St. Mary's Cemetery road next to Hwy 61
- 222 swans
- 600 Canada geese
- 34 bald eagles
Pool 5 - Other Locations
Whitewater River delta and Swan Island in Weaver Bottoms, viewable from Hwy 61 east of the cemetery
- 3,000-5,000 canvasbacks, scaup, mallards, gadwall, pintail, American wigeon, bufflehead, common goldeneye,
- 115 bald eagles
Sommerfield Island area north of Minnieska
- 3,000-5,000 mallards, pintail, American wigeon, wigeon, gadwall, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, scaup, canvasback
- 14 swans
Aquatic vegetation bed near the Minnesota shoreline at the John Latsch State Park
- 68 swans
- 91 Canada geese
- 20-30 mallards
Pool 8 - Brownsville Overlook
The Brownsville Overlook is located about three miles south of Brownsville, MN off of MN Hwy 26. There are two spotting scopes available at this overlook. Binoculars are helpful, but birds can usually be viewed from the overlook deck even if you don't have a pair.
50-150 mallards, pintails, gadwall, and green-winged teal
15-25 common goldeneyes, bufflehead, and hooded mergansers
20-40 Canada geese, mostly downstream a bit from the overlook
100-250 swans fairly close to the overlook. There were no swans at the head of Cant Hook Island nor in the Raft Channel for most of the afternoon, and the numbers in front of the overlook decreased as the afternoon wore on to evening. Interestingly, there seemed to be many more trumpeters than "usual" mixed among the tundras in front of the overlook, allowing lots of people to make side-by-side comparisons.
Dozens of bald eagles
One great blue heron occupied his usual spot at the downward tip of Cant Hook Island right in front of the overlook, and two more herons flew in to the near-shore marshy area just below the house boats. One pelican somehow snuck in without being seen until it emerged from the rice right in front of the overlook around sundown.
Pool 8 - Hwy 26 Overlook
The Hwy 26 Overlook is located about 3.5 miles south of Brownsville, MN off of MN Hwy 26. Binoculars are helpful but birds can often be seen from the deck without them.
1000-2000 mallards, pintails wigeon, gadwall and green-winged teal, shovelers (they were feeding by diving!) and black ducks
200-500 ring-necked ducks, common goldeneye, and bufflehead
200-500 Canada geese
Dozens upon dozens of bald eagles, many of them flying right in front of the overlook.
A fair amount of the visible areas were covered in ice but there was plenty of open to draw in high numbers of birds.
Pool 8 - Shady Maple Overlook
The Shady Maple Overlook is located a few miles south of La Crosse on Hwy 35, just south of Goose Island Park.
- A few hundred swans scattered throughout the area
- A few hundred Canada Geese
- A few hundred mix of dabblers and divers
Voluntary Waterfowl Avoidance Areas
There are few places quite like the refuge to experience the fall migration! Boaters enjoying the river can help keep this a great place for people and wildlife by watching out for special Voluntary Waterfowl Avoidance Areas during the peak of the migration. From October 15 through mid-November, all boaters are asked to avoid these "refuges within the refuge" to give waterfowl a place to rest without being startled off the water. Voluntary Waterfowl Avoidance Areas are marked with either orange-and-white buoys on the water or orange-and-blue Special Regulation Signs posted along area boundaries. These locations are also shown on the refuge Pool Maps. Making this change for about a month of our lives can make a big difference for theirs! Thanks for being part of our conservation community and for playing a role in their survival!