MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Birds & wildlife

All eyes on Wabasha

Bald eagles are drawn to this Mississippi River town, along with flocks of binocular-toting visitors.

Along the Mississippi River, the fortunes of Wabasha have risen right along with the once-endangered bald eagle.

Eagles reappeared slowly after DDT was banned in 1972, and one of the first places they could be seen was in this Minnesota town, just downriver from the mouth of the Chippewa River, which kept water open in winter so eagles could fish.

The city built a deck downtown and staffed it with spotting scopes and volunteers from November through March. 

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Cranes of Wisconsin

Near Wisconsin Dells, a global village of birds lives, loves and thrives.

In Wisconsin, the rarest birds in the world live not far from the Dells.

Not just any birds, but cranes — the tall, elegant birds of art and myth.

In ancient Japan, cranes could grant wishes. In India, they're omens of good fortune.

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Eyeballing bison

Once creatures of Old West yore, the national mammal can be seen in a park or preserve near you.

Like bald eagles, bison have staged a spectacular comeback.

Now, the massive creatures that once roamed the plains by the millions has joined the national bird as the national mammal.

Herds have grown, including the genetically pure herd at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and have shared bison with parks and preserves in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.

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Wildlife reality show

Web cams open a window into the lives of bald eagles.

In the northeast Iowa town of Decorah, two pairs of nesting bald eagles have become an international phenomenon.

Not only do they have a constant stream of live video, but avid watchers are snatching the best episodes — capturing the many dramas that go on in and around the nest — and posting them on Youtube for everyone to enjoy.

The Raptor Resource Project has dubbed them Nestflix and posts links to the highlights on its Facebook page, along with regular and often entertaining updates and explanations.

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Life on Horicon Marsh

At an avian rest stop, humans learn about life on the wing.

On a spring morning in east-central Wisconsin, two geese suddenly shattered the stillness, honking urgently. Yellow warblers zoomed down from trees and out of sight. Redwing blackbirds clung to cattails, swaying in the stiffening wind.

It was only 6:30 a.m., but it was rush hour on the Horicon Marsh.

A human here feels oddly out of place, a lumbering interloper on a fast-moving avian freeway. Birds own this marsh, and they aren't shy about saying so, rending the air with trills and tweets as they go about their business.

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Owls, owls, everywhere

Influxes of magnificent birds have birders hurrying up north.

In the north woods, irruptions of owls make birders ecstatic.

When food is scarce in far-north forests, owls fly south to look for it, many along the shores of Lake Superior.

I don't have the patience to watch birds. But when they come right to me . . . who can resist?

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Birding by rail

On Wisconsin's Chippewa River, a little train rolls into a bird-watcher's Eden.

If you don’t know a birder, you might think they have a severe case of attention-deficit disorder.

They tend to stare off into space. They often stop talking mid-sentence. It’s hard to finish conversations with them.

But their enthusiasm for nature is contagious. And in spring, birders know all the best places to go.

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Spring bird festivals

After a long winter, birders welcome the return of feathered friends.

By April, the harbingers of spring are on the move.

"The spring migration is well underway!'' comes the report from wildlife refuges. "Eagles and swans, Canada geese, robins, sparrows, sandhills cranes have arrived!''

Where there are birds, there are birders — and bird festivals. Those are especially nice for beginners, who don’t yet have the skills to find and identify birds.

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Owl aboard

In southeast Minnesota, a live-wire named Alice inspired a late-winter festival.

Like most women who take care of small creatures, Karla Bloem splits her life into two parts: Before Alice and After Alice.

Before Alice, Bloem could sleep late and travel whenever she felt like it.

But then little Alice came along. Alice wakes her up at the crack of dawn, sulks if she leaves her and leaves messes all over the house. Alice is a spoiled brat, Karla Bloem admits.

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Looking for bald eagles

In winter, the cold forces the birds to go where they're easier to see.

If you want to find eagles, the most important thing to know is they work only as hard as they have to.

When lakes up north start to freeze, eagles will head for the nearest open patch of water. In December, that's often on the northern stretches of the Mississippi River flyway, between Red Wing and Wabasha, Minn.

"They're still trying to decide where to spend the winter," says Pat Manthey of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

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Open sesame on the sloughs

In winter, eagle-watchers and snowshoers can explore frozen Mississippi byways.

For people who love nature, winter is a time of opportunity.

When it's cold enough, you can walk onto the Mississippi River. You can see bald eagles up close. You can explore sloughs and backwaters without being eaten alive by insects.

"Most of these places, you'd almost die in a few minutes in summer," says Scott Mehus, education specialist at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. "So now is a good time to get out there and see things."

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Where eagles land

Near winter gathering spots, towns capitalize on the birds' popularity by throwing festivals.

Eagles don't really have lovable personalities. But, man, are they fun to watch.

Those haughty pale eyes, that 6-foot wing span, those wicked talons and the flesh-shredding beak — eagles are just plain cool.

Everything about them is larger than life, right down to their nests, which are so big and sturdy that bears sometimes climb into them to hibernate.

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Hawk heaven

On a ridgetop in Duluth, bird watchers keep eyes on the fall skies.

On Duluth's Hawk Ridge, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in the sky.

They're impressive when spotted overhead. But up close, it's easier to get to know a bird — say, the northern goshawk, a fierce predator whose image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.

As she held a young goshawk by the legs, naturalist Willow Maser struggled to make herself heard above its high-pitched screeches.

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5 great places to watch birds in fall

Tag along with experts, and you'll get to see the migration up close.

In fall, the birders come out to watch the annual migration of hawks, waterfowl and swans.

The rest of us come out to watch the birders, because they see things the rest of us don't.

At the annual Hawk Weekend on Duluth's Hawk Ridge, renowned author and ornithologist Laura Erickson had eagle eyes trained on the sky, as usual.

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Wings over the Mississippi

Tundra-swan watchers have a honkin' good time during the November migration.

In the sloughs of the Upper Mississippi, birds of a feather flock together.

Bird-watchers, especially. On chilly days in late fall, they crowd onto wooden platforms to watch tundra swans paddling around sloughs of the Mississippi River.

This big bird needs a lot of fuel for its flight from the Arctic Circle to the marshes of Chesapeake Bay.

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Winter weekend in Monticello

Come for the swans; stay for the shopping and skiing.

Not far west of the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River town of Monticello is known for two things.

Passersby on I-94 can't fail to notice the nuclear-power reactor that marks the town. In winter, it's the power plant that attracts a flock of trumpeter swans, which think the plant's warm discharge waters are a little spa just for them.

Of course, the flock of swans draws a flock of swan-watchers. One January, my husband and I were among them, standing along the shore of the river and marveling at the raucous crowd of hundreds of birds, jostling for food and attention.

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Snow birds

A wintering flock of trumpeter swans has put Monticello on the map.

It's winter in Monticello, and the livin' is easy.

For trumpeter swans, the largest water bird in North America, the Mississippi River town is a virtual Club Med, thanks to balmy waters from the nuclear power-generating plant upstream and a daily all-you-can-eat spread of dried corn.

The first swans showed up in the winter of 1986, as the late Sheila Lawrence was feeding the ducks and geese in the yard of her riverside home. They appreciated her hospitality, and every year more came, first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.

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Beguiled by bears

In northern Minnesota, the man who loved bears left a legacy for thousands.

Half a century ago, a Minnesota logger who lived in a forest full of hungry bears decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

By the time he died at age 86, Vince Shute had fed generations of black bears, become best friends with a bear named Brownie and inspired bear-lovers all over the world.

Shute wasn't a sophisticated man, but he had a heart.

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Playing the field in Wisconsin

In April, the kooky courtship of prairie chickens brings out the bird watchers.

It's a cold dawn on a Wisconsin marsh, but to a bunch of prairie chickens, it's a hot Saturday night on the town.

They've come to see and be seen, and hormones are in charge. It's serious business, perpetuating a dwindling species.

But to humans watching from a blind, it's high comedy. Whenever a girl chicken is nearby, the boys inflate neon-orange sacs under their throats, drum their feet and start scurrying around like, well, chickens with their heads cut off.

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Ely and the three bears

At the North American Bear Center, visitors meet some big personalities.

Everyone loves a teddy bear, especially one called Ted.

He's likely the world's largest black bear, at 850 pounds, but he doesn't throw his weight around.

When a fellow bear doesn't want to play, he merely whines, "like a foghorn,'' says curator Donna Phelan. And when he wants to make friends, which is all the time, he makes a "wonderful amiable sound, an umph-umph-umph.''

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Birding with the pros

In spring, a symphony of trills and chirps draws hikers into the woods.

In April, birds return to the woods.

They're easy to hear, but not to see. Unlike spring wildflowers, birds don't stay put.

A flash of yellow likely is a warbler, but which kind — chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, magnolia, Wilson's? And those tweets, twitters and trills —  who's making them?

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