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The Upper Reaches of Birding

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge provides year-round birding activity

Charles & Marsha Kessler

Red-breasted Grosbeak
In Beaver Creek Valley State Park in Minnesota, you may spot a Red-breasted Grosbeak among many other birds.

Wooded bluffs, marshlands, wooded bottomlands, open water and prairies create the patchwork of habitat that is the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. With the Mississippi River flowing through its heart, the refuge attracts millions of winged visitors a year.

It is no surprise that 40 percent of the country's waterfowl visit during spring and fall migrations. Perhaps even more important, more than one-third of the species in North America pass through or nest here. While impressive to contemplate, these numbers are even more exciting to experience.

The longest river refuge in the contiguous United States, it stretches more than 260 miles along the Mississippi River. Beginning in the north at the mouth of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin and ending near Rock Island, Illinois, the refuge has existed since 1924.

The Upper Mississippi differs greatly from the river below its confluence with the Ohio. The bluffs consist of layered sandstone from ancient beaches and limestone from dead shellfish, remnants of the shallow seas that covered this portion of the states. The deep valleys amid the bluffs developed after massive erosion when the first two glaciers that covered the area melted. Rising 500 feet above the river, the bluffs create a unique corridor that attracts a diversity of migrating and nesting birds.

In recent years, several agencies — including Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy — have implemented habitat restoration projects in and near the refuge. These projects increased the area's attractiveness to waterfowl, Neotropical songbirds, herons, raptors, shorebirds, swans and American White Pelicans. Nearby state parks, scientific and natural areas, adjacent refuges and well-placed viewing platforms provide easy access for public use.

That access proves useful year-round. While spring and fall migrations see the greatest variety and numbers of birds, summer birding is very active. Thousands of Bald Eagles winter here, giving hard-core birders something to do in the coldest months.

Within a small portion of the refuge near La Crosse, Wisconsin, close to two dozen areas provide wonderful opportunities for great birding. We will highlight a few spots that are exceptional for birds and for natural beauty. Many local birders drive a "loop," hitting several spots on one bank of the river and crossing to the opposite bank to complete the circle.

Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge
This 6,200-acre Trempealeu refuge was once a backwater of the Mississippi River. Recently built dikes and water control structures emulate the river's natural cycle of flood and drought creating ideal conditions for resting and feeding migrants.

The wetlands, bottomland forests and rolling sand prairies attract more than 29 warbler species and a total of 250 species at the height of migration. More than 100 species nest here.

Even at peak visitor season, very few people use the refuge, making it a peaceful place for birding. On a typical early-fall morning, we were the only people present. The four-mile wildlife drive kept us busy with small flocks of various species, including Broad-winged Hawks, Sandhill Cranes and Grasshopper, Lark and Savannah Sparrows. When we stopped at the observation deck overlooking the marsh, we saw and heard tens of thousands of birds including American Coots, Black Terns, Pied-billed Grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, American White Pelicans and half a dozen species of puddle ducks.

Tundra Swans are abundant in late fall as well as during spring migration. According to Fred Lesher, local Audubon president, walking the Kiep's Island Dike produces Sprague's Pipits, Lapland Longspurs, Pied-billed and Horned Grebes and shorebirds during late summer and fall.

The refuge is open year-round from dawn to dusk. Besides using the wildlife drive, you can hike, bike, snowshoe or cross-country ski to observe the wildlife. Hand-powered craft or boats with electric motors may be launched at the landing near Kiep's Island. Maps are available at headquarters and kiosks.

From La Crosse, take Highway 53 north to Highway 54 west. Follow 54 west to Centerville, and continue 3.1 miles to West Prairie Road. Turn left on West Prairie Road, and drive one mile to the refuge entrance.

Perrot State Park
It is easy to see why the 1,400-acre Perrot State Park is so popular. Located in the bluffs on the eastern shore of the Mississippi, it is simply beautiful. Steep bluffs, sand plateaus, backwaters and the confluence of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers create a habitat that supports a variety of plant, animal and bird life.

You can hike the bluffs up to native grasslands — called "goat prairies" — or choose the easier Riverview Trail that winds along Trempealeau Bay. The steep bluff trails are well worth the effort, as large numbers of warblers visit during spring and fall.

While both spring and fall migrations include hundreds of species, spring is best for spotting waterfowl, shorebirds and Tundra Swans. Duck hunting on Trempealeau Bay reduces the numbers of waterfowl in the fall. More than 70 species nest in the park, including Green Herons, Pileated Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, Osprey, Ovenbirds, Prothonotary Warblers and Swamp Sparrows.

South of Trempealeau NWR, the park sits 20 minutes north of La Crosse via Highways 53 to 35 through the town of Trempealeau. Signs will direct you to the park. A state park sticker (good for all state parks) is required; Wisconsin offers yearly, daily or hourly stickers.

Goose Island County Park
Goose Island County Park sits in the Upper Mississippi refuge. It has two nature trails, the inland Biers Lake trail and the Wigwam trail that winds along the edge of the island on the Mississippi side. Each of the level, easy-to-navigate trails offers an hour-long hike.

During spring, migrating warblers visit this spot. Look for Cliff Swallow nests near the entrance bridge from May thru July. With Biers Lake, marshlands and several sloughs, this area attracts to migrating waterfowl, many of which are visible from the well-maintained roads on the island. Bald Eagles winter here.

Located just south of La Crosse, the park is two miles south of the junction of Highways 35 and 14/61.

Brownsville
Crossing to the western side of the river, you'll find a consistent spot to observe Tundra Swans, pelicans, ducks and geese south of Brownsville, Minn., on Highway 26. A small parking area overlooks a backwater covered with thousands of birds during migration.

From the Wildcat Landing sign south of town, drive 2.9 miles to a pull-off on the right. This is a drive into state forestland barred by a pipe gate.

Look across the road to the river, and you might see Canada Geese, Tundra Swans, Wood Ducks, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Black Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, Canvasbacks, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Mergansers and American Coots, all mingling by the many thousands. In the spring, Sandhill Cranes might visit Wildcat Creek along Highway 26.

A popular early-spring loop is south on Highway 26 through Brownsville to Lansing, Iowa; across the river to Ferryville, Wis.; and up the eastern side of the river on Highway 35. At Ferryville, thousands of diving ducks — such as Greater and Lesser Scaup and Canvasbacks — take advantage of the newly open water, while geese, swans, pelicans and Sandhill Cranes waiting for the ice to melt before going up the river.

Beaver Creek Valley State Park
Traveling west from Brownsville, you'll find Beaver Creek Valley State Park, a favorite spot for local birders'. It attracts an abundance of wildlife with spring-fed Beaver Creek running through the lowland hardwoods and a wide diversity of plant species.

Acadian Flycatchers nest here as well as Eastern Wood-Pewees and Least Flycatchers. Louisiana Waterthrush is found here about 1/2 mile up the main hiking trail where limestone ledges line the creek.

Other nesting species include Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Scarlet Tanager, Veery, Blue-winged and Cerulean Warblers and Indigo Bunting.

More than 20 warbler species migrate through the area. Even a cold, wet day of birding in mid-May turned up more than 30 species, including six different warblers, vireos, flycatchers, Veery, Indigo Buntings and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

During fall, you can see swarms of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feeding on the jewelweed along the creek and trails. Pack a lunch, and plan to spend the day on the eight miles of hiking trails.

You'll find the park five miles west of Caledonia, Minnesota, on County Road 1 off Highway 76. A state park permit is required to enter; daily permits cost $7; yearly permits, $25. Permits allow access to any Minnesota state park.

Whitewater State Park and Wildlife Management Area
One of the most popular birding parks in southeast Minnesota, Whitewater State Park and Wildlife Management Area covers nearly 30,000 acres of valleys and bluffs that have been restored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Conservation.

More than 235 species use this area throughout the course of the year. Numerous artificial and natural wetlands attract waterfowl and shorebirds, while 600 food plots and planted native grasses provide safe nesting and food for many species.

Good birding occurs year-round. Red-shouldered Hawks and Bald Eagles nest and winter here, while Golden Eagles annually winter in the area. More than 30 species of migrant warblers and vireos visit during spring and fall. Cuckoos, owls, numerous sparrows, herons, egrets, flycatchers and woodpeckers are a few of the species that nest here.

You can see the water impoundments by car from unpaved but well-maintained Highway 74, but we recommend hiking the levees around the ponds. All types of ducks and water birds occur throughout the wetlands.

The wildlife management headquarters includes a feeding station with a stand of large pines and springs to attract birds year-round. Side roads and hiking trails of varying length and difficulty provide more opportunities to spot birds.

To get there, follow US Highway 61 north along the Minnesota shore until you reach MN 74 at Weaver. Turn west onto MN 74; it will take you southwest through the wildlife management area and the state park.

Check out more birding hotspots here.

Excerpt from WildBird March/April 2006 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.


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Posted: November 1, 2013, 5:45 p.m. PDT

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