The staging of migrating Tundra Swans on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River is an Iowa birding spectacle that many travel to see each fall. On November 16, 2019, 10 young birders, parents, and grandparents traveled to Allamakee County to see these magnificent white birds along with other migrating waterbirds. Armed with an information sheet outlining differences in key characteristics of the three species of swans we see in Iowa (Trumpeter, Tundra, and Mute), we set off down Red Oak Road on a gorgeous fall morning with spotting scopes in hand.
Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees called to us as we strolled down the road in the warm morning sun, and Red-bellied, Hairy, and Downy Woodpeckers announced their presence while flying from tree to tree. We stopped occasionally along the road to view waterfowl that found some open water among the ice sheets on the river - flocks of Canada Geese and Mallards along with an occasional small group of Common Goldeneye and Buffleheads. We heard the swans before we saw them as we neared our vantage point, their high-pitched “hoo-hoo” echoing off the bluffs. The excitement was definitely building!
We crested a small hill at which there was a gap in the trees along the road, offering us the perfect view of the river below. From here, we enjoyed fantastic views of the nearly 300 Tundra Swans that were loafing and feeding on the river along with several Bald Eagles. Flocks of migrating ducks were consistently flying down river. The challenge of trying to identify them on the wing and at a distance was quite fun! We also had great looks at small groups of Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads actively diving, and a duo of both American Wigeon and Canvasback were a treat. Enjoying the fabulous weather, we watched the waterfowl for nearly 2 hours, breaking away from the spotting scopes occasionally to catch glimpses of a Bald Eagle overhead or a Black-capped Chickadee flitting through the branches of a nearby tree.
As the sun went behind the clouds, we decided to head back to the cars and travel to the Driftless Area Education Center near Lansing to finish our morning. Managed by the Allamakee County Conservation Board, this fantastic resource combines nature with the history of the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa. The hour spent here definitely sparked curiosity among our group!
We’re grateful to Iowa birder Billy Reiter-Marolf from New Albin, who graciously scouted the area and provided us with valuable updates on access and local birds. You can view photos from our morning here and our species list here.