Record number of swans on Upper Mississippi

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117269590113653.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of http://www.almaswanwatch.org‘, ‘Tundra swans, shown here at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the most visited refuge in the United States. The refuge extends 261 miles along the Upper Mississippi River from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill., protecting and preserving habitat for migratory birds, fish, and a variety of other wildlife.‘);

Last fall, a record number of tundra swans used the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge as a stop-over point during migration. On one day (Nov. 20, 2006) the Refuge held 52,070 swans, of which, 31,000 were in the Wisconsin Islands Closed Area in Pool 8 near Brownsville, Minn. The previous record was 34,730 swans Nov. 22, 2005. Counts since the mid-1990s ranged from 15,000 to 32,000 birds.

Refuge biologist Eric Nelson said: “The birds zeroed in on Pool 8 for three primary reasons: 1) the positive effects of the Pool 8 drawdown continue to produce duck foods; 2) restored islands protect birds and aquatic plants from cold winds and erosive wave action; and, 3) the Wisconsin Islands Closed Area (closed to hunting) worked well by reducing human disturbance, thus providing swans a secure place to feed in peace. The swans really fueled-up for their final push to wintering areas of Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina coast.”

The Refuge plays a crucial role in providing abundant habitat for migrating waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway. One way of evaluating the habitat is to monitor bird use with counts made during weekly aerial surveys. In 2006, surveys began Oct. 2 and continued through Dec. 6, near the end of duck hunting and before total freeze-up.

Back in the office, biologists use the survey data to document peak numbers and calculate waterfowl use-days. Peak counts are comparable, but they do not tell the whole story. Use-days reflect how many days the birds stay. Nelson said: “We learn from the birds how we’re doing. The more days they stay, the better the food source. The birds wouldn’t stay as long if the food and security wasn’t here.”

Waterfowl use-days are calculated by taking the average number of birds counted between two counts multiplied by the number of days between those counts. For example, if the first count has 1,000 birds, and the second count eight days later has 2,000 birds, there would be 12,000 use-days (average count of 1,500 multiplied times 8 days).

The number of use-days for all ducks, swans, and geese using the refuge this fall was a big number – more than 19 million. Winona District Biologist Lisa Reid said: “It’s a huge number because the refuge is a major component of the Mississippi Flyway. For example, the arrowhead bed in the Wisconsin Islands Closed Area was fabulous this year. So they had a reason to stay.” When Reid finished her calculations, there were more than 1.2 million swan use-days on the refuge, many more than previous years.

In the case of tundra swans, peak counts increased 50 percent from 2005 to 2006, whereas swan use-days increased 150 percent. The bottom line, not only were there more birds but they stayed longer in 2006.

The importance of the Refuge to migrating swans is on the increase. “The birds act like a report card and this year waterfowl seem to be giving the refuge an A+ on habitat in Pool 8,” said Refuge Manager Don Hultman.

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is the most visited refuge in the United States. The refuge extends 261 miles along the Upper Mississippi River from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill., protecting and preserving habitat for migratory birds, fish and a variety of other wildlife. This 240,000-acre refuge was established in 1924.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 96-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

From the Feb. 28-March 6, 2007, issue

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