As I stood on the banks of the Mississippi River at Verchota Landing last week soaking in the sunshine I felt the chill of winter melt off me and I knew – THIS is spring.
In front of me, literally hundreds of birds of every sort were angrily swimming and flying away from me after I disrupted their peaceful float into the shallows of my favorite landing on Prairie Island Road. Before I clunked down there with my noisy boots and my big, shiny camera, the birds were clustered in the warm, shallow water right next to shore, I’m sure loving the spring sun as much as I was. From the looks of it, no one had bothered them in a while, because where they were floating was actually over the parking lot thanks to a spring thaw that has filled the Mississippi beyond its banks.
Okay yes, I might have been kind of breaking the rules going down there, if the barricade going across the road meant anything. I mean, I did have to climb on rocks to go around it because I guess the landing is closed, but it’s not like I was going to walk out in the water and sit on a half submerged bench because I couldn’t tell it was flooded. I just wanted to see that gorgeous display of spring migration a little closer.
The birds, of course, had other ideas. As they hurried for a safe distance from the intruder, I spotted canvasbacks, or maybe they were redheads, or wigeons – because frankly I’m not that good, along with mallards and some geese and one lonely swan, and a bunch of other ducks I couldn’t begin to guess at. Whatever they all were, it was beautiful watching them lift off the water en mass, even though it meant all those pretty pictures I was going to take flew away with them. The geese were thoroughly chewing me out as they went, and only the lonely swan seemed unfluttered by my presence and actually came a little closer for a look. It was so calm and so strangely alone I wondered if it used to be someone’s pet, and one day decided to answer the call of the wild. Or maybe it thinks it’s a goose like that Ugly Duckling story – but then I guess it would have to think it’s a duck… whatever. Or maybe it just doesn’t like other swans.
Anywhoo, I was sad that I didn’t have more time, because I knew if I just sat down and was still long enough they’d probably all come back in and let me have a closer look at them. Maybe. I did hear once that birds view a big, round camera lens like a predator’s eye, but who knows if that’s true because hey, ducks can’t talk. I do know that in late spring and early summer I can go sit along the side shallows of this landing and watch a pretty spectacular display of egrets, who use it as a rookery, and a bunch of their duck friends without them getting too excited.
On this day there were no egrets – I thought they’d be wandering back by now, especially since I saw two sandhill cranes (!) fly over me two weeks ago on the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. And I’ve seen a handful of blue herons – my favorite river bird – flying around. I wish someone would send a memo to the egrets and tell them spring is here in Winona and it’s time to get crackalackin.
In the meantime, if you feel like trying to sneak up on one of nature’s best displays on the Mississippi River, you can’t do better than Verchota Landing, underwater or not. But if you go, you’d better wear quiet shoes and bring a folding chair and a snack – patience is a virtue here. And save me a spot, but if I’m not there say hi to my buddy the swan for me.