Fresh Air? Yes, please.

We are faced with strange times with the Covid-19 outbreak disrupting pretty much everything we know and do, and whether it’s to help us get outside or just cheer us up, there has never been a more welcome time for spring to take hold in this pretty corner of Minnesota. I don’t know about you, but I could use some fresh air, and Winona is blessed with a thousand ways to get it. In spring, though, there is one thing that makes wandering our wilderness especially delightful – the birds are back. Now, if that doesn’t get you excited, hear me out.

When I say birds, I’m not talking about robins and orioles and wrens and hummingbirds. Well, I am – those are fun to welcome back too – but I’m talking about those big, showy creatures that can cast a shadow on you when they fly overhead and whose wingspan equals the height of an average human being. Blue herons, golden and bald eagles, snowy egrets, swans, pelicans – these are the big kids on the river and they are touching down as we speak in our backwaters and river bottoms. In some places, you can spot a dozen eagles or more gliding on thermal layers eyeballing the river for lunch, or you can watch knobby-kneed blue herons skewering fish along the spillways and shallows.  It is a beautiful show and a welcome change of scenery from the walls at home you’re probably tired of staring at by now.

I guess I need to accept the fact that I’m kind of a bird nerd. I learned that about myself when I was sorting through some 10,000 photos in my archives, and I realized that 9,000 of them are of birds. Okay, not quite, but there was a clear imbalance towards winged creatures (except bats, which I appreciate but I’m terrified of, but that’s another story).

But let’s face it, even if you’re just a bird-liker, you really can’t do better than this stretch of the Mississippi River. Winona is blessed to be on a main flyway for migrating birds, many of which pause for a while, or for a season, to enjoy our beautiful river.

More than anything, Winona loves its blue herons – a stroll through town will reveal a number of six-foot-tall heron statues artistically painted and set outside storefronts and homes for passersby to enjoy. Part of the Blue Heron project a dozen years ago, the statues represent not only Winona’s deep arts culture, but also the fact that more than 1,000 nesting pairs of the regal birds call this stretch of the Mississippi home from spring till fall.

Their distant cousins, gorgeous white egrets, are nearly as plentiful, and a walk or paddle along any backwater offers a pretty stunning display of groups of birds sunning themselves, fishing and preening. My favorite place to take pictures of egrets is the Verchota Boat Landing on the Prairie Island Dike, though you have to walk a little bit to get to their hiding spot. From the boat landing, a little deer path cuts along the shore to the left leading to a small, shallow inlet hard to see from the boat landing itself. I can’t remember how I found it originally, I was probably lost or something. But there had to be 20 or 30 egrets back there that day and I was mesmerized. I haven’t been back there yet this year, but I believe the egrets have a rookery there and I think they’ll be back. Flooding might change the landscape along Prairie Island Road for a while, but the birds will make it work.

I know. I  just told you all a secret and now there will be 200 birders back there and we’ll screw up this whole social distancing thing. But you know what? I’m willing to take turns. It’s a secret too good to not share, and anyone who would slog along the shore on a deer path is okay in my book. Bring your camera, and pack a lunch. You’re going to want to stay for a while.

Want to know more on bird sightings around the area? Facebook has a group called Winona Bird Club where people regularly report their bird encounters. But even if you just want to wander around to find them yourself – this is the place. We have thousands of acres of public land for getting outdoors and stretching your legs. Pretty soon life will go back to normal and we will resume our ordinary routines, but strolling the river bottoms is an awfully nice way to pass the time until that happens.

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