Tundra Swans, Harper's Slough, Mississippi River, Iowa

I like to interrupt my series about our trip to North and South Dakota for a more actual story from right here, the Mississippi Valley. Yesterday, and again today, I drove up north along the mighty Mississippi River in search for migrating water fowl. North of Harper's Ferry, near lock and dam #9, I found what I was looking for. The area is closed to all migratory bird hunting and the birds obviously have figured that out. What I found was overwhelming and I was stunned by the numbers I saw. Several hundred Tundra Swans were present, maybe even close to one thousand. Beside them ten thousands of ducks and coots covered the Mississippi. There was no way to even just guess the numbers. The river is about two miles (3 km) wide at this point and the sanctuary stretches almost all the way across and is about 4 miles long. More than a dozen Bald Eagles were sitting in trees or messed with the ducks. The sound of all the ducks and swans was incredible and the distinctive call of the eagles was music for my ears. With certainty I identified Green-winged Teals, Northern Shovelers, Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Coots, Gadwalls, and a single Wood Duck. There were maybe other species further out on the river but even with my binoculars I couldn’t see them clearly. The Tundra Swans have quite a journey behind them already. Their breeding grounds are high up in Alaska and far northern Canada. They are easy to separate from the Trumpeter Swans, who breed here in Iowa, by a small yellow spot on the base of their black bill.

Ten thousands of ducks during migration

The tip where to look for ducks came actually from a couple local duck hunters, who just came back from a hunt and pulled their boat out of the river in Harper's Ferry. They claimed that we haven’t seen the peak of the migration yet because of the mild weather. After I outed myself as a photographer they were very helpful and gave me a good description how to get to the sanctuary.

Bald Eagle

The photo of the Bald Eagle was probably the easiest to make. The low afternoon sun lit the bird just right. The high contrast between the white of the Tundra Swans and the darker colors of the ducks were quite a challenge. Exposing strictly for the highlights was the only way to go for these documentary shots.