Minnesota’s trumpeter swan season

Swans dancing and prancing at Park Rapids. Photo by Marianne Diericks.

 Winter’s the best time to watch trumpeter swans

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Photo by Marianne Diericks

February ranks as one of the best months for viewing trumpeter swans, one of Minnesota’s most graceful and beautiful creatures. They’ve gathered by the thousands along Mississippi River in Monticello since resident Sheila Lawrence (dubbed “the swan lady”) began feeding them.

That, along with Department of Natural Resources efforts, has helped the swans make a steady and rather astonishing comeback. When I last wrote about them in 2004, there were an estimated 1,350 trumpeter swans in the state. There are now about 5,500.
Deane Park on the Fish Hook River, Park Rapids. Photo by Rik Meyers.

Trumpeter swans weigh up to 35 pounds, stand up to 5 feet tall, and measure up to 8 feet wing tip to wing tip.

One of the nation’s largest birds was almost extinct by the late 1800s as people used everything from the swans’ hide to feathers. There were no trumpeter swans left in Minnesota until swan restoration programs began more than 30 years ago.

Where to watch wintering swans
Warm water discharged from the nuclear power plant keeps a stretch of the Mississippi River open in Monticello, which has long been the Midwest’s biggest gathering spot for trumpeters. With the swans’ comeback, they’re showing up in new locations with open water during winter’s cold snaps.

One of their new gathering places is Deane Park in Park Rapids, about two hours north of St. Cloud. About 50-60 of the birds are spending the winter where the Fish Hook Lake meets the Fish Hook River. Residents bring regular donations of feed.
Crow Wing River. Photo by Rik Meyers.

It’s a handy location with close to 400 lakes in the area. That makes it easy for swans to head out and find their own lake for nesting and raising their young. It’s much harder to spot them in the summer behind high reeds and lakeside shrubs, but keep an eye out on Itasca State Park’s wildlife drive. You might get lucky.

Honking swans & showing off
  Winter rules as best time to enjoy the spectacle of swans—especially for photographers who can catch the birds in large groups swimming among ice chunks and drifting through fog.
Mid-winter is courtship season—think bar scene for birds. Expect incessant honking, like nature’s version of a traffic jam. Males posture and flap their giant wings to look tough and impress future mates.
Fish Hook River. Photos by Rik Meyers.

 It’s almost meditative, too, to stand and watch the ever-changing formations

and behaviors. One group will effortlessly merge and paddle
into a perfectly straight line. Others will form circles and exuberantly
bob their heads and honk as if swapping gossip they can’t wait
to share.
“You can almost tell what they’re saying to each other,” said Sheila Lawrence, Monticello’s swan lady.
“It’s just so much fun to watch them. It’s like watching a soap opera.”

Swan-watching tips

  •  Best viewing times are often 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Keep an eye on the sky when traveling Interstate 94 near Monticello. You may catch swans flying overhead.
  • By mid-March, swans are often on their way to nesting grounds.
  • In Monticello, park visitors are expected to stay behind the fence. Trumpeter swans spook easily and are skittish because they cannot maneuver their large bodies well.
  • Swans are easy to see and enjoy without any special equipment, but binoculars are still nice to have.
  • For more information on swans in general, go to www.trumpeterswansociety.org.

Update April 27, 2011

Sheila Lawrence, Monticello’s beloved “Swan Lady,” died from cancer on April 2. The community is collecting funds to help feed the swans next winter in her absence. Donations may be sent to:

Monticello Trumpeter Swan Fund 
C/O US Bank Monticello Office 
307 Pine Street
Monticello, MN 55362.
Read more about Sheila and her beautiful Minnesota legacy.