Pelicans and Eagles ABOUND as Mississippi River Opens

Ice has begun to clear from the Mississippi River, and like clock-work, our puddle ducks, diving ducks, White Pelicans, Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes and Tundra Swans have begun the great move northward. About the 5th of March, we were already hearing the Cranes and the Tunda Swans. This week, the great white Trumpeter Swans have begun passing our porch windows into the small ponds and creek of the valley. For the past four days, large pods of White Pelicans are clustering all along the river from Stoddard to Goose Island. Sandhill Cranes are now establishing their territories and making a rukus!

Except for a sloppy snow day today, river birding has been great. As the weather clears up visit the many roadside rest areas along Highway 35 in Wisconsin. Bald Eagles are abundant–a couple dozen at a sweep of the eye, clustered along the floating ice sheets and beside the big black nests. Happy Spring!!

Last word on Snow Country

Photo by Rich Middleton, White Phase Sparrow, flying with a flock of field sparrows near La Crosse, WIWell, now that our Sandhill Cranes, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, Kestrel, and Canada geese are back in the valley, my observations on snow country must suddenly give way to spring. But not before I share some pictures of one of my favorite “collector” items…Every so rarely a genetic WHITE PHASE appears in animals that are normally not white except as albinos. But the two pictures shown here are not albinos, but a “white phase” black bear and a “white phase” sparrow.

I’ve also heard of river islands with concentrations of “white phase” muskrats, and “white phase deer”, and of course, white phase buffalo.  I’d love it if you could share photos of your “white phase” creatures for use in a future feature article.

Any way, the short story is that these “white phase” or “Spirit” creatures are expressing recessive genes that helped to protect the species during the ice ages. In Wisconsin, a northern game warden told me that in his life time, he’s only heard of two white phase bear cubs… both in the vicinity of Superior, Wisconsin. Hmmm… makes sense. The same game warden has seen only one white phase sparrow… nearly 40 years ago. I wonder if the white phases of various birds of prey are also expressing recessive genes related to living along the edge of glaciers?

Anonomous Photo, White Phase Black Bear Cub, near Superior, Wisconsin

Above is a very rare “white” black bear cub. Also known as Kermode or “spirit” bears. Normally found only in areas where the recessive white gene was encouraged by small populations cut off from the larger populations, probably by glacier formations. The white gene would have been advantageous to bears living on the edge of the snowfields.

Young Boy with Chickadee in Hand


 Photo by Rich Middleton, boy with Bird, Goose Island near La Crosse, WI

This  photo is a favorite of mine. We were cruising through Goose Island County Park when we stopped at a feeder to capture photos of birds and deer feeding on corn and bird seed left by Sunday sightseers. We watched with interest as a Grandpa began to encourage his two grandsons to feed the wild chickadees from seeds in their hand.

In 30 years of birding, it had never occured to me to try that!

“Could I try that, too?” I asked him? So he gave me some seeds and I watched as the chickadees and nuthatches hesitantly and delicately landed on my fingers to eat the seeds! What a wonderful sensation to feel those feather light little feet on my fingers!!

Then another car stopped and five kids jumped out.

“Could we feed the birds, too?” And they, too, lined up along the road, arms outstretched. The nuthatches and chickadees ate from their hands also!

What a wonderful, unexpected, experience that generous man provided to all nine of us passers-by! It’s something I hope to experience with my grand-kids as well.

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