On the wing: Swans trumpet at Monticello

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: January 8, 2013 - 4:24 PM

When to see thousands of swans on the river.

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Trumpeter swans gather by the thousands on open water below the power plant in Monticello, a sight to see in winter.

Photo: Jim Williams, Star Tribune

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Q When can we see swans on the river at Monticello?

A Don't go until lakes are frozen over, because the trumpeter swans won't show up on the Mississippi River in Monticello until there's no place else with open water. The season for viewing up to 2,000 beautiful swans usually runs from mid-December to March, but fluctuates with the weather. The swans are fed each day at 10:30 a.m., so if you're there around that time you'll see the big birds gather.

The Monticello Chamber of Commerce and Industry maintains an informative Web page, with directions to Swan Park, at www.monticellocci.com/pages/swans. And this year for the first time, there'll be a live online swan cam, once the big birds arrive.

Shrike sighting

Q We live in the suburbs next to a wetland and have seen a northern shrike twice in the past 19 years. How common are these birds?

A Northern shrikes are not common birds, but they're not rare, either. Several of us spotted two shrikes in Long Lake Regional Park in late November, for example. And Auduboners who do the Christmas Bird Count in mid-December nearly always come up with a shrike or two. It sounds as if you live near good habitat for the "butcher bird" (named for its habit of catching prey, then impaling it on a thorn or twig for later consumption). See a photo and learn more about these birds here: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_shrike/id.

Disappearing act

Q I'm so disappointed in my blue jays. I had been feeding them peanuts in the morning but right after Thanksgiving they disappeared. Could they have been killed by the sudden cold weather?

A Blue jays do seem to become somewhat scarce in winter: We had a noisy family in my back yard this summer, but now see only one quiet bird at a time. Winter's jays may not be the same birds we see in summer. Experts now describe blue jays as migratory, with jays from the north coming down to spend the winter, replacing "our" jays, who head southward for the season. I doubt that your jays succumbed to cold, because these are hardy birds that are used to cold and adept at finding food.

Winter dreams

Q A friend sent me a funny photo of a birdhouse with a woodpecker inside, sticking its head out. I was surprised because I didn't think birds nested in winter.

A You're right, birds don't nest in the cold (other than great horned owls, bald eagles and gray jays). This was probably a downy woodpecker who was sleeping in the birdhouse at night -- they're known to adopt nest boxes as nighttime roosts in fall and winter. As a bluebird trail monitor, I don't begrudge the downies a good spot to stay warm at night after the bluebirds depart. In fact, that's why we leave the nest boxes up year-round. I just wish the downies would stop enlarging the entrance holes, a bad habit that is totally unnecessary and makes the boxes less suitable for bluebirds.

Big egos

Q I feed lard to the birds by spreading it into holes I've drilled into a log. The birds think they're digging into a tree trunk to come up with grubs, good for their self-esteem, or so I fantasize. Should I avoid feeding the no-refrigeration lard, or is it harmful?

A I love the idea of you building up your birds' egos in this way. Reading up on lard, I see that it's pig fat and the kind that doesn't need refrigeration to remain solid has been hydrogenated. On the one hand, it's good to feed birds fats that won't melt onto their feathers, but on the other hand, do we want to be giving them a chemicalized food? I'd advise using the pure form of lard in the winter, then switching to a rendered fat, like that found in suet cakes, when the temperature reaches 32 degrees and higher. This is a serious issue for birds, because if oil reaches their feathers, they lose the ability to keep warm in winter or cool in summer.

Playing favorites

Q If you could have only one bird coming to your feeders, what would it be?

A Oh, brother, what a challenging question. Cardinals are such a cheering sight, but they usually appear in the near-dark at dawn and dusk, so aren't the easiest to see. Big, handsome blue jays are a treat, and so are upside-down nuthatches. I love to watch goldfinch antics as they squabble and switch places at the tube feeders. But there's one bird whose sheer exuberant curiosity and spunk I couldn't live without, and that's the black-capped chickadee.

Readers: We'd like to hear about your favorite bird(s) and the reasons why.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

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