I usually spot the first flock of migrating American coots (also called a raft) arriving on Lake Waconia between Sept. 10-18. That has been a constant over the last 30 years or so. By late September, and through November, we’ll see big numbers of these birds, sometimes in huge flotillas of a thousand or more on some southern Minnesota lakes.

American coots are about a foot long. They’re charcoal gray with a blacker head and a thick white bill. Both sexes look alike. Coots are the most aquatic members of the rail family, moving on open water like ducks and feeding with them.

An American coot nods its head as it swims. I enjoy hearing their voices, a varied chorus of clucking and chattering notes. Coots are excellent swimmers and divers. These birds must patter over the water with their wings flapping to become airborne. They eat various aquatic plants and some insects, and will also come up on land to feed on seeds and grasses. When they do, you may be able to see their green legs and big feet. They have lobes along the toes, which are better-suited to swimming than walking.

Coots spend the winter in the southern United States, Mexico and Central America.

Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.