Friday, December 21, 2012

Feathered Feast


Thanksgiving dinner was a raucous affair. Thousands of guests dived in head first, gobbling up the delicate greens and crustaceans. Some preferred crisp white tubers, seeds and grains. Frog legs, fish, and escargot tempted the tastes of still others. New arrivals joining the feast from the far north appreciated the mild weather and plentiful food. Some guests took breaks from eating to nap in a quiet, out–of–the–way area, while others bathed noisily nearby.


You may think my family is a bit odd, but we were not alone. A couple dozen other birdwatchers with spotting scopes and binoculars had also stationed themselves at various overlooks along the Mississippi River on Thanksgiving Day. We chose the narrow, winding, graveled Red Oak Road just south of Lansing, Iowa, for our observation point. The road hugs a hillside above the railroad tracks, overlooking a marshy backwater of Old Man River.


Nearly half of North America’s bird species, and about 40 percent of its waterfowl, spend at least part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway. It is a globally significant flyway and habitat for more than 325 species of birds. We spotted Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Hooded Mergansers, Canvasbacks, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup, Wood Ducks, Mallards and more. They dove, dabbled, floated and napped in the early afternoon sun.


The Mississippi River’s watershed covers 41 percent of the continental U.S. as it stretches across the heart of the nation. Still, it is only one section of the longest migration route in the Western Hemisphere. The flyway continues north along the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories of Canada, finally reaching its northern terminus on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. While most birds only follow this route as far south as the Gulf of Mexico or Central America, some shorebirds fly all the way to Patagonia at the southern tip of South America.


Without warning, some unseen danger startled the feasting birds, and about half the dinner party took to the air, calling and honking wildly. The flash of sunlight on the Tundra Swans’ white feathers was breathtaking. From take-off en masse, the flock divided into long strings and V’s, self-organizing according to avian guidelines I can’t even imagine. Soon, smaller groups of a dozen or fewer circled back and made their splash landings in the backwaters. The supposed danger must have passed or never materialized.


Unfortunately, the coyote or eagle that may have startled the group might not be the biggest danger they face. Invasive species, pollution, flood control, droughts, land-use practices, and agricultural run-off all threaten the health of the river for both human and wildlife use. What will happen to this gorgeous feathered spectacle in the future?


For today, none of those threats was deterred the birds, and my family simply enjoyed the chance to stand in the sunshine and watch intercontinental travelers go about their amazing lives.


And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?

And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?

And have you changed your life?

                        Mary Oliver, The Swan


For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013.


Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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