Carolyn and I traveled to Monticello, Minnesota on January 2nd to satisfy a long time curiosity of mine. Long before we entered Monticello, we saw the steam plume from the cooling towers, where water from the Mississippi River is diverted to cool the materials used in the production of electricity.
I had heard that trumpeter swans congregate in Monticello in the Mississippi River there during the winter, due to the outflow of cooling water at the nuclear power plant. The water discharged by the plant is significantly warmer than the watercourse it enters. This (thermal pollution) is one of many controversies surrounding the use of nuclear processes to generate electricity. This is one instance in which that environmental impact has a felicitous result (in addition to adverse impacts on fish, mollusks and other water critters) - hundreds and hundreds of birds over-wintering in the open water, even in double digit below zero winter weather.
Trumpeter swans were nearly hunted to extinction in the US and were absent entirely from Minnesota when in the 1960s the Hennepin Parks System began a captive breeding program with eggs collected from Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. In the 1980's DNR's Steve Kittleson brought eggs to Minnesota from Yellowstone National Park, and began a captive breeding program. Later, the DNR's Carrol Henderson made three trips to Alaska and brought back swan eggs. The Monticello cadre started with 15 birds in 1987-1988, and has grown to somewhere in the range of 1,200 to 1,500 birds now.
Another reason that the swans and other birds congregate in this segment of the river is the Swan Lady, Sheila Lawrence. Each day between 10 am and 3 pm, Lawrence feeds the birds more than 1,200 pounds of corn. So much that a grain hopper is parked outside her garage. Her home is adjacent to Monticello's Swan Park, though I think the park probably was established after this dedicated woman began supporting the bird population. There is a split rail fence in place to keep the viewing public well away from the birds. They are not habituated to any human but Lawrence, and can be dangerous to approach. Their wingspan is 7.5 to 8 feet and they weigh around 35 pounds.
We pulled into the parking lot at the Swan Park, spent a few moments tugging our clothing tighter around us and collecting our cameras, binoculars and spotting scope. When I opened the car door, it was like entering another world. Loud swan vocalizations crowded out any thought but awe. I truly was not prepared for the scene when I arrived at the riverfront park.
The swans were very active feeding, flying, bathing, swimming, and interacting in all sorts of ways from tender to testy.
I know I'll be going back to the park when the weather is warmer - but the population begins to disperse in February and by March are gone, so it will have to be before then. It was well worth the short drive, and tour through the countryside after a wrong turn.
In addition to the swans, there were Mallards, Canada Geese, Goldeneyes and Scaup. And one bird I could not identify - maybe a Mallard hen, but what about that vertical white stripe on her head?
Source: Monticello Trumpeter Swans-Nature's Elegant Gift, The Drummer, Buffalo, MN, 12/25/05, p. 1; Do It Now-Go Swan Watching, St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul, MN, 1/07/07, wire service; Swan Spookings Lead to a Call for Courtesy, The Monticello Times, Monticello, MN, 1/18/2006.