Spring migration has brought lots of birds back to the St. Croix River, both to find nesting grounds and on their way to other breeding grounds. There are ducks and raptors, warblers and wading birds.
In Hudson, hundreds of American White Pelicans have set up camp, while loons have found refuge in Stillwater (they are also in Hudson and elsewhere).
Both species are staging on the St. Croix while their nesting range is still locked in ice. Loons mostly breed in northern Minnesota and Canada, while pelicans are headed for the prairies of western Minnesota, the Dakotas, and western Canada.
The late spring surely has something to do with their presence. Loons can usually be seen on the river during migration, but there seem to be more staying for longer this year.
Pelicans are not so common. In fact, the birds have only recently recovered after being wiped out in the region. In 1968, there were zero pelicans in Minnesota; today there are about 22,000 nesting pairs. Because they nest in large numbers in specific habitat — small ponds and lakes on the prairie — they are easily affected by habitat destruction.
Easily scared off their nests by humans, decimated by West Nile Virus in the 1990s, and affected by pollution from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they have proven resilient.
In Hudson, I watched them cruising around like warships in close formation. It turns out they hunt as a team, swimming close together to herd fish where they can be more easily swallowed. Their preferred prey are rough fish like suckers and carp. I watched several plunge their heads into the water and bring it up with a fish tail still sticking out.
Here is a short video by Art Juchno of Hudson:
Others soared around the river, gliding on their nine-foot wings. It was a wild sight.
The loons near the Boom Site seemed to be mostly asleep. A few had their heads-up, but the rest were tucked under wings, drifting in a quiet water where the current wouldn’t carry them away while they slept.
Loons can barely move on land, their legs so far back on their bodies they only push themselves on their bellies on shore far enough to build a nest. They also have a hard time taking off from the water, weighed down by solid bones. Both those reasons apparently mean they sleep afloat — young loons are thought to not touch land for the first two years of life, which they mostly spend on the Gulf of Mexico.
In the past couple weeks, birds have trickled back into the area. Some were unlucky enough to experience a snowstorm. Here are a few I’ve photographed:
Note: I’m always interested in reports from your neck of the river, please email observations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The future ranges of both pelicans and loons are expected to be altered in the decades ahead as global warming causes changes in habitat. Within 30 years, pelicans may actually start to spend the winter on the St. Croix (they currently head for Texas and the Gulf Coast), while loons are predicted to be driven out of Minnesota and Wisconsin, except during migration.