- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
During summer, the many large, broad shallows and mudflats of Lake Onalaska, a large backwater of the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, are resting and feeding habitats for a variety of water-living birds.
This summer, I’ve been watching those birds on the Upper Mississippi River through a live camera sponsored by the Raptor Resource Project, Explore.Org, and our home computer screen. Readers can type in “live camera Mississippi Flyway” to find it via an internet search.
I always saw at least a few species of birds at once every time I watched that Mississippi backwater. And most of the species I saw are the same ones I see in person on the Susquehanna River in summer.
Many of the birds summering on the Mississippi are there because of an abundance of fish and roosting places on the flats. Hundreds of ring-billed gulls scavenge dead fish from the shallows and flats.
Smaller flocks of American white pelicans and double-crested cormorants catch and consume live fish, but in different ways.
Pelicans float together on the water’s surface and dip their oversized beaks at the same time in the shallows to scoop up fish. Cormorants dive under water from the surface to grasp small fish in their bills.
Bald eagles, great blue herons, and great egrets have other ways of catching fish. The majestic eagles swoop down from the sky and snatch fish from the surface with their strong, sharp talons.
And the stately, long-legged herons and egrets wade slowly in the shallows and lunge out their lengthy necks and bills to seize fish.
Other kinds of water birds, living in harmony among the shallows and flats of Lake Onalaska because of different needs, include groups of handsome mallard ducks, magnificent Canada geese, statuesque sandhill cranes, striking red-winged blackbirds, and entertaining tree swallows.
All these species nest among sheltering grasses, shrubbery, and trees on the flats. The ducks, geese, and cranes hatch youngsters on the ground, while red-wings raise young in grassy cradles on stalks of cattails, and tree swallows rear babies in tree cavities.
Goslings and their parents feed on aquatic vegetation in the shallows and grasses on the flats. The other species mostly ingest invertebrates of various kinds. Tree swallows are particularly interesting to watch sweeping low among each other over the flats and shallows to grab flying insects from the air.
By mid-July and through August and into September, individuals of a variety of sandpiper species, which raised young on the treeless Arctic tundra, sweep south by the thousands to escape the tundra winter, many of them landing on the flats and shallows of Lake Onalaska to feed on invertebrates before continuing farther south.
Flocks of sparrow-sized and brown least and semipalmated sandpipers, vigorously feeding on invertebrates in the flats and shallows, are inspiring and entertaining, as are swarms of summering tree swallows cruising swiftly over those same flats and shallows to snap up flying insects at the same time. But the sandpipers are difficult to see until they move or fly into the air.
Occasionally, a streamlined, fast-flying peregrine falcon dashes over the flats and shallows to startle the sandpipers into flight. When sandpiper flocks are airborne, and all individuals twist this way and that as one body to confuse hawks, the peregrine singles out a sandpiper to dive on and kill with its sharp, powerful talons.
Then the peregrine sweeps swiftly over the water, clutching its prey in its claws, to find a safe place to consume its catch.
Readers can bring up the Mississippi Flyway on their computer screens through the year. Summer is not over yet, and many birds will be resting on Lake Onalaska this autumn. Those birds, and other creatures, can be viewed as though readers are right there in person.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.