From the Arctic to Aruba: Migratory Waterfowl Take Refuge in Wisconsin Waters

Several species of water fowl use Lake Monona for a migratory stop-over each fall. Photo: The Capital Times, Michelle Stocker   

As fall turns to winter and layers of skim ice form in the bays and shallows of Madison’s lakes, another seasonal phenomenon is taking place on the open water. Currently, the far eastern bay of Lake Monona near Olbrich park is filled with thousands of migratory water fowl. 

From water birds like the American coot, to ducks like mallards and buffleheads, to Canada geese and tundra swans, the lake provides an important rest stop to birds as they head to their winter residences.

Tundra swans congregate on the ice edge in the middle of Lake Mendota, December 30, 2012. Photo: Steve Carpenter

The tundra swans, for example, are in the middle of a 4,000 mile migration from their breeding grounds in the Alaskan and Canadian arctic tundra to milder climes along the eastern seaboard – places like Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina shoreline.

Tundra swan range map. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Some of the ducks, like the mallards, will hang around all winter as long as they can find some open water. But the buffleheads are coming from northern climes similar to the tundra swans as they head to pretty much anywhere there’s a coastline, like southern U.S. states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

And don’t let the shy, easily spooked American coots fool you, they are impressive migrants, bound for far-flung winter ranges in South America and the West Indies.  

American coot range map. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Wherever these birds are headed, our lakes, rivers and wetlands provide important habitat as they undertake these long, hard journeys that are crucial to their survival. As they cruise high above the earth, they’re always keeping an eye out for good habitat and, even better, other waterfowl to share the water with – signalling that a flock has found safe harbor.

And when they find it, it can be magical. Earlier this month, I was headed along the lower Mississippi River when, somewhere outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, I noticed flock after flock of snow geese out the windshield. The Mississippi River is a major flyway for migratory birds and no doubt many of the birds currently stopping by in Madison are soon headed that way. 

What they’ll find is different, of course, than the birds’ traditional flyway. The geese I saw were headed not for the Mississippi wetlands their ancestors would have used for stopovers (that land has long been plowed under or developed) but for rice fields that farmers flood each fall to provide needed habitat.

The flooded fields are a group effort – agriculture working with environmental groups working with duck hunters working with state agencies. And they are prime destinations during migration. 

It was affirming to see birds carrying on the life cycles than have sustained their species for eons. It was a very real connection between land, water and air and that us humans aren’t the only beings concerned with the quality of our freshwater resources!

So if you get a chance this week, walk down to a lake near you and see who’s stopping by. Chances are, they’re headed to places far, far away and they are appreciating the opportunity to rest and refuel.