Birdwatch at Swan Lake
Checking out an avian hotspot from a water's-eye view.
Bob Dunlap (DNR zoologist)
Birding by canoe offers a perspective on Minnesota’s birdlife not available to those on foot, and one of the best places to experience this is Swan Lake in Nicollet County. On the water, you gain a heightened sense of intimacy with the sights and sounds around you. Least bitterns, most often invisible from shore, stoically perch at the edges of cattail islands as you drift silently by. Black terns and Forster’s terns swarm overhead, sometimes within an arm’s reach, as you approach their well-hidden nests. Western grebes dance in tandem as part of a truly spectacular courtship ritual; in a canoe, you have a front-row seat to the performance.
Although it was roughly twice the size it is now before it was drained for agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Swan Lake—and the nearby shallow wetlands and marshes that make up the Swan Lake State Wildlife Management Area—remains an avian hotspot. My introduction to exploring the lake by water came during my college years at Gustavus Adolphus in nearby St. Peter, when an English professor who also had birds on the mind invited me to join him. On a warm afternoon in early May, we launched our canoe from the public access on the lake’s northern end in Poor Farm Bay. Within a few minutes we were hearing the pumping sounds of American bitterns along the lake’s marshy edge amid a chorus of marsh wrens, swamp sparrows, and raucous yellow-headed blackbirds. Farther out in the open water, diminutive eared grebes flashed their breeding plumage not more than a few yards from us as groups of canvasbacks, redheads, and ring-necked ducks constantly dove below the surface and reemerged not more than 20 seconds later. The highlight was gliding by a common gallinule perched atop a muskrat mound, its bright red bill with a yellow tip standing out like a beacon among the green marsh grasses.
As water levels vary from season to season and year to year, so can the birds. In years of drought, canoeing may be impossible since the receding water exposes mudflats. These mudflats, however, can attract a multitude of sandpipers and other shorebirds during migration, birds that would otherwise fly over Swan Lake in times of high water. In wetter years, you can expect to see more diving birds like grebes, scaups, double-crested cormorants, and even a common loon.
Swan Lake by Boat
- The best places to get on the water are at developed watercraft accesses at Poor Farm Bay on the lake’s northern end and Nicollet Bay on the south side. An undeveloped carry-in access in the northwest, near Courtland Bay, is difficult to use when water is low.
- Carry a map and a GPS or other navigation device since it can be difficult to determine your location on the water. Canoeists and kayakers may encounter motorized watercraft, which are allowed on the lake, but most use small motors or mud motors due to shallow waters and submerged aquatic vegetation.
- Once you’re on the water, there are not many places to land, as most of the lakeshore is private and islands are surrounded by heavy shoreline cattail growth. Johnson Island and Anderson Island, located in the waterfowl refuge in Loon Bay, are closed to public access.
- For more information, contact area wildlife supervisor Stein Innvaer at [email protected] or 507-225-3631.
Swan Lake by Land
Not birding by canoe? Check out these areas on foot:
- Nicollet Bay Main Unit, about 2½ miles west of downtown Nicollet on U.S. 14 and north on the dirt road, has a close approach to the marsh. Watch for black-crowned night-herons as they fly low over the marsh.
- Middle Lake Unit, about one mile north of downtown Nicollet on Minnesota 111 and east on the dirt road, hosts a restored prairie. Grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, and western meadowlarks are summer residents in the prairie, and both LeConte’s and Nelson’s sparrows pass through in May and again in late September/early October.
- Duck Lake Unit, 1½ miles east of Minnesota 111 on County Road 5, is a good place to look for nesting grebes and trumpeter swans.
Note: Construction in 2022 and 2023 will close sections of U.S. 14 west of Nicollet, but any detours will be posted.