Flock to the Flyway


Alma goes to the birds to celebrate spring migration

Green heron (Photo courtesy of Al Cornell)

Alma is for the birds. And that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s the very reason why you should pay a visit to this charming 19th century river town, especially during the month of May.

With its location tucked under the bluffs along the Mississippi River, Alma provides an ideal spot for birds migrating between nesting and wintering sites along The Mississippi Flyway to rest and refuel before continuing on their journey.

That means Alma is also an ideal spot for bird-watchers, who flock here year-round to see the hundreds of different species that appear with each season.

In May, however, birding becomes a full-scale celebration. That’s when Alma hosts a month-long event honoring Great River Birding Month, with activities and displays throughout the community. Commercial businesses along historic Main Street each sponsor a migratory bird from the area, with displays and information about the specific bird.

The celebration culminates with the Great River Birding Festival on May 13, when Alma pays homage to International Migratory Bird Day, a conservation initiative that seeks to spread awareness of migratory birds and their habitats.

On this Saturday, Main Street will be decorated in the old Swiss/German tradition with young saplings and bird houses. Special events will be held throughout the day, including a screening of the film “Winged Migration” at the Big River Theater. There will also be live music, “For The Birds,” at the 3G Gallery along historic Main Street.

Wings Over Alma

No birding experience in Alma would be complete without a stop at Wings Over Alma, a non-profit nature and art center located right on Main Street. This facility serves as a hub of the Great River Birding Month activities and is a great place to begin your bird-watching journey at any time of year.

“Wings Over Alma is a good place to stop because there’s always somebody here who knows the area, so you’ll find somebody to help you,” said Riverland Energy Cooperative member Ron Geiselhart, one of the volunteers who staffs the center. “Plus we have a really good display case of pamphlets on various attractions in the area and different things to see.”

Wings Over Alma is a multi-faceted facility. The building includes a museum and art gallery, featuring local and regional artwork that’s inspired by and reflects the natural Upper Mississippi River environment. Exhibits rotate throughout the year; during Great River Birding Month, the featured exhibit will be a photography display, Birds of the Mississippi Flyway.

Museum exhibits teach all about The Mississippi Flyway, the various species of birds that navigate it during the spring and fall migration, and stopover sites such as Alma and their importance to migrating birds.

Wings Over Alma is also a unique urban nature center, with a 50-foot outdoor viewing deck overlooking the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge. Equipped with spotting scopes and binoculars to view the wildlife, this viewing deck is a great place to try to spot some of the species you’re sure to learn about at the exhibits inside.

In addition, Wings Over Alma hosts some unique birding events including the popular Birding by Mini-Train. This activity takes you through the Tiffany State Wildlife Area and the Chippewa River Bottoms aboard a Chippewa Valley Motorcar Association’s Mini-Train, with a knowledgeable bird guide and a train historian along to offer expertise. A spring migratory Birding by Mini-Train excursion is one of the featured activities during Alma’s Great River Birding Month celebration. This event requires pre-registration and fills up quickly, so contact the nature center soon if you’re interested (608-685-3303).

Nature Calls  

Of course, you don’t need an organized excursion to enjoy bird watching. The Alma area offers numerous options for those who’d like to grab a pair of binoculars and a camera and head out on their own.

“There’s almost an endless supply of great bird-watching areas up and down this river with good public access,” Geiselhart said. “There’s about a 20-mile stretch down Highway 35 as you head south toward Fountain City where you can throw a rock and hit the river while you’re driving, you’re so close to the water. There’s a wonderful array of swamps and backwaters there, and there’s an old dam site that you can walk down to.”

Geiselhart also recommends exploring the roads that cross the Buffalo River east of Alma, which feeds into the Mississippi. “That area is just full of wildlife,” he said. “Any little road that crosses that river is a gorgeous place to set up a camera. You’ll find cranes, egrets, blue herons, and all kinds of birds.”

Lock & Dam 4 is a great place to spot migrating birds. There are a number of great views of this spot in the Alma area, including this one, taken from Buena Vista Park.

Lock & Dam 4—a gateway to Lake Pepin—is another great place for bird watching, especially in winter when eagles stop to feed at the open water below the dam. Several spots in Alma, including the Wings Over Alma observation deck, offer great views of Lock & Dam 4 and the wildlife surrounding it. Another is Buena Vista Park, located 500 feet above the city at the top of the bluffs on County Highway E. This park is known as one of the best public viewing areas for migrating raptors. It also has wooded trails that are thick with songbirds like orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers.

Yellow warbler (photo courtesy of Al Cornell)

Just north of Alma is Rieck’s Lake Park, which offers two wildlife observation decks.

Tiffany Wildlife State Natural Area, also known as Tiffany Bottoms, is another site where a variety of species can be spotted. “That area is my favorite,” Geiselhart said. “It’s just full of woodland birds.”

The way Geiselhart describes it, the entire Alma area is going to the birds, and that’s a great thing. Plan a trip to Alma this May and see for yourself.

For more information about Great River Birding Month activities, visit almawisconsin.com or call the Chamber Visitor Center at Wings Over Alma, 608-685-3303. Email info@almawisconsin.com.