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Taking wing: A birdwatching trip on the Mississippi River

More than 300 species of birds use the Mississippi River Flyway for their annual spring and fall migrations–here’s where to go to see the show.

Bald eagle at National Eagle Center, Wabasha Minnesota
National Eagle Center, Minnesota (Credit: Explore Minnesota)

Twice each year in the heart of America, you’ll see a massive movement underway. Enormous flocks of migratory birds follow the Mississippi River between summer breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States and wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico. More than 325 bird species make the trip on the Mississippi Flyway, heading south in the fall and north in the spring. The Great River Road National Scenic Byway traces the flyway and is the perfect path to follow on a birding road trip. All along the Great River Road you’ll find parks and scenic lookouts where you can enjoy the show.

Birders travel this route with binoculars, cameras and books that identify the different species. Some make a game out of tracking how many different species they discover. Others just enjoy the quiet majesty of birds in flight along the Mississippi. We’ll join them on a Mississippi River birding adventure.

Day 1 – Wabasha, Minnesota to La Crosse, Wisconsin

We’ll start our birding fun in Wabasha, Minnesota at a center dedicated to a special bird. Then we’ll head south to a river city in Wisconsin for beautiful views and a bite to eat.

Morning: Fly in to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, travel to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota (130 kilometers; 1 hour, 40 minutes)

The National Eagle Center is a world-class center dedicated to this magnificent bird. Visitors to the center can experience eagles up close–the center is home to five rescued eagles—as well as eagles in flight over the nearby Upper Mississippi River Valley. This is a nesting ground for hundreds of eagles who call Wabasha home.

Afternoon: Travel to La Crosse, Wisconsin (100 kilometers; 1 hour, 10 minutes)

This city—situated right along the Mississippi River—is a great place to see birds in flight. In fact, it’s considered one of the best birdwatching locales in the upper Midwest. Birders come here to see bald eagles, tundra swans, great egrets, bluebirds, warblers and sparrows.

Evening: Have a relaxing meal at The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern and overnight in downtown La Crosse

This restaurant features local and organic foods as well as beautiful views of the Mississippi. Watch birds in flight as you enjoy a flight of wine!

Other options: Shop historic downtown La Crosse, tour a vineyard, summit Grandad Bluff, explore the region’s bike trails, go gallery hopping

Day 2 – Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

We’ll continue our birding adventure in Prairie du Chien, named “dog’s prairie,” by French explorers. You may not see any prairie dogs but you will see a lot of birds. We’ll head to a state park that offers dramatic views before continuing our travels south.

Morning: Travel to Wyalusing State Park, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin (115 kilometers; 1 hour, 35 minutes)

This park offers incredible views of the confluences of the Mississippi River and the Wisconsin River. The park is a paradise for birders—it features spectacular views from elevations so high, you can see birds passing below. This is a particularly good place to see an American bald eagle, the national bird of the United States of America. Bring some good walking shoes; the park has 11 trails of varying challenges.

Afternoon: Travel to Wauzeka Bottoms State Natural Area (30 kilometers, 30 minutes)

Part of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, this floodplain forest is home to numerous rare American birds, including the red shouldered hawk and the yellow-crowned night heron.

Evening: Enjoy a classic meal in Prairie du Chien at the Hungry House (30 kilometers, 25 minutes)

After a day of exploring beautiful scenery, we’ll dine on classic American food at a “family style” restaurant popular with the locals. It’s a casual restaurant that offers such delicacies as Mississippi catfish and homemade pie. After dinner, we’ll stay overnight in a historic bed and breakfast.

Other options: Visit Villa Louis, stroll Lawler Park, visit the Old French Cemetery, visit the Crawford County Courthouse.

Day 3 – Effigy Mounds National Monument to Dubuque, Iowa

We’ll head across the river into Iowa and visit an amazing park that is home to sacred mounds and hundreds of species of birds. We’ll then head south to the river city of Dubuque.

Morning: Head to Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry, Iowa (10 kilometers, 10 minutes)

Explore the Effigy Mounds National Monument, which protects more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by Native Americans, including effigy mounds built in the shape of birds. Today the park is still home to the birds that inspired these incredible mounds: more than 291 species of birds nest or migrate through the monument.

Afternoon: Drive to Dubuque, Iowa (100 kilometers; 1 hour, 25 minutes)

After lunch in a McGregor café, we’ll continue our meandering drive south along the river to Dubuque. Keep an eye to the sky: we’ll be driving along the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, an area that is teeming with birds. Just across the border in Cassville, Wisconsin, we’ll stop to admire the view at the Nelson Dewey State Park.

Evening: Spend the night in Dubuque, Iowa

Start the evening with a stroll in Dubuque’s revitalized downtown and grab dinner at Boaz BBQ. This casual restaurant serves some of the best American-style BBQ in town.

Other options: A few options near border of Iowa and Wisconsin: Visit the Potosi Brewery and the National Brewery Museum (Wisconsin), tour the Mining Museum and Rollo Jamison Museum in Platteville (Wisconsin), sample cheeses at the Carr Valley Cheese Factory in Fennimore (Wisconsin) or visit the Guttenberg Fish Hatchery (Iowa).

Day 4 – Dubuque, Iowa to the Quad Cities (Iowa & Illinois)

Today we’ll start the day with breakfast at a Dubuque café before heading to an expansive recreation area along the Mississippi. We’ll do some bird watching before continuing south to an area known as the Quad Cities.

Morning: Travel to the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, Dubuque, Iowa (6.5 kilometers, 7 minutes)

This 580-hectare park includes a large and rugged portion of Mississippi River bluff land. The park includes areas that were never logged by early American settlers and some of the trees are ancient. It’s a wonderful place to birdwatch—82 species have been observed in the park.

Afternoon: Continue south to Davenport, Iowa (110 kilometers; 1 hours, 10 minutes)

Follow the path of the Mississippi River and the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge into Davenport, one of the four cities that make up the Quad Cities. The region is made up of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois.

Evening: Explore the Quad Cities

We’ll spend our last night in this metropolitan area that’s located on the Mississippi waterfront. Enjoy some Quad Cities-style pizza downtown and review some of the great pictures—or memories—you’ve captured from the past days of birding adventures.

The Quad Cities aren’t the only great place to see birds—including bald eagles—in Illinois. Here’s a look at where and how to watch bald eagles in Illinois.

Day 5 – Depart from Quad City International Airport

Head into the sky full of Mississippi River memories of birds in flight.