Photographing 1,000 Wild Swans from 50 Feet!

by | October 31, 2007

© Dave WeberJust thirty minutes from Minneapolis, Minnesota is the worlds’ largest congregation of wild Trumpeter Swans. Each year, from early December through late February, as many as 1,600 of these rare swans spend their winter on the Mississippi River here. Nearby is a little-used public viewing area that can place one within 50 feet of these elegant giants.

Trumpeters are the largest swans. Larger individuals have a wingspan of eight feet and weigh about 35 pounds. They differ from other swans by not only their size, but also by their loud trumpeting voices and a red border around their bills that looks like lipstick.

How did this small section of the Mississippi River become so popular for these birds? Just north of the swan sanctuary is a nuclear power plant that discharges warm water into the river, keeping it open all winter long. In the mid-80s, Sheila Lawrence (a.k.a. The Swan Lady) started feeding two swans. She kept it up year after year, and now generations of birds later, hundreds of swans winter here. These birds have grown accustomed to Sheila and will tolerate viewers and photographers who stay within the designated swan viewing area.

Swans in flight © Dave Weber

Additional Details

  • Sheila Lawrence usually feeds the swans between 10am and 11am. I usually show up around 8:30am and stay until noon.
  • I prefer days that are cloudy or have a bright haze. It’s tough not to blow out the fine details of the Trumpeter Swan’s white feathers on a bright cloudless day.
  • Early morning fog is great for those moody out-of-the-mist photos.
  • Tradition has it that the very best time of year to photograph the birds is around Valentine’s Day. That’s when the birds put on their courtship displays and are often very aggressive in fighting for mates.
  • The viewing area is just off Interstate 94 in Monticello, Minnesota.
  • Wear warm clothing; you may be standing motionless for a few hours in sub-zero temperatures.
  • Swans land and take off into the wind. Anticipating their direction can help get you the best shots.
  • Anticipate the action. Swans usually bob their heads before fighting, flight or displays.
  • Please stay behind the wooden fence.
  • Try not to make any sudden movements or loud noises.
  • Don’t try to talk with Sheila when she’s feeding the birds. She usually walks over to the viewing area after she’s done feeding and will gladly answer your questions then.
  • You may wish to put a few dollars in the donation box or donate directly to Sheila; she uses the money for swan food.

Swans in water © Dave Weber

Once endangered, Trumpeter Swans are now thriving in central Minnesota. Visit them once and you too will fall in love with this stunning and graceful giant.

Editor’s Note:
For further information on this species, go to

2 thoughts on “Photographing 1,000 Wild Swans from 50 Feet!

  1. Folks, I hate to disappoint, but last year Sheila Lawrence passed away. Her husband is now sort of feeding the swans, but he doesn’t do so on a regular basis and there are far fewer swans than when Sheila was alive.

    At best, it’s now a hit or miss proposition whether or not you’ll even see any swans within photographing range. Best to check with a Monticello local before investing the time or money to visit these swans.

    Dave Weber