The Upper Mississippi Valley has a wide variety of plant life in a narrow area. At river level, plants that tolerate a lot of moisture flourish: trees such as willow, elm, sycamore, maple, river birch, as well as water lilies, lotuses, sedges, and pondweeds. Further uphill, trees like oak, hickory, and walnut predominate. A few remnants remain of the prairies that used to be common atop the bluffs (sometimes called “goat prairies”), like the ones with impressive views at Rush Creek State Natural Area north of Ferryville, Wisconsin.
Along some sections of the Upper Mississippi River, you can even find a few examples of a rare, fragile ecosystem called algific talus slope. Throwbacks to the Ice Age, these ecosystems still exist today near the base of north- or east-facing bluffs. Sinkholes and underground ice caves vent cold air into the summer months through cracks in the rocks on the sides of bluffs. This uncommon ecosystem supports a number of rare plants and animals, including the northern monkshood wildflower, cherrystone drop snail, and Pleistocene vertigo snails. In some places, this ecosystem also produces features sometimes called petrified waterfalls, which are basically above-ground stalactites that formed by the interaction of algae with certain minerals. A few examples of algific talus slope exist in the Driftless Area National Wildlife Area and in property recently purchased by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.
TIP: If you want to tell the difference between a lotus and a water lily, lotuses bloom in August and the flower stands upright; lily blooms float on the water. You can thank me later.
When you live in the city like I do, it’s easy to forget how wild much of the country still is. There is a much greater range of animal life along the Mississippi River than you might think. Deer are ubiquitous; it is the animal (other than squirrels) that you are most likely to see. If you are paying attention and have some luck, you may also catch sight of beaver, muskrat, otter, raccoons, turtles (maybe even a large snapping turtle), and fox. If you are really lucky, you might spot mink, a timber rattlesnake, or a massasauga rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are very timid and most likely will flee if you come across them, but they will strike out of self-defense if they are cornered or surprised. The timber rattlesnake is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act; kill one and you could go to jail.
Animals you might hear but probably won’t see are coyotes and bobcats. In 2009, a black bear wandered into northeast Iowa, about 30 miles west of the Mississippi Valley. Bear are more common in the forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but they do occasionally stray.
If you are a birder you probably already know about the Mississippi River flyway. For the rest of you, a few facts: 40% of all North American waterfowl migrate along the Mississippi River; 326 species of birds—one-third of all birds on the continent—migrate through in the spring and fall. Among the migrants are bald eagles in winter, song birds and pelicans in spring and tundra swans in late fall. Species that are fairly easy to spot include hawks, turkey, peregrine falcons, great blue heron, egrets, geese, ducks, cormorants, and turkey vultures. The Audubon Society produced a series of maps for birding along the Mississippi River. They do a much better job than I ever could describing the variety of birds in the flyway and when they can be seen. Some of the maps are still available at tourist information centers; all of the content is also available through their website.
Even with the dramatic man-made changes to the ecology of the Mississippi River, fish still abound—260 species live in the river or one-quarter of all fish species in North America. Many species are threatened (pallid sturgeon and several species of mussel such as the Higgins’ eye pearly mussel), but fish that are still common include fishermen’s favorites like crappie, largemouth bass, striped bass, sunfish, walleye, catfish, white bass, and bluegill, as well as carp, suckers, and buffalo fish. The river is also home to four ancient species of fish: the bowfin, sturgeon, paddlefish, and alligator gar, the latter three threatened or endangered. And, of course, there are plenty of turtles and mussels. All of these are under pressure from invasive species like zebra mussels and the very odd Asian jumping carp (Jumping Silver Carp); enjoy carp for dinner and save the ecosystem!
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011