May 6, 2010

Summertime Birdwatching Hotspots

Birdwatchers should head to the Mississippi River, the Horicon Marsh and the Musky Capital of the World™

PelicansWhile the spring and fall migrations offer Wisconsin birdwatchers a chance to see hundreds of different species of birds, the summer brings its own special birdwatching opportunities. Summer is a time when birds nest and raise their young, giving birdwatchers a chance to see a variety of waterfowl, songbird and raptor species. Three of the Badger State’s best summer birding opportunities are the Wisconsin Great River Road, the Horicon Marsh in Dodge County and Boulder Junction.

The Wisconsin Great River Road runs through the Mississippi River corridor along Wisconsin’s western border, connecting birdwatchers with some of the best natural areas in the nation.

Near the southern end of the Wisconsin Great River Road, birdwatchers will find Wyalusing State Park. Located just two miles south of Prairie du Chien at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, Wyalusing is perhaps the best place in Wisconsin for seeing Kentucky, cerulean and yellow-throated Warblers. Birdwatchers will also have a chance to see prothonotary warblers, Bell ‘s vireos, Henslow’s sparrows, wild turkeys, red-shouldered Hawks, turkey vultures and bald eagles.

Near the halfway point of the Wisconsin Great River Road, the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge is home to some of the finest wetland birding in North America. This 6,200-acre preserve offers a four-mile wildlife driving tour, an interpretive center, and an observation deck overlooking an incredible wetland where black terns hover over their unique floating nests and great blue herons stalk the shallows.

In the refuge’s prairie and woodland habitat, look for sparrows, including grasshopper, lark, savannah and field sparrows. Other species include cuckoos, sandhill cranes, dickcissels, bobolinks, northern shrike, pileated woodpeckers, woodcocks and northern harriers. Stop by the interpretive center for maps of the refuge.

In the northern half of the Wisconsin Great River Road, just north of the charming town of Alma, you’ll find Rieck’s Lake Park. The park is located at the mouth of the Buffalo River, which spills into the Mississippi River in a complex of sloughs and wetlands. A boardwalk and observation platforms make it easy to get a close look at the wetland’s many avian residents. Bald eagles are a common sight, as are American white pelicans, shorebirds, egrets and wood ducks.

Find a complete list of Wisconsin Great River Road birdwatching opportunities at

The Horicon Marsh in southeast Wisconsin’s Dodge County is affectionately called the “Little Everglades of the North.” The 32,000-acre wetland is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States and an outstanding birdwatching destination.

Birders should begin their explorations in the federal refuge, which constitutes the northern half of the Horicon Marsh. The refuge was originally established as a nesting area for the redhead duck, which has flourished in the optimal habitat afforded by the marsh. Visitors to the refuge have a number of observation areas and trails to choose from, including the Horicon TernPike Auto Tour in the northwest quadrant of the marsh, just off Hwy 49.

A short drive or hike on the TernPike will take you to the floating boardwalk, where birdwatchers are afforded a water-level view of some of the best wetland birdwatching east of the Mississippi River. On a warm summer day, the sound of birds, frogs and insects is a roaring soundtrack. Mother Nature is thriving here. Notable summer bird species include sora rails, bitterns, white pelicans, ruddy ducks and—of course—redhead ducks, to name only a few species.

At the southern end of the marsh, birdwatchers can take a pontoon boat tour through Horicon Marsh Boat Tours, which offers guided birdwatching trips throughout the summer months. Canoe and kayak rentals are also available—paddling can be an excellent way to reach some of the marsh’s most secluded channels and backwaters.

For more information on the Horicon Marsh, visit

HeronFor nearly a century, anglers have been heading up to the small town of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, for a chance to tangle with the area’s musky. The fishing in the Boulder Junction is well known among savvy anglers throughout the Midwest.

But equally impressive is the birdwatching. The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest and dozens of nearby State Natural Areas that surround the small community help to protect some of Wisconsin’s rarest types of woodland habitat.

While a “second-growth dry mesic forest” and an “old growth mature mesic forest,” might not mean much to most of us human beings, the distinction between the various types of forest is fundamentally important to our feathered friends.

Certain birds depend solely on a particular type of forest or wetland environment. The list of habitat types represented around Boulder Junction is incredibly diverse, which allows the area to support a huge range of birds, including some rare woodland species.

For birdwatchers looking to check off some rare woodland birds on their lifetime lists, Boulder Junction would be a great place to visit.

For example, early-summer visitors to the Allequash Lake and Pines State Natural Area, located in the state forest a few minutes south of Boulder Junction, might have a chance to see a Nashville warbler, magnolia warbler, black-throated green warbler, Blackburnian warbler, pine warbler, black and white warbler, ovenbird, and scarlet tanager, as well as more commonly seen species such as the broad-winged hawk, eastern wood pewee, and least flycatcher, species which thrive in this mature second-growth dry-mesic forest. Birdwatchers equipped with a canoe or kayak will improve their chances of seeing wood duck, osprey, sora rail and belted kingfisher.

Another wonderful birdwatching location is Trout Lake Conifer Swamp, located south of Boulder Junction. The 25-acre natural area is classified by biologists as a mature northern wet-mesic forest, a habitat type which is composed mainly of cedar, spruce, balsam and fir trees. Nesting warblers in the Trout Lake Conifer Swamp include Nashville, black and white, Blackburnian, black-throated green, yellow-rumped, and northern parula. The damp sphagnum moss that carpets the forest floor helps to support a number of rare plants, including several species of orchids and a number of bog plants.

Several area trails afford birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts a great chance to search for birds as they trek through miles of forest. Be sure to check out the Escanaba-Pallette Lakes Trail, the Fallison Lake Trail and the Lumberjack Trail.

But the most exciting woodland sighting for many nature lovers visiting Boulder Junction isn’t of the winged variety. The area is home to an unusual number of albino deer. If you have a chance to see one of these elusive white creatures, you will never forget it.

For more information about visiting Boulder Junction and planning your own birdwatching trip, visit

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