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I woke early, not to take a shower, but to see one. As I drove a forested gravel road at 5:30 on a dark, clear November morning, the Leonid meteor shower broke through. Tails of light streaked across the sky, tracing fiery lines in the darkness above. I stopped and got out of my car, hoping to hear the howl of a distant timber wolf. Silence. I thought a bit about what meteor showers might have meant to the ancient peoples who once lived in this Northwoods country of Bayfield County, but it was too cold to mull it over long. I shuddered and got back into my warm car. Time to move on.
I was on a journey of discovery, traveling the region and taking notes about special places along the way for viewing birds, other wildlife and nature. The information will be incorporated into the first of five regional maps that collectively will be called the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail. The trail – actually a series of auto tours – will lead visitors to Wisconsin's prime wildlife watching spots.
To catch Wisconsin's natural peaks – peak hawk migrations, peak fish migration, peak times when wildlife are swarming, staging and courting in public view – you need to know where to go, and when to go there. The Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail maps will indicate where those kinds of natural thrills can best be seen, and couple those highlights with useful travel information suggesting food, lodging and other points of interest. Visitors can use the maps to plan a trip, explore a part of the state and revel in the great outdoor experience that nature provides.
I had a list of potential sites or "waypoints" to place on the map. Through a series of public meetings and contacts, people have suggested "must-see" places. I'm the lucky one: I get to travel the state, judging the entries and connecting the dots to form a route for enjoyable travel.
Heading north on County Highway A to the Lake Superior community of Port Wing, I watched a northern harrier hunt over a frozen hayfield. The hawk flipped in a sharp turn midair and dropped like a rock to the ground, probably in search of an unsuspecting meadow vole.
As I drove into town, I saw the rusted hulls of fishing boats, workhorses of the Great Lakes fishing industry that once supported many families of this community. I wondered what these people do for work now? I took some photos and drove on to the sloughs along Lake Superior in search of birdlife.
Flotillas of hooded mergansers and goldeneye ducks drifted away as I slowly drove the dike road splitting the slough in half. I surveyed the golden-eyes using binoculars, searching for the rare Barrow's goldeneye. None here today.
Sheets of ice already had built up on the rocks along the lakeshore. A bald eagle watched from its post on the breakwater wall as I pulled into a parking lot. Ancient white pines shaped by the wind stood along the inner beach, where it seems the wind never stops.
Twenty years ago, on the same beach, I visited a tract of ancient conifers just north of here. I have photos of my family standing on the road, framed by a backdrop of old growth boreal forest. I parked and got out of the car. The smell of pine needles and the sound of distant waves crashing onto the shore delighted my senses. Back then the property was for sale. Today, "my" special place has a new owner. The sign reads "Port Wing Boreal Forest State Natural Area" and I'm grateful that 20 years from now, others can have the same experience. Here, just a few hundred feet from Lake Superior, I am completely sheltered from the wind and it is very still. Looking straight up to the sky, I can see the tops of the ancient trees sway in the wind. Above them, clouds and gulls sail by. I take more pictures and mark this spot as another waypoint, then head north on Highway 13.
Up the road, the town of Herbster provides fuel for my car and me. After enjoying a piece of homemade pie and a cup of hot coffee at a local café, I continue down Bark Point Road, past the Bark Bay Bed and Breakfast and the Cabin Fever Quilt Company. With lovely views of Lake Superior, this area will surely be my future destination for a summer weekend stay.
A new starting point for birding adventures
Wisconsin's bogs, grasslands, old growth forests, lakes, streams and rivers offer tremendous opportunities for watching wildlife. Natural diversity draws a variety of spectators who would go to even greater lengths to see it – if they only knew when and where to hit the wildlife peaks. State and federal parks are well known and thoroughly enjoyed, but locals have discovered their own natural gems over the years.
In forming the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, we hope to marry information from people who lead bird counts, organize nature field trips, and write field guides with practical tips from the communities that provide the services travelers need. To plan your itinerary, waypoints on the easy-to-follow maps will include phone numbers, addresses and web addresses for chambers of commerce, nearby food, lodging and other fun experiences.
This type of map fits well with current travel trends. Today's traveler is more likely to consider taking shorter (three to four day) trips and travels instate. Using the information provided on the maps, a visitor can find a motel, book a room and make a dinner reservation at a local supper club. Having all the necessary information close at hand allows more time for exploring the great outdoors.
Promoting bird-based recreation is a goal of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. Similar Great Birding and Nature Trails are being developed in 14 states nationwide. Many are following the successful ecotourism model Ted Eubanks of Austin, Texas developed for his home state. In 1996 the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail tapped into a growing market: people who came to Texas's Coastal Bend area to see the whooping cranes, migrating species and shorebirds congregating along the ocean shore and bays. Birding has joined fishing, golf and hanging out at the beach as a major winter and spring tourism draw along the Texas Coast.
"Developing a nature-based tourism industry is a worthy goal because Wisconsin is blessed with exceptional natural resources," Eubanks says. "People want to experience nature as an active, not an idle, participant on their nature adventure. Personal enrichment, the chance to be outdoors, to see something new and to learn some new skills are some of the motivations for nature tourism."
Ecotourism is the tourist industry's most rapidly expanding sector and a number of states and communities in the United States view it as a significant part of their economic strategy. By collecting and connecting nature destinations to local tourist services, the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail maps can add economic value to natural resources. This approach can build an even larger constituency to support conservation work and help people see the value of maintaining healthy ecosystems for future generations.
Bald Eagle Days in Sauk City is one example of how a community can welcome bird watchers. The eagles find good fishing conditions and congregate in large numbers in the trees along the open water of the Wisconsin River below the Sauk City power dam, while quality lodging, good cafes and restaurants provide excellent habitat for human visitors. The festival features talks on raptor behavior and offers other programs of interest to birders. The income generated from this single event is impressive The local Chamber of Commerce estimates a million dollar impact on the Sauk Prairie area bringing in 1,500 cars of visitors each week in winter. Pancake breakfasts, bus tours, restaurant specials, corporate sponsors and educational programs were pawned by this natural event. The community recognizes the importance and value of Bald Eagle Days and looks forward to the event each year.
Banding likely supporters
Our first step was to catch up with Wisconsin communities that had already created birding trails or were in the process of developing them. National Audubon's Great River Birding Trail located along the Mississippi River, Milwaukee County Park's Oak Leaf Birding Trail, the Horicon Wildlife Refuge Trails, and the Ozaukee County Interurban Trail all signed on to the project.
Next, we asked birders and other wildlife watchers to recommend waypoints. At statewide meetings held in November 2002, hundreds of people generously forwarded the locations of their favorite bird and animal haunts. We also heard a lot of enthusiasm from communities that felt ecotourism would be a healthy, wholesome addition to their region.
Area residents in northwestern Wisconsin seemed especially ready to get involved in such a project, so our pilot project began with the Lake Superior / North Woods Birding and Nature Trail.
The Village Board of Grantsburg in Burnett County passed a resolution supporting the trail, and felt the new Visitor Center at nearby Crex Meadows would be a natural "portal" to welcome visitors to the region. The mix of wetlands, flowage, brush-prairie and forest at Crex attracts an array of wildlife – migrating waterfowl starting in March, sharp-tailed grouse in April, rails, cranes, wrens, warblers, osprey, eagles, geese, pelicans and owls throughout the year. Mammalian inhabitants include deer, bear, ground squirrels, badgers, beaver, mink and muskrats. Frogs, turtles and salamanders are easy to see here as well. We expect to have this first segment of the trail mapped out and ready in Fall 2003. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are scheduled for October 2003 at Crex Meadows.
Eubanks sees great potential for statewide nature travel. The auto tours along the Great Birding and Nature Trail can bring nature "within arm's reach and a day's travel of every resident in the state," he says. Here, travelers can enjoy spectacular hawk migrations, thousands of staging waterfowl, spawning sturgeon, wildflowers in profusion, heron rookeries and dancing sharp-tailed grouse. By following the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail with the map as a guide, we hope more people will find a congenial route to outdoor adventures.
Susan Foote-Martin is the coordinator of the Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail program for DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources.