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Come spring, a large portion of the avian world is on the move. Having wintered in more salubrious climes, many birds begin winging back to their summer retreats in April and May. Wisconsin has the good fortune to be in the flight path of more than just a few of these migratory species. And each year, an ever-growing flock of bird watching enthusiasts fans out to shores, marshes, grasslands and forests statewide to witness the annual spectacle of spring migration.
To view the birds en route, polish your binocular lenses, pack a sack lunch and visit the following locations:
Necedah National Wildlife Refuge – Located in Wood and Juneau counties in central Wisconsin, the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. Known by early settlers as the Great Central Wisconsin Swamp, Necedah today consists of 43,656 acres of wetlands and open water areas; pine, oak and aspen forests; grasslands; and savannahs. It also contains the state's largest wetland bog, measuring 7,800 acres. To help visitors get a good look at migrating waterfowl and songbirds, the refuge has designated six sites as viewing hotspots with blinds and observation platforms. Look for tundra swans, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, golden eagles and more than 20 types of ducks on the move. Red-headed woodpeckers take to the refuge's oak savannas in large numbers, and warbler aficionados may see blackburnian, blackpoll, black-throated green, black-throated blue and black-and-white representatives, to mention but a few. Be sure to watch for the return of the reintroduced whooping cranes. In 2001 several whoopers raised at Necedah were guided on their first migration to wintering grounds in Florida by an ultralight aircraft. Five returned to Necedah in April and May 2002; a second flock is expected to migrate back to Necedah this spring. (608) 565-2551.
Wisconsin Point – At the extreme west end of Lake Superior, this long sand spit protects the city of Superior's harbor. Situated at the happy intersection of marsh, lake and woodland, Wisconsin Point serves as a welcome rest stop for plenty of feathered travelers. Bald eagles and hawks soar above the chatter of great black-backed and glaucous gulls. Red-necked and pied-billed grebes pass through the point, along with just about every duck species known in North America. The point is one of the best locations in the state to observe rarities such as the parasitic jaeger and Cassin's kingbird. (715) 395-7270.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge – When someone yells "Duck!" you can bet they're calling from this 261-mile-long refuge along Wisconsin's western border. Sloughs, backwaters, forested bottomlands, marshes, sandbars and islands provide abundant waterfowl habitat. About one-third of the North American population of canvasback ducks – 75,000 to 100,000, give or take a quack – use Lake Onalaska, a backwater of the Mississippi north of La Crosse, as a springtime staging area. Other birds likely to make an appearance include white pelicans, turkey vultures, peregrine falcons and bald eagles. (608) 783-8403. The bluff-top trails of nearby Wyalusing State Park, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, provide outstanding vistas of the river valley and give birders a bird's-eye perch: By looking down at the treetops, sharp-eyed visitors can see Kentucky and cerulean warblers, which migrate to nest at Wyalusing. These and other forest songbirds are easiest to spy in early spring, before the trees are in full leaf. (608) 996-2261.
Horicon Marsh – Only superlatives need apply here. The nation's largest cattail marsh, located in Dodge and Fond du Lac counties, is a seasonal staging area for the world's largest population of migrating Canada geese. The big honkers do leave a little bit of space for other species: Some 3,000 redhead ducks settle in every spring, in the largest redhead nesting area east of the Mississippi River. White pelicans, herons and egrets also nest at the marsh in Wisconsin's largest heron and egret rookery. Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, (920) 387-2658; Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area, (920) 387-7860.