Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of eastern meadowlark © Herbert Lange

Look for eastern meadowlarks perched on fence posts and taller shrubs that give them an overview of the moist grasslands, prairies and pastures where they gather food and nesting materials.
© Herbert Lange

December 2009

Road map to the right place at the right time

Five auto trails provide routes and waysides to explore birding hotspots and community highlights throughout Wisconsin all year.

Susan Foote-Martin

Nothing builds an appreciation for nature like seeing, hearing and watching it for yourself. Though wild animals don't suddenly appear on cue, experienced bird watchers have tried to tip the odds in your favor by forming lists of "best bets" to see birds in key places at key times of the year. The birders shared their favorite spots so we might bring flocks of new bird watchers and wildlife viewers closer to the natural world when natural cycles hit their peaks. That was the concept in compiling the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail – a series of regional auto routes that could get you to the right place at the right time to find the places where birds congregate during their courtships, breeding seasons, migrations, resting times and feeding periods. Moreover, the concept was to form routes that you could easily travel by car to visit locations for a day, a weekend or longer as your schedule allows.

Our goal was to help people connect to nature on their own terms and to put everyone in Wisconsin within arm's reach of outstanding places to experience wild birds throughout the year.

To provide great statewide viewing, the biologists, amateur birders and tourism interests who developed the trail system first divided the state into five ecological regions. Each has its own identity and character. And each area was named for prominent landscape characteristics. From the Lake Superior Northwoods region in the northern tier of 18 counties, to the Mississippi and Chippewa Rivers out west, the Lake Michigan region to the east, and Central Sands Prairies to the Southern Savanna region in the south, each trail had its own unique niche.

Next, we recruited bird watchers from throughout the state to nominate their favorite sites that might appear in the guide books. Each location was ranked based on the richness of bird species that frequent the area, nearness of major roads, overall access for people of all ages and walking abilities, and customer friendliness. Descriptions particularly noted if there were amenities like adequate parking, signs, established paths, sitting areas, water or restrooms. Properties that ranked the highest were included in the listings. Careful consideration was given to sites that had staff on hand to answer questions or employed naturalists to give programs and lead tours. With each property description we listed the species that were main attractions and any rare species of plants or animals found on each property. Each listing also provided written driving directions and detailed maps.

We also added contact information and website addresses as a tool to help visitors plan a trip. The contact information aims to help travelers expand their horizons. Most people who are curious enough to travel will make some time to explore an area and likely have several interests. Some enjoy other forms of outdoor recreation like golfing, fishing, swimming, skiing or biking in season. Those who are more than day-trippers will be seeking lodging at accommodations that range from campsites to RV stations, motels, B&Bs or resorts. Some want to explore cultural interests like regional theater or historic sites. Some would enjoy adding community festivals and special events in the mix of their sightseeing. Others want to know about nearby towns where they can shop, visit a specialty business and find good meals. To help meet those needs, the guide includes contacts for visitors bureaus and tourism offices.

To build this diverse approach to blend outdoor experiences with other good reasons to travel, we started with the scientific community of resource managers then talked with other potential partners. The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative provided startup funds to move ahead on building the bird trails and routes. Long-term financial support came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Department of Tourism. The guides were enhanced by the beautiful photos of birds donated by Mike McDowell, Rich Armstrong and Alan Orr. The classy layout and attractive design came from publication designers at the Department of Tourism.

This impressive group of partners all saw great potential for current and future business in promoting a combination of ecotourism and hospitality. There's particular interest in the waves of baby boomers who are retiring, healthy, active and eager to find interesting experiences they can explore here in Wisconsin. This large group of travelers has both the time and resources to travel in search of nature. In fact, a national survey published in 2001 showed that Wisconsin ranked third among all states as a destination for bird and wildlife viewing, just behind Virginia and Alaska. Now eight years later, a paper from May 2009 titled Long-Term National Trends in Outdoor Recreation Activity Participation – 1980 to Now (Cordell, Green & Betz) shows that "viewing and photographing birds has become the fastest long-term growing activity, growing 287 percent since 1982-83."

Photo of a cedar waxwing © James Hendrickson
Experienced bird watchers know when birds like cedar waxwings move through an area.
© James Hendrickson

The trends show nature travelers living the green life at home want to carry out that lifestyle as they travel to parks, nature centers and wild places. They recycle, buy compact fluorescent bulbs and are conscious of their energy use. A green travel industry was born to match a greener public with tourism businesses that share a commitment to keep Wisconsin's natural resources healthy and unharmed. Today, Travel Green Wisconsin certifications hang proudly in private businesses across the state and those places are also destinations for the bird and wildlife viewing public who do not want to leave a large travel footprint.

Gaining national attention

In a spring 2009 article in Audubon magazine, author Kenn Kaufman named the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail among the top 10 bird trails in the Midwest. The trail is described in five regional full-color guide books and an accompanying website (wisconsinbirds.org/trail). A companion pocket guide contains a Checklist of Wisconsin Birds. These trail guides, designed to fit in a car's glove box, lead travelers to extraordinary places to see birds in season. A total of 368 of these "waypoints" or stops are detailed in the five guides. Each stop is located in a public park, forest, natural area or a nature center where public visits are welcome. Here's a closer look at each of the regional guides.

Lake Superior/Northwoods Birding and Nature Trail

This first guide published in 2004 describes birding hotspots in a mosaic of lake country and old-growth forest in Wisconsin's 18 northern counties. It includes 88 destination waypoints from the 21 Apostle Islands to more than a million acres in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Suggested stops in state and county parks, state natural areas, Nature Conservancy properties, and private nature centers encourage visits throughout the four seasons.

"To explore the spruce and pine forest in the trail's northern section is to evoke an ineffable sense of the great Northwoods and you might find nesting pine siskins, boreal chickadees or northern saw-whet owls. A full complement of eastern North America's woodland birds may be found in Wisconsin's hardwood forests, with everything from ruffed grouse to tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers."

– Kenn Kaufman, Audubon's Field Guide to Birding Trails

Mississippi & Chippewa Rivers Birding and Nature Trail

The second guide published in 2005 describes 67 waypoints in 13 Wisconsin counties in western Wisconsin within the Mississippi River and Chippewa River area. Potential stops here include sandbar sloughs and backwaters of the Mississippi River, and trout streams in the coulees, valleys and undulating hillsides of southwestern Wisconsin. The area contains some of our best bike trails, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge, Tiffany Bottoms State Wildlife Area and Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center in Coon Valley.

"America's greatest river is the centerpiece of this birding trail that highlights wading birds, American white pelicans, rafts of ducks and great concentrations of bald eagles on their wintering sites along locks and dams."

– Kenn Kaufman

Lake Michigan Birding and Nature Trail

The third guide made available in 2006 takes visitors through 11 counties that border Lake Michigan. Sixty-four waypoints mark birding hotspots from the tip of Door County on the shores of Rock Island State Park all the way south to the state line near Chiwaukee Prairie in Kenosha County. Coastal travelers will enjoy visits to public properties as well as stops at privately run centers like Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, Woodland Dunes Nature Center in Manitowoc County and Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee County.

"The edge of Lake Michigan produces concentrations of migrating hawks and songbirds plus a chance to see rare water birds and provides vital rest stops for birds during migration."

– Kenn Kaufman

Central Sands Prairies Birding and Nature Trail

The fourth guide provides routes through 17 midstate counties. Published in 2007, it includes 78 waypoints, from the massive 43,000-acre Necedah National Wildlife refuge in the west to High Cliff State Park in the east. Also included are impressive sites like Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area in Adams County, George Mead State Wildlife Area, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Marathon County and the Buena Vista Grasslands in Portage County.

"The central region's damp meadows are the places to hear the chatter of fidgeting sedge wrens by day and the bubbly aerial flight songs of American woodcocks at dusk. From the outrageous stomping dances of greater prairie-chickens in early spring to the swirling flocks of longspurs in the winter to the haunting whistles of upland sandpipers in summer, this area of wide horizons has the capacity to delight us in every season."

– Kenn Kaufman

Southern Savanna Birding and Nature Trail

The fifth guide published in 2008 highlights places to visit in 13 counties in south central Wisconsin. It includes 71 waypoints from Horicon International Education Center in Dodge County, west to Yellowstone Lake State Park in Iowa County. The landscape includes historical restorations like Old World Wisconsin in Waukesha County westward to the relic prairies and oak savannas of Lake Mills State Wildlife Area and Zeloski Marsh in Jefferson County, to the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center and International Crane Foundation in Sauk County.

"Great flocks of ducks and geese gather on small lakes providing vital rest stops for weary shorebirds wading in its wetlands and for woodland species retiring where the prairies give way to forests. But the prairies themselves hold some of the richest prizes."

– Kenn Kaufman

What people are saying

The Birding & Nature Trail guides have been ordered by people from all 50 states and foreign travelers as well. They are among the most popular guides published by the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Tourism.

Wing your way through wild Wisconsin!

With guides in hand, all the pieces are in place to visit phenomenal places across Wisconsin at peak times. Get to know your state county-by-county, park-by-park, and business-by-business as you chart your own course across our rich landscape. Order a complimentary copy of any or all of the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail guides from Stacy Rowe or TravelWISCONSIN.com.

Susan Foote-Martin is a conservation biologist who coordinates the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.