Long day's journey into flight.
The Great Wisconsin Birdathon's Big Day trip may not be the right trip for everyone, but if a bunch of "Old Coots" and "Ancient Murrelets" are up for it three years running, you might want to try it out. And if you have any interest in the state's most fascinating natural areas and seeing a variety of birds and other wildlife, you'll enjoy this tale about one long day of birding in May.
For three years, wildscapes painter Tom Uttech and I have led a "Signature Team" on a Big Day trip as part of the Great Wisconsin Birdathon (GWB). The simple goal: "Have fun bird–watching to raise funds for bird protection." In even fewer words: "See a bird…save a bird." On a Big Day the aim is to tally as many bird species as possible in 24 hours, beginning at midnight. Big Day birders favor the middle of May to catch the peak of Neotropical migration.
In the GWB's inaugural year, 2012, and again in 2013, we were part of a team known as "Hawkeye and the Ancient Murrelets" that included beloved ornithologist Noel Cutright and his son Seth (Hawkeye). After we recorded 162 species and led all teams in species and fundraising in 2012, we tallied 156 species and raised $4,100 in 2013.
With Noel's death after a four–year battle with cancer, and Seth pursuing a new academic degree and career, Uttech and I reconstituted our team in 2014 as "Cutright's Old Coots" in tribute to our friend, and diversified with two great birders, Joan Sommer and Marilyn Bontly. Our new team tallied 154 species and a record $5,439.
To run a successful Big Day, good sets of ears and eyes are not enough — you also need great destinations. So we borrowed a page from history. On May 19, 2002, birders Al Shea and Randy Hoffman tallied 230 species on a route through south central Wisconsin. The total remains one of the highest–ever for a Big Day in North America.
The Murrelets' and Coots' routes have varied, taking advantage of Shea and Hoffman's favorite stops and adding some of our own. We have covered 12 to 14 counties each year and traveled between 480 and 549 miles. Here are some highlights:
White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, Green Lake County
This is where each of our trips starts: 12,000 acres of lowland forest, oak savanna, grasslands and sedge meadow through which the White and Fox rivers flow. It's also the site of efforts to reintroduce endangered whooping cranes into the eastern United States. We come here for the night singers, although sometimes gray tree frogs and honking Canada geese drown them out. But in the right area, we've been able to hear swamp and Henslow's sparrows, marsh wren and sora in the first minute after midnight.
Virginia rail, American woodcock, sedge wren and American bittern usually join the chorus in the next half hour as we cruise down the marsh road. As we listen closely we pick up the faint "coo–coo–coo" of the least bittern and the more distant quack of a mallard. For Big Day–ers, it's the sublime and the ridiculous all at once.
Comstock Bog State Natural Area, Marquette County
We generally reach Comstock, with its sedge meadows and tamarack swamps, around 2 a.m. Along the way in 2012, our mammal list grew faster than our bird list, with otter, rabbit, opossum, raccoon, a young red fox, coyotes howling and cattle bawling. But as we alighted we heard the first of at least four barred owls, followed by an eastern whip–poor–will, black–billed cuckoo and then a northern saw–whet owl. At 3:15 a.m., the first American robin of the day began to sing. We've also heard great horned owls here, and Comstock is one of the few places in the state where you can find the elusive yellow rail, whose song can be imitated by clicking together two quarters.
Buena Vista Grasslands, Portage County
After Comstock, we've headed northwest, arriving at Buena Vista Grasslands by 4 a.m. to catch both night singers and the dawn chorus. Each year, this has proved to be our best and longest stop of the day, befitting its status as an Important Bird Area.
Along Lake Road, we have found horned larks, along with gray catbird and clay–colored savannah and grasshopper sparrows. By 4:45 a.m., red–winged blackbirds and killdeer are flying and calling, along with common yellowthroat, bobolink, eastern meadowlark, sandhill cranes and vesper sparrow. One year at 5 a.m., a half–hour before dawn, we saw our first short–eared owl flying in and out of patches of ground fog along with a northern harrier. Minutes later we heard greater prairie–chickens booming in the distance.
In 2012, as we continued west on Lake Road and then south on Town Line Road, we began to see birds more easily, quickly adding wild turkey, American goldfinch, eastern phoebe, house wren, brown thrasher, tree swallow, cliff swallow and American kestrel — all those nest boxes paid off. Then, suddenly, we heard the whistle and shouted in unison "Bobwhite!" It was an unexpected treat. That year, Hawkeye spied a peregrine falcon cruising the grasslands and we consistently found uncommon grassland specialists such as western meadowlark, upland sandpiper and Brewer's blackbirds.
Cranberry bogs, Wood County
Heading west out of Wisconsin Rapids on Seneca Road and into cranberry country, the woods have yielded hermit thrush, pine warbler, black–capped chickadee, golden–winged warbler and broad–winged hawk, while the bogs have held common loon, pied–billed grebe, ring–necked duck, northern shoveler, blue–winged teal, wood duck and black tern. Where Hemlock Creek crosses Highway 54, we've seen yellow–throated vireo, scarlet tanager, blue–gray gnatcatcher and Tennessee warbler. Where Seneca Road crosses Highway 173 we've found red–bellied and pileated woodpecker, northern waterthrush, wood thrush and red–shouldered hawk. Outside the Babcock Café (stop in for the cran–raspberry pie), we have picked up a smorgasbord of species, including pine siskin, turkey vulture, Cooper's hawk, rough–winged swallow and blue–winged warbler.
Sandhill Wildlife Area, Wood County
West on Ball Road, past the Sandhill Wildlife Area, has proved a good spot for veery (my favorite thrush); white–throated sparrow; and chestnut–sided, Nashville, magnolia, black–and–white and Wilson's warbler. Heading south on Cranberry Road (the Wood–Jackson County line), in 2012 we counted 13 trumpeter swans.
Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Juneau County
A quick run across 9th Street at the top of the refuge has yielded wild turkey; more trumpeter swans; and Swainson's, hermit and gray–cheeked thrush.
Devil's Lake State Park and Baxter's Hollow, Sauk County
Our route then makes a dash to the south. Burma Road along Devil's Lake State Park's western edge is great for the forest–dwelling species the Baraboo Hills are known for, including hooded and cerulean warblers, Acadian flycatcher and tufted titmouse. Nearby Baxter's Hollow has yielded Louisiana waterthrush and Canada warblers.
Lake Mariah, Green Lake County
In 2014, we made an unscheduled stop at Mariah, just off Highway 73. While the 563–acre, 6–foot–deep lake can appear empty, our optics picked up waterfowl along the distant shore. We also stumbled on our first warbler wave and added 21 species — eight of them warblers — to our Big Day list at 4 p.m. including American wigeon, lesser scaup, bufflehead, ruddy duck, double–crested cormorant and more.
Lake Michigan shore, Sheboygan County
Each year we have concluded our day in Sheboygan with great results. We have identified herring, ring–billed, Thayer's, Bonaparte's, great black–backed and lesser black–backed gulls, along with Caspian and common terns, red–breasted merganser, greater scaup and, at day's end, ruddy turnstone and sanderling, all in breeding plumage.
Al Shea and Randy Hoffman have agreed to reprise their record Big Day as part of the 2015 Great Wisconsin Birdathon. Cutright's Old Coots will be striking out on a new route. You can follow the teams and pledge your support at Great Wisconsin Birdathon 2015.
Carl Schwartz is past president of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and chairs the steering committee of Bird City Wisconsin.