Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

You can see numerous species right from the boardwalk in Horicon Marsh. © Jack R. Bartholmai
You can see numerous species right from the boardwalk in Horicon Marsh.

© Jack R. Bartholmai

February 2008

When birders flock together

Day hikes, night walks, "The Big Sit" and boat rides should draw seasoned and novice birdwatchers to the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival.

William K. Volkert

On an early spring morning, as the sun is just rising on the Horicon Marsh, hundreds of people have flocked here in Dodge County to experience peak bird migration. On the second weekend of May, the last of the migrant waterfowl are still present on the marsh and great waves of songbirds have arrived on southerly winds. Birders, families and those with a curious interest in nature have come to join in the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival. Over the past ten years, this event has become a premier opportunity to see, enjoy and learn about birds, with the help of experts, at one of the top birding sites in the upper Midwest.

This Year's Festival
This spring, the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival will be held from May 9th through 12th. For a complete schedule of activities and registration forms for field trips, visit Horicon Marsh Bird Club. Click on Horicon Marsh Bird Festival and go to "Events." Once you've done that, get out your calendar and make a note to come to Horicon Marsh this spring and join the fun. The combination of a world-renowned marsh, abundant wildlife, music and a community steak fry make the festival a premier outdoor event at a special time of the year.

Over the years, bird festivals have cropped up nationwide offering a wide range of opportunities for people to experience the bird life in different areas of the country. Nebraska conducts an annual Festival of the Crane when hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes congregate along the Platte River. Texas, Florida, Arizona, and nearly every state has its events, and each year additional festivals are added. The Horicon Marsh Bird Festival has expanded and improved each year to provide something for everyone.

In 1998, Larry Michael, founder of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club, came to me and noted the lack of a major bird festival at a fabulous venue like Horicon Marsh; the sights and atmosphere simply deserved to be highlighted. Since then the festival has grown to attract birders from more than 15 states and both coasts. At first I found it hard to believe that birdwatchers would travel to spend a weekend at Horicon Marsh and enjoy our birds, but wildlife on this wide open space is renowned, and I sometimes forget just how unique a wildlife experience is available right here in our backyard.

Horicon Marsh is the largest wetland in the upper Midwest and is a restored marsh. Ditched and drained for agricultural purposes in the early part of the 20th century. Recovery by the State of Wisconsin began in 1927. When state funds ran out, the federal government stepped in to complete the project, establishing the national wildlife refuge north of the state property. As a result, it is again one vast wetland, divided into two separate units – a state wildlife area and a federal refuge. Of course, the birds don't know the difference, and the bird festival takes advantage of many access points from roads, land and water where visitors can seek out the rich variety of birds found here.

Horicon Marsh is also recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area and a Wetland of International Importance, under the Ramsar Convention of the United Nations. It is one of only 22 wetlands in the U.S. with this distinguished title. In spite of the damage inflicted on this marsh nearly 100 years ago, it has recovered to support a wide array of wildlife. Marsh management aims to maintain a diverse range of habitat and wetland conditions that benefit the abundant wildlife. The fact that 296 species of birds have been recorded on this marsh over the years is a good measure of the rich habitat that provides the base for a successful bird festival.

great-crested flycatcher © Jack R. Bartholmai
great-crested flycatcher

© Jack R. Bartholmai

While Horicon Marsh has long been known for its spectacular fall flight of Canada geese, this marsh was not originally established to protect geese. The State Wildlife Area was designated as a migratory rest stop and breeding ground for ducks and the National Wildlife Refuge was established as a nesting ground for the redhead duck. It's still the largest nesting area for redheads east of the Mississippi River.

When Canada goose populations were in serious trouble by the 1940s and '50s, the region's goals were expanded to manage them. The pioneering work undertaken by the biologists of the time was overwhelmingly successful. By the mid-1970s, Horicon Marsh was hosting a quarter million Canada geese during the fall migration. Long before wildlife watching became a national pastime, Horicon Marsh was a destination for thousands of people who came to experience the largest migratory flock of Canada geese in the world.

As a result, the name "Horicon" had become almost synonymous with geese. In fact, many visitors still believe that the marsh was established for geese and our primary job in the region is managing geese. One year, I was even asked by a visitor what we, as wildlife biologists, do when the geese leave, as if this was our sole purpose for being here. My answer was that we didn't do anything different when the geese were here. The real goal for managing this marsh today is to support a great diversity of wildlife that is lured to Horicon and best exemplified by its birds.

Notoriety for its geese is both an asset and disadvantage for Horicon Marsh. It is surely a claim to fame, but as the resident giant Canada goose population began to explode across the country during the 1980s and '90s, geese were viewed as a nuisance in some urban and suburban areas. These birds seemed to wear out their welcome and lose some of the intrigue they once held.

Birdwatchers have long known Horicon as more than a place to see Canadas. In a book from the late 1970s, titled A Dozen Birding Hotspots East of the Mississippi, Horicon Marsh is included among these top destinations for ardent birders. The festival attempts to share this wealth of wildlife with a much broader audience, as well as encourage visitors to seek out this marsh during spring in addition to the traditional fall migration season.

The bird festival is always held on the weekend of the second Saturday of May, when both Mother's Day and International Migratory Bird Day are celebrated across the U.S. to bring attention to our migrant birds and their conservation. Numerous families tell us they come to the festival to fulfill moms' wishes to spend their day close to nature and enjoying birds.

The event's growing success extends beyond active birdwatchers. Experts and casual observers, including kids, families and seniors, will find activities to enjoy.

The long weekend offers many field trips and other activities conducted by some of Wisconsin's most knowledgeable, enjoyable and approachable bird experts who are talented speakers willing to share their experiences and love for birds. The fact that we are able to attract so many talented field trip leaders at a time of year when birders would otherwise want to be out in the woods watching birds on their own has been a real testament to the event.

Bill Volkert, a seasoned DNR naturalist, shows binoculars to visitors at the state end of the marsh. © Jack R. Bartholmai
Bill Volkert, a seasoned DNR naturalist, shows binoculars to visitors at the state end of the marsh.

© Jack R. Bartholmai

Others take visitors through the marsh by bus or pontoon boat or simply sit on the observation deck to see what can be sighted from this single place.

While birders know that the best birdwatching is early in the morning, festival activities are held throughout the day, as migrant birds are often active later in the afternoon following their long flights to Wisconsin. While warm days can slow down songbird observations by late morning, the ducks and shorebirds are active throughout the day, providing plenty to see and hear.

Early risers reap some special rewards. First light bus tours held at sunrise on Saturday and Sunday transport ardent birders along the east and north sides of the marsh to see many kinds of birds. This tour runs until noon and over the years most trips tallied more than 100 species! Imagine the chance to see 100 species on a single marsh, on a single morning before noon! It's a unique opportunity to share the journey with experienced hands who will help you hear, find, see and clearly identify many birds. This event is popular and bus space is limited, so sign up early to save some seats on this adventure.

Other trips take a more relaxing pace and at a more popular time of day, like the leisurely pontoon boat tours of the marshland interior conducted by Blue Heron Tours. Relax, sit on the boat deck and enjoy a quiet ride to see birds and their environs from a different point of view. Visitors on these trips often find birds that are more difficult to see from the edge of the marsh.

In recent years, the Horicon Marsh Bird Club has also taken a wait-and-see approach. In "The Big Sit," club members started a new tradition. They sit in a 17-foot diameter circle on the observation deck near the DNR Field Office and wait to see what birds will come to them over a 24-hour period. They set up their round-the-clock vigil and post their results. Visitors who don't have the patience or the mindset to stay put from midnight to midnight can wander over to this stop and periodically check on their progress or place some side bets on which birders will nod off before the end of their shifts! Past Big Sits have recorded more than 80 bird species.

Night time offers a different experience on the marsh and an opportunity to detect birds that are more active after dark. The "Night Sounds" hike provides a great opportunity to listen to the music of the marsh, when frogs are singing and the owls come out. It is also a time when some birds, mammals and insects are most active. At 32,000 acres, Horicon is so vast and the cattails so dense that it provides a great place to safely hide and raise a family. But how do these birds ever find each other for mating? They call at night when the winds are calm and their voices carry over the marsh. This is a time for listening for marsh wrens, bitterns, sora and Virginia rails, and the occasional king rail. This hike also provides a unique experience to walk the trails after the sun has gone down and other senses take over.

short-eared owl © Jack R. Bartholmai
short-eared owl

© Jack R. Bartholmai

Among the most popular activities over the years has been a bird banding demonstration. Beginning at 6 a.m., a team sets up a series of really fine-meshed mist nets to capture migrant songbirds for banding. This activity has attracted so many people over the years that the City of Horicon brings two sets of bleachers to the edge of the woods where visitors can relax while the experienced banders unravel the birds and bring them over to the crowd for a close look. This event is conducted several hundred yards from the DNR Field Office and parking area. Those who have difficulty walking can catch a cart shuttle that delivers them right to the banding area. Watching birds has never been easier!

For these demonstrations, we set up six to ten 40-foot mist nets to capture songbirds. Part of the fun is you never know what species you will catch or how many. Visitors really enjoy this up-close look at birds in the hand before the feathered flyers are banded and released into the wild. In many years, more than 30 or 40 different kinds of birds are captured and at times more than 100 birds per day are caught in the nets. For those hard-to-identify warblers, here is a chance for birders to see the rich colors and amazing variety of this family of birds.

Festival volunteers also host a variety of kids' activities like beginning birding and a presentation on hawks and owls with live birds. Other programs on "birdscaping" (landscaping for birds) focus wood warblers, waterfowl and grassland birds. Whether you can just come for an afternoon or plan to attend the full four-day festival, you can count on seeing a wide variety of our native wildlife and wild places. Photographers can pick up advice from seasoned veterans who are adapting to new technology and hooking their digital cameras up to spotting scopes ("digiscoping") to get some really stunning images.

From its humble beginnings 10 years ago, the Horicon Marsh Birding Festival has grown to attract more than 1,000 visitors who come armed with binoculars and cameras to discover the joys of birding in Wisconsin. With so many activities in so many parts of the vast marsh, you'll never feel crowded. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy a quiet corner all by yourself.

Over the years, the total number of birds sighted during the four-day festival has ranged from 119 to 161 species. Altogether, nearly 300 different species have been counted over the 10-year run, hinting at the great variety of birds that move through during festival time.

William K. Volkert is a natural resources educator who has developed many talks and programs about the human and natural history of Horicon Marsh.