By Mary Bergin
Inside the 32,000 acres of Horicon Marsh – our nation’s largest freshwater cattail marsh – hundreds of bird species nest and nourish. From egrets to owls, hawks to herons, birds of all kinds thrive on Horicon’s complex and rich ecological web. In short, it’s a bird watching bonanza; a top destination for all nature lovers. So if you like Horicon, you’ll love these other Wisconsin birding hotspots:
At 30,000 acres, Crex is one of the largest state-owned wildlife areas and is located in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. This intensively managed property is home to over 280 species of birds and 720 species of plants. Originally part of the Northern Wisconsin Pine Barrens, it is now the state's largest remaining portion of this globally endangered ecosystem. The rare sedge marsh and brush prairie habitats make the area a utopia for wildlife which, in turn, makes Crex a paradise for bird watchers, naturalists and botanists. A very excellent visitor center offers maps and exhibits. There are paved walkways and a boardwalk observation area for the handicapped, a mapped driving tour, even guided tours by car, canoe or on foot.
This 33,000-acre state wildlife area is one of the best places in central Wisconsin for birding. Located in the marshes south of the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, the property’s checklist shows 248 species that can be found here at some time during the year. Among its migrant and resident avian populations, a whopping 126 species nest here. A variety of wildlife and environmental programs are offered at the Mead’s visitor center, fostering an enhanced sense of environmental stewardship, as well as a better understanding of wildlife issues and natural resources.
While most of the pre-settlement barrens ecosystem in Wisconsin is now gone, the 8,500-acre Spread Eagle Barrens in Florence County represents the largest ecological community of its kind remaining in northern Wisconsin. These barrens are an undulating mosaic of sunswept bracken grasslands, solitary pines and oaks, and occasional large block of timber. Many rare or declining species requiring large open landscapes live here including northern harrier, upland sandpiper, northern raven, eastern bluebird, Nashville and chestnut-sided warblers, clay-colored sparrow, common nighthawk, and Brewer's blackbird. Stop at the Wild Rivers Interpretive Center in Florence for maps and driving directions.
Remote locations aren’t the only places to bond with birds. Just fifteen minutes north of downtown Milwaukee, along the Lake Michigan shore, lies one of the state’s top urban birding locations. On its 185 acres, the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center offers six miles of nature and beach trails that introduce visitors to dozens of species of birds. Share a sky-high view with those who fly by climbing the 60-foot observation tower. Then, meet some of the center’s best teachers; rehabilitated raptors that cannot return to the wild because of injuries. The Vallier Environmental Learning Center with its towering atrium is a special place. One of the most environmentally sensitive buildings in the world, the center is Gold LEED-certified.
Overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, Wyalusing’s 2,628 acres include soaring river bluffs, hardwood forest, wetlands, waterfalls and backwater sloughs. One of the state’s oldest parks, Wyalusing is well known for its indian burial mounds, canoe trail and bird watching. More than 90 bird species live here during the summer and 100 more can be observed during spring and fall migration. They include wild turkeys, hawks, owls, waterfowl, woodpeckers, and a colorful variety of songbirds. In winter, bald eagles gather on the open water near the park’s entrance.
For bird watching of a slightly different hue, visit the Woodson Art Museum for their “Birds in Art” exhibit staged each year from mid-September to mid-November. Compelling bird art, from paintings to outdoor sculptures, fill the galleries. Since 1976 this annual juried exhibit – an idea of the late wildlife artist Owen Gromme – has attracted the work of internationally known artists. This one is truly and respectfully for the birds.