American birdwatchers are an intrepid lot. Whether on a spring journey to the Platte River for sandhill cranes or an early fall trip to the Atlantic Tidewater to watch shorebirds, they seem forever on the move between breeding and wintering grounds of their favorite species. Thanks to Wisconsin's location on Great Lakes and Mississippi River migration paths, however, Badger State birders can have fun close to home. In fact, some great birding can be found within a two-hour drive of Madison. The neat small towns and pretty fall colors are a bonus.
Before we get started in earnest here, though, I have to confess a bias for waterfowl. Songbird and raptor enthusiasts are free to find fault. I plead no contest. When something moves you, it moves you. And for me - an avid duck hunter and birder - there is something extraordinary in these creatures that inhabit water, land and sky.
The good news is that the time is right to get out and watch waterfowl. Duck and goose numbers peak later this month. Wild tundra swans continue to come right until freeze-up.
Top among my birding haunts is the Mississippi River. The maze of backwaters and islands plays host to thousands of migrant waterfowl on their spring and fall journeys. This section of the river is part of the 260-mile-long Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge running from Lake Pepin to the Quad Cities. The river is divided into 14 "pools," or lakes, separated by dams. These are managed for the good of the wildlife living there.
Two Mississippi River birding opportunities stand out. One is the gathering of some 200,000 canvasback ducks on Pool 9 in early November. The second is the staging of tundra swans on Pool 4. Tundra swans - which migrate through Wisconsin from the Northwest Territories en route to the Atlantic Tidewater - reach peak numbers late in November. Hit the observation deck and spotting scope in Ferryville to check out Pool 9's canvasbacks. Look for the platform on Highway 35, north of Alma, to see the swans.
Seeing a Canada goose is no big deal, right? But seeing thousands upon thousands returning from their cornfield feeding flights is truly a spectacle, if only for the noise and biomass of these flocks. Fortunately, one need only drive an hour east to Horicon Marsh to experience this spectacle.
Playing host to some 250,000 geese isn't Horicon's only claim to fame. This 33,000-acre marsh is one of the largest intact freshwater marshes remaining in North America. It can also hold as many as 100,000 ducks plus herons, pelicans and cormorants. Duck and goose numbers peak in late October. Use the viewing platform near the Marsh Haven Nature Center on the north end of the marsh, off Highway 49.
While Horicon and the Upper Mississippi River draw more of a crowd, there's plenty more to take in with your spotting scope. Located ninety miles north of Madison in Wood County, remote Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is part of what 19th-century settlers called the Great Wisconsin Swamp - a vast terrain of oak woods, swales and wetlands.
Still swampy today, Necedah hosts the usual migratory suspects - ducks, geese and sandhill cranes - and some unusual ones as well. Among these are whooping cranes, which are bred on the refuge and later introduced to the wild, in an effort to increase numbers of this rare bird. Necedah also has the state's largest redheaded woodpecker population and a healthy timber wolf pack. A good way to see the refuge is by taking the self-guided auto-tour or walking the Lupine Trail.
If you like a little urban flair with your birding, try Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Sheboygan. Large concentrations of diving ducks such as bluebill, canvasback, bufflehead, goldeneye and oldsquaw overwinter here. Look for them in Hika Bay near the tiny lakeside town of Cleveland; in Sheboygan and Port Washington harbors; and along the Milwaukee shoreline near McKinley Park and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Bring your spotting scope and warm clothes, as birds continue to build here through December.
The Madison lakes host their fair share of waterfowl, especially just prior to freeze-up. Look for cold-thriving diving ducks on Lake Wingra and near the Elks Club off Willy Street on Lake Monona. Watch for tundra swans off Governor's Island on the north side of Lake Mendota.
For those of you who prefer to do your birding virtually, fear not. A number of institutions post bird counts on their websites. For the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Upper_Mississippi_River/Fall_Flights.html. For Horicon Marsh, visit www.fws.gov/midwest/horicon/wildlife.html. The weekly Wisconsin DNR Outdoor Report and Birding Report (dnr.wi.gov/news/or/)is a good statewide source of information.