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Birding on Horicon Marsh
By Bill Volkert and Larry Micheal

Encompassing 32,000 acres, Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S. This marsh is also a restoration project, having been ditched and drained for agriculture in the early 1900's. The marsh is divided into two units. The southern one-third is a State Wildlife Area managed by the Wisconsin DNR. The northern two-thirds is a National Wildlife Refuge administered by the USFWS. While the marsh is primarily managed as a waterfowl area it hosts a tremendous variety of other birds. This marsh is perhaps best known for the spring and fall migration of Canada geese which often number more than 20,000 birds.

Over the years, more than 265 species have been sighted here and this marsh regularly attracts some of Wisconsin's rarest birds. Being a National Wildlife Refuge, public access is limited in this portion of the marsh in order to protect the wildlife for which it has been established. Most of the state area is open to the public. One of the best ways to explore this area is by canoe or shallow draft boat. Please be aware of designated restricted use and closed areas. For more information, contact the state and/or federal headquarters. The following is a summary of some of the most productive and accessible birding sites.

DNR Field Office

Taking Palmatory Street north from Hwy. 33 in the City of Horicon, brings one to the state hiking trails and field office. From the top of this hill is one of the finest views of Horicon Marsh. A good number of birds can be sighted from the observation deck without having to walk much at all. Scopes are a must to identify species out on the open water. This also provides an excellent view of Fourmile Island, a nesting site for great blue herons. A 1.5 mile hiking trail loop begins at the bottom of the hill at the parking lot. Interpretive signs provide information on the local wildlife along the "Horicon Habitat Hike". A short walk will lead you through a woodlot, where great-crested flycatchers, northern flickers, eastern wood pewee and many spring migrants are abundant. A loop trail along the dike takes hikers out on the marsh where wetland birds are readily seen. Commonly sighted species include a variety of ducks, Canada geese, herons, egrets, rails, marsh wrens and pied-billed grebe.

DNR Service Center

The Service Center, located on Hwy. 28 between Horicon and Mayville, is the DNR headquarters at Horicon Marsh. A variety of visitor information can be obtained here during regular business hours. This site was recently improved with the completion of the Bachhuber Flowage, a 200-acre impoundment providing enhanced wildlife habitat. A variety of wetland birds can be found at this location. An expanded hiking trail system has been developed along the dike and not only provides for walking around the flowage, but also links with the existing trails to provide greater hiking opportunities for visitors. Other developments are planned for this location, including the completion of the Horicon Marsh International Education Center.

One Mile Island Trail

Follow Hwy. 33 through the City of Horicon to the boat landing at the north end of Nebraska Street. A hiking trail begins here leading 0.5 miles out to One Mile Island and the Main Ditch. The aspen and oak forest on the island offers good birding for passerines in spring and fall. This is also a good spot to watch for great horned owls and barred owls early in the day.

Burnett Ditch Road

This road extends out into the marsh about 0.75 miles. It has a typical mixture of open water and cattails. Boat access is also available at the point. Common birds include least bittern, Virginia and sora rails, black tern, pied-billed grebe and other open water birds.

Greenhead Landing

Greenhead Road is a gravel road extending to the boat landing on the Rock River. Some upland birding is available, but the real opportunity is at the boat landing. Launching a canoe from here will take you out into the marsh. Canoe rentals and shuttles are available in the City of Horicon. As you paddle down the river you will see numerous birds among the willow trees that line the upper river. Entering the open cattail marsh you will find many of the birds of the marsh interior, including great blue herons, cormorants, black terns, marsh wrens, and the possibility of seeing yellow-headed blackbirds, white pelicans and many others.

A one-hour paddle will take you out to the Fourmile Island heron rookery. At one time this was the state's largest heron and egret nesting colony, but a severe storm in 1998 resulted in downed trees and loss of nesting sites. The best time of year to see the island is in late April and early May when the birds are actively nesting and trees have not yet leafed out to conceal the nests. Viewing is only from the open water! This is a closed area and a State Natural Area with all access to the island strictly forbidden in order to protect the birds and assure their nesting success.

From here you can easily back paddle upstream to the landing or continue through to the City of Horicon. The complete trip of seven miles will require from three to five hours. This may be one of the finest ways to explore the marsh and see a variety of its inhabitants.

Main Dike

The main dike is open to the public from April 15 to September 15. It offers a good chance to view the marsh interior. Three major pools offer open water for waterfowl, herons, and shorebirds wile the cattails are home to Virginia and sora rails, marsh wren and swamp sparrow. Cormorants, black and Forster's tern also can be seen along here.

On occasion shorebirds can be found here in large numbers when water levels are low. Rarities include black-necked stilt, both godwits, buff-breasted sandpiper, and red-necked phalarope. The woods along the north-south ditch at the end of the road are excellent during April-May and August-September for passerines.

Another good passerine area is along Northern Road, which extends south from the Dike Road dead-ending at the east branch of the Rock River. During May, it can be an especially worthwhile side trip.

Point and Ledge Road

This road affords fine views of the eastern section of the marsh. On the nearby farmlands you can find savannah sparrows, meadowlarks, sandhill cranes and occasionally wild turkeys. An excellent area to watch is Ledge Road that parallels Strooks Ditch into the marsh. At this site the first state record of white-faced ibis was established in 1987 and a good variety of marsh birds can be found along the lower portion of the road. Watch for all four rail species (king is occasional, yellow is rare), plus herons, egrets, waterfowl, grebes and other marsh birds. Yellow-breasted chat has been sighted in the surrounding shrubs and short-eared owls can be found here in late fall through spring.

Highway 49

This is one of the most popular roads to watch from and the only public road that crosses the marsh. Keep in mind that this is a state highway and commonly traveled by trucks and heavy traffic. Be sure to pull completely off of the road and watch from the broad shoulders. A number of pools and impoundments offer some good birdwatching from the road. This is also a popular stop in October when the many tourists come to view the Canada geese. The deeper pools along the highway are good places to view most any variety of puddle duck or diver. Coots will join in by the hundreds and there is always a chance of seeing least bittern, common moorhen, black and Forster's tern and yellow-headed blackbirds, which have nested north of the highway.

Water levels on several pools along Hwy. 49 are managed for a variety of habitat types and are currently in a rotational basis. These are cleared of encroaching cattails and reflooded, keeping water levels at different stages. This provides good habitat for waterfowl, great blue and black-crowned night herons, great egrets and other marsh birds. When water levels are low during spring and fall migration, shorebirds can be found in great numbers and variety. Rarities observed along 49 include little blue and tri-colored herons, snowy egret, peregrine falcon, ruff, buff-breasted sandpiper, black-necked stilt, American Avocet, Marbled godwit, white-fronted goose, eared and red-necked grebes.

The public viewing area on the east side of the marsh provides a place to watch birds away from the highway. Here is a parking lot, toilet facilities and an overlook of the marsh where the geese and other birds can also be observed. In winter, Hwy. 49 and Cty. Z, on the east side of the marsh, are good places to watch for rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and occasionally short-eared owls.

Refuge Hiking Trails

There are two hiking trail systems on the Refuge; the Bud Cook Trails, located on Point Road, and Hwy. 49 trail system. The Bud Cook trails traverse upland habitats of old fields, shrubs and wooded groves which lure a variety of birds. The Hwy. 49 trails are located on the northwest end of the marsh where you will find a series of hiking trails allowing access to both upland and lowland habitats. Six miles of trails and an Auto Tour Route have been developed and offer good birding opportunities.

Uplands consist of old field, shrubs and restored prairie. This is a good place to watch for grassland birds such as bobolinks, eastern meadowlarks and a variety of grassland sparrows. Among the shrubs are cardinals, catbirds, willow flycatchers and yellow warblers. Forested habitat is found along the hiking trails and the banks of the Rock River. These sites are good for indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and migrant passerines, (vireos, warblers and flycatchers) which are drawn to these islands of trees among the vast open marsh

Several of the deeper pools provide good habitat for waterfowl, coots, herons, and egrets. The highlight of these trails is the floating boardwalk. This is the best place to experience the marsh interior and see wildlife up close. Rarities sighted here include yellow-crowned night heron, snowy and cattle egrets, and tri-colored heron. Watch for sora and Virginia rails and Forster's terns as well as shorebirds when water levels are low.

Visitor Information

Horicon Marsh not only offers many opportunities to observe common marshland birds, but is often a lure to some of the rarest bird sightings in Wisconsin. Besides the afore mentioned rarities other sightings have included horned grebe, glossy ibis, brant, black-bellied whistling duck, cinnamon teal, Eurasian wigeon, golden eagle and tufted titmouse.

To help visitors experience Horicon Marsh and understand its wildlife, natural history and management; naturalist programs are offered to the public every weekend during spring and fall. For more information visit the DNR Service Center on Hwy. 28, or call 920-387-7860. Office is open Mon - Fri, from 7:45am to 4:30pm. More information is available at: www.midwest.fws.gov/horicon/index.htm

One of the best ways to experience the rich bird life of the area is during the annual Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, held on the second weekend of May. Additional information and a full schedule of events is available by contacting the above offices or checking on the Bird Club webpage.

This brochure was produced by the Horicon Marsh Bird Club. For more information on local activities, events or recent bird sightings check out their webpage at www.horiconmarshbirdclub.com or email to pres@horiconmarshbirdclub.com