A Wetland of International Importance

Sandhill Cranes at the Horicon Marsh

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes exemplify grace and beauty while preening beside the auto tour at the Horicon Marsh.  Ornithologists predicted their extinction in the early 1900s due to wetland drainage and unlimited hunting, according to Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh: Water and Wetland Birds of Eastern North America by John Eastman.  They were classified as threatened until 1973.

Sandhill Crane at the Horicon Marsh

Thankfully, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibited hunting Sandhill Cranes and other migratory birds which helped to save them from extinction.  Currently, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists them as a Species of Low Concern.

Sandhill Cranes at the Horicon Marsh

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is an agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain (for Canada), the U.S. and Mexico, the U.S. and Japan, and the U.S. and Russia.  The Treaty gives the Secretary of the Interior and individual states the authority to protect migratory birds, including their nests and eggs. Violations result in misdemeanor charges and fines up to $15,000.  Selling migratory birds, in violation of this law, constitutes a felony.  A treaty with Russia protects ecosystems against pollution and other environmental degradations that affect migratory birds.

Spotted Sandpiper at the Horicon Marsh

Spotted Sandpiper

The Spotted Sandpiper is the most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America. Its numbers have declined, but not to the extent of the Sandhill Crane. Loss of wetland habitat and the effects of herbicides and pesticides affect their ability to raise their young. The Horicon Marsh is a welcomed haven for them. The male takes the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and taking care of the chicks.

Spotted Sandpiper at the Horicon Marsh

This view reveals more of his spots.

Where is the Bird?

Where is the Bird?

Speaking of spots, can you spot the Black-crowned Night-Heron?

Black-crowned Night-Heron at the Horicon Marsh

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Tightly grasping a willow branch, he was tossed to and fro in the wind.  I was surprised he held on for so long as he whipped forward and back.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night-Herons must enjoy sultry evenings at the Horicon Marsh.  I saw three in a row perched, strolling, or standing.

Black Saddlebags Skimmer

Black Saddlebags Skimmer

The Black Saddlebags Skimmer was drawn to this particular dead stalk.  There were many to choose from, but this was his favorite, for some unknown reason.  His name comes from the coloring of his wings that resembles saddlebags.  His body is black. Even though dragonflies have six legs, like other insects, they cannot walk.  They are predators of mosquitos.  This is a species we definitely want to protect!

The Horicon Marsh has been aptly recognized as a Wetland of International Importance.

The Beauty of Nature

Trumpeter Swans with Cygnets at the Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swan with Cygnets

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”  –John Muir, naturalist and author

Trumpeter Swans at the Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swans with Cygnets

Little white fluff balls of cuteness bring cheer to the soul.  Trumpeter Swans lead their cygnets in a swim on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Trumpeter Swans and Black Tern at the Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swans and Black Tern

No one was concerned about the hovering Black Tern.  Thankfully, cygnets are not a part of his diet.

Female Redhead with Chicks at the Horicon Marsh

Female Redhead with Chicks

A female Redhead and her chicks raced through the water in a close-knit pack.  It is amazing how fast their tiny webbed feet can paddle. The mother’s gray bill with black tip helped to identify them.

Double-crested Cormorant at the Horicon Marsh

Double-crested Cormorant

Speaking of feet, notice how this Cormorant grips the post with his entire webbed feet. He also has brilliant blue eyes.  If you are looking for the beauty of nature, you will find it at the Horicon Marsh.

Melodious Traveler

Bobolink at the Horicon Marsh

Bobolink

“The return of the birds is a record of daily increasing pleasure, but it is only a quickening and a promise until the glad day in May when we go to the meadows and find that the Bobolinks have come.  Then the cup of summer gladness seems full.”  –Florence A. Merriam, American ornithologist and nature writer

“The meadow is all bespattered with melody.  The Bobolink touched his harp within a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the trembling strings.” –Henry David Thoreau

Merriam and Thoreau write poetic descriptions of the unique and complex Bobolink song. Personally, I think the Bobolink’s song is reminiscent of the voice of R2-D2 in the original Star Wars movie of 1977.  You can listen to multiple recordings of this melodious bird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site and see if the songs bring out the poet in you.

Bobolink at the Horicon Marsh

Back View of a Bobolink

Bobolinks are not only melodious, but they are also impressive migrants. They travel about 12,500 miles to and from Argentina every year. Throughout their lifetime, they may travel the equivalent of 4 or 5 times around the circumference of the earth.  Bobolinks are the only North American bird with a white back and black underparts.

Muskrat at the Horicon Marsh

Muskrat

The muskrat is not melodious and does not travel the distance that the Bobolink travels.  However, muskrats are significant rodents inhabiting the Horicon Marsh.  You may think “significant rodent” is an oxymoron, but muskrats keep areas of the marsh open for aquatic birds. They eat cattails and other aquatic vegetation.  This one had created a small channel through the vegetation to a muddy bank where he dove underwater to enter his burrow.

Gadwall at the Horicon Marsh

Gadwall

The male Gadwall reveals handsome coloring as he preens, while his mate enjoys a bath.

Female Gadwall at the Horicon Marsh

Female Gadwall

She dries off by rapidly flapping her wings as she rises out of the water.

Female Gadwall at the Horicon Marsh

A melodious traveler, a significant rodent, and the flapping of wings made it another memorable day at the Horicon Marsh.

Successful Conservation

Gadwall at the Horicon Marsh

Gadwall

I haven’t seen a lot of Gadwalls at the Horicon Marsh but “Gadwall have increased in numbers since the 1980s, partly because of conservation of wetlands and adjacent uplands in their breeding habitat through the Conservation Reserve Program and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Their habit of nesting on islands within marshes gives them some protection from predators,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.  It is the largest conservation program in the United States affecting private lands.  Farmers volunteer to remove land from agricultural production and plant species that improve the environment.  They receive a rental payment in exchange for taking the land out of farm use.  Contracts last 10-15 years.  The program has improved water quality, reduced soil erosion, and increased habitat for endangered and threatened species.  Wisconsin has five State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) projects.

Waterfowl populations were at historic lows in the 1980s.  The North American Waterfowl Management Plan was signed in 1986 by the United States and Canada.  It was signed in 1994 by Mexico. The scope of the plan is international and it is implemented at the regional level.  It is designed to restore and develop waterfowl habitat.

Gadwalls are one example of the success of these programs.

Common Yellowthroat at the Horicon Marsh

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroats are more numerous that Gadwalls, but they may be harder to spot as they flit in and out of thick shrubs.  They have one of the largest breeding ranges of any North American warbler, spanning from southern Canada to Mexico.  Yellowthroats thrive near freshwater marshes, like the Horicon Marsh, salt marshes, and drier upland areas. This adaptability allows them to have such a wide breeding range.

Common Yellowthroat at the Horicon Marsh

Here he is from the front.

Redhead at the Horicon Marsh

Redhead

Redheads are native only to North America.  The largest nesting population east of the Mississippi River lives at the Horicon Marsh.

Canada Goose Gosling at the Horicon Marsh

Canada Goose Gosling

The goslings are growing and can be seen at multiple locations around the Marsh.

Common Grackle at the Horicon Marsh

Common Grackle

A flock of Common Grackles forages in a marshy area along the auto tour.  Grackles are the number one threat to the corn crop, but today they are satisfied with insects.

Falcon at the Horicon Marsh

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon or Juvenile Prairie Falcon?

This falcon was perched high in a dead tree along Highway 49.  Do you think he is a juvenile Peregrine Falcon or a juvenile Prairie Falcon?  Tell us what you think in the comments area.

Prairie Falcons and Peregrine Falcons are about the same size.  Prairie Falcons have dark axillary feathers which can be seen in flight.  When this falcon took off from his perch, he did not have dark axillary feathers.  The underside of his wing had a uniform spotted and barred pattern.  Both juvenile Peregrine Falcons and juvenile Prairie Falcons have vertical stripes on the front.  A distinctive feature of the Peregrine Falcon is its white throat that extends to the sides of the neck.  The white area is divided by a vertical black band that descends below the yellow-rimmed eye.  It is more likely to see a Peregrine Falcon at the Horicon Marsh than it is to see a Prairie Falcon, according to several field guides.  If you answered “juvenile Peregrine Falcon,” the evidence is in your favor.

The role of conservation, the thrill of seeing a particular species of bird, and the challenge of identifying birds, are some of the reasons we enjoy the Horicon Marsh.

Annual Horicon Marsh Bird Festival Weekend

Yellow Warbler at the Horicon Marsh

Yellow Warbler

Sunny Yellow Warblers flitted among the willows along the auto tour on the Horicon Marsh today.  The annual bird festival is in full swing and multitudes of birders have traveled to the Marsh to enjoy the abundant spring birds.  The weather is gorgeous and the plentiful sounds of cheery songbirds fill the air.

Black-crowned Night-Heron at the Horicon Marsh

Black-crowned Night-Heron

This Black-crowned Night-Heron paused among the broken reeds along Highway 49.  Unlike the perky sounding songbirds, he emits a raspy squawk.

Canada Geese at the Horicon Marsh

Canada Geese

Canada Geese typically extend their neck forward and put their head down when they are aggressively encountering an enemy.  Perhaps, they are giving the kids a lesson in how to protect their children some day.  The goslings are taking it in with rapt attention.

Occupied Nesting Box at the Horicon Marsh

Occupied Nesting Box

This nesting box caught my attention from the road as I drove by early in the day.  I came back this evening to take a closer look.

Eastern Screech-Owl at the Horicon Marsh

Eastern Screech-Owl Adult Red Morph

What an exciting discovery! The nesting box was probably toasty and the Eastern Screech-Owl popped her head out and napped.  I imagine sitting on eggs for 30 days is a bit tiring.  The male was most likely hiding in a nearby tree.  He would hunt for food at night and bring it to her while she is nesting.  There are likely 2-6 eggs.  There is also a gray morph of this species.

I met a couple who were also checking on the owl.  They came out from Madison and joined the morning birding bus tour for the bird festival.  One hundred and twenty-five birds were identified this morning!

Painted Turtles at the Horicon Marsh

Painted Turtles

Fifteen painted turtles came out to enjoy the sunny, warm day.

Purple Martin at the Horicon Marsh

Purple Martin

Purple Martins look rather crabby, don’t you think? This fellow was perched on the martin houses on the Palmatory Street overlook.  Purple Martins are the largest North American Swallow.  They get all their food while flying by dining on flying insects.

Female Purple Martins at the Horicon Marsh

Female Purple Martins

These Female Purple Martins are checking up on one another.  Spend a few minutes watching the birds at these houses, and it is evident they are quite social.

What a treat to see such a variety of birds at the Horicon Marsh annual bird festival!

Goslings Arrive!

Gosling at the Horicon Marsh

Gosling

Abundant goslings are toddling along the shoulders of the road on the Auto Tour off of Highway 49 at the Horicon Marsh.  There are 5-6 goslings in each family of Canada Geese.  They swim, eat, and rest under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Canada Geese at the Horicon Marsh

Canada Geese

One parent must have detected something threatening under the water.  Typically, Canada Geese dabble by tipping their head in the water to eat vegetation.  But this parent suddenly, completely submerged herself creating quite a ruckus.

Canada Geese at the Horicon MarshThe goslings huddled around the other parent for protection from the danger.

Canada Geese at the Horicon MarshThe submerged parent emerged from the water and continued to aggressively splash to make it clear to the unknown predator no one was touching her babies.

Canada Geese at the Horicon MarshDuring the debriefing, junior discusses his concerns with dad.

Gosling at the Horicon MarshThankfully, the traumatic swimming lesson was over.  The goslings waddled ashore and hungrily ate shoots of grass.

Dinner Time at the Horicon Marsh

Forster's Tern at the Horicon Marsh

Forster’s Tern

This Forster’s Tern expected to be waited on for dinner.  She stayed perched on the post and made no attempt to dive for fish.  Forster’s Terns look similar to Common Terns.  Forster’s Terns have longer tail feathers than wing feathers.  They have a large orange bill with a black tip, light gray feathers on their back, and white underparts.  Common terns have shorter tail feathers than wing feathers, gray bodies that blend in with their gray backs, and reddish orange bills with black tips.

Forster's Tern at the Horicon Marsh

I said I want fish and I want it now!

Instead of working for her dinner, she started calling.  She quickly became more insistent, much like chicks do when they are begging for food.

Forster's Terns at the Horicon Marsh

Courtship Feeding

Her valiant knight in shining feathers flew in with the gift of a fish.

Forster's Terns at the Horicon Marsh

Look what I brought you honey!

This courtship feeding often occurs after the pair bond has formed.  In terns, either sex may feed the other, but it is usually triggered by the female, according to the book Bird: The Definitive Visual Guide by Audubon.

Forster's Terns at the Horicon Marsh

A Perfect Hand Off

She gratefully accepts the fish and swallows it whole. The ritual was repeated until her appetite was satisfied.  It was a successful dinner date that strengthened their bond.

American Bittern at the Horicon Marsh

American Bittern

Another bird having dinner on the south side of Highway 49 at the Horicon Marsh was the American Bittern.  His color pattern, especially the streaks on his neck, are effective camouflage.  He stood very still, stretched his neck upward, and looked up to blend in with the vertical reeds.

American Bittern at the Horicon Marsh

Ready to Eat

He stretched his neck horizontally when he was getting ready to eat.

American Bittern at the Horicon Marsh

It only took a split second to pluck an unsuspecting fish from the water.  He tossed it with his bill a couple of times before swallowing it whole.

Double-crested Cormorant at the Horicon Marsh

Double-crested Cormorant

The Double-crested Cormorant dives underwater until he is totally submerged.  He also likes to eat fish.  He can hold his breath for more than a minute.  His blue eyes are stunning and unexpected.

Muddy Duck at the Horicon Marsh

Muddy Duck

This muddy duck is also a diver, which is no surprise by looking at him.

Ruddy Duck at the Horicon Marsh

Ruddy Duck

Here he is all cleaned up.  His real name is Ruddy Duck.  He dives for aquatic plants, insects, and crustaceans.  It was a treat to watch the birds eating at the Horicon Marsh buffet.

Time for Nesting

American Robin at the Horicon Marsh

An American Robin Builds Her Nest

It’s nesting season at the Horicon Marsh!  This American Robin wants to make as few trips as possible to build her nest.  She will make an average of 180 trips per day for 2-6 days.  Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer and Build by Peter Goodfellow is a helpful reference book about different types of bird nests, if you would like to learn more about the fascinating art and science of nest building.

Boardwalk at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

Boardwalk at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

The reconstructed boardwalk on the Egret Trail, on the auto tour off of Highway 49, is showing signs of progress.  It is scheduled to open on July 1, 2017.  The auto tour is now open to vehicles.  There was a parade of us driving through and enjoying the warm weather today.  A fellow birding enthusiast said there were several types of warblers in the woods near the parking area by the Egret Trail.

Painted Turtle on the Auto Tour at the Horicon Marsh

Painted Turtle on the Auto Tour

A painted turtle enjoys the sunshine.  I like the symmetry of the branch and its reflection.

Black-necked Stilts at the Horicon Marsh

Black-necked Stilts

Numerous pairs of Black-necked Stilts waded in the water along the auto tour and in the water along Highway 49.  They have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird.  Do you know what bird leads the list?  Tell us what you think in the comments area.

Black-necked Stilt at the Horicon Marsh

This Black-necked Stilt was as excited as I was to be out on the auto tour again.

Great Horned Owls

Female Great Horned Owl at the Horicon Marsh

Female Great Horned Owl

Thanks to the avid birder who pointed out this nesting pair of Great Horned Owls in a woods along the Bachhuber Loop at the Education and Visitor Center at the Horicon Marsh.  The female is resting in the nest while the male is out getting food. She blends in beautifully with the pile of leaves that makes up her nest.  From a distance, I didn’t see her.

Male Great Horned Owl at the Horicon Marsh

Male Great Horned Owl

The distinctive tufts or “horns” are not used for hearing.  Their sensitive hearing is, in part, due to facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their ears.  It is possible that the tufts help to camouflage the owl by breaking up its shape and helping it to blend in with its perch.  Others believe the tufts help with behavior signaling and species recognition.  Owls also have interesting eyes that do not move in their sockets.  They can turn their heads 180 degrees to see in all directions.  Today, they just looked straight at me.  We can look forward to seeing one to four fluffy owlets peeking their heads over the side of the nest soon.

First Flowers and Spring Birds

Crocus Blossom at the Horicon Marsh

Crocus Blossom

Early blooming Crocuses signal the arrival of spring at the Horicon Marsh! The blossoms close at night or on cloudy days, like today.

Crocus Blossom at the Horicon Marsh

Saffron, which is used to color and flavor food, is made from the dried stigmas of Crocus sativus.  About 7,000 flowers are needed to produce 3 ounces of saffron, making it one of the most costly spices by weight.

Male American Robin at the Horicon Marsh

Male American Robin

The quintessential bird of spring is the American Robin.  The male has a darker head than the female. He has a brick-red breast. American Robins can have three broods in one year.  They typically eat earthworms early in the day and fruit later in the day.  If they eat honeysuckle berries exclusively, they may become intoxicated.  Thankfully, I can’t say I’ve seen that!

Female American Robin at the Horicon Marsh

Female American Robin

The head of the female American Robin blends in with the lighter gray back feathers.  Her breast is orange with a bit of white.  I talked to someone recently who lives in the city and he had no idea what a robin looks like.  I was shocked.  We are so blessed to have the Horicon Marsh with its plentiful birds and wildlife.

Ring-necked Ducks at the Horicon Marsh

Ring-necked Ducks

Ring-necked Ducks swim in the water near the auto tour.  The auto tour, off of Highway 49, is still closed to vehicles.  I passed another photographer as I was walking along the road.  She said, “I love this place.”  I do, too.

Meadowlark at the Horicon Marsh

Eastern Meadowlark

The photographer recognized the melodious whistle of the Meadowlark.  He fans his tail as he sings.  Eastern Meadowlarks can sing several variations of their song.

Red-winged Blackbird at the Horicon Marsh

Red-winged Blackbird

The Red-winged Blackbird fanned his wing showing his colors as he sang.

Pied-billed Grebe at the Horicon Marsh

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebes always look happy.  They can trap water in their feathers, giving them great control over their buoyancy. They can sink deeply or stay just at or below the surface, exposing as much or as little of the body as they wish. They dive submerging their entire body to hide or to eat.  He was spotted swimming alongside of Highway 49.

Killdeer at the Horicon Marsh

Killdeer

After checking out the auto tour, I headed to the Education and Visitor Center on Highway 28.  This was a popular hang out for Killdeer today.  This one found a bit of stick in the parking lot, which he ate.  I’m guessing it didn’t digest too well.

Killdeer at the Horicon Marsh

Someone got their feathers ruffled.

Killdeer at the Horicon Marsh

Perhaps, it was because three can be a crowd.

Milkweed at the Horicon Marsh

Milkweed

This Milkweed was behind the building.  I liked the texture.

Song Sparrow at the Horicon Marsh

Song Sparrow

I also liked the texture and color of the fence post the Song Sparrow used as his podium for singing.  Often, Mondays are not our favorite day of the week.  But if we get to spend it at the Horicon Marsh, it may be the best day of the week!