Monthly Archives: August 2016

Does it Fit the Bill?

Spotted Touch-me-not at the Horicon Marsh

Spotted Touch-me-not

The Spotted Touch-me-not, or Jewelweed, is blooming in scattered patches along the auto tour off of Highway 49.  It develops fruit that is a swollen capsule.  If you touch it when it is ripe, the capsule may explode, projecting its seeds.  Thus, touch it not.  The sap of the stem and leaves soothes itchy rashes like poison ivy.  It also has fungicidal properties and has been used to treat athlete’s foot.

Woodland Sunflowers at the Horicon Marsh

Woodland Sunflowers

Woodland Sunflowers thrive in the dappled sunlight beneath the Birch trees on a corner of the auto tour.

Eastern Phoebe at the Horicon Marsh

Eastern Phoebe

This little Eastern Phoebe was perched at eye level at the edge of the main parking lot for the auto tour.  In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silver thread to an Eastern Phoebe’s leg to track its return in successive years.[1]  The dark bill distinguishes the Eastern Phoebe from the Eastern Wood-pewee which has a lighter colored lower bill.  The Wood-pewee also has distinct wing bars.  A similar bird is the Willow Flycatcher which also has a pale lower beak, wing bars, and a narrow white eye ring.

Trumpeter Swan at the Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swan

The Trumpeter Swan is our largest native waterfowl.  The males are North America’s heaviest flying bird.  Their black bill has a red line on the lower bill.  The eye is not distinct from the bill.  Tundra Swans may have a yellow area in front of the eye (the lore) and the eye is distinct from the bill.

Trumpeter Swan at the Horicon Marsh

Mad Trumpeter Swan

This bill may also be used to let you know you should move out of its way.

Northern Shoveler at the Horicon Marsh

Female Northern Shoveler

The large, heavy bill of the Northern Shoveler is a distinguishing feature of this bird.  If you invert it, it could be used as a small spatula or shovel.

A bird’s bill is a helpful clue to its identity.  Does its description in your field guide fit the bill?



Artistic Treasures

Common Gallinule at the Horicon Marsh

Common Gallinule

I was treated to a variety of artistic treasures at the Horicon Marsh today.  This Common Gallinule looks like his beak has been carved from exotic wood and a Master Painter added white brush strokes of paint as a final touch to this masterpiece.

Tree Swallow at the Horicon Marsh

Tree Swallow

Feathers of the Tree Swallow look metallic in the sunlight.  His black eye patch adds a touch of mystery.

American Coot at the Horicon Marsh

Juvenile American Coot

The American Coot chicks are growing up!  I think they look most beautiful at this stage in their development.

Trumpeter Swan at the Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swan

When this Trumpeter Swan walked through the water, the ducks scooted off, reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea.

Trumpeter Swan at the Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swan Performing Neck Exercises

I wonder if swans get sore necks?

Wood Duck at the Horicon Marsh

Female Wood Duck

Jewel toned feathers add to this female Wood Duck’s beauty.

What’s in a Name?

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper at the Horicon Marsh

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper

This cute juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper is more robust than he looks.  He will travel 1,900 to 2,500 miles to South America this fall.  He gets his name from the short webs between his toes.  Palmated means webbed.  The Western Sandpiper is the only other small sandpiper that has similar feet.[1]  The juvenile birds of the two species are difficult to differentiate.  The juvenile Western Sandpiper has a longer bill that is slightly drooped and more reddish upper scapular feathers than the juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Cedar Waxwing at the Horicon Marsh

Cedar Waxwing

The stunning Cedar Waxwing may also migrate to South America for the winter.  They love to eat berries.  The name “cedar” comes from their love of cedar berries in the winter. The name “waxwing” comes from a red, waxy secretion found at the tips of their secondary feathers.  The red color is a result of their diet of fruit.  If Cedar Waxwings eat more honeysuckle fruit during feather growth, the waxy droplets will be more orange.  The droplets appear waxy but the texture is more like plastic.[2]

Birds, like these, that migrate great distances are part of the reason that the Horicon Marsh has been formally recognized as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention of the United Nations.  There are nine criteria for identifying Wetlands of International Importance. These wetlands have significant value not only for the country in which they are located, but for humanity as a whole. One of the nine criteria is “a wetland should be considered internationally important if it supports 20,000 or more water birds.”  Each fall the largest migratory flock of Canada geese in the world migrates through the Horicon Marsh with peak numbers reaching more than 200,000. Three hundred different species of birds have been recorded here.  The Marsh is also home to a number of threatened and endangered species.

The names of birds often highlight fascinating characteristics about them.  The designation as a Wetland of International Importance highlights the vital and essential environment in which these birds live.




[2] David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (New York:  Chanticleer Press, Inc., 2001), 486.







Utility and Beauty

“Poetry is a fresh morning spider web telling a story of moonlit hours of weaving and waiting during a night.”

Carl Sandburg

Spider Web at the Horicon Marsh

“The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web.”

Edwin Way Teale

Spider Web at the Horicon Marsh


“Just imagine the banner headlines if a marine biologist were to discover a species of dolphin that wove large,

intricately meshed fishing nets, twenty dolphin-lengths in diameter! 

Yet we take a spider web for granted, as a nuisance in the house rather than as one of the wonders of the world.”

Richard Dawkins

Spider Web at the Horicon Marsh

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”

“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian.  “I don’t understand it.  But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place.  When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle.  But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable.  “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle–it’s just a web.”

“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.

E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Spider Web at the Horicon Marsh

Beauty and Depth

American Goldfinch at the Horicon Marsh

American Goldfinch

The American Goldfinch is a beautiful finch with a pretty song.  It is so well liked that it is the state bird in three states.  Can you name them?

It is a gorgeous evening at the Education and Visitor Center on Highway 28.  A cheery field of yellow coneflowers is in full bloom next to the parking area.  Goldfinches are flitting about.  They are more interested in the Bull Thistles along the edge of the field than they are in the coneflowers.  The thistle’s bright pink flowers are a wonderful contrast to the sunny yellow field behind them.   American Goldfinches are vegetarians.  They love the seeds of the Bull Thistle.  Downy white fibers are being flung everywhere as they hungrily eat the seeds while perched on the flower heads.

American Goldfinch at the Horicon Marsh

I heard one singing outside my bedroom window recently.  I wondered what bird had such a lovely song.  A Goldfinch was perched on a tree branch several feet from my window.  I could not resist taking a photo but I had to shoot through the window screen.  I stood several feet away from the screen and the bird was several feet behind the screen.  I chose the widest aperture I could with the lens I was using. (f 6.3 at 600 mm)  By choosing a wide aperture with a shallow depth of field, I was able to get the bird in focus and the screen went out of focus, essentially disappearing.  This technique would not have worked if the bird was right next to the screen.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch
1/50, f6.3, ISO 400, 600 mm

Whether they are out in the wild, or out in the yard, American Goldfinches are a delight.  Are you still wondering about the three states?  They are Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington.

Marsh Gems

Wood Duck at the Horicon Marsh

Wood Duck

The male Wood Duck is one of the easiest ducks to identify.  His spectacular plumage gives his identity away.  Thoreau saw one swimming in a river and said, “What an ornament to a river to see that glowing gem floating in contact with its waters! As if the hummingbird should recline its ruby throat and its breast upon the water. Like dipping a glowing coal in water! It so affected me. . . . That duck was all jewels combined, showing different lusters as it turned on the unrippled element in various lights, now brilliant glossy green, now dusky violet, now a rich bronze, now the reflections that sleep in the ruby’s grain.”  (The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Volume 8)  What happened to this one?

Wood Duck at the Horicon Marsh

Eclipse Male Wood Duck

This is an eclipse male.  He has begun to molt since it is after the breeding season.  He still has his bright red eye and bright bill with a dark tip.  He is unable to fly until he molts again and has a return of his handsome breeding plumage.

This painted turtle is greeting our next bird.

Hooded Merganser and Painted Turtle at the Horicon Marsh

Check out those claws!

Painted Turtle at the Horicon Marsh

Painted Turtle

This bird took me a while to identify.  She has a long, slender bill that is dark above and yellow below.  She has a black and white striped patch of feathers and a white belly.  The part that threw me is that she has a chestnut brown head but not much of a crest.

Female Hooded Merganser at the Horicon Marsh

Female Hooded Merganser

This is a female Hooded Merganser. A fascinating fact is that “Hooded Mergansers find their prey underwater by sight. They can actually change the refractive properties of their eyes to improve their underwater vision. In addition, they have an extra eyelid, which is transparent and helps protect the eye during swimming, like a pair of goggles.”[1]

These gems were spotted along the auto tour off of Highway 49.  Whether adorned with brilliant color, or having a more subtle beauty, the Horicon Marsh is filled with avian masterpieces.



Yellow-headed Blackbird at the Horicon Marsh

Yellow-headed Blackbird

The Yellow-headed Blackbird is said to have one of the worst bird calls.  If you want a good laugh, you can listen to it here.  The bright yellow color attracts attention.  This is a juvenile male Yellow-headed Blackbird.  The coloring of the head is somewhat brown and he has a white patch by the wing.  Females do not have the white wing patch.

Least Bittern at the Horicon Marsh

Least Bittern

The Least Bittern, on the other hand, is very secretive.  She stays hidden among the cattails and her call is very quiet.  This is a female Least Bittern.  She has beautiful warm brown coloring with a dark patch on her head, back, and around her wings. Least Bitterns can straddle cattails, which allows them to feed in water that would be too deep to wade in.