“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.
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.
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.
The male Gadwall reveals handsome coloring as he preens, while his mate enjoys a bath.
She dries off by rapidly flapping her wings as she rises out of the water.
A melodious traveler, a significant rodent, and the flapping of wings made it another memorable day at the Horicon Marsh.
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 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.
Here he is from the front.
Redheads are native only to North America. The largest nesting population east of the Mississippi River lives at the Horicon Marsh.
The goslings are growing and can be seen at multiple locations around the Marsh.
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.
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.
Hanging 20-30 feet above the ground and suspended on a couple of twigs is an intricately woven home to a family of unknown birds. “Without support from below, both attachment and construction rely on elaborate binding, weaving, and knotting to create a secure nest. This produces some of the most extraordinary constructions in the natural world.” Intricate knots and stitches weave together grass material to form the nest. A typical nest might contain 10,000 stitches! Hanging at the edge of a branch protects the nest from predators.
Wild cucumber vines dotted the edges of the auto tour. Wild cucumber is a member of the gourd family.
The Northern Shoveler held its large beak at the surface of the water as it swam. Dabbling ducks have little comb-like projections inside their beak that filter out small food items in the water. These projections are the densest in the Northern Shoveler so it can strain out smaller invertebrates. Dabblers feed at the surface and may stick their head in the water. Divers go deeper with their whole body going under the water.
I sat in my car on the side of the road on the auto tour and the only sound was of the satisfied smacking of lips, or beaks, in this case.
What was the dark, unusual duck swimming with the rest of the Mallards? I pored over my field guides when I returned home. Is it a rare find that flew in from an exotic location? Finally, in The Sibley Guide to Birds, there is a reference to domestic Mallards. The drawing looks exactly like this one except for the beak color. Sibley says, “The common domestic forms [of Mallards] are found on farm ponds and in city parks. Interbreeding produces a bewildering variety of plumages and sizes; some bear little resemblance to the parent species.”
This Gadwall was swimming with a friend in the water along the auto tour.
This female American Wigeon was swimming nearby.
Once again I had to do some research to find out the identity of this beautiful bird. It wasn’t easy to find in my field guides.
This view from the back reveals the stunning markings.
This is a solid clue as to his identity. I think he wanted me to know he is an immature male Red-winged Blackbird.
A multitude of Sandhill Cranes come in for a landing in the water at the Horicon Marsh along Highway 49.
They join the other Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese that are already resting there. It was another fun day at the Horicon Marsh!
Peter Goodfellow, Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer and Build (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 94.
 Chris G. Earley, Waterfowl of Eastern North America (Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2005), 50.
 David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds (New York: Chanticleer Press, 2000), 89.