Exited Hwy 41 north from Milwaukee just north of Lomira and then hung a left on 49. The rolling rural plains were dotted with towering wind turbines that kissed the sky. Rolled pass a little town called Brownville, making our way towards the western horizon. Coming around a bend we could see the vastness of the aviatory crown jewel of Wisconsin-the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.
The Horicon is a vast sprawling wetland that covers over 32.000 acres in size, making it the largest freshwater marsh in the United States. The marsh provides habitat for endangered species, like the Whooping Crane and the Trumpeter Swan , and a critical rest stop for thousands of migratory ducks and geese coming from Canada. Not only waterfowl can be found here, nearly 300 species of birds, White Tailed Deer, Red Fox, River Otters, Muskrats, Snapping Turtles, Garter Snakes, and many other animals call the marsh home. It's an outdoor paradise!
Tender Heart, my son and mine's first stop was at an observation point near Wild Goose Road. Numerous wildflowers like the brilliantly beautiful Golden Ragworts, Orange Milkweeds, Pink Coneflowers, and Late Purple Asters blended with the lush green grasses and cattails, filled the countryside with a rainbow of color. A picture perfect moment! Just over the hill we noticed a small partially dried up pond with a Mallard a a couple of Blue Winged Teals. Fearful of the drought that had stricken Wisconsin, we were hoping this wouldn't be the extent of the wildlife we will see. Undeterred, we moved forward....
Exited the parking and drove westward on 49, thus came my first surprise-a Lesser Yellowlegs! (First picture below)I've only seen a couple of these before at Smolenski Park. The little guy kept walking around, wading into swallow pools, probing its long bill around in search of food. Behind him, were a count of seven Sandhill Cranes hanging around of couple of Canada Geese. Moving down the road along the gravel shoulder I could see the the pond widen up into a small lake. My mouth.... just... dropped!
A cornucopia of birds! It was like the Garden of Eden before my eyes as my count began... One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight Blue Winged Teal -the white crescent markings behind their blue beaks were distinct. Five Mallards were floating along. Oh wait! Another teal sunning itself on a waterlogged stump. A couple of Canada Geese swam by. As I peered into my binoculars deep into the flocks of waterfowl, I could see a Pied Billed Grebe (see first picture below) diving into the water. Safety in numbers they say.... A Great Blue Heron (second picture below) was standing close to the road waiting for a photo opportunity. My camera whirred and clicked in response.
As the car crept forward, I could the crunch of the gravel under the wheels. As the pond was getting wider and wider, the more abundant these winged wonders became...Three Northern Shovelers foraged the waters. Four more Pied Billed Grebes appeared. In the distance, I could see three American White Pelicans bobbing in the water. A Bald Eagle appeared and landed on a tree way in the back. Far too distant for a picture. Twelve Great Egret were sighted in a back swamp. I was starting to get overwhelmed here. Tender Heart grabbed a pen and a receipt from the glove compartment and started to write things down. Coots! (see first picture below) There had to be hundreds of them! I saw at least a hundred of Tree Swallows hovering close the mudflats. I wondered about this bizarre behavior. A Black Crowned Night Heron was sighted. A Double Crested Cormorant was sunning itself with its wings stretched out on a bed of Ring Billed Gulls. (see second picture below). Eight more Sandhill Cranes flew overhead. In the distance, I could see something in the tall grass with a long tan white neck and white body. A juvenile Whooping Crane? No. A later look in my photos revealed it was a Trumpeter Swam. A good find!
It took us an hour to cover a mile long stretch of road. It was time to seek out other places in the refuge. Westward we went again. We saw a sign that said Auto tours and trails. Interesting. Intrigued, we went along this half hour ride. The ride was scenic and serene. It offered a good view of the diverse countryside. Interpretive signs along the way pointed out the different sights to see-rolling prairies filled with colorful flowers, a brilliant red Northern Cardinal flew across the road into the woods and marshes were filled with Blue Winged Teals (first picture below) and Great Egrets (second one below).
Fascinated by a floating boardwalk sign at the end of the Auto Tour Road combined with the need to stretch my legs, a path over a marsh is a perfect place to take a hike. Zigzagging across a scenic march filled with Golden Ragwort laced mudflats, this wooden planked path not only exhibits an observation tower and bridges, but an excellent view of wildlife. By about this time, I had lost count of everything. I saw two more Lesser Yellowlegs. A lone Great Egret was preening itself on a mudflat. Dozens of more Canada Geese hanging with many more teals and Mallards. This is heaven I thought. Walking over a bridge, I heard a call of an Eastern Phoebe. Looking around and there it was, sitting on a branch. Snap! A picture was taken. Saw a Northern Waterthrush fly by. An Eastern Kingbird landed nearby. Snap! Another picture. A Sora Rail (see picture below) came out from the tall grasses and played hide and seek with me. Snap, snap! Another few more pictures - all in a few minutes of time! Just is too great to be true!
As we climbed back into the car, Tender Heart and I noticed the time. We had spent over three hours in this paradise. "It's getting late" she says, "and we have business to take care in Racine". "I know", I whined, "but I'm having fun!". "I know that, Babe, but we'll be back again, I promise", she answers. And we shall....For we haven't even barely scratched the surface of the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, especially this early in the migratory season... Stay tuned!